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PROLOGUE

 

 

 

 

Pittsburgh -  August, 2007

 

Brian pinched the bridge of his nose. The headache was getting stronger, his head was now throbbing with pain. Maybe he should take another painkiller, but he didn’t want to get up. It was a rainy day and his mood was shittier than ever, after spending the whole night awake. In fact, he wasn't in the mood to do anything. He just wanted to stay there, smoking and laying on the expensive Italian sofa. But he had stuff to do.

 

He couldn’t stop thinking about the way things had happened in his life these past months. But his mind was set, and self-pity wasn’t his thing.  “You're all you have, you're all you need,” he thought, sighing and closing his eyes.

 

He wondered what they would say when they heard the news from Ted. Fuck, he could already see their faces, wrinkled with unnecessary worry. But it would be for a short time; soon worry would be replaced by gossip; they loved to talk about his life, almost always to criticize him. Now would be no different. And Mikey, well, his friend would be upset, but he had his own life to worry about; he would let go after a while. After all, Brian was alright, he was ALWAYS alright. Nothing could bring him down, he was Brian Kinney, for fuck’s sake!

 

He looked at his watch. Eight-thirty; it was almost time. He turned his face to his desk, looking again at the brown envelope resting there. He had to make sure Ted got these things and sent them where they belonged. Tomorrow, Ted would receive an email telling him the news, and asking for some favors. He trusted the older man would do just as he asked. Then everything would be in the right place. Like Justin’s place was away from him.

 

Shaking his head, he cursed. He wouldn’t think about him. This kind of shit was for dykes, and he'd rather die than turn into some sentimental fag. Justin was where he was meant to be, and Brian understood all his reasons. He just couldn't live with them. Brian always made his own rules, and he wouldn’t let this roller coaster dictate his life. He wouldn't let himself be caught off guard. It happened once, but it would never happen again.

 

“About time!” he thought, when he heard the phone ringing. Getting up too fast, he had to fight the dizziness that made him lose his balance. “Shit!” he said, sitting down again. He decided to give it another try, this time getting up slowly, hoping the person wouldn’t give up. But it wasn’t who he was expecting.

 

“Hi, Bri!” said a familiar voice, as soon as he answered the phone.

 

“Theodore...what a surprise!” he said sarcastically. “Miss me already?” Ted somehow had grown into his best friend. Well, kind of. Now that Michael was living in the suburbs with Ben and Hunter.

 

“What time will you be coming today?” Ted asked. It was Saturday, and Brian had the habit of spending the whole morning at Kinnetik, working like a madman.  And Ted was always there, saying he didn't want Brian to spend the whole Saturday by himself. So they worked, talked, sometimes ordered lunch. And then Ted left for home, where Blake was waiting for him. And Brian always said he would be going home too, but always ended up staying until late in the afternoon. Or the next day.

 

“Uhh, I’m not going in today.”

 

“What? What happened, Bri? Are you all right?” Ted asked, concern showing in his voice.

 

“Just a hangover, Ted. No need to worry about it.”

 

“Do you want me to come over?”

 

“Please, don't. I just got home. Busy Friday night, you know. I just need to sleep.” Well, that wasn’t a lie. He really needed to sleep. The only problem was that sleep would not come, no matter how hard he tried.

 

“So, you went out yesterday? I didn't see you at Babylon,” Ted asked.

 

“Babylon is not the only place to go, Theodore.” Since he sold the club, he hardly went there anymore. Too many memories. ”If you know where to look.”

 

Brian wanted to hang up, he was tired and wanted to get over with it. He didn't like to lie, and Ted's concern seemed real, but he didn't want to talk to anyone right now. So he decided to lie some more. This would satisfy his friend and would buy himself some time to do what he had to.

 

“In fact, I'm with someone now, he's here and we are about to fuck…”

 

“Oh...Sorry, Bri.  Don't let me stop you.  All right then...Bye”.

 

“See ya.” said Brian.

 

“Brian...?” Ted asked before Brian had the chance to hang up.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I'm glad you're having a good time...”

 

“Me too, Ted,” Brian lied again, hating this.

 

“Are you going to Deb's dinner tomorrow?”

 

“I don't think so. Have better plans, you know,” Brian said, trying to sound nonchalant as ever.

 

“See you on Monday, then. Bye, Bri.”

 

“Goodbye, Ted.” Brian whispered.

 

He put the phone on the coffee table, but it started to ring again immediately.

 

“What?”

 

“Mr. Kinney, it’s Dave, sir. I’m here.”

 

“Wait, I’ll be right there,” Brian said, hanging up.

 

He walked to the door, where his suitcase was waiting. No Armani suits or Hugo Boss pants inside. Well, maybe two or three.  But mostly regular jeans, T-shirts (he was growing fond of T-shirts lately), socks, underwear. He stopped and took one last look at the loft, the place that screamed his life in every corner, the place that helped him know who he was.  And he felt that familiar pang inside his chest again.

 

Picking up the suitcase, he opened the door, listening to the sound of the metal. He remembered hearing it the night Justin left almost two years ago. Now the loft, along with the blond, would be a memory, at least for the time being. Later…well, the future would take care of itself; there was no point in guessing. Then, he took a deep breath; it was time, and nothing would make him change his mind. Closing the door, he went down the stairs, left the building with decided steps and entered the cab waiting for him outside. And he didn't look back even once.

 

Chapter Text

Pittsburgh - December, 2006.

 

 

When Justin Taylor arrived in New York with thoughts of conquering the Art World in his head, he knew it wouldn't be as easy as Lindsay said. New York already had countless artists striving for a chance. He was just one more of them. Although he tried to remain free of expectations, he knew he had talent. It had to count for something.

 

Daphne's friend, Stephanie, had a small two-bedrooms apartment in East Village. Justin liked her at first sight. She was warm and funny, and made him feel at home. She was studying to be a writer, and Justin soon found out they had a lot in common. They became friends almost instantly.

 

As for the art world, the first two months were spent from gallery to gallery, his portfolio in hand, trying to find someone that would show his work. One right after the other he was turned down. He was running short of money and couldn't find neither a job nor a place to paint. On top of everything, he missed home. And he desperately missed Brian.

 

It was funny how different it was from the time he had gone to LA. Back then he knew he would go back home eventually, or so he thought, but when he did Brian asked him to move into the loft. He had to admit he was fascinated by LA and the movie industry, and if Rage hadn't gone wrong, God knows what would have happened. But he knew Brian was waiting for him.

 

Now it was a whole different thing. He had left without knowing when or if he would go back, right after hearing that the man he always loved felt the same about him. After making plans for a wedding that never happened. He had left all that for his art. This thought had a sad sense of finality to him. He tried to think he wasn't giving up his life with Brian, he was just postponing it. He only hoped Brian knew that. Knowing Brian, he doubted the man did.

 

Their talks on the phone were strange sometimes, full of silences, and Justin could feel Brian hesitating before each sentence, speaking carefully and trying to sound nonchalant as ever. Deep down he could feel Brian's fear, because it mirrored his own. Sometimes love wasn't enough.

 

But even so, he craved their conversations like a man lost in the desert craved water. Deep into the night he would tell Brian about his day, listening to his sighs and grunts of approval, and also the opinions and advice the man gave reluctantly. He missed Brian so much that sometimes he couldn't stand it, and he would go out and find a trick and pretend it was Brian. But no one could compare to him.

 

He started to see Brian everywhere, as if he expected the man would surprise him and show up unexpectedly in NYC. Every morning, before opening his eyes, he would roll to his side, seeking Brian's warmth, only to remember he wasn't there. He thought frequently about why he had left, and if it was worth all the pain he was feeling and causing. But Brian believed in him, in his talent, and it gave him a sense of pride he couldn't get from anyone else. He didn't know where their relationship stood in all this mess, but he loved Brian, and he was sure he was loved back. It would have to do for now.

 

On Brian's insistence, in his third month in NY, Justin called Simon Caswell, and was surprised when the critic from Art Forum remembered him. They met for dinner in a restaurant in Soho, and Simon, being Lindsay's friend, offered to help him. Justin thought that the critic was interested in more than his art, namely, his ass, so he made clear that was not an option. Simon helped him nevertheless. He introduced him to some smaller gallery owners, including Patricia Hart, a charming middle-aged woman who liked Justin's paintings from the start. She offered him a job at her gallery, including a small room at the back for him to use as a studio. And of course, gave him a small place at the gallery where he could show his work.

 

According to Simon, he had talent yes, but that wasn't enough. New York had plenty of talented artists. You needed to have something more than just talent. Simon advised him to finish his education, since he had just three semesters to go. So he transferred from PIFA to The Art Institute of New York City. The tuition was expensive, but he got a half-scholarship, and Rage was going more than fine so he and Michael had a somewhat solid income now. He was still drawing for the comic book, and talked to Michael frequently. Rage was a success, even though it never made to the big screen.

 

Now, sitting in the cab as he went from the airport to Brian's loft, he realized how much he missed Pittsburgh. He was glad for the Christmas holidays, he needed the break. Working at Hart's Art Gallery and getting ready to graduate in the Art Institute wasn't easy. He was painting more than ever, trying to get a few pieces ready for the graduation show. That's why he hadn't come home for almost six months. It was 5 AM and he was really tired after a flight from New York squeezed between a fat lady and a snoring bald man. Thank God the flight was a quick one.

 

Brian didn't know he was coming. At least, not today, he had said he would be in the Pitts on Sunday and it was Friday morning. He wanted to make a surprise, and was anxious to see him. He could picture him sleeping in his bed, naked and gorgeous as always, and hopefully alone. It'd been over three months since Brian was in New York and they last saw each other.

 

Two years was too much to be apart from the person you love. Justin didn't have the faintest idea of what he would do once he graduated, he just knew it still wasn't time to go back home. And Brian knew it too. They didn't talk about it, but the thought was always there between them, staining the few precious moments they had together.

 

**********************************

 

 

After a 40 minute's ride, the cab parked in front of Brian's building. Justin typed the code, opened the door and pushed the elevator's button. At the fourth floor, he grabbed the key and opened the metal door listening to the familiar sound that always brought him comfort. He was home.

 

He went straight to the bedroom, expecting to find Brian there. But to his surprise, the bed was empty, and it looked as if no one had slept in it. He felt a little upset; had Brian spent the whole night out? Clubbing, drinking, tricking...He had sold Babylon, but Justin knew he still went there as much as always. At least that was what Brian told him.

 

Sighing, he opened his suitcase and started to unpack. His drawers were still empty and there still was a place in Brian's closet for his things. After taking a shower, he made some coffee and sat on the couch, waiting for Brian to come home. It wasn't the surprise he was hoping for. Brian would come home surely with a major hangover. He was so tired, he decided to close his eyes just for a little bit...

 

After an hour, he woke up with a start, listening to the alarm clock in Brian's bedroom. Other than that, the loft was in complete silence. It was already 7 AM and Justin was starting to get worried. His lover was workaholic, and would never miss a day at Kinnetik.

 

Getting up, he put on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and his old sneakers. Drank some coffee, and was heading for the door when the phone rang. Not wanting anybody to know yet he was there, he waited for the answering machine.

 

"Brian, are you there?" It was Cynthia. "If you are, answer the phone. We have a meeting at 9 with Leo Brown and I don't want you to look like shit all day because you didn't sleep at home. Again." She waited a few more minutes. "Brian? Oh, shit! You did it. I'm going to Kinnetik now. You better be there on time. " And she hung up.

 

Justin sighed. So Brian was making an habit of sleeping out? That was new. Brian always came back to his comfortable bed, no matter what. Since he knew Brian had an appointment at 9, he decided to go to Kinnetik and wait for him. Brian could spend the whole night clubbing, but he wouldn't miss an appointment with Brown Athletics. Eventually he would show up.

 

****************************************

 

 

When he arrived at Kinnetik things were still calm, since it was early. Most of people started at 9, but he knew Cynthia would be there by now.

 

"Hi, Phoebe" he said to the girl at the reception desk.

 

"Mr. Taylor! Good to see you! Home for the holidays?

 

"Yeah. Wouldn't miss it. Is Brian here already?"

 

She hesitated, and picked up the phone. "Cynthia, Mr. Taylor is here. Okay."

 

Before Justin could say anything, Cynthia came with a big smile.

 

"Justin! I'm so glad to see you!" She hugged him tight and although he hugged her back, it was strange. Cynthia wasn't affectionate, that's why Brian liked her, besides her obvious efficiency.

 

"Come with me," she said, pulling him by the hand and leading him to Brian's office. At the door, she stopped. "Go in. But be careful, he's still asleep."

 

"Asleep? Is he all right?" he asked, worried.

 

"He's fine. He just spent the night here, or so it seems," she said warily.

 

"The whole night? He slept here?" Justin couldn't understand. "Why? What happened? Is Kinnetik in trouble?"

 

"Calm down, Kinnetik's fine, Brian is fine. But... I can't deny I'm a little worried," she said reluctantly.

 

"What's happening, Cynthia? Tell me."

 

She looked at him, uncertain, as if pondering if she should say anything. "I'm sure he'll kill me if he even dreams we're having this conversation."

 

"Cynthia, please, what's going on with him?"

 

"Well," she sat down, motioning for him to sit too. "He's been working too much. And we don't need "that" amount of dedication, really. I mean, he was always hard working, and more then often he's the last to go home. But..."she hesitated.

 

"But...?"

 

"He's working like crazy, as if he was bankrupt, and sometimes he's so tired that he doesn't even go home. Like yesterday, and the day before. He sleeps here sometimes four nights a week! Hell, he even has a wardrobe hidden somewhere with some of his best suits. And he wakes up looking like shit, screaming at everyone. Not that it's any different from his usual self, you know how he is. But it's so frequent now that it's freaking me out. And today he needs to be at his best. Leo Brown came from Chicago for the new campaign. He is one of our biggest accounts, and we need Brian at his best, you know."

 

He nodded. Already knowing the answer he asked, "How long has this been going on?"

 

Averting his eyes she replies, "Well...I'm not sure I should..."

 

"Since I moved to New York, right?"

 

She took a deep breath. "Listen, Justin, this is not my business, okay? I'm just worried about Kinnetik, and Brian IS Kinnetik. And I've been working for Brian for a long time now...I do care about him."

 

"I see," he started to feel a headache approaching. Brian's self-destructive behavior wasn't something he wanted to deal with right now.

 

"Well, I have to wake him up. It's 8 and he needs to get ready. Do you want to...?" she asked with the shadow of a mischievous grin starting on her lips.

 

"Oh, of course, allow me." He forced the headache back. It wasn't time for that now. "Maybe he'll wake up in a better mood for once."

 

***************************************

 

Inside the room everything was dark except for the lamp at Brian's desk. Justin waited a few minutes to adjust his eyes to the lack of light. And then he saw him.

 

Brian.

 

Lying on the expensive Italian sofa, curled to one side, one hand still clutching some papers. A bottle of Beam on the floor. Snoring gently, his beautiful mouth slightly opened, so relaxed... And so fucking beautiful. Just like he remembered. He loved to see him sleeping and he would never, ever get tired of looking at him.

 

Smiling, he approached the man, kneeling next to him. He didn't want to wake him up yet. He took his time to look at his lover, marveling at his peaceful expression. And smelling his scent. It was one of the things he missed the most, Brian's open-mouthed, unashamed kisses...and his unique scent. A combination of cigarettes, his expensive Yves Saint-Laurent cologne, and something else that he couldn't describe, because it was Brian's alone.

 

Justin was inches from his face, and he kissed Brian lightly on the lips. Brian took a deep breath and smiled slightly in his sleep. "Sunshine" he murmured.

 

"I'm here." Justin whispered in his ear. Brian took a sharp intake of breath and his eyes snapped open. Looking at Justin, his brain didn't understand what he was seeing. Then he smiled slowly, saying "You're here."

 

Justin smiled as he bent and kissed Brian, long and deep, pouring out all the love that had been stored inside his heart for the last three months. He lost himself in the kiss, trying to show Brian how desperately he missed him.

 

Brian broke the kiss reluctantly, sitting on the sofa so Justin could seat beside him.

 

"What happened? Wasn't expecting you until Sunday night.", he said, an arm around the blond's shoulders.

 

I missed you terribly, couldn't wait for two more fucking days, do you still love me? Did you miss me too? "I finished my project earlier than I thought, so I decided to surprise you," Justin said smiling at Brian's hair, all messy from sleep.

 

"Well, then we'll have two more days together," he said, bright hazel eyes looking at Justin, making the blond shiver a little. He wanted to kiss him so much...

 

As if reading his thoughts, Brian kissed him again, this time with a growing intensity born from the many months apart. His arms enveloped Justin's body, and the kiss became even more urgent, until Justin was on Brian's lap. Brian kissed and licked his neck, and Justin felt his dick hardening in response. He licked Brian's tongue greedily, until each had to stop for breath..

 

"A surprise, indeed," said the brunet, looking distractedly at his watch. "Fuck! Eight-thirty?! Leo Brown is coming at nine, and I'm sure I look like shit." He released Justin, rested their foreheads together for a second and got up. "I'm sorry, Sunshine, you know how much I would love to welcome you properly."

 

"You never look like shit. Want some coffee?" Justin offered ."I could get it for you."

 

"Thank you, Sunshine. But don't forget to hide your boner," he whispered as he entered the bathroom, kissing Justin once more.

 

Justin tried to muster every unpleasant thought he could to get his dick soft again. After some time, he went to Kinnetik's kitchen, where he waited for the coffee to get ready, chatting with a girl from the Art Department. He grabbed two cups of coffee and some muffins, thinking that Brian would probably refuse to eat. Sometimes he went through the whole morning only with black coffee. When he got back to Brian's office, his lover was already in a well-tailored black suit, cream shirt and a black tie. His hair was wet from the quick shower.

 

"Do I look hot, Sunshine?" he asked.

 

"You know, I love your modesty," Justin laughed, fixing the tie and handling Brian his coffee. "Wanna eat?"

 

"Nah, I can't", he replied. "I just have Brown Athletic 's campaign in my head right now. We really need to keep this account."

 

"It's a pity. I thought after all this time you'd have something else in your head," Justin said seductively.

 

"Oh, believe me, I have. You just wait and see."

 

"Promises, promises..." Justin smiled his thousand-watts smile.

 

Brian couldn't stop himself from smiling too. He kissed the blond again, saying "If you wanna see your mother and the gang, you better do it now, while I'm here. You won't have time or energy to do that after I put my hands on you".

Chapter Text

When Justin left Kinnetik he went straight to Michael's comic shop. There were some drawings for Rage's next issue he wanted to show him. It was hard enough to keep working on the comic book together with Justin miles away, so they used all the time they could get. Michael had even gone to NY twice. They spent the rest of the morning working, and by noon, Justin's stomach started to growl.

"Whoa," said Michael. "What do you have in there? An alien?"

"I almost didn't eat at breakfast. Just coffee and a four or five muffins."

"Five? I don't understand that, your metabolism is very good, you don't even work out...I wish I was like that."

"I know. At you age..." Justin smiled.

Michael grimaced "So...Wanna go to the diner? I'm meeting Ben there. And Ma will be thrilled to see you."

"Sure, that'd be great!"

The diner was full as always, but Ben was already there with a busy Debbie talking to him.

"Look who I found!" said Michael pulling Justin along.

"Sunshine!" Deb exclaimed, leaving Justin almost with no air in his lungs as she held him tight.

"Ma, let him breathe. He's turning purple!" teased Michael.

"Shut up, Mikey, you're jealous," said Deb, planting a kiss on Justin's cheek, leaving it red with her lipstick. "Right, baby?"

"Well, he's hardly a baby, Deb, he's living on his own in the big city," laughed Ben. "Hi, Justin, I'm glad you came home for Christmas."

"Yeah," said Michael stealing a slice of Ben's toast. "This year we're all gonna spend Christmas Eve at our place!"

"That's great!" Justin said. "I assume you finished the repairs, then."

"Oh, the house is great, you'll see."

Smiling, he turned to Deb. "Can I have some coffee, Deb?"

"Sure, honey."

He followed her to the counter, leaving Mikey and Ben, and slipped into the booth.

"So, Justin," Debbie asked directly, pouring coffee into a mug, "How are you?

"I'm hungry as hell, but I'm fine," he said smiling.

"I meant you two. Did you see him?"

Justin didn't have to ask who, because he knew Debbie so well...as Brian's surrogate mother, she was always trying to take care of him even when he didn't want her to. And Justin was grateful, because Brian took care of everyone but himself.

"We're fine," he answered smiling a little.

"And the welcome fuck?" she joked. That was one thing he loved about Deb, she was never ashamed to say exactly what she wanted.

"Oh," he felt his cheeks turning red. Well, HE wasn't like her at all. "He already was at Kinnetik when I arrived."

"So early? Shit, that's early even for Brian." she raised both eyebrows.

"He slept there." he added.

"Oh," Debbie said, giving him a knowing look and handing him the coffee.

Justin drank carefully, eyeing her. He had the feeling she wanted to say something, but she remained uncharacteristically quiet for a minute. He started to count down in his mind: 3...2...1...

"So, how is he, Sunshine? Tell me everything," she blurted.

He gave a short laugh. "I should be the one to ask. You see him every day, I speak to him what, once or twice a week?"

"Well not really, Sunshine," she said, suddenly serious.

"What do you mean?"

"I hardly see him anymore. And not just me, Mikey and the guys are always saying it's easier to snow in June than to see Brian."

"But..."

"JUSTIN, HONEY!" they heard Emmett's voice.

The tall man held him smiling. "I'm soooo happy to see you!"

"Hi, Em." he said, trying to sound content. He looked at Deb, but she just shrugged and said "Hi, Emmett darling, the boys are over there," and she pointed to Michael and Ben.

"I'm already organizing the Christmas party," said Emmett happily, dragging Justin with him toward his friends. "You'll go, right, baby? And take your boyfriend with you. You know how he hates family parties, but this year with you here maybe he'll make an exception."

"Uhh, I don't know, guys," Justin shrugged. "I was planning to spend it with my Mom."

"Oh, don't worry, Justin" Michael emended "She and Tucker were invited, we knew you would be here, so..."

"And we missed you too, baby, we want to spend some time with you. If we let them, your mother and Brian will keep you all to themselves," Emmett said.

"Well, in that case all I have to do is drag Brian to the party with me."

"That won't be an easy task, believe me," said Michael grimly..

Justin looked at Michael questioningly, but Emmett started to ask him about NYC and before he knew he was telling them how wonderful it was and how much he loved his work, and all about NYU and his graduation next summer.

After lunch he went to his mother's house, but she wasn't there. Molly opened the door and was delighted to see him. After half an hour with his sister, he realized he was really tired. After all, he had gone to the airport at three AM and hadn't slept yet, so he went to his old room and fell asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.

Four hours later, he was in his mother's kitchen, happily chatting with her while she poured coffee in his cup once more, when his cell rang. He looked at the caller ID and smiled. It was Brian.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey. Where are you? I'm leaving Kinnetik right now."

"I'm at my Mom's."

"Do you want me to pick you up?" Brian asked.

"Sure! Wanna have dinner?" Justin asked.

"Not hungry. But we can order something at the loft, if you want."

"Okay, I'm waiting for you." Justin said "Don't make me wait too long," he said seductively.

He heard Brian's groan and couldn't suppress a smile.

I'm on my way, Sunshine."

 

*****************************

Brian drove carefully because the streets were slippery with snow. Justin rested his hands on Brian's right thigh, making it hard for him to concentrate. Jennifer's house was a little far from the loft, and they had at least ten minutes before reaching Tremont Ave.

Jennifer had welcomed Brian with a warm smile, but Justin could tell Brian was clearly uncomfortable, and he rolled his eyes a little when she offered him a cup of freshly-made coffee. Justin couldn't wait to get out of there, and judging from the bulge in Brian's pants, so did he. He had never seen Brian drink hot coffee THAT fast.

Sitting beside the man he loved in the Vette, Justin looked at him and said half-smiling, "Alone at last. I thought Mom would never let me leave."

"That's how moms are. She missed you." Brian said simply.

"How about you, Brian? Did you miss me too?" Justin asked, his hand going to Brian's crotch. He could feel the hardness through the fabric of Brian's pants, and already his own jeans were tighter.

"Sunshine," Brian groaned "We'll have an accident if you don't stop."

"It's hard to behave when you're so close, Mr. Kinney," he joked, "But I'll try to be a good boy," and then more seriously, "It's just that..."

"I know." Brian said softly. "Me too".

They remained silent the rest of the way, Brian trying to go as fast as he could without getting them killed, Justin trying to control his hand that seemed to have a will of its own and kept caressing Brian's thigh.

They didn't touch in the elevator, almost afraid that they wouldn't be able to stop. Brian wanted so much to be inside Justin that he felt a little lightheaded with desire. And just the thought of Brian filling him made Justin hard and dizzy.

As soon as they closed the loft's door behind them, they couldn't wait any longer. They headed straight for the bed, discarding clothes along the way. The fuck was hard, their frantic pace growing faster at each thrust, until Brian exploded inside Justin, leaving the blond gasping for breath as Brian collapsed on his back. Then Brian rolled onto his side, Justin snuggling into his arms, feeling warm and sated. They slept in a close embrace, with a ghost of a smile on their faces.

Brian woke up an hour later with Justin's hand running over his stomach, in a soft caress he missed so much. He drew a long breath. Justin's hand kept moving until he found the tip of Brian's already hard cock. At that soft touch, Brian's hips bucked as a low groan escaped from his lips. Justin's own cock was pressing into Brian's hip, hard with desire. The blond felt a surge of excitement running through him, knowing he had the power to make this beautiful man want him. He had felt that in their first night together, and even now, after almost seven years, he still felt it. He could never get enough of Brian.

Brian pulled Justin on top of him and they started to move together in silence, except for their heavy breathing and soft, low moans. Suddenly they were panting and rubbing against each other. Brian's tongue explored his mouth, his hands roaming through the body he knew like his own. Soon Justin was straddling Brian, his lover's cock deep inside him, moving like they couldn't get deep enough or close enough. Brian moaned and closed his eyes, lost in the sensation that threatened to take away his sanity.

"Open your eyes, Brian. I want to look at you when you come inside me."

Justin's words made Brian moan louder, and he started to buck his hips against Justin's ass, getting deeper and deeper with each thrust.

"Oh, God, Brian..." Justin moaned, his clear blue eyes dark with lust.

"So beautiful, Sunshine..." Brian whispered between breaths. He couldn't stop looking at Justin, cheeks flushed, lips swollen, blonde hair falling on his forehead." I missed you so...fucking...much..."

Justin smiled, looking into Brian's hazel eyes. They shone with such an intensity, that seemed to penetrate his soul, and he felt emotionally naked, as if his thoughts could be heard.

I love you

And suddenly Justin was over the edge, filled with a pleasure so deep he thought he would burst into flames, Brian's name upon is lips as he came. The sight of Justin losing control on top of him made Brian shiver and soon he was coming too, filling the condom, buried deep inside his blond lover.

They stayed motionless for a little while, staring at each other, emotions running between them, too powerful to express in words. No matter where they were, what they did with their separated lives, this was where they belonged, this felt like home.

Chapter Text

The next day, Justin arrived at the loft at six pm, after spending the whole morning with Jennifer and Molly, and the afternoon at Michael's, working on Rage. Brian was already there, sitting on the sofa, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, staring at the TV that was turned off. As soon as Justin saw him, he knew something was wrong.

 

"Hey", he said, tentatively.

 

"Hey", Brian replied, not looking at him.

 

"Something happened?"

 

Brian sighed tiredly, looking at the blond.

 

"Lindz just called. They won't be here for Christmas."

 

"Why?" Justin asked, sitting on the rug next to Brian's legs. He knew how the brunet was looking forward to see his son.

 

"Apparently Mel has an important client who got himself in trouble last weekend and she's trying to get him out of jail. Probably this won't happen until the day after tomorrow, and by then it will be too late for them to come."

 

"Can't she ask someone to do it for her?" Justin asked.

 

"She doesn't have many clients, this is one of the most important ones, she can't let him down."

 

"You sound like Lindsay"

 

"Actually, I'm quoting her." He got up, starting to pace. "Shit!"

 

"Can't they put Gus on a plane and send him?" asked the blond hopefully.

 

"Nah. He's only seven. Let him spend Christmas with his moms. But don't worry, no big deal, Sunshine. They'll be here for New Year. So, I guess it's okay." Brian said, sitting down again.

 

"I'm sure Gus wanted to be here for Christmas".

 

"I talked to him. He was crying." Brian said, so low that Justin almost had to read his lips. "He said he really wanted to be here with me."

 

Justin knew that Brian never wanted to be a father, but the minute he saw Gus, everything changed. He loved the boy, even if he sometimes tried not to show it. Justin didn't know what else he could say. So he reached for Brian's hand, holding it tight. Wanting him to know he was there if he needed him.

 

'So," Brian asked, changing the subject in a way Justin knew too well, every time something was too hard for him to deal with. "Are we going to Babylon tomorrow night?"

 

"Oh, I wouldn't miss the opportunity to be with you and the guys, just like the old times."

 

"Sure", Brian said, although Justin thought he could detect a little hesitancy in his voice.

 

"You don't wanna go? I thought you'd like it."

 

"Of course, Sunshine. Since when do I refuse an opportunity to get near dozens of sweaty, semi-naked men?" Brian asked, smirking.

 

"Hmmm...That's hard to remember."

 

"Actually, I can think of something else that's also hard right now, and it would really appreciate your attention." he said with a crooked smile.

 

 

 

***********************************************

 

 

Justin's cell rang at 2 am, startling him. He disentangled himself from Brian, who lay behind, spooning him, sat on the bed and answered.

 

"Hello?"

 

"Justin, it's me." said a voice he knew too well. "I just came from Rome! Can you imagine that? Rome! Where are you?"

 

"I'm in Pittsburgh." he said quietly, trying not to wake up the sleeping man beside him. "With Brian." he added.

 

"Oh. Still with that loser?"

 

"Don't start, please." Justin groaned. "And who the fuck gave you my number, anyway?"

 

"Your roomate. She likes me a lot."

 

"She shouldn't have done that, we have nothing to talk about. I already told you. Why don't you just give up?"

 

"Come on, Justin, it's Christmas! I brought you a present from Italy."

 

"I don't want a present from you." he said abruptly.

 

"My, my, you're starting to sound like that asshole you call boyfriend."

 

"Please leave me alone," Justin sighed.

 

"Justin, I thought that, after living together, we were still friends, you know?"!

 

"Listen to me: we are NOT friends. We are nothing. There's not even a "we". Goodbye," he said, hanging up.

 

Sighing, Justin put the cell on the table and turned to lay down again. He stared directly into Brian's hazel and very opened eyes.

 

"Who was it?" Brian asked.

 

SHIT !

 

"Uhhh..." Justin didn't want to tell him, he knew the older man wasn't going to like this.

 

"Justin..." said Brian, sitting too.

 

"It was...Phillip."

 

"Who? " Brian said, sounding slightly irritated.

 

"Stephanie's brother."

 

"Stephanie's brother. How come I never met him?" Brian asked, raising his eyebrows.

 

"Oh... he travels a lot. Besides, you didn't go to NY that much."

 

"Right, I didn't." Brian said, eyes expressionless.

 

"He lives in LA, but stays there with us when he goes to NY."

 

"He stays there," said Brian.

 

"And we're friends. Sort of."

 

"Friends," Brian repeated.

 

"What are you Brian, a fucking tape recorder?" Justin asked, exasperated.

 

Brian shook his head, as if to clear his thoughts, then he shrugged. "Well, if you're friends, why did you tell him to fuck off?"

 

"I didn't.'" Justin said, rolling his eyes.

 

"Well, you didn't seem very pleased with his call. And why would he call you at two fucking AM?"

 

"Well, he...is kind of...stalking me." Justin admitted, rubbing his eyes. He was tired from the flight, the whole day with his mom end Molly, and the very busy night with Brian at the loft.

 

"Stalking? What the hell do you mean? You could have told me." said Brian slightly annoyed.

 

'"What for?" he said uncomfortably. "I knew you would be upset. You would thing the guy is dangerous or something like that...In fact, you worry too much for my taste. You act as if you think every New Yorker is a potential murderer."

 

"I didn't say that. I like New York. But you, Sunshine, think that everybody is sweet and harmless. You trust people too much." Brian growled. Justin knew his lover's response meant he wasn't happy. He didn't like the idea of Justin using the subways at night, and frankly, Justin couldn't blame him.

 

Justin felt like a little boy caught doing something wrong, and he didn't like it. There wasn't anything to explain. He wasn't a teenager anymore, he didn't need to be rescued and protected. He was perfectly able to take care of himself.

 

"I don't have to explain anything. I told him to leave me alone. End of story," he said coldly and waited for Brian to say something, but the older man didn't, as always. Sighing, the blond rested his head on the pillow again. He didn't have anything to say. Brian should know he fucked other guys but they didn't mean anything. He closed his eyes, it was so warm under the covers and...

 

"So. How good was he?"

 

"What?" asked Justin.

 

"Well, you fucked him, didn't you? "

 

"Who, Phillip?"

 

"No, Santa Claus," snorted Brian.

 

"Ha ha, very funny. Come on, Brian! It's 2 AM, and I don't want to talk about that," said Justin, sitting again on the bed and looking at Brian, whose expression he could only guess in the semi-darkness of the bedroom.

 

"But he's stalking you because you fucked him. "

 

"All right! I fucked him a couple of times, then he started to follow me around. I live in his sister's apartment, I can't afford my own apartment right now. And no, I don't need your help. Shit! What did you expect? You wanted me to strangle the guy? You had plenty of "guests" here, if I remember!"

 

"That's different, Justin, and you know it." His voice was calm and low.

 

"Sure, when it suits you, it's different?"

 

"That's quite simple." Brian said calmly. "You see him frequently, fuck him frequently. I do random tricks, no repeats."

 

"This is un-fucking-believable! Don't tell me you're jealous!"

 

Brian snorted. "I don't do jealousy."

 

"Then, are you saying I'm cheating on you?" Justin asked. And to think that a few hours earlier they were fucking like horny teenagers.

 

"Don't be stupid. We're not together. That's alright, Sunshine. We're not a couple, we're queers, and we're in this mess on our free will. Shit, we don't even live in the same city! I don't own you. You're an adult, and if you keep fucking him, it's because you want to." He snorted.

 

"We're not together? What the fuck, Brian...?"

 

"Well," Brian went on, "It's not as if we still have a commitment. Not a defined one, anyway. If you wanna fuck a different guy everyday or the same one, I say: go for it. I just don't like to be awaken in the middle of the night by your... your fuck buddy... or whatever he is."

 

"Shit, Brian, I just arrived! Do we have to fight already?"

 

"No, as long as you keep your New York bed activities to yourself! I don't wanna know, okay?"

 

"Fuck you, stop being so insecure, will you? Shit, I should have stayed in New York!" As soon as Justin said it, he felt a pang in his heart.

 

Brian looked at him as if he had been slapped, his face as cold as ice. "Yeah, I know that. That's where you live, after all." He murmured. Getting up, he went to the bathroom closing the door behind him.

 

Justin looked at the bathroom's door, startled. He knew he shouldn't have said that. But Brian always managed to infuriate him. He didn't know Brian wanted him to follow the "no repeats" rule. Because they had never talked about rules again since Ethan. Even when Brian knew Justin was fucking him and the fiddler, they never discussed Justin's reasons for leaving, and the blond let it be that way. The way Brian always preferred: silence, avoiding all kind of talk, only that "you're never to play violin music in my presence again" thing. He always feared Brian was insecure when it came to trusting him. And he knew too well where Brian's insecurities came from. His childhood made him think he didn't deserve love and care. And a long distance, messy relationship wasn't helping much.

 

He heard the door opening and Brian stood there, looking at him.

 

"I don't wanna fight. Maybe I overreacted. I do trust you." He said in a low voice.

 

Justin got up and approached him, putting his hands on his shoulders. "Do you really trust me, Brian? It doesn't feel like you do." When he saw that Brian didn't shove him off, he hugged his lover and said, "I don't wanna fight either. Why do we keep doing these things to each other?"

 

"Fuck if I know", said Brian hugging him back.

 

"I don't want anything with Phillip, Brian. Or with anyone else. Sorry about what I said. You probably don't believe this, but I still see you and me as us, and I'm NOT giving you up. You gotta believe that. New York will never change the way I feel about you."

 

"Justin..." Brian sighed. "You're there, I'm here. Let's leave things this way and see what happens next, okay?" He wouldn't make Justin promise anything, for the blond's own sake. And Brian's own sanity.

 

"So don't do this again. If you want something, you need to tell me, don't expect me to guess. You freaked me out."

 

"I'm really a shit to live with, right?" he sighed, holding the blond stronger.

 

"Yes, you are, but I don't care. I just want one thing from you."

 

"What, try to shut my big mouth?" he asked, trying to lighten the mood.

 

"Don't give up on me." Justin murmured.

 

Brian looked at him suddenly serious, and Justin thought he would burn just from that stare.

 

"Only if you give up first," he said with his eyes shining.

 

"Never," said the blond, smiling slightly. After a few minutes, he added "Let's not talk about tricks anymore, okay?"

 

"That's settled, then. Are you up for one more?" Brian attacked Justin's lips, pouring into that kiss everything he felt, everything he couldn't say. And hoping that Justin would understand him.

Chapter Text

As Justin entered Babylon holding Brian's hand, the old thumpa thumpa he knew so well invaded his senses. He had been in other clubs in NYC (not too many), and basically they looked all the same. But there was something different about Babylon that made it beat all the others. This was almost an extension of his home, an important place in his coming out process, so many years ago. In this place he had experienced happiness, heartbreak, lust, victory and so many other emotions, all of them related to Brian. In fact, Justin thought, almost all of the most important moments in his life had something to do with him.

 

As Brian entered Babylon holding Justin's hand, he remembered he hardly came to Babylon anymore. It wasn't about the club. Babylon was still the same, still the loud music and the hot guys, still the same backroom. And the guys still looked at him with lust in their eyes. In fact, nothing had changed. And that was the problem. HE had changed, and it was such an un-Kinney thought that it sometimes, just sometimes (when he let himself think about it) scared him.

 

After the bombing, he thought he would never rebuild the club. But Michael convinced him otherwise, saying that some things weren't meant to change. So he had put all his efforts in the big reopening of Babylon, and he knew this was a way to show all those fucking homophobes that they wouldn't give up. The reopening was a big success, and everyone came. Except Justin, who was studying for his exams at NYU.

 

After that, his life seemed to go back to the usual routine, and for a short period he convinced himself it was okay to see Justin in every blond he saw on the dance floor, or think about him whenever he heard "Forever Young", or pretend he didn't see the looks his friends gave him every time he took a blond trick to the backroom.

 

But he wasn't okay at all, and he knew his friends felt it. He knew they were waiting for his downfall, expecting him to drink too much, use too much drugs and have too much tricks. The old Kinney's pain management. But he refused to let them see him like this. He would not let them think he was hurting. Because he wasn't. He was okay with Justin's leaving, they had talked about that, and he didn't want them to ever blame the blond for anything. After all, it wasn't over between them. Right? And he could feel his friend's vigilant eyes at the back of his head, as if he couldn't handle Justin's absence by himself.

 

Then, after three months he sold the club and although it was hard not to miss the thumpa thumpa, he knew it was the best decision. It was easier this way. If he was going to really try this long distance thing, being bitter about it wasn't going to do him any good. Babylon had too many memories of the two of them together for his own good. The gang noticed that, of course, but Brian didn't offer them any explanation. Instead, he buried himself in his work, using Kinnetik as an excuse for not going to the club with his friends. After all, he still had Woody's, the baths and the other clubs. Whenever he wanted to find tricks, he knew where they were. He just preferred to do it on his own now, not in public display.

They spotted Ben and Michael at the bar, along with Ted and Blake.

"Hi, guys," greeted Justin.

"Look who's here! " Michael smiled. "He has risen from the dead, guys! What a miracle! Rage returns to Gayopolis!"

Brian shot him a warning look, and Justin pretended he didn't see it. He had made a promise to himself, not to interfere in Brian and Mikey Show anymore. Well, at least as long as Michael didn't interfere in his and Brian's relationship. He just couldn't understand Brian's glare at Michael.

As if on cue, the barman chose this moment to greet Brian.

"Hello, Mr. Kinney! Haven't seen you here for a long time!"

Brian gritted his teeth, but tried to sound nonchalant. "So you haven't paid attention to your clients lately, Jack. Two Jim Beam, please. Make them a double.

"Let's dance, Michael" suggested Ben, dragging a protesting Michael to the dance floor.

Brian took the whiskey and drank it all in one single gulp, then surveyed the dance floor with a critical look. Funny, but the guys looked all the same. The only one he wanted was standing by his side. Smiling at the blond, he studied him. He was really hot, and still looked like a teenager. Suddenly he wanted to feel Justin's body pressed against him. NOW.

"Dance with me," Brian ordered.

Justin was led to the dance floor without resistance, marveling at the feeling of Brian's body next to him. They held each other, dancing in a rhythm of their own, losing themselves in the music and feeling the energy of the moment coursing through their veins like a drug that left them both dizzy. Justin lifted his head and Brian gave him a mind-blowing kiss, and they kept dancing together and kissing, in perfect harmony. As the music went on, feeling Justin's sweet mouth on his, Brian felt like the heat of the sun itself was right there with him, and thought he hadn't felt this alive for a long time.

*********************************************

Brian entered Michael and Ben's house carrying a box full of Christmas decorations, Michael and Hunter behind him with another box, while Justin closed his mother's car. Justin had offered to help Michael decorating the huge Christmas tree in the living room, while Debbie, Ben, and Emmett worked like crazy in the kitchen preparing food for all their guests. Michael was so excited about the party at his house, that Justin had to hide a smile when he asked Brian with his huge puppy dog eyes:

"What do you think of my Christmas tree, Brian? Isn't it the most wonderful one you've ever seen?"

"Gee, uncle Mickey, it's so big!", Brian mocked, resting his arm on Michael's shoulders, looking at the tree. He wasn't very fond of Christmas but, what the hell, Justin was there and Gus would be in a few days for New Year's Eve.. Some things were worth celebrating

"Shut up, asshole," laughed Michael.

"It's a pity I won't be able to help you with the decorations," he said sarcastically. "You could use some advice."

"Don't worry, I'm not my mother, Brian," said Michael.

Justin smiled at that, remembering Debbie's tendency to exaggerate "a little bit" with her decorations. Like the way she decorated the diner for Pride.

"Oh, yeah. You're worse. You know as much about decoration as I know about sewing."

"Do you know how to sew?" asked Hunter, earning a glare from Brian, who said:

"Really Mikey, are you sure this boy is going to college?"

"We'll take care of everything," Justin said, "I'm an artist, remember? The house will look great, I'm sure, even for your high standards."

"Well," sighed Brian, "someone needs to work here. Ted must be queening out right now, I'm already late. Things are crazy at Kinnetik this time of the year. All my clients want to raise their sales in holidays promotions. Bye, Mikey, see ya tonight."

"Bye," Michael said.

Brian held Justin's hand and headed for the door, stopping at the threshold. He encircled Justin's waist, giving him a long and wet kiss. He was in a good mood today, after spending half the night fucking the blond into the mattress. And the sofa, the table, the floor...and the shower this morning.

"So, you'll get your mother, Tucker and Molly, then?" he asked.

"Yeah", Justin confirmed. "She never came here, and doesn't know Michael and Ben very well, so she wants me to come with her."

"That's okay. I'll go straight home from Kinnetik, take a shower, and meet you here. At eight?"

"Sure, that'll leave me plenty of time to finish here, go home to change and get them."

"Later", said Brian, releasing Justin and heading for the Vette.

"Later".

 

***********************************************************

Brian finished his shower quickly, humming an old song. He felt light, as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Hearing Gus saying "I love you and I miss you, Daddy" made his day. And the promise of a pleasant night with his almost-family friends and Justin, left him in a very good mood. Maybe he could endure this Christmas thing, after all. He could even try to like it.

He had bought Justin a new computer with a top of the line software designed specifically for him. This one allowed him to add more details to his work, and would even help him with computer animation.

He took his time choosing his clothes, and opted for black pants and a charcoal shirt, both new. He knew it was just a family's party, but fuck if he would show up wearing rags. He couldn't take the computer with him, of course. It was carefully wrapped in red paper in the middle of the loft. When he came home with Justin they would have a little celebration of their own.

He looked at his reflection in the mirror. At thirty-six he still looked hot. Not a single strand of white hair, and the anti-aging stuff he applied carefully every day was still doing its job. His face was still smooth. His lean and well defined body was a sight to behold, thanks to the almost carb-free diet and the daily hours at the gym. Being that careful, he guessed a few cigarettes; a little E and Special K and his old Jim Beam wouldn't do any harm.

He headed for the door, grabbing his wallet and his car keys. But before he reached it, someone knocked at his door. Wondering who it could possibly be, he opened it. And his chin almost dropped to the floor.

"Hello, Brian. Merry Christmas."

************************************************

Justin arrived at Michael's house at eight-thirty with Molly, Jennifer and Tucker. The other guests had already arrived. Their whole family was there: Debbie, Carl, Ted, Blake, Emmett, Drew and the hosts Michael, Ben and Hunter with his girlfriend. The only exceptions were the girls and the children. And Brian.

Michael was on the phone talking to Mel. He was really upset because JR wouldn't be with him for Christmas, but they would arrive in two days, and he was already planning another party for New Year's Eve. There was a beautiful park near their house, where his neighbors were planning a show of fireworks, and the kids would love it.

Justin gave Debbie a kiss and shook Carl's hand.

"Where's Brian?" Debbie asked.

"I didn't have time to talk to him, but I guess he'll be here soon," he said.

"We left Kinnetik together nearly two hours ago," offered Ted. "He said he would call Gus before coming here."

"He already called them, Lindz told me. He's probably choosing the best shirt to look hot," Michael said.

"He doesn't have to. He always looks hot, Mikey." Justin grinned.

"So, Sunshine", Debbie asked, tell Carl here everything about New York."

"Again? He already did, Ma!" Michael said, rolling his eyes. "Maybe he should record a speech and play it for everyone who asks."

Laughing, Justin started a conversation with Carl and Debbie, and he lost track of time. The house was beautifully decorated, and the Christmas tree was amazing. From the kitchen they could smell all of the delicious foods they had cooked. Everything was perfect, even the soft Christmas songs Ben had selected. The night was beautiful, and the starry sky promised an unforgettable night, even with the cold weather.

Every now and then he thought why Brian was taking so long to arrive, but always dismissed his worry after a while. There was no way Brian wouldn't come. He had promised, even if just to humor Justin, and Brian never broke a promise.

At ten o'clock, though, he really started to get stressed. He kept glancing at the door and strained his ears hoping to hear the Vette approaching. He could see the others were starting to wonder about Brian's whereabouts, and he couldn't stop himself from thinking: Brian fucking Kinney, always running away from family reunions. What the fuck, it was Christmas Eve!

"Justin?" Michael whispered, "I'm worried. Maybe we should call him?"

"I'm sure he won't like it, Mikey. He'll say I'm trying to control him, and you know how much he hates that. He said he would come and he will."

At ten-thirty he was starting to get pissed. His mother was already stealing glances at him, and he didn't know how to explain Brian's absence. Michael approached him again, a worried expression on his face.

"Justin", he said, "I already called the loft a couple of times, and he's not answering. His cell is going straight to voice mail. Something happened, I know."

"Maybe it's just Brian being Brian," Justin tried to joke, but he was worried too and pissed. Everything was fine in the morning, and he couldn't imagine what could have gone wrong to make Brian change his mind.

"Do you think he had an accident?" Michael asked.

"Jesus, Michael, will you stop? I'm gonna call him! Okay?"

As if on cue, his cell rang. He knew by the ring tone it was Brian.

"Hello?" he answered hurriedly.

But Brian didn't say anything. Justin could listen to him breathing, ragged breaths that made his insides turn into ice.

"Brian?" he tried again. But Brian didn't speak, and Justin thought he heard a sob, but he really couldn't tell because of the music.

"Brian, please..." he said, desperate for an answer, anything that would tell him his lover was alright. "Talk to me...please...I'm here..."

"Justin..." Brian said, his voice cracking, so Justin was sure he was NOT alright. "I...can't go, okay? Tell the others I can't go. I'm sorry."

Justin's heart skipped a beat. I'm sorry? Brian was NEVER sorry. Sorry is bullshit.

"What happened, Brian?"

Brian didn't answer at first, just kept breathing heavily. Then he said "Nothing happened, Justin. Nothing at all." His voice cracking again. "I'm just not in the mood for parties today, okay? Bye."

"Brian, wait!" Justin almost yelled.

"What?" barked the other.

"Where are you?"

Brian's answer was so low that Justin almost didn't hear him. "Nowhere. I'm nowhere, leave me the fuck alone and don't come looking for me."

Fuck!

He grabbed his mother's car keys and, without saying a word to anyone, ran to the car and headed for the loft.

Chapter Text

When Justin parked his car in front of Brian's building, he was relieved to see the ‘Vette there. It meant Brian was home. He opened the door and hurried up the stairs, taking two steps at a time, deciding not to waste time with the elevator.

 

The loft's door wasn't locked. In fact, it wasn't even closed properly. The loft was in complete darkness, except for the light coming from the street through the big window. Justin turned the kitchen light on, and looked around. And his heartbeat seemed to stop.

 

In the middle of the loft was a huge box, wrapped in red paper with a golden ribbon on top. Brian lay sprawled on the floor next to the sofa, fully dressed, holding an almost empty bottle of Beam, staring at the ceiling with vacant, unblinking eyes.

 

"Brian?" he asked, tentatively, approaching his lover with a fear so deep he couldn't describe.

 

Brian blinked twice, coming out of his stupor, and looked at him, eyes red and glazed. Justin had never, in his whole life, seeing him so wasted.

 

"I told you not to come," said Brian.

 

"Since when do I listen to you?" Justin answered, kneeling beside him, seeing his face so pale that it was almost like seeing a ghost. From his red and puffy eyes, he could still see the shadows of tears. He had never seen Brian crying before.

 

"Tell me what happened," he whispered, running his hand through Brian's hair.

 

"What for?" Brian snapped, shoving Justin's hand off, and sat down.

 

"Because I want to know." Justin sighed. "Because I came here running like crazy to see if you were okay. Because I love you, and it kills me seeing you like this."

 

Brian stared at him for a few minutes, expression hard. Then he averted his eyes, took a cigarette from his pocket and lightened it. Justin waited patiently.

 

"She was here. Of all the nights of the year, she chose this one." he snorted. "To "wish" me a merry Christmas. Among other things."

 

"Who?" Justin asked, bewildered.

 

"My mother."

 

Justin swallowed. He had a vivid memory of the one and only time he saw Brian's mother, and it wasn't a pleasant one. "What did she want?" he asked, not sure if he really wanted to know.

 

Brian snorted, bitterly. "What can a saint like Joan Kinney possibly want from her faggot, going-to-hell son?" He added, "Money."

 

He got up, went stumbling to the kitchen, opened the fridge and grabbed a bottle of water. Justin waited for him to go on, and he would do it when he was ready. Brian drank all the water in big gulps and put the empty bottle on the counter. He returned to Justin's side and sat down on the floor again.

 

"Apparently, her dear daughter Claire is sick. Thyroid cancer. Her husband came to his senses and decided to leave her. The bitch doesn't work, doesn't have social security, can't pay for the treatment. Surgery, then radiation. Same as me. You know, cancer runs in the family."

 

"And what did you say?"

 

"I gave her the god damned money, if that's what you want to know. I'm going to hell, but my money certainly is good enough for her. What else was I supposed to do?" He sighed. "The world is already so unfair to poor Joan. Her queer son survived cancer, and now her beloved little daughter is dying of it. How pathetic is that?"

 

"Is she dying?"

 

"Fuck if I care! She accused me of molesting her son, that bitch! I gave Joan the money and told her to get the fuck out." He snorted again.

 

"And that was it?" Justin wanted to know. He was worried, Michael had already told him some things about Brian's family, none of them good.

 

"Of course not!" the other man slurred. "She had to tell me how concerned she always is about my soul, that she prays every day for me to come to my senses, yadda yadda yadda. She wishes I could escape eternal damnation and all this shit," he added sarcastically.

 

Justin hesitated; he didn't know what to say. Not when he had such an understanding mother as Jennifer. "I'm sure she...she worries about you, in her own way."

 

That was a mistake. Brian suddenly got up and started to half-pace, half stumble, completely drunk, face flushed and angry.

 

"She worries?," he shouted, giving Justin a sarcastic laugh. "She always had a very peculiar way of demonstrating how much she worries! Where was she when Jack came home drunk and beat me? I'll tell you where! She was getting drunk herself, locked in her bedroom! She never stopped him, never defended me, not even once!" Brian looked at Justin, eyes wild and haunted, and kept shouting. "And why the fuck would she believe that I molested my nephew? How could she think I would do such a thing? It's not because I'm a fag, believe me. She hated me way before finding out I'm queer."

 

He stopped against the wall, ragged breathing, unable to say anything else. He slid to the floor, face suddenly blank, and added softly; "She hates me. She always did. She wishes she never had me. And I don't even understand why."

 

Justin was paralyzed, unable to say anything. He knew Brian never talked about his life, and he was doing so because he was very, very drunk. And that little glimpse Brian gave him of his childhood shocked him beyond words. How could anyone endure such a life? Even his homophobic father, Craig, gave him a happy childhood, thought Justin. No matter that now he was a son of a bitch, Craig had been a good father, albeit distant.

 

Tentatively, he approached Brian and put his hands on the older man's waist, in a comfortable hug. Brian let himself be held, breathing deeply, chin resting on Justin's shoulder.

 

"Let's go to bed, you need to rest." Justin said, getting up and holding Brian's hand. He gently pulled him to the bedroom and made him sit on the bed. Heading to the kitchen, he grabbed two aspirins and made Brian swallow them. Then, he took his clothes off, leaving him only with his underwear, helped him lay down on his side and covered him with the blanket. The whole time Brian remained silent offering no resistance, staring at some point above Justin's head.

 

Justin lay down behind him, spooning his still unresponsive lover. "Close your eyes, Brian," he said gently. "It's over. I'm here, and I'm not gonna leave you." Brian obliged, closing his eyes and shuddering a bit. Justin stayed there, holding him, stroking his arm for a long time, until he could tell from Brian's soft breathing that he was asleep. Then he got up, picked up the phone and called his mother.

 

"Hi, Mom. It's me.

 

"Justin, honey! What happened? Is Brian all right? We were so worried when you left."

 

"He'll be fine, Mom. Some shit happened, but he'll be fine."

 

"Where are you?"

 

"At the loft. Brian's asleep now."

 

"Oh, honey, you're missing the party..."

 

"Never mind, Mom. I'm so relieved I came. I can't imagine what would have happened if I hadn't," he sighed. "Have fun, mom. Tell the guys everything is fine, okay?"

 

"Okay, honey. Bye, baby."

 

"Bye, Mom."

 

Justin went back to the bed and undressed, resuming his previous position, behind Brian. Next to his lover's ear, he murmured "Merry Christmas, Brian", and fell asleep too, holding the man he loved.

 

 

***********************************************

 

Hours later, when Brian woke up, it was almost noon, and he was greeted with a wonderful sight: Justin sleeping peacefully, face inches from his own. He already had a headache thanks to the booze, but surprisingly, that was all. He tried to move but realized they had their limbs tangled, and he wouldn't be able to get up without disturbing the blond. And if he was going to wake him up, he was going to do it properly. Raising his hand, he lightly traced the contour of Justin's face, neck, torso, feeling the smooth silky skin only his young lover had. He vaguely remembered what had happened the night before, but after Joan left, he knew he went to a very dark place, until Justin rescued him.

 

His fingers traced random patterns on Justin's skin and slowly the blond started to wake up. Justin sighed, enjoying the feeling of Brian's hands on his skin. Brian pushed him into his arms and kissed him, slow and deep, their legs still tangled together.

 

"Hey", he said.

 

"Hey" Justin said sleepily, smiling slowly.

 

"Time to wake up, Sunshine." Brian kissed him lightly. When he tried to sit up , he winced. "Shit! I have a headache."

 

"Hmmm... can't imagine the reason. Maybe it was all that booze?" Justin joked.

 

Brian grimaced. "I shouldn't have called you last night. I ruined your Christmas."

 

Justin cut him off. "Did you really think I was having a good time without you there? Without knowing where you were, why you were late?" He could feel Brian was still vulnerable and needed some kind of reassurance.

 

"You shouldn't have come, I know you like this holiday thing," Brian said, shaking his head. "I mean, I was in a shitty mood yesterday, drank a little, and I might have said some pretty stupid things."

 

"I didn't come here for the holidays, Brian. I don't give a shit about Christmas. I came here to be with you. And that's what I intend to do."

 

"Until you have to go back."

 

"Do we really need to talk about this now?"

 

"No, we don't." Brian put his hands on Justin's waist and held him lightly. They stayed like that for a couple of minutes, just feeling the other's heat. It wasn't anything sexual, just a hug, and it was such a peaceful moment, that Justin was almost afraid to move, afraid to break the spell. Finally Brian leaned back, saying:

 

"I never gave you your present," he half-smiled.

 

"Oh?"

 

"Okay, let's go see it," Brian laughed a little and got up, pulling Justin along. "In fact, judging by its size and current location, it's a little hard to miss."

 

He held Justin's hand and led him to the big box Justin had seen when he entered the loft earlier.

 

"That's for me? I thought it was for Gus."

 

"It's yours, Sunshine. Open it."

 

Justin couldn't control himself, he never could when it came to presents. He tore the paper hurriedly like a little boy, and Brian had to laugh, he looked adorable.

 

"Oh, Brian, that's...I love it!" and Justin gave him his thousand-watt smile.

 

"Wait until you see the software. I had it made especially for you."

 

Justin took some time admiring his new computer, then reading about the software. He kissed Brian hard, and then remembered: "I have something for you, too." He headed to the bedroom and went up the stairs.

 

"Um...Brian...did you see that brown package I brought with me from NY?" he asked, looking around.

 

"Oh, that. I assumed it was a painting, and I didn't want the cleaning lady to ruin it, so I locked it in the closet. The key is in that drawer by the bed." Brian answered from the kitchen, where he drank some water along with two more aspirins.

 

Justin opened said drawer and in fact, the key was there. But he also found a little red velvet box he hadn't seen in a long time. The rings. Brian still kept the fucking rings. He took the key, opened the wardrobe and picked the painting he had made for Brian and unwrapped it. Then without a second thought, he took the little box and went to the couch, where Brian was sitting, smoking.

 

"Here it is, the last piece made by the soon-to-be-famous Justin Taylor."

 

Brian looked at the painting and speech left him. It was a painting showing two male lovers, by a large window, together in a close embrace, facing each other, painted in black and blue shadows. It wasn't possible to see their faces, but anyone who knew Brian and Justin could tell it was the two of them. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

 

"It's...I can't..." Brian was at a loss of words. "Wow Justin..."

 

Brian kissed him, then picked up the painting from Justin's hands and put it carefully near the wall, thinking if he should hang it in the bedroom. Justin still held the box, not knowing exactly what to say about them.

 

"Brian..." he started.

 

Brian turned around smiling, and seeing the box in Justin's hand, his smile was replaced for a serious expression Justin couldn't identify.

 

"You still have them." It wasn't a question. "I thought that...after all this time," the blond trailed off.

 

"I would have returned them?" Brian said, shaking his head. "As you can see, I didn't. Not that I expect us to use them or anything." he corrected. "We're beyond that."

 

"What, you want to torture yourself by looking at them?"

 

"Don't put words on my mouth, Sunshine." Brian approached Justin. "I didn't have time to return them, that's all."

 

"Hey, it's me." Justin said. "I'm a genius, remember? You can't fool me."

 

"Fuck! Okay, what the hell, they're... a kind of...symbol. Fuck, I don't believe this...I sound like a fucking dyke already," he hesitated.

 

"Brian. Why did you keep them?"

 

"The only reason I kept them is because...You take your time, do all you have to do, have the best time you can. But if you...maybe someday... we'll be able to...put all this shit behind us and...make this thing we have work, somehow. It's not because I want us to wear them. Fuck, Justin, forget it, okay? The things you make me say!" Brian closed his eyes and started to turn away, but Justin held his arm.

 

"Brian, I-," he whispered, emotion evident in his voice.

 

They looked at each other intensely, no need for words. And suddenly they were lying on the bed, Brian on top of Justin, kissing and holding onto each other as if their lives depended on it. Brian was in a frenzy, kissing Justin's mouth before moving down to his neck, sucking gently as he went. Justin couldn't think properly, the whole world for him was in this bedroom, in this man holding him. He arched his head back, moaning Brian's name and tightened his legs around him, bringing them closer. Justin could feel Brian's arousal against his own, and he ground his pelvis into Brian's meeting his lips again.

 

"I want you," he murmured into Brian's mouth.

 

Brian reached for the condom and lube from the drawer and coated his fingers with lube. Gently, he reached Justin's hole and inserted a finger, then two. Justin arched his back, moaning loudly and Brian's cock twitched in response. He scissored his fingers inside his lover until he felt the walls relaxing.

 

"Brian, please..."Justin moaned again, pushing his hips against Brian's fingers. "Fuck me."

 

Brian positioned Justin's legs on his shoulders, then pushed into Justin in one smooth movement, not wanting to hurt him, slowly, holding his hips steady. But Justin was desperate for Brian, so he surged forward. Brian grunted with surprise and his eyes were so dark that Justin thought he was drowning inside them. Brian moved his hand to grip Justin's hard member and stroke him, his hand in rhythm with their bodies.

 

Their rhythm was initially slow, but grew more intense. Their bodies were slick with sweat, their moans filling the air. Brian kissed Justin's neck, shoulder, and mouth, giving and taking everything he could. And their wild pace grew until Justin shuddered, moaning loudly Brian's name, and Brian felt Justin's cum on his hand, felt Justin's walls tighten around his cock, and then he just lost control, his whole body trembling with electricity as he came hard inside Justin.

 

Later, Justin found himself resting his head on Brian's arm, facing his lover and feeling his warm breath as he slept with a shadow of a smile on his lips, their legs tangled. The blond sighed happily, remembering Brian's words: he still believed in them. That was all that mattered for him. That gave Justin hope in their future, even if this future was foggy now. Finally, Justin slept too, feeling safe and loved in Brian's arms, thinking that he'd just had the best Christmas of his life.

Chapter Text

Brian was standing by Justin's side in the airport, along with Michael and Ben. He was nervous, even though he tried not to let it show. They were waiting for Melanie, Lindsay, Gus and JR. Their plane had already landed, and they would see them any minute now. Brian took a drag of his cigarette and sighed. "Shit, where are they?"

 

As soon as Gus saw his father, he came running into his arms, hugging him tightly and saying: "Hi, Daddy! I missed you!"

 

Brian stubbed out the cigarette on the floor, let out a breath he didn't know he was holding and carried the boy, whispering "Me too, Sonnyboy."

 

Gus held his father's face between his little hands, and announced, "I'm on the baseball team now, and I'm the best player there. When will you come and see me? I'm gonna be famous and handsome, like you. Mommy says I look like you already."

 

Justin laughed, "He's really your son, Brian, already praising his qualities! Hello, Gus," he said as he ran his hand through the boy's hair.

 

"Jus!!! You're here too!! That's soooo coool! "

 

Lindsay gave Brian a hug, murmuring "I missed you, big guy," and Brian, not a big fan of fluffy moments, just smiled at her.

 

Michael approached them, already holding JR in his arms, "Let's go to Ma's. She's been planning this big welcome dinner for weeks!"

 

"Let's go, then." Mel said. "The children are excited, but tired. The plane was delayed, and these two have no patience at all."

 

Gus, Melanie and Lindsay were delighted to see Justin, and the blond saw himself repeating all over again everything about the glamorous NYC. Especially to an eager Lindsay, who seemed to absorb his words. He sometimes wondered if he truly believed all he was saying about his so-called new life. It was fine, all right. But he didn't want fine. He wanted fucking brilliant, and being with Brian was definitely part of that. He just didn't know how he would make this work. But then he remembered the conversation he and Brian had on Christmas and smiled.

 

 

**********************************************

 

 

The next few days went by in a blur. Brian spent his time between Kinnetik, Justin and Gus. The girls were staying at Deb's house. Since Emmett had moved in with Drew, Debbie's house had two empty rooms.

 

They had family dinners almost every night, Brian spending as much time with Gus as he could. As much as he didn't look forward to those "gatherings", he had to humor his two boys. So, he was going to Kinnetik only in the mornings these days, to spend the afternoons and evenings with his son. He was even able to have an entire conversation with Melanie without getting mad at her, and that was a good indication of his good will. And surprisingly good mood.

 

He tried not to think that, by the next week, they would all be gone again, but life had its ups and downs, and he had to learn how to live with it. He had visited the girls at Toronto a couple of times, and he knew they were doing fine. Lindsay was keeping his promise so far, not letting Gus forget his father, and every time Brian saw him, the boy acted as if they'd never been apart. It was all he could ask for, now. Besides, he knew it wasn't Gus's choice.

 

Justin was a whole different matter. It had been their mutual choice, but it was all bullshit. Brian wanted Justin with him, end of story. But he guessed he had to be "content" with what he had, and somehow try to show the blond everything was fine, even if he had to go to these stupid dinners and celebrations like Christmas and all that shit.

 

That was why he was now in the park next to Mikey's house, with his surrogate family, freezing in the fucking cold, waiting for the fireworks that would announce the beginning of a new year. His arm was around Justin's shoulders while they chatted with Michael and Ben. He was mildly annoyed, because Lindsay kept stealing glances at him, and pretending not to look when he glared at her. He wanted to ask what the hell was going on, but decided to leave at that, at least for today. He had already ruined Justin's Christmas, so fuck if he would do the same with New Year's Eve. He knew the blond liked the sentimental shit.

 

The kids were running between the adults, playing hide and seek, excited about the fireworks. Brian had to laugh at Gus and JR, as they kept asking when the show would begin over and over, while Mel kept patiently telling them "By midnight, honey."

 

"What are you laughing at?" Justin asked.

 

"Nothing," Brian said simply.

 

"Come on Brian, humor me. Or you won't go near my ass tonight,", he joked.

 

"And why do you think I'm here, Sunshine, if not for you bubble-butt? And your skills, of course."

 

"You didn't answer my question, don't try to fool me, Mr. Kinney."

 

"Oh, hell, all right. But I'm way over my share of lesbianic thoughts for the whole next year, I'm afraid I'll grow a twat. So be nice and don't comment on this one. "

 

"But Brian, I thought I was more than nice to you?" the blond laughed. "Come on, tell me."

 

"Shit. You surely have your way with me. Brat. Okay, I was looking at Gus."

 

"That explains that silly smile on your face."

 

"I do NOT do silly smiles. They make my dick soft."

 

"Nothing makes your dick soft, it's quite amazing, actually. But you were saying..."

 

"Okay, you win. I was thinking that I didn't even want to agree with Lindz when she asked me to be the sperm donor. And now I don't remember a day when I don't think about him."

 

"Shit, Brian. That's..."

 

"Sentimental? Yeah, no shit. I'm out of my fucking mind, it's all this champagne you made me drink. If you ask me, it's such a sissy drink...Anyway, it's just that...He's growing so fast. I was a shitty father when he was here, really absent, and now he's far away and I'd just like to have another chance to see him grow up, you know."

 

"You still have a chance, Brian. He adores you."

 

"You don't know that. He's too young to realize the kind of shit I am," Brian shrugged. As if on cue, Gus came running to him and threw his arms around his legs, saying excitedly, "Pull me up, Daddy, it's midnight. The fireworks will start soon!"

 

Brian obliged and they watched the beauty of the fireworks, while people around them kissed and hugged, wishing Happy New Year to each other. Gus turned his face to look at is father and said cheerily, "Happy New Year, Daddy. I'm so happy to be here with you!" And kissed his father's cheek.

 

Justin was amazed, the boy looked exactly like Brian, but was such an open child, unlike his dad. He certainly got that from his mother. The way he announced things so easily... his father perhaps would have a stroke trying to say these. same things a few years ago, and even now had trouble saying... "I love you," the boy added, and then looked at Justin, saying "You too, Justin."

 

Brian looked at Justin and smiled broadly, in an un-Kinney way.

 

"I love you too, Sonnyboy, I'm happy you're here," he said to Gus, his eyes not leaving Justin's. "Both of you," he added.

 

Justin simply held the two of them, father and son, watching the fireworks and wishing that this night would never end.

 

****************************************

 

 

Two days later Brian found himself looking at a very worried Ted Schmidt, trying patiently to nod and murmur while he listened to Ted's problems. Months ago he would never have pictured himself in this situation, but now it wasn't so strange anymore, and he wondered, not for the first time, when he and Ted became good friends

 

"I told you, Ted, I know nothing of this shit. I don't do relationships."

 

"Duh..." Ted said rolling his eyes. "What about Justin, Bri?"

 

Brian ignored the comment. "You were saying...?"

 

"Right." Ted shifted in the chair in front of Brian's desk. "I love Blake, we're together for some time now, but...I hate that he has to travel all the time."

 

"You said it was because of his work."

 

"It is!!! It's just that..." he looked around as if searching for the right words. "The thing is...he's hot and younger than me and...I don't know, when he's traveling, he can always find someone..."

 

"Better than you?" Brian asked, looking at Ted pointedly.

 

"Uhhh...yes." The older man finally admitted.

 

"Fuck, Theodore!" Brian lighted a cigarette and took a long drag, inhaling the smoke deeply and coughing a little. "Don't be so insecure! Either you trust him or not."

 

Ted half smiled at his boss and friend, but said nothing.

 

"The thing is...there's no reason for Blake to be with you if he doesn't..." he struggled with the words. Brian hated talks like that, but the minute Ted entered his office with pleading eyes, asking if they could talk, he knew there was no way out of it. Well, there was always a way out, but recently he discovered that his sarcastic remarks toward Ted weren't so funny anymore. "...if he doesn't...care about you. I mean, you're not rich..."

 

"Or young, or beautiful..." Ted finished for him.

 

"Shit, there you go again. Stop that! Do you really think that's all Blake's after? That's all he cares about? Because if you do, I see no point in living with him."

 

"No, of course I don't think that."

 

"Then don't say you came here just to hear me saying how wonderful you are, and that Blake will never cheat on you..." he stubbed out the cigarette and immediately lighted another one. "Because I don't believe in this fucking monogamy shit."

 

"Well, you almost married once. Weren't you planning on being monogamous?" As soon as the words left his lips, he regretted saying them, because a shadow crossed Brian's eyes and Ted could suddenly see all the pain Brian tried to hide. "Uhhh..." he wanted to say something, anything, but didn't know what.

 

"You're a great guy, Ted." Brian said averting his eyes. "But you need to trust him." He added softly. "And most of all...trust whatever there is between you two."

 

Ted opened his mouth astonished with the sincere advice, because it was so out of character that he had to blink twice to be sure he was really in front of the real Brian Kinney and not some clone.

 

Cynthia entered his office, not bothering to knock. "Hey Ted, Mr. Wilson is waiting in your office. Brian, Lindsay's here, she wants to see you."

 

"Okay, I'm going. See you later, Bri. And...thanks." Ted murmured leaving the room.

 

"Yeah, whatever. Now get your ass out of here," To Cynthia, Brian added: "Tell her to be quick. I don't have time right now. I have this meeting in one hour."

 

"Actually, I cleared you agenda for the rest of the morning, it's almost lunchtime. You should take a break and go out."

 

"What the hell, Cynthia, you know too damn well I never go out for lunch."

 

"I know too well you don't have lunch at all. Period. And you're smoking too much. You're getting thinner, it's so unappealing...", she tried to cover her worry with a joke.

 

"Tell that to the guys who keep stalking me," he raised an eyebrow. "Alright. Send Lindz in."

 

"Whatever you want, boss." she sighed.

 

Lindsay entered Brian's office smiling, and Brian thought Toronto was really good for her. She looked radiant, her blond hair cascading on her back, longer than he had ever seen. She wore a beautiful dark brown coat, brown boots that were so Lindsay, and brought with her a scent of spring even though it was winter. Shit, if he were straight he could fall for her. He could understand poor Mel had no chance resisting the blond woman.

 

"Hi, Bri," she said kissing him briefly on the lips. "I decided you're going to take me to lunch today."

 

"Lindz, I'm working," he said, but couldn't contain his smile.

 

"Bullshit, Cynthia already told me you're free. Come on, Bri. For me?" she blinked innocently.

 

"I'm not hungry. Maybe we could leave this for another day and just stay here? If you want I can order something."

 

"Brian Aidan Kinney," she put her hands on her waist. "Enough with this shit. I'm not kidding. I've been paying attention to you, and you're scaring me."

 

"Really?" he raised an eyebrow, trying to sound amused.

 

"I also talked to Mike. And Debbie," she sat down in front of his desk, crossing her legs.

 

"It's good to know I'm the center of your attention, but I don't like people talking about me behind my back."

 

"We're worried."

 

"Is that all? You don't have to. I'm fine, can't you see?" he opened his arms.

 

"Okay, you asked for it, so I'll tell you what I see. I see you're thinner and paler than I remember. I know you hardly eat, hardly sleep, and work a lot more than you have to. Debbie says you seldom go to the diner, Mikey says you don't go to Babylon like you did before. In fact, they all say you practically withdrew yourself from their lives. They never see you."

 

"That's so not true! I've been going to all the little family reunions you guys..."

 

She cut him off, "Only because Justin's here. Since he got here you suddenly were spotted everywhere. You don't want him to know."

 

Brian raised from his chair, with bright and unquiet eyes. "For Christ's sake, Lindsay, Don't you have your own lives to worry about? What do you think YOU know, anyway?"

 

She got up as well, facing him, daring him to deny. "That you're miserable without him! That you're hiding from everything that reminds you of him. Even your friends! And if I'm not wrong, you probably drink and smoke and use drugs as much as you always did, if not more! Only you do it alone where they won't see you on your pain management bullshit, so you can pretend you're fine!"

 

"Shut up, Lindsay," he was really angry now. "I don't need anyone's pity!"

 

"It's not pity, it's concern! We care about you, and if you're suffering, we..."

 

"I. DON'T. DO. THIS. SENTIMENTAL. SHIT!" he yelled. "No one's "suffering" here, so why don't you go to your dear wife and your happy life in Toronto and leave me the fuck alone?"

 

"Brian," she started again, trying to remain calm, although she wanted to grab his shoulders and shake him hard. "You miss him. You should tell Justin how you feel. I'm sure there's a solution for you both."

 

"ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND? So what? So he would come home to save poor Brian? And give up his brilliant future? Give up "wonderful" New York?" he pinched he bridge of his nose. "Fuck you, Lindsay. He has a whole new life ahead of him. Let him live it. And why you're so worried, anyway? Felling guilty all of a sudden?"

 

"Guilty?" she couldn't believe that. "Why would I feel guilty?"

 

Fuck, he couldn't contain himself "First, you took Gus away! Then, as if it wasn't enough, YOU started this New York shit! You showed me that magazine knowing all too well I would make him go. We were about to get married, for Christ's sake! You made him see how much he was sacrificing!"

 

"Oh God, Brian," she whispered, covering her mouth with her hand. "I had no idea you felt that way about me."

 

"Well, you have now." he said coldly. "And if you say anything to him don't even bother to talk to me again."

 

"Well," she sighed with a sad expression, "I guess we're not having lunch together, after all. But Brian, think again before you accuse me. I was afraid for our son. They put a BOMB in Babylon, my God! Can't you see those homophobic people would never leave us alone?

 

Brian didn't answer, but his face somewhat softened. She went on.

 

"And about Justin... Justin is BRILLIANT, Brian. He is! He has a talent and a passion I've not seen in a long time. He can have the world at his feet! Would you deny him that? How would you feel being the reason why he didn't became the artist he was meant to be? If you really love him, and I KNOW you do, you'll wait until he's ready."

 

She turned away to leave. "One more thing," she said, looking at his troubled eyes. "I know you say sorry's bullshit, but I'm sorry you hate me. Because I love you. And I would never do anything on purpose to hurt you. I'm sorry if I did."

 

He felt all his anger drain away. Well, almost all of it. It wasn't Lindsay's fault if he had been blind for five years and opened his eyes only when it was far too late. He had only himself to blame for the shit he was in. She was at the office's door when she heard his reply.

 

"I don't hate you, Wendy. I never could. You gave me Gus."

 

She slowly approached him again and cupped the side of his face with her hand.

 

"Oh, Peter..."

 

He sighed. "About Gus...I know he's fine. You and Mel take good care of him. He looks happy."

 

"He is."

 

He nodded. "And you're right. Justin is brilliant. And he would regret staying. That's why I let him go."

 

"But you never thought it would be so hard, did you?" she gave him a sad smile.

 

He shook his head and averted his eyes. "I knew it would be hard. But I thought I could go back to my old life. Fuck, I loved my old life. Only, I can't go back. Shit, I'm such a selfish prick."

 

"You're not selfish, Bri. You just love him more than you ever thought you could." She held him tight, and he suddenly felt suffocated, like that was too much for him to admit.

 

But he didn't have the strength to deny anything she said, because that was Lindsay, she knew him. So he let himself be held, and eventually held her back, thinking how the fuck his life had turned into a cheap soap opera. And he asked himself if he really wanted this future for Justin, a future with a man who seemed cold and despised all displaying of emotion, who didn't do romance, but couldn't even endure a little "heartbreak" without turning it into a big drama. God forbid, he hated the fucking word, as he hated all the clichés it brought with it. Only, it wasn't so easy to say it once it's his own heart that felt like breaking.

Chapter Text

Justin entered the bathroom where Brian was brushing his teeth, almost ready to go to work.

 

"Pat just called," he said excitedly. "I sold another one of those paintings she let me hang at the gallery."

 

"Which one?

 

"The big one! That abstract I was working on the last time you were there."

 

"The one you said no one would buy 'cause it's too big?" Brian smirked. "And I told you everyone would like it 'cause it's fucking amazing?"

 

"Yeah, that one," Justin said sheepishly.

 

Brian turned around and held him, smiling. "Congratulations, Sunshine. I knew you'd be a success."

 

"I'm no "success", Brian. It was just a painting, no big deal."

 

"Oh?" Brian kissed him, teasingly. "Well, Mr. Taylor, you are so humble!" He said, biting Justin's lower lip. The blond moaned. "If my memory serves me correctly, you always manage to sell one or two paintings every month." Brian kissed the side of his neck, licking the soft flesh. Justin gasped and threw his head back. "And your first show last year was a success, even if it wasn't a solo show, you got good reviews at two newspapers.," he said into Justin's year, making the blond shiver, "and two magazines."

 

Justin grabbed the back of Brian's head and kissed him, moaning as their tongues danced together. "Wanna show me how proud of me you are?" he whispered when they broke the kiss, gasping for breath.

 

Brian trailed a wet path on the blond's neck, down to his chest, finding one nipple and sucking it lightly. Justin arched his back. "Aren't you sore? We practically spent the whole morning fucking," he teased.

 

"A little bit," he admitted. "But I can't get enough of you," he started to unbutton Brian's shirt. "And I know you need to go to Kinnetik, but..." he took the brunet's shirt off and bit his shoulder, making him groan "...can't you stay a little longer..." he undid Brian's pants and his hand caressed the man's erection. "...and show me another form of art?"

 

"Yeah.", Brian groaned, ravishing Justin's lips and pulling him to the bed. "I think I can do that."

 

**********************************************

Justin woke up. Blinking several times, he looked at the clock. It was already 6 PM, he had missed lunch, but that was okay. After a late breakfast and his usual load of protein, courtesy of his gorgeous boyfriend, he wasn't exactly hungry. He was sorry for Brian, though. The poor guy was probably still at Kinnetik, since he was delayed that morning. For a very good reason.

 

He gave a content smile, remembering how perfect they were together. He loved these lazy days he spent with Brian, in bed, fucking with no hurry (well, not necessarily in bed), then eating, talking and teasing each other, then fucking again. He missed these days so much, when no worry seemed to reach them. He only had three more days in Pittsburgh, and Gus would be going to Toronto the next day. He had already caught Brian's eyes looking at them when he was coloring a book with the boy, and he saw the nostalgic expression on the man's face.

 

Justin remembered Cynthia's words about Brian, and Michael's remarks, and how Debbie was always insisting that he eat some more during the family dinners. And Brian always dismissed them with a tedious expression, telling them to mind their own business. But the truth was, Brian WAS thinner, and seemed to drink and smoke more than usual (if that was possible). Justin knew better than to talk about this with Brian, though. He wrote the fucking Kinney Instructions Manual, for Christ's sake, and he knew any attempt to start a conversation about this subject would be refused.

 

Well, there was nothing he could do about that, unless Brian was willing to talk about whatever was upsetting him. He was sure it was Brian's old pain management methods, the ones he turned to whenever something bad happened. And by something bad, he meant him leaving Brian to pursue his dream in NYC. Brian could deny all he wanted, and act nonchalant about it, but Justin knew he wasn't happy with their arrangement. Brian was probably as unhappy as he was, and that was bad enough.

 

And of course, he wondered what would happen next, after his graduation. He still hadn't discussed his options with Brian, but he doubted his lover would like any of them. Sure, he would be as supportive as ever, but Justin worried about their relationship. He already knew he would love the man forever, and nothing would change that. But he was sure Brian didn't know that, and sometimes he got really tired of Brian's insecurities, none of them spoken of ,of course.

 

He heard someone knocking at the door. Sighing, he got up, thinking it was probably one of the guys. Not bothering to put his clothes on, he just tucked the blanket around his waist and opened the door.

 

Justin still remembered Brian's sister, Claire. It wasn't a pleasant memory, though. He had last seen her at her house, after retrieving Brian's bracelet. She was pale and thin, with dark circles around her eyes. Anyone could tell she was really sick. He almost felt sorry for her. Even healthy, Claire was no beauty, and it mustn't have been easy to grow up being Brian's sister, seeing her brother so handsome, while she was completely unappealing. Still, it wasn't excuse for her behavior toward him.

 

"Uhh...Hello," she said, clearly uncomfortable. "I'm...

 

"I know who you are." he replied coldly.

 

"Is Brian's home?" she asked, looking at his bare torso and blushing.

 

"No. He's at work." He hesitated, not really wanting to invite her in, but she was Brian's sister after all, and his country club manners spoke loudly. "Do you wanna come in? To wait for him?" He stepped aside allowing her to come in.

 

"Well, I...okay, maybe a little.." She entered, looking around at the loft. "He changed the furniture," she commented.

 

"Yes, he had so sell everything when he lost his job," his voice was dripping with sarcasm. "Then, when was on his feet again, he redecorated." He walked in the direction of the bedroom. "If you excuse me, I'll put on some clothes."

 

Claire just nodded, and Justin went to the bathroom, where he put on a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt. "Want some coffee?" he asked, when he returned.

 

"Yes, thank you," she said. And then, added, "I don't think we've ever been introduced. My name is..."

 

"Claire. I'm Justin, Brian's partner," he replied, while turning the coffee machine on.

 

"By p-partner you mean-"

 

Cutting her off staring pointedly at her, he said "His lover."

 

"I remember you, from John's incident. You were at my house with Mrs. Novotny and that cop...Aren't you a little young for him?" she asked, unable to stop the question.

 

He lost his patience, and his good manners. This woman had always been a lousy sister, according to Brian, and here he was, being NICE to her. "Look, I think he won't be home for a while. Why don't you come back some other time? Or call him?"

 

She looked straight at his eyes. "Do you really think he would answer?"

 

"Frankly...No." At least he was sincere.

 

"That's why I had to come. It wouldn't be too easy for him to slam the door at my face."

 

"Believe me, he would do it," he snorted. Then he made another attempt at a civilized conversation. Claire closed her eyes and winced, and that caught his attention. "Hmmm...Are you okay?" he asked.

 

"Just a little dizzy, thank you. May I sit down for a while?" she asked, paler than before.

 

Justin hadn't realized how tired she looked. Her face was covered with sweat, and her breath was quick. "Of course." He motioned for the sofa. "Do you need anything?"

 

"Some water, please. Maybe the coffee isn't a good idea right now," she said sitting down.

 

When he handed her a glass of water, she opened her bag, grabbed a small bottle and took two pills along with some water.

 

"Thank you," she murmured tiredly. "I...I came here to...thank him. About the money. I didn't think he would care, not after what happened."

 

"Your mother can be very persuasive."

 

"You have no reason to believe me but...I didn't know the money came from him. I spent Christmas at the hospital, I was in really bad shape. Mom said we should ask him, but I...I asked her not to tell him, he would just say no..."

 

"So I guess he surprised you."

 

"He did." She sighed. "I know we don't get along too well...."

 

That was an understatement. He wanted to scream at her, your homophobic bitch, how could you do that to him? But she looked so frail, he took pity on her and said nothing.

 

"I left the hospital yesterday. I really didn't care about the money, all I wanted was to get better and see my sons," she continued after a while. "But Father Tom was at my home today, and told me where the money was coming from. I just...I couldn't believe."

 

Justin didn't know what he could say. He felt suddenly unable to hate her, and he knew he had plenty of reasons to do so. But she seemed sincere, really stunned at the display of generosity coming from her brother. "Brian doesn't show it, but he always takes care of his friends," he said at last.

 

"That's the thing, you see...Brian and I are not friends. We never were. Even when we were children. Life at our home was...hard."

 

He suddenly realized she must have been the target of Jack Kinney's anger as much as Brian. "Maybe he did it because he had cancer too," he offered.

 

"I didn't know about that either, until today. Father Tom told me, because my mother didn't bother to inform me. She can be pretty...difficult sometimes. She never talks about him. She knew all along, and I didn't. But I guess it doesn't matter now. Brian wouldn't want to see me when he was sick.'

 

"He probably wouldn't," Justin admitted.

 

"He always hated being sick. Is...is he all right now?"

 

"He had the tumor removed, and went into radiation. He's cancer-free now, but who knows?" he answered, shuddering a bit. He couldn't think about the possibility of loosing Brian to cancer.

 

"It's good to know," Claire shrugged, and got up slowly. "Well, I guess he won't be home soon, after all. Maybe it's better this way," she sighed. "I wouldn't know what to say...and he probably wouldn't want to hear it either. I...kind of came here on an impulse." She headed for the door, Justin following her. At the threshold she stopped and turned to look at him. "It seems you've been together for a long time. You care about him."

 

That was not a question, so he gave her an honest answer. "I love him, yes," he said defiantly.

 

Claire took a deep breath. "Good. Listen, I...I won't pretend I understand or accept the kind of life you live, and I'm not playing the loving sister, but...I'm...glad he's not alone. He was always a lonely kid. Take care of him," she added, turning to leave and pushing the elevator's button. When it came, she didn't have the strength to open it, so Justin stepped forward and helped her. She looked at him for a second, then averted her eyes in a way that reminded him of Brian. "Please, tell him I appreciate his help, whatever his reason for helping me were." She nodded then, and Justin closed the elevator's door. And she was gone.

 

He stayed at he hall for some time, thinking of where that had came from. Brian always said Claire hated him, and Justin never had any reason to doubt that, especially after her actions. Either she was a very good actress, or she really was thankful, and Justin wondered if the cancer thing would bring the best of her. At least emotionally.

 

The possibility of death does this thing to people. Somehow Claire seemed sincere, almost humble, and he was stunned by her small display of affection towards her brother. She was just a bitter woman, with two kids to raise and no husband, breast cancer to fight, and as fucked up as her younger brother. Because somehow, despite what Brian said, he didn't believe Jack and Joan Kinney were nice parents to her. "Take care of him", she had said. That alone showed him that maybe, just maybe, there was a tiny bit of something good left inside her, after all.

*********************************************

 

 

Brian didn't take the news about Claire too well. They were heading to Debbie's house to pick up Gus when Justin had the courage to tell him. He didn't want to upset Brian, he already had so much in his head with Gus leaving and Justin leaving as well. But he couldn't hide that kind of thing from him.

 

"What the fuck, Sunshine?" he said angrily ."You actually were POLITE with her? You let her inside MY loft? Un-fucking-believable!"

 

"Well, what did you want me to do? I couldn't leave the poor woman standing there, ready to pass out! She is really sick, Brian."

 

"And why the hell do I care?" he asked exasperated. "I had cancer too, you know. And I didn't hear a single word from her."

 

"She didn't know." Justin said simply.

 

"Yeah, like I believe that shit." Brian said with venom. "Poor Claire didn't know her little brother had fucking cancer! Next thing, you'll expect me to believe in fairy tales and little elves running among the trees!"

 

"Brian..." Justin sighed.

 

"And now you defend her? I just can't believe this!" he said, gripping the wheel so tight that his knuckles turned white.

 

"Drop it, Brian, okay?' he said loosing his temper. Brian could be so stubborn sometimes. "I'm not defending her, shit, I don't even know the woman! " he lifted his hand and caressed the side of Brian's neck. "Please, calm down. All I care about is you. I don't wanna fight. And you don't want Gus to see you like that.

 

Brian took a deep, long breath, feeling Justin's caress on his skin, letting the feeling soothe him. Justin's touch had a calming effect on him like nothing else in the world.

 

"Okay," he said. "But I don't want to talk about her again, all right? Or any other member of the lovely Kinney family."

 

********************************************

 

Brian had spent the whole previous evening in a bad mood, refusing all of Justin's suggestions. He didn't feel like dancing, didn't want to drink at Woody's, didn't want to eat (well, he never wanted that), or watch a DVD...he just stayed sprawled on the sofa, smoking and complaining about everything: the weather, traffic, Kinnetik. Justin only managed to get a reaction from him when he announced he was going out alone, and Brain didn't like it at all. So they had a little argument that led to an intense and long session of make up sex, and after that Brian slept like an angel. He was so predictable sometimes.

 

The next day, they picked Gus up at Deb's and took him to the park. It was cold, but the sky was blue, and they spent the whole morning with the boy. Justin would never forget the warmth he felt when he saw Brian and Gus making a snowman. Brian's cheeks were red, his eyes bright and alive with so much joy, Gus's expression mirroring his father's. Justin sat at a bench and started to draw them. It was crystal clear how much they loved each other.

 

By noon, Gus announced he was hungry, so they went to the diner. Deb wasn't working, and they ate in peace, Gus and Justin devouring the food and Brian looking at them, amused by the boys' appetite. After lunch they went to the loft and Gus and Justin started to color the boy's books. Brian had some work to do, he hadn't gone to Kinnetik the whole day, so he turned his computer on, worked for a while, and when he looked, the boys were sleeping on the sofa.

 

He looked at them for a long time, a feeling of loss slowly spreading through his chest. Those were the two most important persons in his whole life. And both were leaving.

 

The girls' farewell dinner came all too soon. Brian spent their last day in the Pitts with Gus and Michael with JR. Both men were a pity to look at. Brian tried to act normal, but he wasn't doing a very good job. Michael, on the other hand, seemed devastated, his eyes watering every time he looked at JR. Always the drama queen.

 

At the dinner, Brian was impossible. Justin did his best to cheer both him and Michael up, but by the time the food was served, he had lost his patience. All he wanted was to go home. Brian was in such a bad mood, bitching at everything he said. Several hours later, the kids were getting drowsy, and Mel got up to tuck them in bed.

 

"No, we'll do it," said Michael, already with JR in his arms.

 

Brian got up and took Gus by the hand. "Come on, Sonnyboy. Say goodnight to the guys." The boy asked for a story, and Brian rolled his eyes, but said affectionately "Sure, Gus, choose any story you want."

 

The room was quiet after they left. The girls would be going at 6 AM the next day, Ben and Hunter were taking them to the airport. They didn't want the children to get upset saying goodbye. Especially because Michael was unable to stop whimpering. Gus had already looked at the man's puffy eyes with a typical Kinnesque expression, like saying: what's this man's problem?

 

Justin got up and said, "Well, it looks like we made quite a mess of your home," he looked at Deb. "Don't worry about the dishes, I'll do them."

 

"Leave them, Sunshine! " she said. "I'll do them tomorrow morning."

 

"Well, then, I'll just go outside, I need a smoke."

 

"Do you want some company?" Lindsay asked abruptly, getting up as well. They both headed for the door and stepped outside of Deb's house.

 

"Oh, I really needed to get out of there," she started. "Why do people get so uncomfortable when someone is leaving?"

 

"As if they're blaming us?" he asked her with an almost sad smile.

 

"Yes, exactly," she agreed.

 

"Well, I know what you mean."

 

"So, honey," she asked, trying to change the subject. "When will you be leaving?

 

Justin sighed and wrapped his arms around himself. "Sunday."

 

"What's wrong, Jus? Brian told me you sold another painting, but you don't look so happy."

 

"Do you really need to ask?" he shook his head. "I miss him. Every fucking time I'm there, he's all I think of."

 

"Do you regret your decision, then?"

 

Justin thought about her question for a while. Did he? He loved his art and he couldn't live otherwise. He needed to paint like he needed air. And he knew that he needed to be in NY for now. In fact, he loved the city, and he wasn't ready to come back. But it pained him to see that he and Brian were both hurt in the process.

 

"No." He said. "But it's so hard, I'm so fucked, sometimes I think I'll explode."

 

"Your art is all that matters now. You need to focus on that, you're gonna be big, I know. If you're worried about Brian, you don't have to be."

 

"BUT I DO!" he almost shouted. "What am I doing to him? To us? Giving up a life with him for what? To PAINT? I could do it anywhere. He IS the love of my life, Lindsay. It may sound silly and pathetic, but he is. I just have one life to live, and I don't wanna do it without him. I just wish I didn't...have to give up one thing I want to have the other."

 

"He's fine, Justin."

 

"For Christ's sake, Lindsay, look at him! Do you think he's fine now?"

 

Lindsay didn't answer immediately, her conversation with Brian playing in her mind. "YOU started this New York shit ! And if you say anything to him don't even bother to talk to me again." "Brian is a survivor."

 

"What kind of answer is that?" Justin threw his hands in the air. "I don't want him to "survive", Lindz. I want him to be fucking happy! Am I asking that much? Shit, this is totally crazy."

 

Justin started to pace. "I don't buy the image he's selling," he went on, "He was never a good liar, you know. I know he's sure I won't come back. But I tell you, he's the only reason I would ever have to live in the Pitts. Every other reason is bullshit."

 

"Oh, Justin...You can't think about that now. He'll be alright, both of you."

 

"He's in this...full self-destructive mode again. I hate that, what it does to him, to me. And he thinks I don't see through his bullshit. Sometimes all I want to do is leave everything behind and just come back. But I can't."

 

"I guess I can imagine." she heard Brian's voice in her head. "But I thought I could go back to my old life. Only, I can't."

 

She stepped in front of him and held him tight, because she didn't know what else to do. Justin was still so young, and already had dealt with so much. It hurt to see him so confused, having to think about his life, what he wanted for his future, and having to choose between that and the man he loved.

 

"So...What are you going to do?" she asked, stroking his arm.

 

"I don't know. Live today. See what happens tomorrow. He's not helping much, you know." he said, giving a bitter laugh.

 

"You didn't mentioned your plans...for after the graduation..."

 

"Oh, yes," he answered. "I have to discuss that with him too. But the right moment never seems to come. I do have some offers. Patricia wants me to work with her at the gallery and she thinks I should teach art, like you. Brett called me the other day, offering me a job with his crew. I said I would think about it. And there's this Europe thing."

 

"Europe? What's in Europe?"

 

"Well, there's this contest, you have to submit one of your works, and they will choose the five best. The winners will spend two years traveling through Europe studying art. Not that I think I'd win, and if I did, I wouldn't go. But it would be nice." he looked at the sky, not a single star in view tonight.

 

"NICE?" she shrieked. "That's wonderful! It would mean so much for your career! Two whole years in Europe, Justin! You can't loose this opportunity, it's once in a lifetime! Why on earth you wouldn't go? You need to submit one of your works!"

 

"In fact, I already did." he said, looking at her again and glancing at the door. And his heart almost stopped.

 

Brian was standing at the threshold, Justin's coat in his hands. Looking as if he had just been punched in the guts.

Chapter Text

They entered the loft in silence. Brian hadn't said a word since he overheard Lindsay and Justin's talk. His face remained stone cold while they said goodbye to Mel, Lindz and everybody else. Justin caught Lindsay's eyes, and saw how worried she was. Leave it to Brian to hear part of a conversation and understand it in any way he wants.

 

Justin looked at Brian's expressionless face as he strode to the bedroom and took his coat off.

 

"Won't you say anything?" he asked, unable to restrain himself any longer.

 

"It's not my business." Brian answered simply.

 

"Well, may I say something?"

 

"Be my guest." Brian answered without looking at him. "But I don't see why you would have anything to say..."

 

"Brian..."

 

"...considering you didn't bother to say a fucking thing to me before. But it's your life, you're a big boy. I have no say in this, " he added, a sudden bitterness in his voice.

 

"Can I explain? You didn't hear EVERYTHING I said..."

 

"I heard enough!" Brian cut him off. "I heard perfectly well when you said you submitted a painting to the fucking contest to spend two years in Europe! I just don't understand why you didn't say anything to me before, that's all!"

 

"I was going to tell you! I was waiting for the right moment."

 

"And when would that be? When you send me a postcard from Rome?"

 

"It was a last minute decision, Brian. And even if I win, I'm not planning on going."

 

Brian looked at him, hazel eyes sending angry sparks to blue ones. "I'm not saying I don't want you to go. In fact, it's the opportunity of a lifetime. But I should have known before anyone else." When Justin didn't answer, he added angrier, "You're so full of shit! What if you really win, huh?"

 

Justin had rehearsed this talk in his mind when still in NY. He would say 'of course I don't want to go, I just submitted my work to see how good I am'. But it wasn't entirely true. A part of him was thrilled about the contest and realized how big a step it would be for his career. And truly, it would be fucking great to go.

 

Brian understood his silence, and turned his back on him, so Justin wouldn't see his haunted eyes. "It will be great for you, and personally, I think you should go. I just want you to admit it and not try to sugar coat words to me. It's alright, really. I told you once. There's no locks on the door. It's your call where you wanna be. You decide."

 

Justin had a feeling of deja vu, like he was watching an old movie, one that he knew all the lines. A sadness started to spread through him, and he couldn't control his harsh remark. "The last time you said that, I left." Justin reminded him, starting to get pissed. If Brian didn't want to talk, if he wanted to push him away again, fine. Justin would play along.

 

Brian didn't turn around to face him. "I don't own you, Justin. You decide what to do with your life. If you really wanna leave, that's your chance. Just go."

 

Justin's mouth opened in a silent gasp. He felt a sudden need to get away from Brian, to be alone and just forget the mess his life had turned into. He looked sadly at the taller man's back, grabbed his coat and headed for the door.

 

Brian closed his eyes as he heard him opening the door, and waited for the noise that would indicate Justin closed it behind him, leaving the loft, perhaps for good. But the noise didn't come. He turned and saw the blond at the door, once more facing him with hurt in his eyes. Brian opened his arms and let them drop, in a helpless gesture that showed he didn't know what to do. All he knew was that he couldn't let Justin go. Not like this.

 

"Stay," he said simply.

 

Justin looked at him, his anger vanishing in seconds, and felt an overwhelming need to hold him. But still, he shook his head no. Brian walked slowly, stopping in front of him, his face inches from Justin's.

 

"Stay." he said again, this time cupping the side of Justin's face with his hand.

 

Their kiss was hungry, desperate, urgent, dragging low moans from both. Justin buried his hands in Brian's hair while Brian put his hands on both sides of Justin's face. They sank slowly to the floor, and Brian pulled Justin's t-shirt up and over his arms, running his hands on the blond's pale and silky skin. Justin unbuttoned Brian's shirt with trembling fingers, blue eyes locked with hazel ones. Suddenly it seemed there was too much clothes between them, and in the blink of an eye they were both naked, exploring each other's bodies with hands and mouths, their moaning filling the night and banishing all the hurt away, magically forgiving everything.

 

 

***************************************************************

 

 

"Okay, listen, I have another one," Brian said laughing. "Why is it not easy being a straight man's dick?"

 

"No idea."

 

"You have one eye you cannot see with. A head you cannot think with. You hang out with a couple of nuts. Your closest neighbor is an asshole and your best friend is a pussy."

 

Justin laughed so hard that his face turned red. "That was a good one."

 

"Wait, I remembered another: A man and a woman were celebrating their 50th anniversary. The woman decided she would cook a big dinner for her husband. Then he said they should do what they did on their wedding night and eat at the dinner table naked. The woman agreed. Later that night at the table, the woman says, "Honey, I think my nipples are as hot for you as they were fifty years ago." The man replies, "That's because they are sitting in your soup."

 

"Stop, please, Brian!" Justin managed to say between laughs. "You're killing me!"

 

"You're so easy to amuse, Sunshine. Especially when you're stoned."

 

"Hey, that's not fair! You're stoned too."

 

"Not as much as you are." Brian said, giving Justin the home-made joint. "C'mon, your turn now."

 

"Oh, I'm really bad at telling jokes." Justin said after a while.

 

"That's because you're a country club boy. Mamma's boy," and Brian messed with Justin's hair in a playful gesture. "C'mon, Sunshine. There must be at least one."

 

"Okay, but if you don't laugh, I'll want revenge."

 

"Is that a promise?" said the older man with his tongue-in-cheek smile.

 

"Definitely." Justin thought for a while. "A guy comes home from work, walks into his bedroom, and finds a stranger fucking his wife. He says, "What the hell are you two doing?" His wife turns to the stranger and says, "I told you he was stupid."

 

"Oh, Sunshine, you're so sweet!" mocked Brian.

 

Justin was unable to contain his laughter again at the face Brian was making. "Shut up, asshole! C'mon, I want more."

 

"Unfortunately, I just told you all the straight people jokes I know."

 

"How come we never did this?" asked the blond, drinking the whiskey from the bottle and passing it to Brian.

 

"Did what?"

 

"This," he gestured to them lying together.

 

"Getting drunk, stoned, and fucking the whole day?" Brian said, taking a big gulp.

 

"Exactly."

 

"Well, Mr. Taylor, I think we're learning how to use our time together in the best way we can."

 

Justin rolled to his side and stared at Brian's profile. They were both naked and lying on the futon for the last two hours or so. And he was feeling so good at this moment with Brian, so easy and relaxed, he didn't want to ever get up again. His stomach chose this moment to growl, and Brian started to laugh and laugh until he had tears in his eyes.

 

"You know, I'm gonna call your stomach "The Black Hole", he said still looking at the ceiling, watching the smoke rising.

 

"Why?"

 

"It's like that that black hole is space. Everything you put in there disappears. Or gets sucked, I don't know. I really don't know where all the food you eat goes to." He smiled, turning his head at Justin. "Speaking of sucking..."

 

"No way!" said the blond, kissing Brian's cheek. "Not until I eat."

 

"Don't worry, the Thai we ordered will be here soon. C'mere." Brian kissed Justin's lower lip and sucked it a little. "Hmmm...you taste so good...booze and pot."

 

Justin put his arms around Brian's neck and gave a content sigh. In this exact moment, someone knocked at the door.

 

"Thank God! Food! " Justin got up hurriedly, heading for the door.

 

"Umm...Sunshine, you should put some clothes on. Or let me get the door."

 

"You're naked too."

 

"Oh, Peter's used to it. After all these years ordering Thai..."

 

Justin raised both eyebrows in a questioning look, and Brian rapidly offered, "Don't worry, he's straight. I checked."

 

"Oh." said the blond. "In this case...I need to pee."

 

He went to the bathroom, and suddenly remembered he would be leaving in two days. Sighing, he pushed the unpleasant thought to the back of his mind. He didn't want to think about that now, when he and Brian were so happy together. When he came back from the bathroom, Brian was already sprawled on the futon again, the Thai food on the coffee table. He sat down beside him and started to open the boxes. "You're not gonna eat?" he asked Brian, who had an extremely serious expression on his face, wrinkling his nose, as if he was thinking hard.

 

"In a minute. I'm trying to remember the three kinds of straight sex."

 

"There we go again," he said smiling at his lover and leaning to kiss him.

 

Brian held Justin's wrists, pulling him to his lap.

 

"Phase one, the home sex: when you are newly married and have sex all over the house in every room," and Brian licked Justin's ear, eliciting a moan from the blond.

 

"Phase two: the bedroom sex: after you have been married for a while, you only have sex in the bedroom." And he licked Justin's jaw, going slowly to his neck. Justin moaned even louder, getting an instant hard-on.

 

"Phase three: the hall sex: after you've been married for many, many years you just pass each other in the hall and say "FUCK YOU". Brian finished, sucking Justin's left nipple.

 

"Will you? Fuck me, I mean." gasped the blond.

 

"You bet."

 

They ended up reheating the Thai food several hours later.

 

 

*********************************************************************

 

 

Two days later, Justin rolled in bed, trying to get some rest, but sleep would not come. He knew the next day would be tiring, packing, traveling to NY, then unpacking again. Turning his head he looked at Brian, sleeping peacefully beside him. The man was really drunk the night before, but Justin didn't mind. He knew Brian had to find a way to deal with his leaving, and if that way was booze end E, so be it. They came back from Babylon at two AM, fucked a couple of times, but Brian was so drunk and looked so tired that he fell asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.

 

Justin hadn't drank so much, though. He knew somebody would have to drive back home, Brian was already drinking before Babylon. He was really worried about his lover. Looking at him, he could see the dark circles around his eyes, and he knew it wasn't just the clubbing and drinking. But what could he do? This was Brian Kinney, and when he didn't want to talk about something, he just didn't. Period. If he said he was fine, no one would convince him otherwise. The man was stubborn and his pride knew no limits.

 

He got up and went to the big loft's window. Looking at the empty street made him feel lonely. He wasn't feeling so well either. He felt lost inside a maze, unable to find the way out. Since the day Brian found out about Europe, they hadn't talked about it. They slipped in a silent truce, spent two whole days at the loft together fucking, drinking, telling jokes...anything that would keep them away from unpleasant talks. Justin wished Brian was different; he really wanted to talk with him about the next step in his career. Brian's opinion always had a huge importance to him, and he wanted to discuss his options, because they would be an influence in their future.

 

If he didn't love his art so much, he would regret leaving for NYC. Brian would call him a drama queen, but he had an unpleasant feeling deep inside, something that told him that, as hard as things already were between them, the worst part wasn't over yet. He couldn't define this, he could just feel it, in the way Brian looked at him sometimes, in Brian's voice and gestures, sometimes even in the way they made love. All seemed to whisper to him: goodbye. .

 

Sometimes he felt hopelessly alone. He needed to talk about his feelings with someone. The problem was, almost all his friends were also Brian's friends, and he didn't want them to judge him or Brian. They always tended do treat him as the poor boy and Brian as the asshole. His mother was not an option either. And Daphne was in Baltimore finishing med school.

 

"Justin...?" he heard Brian's voice from the bedroom.

 

"I'm here," he said out loud.

 

"Are you alright?" asked a sleepy voice.

 

Of course not. "Yeah."

 

"Come to bed, Sunshine."

 

Justin returned to the bedroom silently. Brian was in the same position, curled to his left side, eyes closed, clutching his head with both hands.

 

"I would join you, but someone is hammering a fucking wall inside my head." Brian opened his eyes for a second and closed them again tiredly. "Come here. I want to smell you."

 

The blond laid facing his lover, and held him tight, face buried in Brian's neck. Brian ran his fingers through the blond hair and murmured, "You smell like...like Justin," and he slept again, almost instantly.

 

Justin stayed perfectly still, listening to the comforting sound of Brian's breath, feeling his soft and warm skin against him and praying for the morning to wait a little longer before coming.

 

*******************************

 

 

He didn't want Brian to take him to the airport, but the older man insisted on going. They remained silent for the most part of the way, Justin stealing glances at Brian, whose jaw was firmly clenched. He turned on the radio, just to break the uncomfortable silence, but regretted almost immediately as a sad song filled the air.

 

"Jesus, Justin, choose another station, will you?" Brian complained.

 

Justin changed for the next station, and a soft song started to play.

 

"Are you planning to go to New York anytime soon?" he asked Brian. "When will you go there to see me?"

 

"I don't know. All my New York clients aren't expecting me until next semester, we just started the new campaigns. And Remson Pharmaceuticals are launching a new drug, they want a national campaign soon. I'll have a lot of work for the next months."

 

"Oh." he sighed. "Well, at least will you go to my graduation show? I have five paintings."

 

"Of course I'll go. When did I miss any of your shows?"

 

"Never." Even when we weren't together, he thought.

 

"So don't ask stupid questions, you already know I'll be there."

 

They arrived at the airport and as soon as Brian parked the car, he turned to Justin and said, "You know, maybe it wasn't a good idea to come here. I need to be at Kinnetik soon, I haven't gone there for days."

 

"That's okay, the plane will take of soon."

 

"You take care of yourself, okay?" Brian said, avoiding Justin's eyes. "Call me as soon as you land, you know I hate planes."

 

"Okay." Justin murmured.

 

Brian kissed him softly on the lips, and Justin threw his arms around the man's neck, inhaling deeply and fighting the stupid tears that threatened to fall. Brian suddenly pulled apart and looked him in the eyes.

 

"Now, go there and show them what an amazing artist you are."

 

Justin only nodded, then took a deep breath, turned and got off the car carrying his duffel bag. He walked with large and determined steps, not looking back. Brian stayed there for some time, looking at the blond's back, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Fuck!" he murmured, and started the car, leaving the airport parking lot. Only when Justin heard the Vette's noise he looked back, at the fast disappearing car, sighed, and started walking again.

Chapter Text

Lindsay looked tenderly at the two most important men in her life. Brian was sitting on the floor helping Gus build a LEGO castle. The boy was so excited with his father's visit that his eyes were sparkling like diamonds, and he had a radiant smile on his face. Brian's visit was quite unexpected, he usually called before coming. This time he just appeared at their door with a huge box and a sheepish smile. She wasn't really surprised though; with Justin in New York, Brian was coming quite regularly to see his son.

 

What surprised her was when he accepted the guest room she offered just to be polite. He never stayed in their house when he visited, but this time he didn't even blink before saying yes, and announced he would stay for two weeks. Mel wasn't too happy about it, but Brian was Gus's father, and if Michael could use the guest room when he visited JR, so could Brian.

 

Surprisingly, he was one of the first to wake up every morning, and sometimes even took Gus and JR to school. Then he would spend the whole morning by himself while the girls went to work, and when the kids returned from school, he would stay with his son as if he was glued to the boy, until he tucked him in bed to sleep. He only got out at night a couple of times, and didn't come home as late as Lindsay expected. Gus was enjoying every moment of it, and Mel could barely hide her jealousy. The boy only had eyes for his dad.

 

"There, Sonnyboy, your castle is ready."

 

"Can we put a flag on the roof, Dad?" Gus asked, clapping his hands excitedly.

 

"Sure, it's your castle. Go get it."

 

The boy got up and went up the stairs hurriedly. It was late Sunday night and Mel was upstairs putting JR to sleep. Brian got up too, stretching his limbs.

 

"Shit, my back is killing me."

 

"Do you want a massage? I'm quite good at it." Lindsay said with a mischievous smile.

 

"Promise you won't take advantage of me?" he mocked.

 

"Hey, I'm a married woman. Come here," she motioned to her side.

 

Brian sat beside her on the sofa and turned his back to her. She got up and stayed behind him, starting to massage his stiff muscles.

 

"So," she started casually, "have you been talking to Justin?"

 

"Yes." He said simply, offering no details.

 

"And...?" she pressed.

 

"And would you please move your hands a little higher, between my shoulder blades? Aaaahhhh, that's it."

 

"Is he excited about his show?"

 

"He said it won't be his show, Lindz. He will show some of his paintings during the graduation party, along with all his colleagues."

 

"But the critics will be there because of the contest. And to look for the next Jackson Pollock, of course. "

 

"Yeah, the contest," he murmured absent-minded.

 

Lindsay felt her heart tightening in her chest. There was the answer for Brian's unexpected visit, and more, for his unexpected behavior. He was feeling insecure about Justin and was trying to compensate the feeling of loss with Gus. She knew he loved their son, but it wasn't like Brian to suddenly show up and behave himself like the good boy she knew he wasn't. Every time he felt the string being pulled more than he could handle, he never complained nor said anything about what was upsetting him. He sought someone who really mattered to him, like his son, as if he wanted to store good moments in his head before the storm.

 

"I'm going back to the Pitts tomorrow. Ted called today. Liberty Air wants a new campaign, " he announced.

 

"Hey, didn't you make that already? I saw some new ads in the magazines."

 

"That was for the holidays. We're almost in March now."

 

"Oh. I thought you were going to New York from here. You know, since you're already traveling..."

 

"No," he said abruptly.

 

"Why don't you go there and see him?"

 

"What for?" Brian snapped. "He's busy, I'm busy. I'll go to his show."

 

"It's in June! And didn't you just say it's not a show?"

 

"Shit, Lindz..."

 

"Daaaaad!" Gus called from upstairs. "I can't choose the right flag! Come and help me!"

 

Brian got up in a swift movement, trying to hide his relief. Sometimes Lindsay really sucked, she sounded like the fucking Inquisition! "Sorry, duty calls," he said smiling to her and went up the stairs as fast as he could.

 

 

********************

 

 

"Really, Mel, you don't have to do this," Brian said again.

 

"Come on, Brian," the woman smiled. "I'm not doing it for you. I'm doing it for my wife and my son."

 

"MY son," he said sounding amused.

 

She rolled her eyes. "OUR son, then. Besides, did you notice we managed not to argue this time?"

 

"Why Mel, I didn't know you actually enjoyed arguing..." he gave her his tongue-in-cheek smile.

 

"I don't. But you were almost...nice," she couldn't help it, she loved annoying him.

 

"Shit, Mel! I hate being called "nice". It's so unlike me. Try another adjective, please."

 

" Okay. How about...asshole?"

 

"Ha ha. I could say the same about you."

 

Mel laughed a little. This almost friendly moment with Brian was foreign to her. They never got along well. But she couldn't deny he surprised her sometimes. Like when he spent every cent just to stop Stockwell years before. And when he let Justin go. She imagined he would make a drama of it, but he accepted and encouraged the blond. She couldn't tell if he regretted his decision; Brian was Brian, and to her he was really hard to read and to understand. She always hated the pull Lindsay felt toward him. It made Mel feel she was not enough to her wife. But lately, she had been forced to admit Brian wasn't the selfish prick she imagined.

 

He grabbed his suitcase and sighed. Gus was at school and Lindsay was working, so Mel had volunteered to drive him to the airport. "Well, I'm ready. Let's go, my plane leaves in two hours."

 

"Don't forget to call Gus tonight. He'll miss you."

 

Mel saw a shadow cross his face, and he looked away, frowning a little. "Don't worry, I'll miss him too. Besides, Lindsay made me promise call as soon as I land. Time to go."

 

"Yeah, let's go." She headed for the car, Brian right behind her. She caught herself thinking when the hell Brian Kinney had turned into a loving father.

 

 

****************

 

 

Justin sighed, relieved, when he crossed the street and approached his building. He was tired as hell. Patricia had a new show coming at the gallery and he had to make sure everything was at the right place. He still had two projects to finish for Tuesday morning and an entire book to read for Friday. It was a cold night, although winter was far behind, and he buttoned his coat. His allergies always got worse in the winter and got better in spring, but they were already in April and he was still sneezing all the time.

 

"Oh, Great!" he murmured to himself, seeing the sign at the elevator's door. "Broken again." It was an old building, but the apartment was really nice. His room wasn't big but it was enough. Thank God it was on the third floor, he thought, going up the stairs. It was still early, but he didn't want to study tonight. All he wanted was a bath, a sandwich and his bed. Maybe he would call Brian, they haven't talked for a week.

 

As soon as he opened the door, he saw a familiar figure sprawled on the couch.

 

"Hey, Phill. How's it going?" he said, throwing himself on the rocking chair near the TV.

 

"Hi Justin," Phill said, barely looking at him.

 

"What happened? Are you alright?"

 

"Well..."Philip sighed. "Lizzie is pregnant."

 

"Wow...that's..."

"Crazy? I know. I can't stop thinking about it. It was an accident, and I don't want to let her down, but... I'm not ready to be a father."

 

"Did you tell Steph?"

 

"Not yet. I'm not anxious to get a lecture from my older sister, you know."

 

"Come on, Phil. Steph loves you, and she's really fond of your girlfriend."

 

"I know, but since Mom died she took it upon herself to ‘take care' of me, even being only two years older. You know how possessive she can be."

 

"Especially about you," Justin agreed. "But I would tell her soon, if I were you. You'll need her help to break the news to your father."

 

"Shit! My father...I can already see him red as a tomato, yelling at me for being irresponsible, blah, blah, blah... Fuck, I don't even have a job!"

 

"Easy, Phil. Tell your sister, I'm sure she'll help you."

 

"I sure hope so, man. Lizzie is crying all the time, she thinks I'm gonna disappear or something. It must be her fucking hormones."

 

"Women..." Justin snorted. "Well, I need a shower," he said, getting up.

 

"Wait, man! I'm sorry, I completely forgot to tell you...all this baby thing in my head is making me crazy. You have a guest."

 

"A guest?"

 

"Yes." Phillip smiled knowingly. "Your boyfriend."

 

Justin felt his heart beating so fast that he thought it would jump out of his chest. "Brian?" he asked with a wide smile.

 

"Yeah, this one. He was at the door when I arrived this afternoon. I told him to wait in your room. I was sure you wouldn't mind, it's the best place for you two, after all these months apart..."

 

"God, he is incredible! I haven't talked to him for almost a week, and he comes here like this..."

 

"Well," Phillip said still smiling, "I'll go out for a walk. I need some air, and I definitely don't want to hear you two catching up."

 

"Hey!" Justin shoved Phil's arm playfully. "You never heard us. Every time he came here you were out of town."

 

"Thank God! I don't wanna hear anything. Steph said you two are pretty...noisy," Phillip added with a smile, heading for the door.

 

Justin was a little nervous. He wasn't expecting to see Brian so soon, he never came without calling first. Smiling, he thought that was one of the reasons he loved Brian so much. The man was unpredictable; out of nothing he decided to do something romantic, just to surprise him.

 

Running his hand through his hair, he went straight to the bathroom. He looked at his reflection, seeing his still red nose from sneezing. "Shit, I must stink!" he thought. He washed his face, brushed his teeth and combed his hair. He was wearing the same clothes since morning, but he knew Brian loved his smell. Even so, he wanted to look presentable.

 

Walking slowly to his room, he pictured Brian waiting for him. He would kiss him so hard that his lips would bruise. He imagined Brian's big hands caressing his body, and felt a familiar bulge in his jeans. He opened the door slowly, wanting to look into Brian's hazel eyes and tell him how much he had missed him.

 

"Hello, Justin. I thought you were never coming home."

 

Justin gasped, all the air suddenly leaving his lungs. "Ethan." Justin was speechless. What the fuck was Ethan Gold doing in HIS bedroom?

 

"Aren't you going to say something?" asked Ethan rising from Justin's armchair.

 

"Yeah. What are you doing here?" said the blond, recovering from his shock.

 

"Your little friend let me in. Apparently he thought I was...someone else. I didn't bother to correct him."

 

"Well, that's obvious," Justin snorted, "but how the fuck did you find out where I live?"

 

"I told you, your boss, Patricia, that adorable woman happens to love violin music. And I can be very...persuasive." Ethan grinned, approaching Justin, who involuntarily took two steps back.

 

"Get out."

 

"Come on, Justin...you know you want me to stay," Ethan whispered seductively.

 

"You know I don't. We're through and we have been for a long time."

 

"We're not. I still want you."

 

"But I don't want you, Ethan. I am in a relationship now.."

 

"Are you talking about that Brian?" Ethan laughed. "You are so silly Justin. Don't you see he'll never give you what you want?"

 

"I see perfectly well, Ethan. He gives me ALL I want. He doesn't need to hide me, unlike you."

 

Ethan's face was suddenly serious. "I did hurt you, didn't I?"

 

Justin sighed and turned away, putting more distance between them. "Yes, you did. But it doesn't matter now. I'm happy."

 

"Are you?" Ethan's eyes were pleading. "How can you be happy leaving here alone? You're not together. I know he's in Pittsburgh , living the same life he did before, as if you were nothing."

 

"You don't know anything about us!" Justin snapped. "And what the fuck, why now, Ethan? After all this time? You chose your own path when you decided to deny who you are. You were the one who decided to play the nice and sexy straight guy. You were the one who cheated on me!"

 

"What if I tell you I regret my decision? That my career is important but my heart is far more important?"

 

"I'm really sorry for you. But I'm not the answer you're looking for. It's a little late for this; I moved on, you should do the same."

 

"I can't, Justin. Seeing you again in that gallery months ago, made me realize the fool I was for letting you go. You're so special, Justin. I was a fool, I want another chance."

 

"Sorry, that's not going to happen. And please, stop calling me in the middle of the night, like you did when I was in Pittsburgh for Christmas. It won't work."

 

"I bet Brian didn't like to know it was me..."

 

"He didn't care. He trusts me." Justin said simply, but he averted his eyes, and that didn't go unnoticed by Ethan.

 

"I'm sure he does," said the brunet, smiling sarcastically.

 

"Please Ethan, go. This is the last time I'll ask you: leave me alone. I'm never coming back to you. You can call me, follow me, kidnap me, I don't care. I don't love you, I don't think I ever did. You can't fall in love with words and roses, can you? Just go."

 

Ethan's face turned red with rage. "Why, Justin? You don't have to be with him. I'm a rich man now, I'm famous, I can give you everything you want. You don't need his money anymore! I can give you so much more than he ever did! All the beautiful things you deserve, Justin. "

 

Justin looked at him disbelievingly, "Are you saying I'm with Brian because of his money? Are you calling me what, a whore?"

 

"Well ,you certainly didn't think twice before going back to him, right after we broke up. After all he put you through, you went back running to the comfort he offered you!"

 

"Because never, in our whole time together, did Brian lied to me. Not even once! I can't say the same about you and your empty words. Now GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!"

 

Justin left his bedroom, headed for the door and opened it, waiting for Ethan to get out. The other man crossed the living room slowly, and stopped in front of Justin.

 

"I won't give up. You're the one I love. I'll fight for you, and I'll win you back, you'll see."

 

"I'm not a prize, Ethan. I'm a person and it's my choice who I wanna be with. And it's not with you."

 

Ethan looked at him sadly. If Justin didn't know how great a liar he was (he could even be an actor, he was so good at pretending), he would feel pity. But he knew what happened when he decided to trust in words more than in actions, and he vowed never to do it again. The young brunet left without saying another word, and Justin closed the door with a heavy feeling inside his chest.

 

He hated to hurt people, and there was no pleasure in hurting Ethan, even if Ethan had hurt him. That was in the past, and Justin knew he didn't regret leaving the fiddler. Everything he had with Brian was so much more worthy than his brief relationship with the musician.

 

But since Ethan walked in Hart's Gallery and saw Justin working there, he did everything to win Justin back. He started to "show unexpectedly" in the places he knew the blond would be, became Patricia's friend, so Justin's boss gave him the blond's phone number and now his address... Justin knew she meant no harm, she probably had a crush on Ethan, like most women. Ethan was a charming young man and, of course, everyone still thought he was straight.

 

Of course, Justin hadn't summoned courage enough to tell Brian about this. He knew Ethan was a touchy subject for Brian. The night Ethan called him in the middle of the night, when he was at the loft with Brian, he just couldn't say it was the fiddler. So he made up it was Phillip, because it was the first name that came into his mind. Phil was his friend, and they got along very well, but the guy was straight as an arrow, and now was about to be a father.

 

Justin felt guilty; he hated to lie, especially to Brian, who never lied. But that fucking night, he had just arrived in Pittsburgh , he missed Brian so much...how could he say Ethan was calling him, following him everywhere? Brian would think Justin was encouraging the fiddler, when he was really on the contrary; he was getting tired of telling Ethan to fuck off, but the man just wouldn't listen. He had lied to Brian, and he tried his best to forget about it, telling himself it wasn't important; but he knew it was, because he never wanted to lose Brian's trust in him.

 

Their relationship was stronger than ever in some aspects, but Justin couldn't stop feeling as if he was walking on a very thin line, and every wrong step he took would cause him to lose Brian forever. He knew it didn't depend solely on him, Brian was responsible for their future together too. And he was a very difficult person to live with. But sometimes Justin felt as if it was up to him to make things between the two of them work, because he was the most open of the two. If they could survive these hard times, they would survive anything.

 

He picked his cell phone and pressed the speed button, praying to hear Brian's voice; but it went straight to voicemail.

 

"Hi, it's me. Where are you? I know it's still early, but...are you in Babylon? Shit, I'm sorry, just forget it. Later."

 

He wished Daphne was with him, she always understood him so much. Even Stephanie was out of town on a trip with her boyfriend. Sighing, he decided to take a shower and sleep, maybe tomorrow he would talk to Brian and everything would be fine. His cell phone rang, and his heart almost skipped a beat; almost, because it wasn't Brian's ringtone.

 

"Justin? It's Phill."

 

"Hi."

 

"Something wrong?"

 

"No."

 

"Uhh, listen, I'm gonna stay here at Lizzie's tonight. So...you guys will have the whole place for yourselves."

 

"Okay."

 

"Umm...bye."

 

"Bye. See you tomorrow."

 

As he turned of the cell phone, he looked at his watch. It was still eleven PM, and he wondered for the tenth time where Brian would be. It was Friday night, after all. Opening the refrigerator, he grabbed one of Phill's beers, all thought of sleeping leaving his mind.

Chapter Text

Brian arrived at the loft a little after 2 AM. He had been at Babylon , dancing, drinking and tricking. But the mediocre blowjob he got only made him think of the young blond man miles away, whose lips made him feel like he was in heaven and whose eyes went straight to his soul.

 

Cursing himself for being so stupid, thinking about what he couldn't fix, he took a quick shower and got ready to sleep. Looking at his cell phone, he realized it was still turned off, since he entered Babylon's backroom. "Fuck!" he murmured. He could feel a headache coming, and he wasn't even drunk. But he knew he probably would spend the whole night thinking, because these days sleep seemed to elude him. If he wasn't thinking about Kinnetik, he was thinking about Justin or Gus. And thinking too much made him unable to relax and get the rest he needed.

 

As soon as he turned his cell on, it rang, startling him. But he recognized the ring tone and he knew it was Justin.

 

"Hey," he answered.

 

"Hey. Did I wake you?"

 

"No. What happened, you couldn't sleep?"

 

"Yeah," he heard Justin's voice trembling a little.

 

"Nightmare?"

 

"I called you earlier."

 

"My cell phone was turned off. Are you alright?"

 

There was a moment of silence. "I had to hear your voice."

 

"I'm right here." Brian felt something was wrong. "Justin..."

 

"I just... I need you to know...I miss you," said a hesitant voice.

 

"Justin...what happened?"

 

"Nothing. I just wish you were here." And Justin took a deep breath.

 

"I...I miss you too."

 

"Sometimes I just want to leave everything and go back, you know? Why is life so complicated?"

 

"Are you drunk?" Brian was starting to get worried.

 

Suddenly, Justin's voice changed to a more aggressive tone. "Maybe. Why, do you care? Do you care that I'm here alone while you're there?"

 

"You ARE drunk. Damn, Justin, we can't talk with you like this."

 

"So when, Brian? When we can talk? Everything is a fucking mess, you know? Do you care about what I want? Why does it have to be like this? Tell me!"

 

"Justin, stop. Listen to me."

 

"Why can't things be easier for me? For us? I'm so tired..."

 

"Listen to me. Are you listening?"

 

Justin sighed loudly. "Yeah, I'm listening."

 

"Don't even think about coming back now. You know it's not the right time. You want to be great, and that's what will happen, okay? You're gonna be fucking great and then you'll decide what to do. Not before that. Now go to sleep, we'll talk tomorrow, okay?"

 

"No, Brian. No, no, no, you're wrong. It won't work, I'm not going to get anywhere, and you'll end up forgetting me and..."

 

"Fuck, Justin, You're queening out! How much did you drink?"

 

"I...I don't know. A little, maybe."

 

"A little? It sounds like a lot to me. Now, listen. Don't do anything, okay? Go to bed and sleep. Tomorrow I'll call you, and we'll talk."

 

"I wanna talk right now!"

 

"What's the point? You're so drunk that I'm sure you won't remember anything in the morning. Now, go to bed, okay?"

 

There was a long pause, when they didn't say anything, just heard the other breathing, and Brian thought he would like nothing more than to sleep with the blond curled next to him.

 

"Brian..." Justin sighed.

 

"Hmmmm?"

 

"I love you..." And Justin hang up, Brian didn't have time to say anything.

 

"Fuck!" he cursed. He was really sure there would be no way he could sleep now. Getting up, he decided to act, because he was Brian Kinney, and when he didn't know what to think about something, acting on it was always the best answer.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

Justin woke up next morning feeling as if he was hit by a truck. In fact, it was already noon, but it was Saturday and he didn't need to work. He was depressed the night before, and thought it would do him no harm if he had one or two of Phil's beers, but he wasn't sure how much he had drank. Walking into the small kitchen he could count six empty bottles, but he didn't remember drinking that much.

 

He vaguely remembered calling Brian, but he wasn't sure what he had said. Someone knocked at the apartment's door and Justin frowned: Phil and Steph both had the key. He wondered if it was Ethan, and shuddered: he didn't want to see him so soon, if ever. Had he said Justin was with Brian for his money?

 

He opened the door and was shocked at what he saw. Hazel eyes staring at him with a worried expression and at the same time beautiful lips curled up in a half smile of relief. He launched himself into Brian's arms and kissed him fervently, almost knocking them to the ground. Brian gave a small laugh and held him back, holding him so tight that Justin's feet left the ground, and he walked into the apartment with the blond in his arms, closing the door with his right foot behind them, while the rest of the world remained outside.

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

"Brian, you promised".

 

"I didn't say I would do it. You know they need me."

 

"I know. You are Kinnetik's heart. But you don't need to be there ALL the time.

You should hire some ad executives to help you, so you wouldn't have to work

on all the campaigns, and you would have more time for yourself."

 

"I don't need more time for myself."

 

"Well, for US, then. I need to see you more often."

 

"You can come to the Pitts more frequently. I don't need to come here all the time."

 

"Right, but I can't afford going there once a month. And before you say anything, I don't want your money. I can take care of myself."

 

Brian rolled his eyes, but his left hand caressed Justin's back. In a bed way too small to accommodate Brian's long legs, they were lying on wrapped together on a hot Saturday afternoon, sweaty and sated after their "welcome fuck". He looked at the small bedroom with its ugly yellow walls and cheap carpet. Justin deserved better than this, but he knew the blond was proud of what he had, because he had done it all by himself.

 

"Besides," Justin went on, "what's the point of me going to Pittsburgh to see you if you will be always at work and I'll be home alone?"

 

Brian had to smile when he heard Justin saying "home". He liked to know the blond saw the loft as his home too. They had Britin, sure, but after Justin left, Brian almost never went there. He had the whole property remodeled, and of course he had gone there to decorate a few rooms. Justin didn't know about it yet. But every time he went to Britin he couldn't help to think about what almost was, and it made him feel uncomfortably sentimental, so he avoided everything that would trigger this kind of thought. In fact, he still didn't know what to do with the country manor, he didn't see himself living there alone while Justin was in NY. It was one more thing they never talked about, and not for the first time, Brian wished he was as open as Justin, so they could talk about all they needed to. But he couldn't.

 

"Well?" Justin asked, resting his hand in Brian's thigh, feeling the muscles he loved so much.

 

"Well what?" Brian didn't want to admit, but Justin was right. He knew he should work a little less. Maybe he was really getting old, he thought grimacing. He was almost always tired lately, sometimes dizzy and out of breath. He knew sleeping at Kinnetik and skipping meals weren't doing him any good.

 

Justin sighed a little too loud, playfully. "Stubborn man!" he said, poking Brian on the ribs, thinking with a pang in his heart that the man was already too thin and betting he could count his ribs if he wanted to. "I said well, will you hire some ad executives, so you'll be able to come and see me at least once a month?" When Brian didn't say anything, he added "Come on...we already talked about that when I was home for the holidays..."

 

Brian knew he had lost the argument. The truth was that he couldn't deny Justin anything, especially when he wanted this thing himself.

 

"All right, you win. In fact, I already did it. Mark and Adelle started at Kinnetik two weeks ago."

 

"You fucker!" Justin laughed. "You didn't tell me before!"

 

"Perhaps I like to see you begging..."

 

Excited, Justin wanted to know more. "Where did you find them?"

 

"Actually, I kind of stole them from Vanguard"

 

Justin looked at Brian, amazed. "No shit!"

 

"Well I had to pay them a little more than Vanguard did, but that's okay. You won, Sunshine, as soon as they are settled, I'll be able to come here more often."

 

Justin tried to hide his smile kissing Brian's jaw again. Maybe he should queen out more often, he thought, if that was going to make Brian come and see him. It was the first time he saw Brian since the holidays.

 

"What?" Brian asked, and Justin knew he hadn't hidden his smile well enough.

 

"Ah, the sweet taste of victory," the young man said teasingly. "You know I always win, don't you?"

 

"Twat." Brian laughed, pulling Justin on top of him and proceeding in taking that victorious smile from his face.

 

"Asshole." Justin said, opening his mouth to receive Brian's kiss.

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Brian opened the bathroom's door and looked at Justin.

 

"I'm gonna make some coffee. Do you want some?"

 

"Are you smoking again?" Justin asked from the shower.

 

"I always smoke after sex."

 

"Yeah, but you're coughing too much. You should quit."

 

"Do you want coffee or not?" Brian asked, rolling his eyes.

 

"Not now. Why don't you join me?"

 

"I finished my shower five minutes ago."

 

"A shower is not exactly what I have in mind..."

 

"Sure, if you tell me how both of us can fit in this ridiculously small shower of yours." Brian said, sucking hard on the cigarette and exhaling the smoke. He started to cough immediately, and avoided Justin's pointed look.

 

"Asshole." Justin said, smiling at him, eyes roaming over his perfect body. "Hey! That's my towel around your waist!"

 

"Well, Sunshine, you don't want me to walk around naked, do you?"

 

"Actually, I don't mind at all."

 

"I'm sure you don't," Brian snorted, closing the bathroom's door. He could hear the water running inside, and Justin humming an old song. He smiled, thinking that Justin seemed happy now, so different from when he called the day before.

 

Brian opened the cabinet, looking for the coffee pot. The kitchen, like everything else in the apartment was small and poorly equipped, but at least they had a coffee machine.

 

He opened the refrigerator, looking for something to drink and groaned when he discovered that there wasn't even mineral water. As he bended over, his towel slipped from his waist, and at the same time he heard a click at the door.

 

"Oh my God," said a voice behind him.

 

Brian turned around, towel in hand, and raised his eyebrows as he looked at the young blond man at the door, who seemed frozen, key in hand, wide eyed and open mouthed.

 

"Will you close the door? I'm sure the neighbors would appreciate the show, but it's not even noon." Brian said, a little amused with the man's astonishment.

 

"Sure," the blond stammered, blushing and closing the door behind him, still staring at the tall and very naked man standing in the kitchen. "Uhh...who are you?"

 

"Brian."

 

"Right," said the young man, a little confused. Didn't he leave another guy in the apartment yesterday, who claimed to be Justin's boyfriend? Although this man matched the detailed description Steph made of Brian, not the other one. He walked awkwardly in Brian's direction and stopped in front of him, extending his right hand. "I'm Phillip."

 

"Oh." So, this was Phil, the stalker. "Stephanie's brother." But he didn't shake the young man's hand.* So, this is the fucker who thinks he's a match for Brian Kinney.*

 

"Yeah," the blond man said, avoiding Brian's intense gaze.

 

Noticing the other's discomfort, Brian proceeded in putting the towel around his waist very slowly, his hazel eyes analyzing every inch of Phill's face. He was sandy haired and brown eyed like his sister, a little short but well built. Nothing special though, Brian thought.

 

"Want some coffee?" he asked, turning around and turning the coffee machine on.

 

"Uhh...sure," murmured Phill, looking at Brian's muscled back. Damn, he was straight, but he had to be blind not to admit he was in front of the most perfect man he'd ever seen. Justin had good taste. The man was sex on legs. *"God, what am I thinking?* he almost said out loud.

 

"So, Phill...Can I call you Phill?" Brian asked with his tongue in cheek smile. When Phill just nodded, he went on. "What do you do?"

 

"I...I live in LA. I'm trying to be a photographer."

 

"Oh. Another artist. So...you and Justin have a lot in common."

 

"Yeah, I...I guess so."

 

Brian looked directly in his eyes. "Do you like him?" he asked hoarsely.

 

Phill gulped, feeling the palms of his hands suddenly sweaty. He didn't understand what the fuck was happening, why he was so nervous around a gay man. Shit, he had gay friends, but none of them was like this perfect creature in front of him, who seemed like a fucking magnet. "Yeah, he's...he's a great guy."

 

"And...do you see each other a lot?" He approached Phill with a dangerous smile, walking slowly, almost like a cat.

 

Suddenly an image of Brian and Justin together popped up in his mind, and he had to hide a groan. Instead, he stuttered: "Sometimes when he goes out with Steph I join them...Actually, I didn't see him for a long time. The last time I was here was October."

 

"And that's why you called him at two AM, right before Christmas?"

 

"What?" Phill was a little astonished. All the situation was surreal. Here he was in his sister's home, with a hot (did he just think "hot"? Oh, God...!) semi-naked man, questioning him about his sister's homosexual friend...

 

"You called him in the middle of the night when he was in Pittsburgh. Did you miss him that much?" Brian asked with a sarcastic tone in his voice.

 

"I didn't call him. I was in LA with Stephanie and my girlfriend."

 

Brian halted "Your girlfriend?"

 

"She's pregnant." He didn't know why he said that, but suddenly Lizzie's pregnancy seemed a very interesting and important subject.

 

He watched in awe as Brian's face changed completely. Gone was the sexy man; his eyes grew suddenly cold and his expression went blank, as if there was suddenly a mask on his face.

 

"Nice to meet you. I gotta get dressed."

 

"What about the coffee?"

 

Brian didn't look back. "Drink it. Make yourself at home."

 

Phillip sighed, thinking if he was inside an episode of Twilight Zone. Shrugging, he went to Stephanie's room and grabbed the wallet he had forgotten there. He felt a sudden urge to get out of the apartment as soon as possible. He would think about Justin's fucking boyfriend later. Shit! He chastised himself; he didn't want to think about him at all. Period.

 

 

 

When Justin finished his shower he headed to the kitchen. The first thing he realized was that the coffee machine was turned on, but there was no sign of Brian. He wondered briefly if the older man had gone to the pastry down the street, but Brian never used to have anything besides coffee in the morning.

 

Turning the machine off, he returned to the bedroom, grabbed his cell phone and dialed his Brian's number.

 

"What?" Brian's irritated voice answered.

 

"Hey, where are you?" Justin asked, trying to ignore Brian's tone.

 

"Downstairs."

 

"Why?"

 

"To smoke."

 

"Hey, I was joking, alright? You don't need to leave the fucking apartment just to smoke!"

 

Brian didn't say anything, just breathed deeply and coughed again. Justin wanted to ask "are you alright?" but he ended up just saying: "So come upstairs. I'm waiting for you."

 

 

Brian, in fact, was sitting at the stairs on the first floor. He left the apartment in a surge of blinded rage, but couldn't go too far. He was still barefoot, and he just sat there smoking. Justin had lied to him about the phone call, but fuck it if he would ask the blond why. He never said anything when Justin was with the fucking fiddler years ago, and he wouldn't say anything now. Jealousy was for lesbians. And he knew he was better than anyone Justin would ever find.

 

Besides, Justin could have his tricks, Brian didn't mind. If he wanted to have a fuck buddy or something, and not tell Brian about it, Brian wouldn't blame him. Hell, he didn't have a register of all the tricks he still used to fuck, so he wouldn't ask Justin to do the same.

 

He thought about the look of sheer joy when Justin opened the door that morning and saw him, and the way the blond had launched himself into Brian's arms. Exhaling the last of the smoke, he smiled slightly and went upstairs again.

 

 

Justin was at the bedroom in nothing but his underwear, trying to decide what to think about Brian's strange behavior. He seemed quite content this morning, what could have gone wrong?

 

When he heard the door opening, he turned around and was startled at the almost feral look on Brian's face. With four long strides, Brian approached him without a single word, grabbed his face with both hands and kissed him savagely, the kind of kiss that always sent a message straight to Justin's cock.

 

"God, you're beautiful," Brian said, inhaling deeply. "And so fucking hot..."

 

Brian walked forward, still holding Justin's face and kissing him hard, forcing him to walk backwards, until Justin's legs made contact with the bed. The blond was pushed not too gently against the mattress and before he knew it, Brian was holding his wrists and nibbling his jaw, descending to his collarbone, chest and nipples, until he found his belly button. Justin shivered when he felt Brian's tongue slowly circling the spot, and he tried to release his wrists to hold Brian closer. But the older man only strengthened his grip.

 

"No." He said hoarsely, and he returned to Justin's lips, bruising them in a hot and wet kiss. He started to grind their hips together, and they both gasped from the sensation, Brian's clothes and Justin's underwear between them, turning each movement into a sweet torture.

 

After a while, both of them breathless, Brian finally released Justin's wrists and kissed his way down the blond's body, positioning himself between Justin's legs. He ran his tongue along the inside of Justin's thigh, and the blond arched his back, heart beating fast against his ribcage, running his fingers through Brian's hair and moaning loudly, "Oh, God..."

 

Suddenly Brian stopped and got up. Justin whimpered at the loss of contact, and tried to sit up, but Brian's hands on his chest made him stop.

 

"Don't move," Brian said, and slowly, very slowly, started to undress, never taking his hazel eyes off Justin's blue ones. Justin seemed hypnotized, never before had Brian taken his own clothes off with such sensual movements, it was almost like a dance, but there was no music, only Justin's ragged breathing as Brian revealed more and more of his body.

 

When Brian was fully naked, he took Justin's underwear off, still so slowly, that Justin couldn't control himself. "Brian..." he moaned.

 

Brian blinked and approached the blond again, hovering above him but not really touching. "What, Justin?" he murmured.

 

"Please..." Justin tried to touch Brian's face, but the brunet pulled away.

 

"What do you want? Tell me what you want, Justin." Brian ordered, in a low but demanding voice.

 

"You. I want you. I need you inside me. Now."

 

And suddenly his legs were on Brian's shoulders, and Brian was quickly preparing him and all Justin could see was a brilliant flash of light as Brian entered him with a long and hard thrust, making his head spin. Brian stopped for a few seconds, murmuring "oh fuck!" and trying to regain some control. Justin's eyes were shining with lust, but there was also love in them with no doubt. All Brian could do was keep staring at him, and he started slowly to move again. But being inside of Justin was always too much, and soon he started to move faster, unable to control himself anymore. He needed more.

 

Brian's mouth ravaged his, as his thrusts became harder, the brunet moaning every time he entered the blond, and every time going impossibly deeper. Justin was completely lost in the sensations, his entire body on fire. He started to move against Brian in perfect harmony, and the rhythm of their passion grew more and more, both overwhelmed with the feeling of the other's body. Every time they made love it was like this, familiarity and new discoveries at the same time.

 

"God, I love you," Justin half said, half moaned, feeling his orgasm approaching.

 

He heard Brian groaning softly and knew the man wouldn't last too long. "Justin..." Brian said, panting. "Justin..." he murmured again, as if he wanted to say something. His movements became erratic, and Justin felt Brian was about to come.

 

"You're mine," Brian grunted. "You're mine."

 

With that Brian came, moaning loudly and shuddering violently on top of him, and then Justin was coming too, holding the man he loved, digging his nails into Brian's back and kissing him.

 

Minutes later, when they were wrapped against each other, Brian snoring softly, Justin looked at his face and smiled. "Yes, Brian. I'm yours," he murmured. "I'll always be yours."

 

 

Justin woke up with a start, hearing the insistent knock at the door. Disentangling himself gently from Brian, he got up and looked for some clothes in the dark. He didn't want to wake Brian up. It was one of the hottest sex they ever had, and Brian had fallen almost instantly asleep afterwards. Knowing Brian, Justin knew something had happened to trigger something so intense like that, after having spent practically the whole morning fucking. But he couldn't put his finger on it.

 

In the living room, he heard the knock again. "I'm coming!", he shouted, realizing he was wearing Brian's shirt. Opening the door, he saw the excited face of Simon Caswell, beaming at him.

 

"Justin!" Simon entered the apartment, brandishing a piece of paper. "You have no idea!"

 

"What?" Justin didn't understand what the fuss was about. He was still feeling tired, his knees a little week from the exercise, and his brain was still a little slow. God, he needed caffeine and some food.

 

"Justin, you need to get ready! We have lots of plans to do!"

 

"Simon, calm down!" Justin sat on the couch. "What the hell are you talking about?"

 

"The contest, Justin! You're one of the five winners!" Simon looked at him expectantly. "You're going to Europe!"

Chapter Text

Ted walked along the corridor of Kinnetik happily humming a song, thinking about Blake. Suddenly, the door of Brian's office opened with a loud thud and Cynthia ran out of the room, covering her red face and sobbing. When she saw Ted she stopped in front of him and whispered, "He-he wants to see you..."

 

Ted felt his insides twist. Never had he seen Cynthia cry. Actually, he was sure that one of the reasons Brian liked her so much was because she was as hard as any guy, no pun intended. He wondered if Cynthia was fired. Certainly it was something big, she wouldn't cry for nothing. Shit, if Brian fired Cynthia, the world was really coming to its end. All his thoughts were running together.

 

"Hey, Bri!" Ted said, trying to hide his trembling voice. "You wanted to see me?"

 

"Sit down, Theodore," said Brian with a serious expression, motioning for the Italian sofa. But he remained seated behind his desk.

 

"What, did I do something wrong?" Ted sat down, already thinking what he would say to Brian to save his job.

 

"Tell me, Ted...how do you feel about Kinnetik? Do you like working here?"

 

Ted gulped audibly, and tried to dry the already sweaty palms of his hands on his pants. "I...I love working here, Bri."

 

Brian arched an eyebrow. "Really? Tell me."

 

"I...uhhh...well, you know...I never liked to be an accountant, I always thought it was the most boring job in the world. Boring...just like me."

 

Brian opened a drawer and took a cigarette out of it and lit it. Ted frowned. It was probably the tenth cigarette he had seen the man smoke that afternoon!

 

"And...?" Brian asked, pulling a long drag from the cigar.

 

"Ahh...well, after my little problem with drugs, I really thought my life was over...until you gave me a chance here."

 

"Theodore, Theodore..." Brian sighed. "I don't want to listen to your dramatic story. I don't like soap operas. I'm asking you how do you feel about Kinnetik. Is that so hard to answer?"

 

"Shit, Brian!" Ted shifted uncomfortably in the sofa. He wouldn't lose his job. He would fight for it. "I love Kinnetik!. I was here almost from the start. And when you got sick, and you asked me to take your place at the presentation, I felt..." He got up from the sofa and started to pace, trying to avoid Brian's searching gaze. "Since then, I just...I just started to love being an accountant, because Kinnetik is fascinating! I found out being an accountant can be exciting too. And I've learned so much! Advertising is fascinating, really. I even helped with a few accounts, you know."

He finished his little speech, looking at his boss expectantly.

 

"Sit down, Ted," Brian said again, and he picked some papers from his desk. "I don't want you to faint, or act like Cynthia."

 

"Oh my God." Ted murmured, sweating profusely now.

 

Brian approached him slowly, and handed him the papers. "Read carefully. See if you agree with everything."

 

Ted grabbed the papers with a shaking hand and started to read the terms of his demission. Slowly, his eyes traveled through the words, but something didn't feel right.

 

"Wh-what does it mean?" he looked at Brian, not trusting his own eyes.

 

Brian laughed, and looked pointedly at him. "If you don't understand that, I guess I'll change my mind about it."

 

Ted got up abruptly, looking at Brian with disbelief. "But...p-partner? Me?" He sat down again, completely astonished, heart beating fast. "Oh, my God. I'm gonna be sick."

 

"Shit, Theodore!" Brian walked to the coffee table and poured some water in a glass, giving it to Ted. "Drink this. This is no time to queen out."

 

"I---I'm not..."

 

"Yes, you are." He poked his cheek with his tongue and half-smiled. "Don't see this as a gift. It's only five percent to you and the same to Cynthia. "

 

"So...Is that why she was crying?"

 

"Yeah. Shit, I never expect that from her. Cynthia crying...that was a first."

 

"Well, I...can't say I don't understand her."

 

"I'm not doing it for you, you know. I'm doing it for Kinnetik. We're getting bigger, and although I'm the best thing here, I can't do everything alone. So, I need your help. And I expect you to work even harder."

 

"Sure, Brian. I won't disappoint you."

 

"Of course you won't. Or I'll have your balls. I only choose the best, you know that. Besides, if for some reason I need to travel for a long time, I need to know that Kinnetik will be in good hands."

 

"Will you go to Europe with Justin?"

 

"Hey, I didn't say that." Brian rolled his eyes and snorted. "But I admit that if I don't go there to see him once in a while, the brat will probably queen out."

 

Ted smiled. He knew all too well that behind Brian's careless speech, he was worried now that Justin had won the contest and would probably accept going to Europe, so he was trying to find a way to be closer to the blond.

 

"Now, there is something really serious we need to talk about: your clothes. As partner, you certainly need to choose your suits better."

 

"What's wrong with this one?" Ted looked at himself.

 

"Nothing, except the fact that they're from Sears. I definitely need to go shopping with you."

 

Ted gave a small laugh. Brian was such a label queen. They looked at each other awkwardly for a second. "Bri, I...I don't know what to say..." Never in his wildest dreams he thought he would be Brian's partner at Kinnetik.

 

"Say yes," Brian said simply. "So...let's celebrate. Let's go to Woody's tonight. Now be a good boy and call Blake. Tell him the news."

 

"A-alright..." Ted left the room still in a daze.

 

Brian smiled. Ted was a good man, although his opinion about himself wasn't good. He was sure he and Cynthia would take good care of Kinnetik if he ever needed them to. Opening his cell phone, he pressed the speed button. After a few seconds he heard Justin's voice.

 

"Hey."

 

"Hey."

 

"So...did you talk to them?"

 

"Yep."

 

"And...? Come on, Brian, tell me! What did they say?"

 

"It was quite funny. Cynthia cried, and Ted thought I was going to fire him."

 

"Cynthia cried? Shit!" Justin laughed. "This is crazy."

 

"I know. But now they're both happy, probably telling their better-halves about it. Where are you?"

 

"I'm leaving work right now. Are you at Kinnetik?"

 

"Yeah, but I'll leave in a few minutes. How was your day?"

 

"Fuck, I'm really tired. There is going to be a show at the gallery tomorrow night and I worked like a madman to get everything ready today, because I have a test tomorrow morning. And Simon won't stop calling, he says I must give an answer as soon as possible."

 

"You're kidding, right? If I were you I wouldn't think twice."

 

"Yeah, but you're not me." He hesitated a little. "You said you don't want me to loose this opportunity, and... I'm not having second thoughts, but I just need to graduate first. Be sure I pass all the exams."

 

"Don't be ridiculous, of course you'll pass."

 

"Brian...I need to finish three projects, study for the tests and work. I'll think about Europe later, when the right time comes."

 

"The right time is NOW." Brian rolled his eyes even though Justin couldn't see him. "Okay, but I did exactly the way we agreed before. I hired more ad execs and made Cynthia and Ted partners, so I'll be able to leave the Pitts for a longer period if I have to. Now do your part, go to fucking Europe and live your life, Justin."

 

"Live my life? Isn't that what I'm doing now? Shit, Brian. You say I must go, then the next minute you tell me to live my life, as if you're not a big part of it!"

 

"Shit, I don't wanna have this conversation now. I'm not gonna die tomorrow, you know. Just pack your suitcase and go. I'll visit, okay? I always wanted to go to Europe anyway. You'll show me all the boring old museums and all the shit you love so much and you'll be the best fucking artist since Pollock. And we'll fuck in Paris, Rome, England..."

 

"Will you be here when I come back?"

 

Brian didn't say anything for a few seconds. "Listen, I gotta go. We're going to Woody's to celebrate Ted's partnership. I'll talk to you tomorrow, okay?"

 

"Brian..."

 

"Hmmm?"

 

"Are...are we alright?"

 

"Don't be a twat. Of course we are. Later"

 

"Later."

 

Brian turned the cell off and closed his eyes, fighting a headache. He felt tired suddenly, and he wasn't in the mood to go to Woody's anymore. He wondered if Ted wouldn't prefer to go home and celebrate with Blake...alone. He certainly hoped so.

 

Pinching the bridge of his nose, he looked at the wall above the sofa, where a beautiful painting was hanging. Justin's painting. The young man was a genius, it was easy to see. And Brian would never stand in Justin's way, he would never make him choose between his career and him. He had made some arrangements so he would see the blond once in a while, and that would have to be enough. Because he could see clearly that there was no choice, Justin was a fucking good artist and Europe was waiting for him. He had nothing else to offer the blond. He had already given him everything he could.

 

He got up from his expensive chair and had to grab the table for support as a wave of nausea assaulted him. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes again, waiting for it to pass, but his head started spinning and he felt so weak that he had to sit down again, this time on the sofa. He realized he hadn't eaten anything the entire day, just coffee. "Shit!" he murmured, his breath short.

 

Half an hour later, when Ted entered Brian's office, he found his former boss sleeping on the sofa, with shoes and all. He shook his head, wondering if he should wake him up, but Brian looked so tired, and the dark circles around his eyes told him that the man needed some rest. Carefully, he took Brian's shoes off and left the room, grabbed his cell phone and pressed some buttons.

 

"Blake? It's me... I'll be late today. No, nothing happened... Brian's sleeping... I know, but still, I'm gonna wait a couple of hours and wake him up, okay? See if he needs a ride home... No, no, he's fine... Bye, baby."

----------------------------------------------

 

It was a sunny Saturday morning, but Justin wanted nothing more than to stay home and sleep the whole day. He felt strange, his heart clenching inside his chest once in a while. He knew the reason. In less than one month, he would be going to Europe. Of course part of him was very excited about it, but every time he thought about Brian he felt a shadow coming his way.

 

Justin wanted to believe that nothing between them had changed, but Brian seemed more distant, although he assured Justin there was nothing wrong with them. He almost never laughed anymore, always finding an excuse to hang up the phone too soon, and to Justin, it was like he was living through the days before his departure to New York all over again. He already knew this was typical Kinney behavior, but he didn't like it. He loved Brian but the man was so stubborn that Justin sometimes wanted to strangle him. Just a little.

 

"Hey, Jus." Stephanie greeted him as he entered the kitchen. "You look like shit, you know?"

 

"I couldn't sleep," he muttered, sitting down on the cheap chair. "Did you make coffee?"

 

"Yeah, do you want some? Listen, I'm going to that little shop near the gallery. Do you need a ride?" Stephanie asked, filling a cup with coffee and handing it to the blond.

 

"Uhhh...I don't know. I'm thinking about calling in sick today. Although I still have a painting to finish and everything is at the studio."

 

"You look pale. And your nose is red."

 

"Yeah, I guess I got a cold. Or maybe it's just my allergies. I'm not in the mood to deal with Pat's clients today. They're so stuck-up!"

 

"Hey, that's a first: an artist who doesn't like glamour. You better get used to it, Jus, because sooner or later the press will be following you around."

 

"Shit, don't tell me about it. I can't imagine my private life not being... private."

 

"Ha! But some artists are almost like movie stars!" she smiled.

 

"Believe me, I will never reach that point."

 

"You never know, Jus."

 

His cell phone rang in the bedroom, so Justin went back there, still holding the cup. "Hello?"

 

"Justin, dear!"

 

"Hi, Pat!" He cursed silently, almost spilling the hot coffee. Of all the people in the world, his boss had to be the one to call him on the exact day that he was planning to skip work!

 

"Honey, what time will you be here? I need to talk to you."

 

"Actually, I'm feeling a little sick today..." he said hopefully.

 

"Oh, nothing serious, I hope. I have good news, dear, and I really need to talk to you. So take an aspirin and hurry!"

 

"Sure..." he said without any enthusiasm at all. He wasn't in the mood for surprises. "Steph!" he yelled. "I changed my mind! I do want that ride!"

 

------------------------------------------------------

 

 

Michael entered the Diner and went straight to Brian's table.

 

"Why didn't you call me yesterday?" He asked instead of greeting. "We waited for you at Babylon until two AM! What in the hell happened?"

 

Brian didn't even raise his eyes from the newspaper he was reading. "Busy, busy," he said simply.

 

"Busy fucking?"

 

"Busy working, Michael." he answered tiredly. "Besides, I wasn't in the mood."

 

Michael looked at Emmett at the other side of the table and the younger man looked at him pointedly, as if telling him that Brian was in his usual shitty mood. Michael sat down beside Brian and took the newspaper from his hands, making his friend look at him.

 

"Excuse me? I think I have something wrong with my ears. They're not right. Did you just say you weren't in the mood to go to Babylon, to dance, drink and trick?"

 

Brian stared blankly at Michael and Emmett, then took the newspaper back, opened it and resumed reading. "No, you heard perfectly well."

 

"Who are you and what have you done to my friend Brian Kinney?"

 

Brian took a deep breath and opened his mouth to say something, but he started to cough. He coughed so hard that his eyes filled with tears. "Shit!" he said after a while.

 

"You need to stop smoking."

 

"Mikey, you're pathetic, you know? Mind your own business." Brian said defiantly and immediately took a cigarette and lit it.

 

"Careful, asshole, you'll end up killing yourself," said Debbie approaching them.

 

"Thanks, Mom." Brian snorted. "But I can take care of myself. I'm a big boy, see?"

 

Debbie ignored his answer and smiled at her son, petting his cheek. "Hi, honey! Where's Ben?"

 

"He had an early class today."

 

"So, what can I get to you, boys?"

 

"I want waffles with honey and a cup of coffee." Michael said.

 

"I'll have the Pink Plate, Deb!" Emmett smiled at her.

 

Debbie looked at Brian while he kept reading silently as if they weren't there. "What about you, Brian?" she asked.

 

"Just coffee."

 

She left without a word, shaking her head and muttering "Fucking stubborn kid!"

 

Michael looked at his friend, perfect in his Armani suit, but pale and tired. He was worried. Brian seemed to be frowning all the time. The taller man sucked hard on the filter of his cigarette and exhaled the smoke, coughing a little again, but didn't say a word and didn't look at him or Emmett.

 

"Brian...are you alright?"

 

"Why wouldn't I be? Don't I look fabulous as ever?" Brian asked with an annoyed voice, but folded the newspaper and looked at his friend.

 

"Oh, I love your modesty, Brian." Emmett emended. "But as I was saying, you almost never go out with us anymore."

 

"Ted doesn't go out a lot either and I don't see you killing him with your questions."

 

"Teddy is a married man now." Emmett said with a dreamy smile.

 

"So is Michael. So, according to your theory, Ted and Mikey must stay home with their wives and leave Babylon to the single ones. That leaves just you and me, Honneycut."

 

"Don't call me Honneycut!" Emmett complained. Brian knew too well that Emmett hated being called like that.

 

""Hey! That's not true! Ben and I always go to Babylon! Strangely, more than you lately!"

 

Deb arrived with Michael and Emmett's food and put another plate in front of Brian. He raised his eyes slowly and looked at her, frowning.

 

"What the hell is this?"

 

"Turkey sandwich on whole grain, no mayo." She snorted. "Isn't that good enough for Your Majesty? You have to eat something, you know. You're too thin."

 

"And since when do I eat in the morning?"

 

"Come on, Brian, you never eat anything!" Emmett said. "I don't know how you're able to spend the whole day on coffee alone. I've read somewhere that too much coffee gives you an ulcer."

 

"I don't like this kind of junk food. Where's my coffee, Deb?"

 

Michael grabbed Brian's arm. "Bullshit, Brian! That's exactly what you always eat! I swear, if you don't eat I'll call Justin and..."

 

Brian got up abruptly, startling his friends and closed his eyes immediately, fighting the dizziness. "Shut up, Mikey. Leave him out of this. He's not my fucking mother. Neither are you. You know what? Forget the coffee. I have a meeting in half an hour."

 

With that he grabbed his suitcase and stormed out of the diner. Debbie, Michael and Emmett exchanged worried glances and sighed, but didn't say anything.

Chapter Text

Justin got out of the bus, adjusting his sunglasses. He rarely used them, but his head was pounding, and any light was painful. The bus was full of noisy people and all he wanted was to go back home. But Stephanie's car had a problem and she didn't even take it out of the garage. Perhaps if Patricia saw his puffy eyes and red nose she would take pity on him and let him go home after the "surprise". He sneezed again and cursed, opening his duffle bag and grabbing another tissue.

 

The gallery was small but charming, between a coffee shop and a bookstore. When he entered, the first thing he noticed was that there were a lot of people inside, and that was unusual for a Saturday morning. He wondered if there was going to have another show at the gallery and Pat had forgotten to tell him about it. Probably one of her many friends asked for a space in the last minute.

 

Looking around, he couldn't find Pat anywhere. There were people carrying boxes, others were cleaning the place. Going to the back of the gallery he opened his studio's door and turned on the light. The room was kind of sacred for Pat and no one was allowed inside without Justin's permission. She respected him and his work a lot, and he felt so lucky to be her employee. He knew things could be a lot worse; he was used to listen to the awful stories his friends at the Art Institute used to tell, about not having any place to paint, or sharing places with messy people.

 

There was a knock on the door. "Come in!"

 

Patricia entered the room, a big smile on her face. She looked radiant in her white dress, tall and lean with shiny brown hair. For a woman already in her fifties, she was still beautiful.

 

"Justin, dear!" she approached and motioned to hug him, but seeing his face she frowned, "What happened, honey? You don't look so well..."

 

"It's a cold, Pat. But don't worry, I'll be alright soon." He smiled tiredly, her strong perfume making him sneeze again. "Sorry, Pat." he murmured. "But tell me, what's this big surprise?"

 

"Oh, I'm so happy! Remember that handsome widow, that German gentleman, Hans Schroeder?"

 

"The one you're dating...?" he asked with a knowing smile.

 

She blushed. "Exactly!" she walked to the door and closed it. Turning to him again, her big smile returned, a dreamy expression on her face. "He asked me to marry him! He wants to take me to Germany; he has several houses there, and a country manor! Oh, I'm so happy! When Trevor died I thought I would never marry again. But now, look at me! I'm going to live in Germany!"

 

"Oh, my God, Pat! I'm so happy for you!" he smiled back at her. She was a wonderful woman and deserved to be happy. "Wait...what about the gallery?"

 

"I'm selling it. We'll sign the papers monday morning. Hans has a friend who took care of everything. He's an agent and knows several artists who were really interested in buying this place."

 

"Well," he looked around. "I hope the new owner gives me a little time to take my paintings out of here."

 

"Don't worry, dear, he seems to be an excellent person! I already talked to him and he said that you don't need to hurry, the studio is yours as long as you want."

 

Patricia Hart looked at Justin's paintings; some of them were so good that if she didn't know Justin, she would have thought the paintings were made by someone older. Justin's work had matured so much; she could feel he would be great someday.

 

"I was worried about you, you know." She said looking affectionately at him. After Hans proposed, I started thinking about you, I was afraid that the new owner wouldn't keep you and you would loose your studio and your job. But now," she extended her hand to him and he held it in a tender gesture, "you're going to spent two years in Europe, and I'm so relieved I won't let you down."

 

"Me too, Pat." He laughed a little. "I was feeling bad for letting you down too, going to Europe. I know you had some problems with your former employees."

 

"Don't even remind me. The last one didn't even bother to tell me he was leaving. He just didn't come to help me with an important show."

 

"Well, when will I meet the new owner? I'll just leave my paintings here until the graduation; then I'll send them to Pittsburgh."

 

"Oh, you already know him, dear. He's an old friend of yours. He told me you're like a brother to him."

 

Justin felt his hair standing on the back of his neck. Not really wanting to know, he asked, trying to sound nonchalant: "Oh? And who's he?"

 

"Honey, it's that wonderful and talented young man who was here the other day looking for you...Your dear friend Ethan Gold! He'll arrive at any minute!"

 

-----------------------------------------

 

"Brian?" called a hesitant voice.

 

He was resting his head on his arms, sitting in his comfortable chair at his desk. He opened his eyes and raised his head very slowly, careful not to worsen the headache. He couldn't believe his eyes. In front of him was one of the last persons he expected to see in the world: Claire.

 

"What the fuck are you doing here?" he asked in a low voice but a little aggressive.

 

"I need to talk to you. Do you mind if I sit down?"

 

He didn't say anything, only raised his eyebrows and pointed to one of the chairs in fronts of his desk.

 

She walked slowly, avoiding his eyes, clearly uncomfortable. Sitting down, she finally raised her head and looked at him. "How's it going?"

 

He grimaced and looked at the ceiling, impatient. "What do you want, Claire? I don't have time for amenities."

 

She sighed, but decided to go straight to the point. "As you know, I...I finished radiation."

 

"Yeah, I know." She looked older than the last time he saw her. "Father Butt...Father Tom keeps me informed of your progress, God knows why."

 

She looked around. "Do you have some water? It seems I'm thirsty all the time."

 

"Yeah, I know what you mean." He got up from his chair slowly, trying to suppress a groan as his muscles protested.

 

"Are you alright?"

 

"Why the fuck do you care?"

 

"Shit, Brian, I'm trying to be nice!"

 

"Well, that would be a first, Claire!"

 

They glared at each other for a few seconds. Brian felt so tired now that he didn't even have the energy to say something shitty to Claire. Maybe he really should start to sleep and eat better, or maybe he was just starting to get old. He walked to the shelf and poured some water in a tall glass, gave it to her and resumed his previous position behind his desk.

 

She drank the water in little gulps, breathing deeply. "You do look tired. Being CEO of a company like this must be very demanding."

 

Brian had to smile at the surreal situation. He couldn't imagine himself having a polite conversation with his sister. The bitch. She was probably after a little more money. Not that he cared. She was a Kinney, anyway, just like the rest of them. He wondered if perhaps he was adopted. "So..." he said sarcastically. "How may I be of assistance?"

 

"Well, I want to give you something." Claire opened her bag and picked a little white envelope. She placed it over his desk and said quietly, "Open it, please."

 

Raising his eyebrows, he reached for the envelope and opened it. Inside was a check. Frowning, he looked at her, puzzled. "What the hell is this?"

 

"That's a check." She said simply.

 

"Thank you, sister, I would never have guessed." He gave her a fake smile, sarcasm dripping of his voice.

 

"I'm paying you back the money I borrowed from you. It's not even half of what I owe you, but it's a start. I sold my house."

 

He looked at her disbelievingly. She sighed and went on. "I'm living with Mom, now that James left me and took the kids. He doesn't want them around a sick mother, I guess," she added bitterly. "Living with Mom it's not the best thing in the world, but I can't live alone right now. I'm sure you remember the side-effects of radiation. Half the time I'm tired, the other half I'm throwing up."

 

He only nodded. He could remember all too well what he had gone through.

 

"So, you're living with dear old Joanie."

 

"It's only temporary. Besides, I hardly see her; she's either at church or locked in her bedroom."

 

"I bet I know what she's doing." He said, remembering the countless times he saw his mother throwing empty bottles of brandy in the trash can. Looking at the check on his desk, he grabbed it and extended his arm to her. And said dryly: "Take it. I don't want it."

 

She got up. "That's not an option, Brian. The money's yours."

 

 

"I said I don't want it!" He said loudly. "I don't need your money!"

 

"I can see clearly that you don't need it. But you don't understand. I need to give it back to you."

 

He gave a humorless laugh. "You don't want to owe anything to your queer little brother? The child molester?"

 

"Shut up, Brian! Why do you think everything is about you? You're not the center of the world! God, you're so selfish! Brian, the smart one, the handsome one, the rich one..."

 

"No, Claire! YOU shut up! Who do you think you are? Just get out, because we both know what you think about me. You can either go home and hide behind dear Joan and her pathetic life or you can stop being a coward and get a life of your own!"

 

"Coward? Who is the coward? Me? YOU are the coward! You left home at seventeen to go to college! I was the one who had to stay in that house and take care of them. You just disappeared and I had to do what I could to get out myself!"

 

"You're so full of shit, Claire. Stop that. Self pity does not suit you."

 

She snorted and took a deep breath, calming down a little. "It's not self pity; it's the truth. It wasn't an accident, Brian. I got pregnant on purpose. I just wanted to...get out of that house. James was an awful husband; he cheated on me from the start." Then her voice became so low that he almost didn't hear her. "But...at least he didn't hit me, like Dad did. I just did what I had to do...to get out of that hell, to get away from home. I hated you so much because you got away first."

 

Brian took a sharp intake of breath. He never talked about his childhood with anyone. And his relationship with Claire had always been so bad that he had almost forgotten that she had been a victim of Jack Kinney's rage too. Just like him. Almost. Flashes of his home played in his mind, screams and pain and hatred. He closed his eyes, feeling vulnerable suddenly, and he didn't want her to see it. He wanted to say something, maybe a sarcastic remark to show her he didn't care, but he felt the energy being drained from his body as memories of his childhood assaulted him.

 

"Every time he hit you, I...I was so relieved it wasn't me." Claire averted her eyes, uncomfortable with the naked truth. It was the first time in their lives that they mentioned it. They always tried to act as if there was nothing wrong with their family, never talked about Jack and Joan's lack of ability to raise children. But she remembered the screams too. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said this."

 

"Sorry is bullshit, Claire. I'm happy we reached an agreement. We hate each other."

 

"I don't hate..." she started.

 

He cut her off. "Yes, you do. Now take your fucking money and get the hell out of here!" he said angrily.

 

Claire's face turned so red that he thought it would explode, and she looked at him, voice suddenly high. "Go to hell, Brian! You think you know everything, but you're so wrong about me; I don't need your pity, and I'm not giving your money back to please you. I'm doing this for ME! So you won't..."

 

She turned her back to him. His breath was quick and he wanted nothing more than to get rid of her. "So what, Claire?" he yelled at her. "So your pure and virtuous hands won't touch my ‘infected' money anymore?"

 

"So you won't hate me too much after I die!" She yelled at last, eyes as angry as his.

 

Brian looked at her sharply. He didn't think he would ever forgive her for accusing him of molesting her son. But somehow he saw his own anger and hurt in her eyes. They had something in common; they had lived in the same hell. He knew he didn't like her a lot, but in that moment he realized he couldn't hate her either. Sighing deeply, he said in a low and tired voice "Take your money, Claire. You're not fucking dying."

 

"You don't know that. And the money is yours." She took the check from his hands only to toss it on the desk again. "I have to go. There's a cab waiting for me outside, I didn't think this talk would take long."

 

He wanted her to go away more than anything now, because the memories she brought with her were too painful and he was tired of pain. He didn't want any more drama in his life. But when she was near the door he couldn't stop himself. "Claire...will you be okay?"

 

"I'll try to." She snorted and looked to the floor, with an expression so similar to his own, that it almost startled him. "You know, maybe you're right and I won't die. I'm a Kinney, and we Kinneys are a bunch of stubborn people, we know how to survive." She looked at him again with a sad half smile and said, before leaving, "Take care of yourself, little brother."

 

He rubbed his face with both hands. "Fuck!" He had enough. Even if he wanted, he wouldn't be able to concentrate on work anymore today. Looking at the check on his desk, he made a decision. He picked up the telephone and waited for a few seconds. "Ted? Can you come here to my office?"

 

Less than a minute later the door opened and Ted entered, walking proudly in one of his new suits.

 

"What is it, Brian?"

 

"Ted, I need a favor." Brian handed him Claire's check. "Open an account in my sister's name with this."

 

"Sure, Bri! Is that all?"

 

"Yeah. I'm going home early today. Maybe you and the guys can go to Woody's later." He grabbed his coat and suitcase and headed for the door. "By the way..." he added with a wicked grin, "Nice outfit."

 

 

-----------------------------------------------------------

 

"Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" Justin kicked the wall as soon as Patricia left the studio. He thought about pinching his own arm to be sure he was really awake. "Fuck!" he said again. It was really unbelievable. Couldn't he get a break? It seemed like Ethan was back with full force. Perhaps if he just left the place right now he wouldn't have to see the guy.

 

As in one cue, Patricia opened the door and entered with Ethan right behind her.

Justin gave her a forced smile as Ethan extended his right hand waiting for the blond to shake it.

 

"Justin! I'm so glad you're here! Haven't seen you for some time." He said as if they were long lost friends.

 

"Well, I'll leave you two alone; I still have a lot to take care of."

 

"Thank you, Patricia." he said, holding her hand end kissing her fingers seductively. She blushed a little and left.

 

Justin looked at him in disgust. "Do you really need to do that?"

 

"Being gentle is part of my charm. Why, are you jealous?"

 

The blond snorted and shook his head. "You are really out of your mind." He walked to the door Patricia had closed when she left and opened it. He couldn't explain but since he saw Ethan in New York he had an uneasy feeling whenever they were too close. "This place must have cost you a fortune!"

 

"A little, but I told you, money is not a problem anymore."

 

"I didn't know you were interested in art."

 

"I'm not."

 

"Then, why...?"

 

"I bought the gallery to give it to you."

 

"WHAT ?"

 

"You heard. I love you, I want you back." He tried to cup Justin's face with his hand but Justin shoved his hand off. "It's useless to resist, Justin."

 

"Oh, my God, Ethan! You're completely insane." Justin covered his mouth with his hand, stepping back.

 

"Yeah, baby, I'm going insane without you. You're all I think of."

 

"Leave me alone, for Christ's sake!" He couldn't believe this was happening; all he wanted to do was to get out of there. Ethan didn't sound normal, and Justin, not for the first time, wondered if the guy should seek professional help. He was completely nuts.

 

"Justin, you don't understand. We belong together! After years apart, we found each other here at New York, of all places! Now I won't let you go!"

 

"Oh, I'll go, believe me. " Justin said sarcastically. "I'm going to Europe in less than a month."

 

"I know you won the contest. I'm thrilled for you! But don't worry, I'll find you. I know practically all Europe, I'll show you everything. And when you come back, I'll be here waiting for you, and we'll live here together and happy."

 

Justin kept looking at him, just shaking his head. "I'm out of here." With that he left the studio at the back of the gallery, looking for Patricia.

 

"Pat!" He said relieved when he saw her. "Can you borrow me one of this little tucks that's helping you with your moving? Just for a few hours, I promise."

 

"Sure, dear! But why?"

 

"I need to take my paintings out of here, NOW."

 

 

-----------------------------------------

 

 

Brian closed his eyes as he felt his orgasm approaching. The trick's blowjob was more than fine and as he finally shot, he felt the tension leaving his body. The backroom was full of hot men today, and when Brian entered the dimly lit place he felt all eyes on him. Hungry eyes, like always. Sighing in his post-orgasmic haze, he remembered the hot bodies at the dance floor, the familiarity of the tricks looking at him seductively, most of them wanting to be chosen by Brian Kinney.

 

He wasn't in the mood for anything but going home when he left Kinnetik, but suddenly he decided to go to Babylon and now he could see it was the best decision. He was tired of feeling anguished. It was time to change things, to have a good time and he knew it depended solely on him. No problem was bog enough that a couple of E couldn't solve, right? So he had called the boys and they all went to Babylon, just like the old times. Leaving the backroom, he ran his hand through his sweaty brown hair. Deciding he needed another drink, he headed for the bar.

 

"Brian!" said Emmett with a big smile, holding a Cosmo.

 

Brian looked at the tall young man, and at all his friends on the dance floor: Ted with Blake, Michael and Ben. He tried not to think about the fact hat he was the only one alone. Not that he cared, anyway. "Hey Em. Where's Drew?"

 

"Oh, he's outside, talking to some friends by the phone. Too noisy here."

 

"One Jim Beam." He said to the barman. "Make it double."

 

"So, Brian..." Emmett said, putting a hand on Brian's arm and smiling, "I'm glad you called us; I was starting to think you were turning into a monk."

 

"Well, I thought I should remind the gay population of Pittsburgh that I'm still the hottest man alive."

 

Emmett laughed throwing his head back. "Oh, Brian, you're deliciously humble!"

 

Brian took his drink in one long gulp. Shaking his head he said to the barman. "Another one."

 

Emmett eyed him worriedly. "Take it easy, Brian. That's too much even for you. I saw you drinking between your second and third trip to the backroom."

 

"How sweet, Honneycut, I didn't know you're monitoring my activities tonight."

 

"Not monitoring, I just don't know how you do it. You spend weeks without coming here, but the moment you show up every hot guy practically shakes his ass in your face." And in falsetto he added "Take me to the backroom, Brian!"

 

"If you insist..." Brian said playfully and grabbed Emmett's arm. "Maybe I can teach you one or two tricks your husband doesn't know."

 

"Shut up, asshole!" Emmett laughed again.

 

Brian took out a popper from his pocket, put it next to one of his nostrils and inhaled deeply. "Wow! Anita didn't lie, this shit is strong."

 

"Brian..." Emmett started hesitantly, knowing too well that his friend didn't like this kind of comment, but..."It was great what you did for Teddy. It's so important for his self confidence. It's like a dream coming true for him."

 

"No, no, Theodore's lying, I didn't fuck him."

 

Emmett rolled his eyes. "I'm talking about Kinnetik, not about your dick."

 

Brian made an angelical expression, and Emmett couldn't stop himself from laughing when he added: "I thought you just said I did something for him that it was a dream came true..."

 

"Gotta love your modesty, Brian." Emmett laughed again. It was good to see Brian in a good mood for a change.

 

"I know. It's the secret of my success."

 

"Come on, Brian, let's dance! " Emmett held his arm and pulled him to the dance floor. "Let's give your dick a rest, or you'll be sore. I think you had enough for tonight."

 

"There's no such thing as enough, Em. But I guess someone has to take care of you while your husband is outside."

 

He lost himself in the crowd, between his friends and the sweaty bodies; the music and the blinking lights surrounding him like a comfortable blanket. Brian lost track of time and he felt relaxed as the old feeling of belonging took hold of him. Babylon was still his kingdom.

Chapter Text

Brian opened the diner's door and headed to the last booth, saying "Hi, Deb" to the redheaded waitress as he passed her. When he sat down he looked at Michael, whose mouth was full of pancakes.

 

"Hey, Mikey."

 

"Humpfh!" exclaimed the other man, smiling and chewing at the same time.

 

"Honey, don't do that!" said Debbie as she joined them, sitting down too. "You should really try to have better manners when you eat."

 

Michael swallowed the food and drank some orange juice. "Ma, I'm not a kid anymore!"

 

"Well, then stop acting like one. Boys, I'm so tired! And it's not even lunch time!"

 

"Busy night, Deb?" Brian asked with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

 

"No shit! Carl and I slept at three AM!"

 

"Ma!" Michael whined. "I don't wanna know! It's pretty unhealthy for someone to know that his mother didn't sleep because she was doing...whatever it is that you and Carl do."

 

"Well, for your information, young man, we were playing poker with his friends, and we won." She said indignantly.

 

"Thank God!" Michael exclaimed and Brian laughed rolling his eyes.

 

"But let me tell you, boys, we go at it quite frequently."

 

"Ma! You'll make me puke!" Michael blushed and Brian laughed even harder.

 

"What?" she asked. "Do you think we live like brothers?"

 

Still laughing, Brian took an envelope off from his pocket and put it on the table. "This is for you."

 

Debbie and Michael looked at him, puzzled.

 

"Just fucking open it!" he complained.

 

Michael reached for the envelope and opened it. "Plane tickets?"

 

"For Justin's graduation." Brian answered. "One for you, one for Ben and one for Deb."

 

"Wow! Thanks, Brian. Ben and I really wanted to go, but we're a little short of money."

 

"Oh, kiddo; thank you!" Deb said with a watery smile. "You know how I wanted to go to Sunshine's graduation. Especially now that he'll leave us for two years and..."

 

"Ma!" Michael looked at her and at Brian, alarmed.

 

"That's okay, Mikey. You don't have to avoid talking about this next to me. We already talked about it, Justin and me."

 

"You did? Since when do you "talk" about things?"

 

"Shut up, honey, let Brian grow up, for Christ's sake!" She looked at him again, still with eyes full of tears, which Brian thought was really disgusting. "I'm so proud of you, kiddo. You wanna eat something?"

 

"The usual, Deb." He didn't want to eat, but he figured it was best not to push on his luck near Deb, or she would start to lecture him about how thin he was and blah blah blah, especially now that she was all emotional like that.

 

**************************

 

A week later, Brian was working like crazy. Justin's graduation was the next day and he still couldn't leave Kinnetik to buy a new suit. He didn't want to use any of the old ones; it was a special occasion, after all. He looked at Cynthia, handed her the papers she was waiting for.

 

"I don't know, Cynthia. Maybe I'll never get used to this girl you hired. You've been my personal assistant for so long that I almost forgot the time when you weren't."

 

"Come on, Brian, I'll still do things for you. And Janice isn't bad, she's been working here for some time, you know?"

 

"She has? I've never seen her before."

 

"Yes, you did. But because she's not a guy with a hot ass you never looked at her twice."

 

"And why the hell would I do that?" He arched an eyebrow. "Anyway, did you talk to Claire?"

 

"Yeah, I did just as you asked. She never worked before, so I talked to Ken at Starbuck's and he scheduled her for this afternoon."

 

"Did you say she's my sister?"

 

"That's a little hard to miss, she's signing Kinney again. But don't worry, she'll get the job, you're one of Starbuck's most regular clients." When he looked at her with a face that said ‘I-don't-care-if-she-gets-the-job-or-not', she just snorted and headed for the door. "Well, I'll fax these documents."

 

Brian bit his nail, still thinking about Claire. They had started a kind of truce since she visited him at Kinnetik, and when she called him asking for his help to get her a job he couldn't say no. He shook his head; sometimes he didn't recognize himself. He never thought he and Claire would say something like "how are you" and "take care" to each other. He still thought she was a bitch. Sort of. But he didn't want to strangle her anymore every time he heard her voice. As for Joan...his relationship with his mother was something that was broken forever and would never mend.

 

The phone rang and he answered it. "What?"

 

"Err...Mr. Kinney, there's a Justin Taylor on the line, sir. I told him you're busy, but he insisted and said he's your..."

 

"Put him through."

 

"Y-yes, sir."

 

"God! Fucking Cynthia! I'll kill her!" he murmured between teeth.

 

"Hey, what's up? New assistant?"

 

"Don't even mention..." Brian couldn't suppress a smile every time he heard Justin's voice.

 

"Your cell phone is on voicemail."

 

"Yeah, I left it at the loft."

 

"What time is your flight?"

 

"Tomorrow, ten AM. Mikey, Ben and Deb will go with me. Lindz and Gus will arrive there tomorrow afternoon, I think."

 

"Good. Mom and Molly are arriving in a few hours."

 

"So, did you have time to fix the paintings?"

 

"Yeah, everything's fine now, thank God. But it was only a tiny scratch in one of them and I had to reframe the other one."

 

"I still don't understand why you had to leave the gallery in such a hurry. Your boss should've let you pack everything properly."

 

"Patricia is great, she had her reasons. Listen, I don't wanna talk about her, I wanna talk about us. I miss you." Justin's voice was soft.

 

"Me too."

 

"I wish you were here now."

 

"Soon." Brian whispered.

 

"Will you stay with me or have you booked a room at the hotel with the others?"

 

"I told you I would stay with you...but I booked a room for us, in case we want to celebrate properly. I don't think Stephanie enjoys hearing you scream my name when you come."

 

Justin laughed. "Asshole. I don't scream your name."

 

"No? So what does ‘please, fuck me harder, Brian!'' mean to you?"

 

"Alright...but I don't remember you being quiet when you come too.

 

"Shut up, Sunshine. That's why I want a place where we have more privacy."

 

"Okay, you're right."

 

"Of course I am; I'm always right."

 

"Okay, I have to go now...later."

 

"Later."

 

It was hard not to look at his watch now and then, wishing for the time to speed up, so the next day would come soon. But whenever he thought about Justin's graduation party, he remembered what would come next: his departure to Europe.

 

"Hey, Brian, the meeting with Motion Shoes will be in a few minutes." Ted entered his room without knocking.

 

"I'm going, Theodore, I'm going. Where are the boards?"

 

--------------------------------------------

 

 

It was already nine PM and Kinnetik's conference room was full of people. The boss would leave town for a few days and whenever that happened, they had these meetings at night. Brian always liked to leave everything defined before traveling.

 

Ted and Cynthia started the meeting according to Brian's request; he was there since early morning and asked for a few minutes to take a shower. He had spent the whole day without eating anything, and they knew he would go home tonight only when the campaign for their new client was at least partially ready. He was a total control freak and even though he had hired new ad execs, he always liked to leave his personal touch in everything Kinnetik did.

 

After half an hour, Brian still hadn't come back, so Ted went to his office to get him. When he entered, the first thing he thought was "Shit, Brian slept on the sofa again."

 

"Brian?" he called. "Everybody's waiting for you. Get up."

 

But Brian didn't move. "He is really tired..." Ted thought out loud. Then he noticed Brian hadn't changed his clothes. "You still didn't take your shower?" As he approached the sofa, he saw that Brian's hair seemed wet and glued to his head. His heart started to beat faster. "Brian?" he called again, but the man remained still.

 

"Shit!" He touched Brian's arm and poked him a little. Brian groaned, but didn't open his eyes. Ted could see sweat pouring down his face, and when he touched Brian's forehead it was so cold that he yelped in surprise. "Oh God." He kneeled next to his friend and started to shake him, but Brian's head rolled to one side and he didn't open his eyes.

 

--------------------------------------

 

Justin smiled and hugged his mother again.

 

"Oh, honey, I'm so happy for you!" Jennifer ran her hand through her son's hair, smiling proudly. "I'm sure your paintings will be the most beautiful ones of the entire show."

 

"It's not a contest, Mom. All the students will show a few pieces. It's the first time they do something like that, but the place is big enough to accommodate everybody's work."

 

"Yeah, Mom, he already won the contest." Molly stated the obvious, hugging her brother. "What will you bring me from Europe, Justin?"

 

"You'll have to wait two years to see it, baby."

 

"Oh dear, I can't imagine spending two whole years without seeing you!" Jennifer said while they pushed their suitcases through the crowded airport.

 

The girls wouldn't stay in Justin's apartment; there was no place for them there. Brian had booked rooms for all of them in a luxurious hotel near the Art Institute. Molly was so excited with the huge bathtub that she announced she was going to take a bath and no one was to disturb her, but would Justin please ask the room service for a cheeseburger with onion rings and a coke?

 

Justin sat down on the comfortable bed while he watched his mother unpacking.

 

"What about Brian?" Jennifer wanted to know. "I haven't seen him lately. Debbie is always complaining that he seldom goes to the diner."

 

"He'll be here tomorrow by noon. He's really busy with Kinnetik."

 

"Oh. And how does he feel about your trip, Justin?"

 

"Who knows, Mom?" the blond frowned a little. "It's Brian we're talking about, remember? No one really knows how he "feels" about anything."

 

"But you told me you talked about it."

 

"Yeah, we did. He was here when Simon told me I had won the contest. In fact, we had just talked about his work, about how he needed to delegate things to others to have a little more time for us."

 

"And he did?"

 

"Yes he did. Amazing, huh? He made Ted and Cynthia partners, hired a couple of new ad executives he "stole" from Vanguard, and as we speak he's making the final meeting before his trip." He smiled a little and wrinkled his nose. "He was a little grumpy about my trip, but as always, he was the first to tell me I should go."

 

Jennifer caressed her son's face. She knew Brian would miss him, even if the older man would never admit it, but she was so happy and grateful because he hadn't tried to hold Justin back. She had grown fond of him after all these years, and she could clearly see he loved her son and wanted the best for the blond.

 

"He said he gave Ted and Cyn a crash course about being CEO. Not that he will stop being Kinnetik's head, but he'll be able to go to Europe once in a while. I'm not saying it will be easy, but I'm pretty confident we'll manage everything."

 

"You know, sometimes I'm so amazed at how mature you are. I hope you and Brian will go through this together, I really do. He's so lucky to have you."

 

"No, Mom. I'm lucky to have him. Brian is an amazing person. I've never met someone so generous and true. He went through a lot in his life, that's why he has all those walls around himself. But you know, Mom... when we get to pass through the walls and all his bullshit, and believe me when I say that there's a LOT of bullshit...and we're able to see who he really is... we see how beautiful he is inside."

 

"Honey...I never understood why you loved him so much, right from the start. Back then I thought it was just a teenager's infatuation, but now it's so obvious it's true love..." she said holding his hand.

 

"He's the love of my life. It may sound a little dramatic, but I will never be happy without him." He looked at his mother's eyes and shrugged. "I only hope that... he believes it."

 

------------------------------------------

 

 

Brian opened his eyes slowly. The first thing he noticed was that he wasn't home. Than his nose registered the sterile smell at the same time his eyes registered the white ceiling, white walls...that could only mean he was in a fucking hospital. He tried to mutter a curse at the headache he was feeling, but discovered his throat was so dry he could barely talk. All he managed to say was "Mtthhffcckk..."

 

Ted got up immediately from the chair where he was dozing off and ran to his side.

 

"Bri?" he said, relief evident in his voice.

 

Brian looked at him and tried to talk again. "Water..." he whispered.

 

Ted poured some water into a glass and lifted Brian's head so he could drink. Brian tried to hold the glass, but he felt something tugging at his arm and realized that there was a tube attached to his forearm with some liquid dripping inside his vein. He was thirsty but when he tried to swallow he discovered it was really hard. He felt so tired that even a small movement was painful.

 

"What the fuck happened, Theodore?" he asked when he found his voice.

 

Ted found himself in a loss of words. Shit, what could he say? Somehow he knew that ‘I found you barely alive' wouldn't satisfy Brian. He was so grateful when Cynthia entered, followed by the doctor, that he couldn't suppress a smile.

 

"Hey, Brian, how's it going?" she asked, smiling.

 

"Fucking wonderful." He muttered between teeth. If there was something Brian Kinney hated more than anything, was to feel vulnerable, and being in a hospital bed with a ridiculous gown didn't make him feel exactly in control of the situation. The doctor approached him and Brian tried his best to sit up without help.

 

"I'm Doctor Sherman." He shook Brian's hand and looked at Ted and Cynthia. "Are you Mr. Kinney's relatives?"

 

"No, we're his friends." She said decidedly, looking worriedly at Brian.

 

"In this case, I'll have to ask you to wait outside; I need to talk to him."

 

They looked at him as if asking if he really wanted them to go. Brian only nodded, so they left the room without a word.

 

"Well, let's talk about what happened." The doctor said, looking at Brian when they left. "Mr. Kinney, you had a severe hypoglycemia. That means the glucose in your blood was very low. If your friend hadn't found you and brought you to the hospital, you could be in a coma right now, or even dead. We gave you glucose and most of your symptoms started to get better. But it wasn't easy. Did something like this ever happen to you before?"

 

Brian blinked a few times, trying to process the information. "No." he answered. "But I'm gonna be fine, right?"

 

"It depends on what caused this to happen." the doctor went on. "Your friends told me that you have been working too much, barely eating or sleeping. You smoke, you drink and you consume drugs, am I right?" He looked at Brian pointedly. "And you had cancer."

 

Even in a hospital bed, Brian was still Brian, so he glared at the doctor for a few seconds. He didn't need a lecture about his life style right now. But the man didn't look intimidated by his look, and went on.

 

"This kind of thing can happen when you have a life like this, Mr. Kinney. You clearly don't take care of yourself. But what worried me the most was the low level your blood glucose reached. Everybody can experience an episode of hypoglycemia with habits like yours. But to have such low levels, sometimes there are other reasons behind it."

 

Brian felt his guts clenching, but found his voice. "Please, explain. Other reasons such as...?"

 

"There are several reasons. An infection, for example. Or maybe you consumed too much alcohol with no food at all. But if you were at work, then you weren't drinking. Anyway...it's too early to say. I want your permission to run a few tests to find that out."

 

"What kind of tests?"

 

"We'll start with some blood samples and an x-ray. This way I can see if this cough of yours has something to do with it."

 

"I just drank water too fast."

 

"Still, I need to take a look at your lungs, Mr. Kinney. How long have you been feeling this short breathing?"

 

"It-it started right now." Brian lied, and looked to the window to avoid the man's look on him.

 

The doctor's pager started to vibrate and he read it quickly, saying "Excuse me, I'll be right back."

 

Brian sank against the pillow slowly. He looked at the white ceiling again and remained unmoving for a long time. He had a lot to think about. There was no way he could deny that he wasn't feeling so great for a long time. He had tried to blame work, lack of sleep, lack of appetite and even Justin's absence. But deep down he knew it wasn't just that.

 

He could feel his short breath and his ever present tiredness, but he always dismissed it because he was Brian fucking Kinney and he wasn't some week faggot. But when he woke up in the hospital he saw that he had to do something about it, and fast. That he was feeling this bad for some reason, and he already knew what that reason was. And frankly, there was only one thing he could do. He would have to start sleeping and eating. He would learn to hide the symptoms better, so no one would suspect he was sick. "If they don't know already", he thought with dismay.

 

He heard a faint knock at the door, and Ted and Cynthia entered hesitantly. Brian mustered his best lopsided grin and motioned for them to come in.

 

"First of all, you two: did you tell anybody about this?"

 

"No." Cynthia said. "There wasn't really time to do anything. Besides, it's still six in the morning."

 

"What about the people at Kinnetik? They were waiting for me."

 

"Don't worry; nobody saw you. I just said that ‘something came up' like you always do, and sent them home."

 

"Very good, Theodore." Brian sat up and looked at them pointedly. "Then don't tell a single soul. No one will know about this, okay? "When they nodded, he added. "Did you spend the whole night here at my deathbed?"

 

"We did." Ted said.

 

Brian sighed. It was only Ted and Cynthia's way to show him that they cared about him, but somehow this made him feel a little angry. He didn't need a babysitter. "Well, thanks." He muttered. But his voice shifted to his usual business tone right away.

 

"Cynthia," he started, not leaving room for them to reply "go to the loft and pack my suitcase. Put the best suits you find, I'm sure you know my taste by now. Oh, and I need my plane ticket."

 

"Ted," he went on without pausing, "help me get dressed. We're going to Kinnetik. Call everybody; I don't care what fucking time it is, I want that meeting NOW."

 

"Brian," Cynthia said, looking at him. "Are you sure you're alright?"

 

"Of course I am." He said, smiling sarcastically. "I'm fabulous."

 

"But...what did the doctor say?"

 

"He said that I'm fine, I just need to eat, sleep, stop drinking and smoking...you know, all that nonsense they always tell you."

 

"Did he said you could go?" Ted wanted to know. "The way we brought you here yesterday..."

 

"I don't need anybody to tell me if I can or can't go, Theodore. You should know that. I do what I want with my fucking life."

 

He was getting angry, they could tell. So, they didn't say anything, just looked at him expectantly.

 

"Well?" he said, exasperated. "What are you waiting for? Come on, help me to get out of here. I have a plane to catch."

Chapter Text

Justin smiled brightly and looked at the photographer for what he thought was the tenth time that night. The "Class of 2007" was all together, in their best clothes. The show after the graduation was a big success. The Art Institute had a beautiful and very popular art gallery in TriBeCa, and after the graduation ceremony the students had their best works on display for their families and friends.

 

"Okay guys, this will be the last one, I promise," said the photographer, while he began to arrange the young artists in the position he wanted.

 

While he waited for everyone to get ready, Justin took his time to look at his family and friends. Almost all of them were here, except for Daphne, who couldn't come because of her final tests.

 

He looked across the crowded room at the ones he loved. Michael, Ben, Debbie, Lindsay and Melanie sat in a corner talking and laughing, while Gus read a comic book to JR, who was sitting comfortably on Michael's lap. Near them, Brian was talking with his mother, a glass of wine in his hand as he smiled at something she said. Justin never ceased to marvel at the way Brian seemed to fit in anywhere. The art world wasn't his thing, yet he made comments about art as if he was familiar with it. Maybe he was.

 

Their eyes met, and for a brief moment Justin thought he caught the flicker of something he couldn't define in Brian's eyes; something like pride and pain and stubbornness altogether. But then Brian smiled at him and motioned for him to come closer, and the look was gone. So, when the last photograph was taken, he left his colleagues with a relieved expression and approached Brian, who immediately put his arm around Justin's shoulders.

 

"Tired, honey?" asked Jennifer.

 

"Not really, mom. I guess it was all the tension from these past days. You know, having to fix one of the paintings, trying to decide what I should pack to Europe..." he trailed off, not wanting to talk about that now, but realizing he just did.

 

"Don't worry, Sunshine." Brian tightened the grip on Justin's shoulders. "Pack your art supplies and your best clothes. Only the best. Please, you're going to Europe, so leave the image of ‘starving artist' behind."

 

"I don't know what you're talking about." He looked at Brian amused, feigning innocence.

 

"I think he means your old cargo pants, your tight shirts and baggy coats, dear." said Jennifer.

 

Justin rolled his eyes and took Brian's glass from his hand, drinking the wine. "Oh, mom... you too?"

 

Brian laughed and kissed the side of Justin's face. "It's not her fault if she knows about fashion. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about you.'

 

"Shut up, Brian, you love me anyway." Justin said playfully.

 

Brian looked directly in his eyes. "Yes, I do."

 

Jennifer almost choked on her drink. She had never seen Brian admitting his love for her son so openly. Not that she doubted Brian's love for Justin. It was obvious for those who knew him.

 

"Justin, please, come with me. There's someone I need you to meet." Simon approached the group and held Justin's arm. The blond looked apologetically at Brian and Jennifer and left.

 

Two hours later the crowd had been reduced to a few people here and there. Justin was tired and hungry and looking forward to dinner. He looked around for Brian but didn't find him, so he sat by Michael, Ben and Debbie.

 

"I'm so proud of you, Sunshine. I wouldn't be more proud if I was your mother."

 

"You ARE my mother, Debbie."

 

She cupped his cheek with a hand full of rings. "Oh, Sunshine! I'll miss you so much! I hate to think I won't see you for two years!"

 

Michael, holding JR close, looked at Justin, trying to picture what he would be feeling if he was about to leave everything he loved behind, even if it was to go to Europe, and decided that he really didn't want to know.

 

"Justin, I'm still worried about Rage." He said, trying to change the subject. "With you overseas, I don't see how we'll keep doing this."

 

"Don't worry, Michael. It won't be easy, I know, but everything will be alright, just as we agreed. You write the story, send it to me via email; I'll draw it and do the same. When we agree about the results, I'll send you the drawings and you'll take them to be printed."

 

"Yeah, don't worry." said Ben. "Remember that Brazilian guy we read about the other day, Renato...something?" Michael nodded and Ben turned to Justin, speaking, "He was hired by DC Comics to draw Superman, and he didn't have to leave his country! He said they use Fedex and the internet, and that it's as easy as it sounds to work this way."

 

"I hope so." Justin said. He didn't want to stop drawing for Rage. He loved the Gay Crusader, but he also needed the money. Life in Europe could be expensive. What if he didn't get used to sharing the living space with four completely strange people? "I'm gonna look for Brian," he said, getting up and starting to walk through the paintings. His mother, Mel and Lindsay were talking nearby. They waved to him and he smiled. He still couldn't see Brian or Gus.

 

He walked through the place and finally spotted them. Brian was carrying the boy, who had his arms around his father's neck, and they were looking at one of Justin's paintings. As he approached them, he heard Brian's soft voice talking to his son, who was giggling delighted. He saw the man he loved pointing at the abstract painting, trying to explain it.

 

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Gus nodded, smiling at his father. "This is the sunset's light through the loft's window, Sonnyboy. See, how it draws funny patterns on the floor?"

 

"How do you know that?" asked the boy, resting his head on Brian's shoulder.

 

"Yeah, how?" Justin asked from behind.

 

Brian turned his head a little to look at Justin and smiled. "Am I wrong?"

 

"No, you're not." It was amazing that Brian could understand perfectly the meaning of the painting called only "Sunset". It was like Brian sometimes could read his mind, or his heart. Maybe he could read both. Justin stepped beside them and Gus put one of his arms around his neck immediately, reminding him of his father's gesture. They stayed for some time in silence, looking at the painting, just enjoying the fact that they were together; lost in their own thoughts, a tired Gus yawning and holding both men with his small arms.

 

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After the graduation party they all went to a restaurant. Gus and JR slept for the most part of the dinner on their fathers' lap. Brian talked and smiled, all while holding Justin close to him while his other hand ran through Gus's hair. He wondered for a brief moment what would have happened in his life if these two hadn't come along. It felt almost like karma, that they had chosen the same day to make their appearance in his world.

 

Later, in Justin's small apartment, holding the sleeping blond in his arms, he marveled at Justin's beautiful face and peaceful expression. And he wondered how he would be able to live so far from him.

 

The next day Justin woke up to an empty bed. Running his hands through his hair he sat up and looked around. There was no sign of Brian, but there was a note over the nightstand, written in Brian's calligraphy, so he read it. "Good morning, Sleeping Beauty. I'm off to buy us some breakfast. Might take some time, I want to try that new place we saw a few blocks from here. B."

 

As if on cue, his stomach growled loudly, so he decided it was really time to get out of bed and get dressed. When he was brushing his teeth he heard the doorbell. It was probably Brian, so he left the bathroom, toothbrush still in hand, to open it.

 

Brian opened the building's main door, carrying two bags with food and coffee and started to climb up the stairs. He never had patience to wait for the old elevator. Fuck, it was worse than the loft's elevator; and noisier too. When he approached Justin's door he noticed it was half opened. Frowning, he started to open it, but when he heard Justin talking he stopped dead on his tracks.

 

"Please, Ethan...what part of ‘leave me alone' you don't understand?"

 

"But Justin...You didn't even talk to me last night at the party."

 

"Oh, and did you expect me to?" Justin's voice was full of sarcasm. "After I practically had to run from Pat's gallery with all my work, so you would give me some peace?"

 

"Justin," Brian heard the fucking fiddler's mellow voice and felt his insides burning, "You can't be serious. After all I did to prove how much I love you!"

 

"By giving me a fucking gallery?" Justin seemed to be pissed. "Seriously, did you think it would be that easy?"

 

"If that's not what you want, baby, please tell me what it is. I'll do anything to have you back."

 

Brian heard Justin sighing tiredly. "Listen, Ethan...I'll explain it to you. Again. And frankly, I don't understand how a talented guy like you can have such a hard time to understand something this simple." Then Justin's voice got firmer. "There's nothing you can do. I'm never coming back to you. And you definitely can't buy me back to your life. I love another man; a wonderful man, whom I've loved all my life."

 

Ethan's voice dripped with venom when he spoke. "Don't tell me. Brian Kinney."

 

"Exactly: Brian. So, you can follow me to Europe, I don't care. You can buy me a thousand galleries, I don't want them. You can give me flowers, write poems, call me in the middle of the night when I'm with him, it won't work. It will never work, Ethan, because Brian is the only one I want, the only one I'll ever love. He is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with. Is that clear enough for you?"

 

Brian fought the urge to go inside and hold Justin tight, kiss him and never let him go. If he ever doubted Justin's love for him, if he ever thought Justin regretted leaving the fiddler, he knew better now. A warm feeling started to spread through him. Justin had said he loved him before, but to hear him saying that to fucking Ian felt damn good.

 

"Baby..." Ethan pleaded. "Please, give me another chance. He's too old for you and he doesn't deserve your love! He's promiscuous! He's a slut!"

 

"Be careful when you talk about the man I love, Ethan." said Justin's cold voice. By then Brian was smiling; it was good to hear the motherfucker begging. "Now, please, get out."

 

"Justin, please..."

 

"Don't touch me!" said Justin harshly, and Brian's smile vanished.

 

"Baby..."

 

"I said don't touch me!" Justin said loudly.

 

Brian couldn't wait anymore. Maybe Justin would be angry with him, maybe the blond wanted to deal with Ian by himself, but fuck if he would let those greasy hands touching Justin's skin ever again. He opened the door with a loud thud and saw when both men jumped in surprise. "You heard him, Ian. Don't touch him. And get the fuck out of his house before I decide to change the shape of your nose!"

 

Ethan looked at him with eyes flaring with anger, but also a little bit of fear. Brian was without any doubt intimidating when he was angry. Justin looked at Brian worried, wondering how much he had heard from his conversation with Ethan. Praying that, this time, he had heard everything.

 

Brian raised one of his eyebrows, never breaking contact to Ethan's eyes. "Well? What are you waiting for? LEAVE."

 

"Justin, will you let him talk to me like that?" Ethan asked, looking at the blond.

 

Justin glared at him, reaching for Brian's hand and holding it. "What the fuck, Ethan? You heard him. Go away, and don't bother coming back."

 

The musician looked at both men, this time angrily. "It's all your fault, Kinney. He was perfectly happy with me. You enticed him; somehow you made him go back to you. But you don't deserve him."

 

"And you do, your little piece of shit?" Brian arched an eyebrow.

 

"Yes! Because I love him!" Ethan said, trying to touch Justin's arm, but Justin was faster. He slapped Ethan so fast that he only registered what he had done when Ethan touched his own face, wincing.

 

"Don't you dare to say that to me again, Ethan." Justin growled. "You don't know anything about love."

 

"And HE does?" Ethan squealed and pointed to Brian.

 

"Yes, I do." Brian recovered from his stupor and grabbed Ethan by his shirt. "Now, GET OUT OF HERE! "The shorter man didn't have a chance when Brian shoved him through the door and closed it angrily with a loud bang.

 

They stayed unmoving for several seconds; Brian with his forehead against the door, breathing loudly, and Justin looking at Brian's back, apprehensively. Brian's breath eventually returned to normalcy and he bent down, picked up the paper bags and calmly went to the kitchen, and without looking at Justin, put the paper bags on the small table.

 

"Brian..." said Justin hesitantly, "I'm sorry."

 

"It's alright, Justin." the taller man said without turning to look at him.

 

Suddenly Justin felt an urge to speak, anxious to explain everything to Brian, needing the brunet to know that he would never let Ethan or anyone be more important than him. "He...he went to the gallery months ago with some friends, and when he saw me there, he just went nuts. He started to follow me everywhere, sent flowers, charmed Patricia so she would give him my phone number and address...I told him to stop. I really did. But I don't know what happened to him. Sometimes he seems to be out of reality, out of his mind."

 

"He was the one who called you that night, wasn't he?"

 

"Yes...I'm sorry, I should have told you. But you seem to hate him so much, and I was afraid you would think I was encouraging him or something..."

 

"Justin..."

 

"He was the reason I left the gallery in a hurry, Brian. He bought it and said it was a present to me, so I would go back to him. And yesterday he was at the show, but I refused to talk to him and he left."

 

"Justin..."

 

"I think that maybe...maybe this pretending-to-be-straight thing messed with his head...he's obsessed about me, but I think this is just because he sees he never had the courage to be himself like we do..."

 

"JUSTIN!" Brian said, exasperated, and then added more softly, "Stop. You don't have to explain anything to me. I heard what you said to him." he gave the blond one of his tongue-in-cheek smiles.

 

Justin looked at him, relieved. "You did?" Brian nodded and Justin smiled too. "I meant every word."

 

"I know." Brian opened his arms and in less than one second Justin was there, feeling his warm and demanding lips against his own. There was nothing in the world he loved more than this man, and he marveled at how after all the years with him, his heart still started to beat faster when Brian reached for his pants and started to unzip them.

 

"Brian," he moaned, intoxicated by the feeling of Brian's hands, mouth, smell. The connection they always had seemed to have invaded his senses, as if he and Brian were the same person. He felt so close to him, not just in body, but also in mind, because there were no secrets anymore.

 

Brian lifted him until he was sitting on the kitchen's table and helped him to get rid of his pants. He was shirtless, and Brian's mouth traveled slowly along his chest, leaving a wet and hot trail behind, until he reached Justin's cock. The blond gasped when Brian kneeled down and held his erection with one firm hand, then ran his tongue from the base to the tip of his cock, sucking at the tip and grunting in appreciation as he felt a drop of precum in his mouth. He raised his head and looked at Justin with hazel eyes dark with lust, and Justin moaned louder. Sometimes he felt he could come just by the intensity of Brian's gaze.

 

When he felt Brian's mouth envelope his whole cock, a shiver ran through Justin's spine. "Oh, God!" he said, digging his fingers in Brian's hair. He raised his legs a little, giving his lover better access to him, and gasped when he saw Brian's fingers next to his mouth. Justin sucked them hungrily, knowing what that meant, and feeling overwhelmed by the vibrations Brian sent through his body as his tongue encircled him.

 

"Fuck!" he said as Brian put one finger at his hole's entrance, sending an electric bolt that went directly to his cock, making the leak again. He started to rock his own body against Brian's hand as the older man inserted one finger inside him. "More." He gasped, and Brian inserted another one. Justin didn't want to wait any longer, so he gripped Brian's hair and pushed his face toward his own, making the man get up, and when Brian's mouth was next to his, he attacked the red lips he loved so much and threw his arms around Brian's neck pulling him closer.

 

Brian grunted and reached for one of his pants' pockets, grabbing a condom and giving it to Justin. Without breaking the kiss, he unzipped his pants and lowered them to his knees while Justin opened the condom and put it on Brian's beautiful cock. The older man held Justin's legs and opened them a little more. Justin's body was tingling everywhere, and all coherent thought left him when Brian entered him slowly and stopped for a few seconds, resting his forehead against Justin's, trying to control his breath.

 

"Oh God, Justin...You're so fucking perfect..." he murmured between short breaths. "What is it you do to me...? "

 

They locked gazes and Brian started to move inside him, slowly at first, but increasing the speed as his control started to disappear. Soon he was pounding into Justin hard and fast, and the blond couldn't control a whimper when he felt his orgasm approaching. When he came with a cry, Brian let go too and they moaned each other's names, while all the love they felt coursed through them like a powerful drug.

 

 

-------------------------------------------

 

 

Brian crossed the street and entered the building, not bothering to take the elevator. As he stepped slowly on the stairs to the third floor he took his time to think about his decision. It wasn't going to be easy, he knew. After so many years of building and strengthening walls around himself, he would have a hard time changing that, even if it was for just one night. But he was determined to speak. He knew Justin needed all the reassurance he could give now. And for once, he wouldn't back away from it, like he did so many times before.

 

Justin would be going to Europe tomorrow night, so Brian had only less than two days to do what he came to do. He knew that if he was able to do that, Justin would go to Europe with a light heart, all the insecurities about their relationship gone from his mind, and would be able to focus on his future. Brian wanted to give him a fresh start. He was young and had a whole new life ahead of him. So, Brian swallowed his fears and pushed them deep inside his heart. It was time to be honest with Justin. He owed him that. He wanted him to know how he felt about him; at least for tonight, he wouldn't hold back.

 

When he reached Justin's floor he realized he was a little breathless. Fuck. He didn't have time for this shit now. He was feeling better and that's all that mattered for now. When he entered the apartment, he went straight to the kitchen and poured him a shot of Jim Beam. He could use all the help he could get, and a little courage wouldn't hurt.

 

Justin opened the bedroom's door. "Hey." He said. "I heard a noise."

 

"How was everything at the airport?"

 

"Fine. Mom and Debbie cried a little, but I was expecting that. Michael almost cried too."

 

"Yeah, you know Mikey. Beautifully sentimental."

 

"Yeah...and how was everything with the girls? Did you say goodbye to Gus?"

 

Brian sat on the old sofa and extended his hand to Justin. When the blond held it, he pulled Justin to his lap. "In fact, no." He cleared his throat. "I want to talk to you about something."

 

"Should I be worried?" Brian never wanted to talk about anything, so Justin knew without asking that this was something big.

 

"No, of course not. The thing is...I...changed my plane ticket. I'm not going to Pittsburgh tomorrow night; I'm going to Canada with Gus in the afternoon."

 

Justin let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. He liked when Brian spent some time with his son. He knew the boy was like a fresh spring breeze in Brian's life, and he had genuine love and admiration for his dad. Justin knew Brian needed to feel loved, although he denied it, and he thanked God he had Gus to help him on this task.

 

Brian took a deep breath and squeezed Justin's hand. "The truth is..." he stopped, unable to go on. Justin could see it was still hard for him to talk about his feelings, and truth to be told, he had never seen Brian so open like these days. So he just squeezed his hand back and let him tell whatever he wanted when he was ready.

 

"I...NEED to go away first. I can't..."

 

He ran his hand through his hair and pinched the bridge if his nose. "I can't see you walking away again."

 

Justin felt an invisible cold hand gripping at his heart. Despite Brian's best efforts to hide his feelings, he knew he was hurting, because Justin was hurting too. Knowing their separation wouldn't be forever didn't make it any easier. He buried his face in the crook of Brian's neck and inhaled deeply, fighting the tears that threatened to fall. He wouldn't queen out now. The last thing Brian needed this moment was to see his tears.

 

They remained silent just holding each other for a while, until Justin felt calmer and spoke. "It's okay. I understand. But...I'll be back, Brian. You know it, don't you?"

 

Brian didn't want to lie to Justin, but he also couldn't say what he was thinking now. So he said just "Yes."

 

"Brian..." Justin pushed his face away from him a little so he could look into his eyes. "Please," he murmured, "Tell me you're alright. Tell me we're gonna be fine."

 

"If this is about you going to Europe, Justin...don't worry. I'm okay with this, seriously. This is your moment; the time of your life. You can't let it slip through your fingers. And...about us..." he was uncomfortable with Justin's prying gaze, but he forced himself to go on. "The way I feel about you...about us...it'll never change."

 

He knew instantly it had been the right decision, because he was rewarded with Justin' sunshine smile as the blond threw his arms around his neck and showered his face with small kisses. Seeing his blue eyes shining so close to him, he knew he would do everything to see that smile again. Laughing and kissing Justin back, he decided that for just one night, he wouldn't be Brian fucking Kinney, the successful and smart ad man, the stud of Liberty Avenue, the king of sarcastic remarks. He would lay down his barriers and be only Brian, the man who was in love with Justin.

Chapter Text

They rented car and drove through New York's streets without any rush. Brian looked outside as he drove through East 57th Street. Justin looked outside too, through the other window, his left hand resting comfortably on Brian's thigh. They were in silence, but it was a peaceful one, and they felt comforted by each other's presence.

 

Brian parked the car in front of The Four Seasons Hotel. "Let's go," he said simply. Justin didn't ask, just let the older man hold his hand and pull him into the luxurious lobby. The hotel was wonderful, and Justin thought he had never seen a place more beautiful in his life, even for Brian's standards. He wished he had dressed more formally, but he had packed his best clothes like Brian told him to do.

 

The brunet didn't stop at the reception. He went straight to the elevators, only nodding at the concierge who greeted him with a smile. He pressed the top floor button and the elevator's doors closed. Justin was in awe. Even the elevator's interior was more sophisticated than Jennifer's living room. When the doors of the private elevator opened, Justin found himself inside the most luxurious room he had ever seen.

He walked in a daze, Brian right behind him, admiring the living area, with its cream-coloured walls, white carpet and marble fireplace. The furniture was white and beige, comfortable sofas and chairs. But what struck him was the light reduced to a minimum, and in a corner of the room, near a huge glass window that allowed a breathtaking 360-degree view to all Manhattan, was a dining table adorned with candles, ready for dinner. Looking at Brian, his expression was so genuinely puzzled that the older man gave a short laugh.

"What's this?" he asked the brunet.

 

"This, Sunshine, is the best night of your life."

 

Brian pulled an astonished Justin toward the table and made him sit. A lateral door opened and a waiter appeared with a bottle of Champagne in his hands. "Shall I serve, sir?" he asked politely.

 

"Yes." Brian said, never taking his eyes of Justin, who looked around like a small kid in Disneyland, a big smile plastered on his face. The waiter poured a little bit of Champagne in Brian's tall glass. "Veuve Clicquot '96, sir."

 

Brian took a small sip and nodded to the man, who then filled Brian's a Justin's glass and left the bottle in ice, leaving the room.

 

"You did all this for me?" Justin asked finally, resting his eyes on Brian's beautiful face.

 

"You didn't see anything yet."

 

The blond wanted to jump in Brian's arms, but the waiter returned with the food. He put a sophisticated and beautifully decorated plate in front of Justin. "Filet of Beef Tenderloin with Sauteed Mushrooms & Onions" he said. Then he did the same with Brian, saying, "Pecan-Crusted Salmon Filet with Portobelollo Provencale". Justin looked at Brian questioningly, because he had never eaten something this refined before. The brunet smiled slightly, raising an eyebrow in a seductive Kinney-ish way that sent a shiver through Justin's spine.

 

"Can I get you anything else, Mr. Kinney?"

 

"No, thank you. Leave the bottle."

 

"Very well, sir. I'll be outside if you need me." With that the man left.

 

"Brian..."Justin murmured, trying to find the right words to express his awe.

 

"Tsk tsk..."Brian gave him his tongue-in-cheek smile. "You're speechless...That must be a first! Since we'll spend a longer time without seeing each other...I decided to give you a special night."

 

"Every night with you is special." Justin said with sincerity.

 

"But this one...you'll never forget. Now eat your dinner, Sunshine. I doubt the ‘Filet whatever' is good when it's cold."

 

They started to eat slowly, enjoying the food and each other's company. The food was delicious, the Champagne was divine. The bubbles tickled Justin's nose and he giggled a little.

 

"Hey, don't drink too much." Brian said. "I want you fully awake tonight."

 

They talked about the gang, Gus and the girls, Rage, Kinnetik, the Art Institute, Jennifer and Molly. They were so familiar with each other's lives that they could talk about anything. Every now and then Brian stopped eating and just stared at Justin as the young man talked excitedly about his work, with vivid eyes and flushed cheeks. He wondered how amazing it was that the stubborn teenager who followed him everywhere turned into this wise and talented young man, who had already gone through lots of hard experiences, but never lost his sunshine smile, his joy, determination and his fascinating bright eyes.

 

Justin finished his dinner and murmured "Wow. This was the best thing I've ever eaten in my life."

 

"Wait until you see the dessert, Sunshine."

 

Justin raised one of his eyebrows in a gesture that was so like Brian, that the older man had to smile. Sometimes his influence in Justin's life was so easy to see..."What's for dessert?" the blond asked seductively.

 

Brian took the hint and got up from his chair slowly, taking Justin's hands in his and leading him to the middle of the living room. "You." he murmured. "Stay here," he said in low voice. He turned and went to the CD player next to the fireplace. When he turned it on a beautiful song started to play. Justin knew the song from one of his favorite films, Notting Hill. Brian stopped in front of him and looked directly at Justin's eyes. "Dance with me."

 

The blond looked at him astonished. Brian wasn't one for romantic gestures. That was so out of character that made him feel a little nervous. "Who are you, and...where is Brian Kinney?" he tried to joke to ease the butterflies in his stomach.

 

"I'm right here." Brian murmured, taking Justin's hand in his and starting to move. The young man rested his chin in Brian's shoulder and closed his eyes, determined not to think of what this meant, just to feel. They started to dance in perfect synchrony, moving their bodies with the music. Justin could smell Brian's cologne, feel his soft neck against his cheek. He started to pay attention to the music and wondered if Brian had chosen the song on purpose.

 

 

"It's amazing how you can speak right to my heart
Without saying a word, you can light up the dark
Try as I may I could never explain
What I hear when you don't say a thing

The smile on your face lets me know that you need me
There's a truth in your eyes saying you'll never leave me
The touch of your hand says you'll catch me whenever I fall
You say it best when you say nothing at all

All day long I can hear people talking out loud
But when you hold me near you drown out the crowd
Try as they may they could never define
What's been said between your heart and mine

The smile on your face lets me know that you need me
There's a truth In your eyes saying you'll never leave me
The touch of your hand says you'll catch me whenever I fall
You say it best when you say nothing at all"

 

The kiss started soft and tender, warm mouths tasting, wet tongues exploring feeling each other. But with them, lust and desire were always the next steps, and Brian's hands held Justin's head deepening the kiss while the blond threw his arms around the other's neck, inhaling deeply, wanting Brian to crawl under his skin, so maybe he would remember his scent when they were apart.

 

"I'm gonna miss you so much..." Justin said, looking at Brian.

 

"Don't. Promise you won't think about me," he said, between kisses.

 

"I can't."

 

"You have to. I need to know you're happy."

 

"I'm happy now."

 

"I didn't mean now. It's not enough. I want you to be happy always."

 

"I know. But I can't promise I won't miss you. Because I will, every single day."

 

"Me too. You know this, don't you?"

 

Justin smiled and kissed his jaw. "Yes, I know."

 

"I'm not an easy person to live with, and I haven't always given what you want, but..."

 

"You're wrong, Brian." Justin shook his head no. "I have all I want."

 

"Stop. Let me say this. I want to."

 

Justin nodded and waited for Brian to go on.

 

He cleared his throat. "I don't know how you put up with my shit all this time, but..." Brian swallowed, looking for the right words. "I'm glad you did. I can't even imagine how my life would have been...without you." He cupped Justin's face with his hand and whispered. "I love you, Justin...I need you to know it, without any doubt. You...you are the only one I'll ever love."

 

The CD continued playing and Justin, feeling a lump on his throat, took Brian's hand and, without taking his eyes off the hazel ones, pulled him without a word in what he assumed was the bedroom's direction. They stopped next to the bed, and kissed again without any rush, but this time their hands started to roam each other's bodies. Justin slowly took Brian's coat off, in a gesture that sent flashes to his mind, reminded him of another time when he had done that to a black coat in a ballroom full of people; another time when he felt the happiest man alive.

 

Eyes locked, they started to unbutton each other's shirts, mirrored gestures, exposing chests slowly. Brian's shirt slid over his shoulders and Justin's hands soon followed. Bare chested, they held each other tight, feeling soft skin with familiar hands. Justin sighed as he felt Brian's mouth traveling from his mouth to his chin and neck until it reached a point behind his ear, where it stayed, nibbling the soft flesh and making his breath hitch.

 

He started unzipping Brian's pants, feeling the hardness inside them, and he caressed it slowly, hearing Brian's moan. He took them off, along with the black underwear and looked at the perfect tanned body in front of him. When he started to undo his own pants, Brian stopped him.

 

"No." he murmured. "Let me." He sat on the bed with Justin in front of him and licked the young man's belly button. Justin buried his hands in Brian's chestnut hair and closed his eyes, smiling as he felt the mouth he loved so much kissing his belly, sending goose bumps through his skin. Brian unzipped his pants and took them off, focusing his attention on Justin's hardness under the soft fabric of the underwear. He caressed it teasingly and the blond bucked his hips, anxious to feel nothing between his cock and Brian's hand.

 

Slowly the brunet took Justin's underwear off and his mouth watered, marveling at the sight in front of him: Justin's creamy and soft skin contrasting with his cock's pink one. One of his arms encircled Justin's waist and the other hand held the base of his cock, and Justin, in a daze, saw Brian's pink tongue licking the precum from the tip. The older man raised his eyes and smiled, and in a fluid movement took Justin's length all in his mouth, making the young man's eyes roll to the back of his head.

 

"Brian...God, this is so good..." he moaned, feeling his knees suddenly weak as Brian's movements increased while his tongue performed a dance on him, licking, sucking, teasing. Justin felt his toes starting to curl and he knew he wouldn't last much. "Stop," he said." I don't want to come now. I want you inside me."

 

Brian kissed his cock once more and looked around for his pants. Finding them, he took the ever-present lube and condom from one of the pockets and got up, his hazel eyes looking deep into Justin's blue ones.

 

"No. It won't be like this." And he pressed the condom in Justin's hand.

 

Justin's eyes widened. "Are you sure?"

 

Brian nodded with a small smile. "I am. I want to feel you."

 

Justin's heart started to beat faster. Since he left to New York, Brian never let him top. Justin knew, and that was what made it more special than any random fuck, that he was the only man to top Brian in a long, long time.

 

Brian sat on the bed again and moved further, laying down, Justin crawling on top of him with feline grace. They locked gazes again, but Brian's emotions were too raw in this moment, so he closed his eyes. He had bared his soul to Justin. There was nothing else in him anymore, that didn't belong to the young man. And that, he thought, was the way it should be.

 

Justin kissed Brian's collarbone gently, trying to control his eagerness to be inside him. His tongue started to trace random patterns along Brian's chest, and when Justin found one nipple and slowly licked and bit it softly, Brian opened his eyes, arched his back and moaned. That had to be the most beautiful sound in the world, Justin thought. Brian's moans always made his heart beat faster.

 

He went down Brian's abs, always licking and caressing, and when he reached his thighs, he spread them apart gently. Putting some lube on his right hand, he held Brian's cock with the other and sucked its tip, making Brian moan louder. When he took all of it in his mouth, his other finger found Brian's hole and he slowly circled the opening, making Brian's hips buck a little. Slowly, he inserted one finger and Brian's whole body tensed, his breath hitching. "God, Justin!"

 

"Shhh," Justin murmured, caressing Brian's thighs, and the brunet's body slowly started to relax. Justin's mouth left his cock and he raised his head to look at Brian, ready to stop at any signal of distress. Brian's eyes were closed in concentration, willing himself to relax. Justin inserted another finger and Brian breathed heavily, but didn't move. Slowly, the blond started to move his fingers in and out, and Brian's discomfort started to turn into pleasure.

 

Brian started to move slowly and he spread his legs wider, to give Justin better access. The blond inserted another finger without stopping the movements, and Brian arched his back again. "Oh, fuck...!" he moaned, his head thrashing on the pillow. Justin knew he was ready, so he took his fingers out, making Brian moan at the loss of contact.

 

He put the condom on himself, and Brian started to roll. "No, please..." Justin asked. "Please, don't roll over..." he took a deep breath. "Stay like this, I...I want to look at you. You are so beautiful..."

 

Brian hesitated for a moment. He had never been fucked like this, he felt too vulnerable, exposed, because he had to look in Justin's yes. But it was alright, he told himself, this was Justin, his Justin, and tonight he would give him everything he deserved. So he pressed his back against the mattress again and Justin smiled, raising his legs slowly, and positioning himself.

 

When he entered Brian, he had to fight the urge to come, because it was so tight and wonderful...he stopped, giving Brian time to adjust and trying to calm himself. Brian's eyes were glazed, as if he was in a trance. He felt full of life, full of Justin, and that was the most amazing feeling in the world. Justin started to move in a steady rhythm that seemed to last forever, both rocking together. He looked at Brian and caught his gaze, and without a word, they sent all their love to each other.

 

Soon, the young man couldn't hold on any longer, and he increased his thrusts, and when Brian's legs encircled his waist, he started to move hard and fast, and he just couldn't think straight, because it felt so good to be inside the man he loved, and he never wanted it to end. When he changed the angle, he touched that place inside Brian that made him feel like he was going insane with pleasure, falling, falling in a pool of light. "God...!" Brian whispered, unable to stop his moans anymore. "Oh my God, Justin...oh, fuck...".

 

Justin's was enthralled with Brian, totally open like never before, groaning and cursing and whispering his name...It was so beautiful, seeing him like this, not holding back or hiding, pupils dilated with lust. He didn't think it was possible to love him more than he already did, and he felt his heart so full of love for this man...he felt so special, privileged to be the one to touch his heart. He touched Brian's cock and that was enough. Brian threw his head back and came hard, a guttural moan leaving his throat, his whole body shaking on fire. That was what it took to make Justin come too, wave after wave of pleasure hitting him like an endless ocean. He collapsed over Brian, still inside him, trying to regain his breath. Brian's eyes were closed and he too, was breathing hard.

 

They didn't say a word, because they didn't have to. Brian opened his eyes and they just stayed there in a sweaty embrace, limbs tangled, looking at each other, until Brian's eyes started to drop and he finally closed them, too tired to fight sleep. Justin caressed his face and smiled a little. After this night, he could never say he didn't know what happiness was. He felt truly loved, and he silently thanked God or whoever might be listening, for putting Brian Kinney in his life.

 

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When Brian opened his eyes it was already morning. He had slept like a stone. Turning his head to his side, he saw Justin, sleeping like an angel, pink lips a little parted. The young man was tired, he knew, because he was too. They woke up in the middle of the night, and after christening the sofa, the armchair and the rug in front of the fireplace, they had practically collapsed on the bed, sleeping instantly.

 

He called the kitchen and ordered breakfast, then looked at the clock. It was already eleven AM and his plane would leave at three PM. In this moment, Justin started to move, sighing contently in his sleep. Brian caressed his soft blond hair. "Good morning, Sunshine."

 

"Hey." Justin's eyes fluttered open and he pulled Brian closer for a kiss. "Hmmm...I haven't slept this good in a long time."

 

"Yeah, me too. Come on, let's take a shower, it's almost noon."

 

"Ohhh, no! I feel so good here, I never want to get up!"

 

"Well, that's a pity..." He sat up and arched one eyebrow. "We didn't christen the shower yet."

 

Justin giggled and got up after Brian. "No way! Don't even think about going there without me!"

 

After their usual dose of protein, they sat at the terrace, looking at the city, having breakfast. Brian never used to eat in the morning, so he poured himself a generous cup of coffee and let the hot black liquid slide down his throat. He ate a toast, but only to spare himself from Justin' complaining he was too thin. But Justin attacked his eggs, bacon and waffles with a fury that made the older man give a short laugh.

 

"What?" asked the blond, his mouth full.

 

"You." Brian said. "I never get enough of looking at you."

 

Justin swallowed, he wanted to say something, anything, but after the wonderful night they had, he kind of expected Brian to be all closed this morning. But the hazel eyes that stared at him were of the same man who had said and showed so much the night before. They finished their breakfast in silence, both dressed only with their robes.

 

"Listen, I've got to get ready," said Brian, looking at him. "You can stay here for a while. My suitcase is already here, so I'll go directly to the airport. " When Justin started to protest, he added "In fact, I don't want you to go with me to the airport, okay? I don't want to...I don't want to say goodbye with people around us."

 

Justin held him tight, fighting the tears again. Brian held him back for a while. "I need to get dressed. Will you wait for me here?"

 

Justin only nodded, and Brian let him go and slowly walked to the bedroom. The blond felt his heart clench, his chest so heavy that he had to concentrate to keep breathing. This was it. They would be apart again. He didn't want to make Brian promise to visit him, not after all the love the man showed him last night. He knew that Brian would go to Europe when he was ready. And Justin would be waiting for him.

 

Brian stepped out of the bedroom, pulling his suitcase. He stopped in front of Justin and sighed. "Well, it's time."

 

Justin launched himself in Brian's arms in a desperate kiss, and Brian kissed him back, wanting to carve this moment in his memory forever. He pulled back and touched Justin's swollen lips with his thumb. "I-I don't want you to be sad. Everything will be alright."

 

"I know. I...I love you Brian...I'll never love anyone like I love you."

 

"I love you too. Never doubt it."

 

Justin tried to smile but all he managed was a whimper and a grimace. "I'll call as soon as I land, okay?"

 

"Okay." Brian said, and kissed him again. "Goodbye, Justin." And he was gone, suddenly grabbing his coat and suitcase in a hurry, leaving Justin in the middle of the living room, feeling happy and sad at the same time. Sighing heavily, he turned and went to the bedroom. There was no point in staying there anymore. He would go home and finish packing.

 

When he entered the bedroom, his heart skipped a beat. There was a box in the middle of the bed. He sat down slowly and opened it with trembling fingers. Inside was a small white card, with Brian's handwriting, only one word written: "Always." And next to the card a thing that made a solitary tear slide down Justin's face: a golden gardenia.

Chapter End Notes:

Author's note:

 

 

QAF - Season Five - Episode 512

 

Quote about Golden Gardenias

 

Justin: "There's a Chinese legend that once your lover breathes them he'll love you forever."

 

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Song:

 

When You Say Nothing At All, by Ronan Keating

Chapter Text

"Okay, Daddy, throw the ball!"

 

Brian did his best, but he was no baseball player. As soon as he threw it, Gus swung the bat and the ball flew across the field. Brian's ears were assaulted by a symphony of screams, as if all the children of the neighborhood were screaming next to his ears. Okay, he admitted he didn't like children very much, and except for Gus, he wasn't used to being around them either. But when the boy asked him to play baseball with him and his friends, Brian couldn't say no. That's why he found himself surrounded by children. At least he was in Toronto, not in Pittsburgh, so no one would see Brian Kinney with a bunch of kids. Thank God for small favors.

 

"Guys! It's lunchtime!" called Lindsay from the back door.

 

"Awww, Mommy...can we stay a little longer?"

 

Brian would never let the opportunity to stop the game pass. He was having a hard time trying to hide how breathless he was. "No, no, Sonnyboy, you said that half an hour ago."

 

Gus grimaced, but he never disobeyed his father. "Okay guys, see you tomorrow," he said to his friends.

 

"Bye, Gus!" the boys yelled. "Bye, Mr. K!"

 

Brian rolled his eyes, but waved at the children anyway. He could see how proud Gus was of showing his Daddy to his friends, and fuck if he would embarrass the boy.

 

"Okay, young man, there's still time for a quick shower." said Lindsay as they entered the house. "You are a mess."

 

Gus ran up the stairs pouting and she turned to Brian. "Lunch is not exactly ready, but I noticed you need to rest, Bri. You're awfully pale!"

 

"Well," he snorted, "try to deal with a bunch of kids their age and tell me what you think later."

 

"I don't believe it..."she started to laugh. "Brian Kinney, are you admitting you're getting old?"

 

"Hey, I didn't say that!" he smiled. "I'll never get old, you know."

 

"Oh, you will, and we'll sit at the porch and watch our grandchildren playing."

 

"THAT will NEVER happen, Lindz, believe me." She looked at him sharply, and he shook his head slightly. "That would ruin my reputation. So...what's for lunch?"

 

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Later that night, after dinner, Brian told her he would tuck Gus in bed while Lindsay stayed in the living room picking up Gus's toys. She was about to enter the bedroom with the toys, but she stopped at the door, watching them. Brian murmured soft words next to his son's ear, and the boy looked at him with big serious eyes. She wondered for a second what they were talking about, because Gus nodded very seriously and hugged Brian tight. She let a sigh escape her lips when she heard Brian saying a little bit louder "I love you too, Sonnyboy."

 

Mel held her from behind. "Hey...come help me with the dishes, Lindz...let them talk."

 

""I know..." murmured the blonde as they headed to the kitchen. "It's just that, sometimes, it still amazes me how he is able to express his love for Gus so freely."

 

"Maybe he is growing up, hon."

 

An hour later, Lindsay knocked at Gus's door. Brian was still inside with his son. When nobody answered, she opened the door slowly, and her heart just melted. Brian was asleep at Gus's side, holding the boy in his arms. They were so much alike, it was clear they were father and son. Their peaceful faces were side by side, foreheads almost touching.

 

"Brian..." she whispered, shaking him gently. "Wake up, or you're gonna miss the plane."

 

Brian blinked a few times and said hoarsely "Okay." Looking at Gus, he placed a kiss on his face and disentangled himself from the boy. Getting up, he stretched and looked at his son. "You're a good mother, Lindz."

 

She smiled tenderly at their son. Brian put his arm around her waist and they left the bedroom together.

 

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Life without Justin wasn't so different from life with him, Brian mused, as he walked down the street to get some quality coffee. He still went to work, to the diner, the gym, Woody's, sometimes Babylon. But at least during the day, Brian had his work to keep him busy and Kinnetik was always full of people. It was when he left his work and went to the loft that his problems began, because he couldn't stop the pang he felt every time he opened the metal door. Because if he thought that it would be hell for him with Justin at New York, this was far, far worse.

 

With Justin in another country, and coming back only after two years, if ever, Brian was trying to cut himself from Justin as best as he could. He and Justin had agreed that they wouldn't talk too frequently now, because hell, Paris wasn't around the corner, phone calls were expensive. Not that Brian minded, he had a lot of money to spend, but if he kept talking to Justin too much, his resolve would falter.

 

He entered Starbuck's and saw with dismay the big line he had to face. Sighing, he took off his sunglasses and was about to join the line when someone called his name. Looking around, he saw his sister wearing the beige and black uniform, and had to suppress a laugh. He never thought he would see the day when Claire had to work.

 

She came towards him with a tray and he tried his best not to grimace at her. "Do you wan to sit? I'll get your coffee for you."

 

"I'm perfectly fine, thank you."

 

"Shit, Brian, sit down and shut up! Let me get you some coffee, will you?" God, you're such a child sometimes!"

 

He rolled his eyes and sighed. "All right, since you're playing nice today, I'll have a non-fat latte, please," he said before she headed for the counter.

 

"Brian!" he heard Michael's voice and turned his head to see his friend at the door.

 

"Hey, Mikey!"

 

"I went to Kinnetik and Cynthia told me you were here."

 

"Something happened?" Brian asked. Since they got back from New York more than a month ago, he hadn't seen Michael yet. They talked by the phone sometimes, but not as frequently as before and it was not the same thing. Brian didn't want to admit, but he missed his friend.

 

"Do I need a reason to see my best friend?" Michael sat down beside Brian near the counter.

 

"No. But I'm sure you have one."

 

"Briiaaan!" Michael whined.

 

"Come on, Mikey. Spill it."

 

Michael shifted uncomfortably on his seat. "Well, I just got a call from the girls today..."

 

"Are the kids alright?" Brian wanted to know, concern in his voice.

 

"Yeah, they're fine."

 

"So...?"

 

"Uhh...Mel lost her job. Didn't Lindsay call you?"

 

"Not yet, but I'm sure she will. Soon."

 

"You should call them, Brian. See if they need anything."

 

"Last time I checked they were doing more than fine."

 

"But that was a month ago! And now, Mel lost her job and Lindsay doesn't work, so they'll surely be in trouble."

 

"I wonder why they didn't call me."

 

"Mel is stubborn, Brian. Maybe they still have a little money, but I hate to know they're out there completely abandoned, raising OUR children all by themselves!"

 

"Not completely by themselves, Mikey. Or have you forgotten the ridiculous amount of money I send them every month?" He could easily bet he was the one who was paying for Gus AND JR's education.

 

"Still, why don't you call them, see if they need anything? I'd love to help, but I can't send them as much money as you can. I need to help Ben, we have Hunter's college; you know it's not cheap."

 

Brian sighed. "Okay, I'll call them as soon as I go back to Kinnetik. Happy?"

 

Michael gave him a smile. "Yeah, thanks. I knew you wouldn't say no."

 

"Hey, anything for our kids, right?"

 

Claire came with Brian's latte and smiled at them. Or at least was what Michael thought. He had never seen Claire smiling, he didn't even know she could do it, so he wasn't sure, he mused.

 

"Hi, Michael. Can I get you something?"

 

"A frapucuccino, please."

 

"Okay." She left them alone again.

 

"So," Michael started. "How's Claire?"

 

"How the hell would I know? Why don't you ask her yourself?"

 

"Because you two seem to be getting close."

 

"That's bull shit. I always come here, you know. She just happens to work here now."

 

Michael shook his head smiling a little and looking at his own hands. "You're so full of shit, Brian!"

 

Brian looked at him, the latte in his hands. "What the hell are you talking about?"

 

Claire came back with Michael's coffee and left them again.

 

When Michael saw her distant enough not to listen, he went on. "Why don't you admit that you two are getting closer?"

 

"Because it isn't true."

 

"Yeah, right." Michael would never understand his friend. Claire had been everything but a caring sister, and in Michael's opinion she didn't deserve the brother she had...neither of the Kinneys deserved him, truth to be told. And here was Brian, talking to her as if nothing had happened. "Well, maybe it's just as well. She's your sister. It's natural to want to be friends with her...I suppose."

 

Brian raised an eyebrow. "Oh, I can perfectly see what's going through your head. You're already imagining a beautiful and sentimental reunion between two lost siblings. So help me and choose the correct answer, Mickey. I suddenly lost my will to strangle Claire because: a) I have an overwhelming desire to feel loved and accepted, or b) I realized I have a connection with my sister, or c) I can see how much she has changed because of her disease and I'm ready to forgive her?" he said, his voice full of sarcasm. "That's for soap operas, Mickey, that's not how it happens in real life.

 

Michael wanted to say ‘all of the above', but he didn't. "Shut up, asshole. You're unbelievable."

 

Brian gave him his tongue-in-cheek smile. "I know."

 

Brian finished his latte and got up. "Let's go Mickey. Time to go back to work." He threw a twenty dollar bill on the counter. "Bye, Claire. See you tomorrow." He said to his sister who was cleaning the counter nearby.

 

"Bye Brian."

 

"Tomorrow, huh?" Michael gave Brian an amused smile and followed his friend to the street.

 

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A week later, Brian parked his car in front of his building. It was Friday afternoon and he had decided to go home earlier. His team was something to be proud of. The new ad execs were intelligent and audacious, and although Brian still was better than anyone, of course, they were able to handle things pretty well. Cynthia and Ted were still getting used to giving orders, but Brian sometimes thought that they loved Kinnetik as much as he did, and eventually they would be alright.

 

As soon as he left the car, he looked at the building's entrance and sighed in dismay. His mother was standing near the steps, a stoic face and a rigid posture, looking at him. He approached her not bothering to hide how displeased he was that she was there. The loft was his home, his safe haven, and he hated when she disturbed the place with her presence.

 

"What are you doing here?" he asked, looking at her and trying to keep a neutral face.

 

"Is this the way you talk to your mother?" she said in a resigned tone that always infuriated him. She could play the saint all she wanted but Brian had never knew a woman with so much bitterness in h heart. "Won't you invite me in?'

 

He shrugged and opened the door without a word, knowing that she would follow him. They got in and then out of the elevator in uncomfortable silence. On the third floor, Brian opened the loft's metal door and entered, Joan right behind him. He took a few steps in and turned to her. "Now please, tell me to what do I owe the honor of your presence."

 

"I came here to thank you."

 

"For what?"

 

"For helping Claire. She said you helped her getting this job. She was devastated when her ex-husband took the kids, and she suddenly decided she needed a job and an apartment to get the kids back. I don't like what she's doing, but I worry about her."

 

Brian raised his eyebrows. "Is that all? I still have work to do. I could use a little peace."

 

"You shouldn't bring work to your home. It's unhealthy."

 

"Well, some of us really need to work, mother."

 

"But you don't." she made a gesture with her arms indicating the loft. "All this...for what, Brian? For who? You're a wealthy man, you don't need more than you already have. It's almost a sin..."

 

"Thanks for the ‘almost' part." He said sarcastically.

 

"I can understand that Claire wants a little more money...She has the boys to take care of...but you? You just have to worry about yourself. You don't have a wife, so you'll never have a kid, all because you decided to defy God's ways and live in sin..."

 

 

He took a deep breath, He could already feel a headache coming. "Get out." he said quietly, trying to control himself.

 

"I don't know why God does this to me. I pray everyday for you to find your way to a decent life. But you don't seem to care that God made you a MAN, Brian, and a man's place is beside a woman."

 

"You mean like Jack's place was beside you? Hating every minute of his life with you, with us, but staying? Why you stayed together? You were never a couple."

 

"I did what was expected of me. Your father was a cruel man, but we were married and I did what was my duty. But you didn't follow our example. I don't like to think what will happen when you'll have to face the Lord . I'm your mother, I worry about your soul."

 

He snorted. "Yeah, my soul. Tell me, saint Joan, how come you worry so much about my soul but you never worried about ME?"

 

She made a resigned face again. "I see there's no point in talking to you. You'll never change."

 

"Goodbye, Mother. You know the way out."

 

"Alright, I'll go." She turned to leave, but stopped by the door and looked at him again. "Claire told me you two have been seeing each other frequently."

 

"What if we are? Any problem with that?"

 

"Well...I'll just ask for one small favor. Claire is older that you, but she's too inexperienced, she never left me or her husband's side. Don't put ideas in her head, Brian. She must try to get her husband back, God doesn't approve of divorces. She's a sinner now. Stop putting silly ideas of independence in her head. She's a WIFE and a MOTHER. She has people who NEEDS her, unlike you."

 

He went in a flash to where Joan was standing and grabbed her arm, not hurting her, but firmly. Without thinking twice he took her out of the loft, went back in and slammed the door shut. Feeling a lump in his throat, he rested his forehead on the wall, taking deep breaths, limbs trembling with rage and hurt. He wanted to scream, he wanted to kick every available surface and break every glass he could find, he wanted to cry, and he knew he wouldn't do any of these. So he would do the only thing he could: forget.

 

Going to the liquor cabinet, he poured a generous dose of Beam in a glass and went to the window. The sun was setting beautifully, and between the buildings he could see shades of yellow and orange. Immediately he thought about Justin. Although he tried not to, he always ended up thinking about him whenever things went wrong, because Justin was the only one capable of taking the hurt away, at least most of it. He wondered what the blond was doing right now, and his hand went automatically to his pocket in search for his cell phone. When his fingers touched the cool surface though, he stopped.

 

Justin wasn't in New York anymore, and calling him frequently was not an option. It was amazing how he, a business man, whose mind was always so sharp, kept forgetting how far Justin was now. Besides, Brian didn't want to taint the best opportunity of Justin's life with his problems. Hell, he always had these kind of problems with his mother. He should be used to deal with them by now.

 

Several hours and several glasses of whiskey and cigarettes later, he went to his wardrobe and picked a wooden box, the size of a shoes box, from inside. He sat on his bed and very slowly and carefully took each item off the box, examining it for a few seconds. Suddenly he felt his chest tighten and a pain that he couldn't describe because it was not physical at all started to crawl inside him. He got up as if he was in a hurry and went directly to his desk, searching for the pot. Apparently his pain management methods weren't as efficient as they were before. Booze alone wasn't working; it was time to get stoned. The last coherent thought he had after that decision was that he needed Justin more than ever.

 

--------------------------------------

 

As much as Justin loved Pittsburgh and New York, he could honestly say that there was no place better than Paris. At least for painting. Every corner inspired him, and he was being able to focus completely on his work, because he didn't have to work on part-time jobs. The winners had all their expenses covered by the institution that promoted the contest. If it wasn't for Brian, he would even consider staying in Paris forever.

 

He had been there for two months, and he was enjoying every minute. Well, not EVERY minute, to say the truth. At night, when he was alone in his bed, his thoughts always drifted towards Brian. He tried to think of something else, only to find out he couldn't. He tried to go out with the other winners, but he caught himself wondering what Brian was doing that exact moment, if he missed him, if he was at the backroom with some hot guy.

 

He knew Brian's pain management methods too well, and he probably was doing his best not to think about Justin. They had only talked on the phone twice in all this time, and Brian was as distant as he always was whenever Justin was away. But he guessed that was one of Brian's mechanisms of self-defense, so he tried not to get too worried about it. Justin often tried to remember the wonderful moments they'd had in New York, and knowing for sure that Brian loved him soothed him like nothing else in the world.

 

"Hey, Justin!" Nathan said, opening the shared studio's door.

 

"Hi Nat. How was lunch?"

 

"Wonderful. We found a lovely café a few blocks from here. You should have gone with us."

 

"Nah, I enjoyed the peace here. Sometimes the guys are too noisy, it's hard to concentrate. I need to finish this painting for tomorrow."

 

"Yeah, I have to finish mine too. Monsieur Poulain is coming and I want to show him good work. After all, he's spending a lot of money with us."

 

"Everybody wants to "discover" the new Picasso, nowadays."

 

"That's an amazing work, Justin." Nathan said, looking at his unfinished painting.

 

"Thanks, I guess. I'm almost done here."

 

"Who is he?"

 

He looked at the painting where, between lights and shadows, all that was clearly distinguishable was a pair of deep hazel eyes. "How do you know it's a he?"

 

"Judging by the way you throw yourself with passion at your work, especially at this piece, I can tell is someone you care a lot about." Nathan was a nice guy, he reminded Justin of Emmett. Gwen, Paul and Megan were nice too, but because he and Nathan were both gay, they were growing closer with time. Not that Paul minded, that meant the girls were exclusively his.

 

"He's what keeps me going on, Nat."

 

"Wow. I wished I had someone with these eyes waiting for me."

 

Justin didn't say anything, just smiled at him. But he couldn't stop thinking if Brian would be really waiting for him when he got back.

 

 

-----------------------------------------

 

 

"Brian!" Michael was almost using his emergency key, because it was the third time he knocked at Brian's door and his friend didn't answer so far. "Brian!" he called again.

 

Sighing, he picked up his cell phone and pressed the speed button. "Ben?" he said when his husband answered. "Come upstairs, I'm going in, he's not answering." After a few seconds he said "Well, you can wait in the car if you want, but I'm not sure how long it will take to drag him to Babylon with us."

 

Putting the cell phone in his pocket, he put the key in the locker ant turned it. Opening the door, he saw that the loft was almost completely dark; the only light was coming from the television, on but with no sound.

 

"Brian?" he called hesitantly, because he already sensed what was going on. But Brian didn't answer.

 

Closing the metal door behind him, he walked further inside the loft and saw Brian sprawled on the sofa, eyes closed, an empty bottle of Jim Bean in his hand, poppers and pot on the floor, his cell phone opened in the other hand.

 

"Shit!" he muttered, kneeling in front of his friend. He cupped Brian's face with one of his hands shaking slightly, trying to wake him up. But Brian just frowned and mumbled something, still sleeping.

 

"Mike?" Ben walked inside the loft. I decided to come and...holy crap, what happened?" he asked, seeing the worried expression on Michael's face.

 

"He's completely out, wasted." Michael sighed, pointing at the mess on the floor. "Come on, help me to take him to bed."

 

"Sure."

 

Ben and Michael carried Brian to his bed, and he didn't even stir. He was covered in sweat, and resting his hand on Brian's forehead Ben realized he was a little warm. "I think he has a fever." Ben commented. "Is he sick or something?"

 

"Uh...don't know." Michael said uncomfortable. "I haven't seen him in two weeks. You know, I have the shop to take care of and Ma needed help to redecorate and paint the house, and I kind of got lost with so much to do. "

 

Ben went to the bathroom and grabbed a towel, damped it with water and gave it to Michael. "Take this, put on his forehead, I'll get some water, there might be a bottle of aspirins somewhere."

 

Michael put the damp towel on Brian's face, trying to clean the sweat a little bit. Looking at the bedside table, he saw a familiar wooden box and froze. He knew that box too well, he had seen it before; almost always when Brian was stoned and drunk like this. It was Brian's connection to his past, things he should try to forget but didn't, or couldn't. He knew its content: A picture of baby Brian with his Dad; a white silken scarf, smeared with dried blood; Brian's cowry bracelet; a drawing of a naked Brian, the one he bought at the GLC, drawn by Justin (he wondered if Justin knew Brian had this...probably not, because Michael only had found that out when Justin was at New York and a drunk Brian told him). Other photos he didn't remember, mostly taken at the Novotny's house, because Brian's parents didn't care to take a picture of their beautiful son.

 

Brian finally stirred and his eyes fluttered a little, but didn't open. "Justin...?" he whispered.

 

Michael's heart clenched. What kind of friend was he? Two weeks without talking to Brian, when he knew perfectly well that his friend was having a hard time with Justin being in Europe, even if he did his best not to show it.

 

"It's me, Brian. Michael. I'm here with you."

 

"Mikey..." Brian opened his eyes slowly and winced. "Shit! My head is pounding." He said faintly.

 

"Here, take this." Ben kneeled on the bed with a glass of water in one hand and two aspirins on the other.

 

"Hey, professor..." Brian slurred. "What an honor..."

 

"Shut up and drink this, asshole." said Michael. "You have a fever."

 

Brian tried to sit up, but winced again. "Can't...too tired."

 

Ben and Michael exchanged glances and Ben helped Brian to sit up, supporting his weight with his arms while Michael made him drink the water and take the medicine. Brian drank everything without complaining then Ben laid him slowly on the pillows again.

 

"Hey, Professor, I'm not gonna break." he tried to smile but grimaced instead.

 

Ben got up and looked at Michael. "No, you won't, ‘cause you're already broken." he thought. "Stay with him, I'm going to clean the living room a bit."

 

"Thanks, Ben," was all that Michael said. Picking up the towel, he went to the bathroom and put it under the water again. When he returned, Brian was out cold again, sleeping and shivering a little. Michael opened the closet and grabbed a thick blanket, covering his friend. Sitting down on the bed, he put the towel on Brian's forehead.

 

It wasn't the first time he found Brian like this. In more than twenty years of friendship, he lost track of how many times a drunk and wasted Brian knocked at his door. But he never got used to this. It was always painful to see Brian like that. It was almost as if he went to a place where no one could rescue him. And he always went there willingly, a self-punishment Michael didn't understand.

 

"Oh, Brian..." he murmured. "Why do you do this to yourself?"

 

He couldn't stop feeling guilty. Something must have happened to Brian to trigger that shit he did to himself again. He knew Brian missed Justin, more so when something bad happened to him. As they relationship evolved, Brian started to rely on Justin to put him together whenever something hard hit him, even if he denied it. Now that Justin was gone, he had no one. Because Michael was busy with is own life while his friend was having a hard time and, as always, had decided to handle it by himself, using his old methods to forget. He wondered why Brian hadn't called him. And the thought that perhaps it was because they were slowly growing apart felt like ice inside his guts.

 

"I'm sorry. I wasn't here when you needed me." he said, running his hand through Brian's chestnut hair.

 

Sighing sadly, he grabbed the box and put it in the wardrobe again.

Chapter Text

Ted looked at Brian questioningly. "Why don't you go home? It's starting to get late."

 

"Not yet." Brian said. "I want to check that new presentation for Brown Athletics for Monday morning."

 

"Come on, Bri!" Ted said exasperatedly. "It's Saturday, for Christ's sake! It's already three PM!"

 

"Hey, I said you could go home hours ago, long before the Thai food arrived."

 

"Yeah, but I didn't want to leave you here alone, so..."

 

"Ha! You're such a bad liar, Theodore! The reason you stayed was because you didn't want to eat the concoctions your husband makes and calls food."

 

Ted slapped Brian's arm playfully. "Shut up, Brian, Blake is trying really hard to learn how to cook. I love his food."

 

"Well, if you do, stop talking to Emmett about it, because that's not what he's telling everyone." Brian laughed at Ted's indignant face.

 

"Emmett is jealous, because he's the one who has to cook for Drew!"

 

"Whatever, Theodore. Now, be a good boy, clean the table and go home." Brian blinked at him a few times, making the "adorable guy" face that always made Ted laugh.

 

"Clean the table, huh? I'm not your employee anymore, you know." he said laughing, but started to pick up the plates.

 

"Of course you aren't, but you're the married one here, surely you have a lot more practice at cleaning the table than me."

 

Ted rolled his eyes. "At least you could put the wine back in the fridge...?"

 

"What for? I'll stay here for a little while, I could use some more wine." He gave Ted one of his tongue-in-cheek smiles. "Besides, this stuff is really good. You have good taste."

 

"Don't you think you drank enough for today?"

 

"No, mother." Brian snorted. "Now, go home, don't keep your young and hot husband waiting."

 

Ted shook his head smiling a little and finished throwing the remnants of the meal in the trash can. "Well, then...I'll be on my way."

 

"Bye, Ted." Brian said, getting up from the sofa and going to his desk, where he picked up some papers and started to look at them distractedly.

 

"Bye, Bri. See you tomorrow at Deb's?"

 

"Sure" Brian said, absent-minded. After a few seconds, he heard the door clicking behind Ted. He sighed and picked his cell phone up.

 

"Morgan? It's me, Brian. You remember we have an appointment...? Can you come now? Yeah, I'm alone. No problem, see you in fifteen minutes, then. Bye." He put the cell phone on his desk and lit a cigarette. Inhaling the smoke deeply, he was assaulted by a storm of cough that made his eyes water. "Shit!" he muttered, putting the cigarette in the ashtray and heading for the small but luxurious bathroom nearby.

 

Realizing he was still slightly out of breath, he cursed again as he wet his hands and ran them over his face, trying to keep the headache that always came with the cough at bay. He felt so angry now, because he had absolutely no control of what was happening to him. The cough was shit to live with, as was the short breathing and the sweats that always came at night. He wanted to blame them on his lifestyle, but who was he trying to fool? He could fool his friends, and thankfully, he was starting to convince them that everything was fine, but he couldn't lie to himself, could he? No booze, drug or sex could make him forget what was happening.

 

He raised his head and looked at his reflection in the mirror. "Face it, Kinney. The cancer is back. You know the feeling" he said to himself. All that coughing wasn't normal, and he had been smoking for so many years that he just knew he had lung cancer now. What else would it be?

 

He went back to his office and sat at the comfortable chair behind his desk. Everything was almost ready; his attorney would arrive any minute now with the documents he asked. Morgan Johnson was very competent and discrete, never asking unnecessary questions Mel surely would if she was in his place. There was still a lot to take care of, but hopefully all would be ready before the trip. He had only a few days left now, then he would go and everything would be fine.

 

----------------------------------

 

 

More out of habit than anything else, Brian entered Starbuck's again on the cold Thursday. Almost every day, for the past three weeks, he spent lunchtime there. Not that he had anything besides coffee, but at least Cynthia and Ted would leave him alone, he wouldn't have to hear their usual "you're too thin, Brian, why don't you eat something?"

 

Claire was near the counter as always, and when he walked in she raised her head and gave him a little wave. Over these past few days they were starting to talk more, sometimes just greeting each other when one of them wasn't in the mood to talk, sometimes having an actual conversation, and Brian couldn't stop himself from thinking that it'd been a long time since he last wanted to strangle her.

 

"What's wrong?" he asked when he saw her red eyes.

 

"Uh...nothing." She sniffed a little and attempted to smile. "What will be today?"

 

"The usual." He said and slipped into the booth, opening the newspaper and pretending to read it while he waited for his latte. He watched his sister working, speaking with the clients and colleagues with a polite smile that didn't reach her eyes, sniffing here and there and claiming to be with a cold. When she put the latte on the counter in front of him he grabbed her wrist not too strongly, but enough to make her look at him. "Claire...what's going on?"

 

She sighed and shook her head no. "Nothing, really. You already have your problems to deal with, just forget it. I'm fine."

 

"It's the cancer?" he wanted to know, feeling a sudden connection with this almost strange woman Claire had turned into after the cancer thing. He wondered why he hadn't changed when HE had cancer for the first time. Or maybe he had and failed to notice.

 

"Oh God, no, nothing like that."

 

He let go of her wrist. "Is it money?"

 

Claire snorted, so much like he used to do that he thought it was strange, and for the first time in his life he really wanted to know what her problem was. That was almost surreal.

 

She shook her head no and gave him a sad smile. "You're unbelievable, you know that? Do you think it's all I care about?" She took a deep breath and concluded, almost to herself. "Maybe that's because I never gave you any reason to think otherwise. No, it's not money, and even if it was, it's my problem alone; I don't want your money, Brian. I have a job, a new apartment and, contrary to Mom's beliefs, I can take care of myself. Now, drink your latte, I know how much you hate it when it gets cold." She took a step back and was about to turn away when he spoke again.

 

"Mom's beliefs? I knew it. What did saint Joan do?"

 

"Nothing besides the usual." She sighed. "I should go back to my husband, I'm a sinner, there are no divorced women in our family, I will embarrass the kids for working here, this neighborhood is full of sin..."

 

"Yeah, Kinnetik's just around the corner. I wonder what she would if she knew it was once a gay bath house." he said more to see Claire's reaction. She seemed to have come to terms with her brother's life, at least partially, but he couldn't stop himself from talking about it every time he could, just to defy her, just to see her blush.

 

And she blushed indeed. "Really?" she pretended to be busy with the cups. "Uh...I noticed the unusual architecture, but I couldn't tell what it was."

 

"Shocked?" he raised an eyebrow.

 

She raised an eyebrow too, and he almost laughed. Almost. He still didn't feel exactly at ease near her. "Should I be?"

 

He pretended not to hear her question and sipped his coffee. She snorted and went back to arranging the cups.

 

He didn't know why, but before he knew it, he was talking to her again. "I need to talk to you."

 

"Uh?"

 

"Talk. When two people have a conversation."

 

"Aren't we doing that already?"

 

He rolled his eyes. "Well, do you have time?"

 

"Sure...Martha!" she said to a brunette near her "Can you cover for me? I need to talk to my brother. Won't take long."

 

"No problem, Claire," said the girl.

 

They left the cafeteria together to the cold morning, Brian holding his latte. They started to walk side by side, lost in their own thoughts, going nowhere special.

 

"Look, I...I'm going on a trip in a few days, a long one, and I'm not sure when I'll come back."

 

"Oh? Vacation?"

 

"Kind of. The thing is...Well, I...gave your name to my attorney." He looked at the floor, not wanting to look at her. "Told him to call you, in case something happens to me. And if you need anything...you just call him. He'll make sure you'll be fine."

 

"I told you I can take care of myself. I'm fine. But thanks for worrying about me. That's definitely a first." She gave him a half amused smile.

 

"Who said I'm worried about you? It's just that if you need anything you may not be able to find me..."

 

"Wait, wait, wait." She looked at him, suddenly alert. "You said "if something happens' to you...is there something wrong?"

 

"Nope."

 

"Come on, Brian...what happened?"

 

"Shit, nothing happened! And why would I tell you? You didn't tell me what's wrong with you, so..."

 

They looked at each other, awkwardly, because having normal conversation was unknown territory. Brian insisted, mostly because he wanted to take Claire's attention off him. "What is it? Tell me."

 

"You don't give up, do you?" Her eyes suddenly filled with tears, but she didn't let them fall. She didn't have any friends, never was too popular and, strange as it was, her brother was the only person she saw on a regular basis these days. She set her jaw firmly and took another deep breath. "It's John. He...doesn't want to see me. He's changed so much! I thought that, now that I have a job and an apartment, he and Peter would live with me again. But he said he'll stay with his father. He called my apartment a shit hole!"

 

Brian raised an eyebrow. Nothing that John said or did amazed him. The boy was a brat, a liar, completely spoiled. He had to bite his nail to stop himself from saying what he thought about the boy. "He'll change his mind, eventually." Was all he could manage to say. He hated to lie, so ‘I'm sorry' wouldn't do.

 

"I'm afraid he won't. He said I ruined his life when I got sick, as if it's my fault... But Peter will come home with me next week." She gave him a little smile, awkward, but sincere, it seemed. Then her face turned serious again. "Peter is really a sweet kid. But John...John is too much like..."

 

"Dad?" he finished for her.

 

She nodded once and sighed. "And Mom thinks I'm lunatic because I said I'm better on my own. She resents me for leaving her house, but is ready to forgive me if I go back to that asshole. God, HE was the one who left ME when he found out I was sick!"

 

Brian thought that perhaps he should say something sympathetic, but it wasn't his style, it would sound false. "Don't listen to her. You're not wrong for wanting your own space, your own life."

 

"I know. The thing is...after the cancer...when I saw that I could really die, I realized I haven't done anything with my life. Sure, I'm raising two kids, but besides that...it felt so empty, so shallow."

 

"Yeah, there's nothing like cancer to change your perspective."

 

"I guess." She looked at her watch. "I need to go back to work. You'll come here before you go on this trip, won't you?"

 

"Oh, you know how much I love my latte. Same time tomorrow."

 

"See you, then. Bye." she said, and started to walk back to Starbuck's.

 

He turned around and headed for Kinnetik, and he thought that he had never imagined that a day would come when he would see Claire everyday and he wouldn't mind. Life was really full of surprises.

 

 

______________________________

 

 

Brian opened the metal door and he and Michael entered the loft, laughing foolishly like the two teenagers they once were.

 

"And Emily Rose said ‘I'd like to kiss you, Michael' and I thought ‘no way!' But I didn't say anything, didn't want to hurt her feelings... so she kept coming closer and closer, I was terrified, but a little drunk... what could I have done?"

 

"You told me this story a thousand times, and I still don't believe it. Why don't you just say you were curious and wanted to kiss a girl?"

 

"Because it wasn't true!" Michael whined indignantly.

 

Brian went to the fridge and picked two bottles of mineral water, giving one to Michael. "It's not that bad. It's just...different. Girls aren't that bad...the problem is that guys are better. Girls want to hold you when the fuck ends, they want you to talk sweet and, of course, how good is a fuck if the other person has a twat?"

 

"Shit, Brian, now I'll have nightmares thinking about it." Michael shuddered.

 

"Sorry, I didn't want to hurt your sensibilities."

 

Both men started to laugh again, enjoying each other's company. Michael really missed his best friend, and he was glad he had this night out with Brian while Ben was in Chicago for a conference. It'd been a long time since it was just the two of them, drinking, laughing, talking nonsense. Michael was having a good time, and he could tell by the way Brian was smiling, that the other man was having a good time too.

 

"Gosh, it's already eleven." Michael said, looking at his watch. "I should go home. Ben will call soon and I don't wanna miss it. I'm sorry it's still early for you. Are you sure you don't wanna go to Babylon?" Brian shook his head no. Michael drank the rest of the water, and turned to Brian, hugging his friend like he did so many times before. "It was a wonderful night, Brian. We should do this more often."

 

To his surprise Brian didn't push him away like he always did when he felt Michael was being too sentimental. He actually hugged Michael back. "Bye, Mikey." he whispered.

 

Michael looked at him, questioningly, but Brian's face was neutral. He figured it was because his birthday was coming and Brian hated it.
"Will you go to the diner tomorrow?" he asked nonchalantly, but Brian wasn't fool.

 

"No way! Deb will want me to blow candles and sing happy birthday. In fact, I'll be more than happy if you just leave me alone, okay?"

 

"Briaaaannn..."

 

"Don't start, Mikey. Call me the day after. But tomorrow, just let me spend the day the way I want. I promise not to get wasted."

 

"Somehow, I don't believe you." They headed for the door and Michael opened it.

 

Brian laughed and kissed Michael briefly on the lips. "Go home, you're gonna miss your husband's call."

 

"Bye, Brian. Happy Birthday."

 

"It's only tomorrow, Mckey."

 

"Well, tomorrow is only half an hour away. Can I at least call you?"

 

"Would it work if I say no?" Brian raised an eyebrow.

 

Michael just laughed and entered the elevator.

 

 

--------------------------------------

 

 

Brian wasn't going to answer the phone, but he couldn't resist when he heard the familiar ring tone. Besides, it was a quarter past midnight and he knew why Justin was calling.

 

"Hey," he said as soon as he answered it.

 

"Hey." came the reply. "Happy Birthday."

 

"Where are you?"

 

"Rome. We arrived yesterday."

 

"Great. So...how's life in wonderful Europe?"

 

"Great. I mean, there's art everywhere here, Brian. Everywhere. Europe breathes art. It's really inspiring."

 

"I'm glad you're having a good time." Brian said softly. "You deserve it, more than anyone I know."

 

"Yeah, well...there's just one thing though..." He heard Justin sighing at the other side. "I miss you." the blond said.

 

"I miss you too." Brian said so naturally that it almost amazed him. But he wasn't hiding anything from Justin anymore. Well, that wasn't exactly true, but at least his feelings were completely out there for the younger man to do see.

 

"Are you home?" Justin wanted to know.

 

"Of course, where else would I be?"

 

"Uh...Babylon? Friday night...does it ring any bells?"

 

"I'm not in the mood."

 

"I don't understand, after all this time, why you never celebrate your birthday."

 

"Because there's no reason to. It's a day like any other."

 

"Not for me."

 

Brian only sighed, because he didn't know what to say.

 

"I wish I was there with you." Justin sighed. "I'm sorry."

 

Brian bit his tongue, wanting to say ‘sorry is bullshit" like he always did. But instead he said: "For what? Don't queen out, for Christ's sake, you've been away for two months only. How will you last two fucking years if you keep queening out? There's nothing to be sorry for."

 

"Sometimes I feel there is, Brian. And I'm not queening out." He laughed a little. "I'm just wondering if I made the right decision coming here."

 

"Hey." Brian sighed too. Justin wasn't supposed to have any doubts. If he needed reassurance, he would have it. "You're doing the right thing," he spoke gently. "You know what I think about it. You need to concentrate on your art. This is important, Justin, and you know that. YOU are the most important thing now. YOU are the most important project of your life, okay?"

 

"I know. But I want you, Brian."

 

"You already have me. You'll always have me."

 

Justin gave a small laugh. He would never get tired of this sincere Brian. Then he sighed again. "I miss you so much...and I feel really bad knowing you'll spend your birthday alone."

 

"Listen to me, Justin. Are you listening?"

 

"Yeah, I'm listening."

 

"Don't worry about me. I'm not alone, I'm never alone." He took a deep breath. Sometimes this sincerity thing was really hard and left him more tired than if he had ran a marathon. "Whatever I do...wherever I go...you're with me. Always."

 

"Always." Justin murmured, remembering Brian's card and the flower. "I have to go now."

 

"Okay."

 

"Brian...I love you."

 

"Me too." He shut his eyes, trying to picture Justin by his side, but it was really hard when his empty bed didn't let him forget that he was alone. "Later"

 

"Later."

 

-----------------------------------

 

 

It was morning. Brian had spent most of the night packing. He didn't want to spend his last night in the loft alone in his big bed, so he laid on the sofa. He dozed off eventually, but he kept waking up now and again, so he just gave up any attempt to sleep. He could feel the first signs of a major headache, but he didn't really want to get up and fetch the painkillers. In fact, he almost welcomed the headache, because it proved that, behind the numbness, he was alive. It was almost time to go, and he tried to remember all the reasons he had to do this. But the main reason was only one.

 

He had spent these last two and a half months almost in automatic-pilot state. Going to work, going to the diner, Woody's and Babylon, so no one would think he was upset, no one would feel sorry for him. He hated pity so much that it almost made him sick. He made all his friends think he was more than alright with Justin in Europe, and that he had gone back to his old life.

 

He wondered what they would say when they heard the news from Ted. Ha! They would go crazy, thinking where the hell he had gone to. But it would be for a short time; soon worry would be replaced by gossip, speculations about his actions. They loved to talk about his life. Michael would whine and bitch, complaining that Brian didn't say goodbye. But in fact, he did. In his own way.

 

He ended up going to the diner at his birthday, after all. Caught by surprise, because he had said he wouldn't go, the gang didn't have time for cake and presents. Just the way he wanted. So he spent an almost pleasant Saturday afternoon with them, then at night they went to Woody's, played pool, drank, chatted. It was good. And for him, it was goodbye.

 

Now, a week later, everything was ready: the papers in the brown envelope on his desk; the message for Ted, telling what to do in case something happened; the money for Justin secured in a bank account. Mel and Lindz were still having a hard time in Canada, still no job for both of them. But he had already taken care of their expenses, so Gus and JR would be alright, along with their moms. His attorney would send them everything they needed. He was ready to go.

 

As if on cue, Ted called him asking when he would go to Kinnetik, because that's what he always did on Saturdays. He gave his friend a lame excuse that Ted apparently believed. He didn't want to feel bad for lying to his friends, but that's what he did, just a little. He knew it was for the best.

 

They would want to drag him to a hospital if they found out about the cancer. And he would not go. He refused to spend the little time he thought he had in that sterile place, dressed in that ridiculous gown, medicine dripping in his vein...for what? There was no way to stop the cancer from spreading, he was getting more tired each day, and the fucking fever that came almost every night wouldn't leave him alone.

 

They wouldn't leave his bedside, and he would have to endure their pity, their mourning faces that would certainly kill him faster. He could even see Mel and Lindz coming back from Canada to be with him in his "final moments", poor Gus suffering from having to see his father decaying slowly.

 

But worst of all...they would tell Justin, and Justin would come home, leaving his big chance behind, leaving all he had fought so hard for, to stay by Brian's side. The mere thought of it was unacceptable. Justin had his whole life ahead of him, and Brian had no doubt it would be a beautiful life, because Justin was a beautiful person inside and out. And he was a winner, a true fighter. One day he would be able to love again.

 

If he was true to himself, there was a little less than noble reasons, like vanity. He wanted them all to remember him as beautiful, strong, hot Brian. Not the sick and weak thing he would turn into. He could only hope he was lucky enough not to last that much. And he really wouldn't, couldn't let them know how afraid he was. He accepted that he was going to die, but he didn't want to. He was scared.

 

The driver finally called, so Brian got ready to leave. He was going to the airport in a rented car; the Corvette would stay safely in the garage. Everything was ready now. Everything was as it should be.

 

He looked once more at the loft, happy and sad memories dancing in his mind. His eyes lingered on the painting Justin had given him for Christmas, and his chest tightened at the thought that he would never see him again. But he HAD to do this, because he truly believed Justin would be happy one day, even if it was without him. He was still too young, and spending his life with Brian was not an option anymore.

 

Once outside the building he stopped. He wanted to turn around and take another look at his home, but he didn't. It was time to move on, even for him. Inside the car he adjusted the seatbelt and as the car started and drove through Pittsburgh, Brian let his mind travel to where Justin was, silently asking Justin to forgive him. But this time, he thought with bitter irony, HE was the one leaving.

Chapter Text

They sat in silence in the last booth of the Liberty Diner. It was Monday night. Michael shifted restlessly in his seat while Ted looked at his watch every thirty seconds. Debbie looked at them worriedly from the counter, but they wouldn't tell her what was going on yet, they had said they would wait for the others.

 

"Do you think they will take too long to come?" asked Ted.

 

"Ben said he was finishing his last class."

 

"That was half an hour ago."

 

"The university is not around the corner." Michael said irritably. He was tired, worried, upset...Hell, he was a mess. "How about Emmett?" He asked, just because he didn't know what to say.

 

"He said he was going to leave Drew at the gym and come right after. Drew's car is broken." Ted said, looking at his watch again. He was anxious. He wanted this to be over as soon as possible. How come he always ended up in these uncomfortable situations? "Did you call Lindsay?"

 

"Yeah." Michael sighed unhappily.

 

"And?"

 

"What did you expect? She freaked out! By the end of the conversation she was screaming so much that my ears hurt."

 

"I can imagine that. What about Mel?"

 

"She was astonished, but she said she would try to calm Lindsay and call me tonight. Luckily Gus was at school."

 

"Poor boy."

 

"Yeah."

 

The door bell rang and Ben walked in, followed by Hunter and a few seconds later by Emmett. When Debbie saw them she sighed relieved, her curiosity ready to burst, and followed them towards Michael and Ted. When they were all seated, she couldn't wait anymore.

 

"Come on, guys! You're killing me!"

 

"Yeah, will you spill it now or are we waiting for Brian?" Emmett wanted to know.

 

"Always late, the asshole." Debbie murmured.

 

"We better wait, he hates when we don't." Hunter commented. "Hey, I'm hungry as hell, what's the special today, Deb?"

 

Ted and Michael exchanged looks. Ted cleared his throat and unfolded a piece of paper he took from his pocket. "Brian's not coming." Without another word, he handed the paper to Debbie. The others looked at her expectantly, because as she read she started to turn paler, her eyes almost popping out of her head.

 

"Jesus Christ!" she said. "I can't believe it."

 

"What?" asked Emmett worriedly.

 

Debbie just handed him the paper. "See for yourself."

 

"What the hell is this?" asked Ben exasperated.

 

"An email from Brian." Ted explained. "It was the first thing I saw when I arrived at work today."

 

"What does it says, Em?" asked Hunter, nudging Emmett's elbow.

 

"He left." said Emmett, simply. "Oh my God."

 

"What do you mean left?" Ben looked at Michael. "Mikey?"

 

"Don't look at me." said Michael bitterly. "Apparently he didn't bother to tell his best friend where he was going. He sent the email to Ted, not to me."

 

"Because he didn't want anyone to get in his way!" Ted rolled his eyes. "That's exactly what you'd have done, Michael."

 

By then Ben had the paper in his hand and was finishing reading it. It was short, basically just Brian saying he was leaving, he didn't want to be followed, he didn't know when he would return, everything was fine, he just wanted to be alone for a while. "He's right, babe," he said, putting his right arm around Michael's shoulder. "You would've tried to stop him and he clearly didn't want that."

 

Hunter took the paper from Ben's hands. "But where did he go?" he asked scanning the message. "And what about the envelope he mentions here? What's inside?"

 

"Nothing but documents." Ted explained. "For Kinnetik." He sighed. It wasn't totally true. Brian left him a personal note inside the envelope, instructing him to call his attorney because Morgan knew what to do and how to contact him in case something urgent happened.

 

Apparently Brian knew Ted would show the email to his friends, but not the note inside the envelope. It was clearly private. He remembered it so clearly, as if he was still reading it. Brian asking not to try to find him because it wouldn't work and that he wanted to be ALONE (yes, it was written in capital letters). Telling him not to queen out because he wasn't going to do anything stupid; saying that he trusted him and Cynthia to take care of Kinnetik; asking him to take care of Michael and Debbie; saying that Lindsay, Mel, Gus and JR had nothing to worry about. And demanding that he made sure Justin would NOT know about him leaving.

 

"His attorney called me this morning," Ted lied, "he said that he has a way to contact Brian in case he needs to, but he doesn't know where he's gone. He also said that the girls and the children are taken care of, they'll have everything they need, they just have to call him...name's Morgan."

 

"What about Justin? We'll tell him, right?" asked Hunter.

 

"Hellooo?" said Emmett. "Didn't you just read the message? He says that if we tell Justin he'll rip our balls off!

 

"But it's not fair! They're partners!"

 

"Brian clearly doesn't want him to know, Hunter, and I think we should respect that." Ben said. ‘We don't know what happened and I think that we can't make any assumptions. Let's do what he asks."

 

"But Justin has the right to know!" Michael whined.

 

"Michael, I think Ben is right. Justin has the right to know, yes, but Brian also has the right to tell Justin himself when and IF he wants to." Ted pointed out.

 

"It's so like Brian to do that!" said Emmett. "Always wanting to call everyone's attention...like this dramatic exit..."

 

"Yeah" said Hunter. "Now everybody's worried, and maybe that's what he wanted."

"Excuse me, but I don't see anything dramatic about it." Ben said frowning. "The way I see it, Brian planned this very well, left all the knots tied, and left as quietly as possible. Or we would've known."

 

"But...but it's not fair! What if he never tells Justin? Like he did to me? If it wasn't for Ted, who told me this morning, I would know about this now, with all of you! Me! Brian's best friend! I can't believe he did this to me, going without tell me goodbye!"

 

Debbie, who had been uncharacteristically quiet until now, looked at her son and snapped. "Shut up, Mike! This is NOT about you! You shouldn't be worried that he left without saying goodbye to you, but WHY he left!" She looked at all of them pointedly. "You're all missing the point here, except for Ben. Brian PLANNED this. He WANTED to do this. It clearly wasn't a last minute thing. It's not a vacation. And it speaks volumes to me."

 

"Yeah," Ben added. "He wants to be alone, people. Who knows the reason? He doesn't want Justin to know. As much as we think he's wrong, we're his friends. We need to give him the space he wants; we mustn't say a word to Justin. And to his mother and Daphne, by the way. We must respect this, it's his life, his choice."

 

"But..." Michael said, a tear rolling down his face. "Where did he go? When will he be back?"

 

"Shit." Debbie murmured. "Where are you, kiddo?" she said to herself. Then she looked at her son and friends again. "It's Brian we're talking about. Who knows how that fucked up head of his works...but I can tell he did this because he's... hurt somehow, guys."

 

"He didn't seem to be. Remember his birthday? He was here, laughing and drinking with us. He went to Woody's and Babylon with us last week!" Emmett commented.

 

"I've known him since he was fourteen. I love him like a son. I've seen him in practically every situation you can possibly imagine. And I know too damn well that when Brian does this, when he disappears like that, it's because he wants to be alone to lick his wounds, whatever they are. And he doesn't want us to see it."

 

Michael sniffed. "But he never disappeared like that! Do you think it's because of Justin, Ma?"

 

"Dunno, baby." Debbie sighed. "Maybe yes, maybe no. But it's something big. Something he's been hiding from us, because apparently he's been planning this trip, this shit, whatever it is."

 

They all sat in silence, lost in their own thoughts, each one of them thinking about the last time they saw Brian, and how he seemed fine, happy even. Except for Michael. He remembered a certain night, him and Ben at the loft, Brian wasted, with a fever, confused, a box full of memories by his side...'too tired', Brian had said...

 

"Yeah, Ma. You're right. It's something big. And we failed to see it."

 

________________________________________________________________

 

Toronto, August, 2007.

 

"Shit, Lindz, will you stop yelling? You'll wake up the kids!"

 

"But Mel, this is serious! Don't tell me you're not worried!"

 

"I am, honey, I'm worried you know that. It's been a week, of course everybody is worried. But you are hysterical."

 

"Of course I am! This is Gus's father we're talking about!"

 

"Come on, baby, he didn't die or anything like that!"

 

"Oh, and how do you know? Nobody's heard from him!" Lindsay shouted, exasperated.

 

"Okay, honey, calm down." Mel was almost losing her patience, but still trying to calm Lindsay for the children's sake, especially Gus. "Sit down, baby." She maneuvered Lindsay to the couch, speaking softly and slowly, as if to a child. "I'm going to tell you again, okay?" When Lindsay nodded, she went on. "I spoke to Brian's attorney, Ted gave me his number. He's a nice guy, I've worked with him before. Very competent and loyal. He told me not to worry, Brian assured him he was fine, he just wanted to go away for a while."

 

"But...what I'm gone tell Gus?"

 

"We'll think of something. Come on, it's late, let's go to bed. Brian is a grown man, he can take care of himself. He probably went to Europe to see Justin and wanted to surprise him."

 

"He didn't, Mel. Michael talked to Justin yesterday."

 

"He did? Shit, I thought the guys had agreed not to tell him? Didn't Brian asked them?"

 

"He said he was calling because of Rage, something about the next issue that couldn't wait. Justin talked to him normally, he even asked how Brian is."

 

"And?"

 

"Michael changed the subject. He called just to be sure Brian wasn't there. And he isn't."

 

"I hope Justin didn't get suspicious. Mike is a shitty liar."

 

"Probably not. He must be hypnotized with Europe."

 

"Then, I don't see why you're so worried, honey. When Brian finishes doing whatever he's doing now, he'll come back."

 

Lindsay nodded again, uncertain, lost in her thoughts. Mel went to the kitchen and poured her some water. "Here, drink this, please stay calm, baby. You're over reacting. You and Michael, by the way."

 

"Maybe because we're the ones who love him the most?"

 

Melanie rolled her eyes. "I won't argue with you anymore. Brian is fine and he knows perfectly well how to take care of his own life." She was about to leave the living room when Lindsay spoke.

 

"Mel, wait...Let me say something..." she took a deep breath and braced herself. "I wanna go back to Pittsburgh."

 

"What?" Melanie returned to the room and stopped in front of the blonde. "We talked about this before, Lindz, and we agreed to stay."

 

"That was almost six months ago! I want to go back, Mel. I hate being here. I feel lonely, isolated, I have no job and you lost yours. We should go back."

 

"Come on, Lindsay, we can't give up just because we had a little obstacle!"

 

"Little obstacle, Mel? I can't believe you're saying this! We've been living here for more than a year, and we're still where we started! Worse, because we have no job. How are we going to support our children?"

 

"I can find another job."

 

"But it won't be easy! I'm lonely, I miss everyone back home. Come on, you know that, we've been relying on Brian since we came here. Even this house, he's the one who paid the rent the first couple of months. And I don't care if this attorney of his says we'll have everything we need. That's not what I want."

 

Mel gave an exasperated sigh and sat on the couch next to her wife. She had to admit she wasn't happy too. She was tired of struggling. Holding Lindsay's hands, she looked her in the eyes and asked. "What do you want, Lindsay?"

 

"I want my old life back. I want to be near our family, the kids need their fathers, and even if Brian takes too long to come back, " here her voice trembled a little, "we'll have Mike, Ted, Em, Deb and everyone who makes our life better, because they're our family."

 

Mel frowned a little. "But going back is to admit we failed, and I hate that."

 

"I know, you're too proud, aren't you? And you should be, because you're brilliant. But no one said we have to be perfect. Come on, there's nothing bad in admitting we were wrong. We did what we thought was the best for us and for the kids, but it didn't work the way we expected."

 

"Well, I guess I could get my old job back. Last time we were in Pittsburgh they actually asked me to go back...And Sydney still didn't find anyone as competent and charming as you for the gallery..."

 

"See?" Lindsay smiled sadly. "Do this for me, please? I want everything to be as it was before...Our family and friends together...I need them, I miss them, and I know you miss them too..."

 

Mel held her beautiful wife's face in her hands and kissed her softly. "Okay..." she held Lindsay tenderly, inhaling her scent, feeling her warmth. "Let's do it. I can't say no to you, anyway. But it won't be easy, to start our lives all over again."

 

Lindsay smiled against Mel's shoulder, then turned her head and kissed her cheek. They stayed like that, holding each other, getting strength from each other's presence. "It doesn't matter, Mel," she held Melanie tighter. "As long as we have each other, we'll be alright."

 

 

________________________________________________________________

 

 

Rome, September, 2007

 

 

At night Justin used to leave his room in the Italian villa and go to the balcony just to see the stars. It always helped him relax and focus for the next day. Other times, like today, he would wake up early to see the sunrise. It always brought him peace and an incredible sense of hope, because a new day was like a blank canvas, waiting to be filled with good moments, and it was up to him to choose the moments he wanted to put in the canvas, like he did with colors. That particular morning, he went there because he was so excited that he hadn't been able to sleep all night.

 

Mr. Benini had introduced them to some art critics the afternoon before, and among them was Alexia Monroe. A tall brunette with a decided posture, she captivated Justin from the start. Intelligent and alert, he could see Alexia was respected in the art world in Europe, and he was surprised to discover that she, in fact, wasn't a critic, but an American agent, who specialized in discovering young talents. He was even more surprised when she told him that she knew his work from Patricia Hart's gallery in New York and from the articles Simon wrote about him in Art Today.

 

Alexia was in Rome with her partner, Adrianne Aubert, a French photographer who worked for a famous magazine and traveled a lot. Justin and Alexia talked for what seemed like hours, discovered interests in common and, by the end of the day, had an agreement that she would be his agent from now on. Of course there wouldn't be much to do while he was in Europe, but once he got back to the USA, she told him they would rock the art world, and she sounded so confident that he instantly believed her.

 

Alexia was going to spend a whole month in Rome, so she and Justin would see each other a lot. He knew they would get along perfectly. He liked her from the start. And, different from Lindsay, who always said he would shine, be big, the best, somehow projecting in Justin everything she hadn't been able to accomplish, Alexia told him he had the potential to be everything he wanted, but the most important thing was that he was true to himself, that he was happy, so his inspiration could flow freely.

 

He wanted to tell his mom, his friends and especially Brian. He knew they would be happy for him. The only problem was that, since Brian's birthday, he wasn't able to contact the man. He had already sent him several emails, but Brian seemed to be avoiding him. Even Michel had been evasive when he asked about his best friend. Not that Justin blamed Brian. In fact, he could perfectly understand that. Sometimes it was easier this way, not communicating with each other at all. Sometimes it was easier not to hope that his cell phone would ring, or that he would have another email from Brian in his inbox. It was easier not to wait and to hope, easier to loose himself in classes, paintings, museums and new friends, just to escape the grief that missing Brian would bring.

 

So that's what he did, because it was easier this way, and because he was tired of always feeling sorry, always feeling guilty. Yes, he had left Brian, his friends and family, but it wasn't forever, and he knew they understood. Brian understood, didn't he? Justin filled the empty space inside him with the wonders of Europe and with his art, hoping it would be alright, because one day he would go back.

 

He told himself that the fact that Brian wasn't making any effort to contact him either wasn't a reason for him to worry. There was nothing new about that, really, and the thought didn't bring the anguish it used to bring before. Because he knew that Brian truly loved him, and if he needed space, Justin would give him that. He knew Brian sometimes needed distance as a defense mechanism, because for him too, phone calls only added to the pain they were feeling...Knowing they wouldn't be able to see each other for a while, and hearing each other's voices from across the ocean in rushed conversations, was like putting salt on a fresh wound. It was easier for Brian too, Justin knew, to loose himself in his job and just let the days turn into weeks, months...

 

 

It was only time, after all.

 

 

 

 

Justin had breakfast at the balcony with the others, hurriedly as always, because they had too much to do. A whole morning visiting museums was ahead, and he was really looking forward to it.

 

"Bon giorno, signore Taylor," Said the dark young man who greeted them every morning with a smile and a tray with food.

 

"Bon giorno, Bruno," greeted Justin with a smile. He knew, by the way Bruno eyed him, that he didn't have to be alone during his stay in Rome.

 

"Your coffee, signore," Bruno said with a longing expression to Justin, giving him a mug with a strong Italian coffee that smelled like heaven.

 

"Thank you, Bruno," said Justin, glancing at the man and smiling kindly. Who was he to discourage a beautiful young man? But when he looked at the newspaper at Bruno's other hand, he stopped and looked again. No, he wasn't mistaken. In the page, in a black and white picture, Ethan Gold was smiling.

 

"Uhh...Bruno..."

 

"Si, signore Taylor?"

 

"This newspaper...can you read it to me?" asked the blond, suddenly curious. He knew Ethan's fans were mostly from Europe, but to actually be in a newspaper..."Just this news about this guy with curly hair and the lady with him. He's an old friend," he said, trying not to sound sarcastic.

 

Bruno looked at him hesitantly. "My English is not very good, signore." He opened the newspaper and approached Justin, uncertain.

 

"No problem, I just want to know what the news is about."

 

Bruno started to read, frowning, trying to concentrate. "This...young man is a...violinist. He's...going to marry this girl." Bruno said with a heavy accented voice. "Her father...owns a company...makes music cds...is it phonograph industry...?" He looked at Justin, who shook his head and gestured for him to go on reading. "Last week he was seen leaving a hotel...with a friend...a male friend...and the paparazzi took a picture of the two...he broke the man's camera..."

 

"Asshole" Justin murmured.

 

"Scusa? Signore?"

 

"Nothing, Bruno. Please, keep reading."

 

"Bene...the newspapers started to say that he is gay...he says he is not...and he says here that he will marry this lady... next month...she is very rich and he is rich too. They...met...? Three months past...He is very happy and very in love..."

 

"Okay, Bruno, thank you."

 

"Mio piacere, signore." Bruno said politely and left.

 

Justin was disgusted. He doubted Ethan was in love with the girl, if only two months ago Ethan was stalking him...Poor girl, she seemed so happy, smiling in the picture, unaware of the asshole she was about to marry. It was probably for the benefit of his career, and he couldn't abject the guy more than he did in that moment. Using people like that...

 

Suddenly he felt really proud of himself. Since he was out, when he was seventeen, he stood for his beliefs. He defied his father, his teachers, his colleagues. He was homeless, he was bashed...but he never denied who he was. Not for his career, not for anything. If there was one thing Brian taught him was to always be proud of who he was and to always give everything in him to be "the best homosexual he could possibly be"...

 

He smiled, suddenly missing Brian's hazel eyes and his beautiful smile. Brian too, was out and proud. No reason to be ashamed, he was the best in everything he did...Justin vowed to never do what Ethan was doing, sacrificing everything for his career...it was stupid, completely stupid, because the price was too much to pay.

 

 

________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

Justin looked at the pamphlet as he walked along with his friends and his teacher, behind the museum's guide. He was trying to read it, but the man was walking so fast that it was practically impossible.

 

Finally the little group stopped in front of a painting. Justin knew this one. It was "Pessimism and Optimism", by Giacomo Balla. Relieved to get the break he was hoping for, he started to read.

"Evolving from an early twentieth-century idea to encourage artists living and working in Rome, the first exhibition of the Galleria d'Arte Moderna (Modern Art Gallery) was at the Palazzo Caffarelli in 1925. As the collection grew, it moved through a succession of palazzo venues until January 1995, when the exhibition was reopened in a former convent of the Barefooted Carmelites of St. Joseph. The collection is made up of over 4000 pieces, the majority of which were executed between 1800 and 1900 and include works by Rodin, Balla, de Pisis, Prampolini and Carrè. "

He raised his head looking at the guide again. The man was now answering a question. "Yes, this was painted in 1925. You can see here the curving forms in blue pierced by a white arrow and small wedges of black." He smiled pointing to the painting again. "Balla considered his major futuristic statement."

 

"Shit, man, I'm tired as hell," Nathan murmured beside him. "I wish this guy would stop talking."

 

"Shhh," said Justin. "We're supposed to enjoy this."

 

"I can enjoy it better with a full stomach." Nathan sighed. "C'mon, don't tell me you're not tired too. We've been visiting these museums the whole morning!"

 

"And I guess we're not even remotely near the end." Justin whispered, smiling, as he tried to pay attention to what the little man was saying. "There's so much to see here. It's Rome." He tried to sound enthusiastic, but he wasn't doing a good job, by the look Nathan threw him.

 

"Yeah, I managed to notice that, thank you." Nathan ran his hands through his hair. "But my legs hurt. I'm hungry, thirsty and tired. I can't even pay attention anymore."

 

"Well, ladies and gentlemen, That's all for now," Said their teacher with a strong Italian accent. "Thank you, Giovanni," he said to the guide, who smiled, nodded and turned to leave. Then the teacher turned to his five protégés with a grin. Signore Paolo Benini was a tall, fat bald man who was always wearing a big smile. He was one of the most respected Art teachers of Rome, and he was in charge of the five young artists during their stay in the city.

 

"Can we have lunch now?" Nathan couldn't help his hopeful voice. Everyone laughed at that, because his stomach actually growled while he spoke.

 

"You know, Nat, I'm amazed at how you always manage to be so...discrete," Paul laughed.

 

"Let's go to the Arancia Blu!" said Megan.

 

"No, not again!" Gwen rolled her eyes. "I hate this vegetarian food of yours! I need a real Italian pasta."

 

Nathan laughed. "If we keep eating pasta like this, we'll end up as fat as Mr. Benini here...Oh, sorry Sir!" he said blushing when Justin nudged his ribs with his elbow.

 

Mr. Benini gave a loud and delicious laugh. "Don't worry, young man! Listen, let's go to a place called Il Leoncino. It's a tiny pizzeria, but it's popular, lots of young people, good price, crispy Roman pizza."

 

The teacher strolled happily across the hall, the girls following him.

 

"What?" said Nathan looking at Justin and Paul.

 

"You really need to pay attention to your tongue, Nat." Paul was trying hard not to laugh.

 

"Hey, I just said that if we eat pasta everyday we'll all get fat! What's the problem with that?"

 

"Are you really this dense?" Paul snorted.

 

Justin chuckled, looking at his new friends. He was really fond of them, but he couldn't help but compare them with the dear, long time friends he had left behind. He missed Daphne and her smart remarks, and he missed the fact that he could always rely on her for anything he needed. True, they didn't speak that much lately, but it was mostly his fault. He knew she was always there for him.

 

He missed Emmett, flamboyant and sweet, always with a friendly and supportive word falling from his lips whenever he felt Justin needed it. Justin knew that, behind his façade, Emmett was a strong man who had been through a lot since he left his home. In fact, if he was true to himself, he missed every and each one of them: Michael, Ben, Ted, Debbie, Hunter...especially Jennifer and Molly.

 

But there was one person whom he missed the most, whose face never left his thoughts...Hazel eyes, red lips and golden skin floated inside his head without any effort at all, as it always happened whenever he thought of something that made him feel good. He shook his head, trying to concentrate on his friends' merry talk as they pulled him along with them. There was no use in thinking about that now. Distance made some thoughts too hard to bear.

 

 

Pittsburgh, October, 2007.

 

 

Melanie looked at Gus and JR sleeping at their beds and left the bedroom, closing the door carefully. The kids were really tired, they'd driven all the way from Toronto to Pittsburgh. Then she went down the stairs to Debbie's kitchen, where Lindsay and the redheaded woman were talking.

 

"Want some coffee, dear?" asked Debbie.

 

"Yeah, thanks Deb, " she said, kissing Lindsay lightly on the lips and sitting on an empty chair by the table. "So...how's everything?"

 

"Same old, same old," said Debbie, giving Mel a cup of the hot liquid and sitting beside her.

 

"Still no news from Brian?"

 

Debbie shook her head no. "I wanted to ask Carl to look for him, maybe it would be easier. But Michael and Ben won't let me."

 

"You know Brian would hate this." Lindsay said, opening a diet coke.

 

"I know, but somebody needs to do something!"

 

"Lindz is right, Deb, he would hate this. Brian's a big boy, he'll come back when he think it's time. Give him a little credit!"

 

Lindsay poured the coke on a glass ant took a few gulps. "How's Michael?"

 

"You know Mike, I love him to pieces, but that boy is a drama queen." Debbie sipped her own coffee. "Last week he almost went nuts when he saw Brian's sister."

 

Lindsay coughed almost spilling the coke. "Claire?"

 

"Yeah. She and Brian have been...reconnecting recently, for lack of a better word."

 

"What's the problem with that?" Mel asked. She only knew the basics about Brian's family, just that they didn't get along, but never knew the full reasons behind it. "If he wants to forgive his family for whatever he holds against them, what's the problem?"

 

Lindsay and Debbie looked at each other. "Not his mother," Debbie explained, "Just Claire. Which is strange, because they could never tolerate each other."

 

"It's complicated, Mel. After the thing with Brian's nephew, well, that was a little too much for a sister to do with a brother, even disliking him. Frankly, Brian would never lay a finger on his nephew."

 

"Shit, I forgot that." Mel murmured. "So suddenly they're friends?"

 

"Michael didn't explain the situation, only that they were on speaking terms now. Maybe even starting a little friendship, I don't know." Debbie said. "But he wasn't upset because of that, it's Brian's sister, after all. It's because apparently, Brian told her he was going away on a trip, and he didn't tell any of us."

 

"Try to understand Brian's head and you'll end up with a knot in yours." Melanie snorted.

 

"Mel, please!" Lindsay asked. "We don't know what happened."

 

"Yeah, because he didn't give us the chance!"

 

"Stop that, you two." Debbie said tiredly. "As much as I'm worried about Brian's whereabouts, what worries me the most is Gus."

 

"Yeah. " Lindsay sighed. "I still don't understand why he didn't ask about his father for the last few weeks. As if he feels something is going on..."

 

"True. Before, it was always "daddy this, daddy that", but now he doesn't even ask about him.

 

"Do you think he over heard you two?" Debbie wanted to know.

 

Lindsay shook her head no. "Impossible, Deb. We are always careful"

 

"Well, I'm really worried. I love Brian as a son, but he should think better before doing something like that. There's a child upstairs, " and she pointed dramatically to the stairs, "who doesn't have a single clue to where his father is! What are you gonna say when Gus asks about his father, uh?"

 

"Are you talking about my Daddy?" a small voice said from the kitchen's door.

 

Three astonished heads turned to the boy with sleepy eyes and a sweet face.

 

"Gus, dear, we thought you were sleeping..." murmured Lindsay.

 

"Got thirsty," he said simply.

 

"Here, let me give you some water..." Debbie raised from the chair and grabbed a glass from the counter.

 

"Are you talking about my Daddy?" the boy asked again.

 

"Yes, dear..." Lindsay tried to remain calm and opened her arms for the boy, who walked towards her and sat on her lap, yawning. "Daddy went on a trip, and we don't know when he'll be back...it was kind of sudden, so he didn't have time to say goodbye."

 

Gus took the glass of water from Debbie and calmly drank it, then he looked at his mother with his big eyes. "He said goodbye to me." He said triumphantly.

 

"What?" the three women asked in unison.

 

The little boy looked at each one of them, smiling. "Daddy said goodbye to me, because he loves me too much and I'm his best friend. Said he couldn't go on a trip without telling me!"

 

"Gus' baby..."Melanie looked at Lindsay and Debbie, not knowing what to say. "Didn't you dream that?"

 

"No, Mum. He said I'm the most important person in the world for him, and that he'll love me forever. " Then he turned suddenly serious. "He said it was a secret. Said that he would be gone for a long, long time, but I shouldn't worry because he's alright and he'll take me with him inside his heart."

 

"He told you that? With those words?" Debbie asked, not quite believing. ‘Inside his heart' wasn't something she never had heard Brian speaking.

 

"Yep. Those words." Gus nodded. "He said he wouldn't tell anyone but me... Because he trusts me. I'm a big boy, you know." He added confidently, so much like Brian, that Lindsay's heart clenched. "And I'll be the man of the family until he comes back. Don't worry, Mum and Mommy. "He patted Lindsay on the shoulder, very serious. "I'll take care of you."

Chapter Text

"Are you sure I'm dressed properly?" Justin asked for the fiftieth time, adjusting his collar.

 

"Of course, Justin! This is just a vernissage, not different at all from the ones in New York!" said Adrianne.

 

"Well, I've been in many galleries in my life, many art shows, but this is different!"

 

"How come? Come on, artists are artists everywhere. You look great." Alexia turned to Adrianne and kissed her cheek. "Isn't he charming?" she asked.

 

Adrianne smiled at her partner. "charmant et talentueux... usually a dangerous combination for a young man."

 

Justin's black trousers and sweater outlined his pale skin and his slim but well toned body. Perhaps too much, for his taste. So he had chosen a blue blazer too, and the contrast suited him well. Alexia and Adrianne had talked him into going to their friend's vernissage, and he couldn't deny he was very excited about it. He had never been in an art show in Europe. Not that it was different from the others he had been in, Alexia was right. But in Rome, as in Paris, he felt completely surrounded by art, and perhaps that was why he had the feeling that every art gallery and museum here had a different atmosphere from the ones back home.

 

"Bien, mes amis, I would love to stay here with you, but it's time to work," said Adrianne, kissing Alexia softly on the lips. "I'll leave you with Justin, cherie, I'll be back as soon as I can."

 

Alexia just nodded and smiled. Adrianne usually didn't cover art shows, but Bianca was their mutual friend, and her sculptures were famous for their originality and well taste. Whenever their careers allowed, the two women went to all kinds of art events together, and Alexia was always looking for a new talent. Right now, she was extremely happy she had found Justin. He was not only handsome and talented, but polite, sweet and with an accurate sensibility to all forms of art.

 

"She's wonderful, Alexia," he said still looking at Adrianne as the beautiful woman left them.

 

"Call me Alex, Justin. Or Lexie, like Driane does. We're going to be very close from now on; I don't want any kind of formality between us."

 

Justin blushed and gave her his 100-watt smile. He was completely captivated by Alexia, and every time he thought she was his agent, he felt the need to pinch himself to be sure he wasn't dreaming. She was right, they were going to be close, from now on; they needed to be. He felt so at ease with her that he knew it wasn't going to take any effort at all.

 

They had known each other for almost three weeks, and even with their completely different schedules, they spent almost every available time together. He showed her his portfolio, along with the three paintings he had made while in Paris. She loved everything. Alexia was already turning into a dear friend. She introduced him her partner the day before, and he could tell they were a happy couple. Adrianne was beautiful, charming and intelligent, and she made him feel at home, talking to him as if she'd known him for years. He couldn't believe he was that lucky...to meet so much wonderful people everywhere he went.

 

"Come on, let's take a look around. There are some people here I want you to meet," she said, putting a hand in his arm and dragging him through the gallery.

 

A few hours later, he was tired, but happy. Having met several artists, art critics, marchands and sophisticated people, he was more than ready to go back to the villa. The fact that he'd had some champagne and hadn't eaten anything at all made him dream with the delicious crispy bread he knew he would find in the kitchen when he got back.

 

"Let's go, Justin There's a wonderful restaurant I want to take you to," Alexia said, holding Justin's hand. "Driane will meet us at the car."

 

They were just outside the gallery, near the door, when Alexia stopped to greet a friend who was about to go inside the place.

 

"Carla! It's good to see you!"

 

"Hi, Alex! I didn't know you were in Rome! How's Adrianne?"

 

"She's fine, what about your father?"

 

"Papa is great! Did you know I'm engaged?"

 

"Oh, I know, congratulations, darling!" She turned to Justin who was smiling politely by her side, trying to figure out where he'd seen the young blonde before..."This is Justin Taylor, he's an artist and a friend."

 

"Hi, Justin" Carla smiled as they shook hands. "I want you to meet my fiancée, Alexia." She turned her head to a young man who was a few steps away, talking to the valet. "Ethan, caro mio, come meet a dear friend of mine!"

 

The man turned to them smiling and froze. Justin froze too. Now he remembered where he'd seen the girl. In the newspaper. She was Ethan's fiancée. Shit.

 

Carla, unaware of the Ethan's blank face, smiled at him. "Ethan Gold, my fiancée, you must've heard of him, he's quite known here. This is Alexia Monroe, her father and Papa are old friends, and so are we. And this is Justin Taylor. I expect you two at our wedding next month."

 

Ethan shook Alexia's hand awkwardly, turning so pale that Justin thought the guy was about to faint, or run. He barely touched Justin's hand when he shook it, releasing it as if it burned him, and not even for a second he met Justin's eyes.

 

"Ethan? Are you alright?" Carla looked at him worriedly, because the guy looked as if he was really, really sick.

 

"Um...it's nothing, darling, it must be something I ate at the restaurant; you know how garlic is bad for my ulcer." He turned to Alexia. "I'm very pleased to meet Carla's friends, but if you excuse us, we're anxious to see Bianca's sculptures."

 

Carla threw them an apologetic look and let herself be led inside by Ethan, who, by now, was almost running.

 

"Wow," exclaimed Alexia. "That was really rude."

 

Justin rolled his eyes, trying his best not to laugh at the whole situation. Ethan couldn't even look at him; he seemed truly scared, as if he was a ghost. He asked himself, not for the first time, how he could possibly have left Brian for this pathetic excuse of a man. Temporary insanity was the only explanation. He couldn't' help feeling sorry for the girl, though. She had no idea what she was getting herself into.

 

"Poor Carla," murmured Alexia, getting inside the car where Adrianne was already waiting. "This guy is strange, don't you think? He can be the best violinist in the world, dear, but that's not excuse for his behavior."

 

"Bien" said Adrianne, kissing Alexia briefly, "there are lots of rumors about him. He was seen last week at the Apeiron."

 

"A gay bar." Alexia added.

 

Justin only nodded. What could he say? ‘Yes, I know, he was my boyfriend ages ago? He's a coward and a liar?' He didn't like Ethan, but he didn't exactly hate the guy to throw his personal life out in the open like that. Besides, it wasn't his place to do it. He smiled slightly, thinking that Brian would probably laugh hard about the whole situation, and he couldn't wait to tell him. IF he could get in touch with him at all.

 

________________________________________________________________

 

 

Ibiza, October, 2007

 

 

Brian Kinney moaned loudly as he came again. He couldn't see the guy's face very well, but he could hear the loud music and he could see the shape of what he knew were tanned bodies all over the place. The club didn't have an equivalent to Babylon's backroom, but the room he was in, called The Terrace, was smaller than The Main Room, darker, and had an intimate feel about it. And, of course, like all the gay clubs all over the world, the men who went there did pretty much what they wanted to do, as long as they didn't fuck on the dance floor.

 

The man got up and tried to kiss him, but Brian turned his head and grabbed him by the shoulders, so the guy had to take two steps back. Brian thought briefly that he should fuck the guy, but he was starting to feel drowsy, and he knew it was the painkillers kicking in. He shouldn't have taken them along with the whiskey, but what the fuck, what did he have to lose at this point?

 

Apparently the man didn't like to be neglected, he said a few words in Spanish to Brian and left, looking angry, but Brian couldn't care less about what he was saying. That wouldn't be a problem, the guy was hot, and he would have no problem finding another man to fuck him. All Brian wanted to do now was to go back to the hotel. He felt like shit.

 

He left The Terrace, frowning a little, as he went through The Main Room (where the music seemed to be louder, if that was possible) toward the exit. Outside, he made a signal to the young man at the door and a cab almost instantly materialized itself in front of him. He'd been in Ibiza for more than a month now, and he was already pretty well known in all the gay bars in the place.

 

This one, Amnesia, was his favorite. Two dance floors, famous DJs and hot men everywhere. He really liked it. Maybe because it was one of the best clubs Ibiza had to offer, maybe because the name sounded strangely convenient. Amnesia. For someone who wanted nothing else than to forget.

 

When he entered the cab, he gave the hotel's name to the driver and closed his eyes. Amnesia, in some ways, wasn't any different from Babylon. "Queers are queers everywhere," he thought. After a month of debauchery he was starting to get bored. His routine consisted in sleeping the whole day, waking up late in the afternoon, drinking some coffee, eating a little when his stomach allowed- because now, besides the insistent cough and weakness, he had to live with the constant nausea that wouldn't leave.

At night he would go to the clubs, where there was plenty of alcohol, drugs and sex. He would go back to the hotel around five AM, almost never alone, of course, and after another round of fucks he would kick the trick's ass out. This was Brian Kinney's old routine at full mode. This is usually the time the headache and the nausea would start again and he would take a few aspirins and go to bed in a stupor, until exhaustion claimed him. Then, the next day, he would wake up and do everything all over again.

 

But today he didn't want company. He just wanted to sleep. This past week the tiredness never seemed to leave him, and he didn't have another option other than to surrender to the weakness he was feeling. The coughs weren't getting better either, and it was almost impossible to smoke now without bringing the cough back and with it a dull ache in his ribs and dark spots in his vision.

 

Eyes still closed, he sighed when the car made an abrupt stop, making his head throb. Apart from the fact that he was definitely thinner, he didn't look sick, at or so he liked to believe, and he thanked whoever made him this good looking and enduring, or he would already have turned into a pathetic fag who only got pity fucks. As it was, he hadn't had any trouble finding different guys to fuck every day. ‘Brian Kinney', he thought bitterly, ‘young, beautiful and hot until the end'.

 

The car finally arrived at Los Pinos, a villa at the Porroig Peninsula, the most prestigious area on Ibiza, usually called the ‘Millionaires Peninsula'. Brian's double bedroom was at the top floor, it had a lot of space and an amazing view. From his window, he could see the bay of Porroig and Cala Es Jondal, offering anchorage to several yachts. Not that he spent too much time looking outside the window, but expensive yachts around always meant beautiful men. In fact, there were beautiful men everywhere he looked. If only he could take a certain blond out of his thoughts...

 

The villa was surprisingly full of people for that time of the day; the sun had risen merely half an hour ago. But Ibiza never stopped, and Brian assumed the guys at the lobby were just like him, men who were still awake since the night before. When he passed near a group of men by the pool, he spotted the hot waiter, tall, with a lean but well toned body, carrying a tray with a few glasses. He looked straight at the man and the guy, sensing his eyes on him, approached him.

 

"Can I help you, sir?"

 

Brian was straight to the point. "Any chance for room service?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

The guy had a beautiful smile, white teeth and bronze skin, a beautiful combination. "Um...I'm supposed to work at the deck tonight, sir."

 

Brian frowned. Was he loosing his gaydar? What a pity, he decided, the guy was about to loose the fuck of his life. "No problem," he said, turning to leave.

 

"Um...sir?" the young waiter called, hesitantly.

 

Brian only turned his head back.

 

"If you're interested...I leave in an hour or so," he smiled a little uncertain.

 

Brian looked at his watch. He was tired, and he hated to wait, but he guessed he could wait a little. "Room 303," was all Brian said, with his usual half smile.

 

"If you're tired, sir, I can give you a wonderful massage."

 

"Why not?" Brian smiled at him, hooking a finger in the guy's belt.
"I'll be waiting."

 

"I'm Julio, by the way."

 

Brian wanted to say "who cares?", but decided not to. If the guy was any good, he could even let him massage his back...after the fuck, of course. "Brian." Was all he said as went upstairs with a smirk.

 

 

Pittsburgh

 

 

Gus wasn't in a good mood today. He was tired of repeating the same thing about Daddy over and over. So far he had already repeated the story to Uncle Mike, Grandma Deb and Uncle Ted. What made him really upset was that everyone asked if he had dreamed the whole thing. Why it was so hard for the adults to believe that Daddy had confided in him?

 

Daddy had told him to never lie, and Gus did everything Daddy asked. It was bad enough to live so far from him, and he knew that it was not because they came back to Pittsburgh that he and Daddy would see each other as much as he wanted. Daddy had gone on a long, long trip, after all.

 

But when he asked Gus if he could keep an important secret, Gus said yes without a second thought. He loved to share all kinds of things with Daddy. Then, Daddy had told him that he would be away for a very long time, but he didn't want Gus to worry, because it had nothing to do with him.

 

Daddy had said that Gus was the most important person in his life and that he would always love him. No matter what happened. So Gus didn't understand why the adults were so worried. Hadn't he already said that Daddy was okay? Just because he was a child, it didn't mean Daddy couldn't tell him important things. He was already six, and according to Daddy, a big boy. He was really proud because now he was the man of the family.

 

Mom and Mummy were talking loudly with each other again, and he was starting to get sad, because since they arrived back at Pittsburgh, every time they talked about Daddy they ended like that. It was funny, because Mommy always defended everything Daddy did, but Mom was often saying things about him that made Mummy put her hands on Gus's years so he wouldn't listen.

 

He was sitting on the last step of the stairs, listening to his mothers' conversation. Mom was telling Mommy that Daddy was an adult - of course he was! - and he could do whatever he wanted. Mommy was saying they were friends since they were children and she didn't understand why Dad didn't tell her where he was going. But Daddy didn't tell Gus either, he said that Gus had to trust him. And Gus did.

 

Sighing, the little boy got up and went to his bedroom. Jenny was inside her cradle, playing with her favorite doll, which Gus thought it was the ugliest thing he had ever seen. She drooled on the poor doll al lot, and used to bite it, toss it and take it everywhere.

 

"Gus!" said Jenny when he entered the bedroom. He smiled at the toddler. She was beautiful and he really loved her name. He couldn't understand why Mom and Uncle Mike called her JR. She was a girl, she had a girl's name, so Gus only called her Jenny.

 

"Hi, Jenny."

 

"Wanna pway, Gus!" the little girl said.

 

"Not now, Jenny, I'm thinking." It was very hard to think about adult stuff sometimes, because adults made everything more complicated.

 

"Pwease, Gus! Pway with monkey and bear!"

 

"Alright," the boy rolled his eyes, "but I won't be the monkey."

 

The girl smiled and extended her arms to him. "Out!"

 

"I can't, Jenny, you're too heavy."

 

"Pwease, Gus! Out! Lemme out! I wanna pway in bed!" Jenny insisted.

 

"No, I can't, If I drop you Mom will be angry!"

 

"You don't dwop me, Gus, you big!"

 

Gus couldn't resist her little arms raised at him. He loved his sister so much, she was so little and he wanted to protect her always. She made him want to do everything right, so he would never make her sad, he hated to see her crying.

 

"Okay, I'm gonna try. But be quiet, I don't wanna drop you." The cradle was side by side with the bed, because the room was small, so Gus stepped on the bed to be able to reach the toddler. He used all his strength to lift her. She was heavy, but she did what he asked and didn't move or thrashed, just waited quietly as he took her off the cradle and put her on the bed.

 

"Okay, good girl, now let's play." He picked the stuffed monkey and bear from the shelf and sat by her side.

 

"Gus, you nice!" she smiled at him and hugged him with her small arms.

 

"Gus?" Melanie started to enter the bedroom, but stopped in the threshold, looking puzzled at the children. "Who took you off the cradle, baby?"

 

Jenny just giggled and hugged the stuffed monkey.

 

"I did, Mom!" said Gus proudly.

 

"Oh, Gus!" Melanie sat on the bed and hugged the boy. "She's too heavy for you, honey! You could've dropped her!"

 

"But I didn't, Mom!" he said irritably. "I'm a big boy, not a baby, I can do things right !"

 

"I know you can,' she said patiently, "but Jenny is heavy even for me sometimes, so you can't take her out of the cradle, especially if you step on the bed. The mattress is too soft, what if you trip in the covers? You two could end up hurt."

 

"Gus is big, Mom!" helped Jenny.

 

"I know, dear. But he's still a child."

 

The boy got up from the bed with a frown and bit his bottom lip. Melanie had to hide her laugh, because he looked so much like Brian when he was like that, that she often had to look hard to find Lindsay's traces on his face.

 

"Anyway I came here to get you, Uncle Emmett is downstairs and he wants to talk to you."

 

"If this is about Daddy, I'm not going."

 

"Well, actually it is. He wants to know what exactly Dad told you."

 

"No, Mom. I'm tired. I like Uncle Emmett, but you make me repeat this to everyone! Why you don't believe me?"

 

Melanie smiled tenderly at him. "We believe you, baby, it's just that you're the only person Dad told he was going on a trip...It was so unexpected for him to do this..."

 

"But It's true, Mom. I never lie!"

 

"I know, Gus, you're a nice boy and you know lying is wrong. But your Daddy didn't tell anyone where he was going, and he shouldn't have done this."

 

"Why do you always make it look like everything Daddy does is wrong?" he said suddenly.

 

"Baby! I don't..."

 

"Yes, you do, Mom! I can hear you, you know," he said matter-of-factly. "You and Mommy speak too loud sometimes. And it's always about money or about Daddy. Why you don't like him?"

 

Melanie froze at the hurt in the boy's eyes. "I like him, Gus. I really do." The funniest thing was that she wasn't lying. She wasn't crazy about Brian, but she liked him. Almost. She was just...used to contradict him, she guessed. Because she knew how important he was to Lindsay and deep down she envied him for being Gus's father.

 

When the boy was born, she expected him to vanish, scared of fatherhood like it was the plague. But he'd stayed, visited, supported. Once in a while his visits would be scarce, but he always came back. And he never refused them anything, where Gus was concerned. She couldn't forget that he almost didn't give her his parental rights; he only did it so she and Lindsay could be together again.

 

"Come here, my love." She said, holding the boy in her arms. "I'm sorry if I sounded like I don't like your father. I won't do it again, okay?"

 

"Okay, Mom." Gus sniffed. "He said I'm a big boy, you know. Said I had to take care of you and Mommy. I didn't want him to go. But he said he loved me, and it was important, Mom...when do you think he will come back?"

 

"I don't know, baby." She sighed when Gus lay on the bed and put his head on her lap. Melanie felt a pang in her chest for the boy. Maybe it was time to leave things as they were, stop ‘interrogating' Gus about Brian and let the future take care of itself. "But he better come back soon, because I bet you miss him a lot, don't you?"

 

"I do, Mom. He's the best Daddy in the world, and I want him back."

 

________________________________________________________________

 

 

Ibiza

 

 

"Mr Kinney, I'm here for your massage, as you requested yesterday."

 

"It's too early." Brian mumbled.

 

"It's not early, sir. It's noon."

 

"So? I went to bed at five!"

 

"So how was night, sir?" asked the young man politely.

 

Brian didn't even open his eyes. "A little disappointing

 

"Well, not everything is perfect."

 

"No shit," said Brian, holding the pillow in front of his eyes, more to block the light than anything, because he was fully awake now with the insistent chatter.

 

"Can I open the window, sir? It's hot here, this is not healthy."

 

"Humpf. Go ahead, but just a little."

 

Julio completely opened the window and the sun hit Brian fully on the face. "It's a beautiful day outside. You shouldn't spend the whole day here and go out only at night."

 

"Shit! " Brian closed his eyes tightly . "A man can't sleep in his own bed!"

 

"Of course you can, sir. At night."

 

"Has anyone ever told you that you're annoying?"

 

Julio laughed softy "You did, Mr. Kinney, several times"

 

Brian snorted. "I did, didn't I?."

 

Since he met the young waiter, he was always somewhere around Brian. He could tell the guy was a little infatuated, but Brian, not breaking his usual policy, had fucked him only once. Actually, several times, but only the first night.

 

Julio Herrera worked at the hotel, so Brian saw him almost every day. The guy gave wonderful massages, and for Brian, that was a true blessing, because his body seemed to ache all over lately. No matter how much he slept, his muscles were always sore, his head always pounding and the cough never left. He thought briefly about giving up smoking, but what for? He was going to die anyway.

 

Julio, for an unknown reason, seemed to be determined not to leave Brian alone. He seemed to be worried about him, like he could read between the lines that something was wrong with the beautiful and rich, but solitary man that slept a lot, went clubbing every single night and came back drunk. On the surface it looked just like another playboy on another wild prolonged vacation, but Julio saw sadness behind the hazel eyes, sometimes even pain, and it wasn't right, the young man thought, for someone so beautiful to feel like that.

 

He offered to give Brian massages everyday before starting to work at the hotel, in part because he needed the extra money, in part because Brian hinted the massages made him feel better. Sadness apart, Julio felt there was something physically wrong with the older man, but he didn't dare to ask.

 

This morning Brian didn't want to get up. If he could, he would never get up again. He almost hadn't slept, and the few hours he had slept were filled with dreams involving a certain blond with sunshine smile. The result was that now, he missed the blond so much that he thought he was going to explode. He missed Gus too, especially the boy's little arms around his neck and his soft hair.

 

Last night, after kicking the trick's ass, he went to the bar to have a drink. He sat alone at the bar and asked for a double Jim Beam. When the waiter came, Brian almost had a heart attack, because he was so much like Justin that the brunet actually gasped when he saw him. That was the end of the night for him; he returned to his suite and spent the night rummaging through his things looking at some of Justin's and Gus's pictures. It was so pathetic that it made his stomach churn. He wasn't turning in a fucking sentimental lesbian, he thought, he already was one. He had slept around five, exhaustion finally taking him.

 

He wasn't in the mood to get up, especially to face a sunny day, when he was all darkness inside. The dream had made him miss Justin even more than he was already missing. He just wanted to sleep and to forget. Maybe take a sedative so he wouldn't dream.

 

"Mr. Kinney...your massage."

 

"Please, Julio, do me a favor, go to work, have a great time and leave me alone." He closed his eyes.

 

"Alright sir, as you wish. Julio headed to the door. "Umm...I'll come later to see if you're alright, if you don't mind?"

 

"Don't bother, it's just a hangover."

 

"If you say so, sir...."

.

Brian sighed when the door closed. Shit, he was tired, feeling weak but couldn't eat...his stomach rebelled at the mere thought of food. It was getting worse, he knew it. Some days he was alright, but some days were just bad and nothing he did could make them better. Today was one of them. He wondered how much time he still had before people would start to notice. He had to find somewhere else to go, because, when the time came, things would just get out of control and someone would take him to a fucking hospital, the last place in the world where he wanted to be.

 

He turned to his side and closed his eyes, but realized there was no way he would sleep again with the god damned opened window with the bright sun on his face. He sat up slowly, trying not to worsen the dizziness he was already feeling. Getting up, he walked to the window and tried to close it, but Julio had opened it too much and Brian had to use an extra strength to close it. He was alarmed when the effort left him a little breathless. He closed the curtains too to help making the room as dark as he could and slowly returned to bed. He felt a dull ache in his chest every time he tried to take a deep breath.

 

He lay down again, covering himself with the duvet, already feeling the shivers coming. ‘Great', he thought. Now he was going to have a fever again. Some days were just worse that the others. Fucking cancer.

 

 

 

 

Rome

 

 

Justin stroked the canvas angrily. Three months and no news from Brian. No news at all. He had sent him several emails and received them all back, as if the account was closed. He wasn't even paying attention at what he was painting anymore, just poured all his frustration in bright and angry colors, letting the effort and the movements distract and soothe him.

 

He didn't want to believe that Brian was again in his "I don't need anyone" mode. After all they had lived together, all the love they'd shared...? He hated how stubborn the man was when he got like that, as if he was God or something like that and could control people's wishes end keep everyone away from him. Even Justin. He thought, not for the first time, that Brian did this on purpose, to punish him for leaving, even if he said Justin shouldn't waste the opportunity.

 

"Wow." said Alexia coming in the studio. "There's strength in this one, the anger is almost palpable."

 

"Huh...you think so?"

 

"Definitely." She approached him, planting a kiss on his cheek. "Who is the target of all this?"

 

"You don't want to know."

 

"Believe me, I do." She looked at the canvas closely. "This is good stuff. One of the best I've seen."

 

"Um...thanks, I think. I wasn't planning on painting anything specific. Just dealing with my emotions, I guess."

 

"That's how the best works come, darling."

 

"Yeah, maybe you're right." He dropped the brush on the table. He was covered in paint. "I hope you aren't planning on going out with me now, because I have paint even in my hair."

 

"No...I just came to see what you were up to, I haven't heard from you since Friday...Driane is working as always...So, where are your fellow artists?"

 

"Mr. Benini gave us the day off. They're probably drinking and eating somewhere."

 

"You didn't go with them, though." She stated the obvious. "You're young, Justin. Should go out more often."

 

"Not in the mood." He rubbed his eyes. "God, I need a shower."

 

"You need a hot bath and a cup of coffee."

 

"Probably." He eyed the unfinished painting critically. Then he snapped out of the blue. "This is bullshit. Alex," he said, waving his hand at the painting. He grabbed the brush again, immersed it in black ink and headed for the canvas. "Maybe I should just..."

 

"No, no, no, stop!" Alexia stepped forward, grabbing his wrist. "What the hell you're doing, Justin? This is a work of art!"

 

"No, it's not! I'm just pissed off and I put it all here! It doesn't even make sense, it has nothing to do with the other paintings I made here."

 

"It doesn't have to make sense, Justin, it just needs to be beautiful and heartfelt. And this is."

 

He sighed loudly.

 

"What's happening? Why are you angry?"

 

"I'm not exactly angry, Alex, I guess I'm just...frustrated."

 

"With what? Or should I say...with who?"

 

"Brian."

 

"And who is Brian?"

 

"It's a long story. And complicated."

 

"Justin, darling, if you want to talk...I'm all ears."

 

 

 

Ibiza

 

Brian woke up with the telephone ringing. It was already morning again, he noticed, and he hadn't even left his room since the day before. "What?" he snapped, because he hated to be waken up this early.

 

"Mr. Kinney, you asked to wake you up at ten thirty sir...are you alright?" asked Julio.

 

"Fabulous."

 

"Very well, sir. Have a nice day."

 

‘Listen, do you think it's possible I can have some breakfast downstairs? I know it's past ten but..."

 

"Of course, sir, I'm sure we can arrange something."

 

"I'll be downstairs in...half an hour...?"

 

"Very well."

 

Half an hour later Brian stepped into the restaurant with his best sunglasses, to hide the dark circles around his eyes. "Hey," he said to Julio, who approached him with the newspaper.

 

"Good morning, sir," the waiter smiled. "I'll get your breakfast."

 

Brian only nodded distractedly and put the newspaper on the table. He was surprisingly hungry. Julio brought a glass of orange juice and left without a word. Brian took a sip and unfolded the newspaper, looking for the business page. He stopped suddenly. "Holy shit!" he said. He was fluent in Spanish, and he read, dumbfounded, the word ‘Muerto' right above the guy's picture. A guy he unfortunately knew.

 

 

 

 

Rome

 

 

Justin yawned again. "Sorry, Alex."

 

"I guess you took my advice and went out last night."

 

"I did. Met an interesting guy." He blushed, smiling a little.

 

"Had a busy night?"

 

"You could say that."

 

They were in Alexia's car, heading for the cafeteria where Adrianne was waiting for them. His stomach growled. "Oops, sorry'" he giggled.

 

Alexia parked the car at the small street near a charming bookstore and Justin stepped out of it. He glanced at the door where the newspapers were displayed and stopped on his tracks. The photo on the front page was all too familiar to him. He blinked several times, suddenly feeling dizzy.

 

"Justin?" Alexia ran to his side alarmed, he was awfully pale.

 

"Look..." was all he managed to say, pointing to the picture.

 

"Oh my God!" Alexia murmured.

 

Justin didn't know Italian too well, but being here for more than a month he could read a few words. And he had no doubt that he was reading the words ‘morto' and ‘suicidio', and he knew that meant dead and suicide ?...right above Ethan's Gold picture.

Chapter Text

Rome

 

 

"Promising young violinist Ethan Gold, 26 years old, was found dead, by his fiancé at three AM at in his suite at the Grand Hotel de la Minerve. Mr. Gold was engaged to Bianca Mignone, heiress of Naples Records. Their wedding was set for some time next month.

 

Ethan Gold was an American, but he lived in Rome mostly. He was known quite well in Europe for his passionate and talented interpretations of Paganini and Wieniawski.

 

The circumstances of his death remain unknown until now, but staff from the hotel said there is a strong possibility that Mr. Gold committed suicide.

 

Apparently, the Mignone family asked for discretion from the police regarding the case, because the police has yet to pronounce itself about the death. Police Chief Venturi said they are working on the case and will make a statement tomorrow.

 

Two days ago, Mr. Ethan Gold was seen leaving a well known gay club named Skyline after an event known as The Leather Party, in the company of a man, later identified as Luigi Rossi, a 34 year old former pugilist well known in Italy.

 

According to the photographer, Mr. Gold offered him a great amount of money for the pictures. When he refused, he was punched in the face by the musician, and his camera was broken. The photographer registered his complaint against Mr. Gold at the Second Police District. Unfortunately, the pictures weren't with him anymore and are published at on page 17.

 

The rumors are that he hung himself. His fiancée, Bianca Mignone was taken to the European Hospital. The family stated that she is traumatized with his death and is now being kept under sedatives."

 

"Wow." said Alexia, folding the newspaper, after reading out loud the news about Ethan's death for the second time. "Poor Bianca... The guy seemed to be an idiot, but she didn't deserve such a fate."

 

They were comfortably sprawled on the carpet of Alexia and Adrianne's apartment. Adrianne had gone to her studio, leaving Justin and Alexia alone.

 

"I still don't believe it." Justin said.

 

"After everything you just told me, dear, no wonder he was so scared at the vernissage...he barely looked at you, as if you were a ghost."

 

"I don't know what went through his mind that day..." Justin sighed. He had just told Alexia the basics of the story with Ethan and Brian, including the recent developments. "I mean, did he honestly think I would mention that he was stalking me barely two months before?"

 

"Who knows..." she exhaled the smoke slowly, putting her cigarette in the ashtray.

 

"When I saw him I thought: ‘here we go again', because he actually said that I wouldn't escape him coming to Europe. Then I saw he was with his fiancée and it was almost funny, he was livid.'

 

"And how are you feeling now? About his death and everything...?"

 

He thought about it a little. "Sad," he said after a while. "It's not like I'll miss him or anything...I was content to never see him again, but I didn't hate him...I certainly didn't want this to happen. I'm just incredibly sad for him. To waste his life like that..."

 

Alexia looked at him. "I think I understand."

 

"He was such a talented artist, Alex; you should've seen him play..."

 

"I did see him last year in Paris. He was great."

 

"But he lived a lie. His whole career was base on lies, on pretending. And what for? To be the best violinist of all times? And for that he sacrificed everything he was, everything he wanted? He was terrified of anyone finding out he was gay. He pretended so much that I think he lost himself in the process."

 

"Judging from what you're telling me, it looks like was so lost that he couldn't stand it anymore."

 

"I don't have the slightest doubt that he did this to himself. He must've freaked out when someone took his pictures with that guy at a gay bar. He thought about the scandal...and decided to end it as fast as he could...how sad, how pathetic, God!"

 

"Well, now that you put it that way, I think you're right. He was terrified of the scandal, with his wedding so close and everything...poor guy."

 

"He was never very brave...he always took the easiest way out of everything, like when he decided to hide me, us, for his career."

 

"I bet that hurt."

 

"A little...after all I went through to get out of the closet, I'd never go back in...not for him. Not for anyone, I think. But then, I wasn't that in love as I thought I was...That's when I realized that he wasn't the only one lying to me...I was lying to myself too, because he was not who I wanted. It was Brian."

 

"Will you tell him?"

 

"Brian? Yeah...I guess he'll read about it anyway. But I'd like to tell him myself. If only I could get in touch with him."

 

"Have you tried?"

 

"Yeah, but it hasn't been easy."

 

Alexia got up from the floor and looked at him. "Do you want more wine?"

 

"No, thanks. My head's already spinning a little. I need to go back to the villa, Mr. Benini must be worried."

 

"I'll take you, but I don't think you're in any condition to pay attention to anything today, Justin. I'll call him, he's a lovely guy. Tell him you're sick."

 

"Thanks, Alex. I appreciate your help."

 

"Hey, we're friends. In case you forgot." She headed for the kitchen, grabbing her cell phone in the way.

 

Justin sighed and closed his eyes. He could hear Alexia's voice coming from the kitchen, speaking in Italian with Mr. Benini. He thanked God or whoever would be listening for finding her. He missed Daphne terribly, especially in moments like this, because she had the power to make him feel better, always.

 

He didn't feel too comfortable spilling his life to Alexia like that, after knowing her for such a short time, but he was still in shock because of Ethan's death. Besides, he wasn't the naïve boy people thought he was anymore, he really had the feeling he could trust Alex.

 

He took his cell phone off his pocket and pressed the speed button for what felt like the hundredth time that week. And for the hundredth time again, it went straight to voicemail. He felt tears coming to his eyes and blinked several times to stop them from falling. It was clear that Brian was cutting him off again, but why?

 

He remembered Brian's card again. "Always", he'd written. But now, months after that wonderful night, these words seemed empty, because he couldn't reach him, no matter how hard he tried. His cell phone was always on voice mail, he never answered the phone at the loft or the emails Justin sent... and Justin was so tired of Ted's lame excuses every time he called Kinnetik that he almost pitied the guy, so uncomfortable and apologetic Ted's voice sounded.

 

His only option left was Michael, but Justin didn't want to try this one yet. Maybe because he saw Michael's eyes looking at him, like he was saying "how could you leave him?', even if his mouth was smiling and he was saying "I'm so happy for you, Justin'. He knew he and Michael were friends now, but the other man would always favor Brian's side.

 

Why the hell Brian was doing this? He couldn't understand, not after all that had happened that last night. That Brian, that opened and sincere man, who had bared his feelings for Justin couldn't be this one, was hiding himself again...

 

Maybe he was a little sensitive because of Ethan's death. He was also feeling a little sick, perhaps because of the wine. He still couldn't picture Ethan's death...what a waste...such a talent given to such an unstable person...

 

"Um...Alex..." he said as she returned to the living room. "Can you take me home now?"

 

"Sure, Justin...but you don't need to worry, I talked to Mr. Benini, he said you can take the day off."

 

"Thanks. The thing is that...I'm not feeling very well, that's all. I think I need to be alone for a while."

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Pittsburgh

 

 

Liberty Diner was full of customers and Debbie was tired as hell. She didn't complain, though. She had tried to leave the diner and be a housewife a few years ago, but that kind of life wasn't for her. She loved the diner's noise, Kikki's happy chatter and the smell of the Pink Plate. She loved the boys and girls who came here, some of them every day, others seldom...she just loved to see them, to be a part of their lives. It made her feel useful.

 

She looked fondly at her son while he ate his breakfast with Emmett and Ted. They all looked a bit grumpy without Brian, and it was strange to look just at the three of them when, for so many years, she had served breakfast almost every day for her "four musketeers".

 

"Hey Deb, wanna see the paper?" asked Kikki, handing her the newspaper. "I finished it."

 

"Sure, hun," she said, chewing her gum. "Michael, honey, do you want the paper?"

 

""Later, Ma," he answered from his usual place, mouth full of pancakes.

 

Distractedly she opened the newspaper, going straight to the page where the news about her favorite soap opera were. But the picture of the young man staring at her wasn't of a television star. It was a musician.

 

"Holy shit!" she yelled, covering her mouth with her hand.

 

In the blink of an eye, Michael, Emmett and Ted ran to where she was, worried.

 

"What happened, Ma?" Michael asked, almost in panic.

 

"Are you feeling sick?" Emmett wanted to know.

 

She turned the picture upside down on the counter so they could see it. "Look," she said, "Isn't this the guy Sunshine left Brian for?"

 

"Maaaa...!" whined Michael, "Don't talk like that! He didn't-"

 

"It's him, I remember from Lindz and Mel's party," Ted said, while Emmett took the paper from Deb's hands and started to read.

 

"So what?" Michael said, irritated, "who care if this guy is on the news? As far as I'm concerned he can-"

 

"Michael, dear, you better take a look at this." Emmett said slowly.

 

"What?" asked Michael, holding the paper and starting to read it. As his eyes started to scan the words written below the young man's smiling photograph, he turned several shades paler.

 

"Oh. My. God," he looked at his friends and his mother. "Ethan Gold is dead."

 

"Yeah, I figured that out by reading the news, thank you." said Emmett. "But why all the sudden worry?"

 

"Don't you see? It explains everything!"

 

"Deb, can you help me here?" asked Kikki, and a very curious Debbie had to return to her duties.

 

"Come on, let's go to the shop." Michael said decidedly, folding the newspaper and putting it inside his jacket.

 

"Why?" asked e dumbfounded Ted, tossing some money at Deb's direction.

 

"We need to discuss it properly."

 

"For God's sake, Michael, what are you talking about?" Ted insisted.

 

"Come on, you two! We can't talk about something like this here." he looked at Debbie, meaningfully. "Prying eyes, " he added.

 

"I can't. I need to work." Ted said.

 

"Do you? And where's your boss?" Michael put his hands on his waist, impatient.

 

"Uh... I d-don't have one."

 

"Exactly. Let's go." He walked towards the door decidedly. "Em, you coming?"

 

"Sure," Emmett chirped happily behind his two friends. "This smells like gossip, and Emmett Honneycutt doesn't waste a good gossip."

 

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Ibiza

 

Brian moaned again when he tried to get up. Despite the sun outside, he was shivering under two duvets and all the blankets he could find. It had been two days since he started feeling like shit. Actually, he always felt like shit nowadays, but now he could definitely say he was starting his already expected and very dreaded downfall.

 

He couldn't take Ethan's death out of his mind . It wasn't so much because of Ethan himself, he had always hated the guy and wasn't going to like him now that he was dead. It was because as soon as he read about it, he thought if Justin already knew the news and how he would react. And thinking about Justin hurt.

 

He wondered if Justin was still in Rome, and if he, per chance, would have seen Ethan. He wondered if Justin's hair was longer, and if he had already dropped the ‘starving artist' image. He knew it wasn't that long since he last saw him, but each and every thing about the blond interested him. And Brian missed him so fucking much.

 

He tried to get up to get an aspirin, only to be assaulted by a coughing fit. It felt like his ribs were going to burst and his head popped up each time he coughed, but he couldn't stop it. His breath was short and he was sure he was going to pass out, but somehow, he managed to calm down the cough after a while and started to doze off again.

 

Justin was painting, his back turned to Brian. He was all in black, which was strange, because Justin almost never wore black. Brian tried to touch his shoulder but his fingers went through Justin's skin, as if Brian was a ghost. He tried to say Justin's name but couldn't, his tongue felt like it was glued inside his mouth. All he could do was watch as Justin's angry strokes filled the canvas with something he couldn't see.

 

They were in a place that looked a lot like the Central Park, but Brian couldn't tell because his vision was blurred with unwanted tears. He wanted so much to touch Justin and see why the blond's shoulders were shaking as if he was sobbing... But he couldn't, and it filled him with despair and an anguish that he had never felt in so long time.

 

He wanted to ask Justin to turn around because he missed him so much and wanted, needed to se his face... but Justin didn't look in his direction, just kept painting and painting, as if nothing else existed, mingling angry strokes with soft ones, sobs and sighs, moments of utter calm and moments of despair.

 

Justin's fingers were almost white because he was holding the brush with such a strength that Brian, for a fleeting moment, thought that the brush would break. He wanted to warn the blond to be careful, because Justin's hands were so gentle, soft, white, perfect, artist's hands... he didn't want to see them hurt. He couldn't bear to see any part of Justin hurt.

 

Suddenly, Justin shoved the canvas away from his own body in a fury Brian had only seen during the Pink Posse. The easel fell on the ground along with the canvas, and Justin, still sobbing, threw the thick brush on the unfinished painting.

 

"Shit, Brian." was all he said, before he went away, walking fast toward the sunset, and then there was fog coming from nowhere, and in a second he wasn't there anymore.

 

And Brian, looking at the canvas on the floor, felt his chest clenching with sadness, looking at a picture that was all black, except for a closed wooden door, adorned with green leaves around it. Even if he lived a hundred years he would never forger that door. Britin.

 

Brian woke up with a start and another coughing fit. He sat up in panic, trying to ignore his protesting muscles. Shit, this whole disease thing was making him ‘soft' - God, he hated this word - or else how could his heart be racing so much just because of a fucking stupid dream?

 

He closed his eyes, trying to return his breath to a normal rate. Looking around, for the first time, Brian really felt how impersonal the hotel bedroom was. Luxurious, yes... but cold, with no pictures, no memories, nothing.

 

Was that really the way he wanted to go? Alone, in a cold hotel room, like the fucking fiddler? Scared as if he was hiding from something? Was that really the way he wanted to spend his final weeks, months, or whatever was in store for him? Away from everything he treasured the most, away from everyone? He had nothing in common with Ethan Gold - besides wanting Justin, he thought bitterly - and dieing in a hotel Was definitely not the first thing.

 

He tried to get up again, this time succeeding, and walked to the window. Looking at the world outside, he felt so far away from it, as if he was already dead. Ibiza was beautiful. But it meant nothing to him, and its beautiful beaches and is wonderful bright blue sky weren't the last things he wanted to see.

 

"Fuck," he muttered, when he tried to open the window and his ribs protested against the single movement. The word turned into a series of coughs and he reached for the coffee table, grabbing a tissue. He coughed again, this time covering his mouth with the tissue and threw it in the basket. He missed, and when he, groaning, bent down to retrieve it, he noticed that it contained a not so small number of red specks.

 

He froze, for a moment, startled with the knowledge that this was really happening to him, that he couldn't dismiss this shit as the flu anymore. An then, after a few seconds, as with everything in his life, Brian Kinney was prompted into action. Ignoring his stiff muscles, he bent down again and grabbed the telephone lay on the floor next to the bed.

 

"Hello," he said, "This is Brian Kinney. Could you prepare my bill? I'll be checking out today. Yes. And could you get me a car to take me to the airport?"

 

 

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Rome

 

 

Justin didn't have any illusions about being the best of the five winners of the contest. Each one of them was good in his own way. They were all very good and talented. But he didn't expect to feel the worst of them.

 

Technically he was perfect, he was told that several times. And frankly, he still could paint whatever and whenever he wanted, because painting was like breathing for him.

 

But looking at his latest work, his not nearly finished canvas, brush still in his hand, he could clearly see that there was something missing in his art. It lacked the passion of the previous paintings, as if his heart wasn't in what he was doing. And frankly, it wasn't.

 

Sighing, he sat down in the bench near the window and looked outside. It was already six PM and he was tired, but he had to show something to Mr. Benini the next day or the man would think he wasn't interested in the program anymore. And he was, he loved Europe, but lately he felt strangely detached from everything.

 

The truth was so obvious and clear that he had to smile at its simplicity. He couldn't paint like before because his heart, mind and soul wasn't in Rome or anywhere near Europe. It was all in Pittsburgh, with Brian Kinney.

 

It wasn't because he wasn't able to contact him for over a month now. He already knew that, at some point, something like that would happen, because Brian was Brian and his walls would go up eventually. Brian's walls were like a second skin to him, and he used them sometimes without even noticing it.

 

Justin smiled again, this time sadly. It was necessary Ethan's death to make him realize that he, Justin Taylor, was doing exactly the same thing Ethan Gold had done: sacrificing everything for his art. He was sacrificing the love of his life, his one and only chance of being truly happy, for something so elusive like success.

 

Ethan had sacrificed his whole life for the chance of being a great violinist, and he had succeeded, or at least he seemed to be on the right path. But doing that, he sacrificed his personal life, denied who he really was. Was it fear? Fear of not being accepted as a gay artist, fear of being looked as less talented because of his personal life? It was all bullshit, because in the end, the pressure ended up being too much and the guy took his own life.

 

Wasn't he, Justin, doing the same thing? Sacrificing his personal life for the dream of being famous...? How many times, in these two years, had he had woken up in the middle of the night with Brian's name on his lips, only to find out that the man wasn't by his side? How many times he had wanted to call him to tell him something sad or funny, or just to hear his voice, only to realize he had to make a long distance call, because Brian wasn't part of his everyday life anymore?

 

Ever since he left Brian sprawled on his bed the night he left for New York, he questioned himself, the real reasons behind his own actions. Sure, he wanted to be a famous artist, but something deep inside his mind told him this wasn't the only reason... But he had almost died at a bombing, and Brian was there, telling him to go get his big chance, and Lindsay and everybody else told him how great it would be... and it was so easy to leave everything behind and throw himself in a new adventure in New York City. But one question always bothered him: why had he left like that, mere days before the wedding, when being with Brian was all he always wanted?

 

Ethan's death had showed him the one thing he and the violinist had in common: Fear. Ethan was afraid of who he was. Justin was afraid of the magnitude of his love, he was afraid of what would happen if he took a chance to be what he really wanted, or in this case, to finally be with whom he really wanted.

 

It was almost funny, because, as challenging as being known in the art world as a famous painter would be, he wasn't afraid of that at all. He was born an artist and he would always be one, until his death. If he would be a big fat success or not, it didn't matter to him, because he didn't need it, because he knew who he was and what he wanted to do.

 

What really scared him was the possibility of a whole new life with Brian. It was scary to know that he loved Brian so much, and it was even scarier to feel that Brian was the person who helped define him, Justin Taylor. Suddenly, the option of having the life he wanted with Brian - with a big mansion and all - wasn't a dream anymore. And he was scared, because he didn't want to fail. What if they didn't work as a couple? What if Brian regretted his decision? What if he never wanted monogamy? What if Brian never saw him as his equal?

 

Justin had left, hoping things with Brian wouldn't end and that, magically, the future would take care of itself and he would find his answers. And here he was, in a foreign country, with the chance of being famous in his hands. So... why wasn't he happy? Why did his heart ache so much? Why his paintings lacked he passion from the first months?

 

There was only one thing he knew for sure: he was tired of the damned fear. He would live in fear forever if he gave up Brian He didn't need to be famous, but he needed his art, and for that he needed his muse, his inspiration, the person that always made him feel new and alive. His art always came from his emotions, but his emotions always came from Brian.

 

His art has always been a natural thing to him. He was selected out of so many and had won the contest. His true challenge was Brian, because didn't come to him easily. Without him, Justin felt that no matter how many great things happened, a part of him was missing. He needed the love of his life to feel at peace, to function properly, to finally be complete.

 

Now, all he had to do was find Brian. He needed to tell him that he wasn't afraid anymore.

 

With this thought in his mind, he looked at the canvas once more. And he had that familiar feeling again, as if something inside him had just woken up. The unfinished work suddenly felt full of possibilities. A little more blue, perhaps...Smiling, he closed the window and walked decidedly to the canvas, resuming his work. The painting was far from finished. All the others had already finished their work. Justin knew he had a very long and sleepless night ahead of him. But now he didn't care.

 

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Pittsburgh

 

 

"Come on, get in," Michael said, after unlocking the shop's door. When Emmett and Ted stepped inside, Michael looked at the two sides of the street and finally got inside the comic book shop, locking the door firmly behind him.

 

"Michael, please," Ted tried again, "What's going on?"

 

But Michael didn't answer. Looking at his friends, he put his index finger over his lips in a gesture for them to keep quiet. Then he turned only half the lights on and walked to the back if the shop, disappearing, leaving Ted and Emmett astonished and listening to him opening and closing doors.

 

Finally, when he came back, Emmett looked at Ted questioningly. The older man just shrugged, so Emmett asked, "What were you doing back there, honey?"

 

"Checking, of course."

 

Ted lost his patience. "Checking for what, for crying out loud?"

 

Michael looked at Ted as if he was stupid. "Checking if we're not being followed."

 

"Uh..."Emmett didn't know what to think of Michael's bizarre behavior. "Who would follow us?" he asked.

 

"The police, who else?" said Michael, matter-of-factly.

 

"P-p-police?" Ted almost choked.

 

"Look, Mickey," Emmett put both his hands on Michael's shoulders. "This whole James Bond thing is very exciting, but you better explain what's going on, because you're scaring me."

 

"Did you take a bump to the head recently?" Ted asked. "Feeling dizzy lately?"

 

Michael shoved Emmett's hands off his shoulders, walked toward the counter where he had left his things, grabbed the newspaper, opened it and pointed dramatically to Ethan's picture. "Brian did this."

 

"Oh my God!" Emmett shrieked, covering his mouth with his hands, horrified. "Brian killed himself?"

 

"No!" Michael yelled, "He did this to Ethan!"

 

"Who?" asked Ted, dumfounded.

 

"For Christ's sake, are you deaf or what?" he yelled again, pointing to the paper once more. "It was Brian! He killed the fiddler!"

 

"Oh God, you did bump your head." Ted said, seating down tiredly on a chair nearby.

 

"D-do you c-care to explain how you reached this brilliant conclusion?" asked Emmett, now starting to get nervous.

 

"It all makes sense to me now," Michael said, looking at them. "He told Gus!"

 

"He-he told Gus he was going to kill Ethan??" Emmett was as white as the wall now.

 

"It's too hot here." Ted said faintly, stretching his collar around his neck uncomfortable.

 

"Shit! Of course not!" Michael started to pace, practically pulling the hairs off his head. "Listen carefully and then tell me if I'm wrong."

 

"Okay, okay, we're listening," said Emmett, sitting down too. "Aren't we, Ted?"

 

Ted only nodded. He was not feeling well. He hated the police.

 

"He's been planning this for months." Michael started. "Slowly, withdrawing himself from us so we wouldn't notice his strange behavior. He p-p-planned the whole thing and then he went away, d- disappeared, so we wouldn't be charged as guilty too." he stammered, shaking his head. "Then, then he went to Europe, found the fiddler, killed him, and now he's going to jail - oh God, Brian is going to jail - or at least he'll keep running and hiding himself for a long while. That's why he told Gus he would be away for a long time. Because he's probably hiding by now, and he doesn't want his son to worry!" he finished, dramatically.

 

Emmett and Ted were looking at him, mouths hanging open, dumb expressions on their faces.

 

"What?" Michael asked.

 

"But..."Emmett said, "The paper says Ethan killed himself..."

 

"A man as intelligent as Brian would make it look like suicide, Em!" Michael put his hands on his hips

 

Ted blinked several times. "Uh...m- maybe you're forgetting one thing, Michael. It's obvious that Brian probably hated the guy, but why would he..." Ted shivered, "kill him?"

 

"Okay, I'll spill the beans: Ethan was stalking Justin in New York."

 

"Brian told you that?" Emmett asked, incredulously.

 

"Uh...not exactly. I happened to be at the loft when Brian was very drunk and mumbling something about Ethan following Justin everywhere, and he ended with, and I quote ‘I'm gonna kill the fucking fiddler'. His own words."

 

Emmett nodded knowingly, eyes wide. "Oh my God, Brian is a criminal, a fugitive!" They all knew how possessive Brian was about Justin, especially concerning the fiddler.

 

"Wait, wait, wait," Ted was sweating profusely now. "B-Brian w-wouldn't do something like that...would he?" he asked' looking at the other two, frowning unhappily.

 

They only looked at him and nodded slowly.

 

"Jesus! Ki-Ki-Kinnetik is doomed! " he wailed. "And I'm fucked! I just bought a house! I'm a business m-man!" he put his hands on his chest. "Oh God. Do you think the police will think I helped him?"

 

"Ha!" said Michael. "And what about me, uh? His best friend! They will never believe I had nothing to do with it!"

 

"Hey, you!" said Emmett, "Poor Brian is somewhere we don't know, probably hungry, homeless, afraid and lonely, and you are here worried with your own lives?"

 

"Cut the crap, Em," Ted said, "It's Brian we're talking about! He would hardly be hungry and homeless."

 

"Oh, you don't know anything about the underworld, Teddy. How criminal minds work and all."

 

"And since when you do?"

 

"Listen," said Michael interrupting them, "We better not draw too much attention to ourselves for a few days; maybe not even be seen together in public."

 

"You're right!" Ted said, quickly regaining control of the situation, "Who knows if we are being followed?!"

 

Emmett shook his head, sadly. "I never thought, our dear friend, a criminal..."

 

"We better get going, Em." Ted advised. "I need to work. I am everything Kinnetik has now. I'm the pillar of the company, and I can't led everybody down." He sighed, already thinking who the hell would have Brian's brilliant ideas to the campaigns.

 

"Yeah, you better go," said Michael, already sniffing, "I'll call Ben and tell-"

 

"No!" Emmett shrieked. "If we are being followed, your phone calls must be monitored too!"

 

"That's bullshit" Michael dismissed, "Because then they would have put microphones here too and..."

 

He stopped abruptly, and the three looked around frantically, looking for the said ‘hidden microphones'.

 

"Well," Ted said cheerfully and a little too loud "Thanks for the comic books...and the water, Michael, I was really thirsty. Now I'm going to work, because I am an honored and responsible man."

 

"You're welcome, Ted," said Michael loud too.

 

"And I, " Emmett said so loud hat it sounded like he was singing opera, "Am going to work too, I have a big wedding to host in a few days, very important clients, very important."

 

"Yeah, okay Em!" answered Michael, "Now I'll open the shop, because this is an honest job and I need it to pay my bills! I'm such a hard worker, you know."

 

They nodded at each other. Without another word, Michael opened the shop's door and Emmett and Ted left, as secretive as possible for two drama queens.

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Rome

 

 

Alexia was busy. She had a lot to do. She was going back home in two days and she had a lot to pack. As always, her capitalist side had spoken too loud and she had bought more shoes than she really needed, and more toys for her nephews than they could enjoy.

 

Adrianne was in her studio, cursing loudly in French because her staff always seemed to leave everything to the last minute, and she had a lot of things to take care of before packing.

 

It was almost midnight and Alexia sat down on the expensive sofa, tired, a glass of Cabernet in her hand. Her thoughts drifted to Justin. She was worried to leave him. They were going to Venice in a week and everyone was excited, except for her new friend. He was smiling and chatting as always, but the light seemed to have left his eyes. She knew he was doing some serious thinking about his life, he was more introspective lately, but it wasn't her place to ask.

 

The previous night Justin had showed her his new work, and she was impressed at the depth of the young man's soul. His painting was something that even she couldn't define, a mix of emotions reflected in dark and pale colors on the canvas, mirroring exactly the conflict inside the young artist's mind.

 

It was beautiful, as always, but his eyes were uncertain when he showed her the piece, as if he was uncertain about is own work. That was unexpected, because since she knew him, Alexia had never seen Justin doubt his own talent. She knew deep inside he knew his potential, but the turmoil inside him was reflecting on his self confidence and that wasn't good.

 

She was lost in her thoughts when the door bell rang, bringing her back to reality. Alexia frowned, looking at her watch. Almost one in the morning, who would come to her apartment at this time?

 

She wasn't really surprised when she saw Justin at the door, a sheepish and shy smile on his lips, eyes scanning hers. He looked tired, as if he hadn't slept at all, his clothes and hair in disarray. But he irradiated peace.

 

"Sorry..." was all he said, raising his arms in a helpless gesture and letting them drop again at his sides.

 

"Come in," she said smiling tenderly at him.

 

He stepped inside. "I hope you weren't sleeping."

 

"You know me. I never sleep before two. Do you want a drink?" she held his hand and pulled him toward the sofa.

 

"Whatever you're having." He sat down, rubbing his face with his hands tiredly.

 

Alexia want to the kitchen and minutes later returned with another glass of Cabernet.

 

"So..." she gave him the wine. "Do you wanna talk?"

 

Justin shrugged. "Not really."

 

"Okay." She said, because she knew eventually he would.

 

He took a deep breath, as if rehearsing what he was going to say. "Look, Alex, I know I've been a little distant these last few days..."

 

Alexia just nodded, giving him the time he needed.

 

"And I want you to know that...knowing you was one of the best surprises that ever happened to me. You're a great friend." Justin got up and started to pace, Alex followed him with her eyes. "And - and I understand If you're gonna be mad at me and all, but I made up my mind."

 

He stopped before her and looked her I the eyes. Then he dropped the bomb. "I just talked to Mr. Benini this afternoon and dropped the program today. I'm going back to the US. To Pittsburgh."

Chapter Text

Rome

 

He shouldn't be here. He shouldn't. He was supposed to be stronger than this. But, he thought, just this once, he was going to be a little weak and do what his heart wanted. Stay for a few days, pretend he was just visiting, and then leave. He wasn't going back on his decision of leaving Justin follow his own path. It was just a detour.

 

Simon Caswell had reluctantly given him Justin's address and he had come to Rome without a second thought. Now, inside the car, his heart hammered inside his chest and his breath felt short. After months of darkness, he was going to see Sunshine again.

 

Brian flipped the little mirror in front of the passenger's seat open and looked at his reflection, frowning. He was a little pale and thin, and he had no excuse for that, but hopefully Justin would be thrilled to see him and wouldn't ask him anything before he could think of a decent excuse.

 

Right now, the more he tried, he couldn't think of one. All he could think of was that, in a few minutes he would be holding Justin in his arms. He asked the driver to wait for him in the car and, adjusting his sunglasses, left the car.

 

Minutes later he was in a comfortable and spacious living room, heart beating fast, trying his best not to pace and remain seated. He raised his head suddenly when he heard footsteps echoing down the hall and took a few deep breaths to calm himself, trying his best not to cough.

 

"Bon giorno, signore."

 

The smiling fat bald man in front of him was so not the vision he was expecting, but Brian got up from the sofa and extended his hand for the man to shake. "Brian Kinney."

 

"Paolo Benini," the man smiled again. My assistant told me you are here to see one of my protégés?"

 

"Yes, I am. Justin Taylor."

 

The man's face fell. "Oh."

 

Brian raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

 

"Are you a friend?"

"We are partners"

 

If Mr. Benini understood they were business or domestic partners he didn't show. He cleared his throat. "Mr. Kinney, uh... Mr. Taylor left the program three days ago."

 

Brian sat down, suddenly feeling dizzy. "Left?" he asked puzzled, trying to control the wave of nausea that assaulted him.

 

"Don't even ask me the reason", Benini said with his heavy-accented voice. "One day he was doing great like everyone else; then he started to grow quiet and introspective. I thought it was an artist thing, you know how these young artists are... Mr. Taylor is very talented, but I never took him for an unstable person. Then the other day he was at my office, suitcases ready in the middle of the night."

 

"Just like that?"

 

"I'm afraid yes."

 

Brian got up from the sofa suppressing a groan. He was suddenly feeling very tired. "Did he tell you where he was going to?"

 

"He said he was staying with his agent and then he was going to the US in a few days. My guess is he went to New Your, it's where he lives, isn't it?"

 

....

 

Half an hour later, alone in his hotel room, Brian lit a joint and inhaled the smoke, welcoming the almost instant numbness. He felt restless, like some part of him was missing. Not that it was any news: he felt incomplete since Justin left for New York two years ago. But he was so sure he would see the blond today...

 

Somewhere in his mind he wondered why the hell had Justin dropped the God damned program. Brian guessed a bigger opportunity had presented itself, or else the blond wouldn't leave Europe just like that. He was probably in New York now, getting ready for his next step in the art world.

 

Justin deserved all the success in the world, he thought. He was brilliant, and if he had left Europe he must have had something better waiting for him in the US. He didn't deserve a fucking dying partner who would be a burden. Even so, Brian would give everything to see his Sunshine once more.

 

"You're pathetic, Kinney," he said to himself with a bitter laugh. "Serves you right. Who the fuck told you to have hope in the first place?"

 

 

----------------------------------

 

 

New York

 

 

Justin dialed Brian's number again. Voicemail.

 

"Shit!" he closed the cell phone angrily. Brian was making him loose his patience. But if he wanted to play, he was going to have the biggest fucking surprise of his life.

 

Sighing, he looked at his watch. It was almost time to get in another plane. He was tired, the trip fro Rome to NY seemed endless and he couldn't wait to arrive home. He just hoped Brian wasn't with some trick when he arrived at the loft. It would kind if kill the ‘reunion' mood.

 

He started to think about his conversation with Alex, barely five days before. He had stayed at her place since the night he stormed out of the villa right into her apartment, and they talked a lot.

 

.....

 

"Oh...that's about Brian then," Alexia said, with a knowing look.

 

"Yes, Brian." Justin sighed, smiling a little.

 

"So, he's the reason you're going back."

 

"Yep."

 

"What happened? Did you talk to him?"

 

"Um...not really. But I'm not worried, I mean, that's how Brian is. I am...used to it, I guess."

 

"Used to what, Justin?"

 

He shrugged. "Not talking to him frequently. It hurts like hell, but it's always like that with us. We have a serious problem with timing."

 

"But you love him." Alexia put her hand in Justin's arm. "I'm sorry, Justin, I don't want to intrude on your personal life ..."

 

"That's okay, Alex. After all, I intruded your home last night."

 

"But I care a lot about you. I can tell you're a very special person. And I can tell you really love Brian, by the way you talk about him, but especially by the way you paint him. He seems to be your inspiration, and it's terrible to hear you say you're "used" to being apart...No one should get used to it. What happened? If you don't mind asking, that is."

 

"Oh, I guess life got in the way. What the hell, I don't know, Alex. But it all changed now."

 

"Why?"

 

"Because I'm not afraid anymore. I know what I want."

 

"And what it is that you want, Justin?"

 

"Him. I want him. He is my real challenge." Justin half smiled. "I want to wake up and see him already awake looking at me. I want to hear him complaining, because I didn't put my underwear in the drawer or I left my sweater on the floor. I want to cook for him and spoil him with food and desserts he will bitch about making him fat but he'll eat anyway. I want to steal his car keys on a Sunday morning to buy us breakfast, so he'll be mad at me when I come back and we'll end up having a fantastic make up sex," he blushed. "Sorry. I got carried away, but... does it make any sense?"

 

"Oh, Justin, you are so I love with him."

 

"Easy to see, uh?"

 

"It is. He loves you as much, I hope."

 

"He does." Justin smiled. "Always."

 

"What about your art?"

 

"Well..." he shrugged a little. "That's who I am, Alex. I'm an artist and no one will ever take that away from me. After the bashing, they told me I would never draw again, and here I am. So, I'll always have this. It's part of me."

 

She nodded. It was beautiful to see him opening up like his, so certain of what he wanted, so sure of himself.

 

"I never wanted to be famous, not really. It's just fame and money, after all. It'll all pass. But my love for Brian is forever, it will never die, it will never pass. It took me two years to realize that I should never have let my art stay between us. My art should make me happy, and not take me away from whom I love."

 

"I think I understand."

 

"I don't want to waste my life sacrificing everything for my art, like Ethan did, because if I sacrifice my true self, soon there will be nothing left of me. I'll be empty, a shell. And a shell can't paint. I'm an artist, I need inspiration. And Brian is my inspiration, he has always been."

 

Justin got up and turned to Alexia, facing her decidedly. "I want both: Brian and my art. Life is too short to waste time like I'm doing. I don't want to be happy with him a year from now. I want to be happy now. Today. And most of all, I want to make him happy, because if there's someone who deserves happiness, it's Brian."

 

Alexia smiled and held his hand. "Justin...I won't lie to you. Being famous is not easy. It wouldn't be easy if you stayed here in Rome and finished the program. And it won't be easier if you leave it. It will be even harder, and I'm sure you, being so intelligent, realize that."

 

He nodded.

 

"But you're good," she went on. "Really, really good. And if that's what it takes to make you happy, so be it. Call me crazy for saying something like that to you...I'm an agent, and I should be telling you to stay because that's what is good for your career. But being empty inside is worst than death. Especially for someone so caring and sensible as you."

 

She held his hand.

 

"You can stay here as long as you need. And when you feel you're ready, go. Find Brian and tell him everything you told me. I'll still be your agent, if you'll have me. We'll fight together. You can paint anywhere. I still think we'll rock the art world someday."

 

Justin's eyes suddenly became wet, and he blinked several times to stop the tears from falling "Thanks, Alex. What have I done to deserve you?"

 

"One more thing: you'll hear a lot of things about your decision. Don't let anyone put things in your head. If you've made up your mind, stick to your decision. They will say you were a coward for leaving everything behind like you're doing. But in my opinion, it takes a lot of courage to do this, believe me. There's always a way to make things work. You don't always have to choose between love and career. There's always a way."

 

...

 

Justin thought for a moment if he wasn't being stupid for coming back without telling Brian. But whose fault was that? Brian was the one hiding, right? Well, Justin wasn't going to hide anymore. No head in the sand for him, not anymore.

 

He was ready to face an outraged Brian and to deflect every argument Brian would have for him to go back to NY. He didn't want to go back now. He wanted his life with the man he loved, and being happy, he would have so much inspiration that he would paint and paint until his fingers hurt.

 

"May I have your attention please. Liberty Air, Flight 205, to Pittsburgh. Immediate boarding at Gate 6."

 

He didn't hear the rest, excited with the prospect of seeing Brian after so many months. He rose from the metal chair, his muscles protesting from the three hours spent at the waiting room at JFK airport, between one flight and the other. He had spent the whole night on the plane, rehearsing his speech to Brian inside his mind. He was ready now. Adjusting his backpack, he started to walk decidedly to Gate 6. "Pittsburgh," he thought, "here I come."

 

 

----------------------------------------------

 

 

Pittsburgh

 

 

"Michael, you're over reacting." Melanie sighed again with Jenny Rebecca in her lap.

 

"Of course you are." Lindsay smiled. "Brian would never ever do something like that."

 

"Please, girls, how many times do I have to explain the whole thing?

 

"Come on, you don't really believe everything we say is being recorded! And at your mother's house!" Lindsay said.

 

"Of course it is! They did it at the shop, why not here?"

 

"You don't know that." Mel said. "Why the hell they would they do it here, for Christ's sake?"

 

Michael threw his hands in the air in a typical drama queen gesture. "Because," he started to say loud, but then started to whisper, "this is where we come every fucking Sunday! What better place to plan a crime?"

 

Lindsay almost choked with a piece of apple she was eating. "Are you completely insane? Plan a crime? God, Michael!"

 

"Mom opens the door to everyone who comes here, whatever their excuses are. The other day she was happily chatting with a guy who claimed to be the plumber, she even gave him cake, for God's sake! What if he was a policeman in disguise, he probably -

 

"Hey, everybody!" Debbie opened the front door and stepped inside holding Gus's hand. They were smiling and the boy's rosy cheeks and happy face didn't leave any doubt that the kid had a good time with his granny.

 

"Look, Mommy, Grandma bought me a cheeseburger at McDonald's and I got one of the Backyardigans!" he smiled at Lindsay and showed her the blue plastic penguin.

 

"That's wonderful, honey." She smiled and looked at Mel pleadingly.

 

It always amazed her how Melanie could read her facial expressions and give her exactly what she wanted. The brunette gut up holding Jenny's hand and said "Come on, Gus, let's go upstairs and brush your teeth, I want you to tell me everything about this penguin."

 

"His name is Pablo, Mom, and he has other four friends." said the boy excitedly, holding Mel's other hand.

 

As soon as they went upstairs and Lindsay heard Gus closing his bedroom's door not so gently, like he always did, she turned with an exasperated look to Deb. "Did he tell you?" she asked, looking side ways at Michael.

 

"He did," said Debbie matter-of-factly. "I don't recall dropping you when you were a baby, Mikey, so I really don't understand where this is coming from. Too much comic books, maybe."

 

"Will you two pay attention to what I'm saying? It's an explanation as good as any! It's too much of a coincidence!"

 

Debbie patted Michael's face. "No, honey, you listen. Brian may not be the nicest person in the world, and I admit that during Stockwell's campaign I had my doubts about him. But he would never, and I mean it Michael, he would never hurt another human being. Especially coming where he came from." She gave them a meaningful look.

 

"I don't wanna judge him, Ma. I just wanna help. God, he must be desperate, all alone! All I want to do is understand what happened, because what other reason he would have to leave like that?! Not a single word after three months!"

 

"I'm worried too, Michael, but we have to have a little faith in him. He's a big boy, he's taking care of himself." Lindsay said.

 

"What if, what if he's l-l-lonely, hi-hiding from the police somewhere, uh? Who is gonna take care of him? I'm his best friend. I could help!"

 

"Michael," said Debbie putting her hands on her son's shoulders. "Brian is not a character from a comic book. He's not James Bond, he's not a hero and he's not a fucking murderer! I agree with you that he has a problem, and a big one. But it's not that, baby. I know him. He's a good boy and would never do that, for fuck's sake!"

 

"Okay, you think I'm a big drama queen, nuts, whatever. I don't care. When he comes back in need of help, I'm gonna be there for him.

 

"We all will, Michael." Lindsay said. "We all love him. But if he really has a problem, he has to give us the chance to help, otherwise, there's nothing we can do."

 

"I feel bad not telling Sunshine." Dem mused. "The other day I ran into Jennifer and I couldn't even look her in the eye."

 

"I gotta go." Michael murmured. "If you think I'm crazy for wanting to help my friend through this, I have nothing else to say. Bye."

 

Without another word, Michael grabbed his coat and stormed out of the house.

 

Debbie threw her hands in the air imitating her son and looking helplessly at Lindsay. "Big drama queen, indeed. Where did I go wrong?"

 

 

------------------------------------

 

 

Justin took a deep breath outside the loft's door. Here he was, with his whole future ahead of him. It was scary and exciting at the same time. He was soaked to the bone, it was pouring outside and he was fucking freezing, but he had gone to the garage first and saw Brian's Corvette, so he knew the brunet was home. He just hoped Brian was alone.

 

Slowly, he tried to pull the door open. But the metal door didn't move. It was locked. He considered banging, but it would totally kill the mood. Brian was probably sleeping, if not fucking, but if he was with someone the door wouldn't be locked. Brian only locked the door to sleep or to go out. He didn't mind if someone saw him fucking because it was his home.

 

Shivering from the cold, he put his backpack on the floor, opened it and rummaged through his things until he found his copy of the loft's key. Carefully not to make any unnecessary noises, Justin unlocked the door and opened it.

 

The first thing that assaulted him was the smell. He had never felt a smell like that in the loft before. Brian was anal about keeping the place as clean and fresh as possible, so the smell didn't suit the loft at all. It smelled like dust, like something old, a place which hadn't seen the daylight for a long time.

 

Heart beating fast, he dropped his backpack and his suitcase to the floor and ran to the bedroom, not even daring to imagine the scene waiting for him. But the bed was empty, he covers still on the mattress, but tossed aside. Justin walked automatically to Brian's wardrobe, with its doors still opened, but surprisingly almost all his suits were still inside. That gave his some relief, because Brian wouldn't go anywhere without them.

 

He didn't want to be nervous, and some part of him told him there was a perfect satisfactory explanation for an empty loft. But the other part of him was starting to freak out.

 

He took a few deep breaths trying to calm himself. In the bathroom, there were no towels hanging, and soap bar near the sink was so dry it was cracked. In the kitchen, the refrigerator was turned off and completely empty. In the living room, Brian's computer was abandoned, and running his index through the desk's surface, it was covered with dust.

 

Not that the place was tidy. It almost looked like Brian had just left for another day of work and had forgotten to come back. Only, his car was parked downstairs. The whole place screamed emptiness in Justin's ears.

 

The only thing neatly pilled and covered with plastic and wrap paper were Justin's paintings. He had sent them to Brian to store them for him, and here they were, resting carefully against the wall, as if someone had put them there with all the care in the world.

 

No sign of Brian anywhere, and worse, no sign that he had been here for a long time. And there was just one way to find out what was happening.

 

Painfully and slowly he dialed Michael's number. He couldn't wait anymore. He needed to talk to Brian, or at least to know where he was. If there was someone who knew, it was Michael.

 

The phone rang a few times and Michael's sleepy voice answered. "Hello?"

 

"Shit!" thought Justin. Only then he realized it was four in the morning. He totally forgot to check the time.

 

He suddenly lost the courage to speak. Surely Michael knew the reason why Brian wasn't home, whatever Brian's reasons would be, and where Brian had gone to. And it probably was nothing, just a trip, right? For Kinnetik. Then why hadn't Brian called him?

 

He was about to hang up when Michael's panicked voice turned his insides into ice.

 

"Brian? Is that you?"

 

"What the fuck...?" thought Justin, momentarily speechless.

 

"Brian, please... I know it's you... Where are you...? Brian? Please, talk to me... Please tell me you're alright. Tell me you didn't do anything stupid."

 

Justin vaguely registered somewhere that Michael was starting to cry. He could only focus on Michael's words.

 

"Brian, please..." Michael pleaded. "Tell me you're alright."

 

But Justin didn't hear the rest of Michael's words, because he was running for the loft's door, down the stairs and out of the building at four AM in the rain, like a madman.

 

-------------------------------------------------------

 

 

 

Like crazy, he banged at the door. He didn't care that the sun hadn't properly risen, nor that some of the neighbors' lights lit up because of his screams. It was still raining and he could see by the thunders that it was going to rain all day..

 

"Michael!" Justin screamed, banging at the door again. "Ben!"

 

After what looked like several hours but were less than five minutes, Ben opened the door rubbing his eyes with his hands. "What the hell do you want at this time of the - ‘ his eyes went huge as sausages in his head. "Justin...?"

 

"Where is he Ben?" Justin stood there, eyes red, completely soaked.

 

"My God, Justin, come in!" Ben said, astonished.

 

"I just want to know where he is."

 

Michael came down the stairs in his pajamas. "What's happening, Ben? Why all this noise? I was just going back to sleep again..." He stopped in his tracks. "J-J-J-Justin?!?"

 

"Come in, you'll get a pneumonia." Ben argued.

 

Michael didn't wait. He stepped forward and pulled a distressed Justin by the hand. "Come here, we don't want you to get sick," he said gently. Justin was a mess, soaked, red-eyed and an anguished expression that said it all: he had returned and hadn't found Brian.

 

"Tell me what happened, Michael."

 

"I-I don't know."

 

"Bullshit," spat Justin. "Tell me why the loft is empty and dirty; why his clothes are gone except for the suits...Godammit , tell me where he is!" he demanded.

 

"I already t-told you," Michael stammered, "I don't know!"

 

"That's ridiculous!" Justin gave a bitter laugh. "He wouldn't have left like that and not tell anyone!"

 

"Well," Michael yelled, "apparently he did!"

 

Ben raised both his hands in a calming gesture and spoke softly, "That's true, Justin. Nobody knows where he is."

 

"What do you mean ‘nobody'?" Justin asked frowning.

 

Michael silently walked to the TV table and opened a drawer, taking a piece of paper from it. "Read it," he said, giving the paper to Justin, "He sent this email to Ted first thing in the morning after he left."

 

Justin's eyes scanned the paper hurriedly and, as he read, his face grew paler with each word. So pale in fact that he had to grab Michael's arm to steady himself.

 

"Justin, are you alright?" Ben asked.

 

"Oh my God," the blond whispered.

 

"Come on, you need to sit down a bit."

 

"Fucker." Justin muttered, clutching the paper in his hand.

 

Ben and Michael looked at each other not knowing quite what to do or say.

 

"Fucker." Justin repeated. "How could he just leave like that, without a word?" He started to pace in the living room, making a small puddle on the floor. "And here I was all happy, thinking he finally, finally learned to tell me his feelings...he is so fucked, God! I must be really crazy to put up with this shit."

 

Ben and Michael were at a loss of words, because Justin was right. Michael thought in that moment, that he wouldn't change places with Justin for nothing in the world.

 

"What the fuck..." he raised his hands and let them drop to his sides in helpless gesture. "How could he do this to me...?"

 

"Come on, I'll make you some coffee," said Michael, "You're all wet and shivering, you'll end up catching a cold."

 

Justin's anger was replaced by apathy and he let himself be led by the hand to the kitchen. Michael pulled a chair for him, Ben went upstairs and returned a few minutes later with a towel and a t-shirt.

 

Ben helped him to take his soaked shirt off and put the towel over his shoulders, Justin just sat there, shivering, lost in his own thoughts, oblivious to everything around him.

 

Ben magically placed a cup of coffee in front of him. "Drink it," he said.

 

Justin obliged and, little by little, the color returned to his face. "Thanks guys," he murmured. "I still don't believe it...after all that ‘I love you' bullshit he just left? And what about the ‘I forbid you to say a word to Justin'?" he asked, pointing to Brian's email over the table. "Who the hell does he think I am? A fucking kid?"

 

"We don't know, Justin," said Michael with a sad voice. "Apparently he said he was going on a trip to Claire - of all people - and Gus. But no one else, not even me, knew about it.

 

Justin covered his eyes with his hands and sighed. "God, there's got to be a reason...

 

"I have a theory - " Michael started, but Ben cut him.

 

"Don't even go there," the taller man whispered in Michael's ear. "He's stressed enough as it is, don't add this bull shit to his problems."

 

"It's not bullshit," Michael whispered back.

 

"You can stay here if you want, Justin." Ben said. "Hunter is in college, we have a spare room. And it's pouring out there."

 

"No, thanks, guys. I'm going home. It's not even morning and you guys need to rest."

 

"Do you want us to call you a cab?"

 

"No, I came with the Corvette."

 

"Are you going to your mother's?"

 

"No, I'm going to the loft. I'm going home."

 

 

---------------------------------------------

 

 

It turned out that the loft was really Justin's home. Ted came by the next day with a brown envelope full of documents. Clearly uncomfortable with the situation, he explained to an astonished Justin that the loft and the car were in Justin's name and there was a lot of money in a bank account for him. Ted couldn't explain where the money came from.

 

Still in shock, he just stayed at the loft for the following days, because where else would he go? His mother's house was not an option. Besides, he had always seen the loft as ‘home' since he was eighteen.

 

He was somewhere pissed off and desperate. He couldn't sleep nor eat. Michael came by. Hell, the whole gang came by. His mother, Deb, Lindsay and Mel. But nothing could take him from his apathy. He was angry, hurt and desperate with the possibility of not knowing where Brian was and when he would see him again, if ever.

 

Now, laying on the impossibly large bed, he felt tired and hungry but couldn't bring himself to get up. He didn't know what to do. All he knew was that he wanted to be alone.

 

He was pissed off with everybody. Why the hell had nobody called him? Just because Brian had demanded? Weren't they his friends too? But then again, what good would it have done? If Brian didn't want to be found, nobody would find him, being clever as he was.

 

All he knew for sure was that he would not bombard Gus with questions. The boy had ran into his arms when he saw the blonde, and Justin knew by what Lindsay told him that Gus was stressed by so many questions. He would let the boy feel at ease.

 

Lindsay...she was another matter. She had taken Justin's return almost personally, as if he had came back to piss her off. He was ready to deflect her arguments, because he knew without a doubt how strong they would be. Especially because she had made sure Brian saw the damned magazine years before.

 

It still amazed him how much of a fool he had been two years before. Sure, he had wanted to go to New York, but that was never his priority. He was such a fool, easily influenced by Lindsay's praises, and everybody else's, for that matter. By going to New York, he had fulfilled Lindsay's dream for him, not his own. Besides, with him gone, she would have the perfect opportunity to offer a shoulder for Brian to cry on.

 

Except, she had gone to Toronto.. The truth was he couldn't completely blame her. Or Brian, even if the older man practically pushed him on the plane. He could only blame himself. Because now, two years later, where was he? He knew a few galleries showed his work in a few shows, he had graduated and had even gone to fucking Europe. So he could show people that ‘little Justin' was an adult, able to take care of himself.

 

In the process, he had left everything else in his life in ‘stand by' mode, as if life would wait for him to become a great artist. He left with nothing but a lame plan: to be famous. Then he would go back to the Pitts, marry Brian and live happily ever after. Shit, who had he tried to fool?

 

He desperately needed to know where Brian was, because right now, he was really, really angry with him. He was so pissed that he could hardly wait to see Brian, so he could tell him the truth. But not knowing where he was and if he was alright made it hard to hate him.

 

Because now, without Brian, all Justin's arguments for coming back seemed pointless. Brian had shown him he hadn't changed, after all. He was the same self absorbed asshole he had always been in the past, pushing Justin away, leaving without a trace, making his family, his partner and his son suffer with the uncertainty he left them.

 

So why the fuck, even being an asshole like that, even leaving Justin angry like he was, Justin still loved Brian with everything he had in him?

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------

 

Anger was red.

 

Frustration was orange.

 

Heartbreaking was grey

 

Sadness was black.

 

Justin poured his feelings on the canvas. The more he painted, his feelings seemed to flow from his body through his hands and they splashed in an strange combination of bright and dark colors.

 

It was Saturday morning and he hadn't slept all night. Painting was the only thing that made him feel better, his only solace, his private therapy. Painting made the turmoil of feelings inside him a little more bearable. It was his drug, transporting him to another world where nothing else existed, just him and the colors.

 

He felt betrayed, anguished and helpless. He felt angry and sad. He wanted to scream, to cry, to break everything. He felt like drowning.

 

Someone knocked on the door. Now the loft's door was always locked. His loft. His own, place, where he lived alone.

 

Startled, he looked at his watch. Shit! He had completely forgotten that Lindsay was going to leave Gus with him today. Since Justin's return, the boy wasn't giving his moms a moment's rest. He wanted to stay with Justin at Daddy's home.

 

He unlocked the door and opened it, and was almost knocked to the ground by a very healthy seven year old ball of energy who launched himself in his arms.

 

"Justin!"

 

"Hey, Gus! How are you?"

 

"I missed you."

 

"Me too." Justin replied.

 

"Careful, dear, Justin's clothes are full of paint! " Lindsay laughed.

 

"I brought the new Harry Potter movie! Do you wanna watch with me?"

 

"Sure, Gus. We'll do everything you want."

 

"You'll spoil him," Lindsay said, stepping inside and taking her coat off. "Just like Brian."

 

Justin looked at her with a blank expression, but she could see the pain in his eyes.

 

"Sorry," she said.

 

"Uh...I'm gonna take a quick shower, okay?"

 

He almost ran to the bathroom, praying to keep his composure in front of her and especially in front of Gus. He wondered, not for the first time that week, if he should spend a whole day with the boy, whom obviously would talk about Brian all the time, because talking about Brian wasn't something Justin was ready to do. He hadn't talked about him with anyone, and that's why he had turned into a hermit this past week. He didn't want to talk because he wasn't ready yet. It hurt.

 

A shower and lots of deep breaths later, Justin came back. Gus was already in front of the TV watching Disney Channel. Lindsay was staring at his unfinished work.

 

"Wow," she said when she felt him approaching. "It's..."

 

"Pathetic? Strange?"

 

"Raw."

 

What could he say? He felt raw. "It's not finished."

 

"It's intense."

 

"I'll take that as a compliment."

 

"It is."

 

He walked to the fridge and took a bottle of Evian from it. "Can I get you something?" he asked.

 

"No, I need to go." She smiled a little. "Um...Justin, I need to ask you a favor."

 

"Okay."

 

"Um...The Vic Grassi House needs a new roof and a few other things. The GLC is trying to raise some money, but it hasn't been easy. I was wondering if...if you would allow the GLC to host a show with your paintings, and the money would go to Vic Grassi House."

 

"I don't know," he said. "It's really not the time to think about a show."

 

"It's for a good cause, Justin, You would be helping people. And if you're painting like that" she gestured to the unfinished canvas in front of them, "I can imagine how your other paintings will be."

 

"This one is not for show. It's personal." He turned his back to her. "I'm sorry, I...I'm in no condition to do this. I can't paint with a deadline, not now."

 

"Then let me show the ones you already finished." She pointed to his paintings neatly resting against the wall. "I'll take care of everything. You just need to be there at the show."

 

"I don't know..." he said, hesitant. He doubted he would be able to focus on anything while his life was in this kind of limbo.

 

"Please...?"

 

"Okay, you can show these ones," he said, sounding almost defeated.

 

 

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

Gus wanted popcorn, then macaroni, then pizza. Justin was dizzy and impressed at how much the boy could eat. Apparently the boy didn't have Brian's restriction when it came to carbs. He was thin but healthy and looking at him devouring the second slice of mozzarella pizza, Justin wondered how Brian must have looked when he was a child.

 

They had just come back from the park, where Gus had gone with his bicycle and Justin had sat there, with his sketch book, trying to capture the boy's happy face.

 

"Gus, it's time for your shower. Later we can watch The Lion King if you want. The DVD it's still here somewhere."

 

"Yay!" The little energy ball went to the bathroom and Justin went to the kitchen to wash some dishes.

 

Someone knocked at the door. Again.

 

"Gus? Didn't your mother say she would be here at six? It's still four!" he yelled.

 

But this time it wasn't Lindsay or any other member of the extended family. When he opened the door he saw the hesitant smiling face of Claire Kinney.

Chapter Text

Pittsburgh

 

 

She was different from the last time Justin had seen her. Her hair was silky and with a new cut, she had a brown coat that looked brand new. She had definitely gained some weight and the bitter expression that seemed to be her best friend was gone. Beside Claire there was a boy, no more than twelve, almost her height. He was skinny, brown haired and blue eyed.

 

"Hello, Justin." She smiled a little. "I didn't know you were back."

 

"As you can see, I am," he answered not too politely. He vaguely remembered Michael saying something about Claire knowing Brian was going on a trip or something.

 

"This is my youngest son, Peter."

 

The tall boy extended his hand like a young gentleman. "How do you do, sir."

 

Justin shook the boy's hand. In fact, what he wanted to do was ask Claire if she knew where Brian was, but he was afraid Gus would hear and he didn't want the boy to be upset. But what Claire said next startled him.

 

"Is my brother home?"

 

"Uh...no, he's not."

 

"Oh," she seemed disappointed. "He didn't come back from his trip, then."

 

Before Justin could reply, Gus appeared, hair still wet, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. "Jus, I finished. Look, I can dress myself."

 

Justin went to the boy and carried him in his arms, momentarily forgetting Claire was there. "God, you're getting heavy. Did you wash your ears?"

 

"Yep."

 

"Oh my God" Claire whispered. "He's Gus, isn't he?"

 

"Come in, Claire. Meet your nephew." Justin said.

 

Claire stepped inside the loft along with her son and stopped a few steps from them. Her eyes were huge and glistening a little.

 

"Gus," Justin said to the boy, who looked at the strangers timidly. "This is your aunt Claire and your cousin Peter."

 

"I never had a cousin before. Daddy said we are his only family, Jus, you and me."

 

"He did?" Justin asked, a knot in his throat.

 

"Yep."

 

Claire smiled tentatively at Gus. "I'm your aunt, Gus. My name is Claire. Your father is my brother."

 

Gus smiled at her, uncertain.

 

"And this is my son, Peter. He is your cousin."

 

Gus looked at the boy. "Do you like Harry Potter?" he asked Peter.

 

"Yeah, very much."

 

"Put me down, Jus." Gus said, kissing Justin's cheek. Then he grabbed Peter's hand and pulled the boy toward the sofa. "Come on' I have the new DVD, let's watch."

 

Peter looked at his mother hesitantly, and Claire looked at Justin. The blond, seeing Gus delighted face for having a cousin, nodded to her. She smiled to Peter and the older boy happily let himself be pulled by the younger one.

 

Justin motioned to the kitchen and Claire followed him. He wanted to ask her a few things. "Do you want some coffee?" he asked.

 

"Okay," she answered, sitting on one of the tall booths near the counter.

 

"You knew about Gus." He said simply, starting the coffee machine.

 

"Yes, I did. But I had never seen him before; I just knew that Brian had a son. He looks exactly like Brian when he was his age, except for the eyes."

 

"I thought he hadn't told anyone, I mean, you and your mother."

 

"He didn't, she still doesn't know. Brian and I are...I don't know how to explain this, but we are getting...closer. After he got me a job at Starbuck's we started seeing each other almost every day, because he always goes there. Somehow we were managing to talk without a fight," she half smiled, exactly like Brian did sometimes.

 

"You didn't tell your mother, then?"

 

"Oh, Mom and I are not the best friends, you know. She thinks I'm living in sin, a divorced woman living by herself, God forbid. And Brian asked me not to say a word to her."

 

"Do you know where he is, Claire?"

 

She shook her head "No. All he said was that he was going on a trip and would take a very long time to come back. But he wouldn't tell me. Would he? I mean, we're getting closer but not that close yet."

 

Justin looked at his own hands, frustrated. "He told you more than he told me," he whispered. "Or any of his friends."

 

"You mean nobody knows where he is?"

 

Justin took a deep breath. Should he talk to Claire about that? Strangely as it seemed, it felt easier to talk about Brian with her, because, not being a member of the extended family, she wouldn't pat his hand and say "poor Justin". He didn't see her as someone who would pity him because she didn't know the extent of his and Brian's relationship. If they still had one.

 

"Yeah, nobody knows."

 

"This is so like him. But...you were at Europe, right? I thought he had gone to meet you."

 

"Apparently he didn't. I came back a week ago and he's gone far more than that."

 

"Oh. I didn't know. I thought he had already come back and didn't want to see me. It wouldn't be the first time, you know. I...kind of missed our talks at Starbuck's."

 

They heard a laugh coming from where the boys were watching TV.

 

"They are getting along very well." Justin noted.

 

"Peter is a sweet kid, completely different from John. He's living with me and John with his father."

 

After some time and some small talk, Claire left with Peter, leaving Gus excitedly jumping around, happy about his newfound cousin. They sat to watch Yellow Submarine and Gus, tired, slept with his head on Justin's lap as soon as the film started.

 

Lindsay arrived on time, and when she and Gus left, promising to come back soon, Justin simply locked the loft's door, turned off the lights and returned to his private world, leaving everything else outside. He pulled the telephone's cord from the plug, turned his cell phone off and, exhausted, went straight to bed, falling almost immediately in a dreamless sleep.

 

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

Brian closed the car's door and the cab left, leaving him outside the house along with his suitcase. It was November, and the weather was already cold, colder than he felt comfortable with. He adjusted his coat, pulling it closely to his body in an attempt to get warmer.

 

For a few minutes, he didn't move, just stood there looking at the imposing house among the trees. It was beautiful, and in the winter it became even more, when the snow covered the trees and the roof with a white blanket.

 

Sighing, he grabbed the key in his pocket and climbed the fours-step stair with his suitcase, stopping in front of the carved wooden door. He unlocked it and stepped inside. It was completely dark, but he could already feel that the cleaning lady had left the heater on. Good, because he was feeling a fever coming, and he hated the cold so fucking much these days.

 

Closing the heavy door behind him, Brian looked around. In the dark he could pretend he lived here and had just come home from a day at work. He could pretend the rooms were not empty, the house was not lifeless.

 

"Enough of this shit," he thought, walking to the living room. He slowly raised his arm and turned on the light of the big and empty room. He held his breath when he saw it, the big fireplace, the sparse furniture covered with white sheets.

 

He had bought a leather sofa and a few other things, but they were all piled in one corner of the room, covered., forgotten, without any used after two years.

 

The whole house was like that, unfinished, empty, incomplete, just like he was feeling. The whole place seemed to be waiting for something, as if it was suspended in time. Waiting for joy and laughter, waiting for a life inside these walls that would never happen, Brian thought. Because he had let Justin go, and his life, the little life he still had, would never be the same without the person who made him feel truly alive.

 

He thought bitterly about every single plan he had made for the wedding. And how he had to cancel everything. For a long time, even if he didn't want to, he felt hurt to be left behind. Never telling Justin, he sometimes questioned the blond's reasons for leaving. Knowing Justin loved him didn't make it easier to be left behind. It didn't make easier to face hat he wasn't enough, he would never be.

 

But now, thinking clearly, two years later, he knew it was the best thing to let the blond go. If they had gotten married, it would be even more painful for Justin to see him die. What good there was about being happy, if this happiness would be taken away, anyway?

 

He snorted. There were times when Brian Kinney would never think something like that. "Happy" was a word that never was a a part of his vocabulary before Justin. It was probably the cancer, he thought. Knowing you could die at any moment changes people. Claire had surely changed. Maybe he too, was getting soft.

 

Looking at the fireplace again, he was assaulted by memories of him and Justin making love the night he proposed. It had been a beautiful dream, indeed. But, like all dreams, it was destined to end.

 

Although a part of him wanted the blond by his side in his last moments, it was a selfish thought. Justin didn't deserve that, nor Gus. The blond was destined to be big and famous, and Brian was destined to die. With paths so different like that, the decision was really easy.

 

A shiver ran through him and he knew the fever had come again. It was the same thing every day, and he was already used to it. He coughed again, seeing the red specks on his tissue. What a pathetic end, he thought.

 

Painfully, he went up the stairs to the master bedroom, the only place of the house completely furnished. Carefully chosen to surprise Justin, the bedroom was completely decorated with dark wood and white drapes, carpet and sheets. It was beautiful, but Justin had never seen it, because he left two days after Brian finished it.

 

He didn't turn the lights on this time because he didn't want to see it. The king-size bed, too big for a single person, seemed to mock him when he looked at its outline in the dark. He took his coat and shoes off and climbed on the bed with a tired sigh. Getting inside the covers, not even bothering to change, he waited for sleep to come, thinking bitterly that he had finally made Britin his home.

 

 

 

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

 

December, 2007

 

 

Winter came without Justin noticing it much. His mother and Debbie came to the loft with food and love, which he accepted just to make them happy. The gang came, inviting him to go out, but he managed to have always an excuse ready for them. All he wanted was to be alone. And paint.

 

Only, everything he did seemed to be dark and bitter. His strongest emotions almost always had something to do with Brian and his art came from his emotions. They were a reflection of his feelings. And now, without the man he loved, everything he painted seemed painful to look at. Almost as if he was exorcizing a demon through his art.

 

The men from GLC had come that morning to pick up the paintings for the show. Justin didn't want to go, but he had already promised everyone he would go, so he didn't have much of a choice. Besides, maybe if he put a smile on his face and played the talented artist part, everyone would be convinced that he was fine and get off his ass.

Christmas would come soon and nobody had talked about a party yet. Of course there would be one, because it wasn't Gus and Jenny's fault if everybody was in a shitty mood.

He had called Daphne, but she told him that she was going to LA to spend the holiday's with her boyfriend's family. He felt his chest tighten, thinking of the last Christmas he and Brian had spent together.

His cell phone rang and he answered, not bothering to see who it was. It wasn't Brian's ring tone, so he didn't care who it could be.

"Hello."

"Six Fuller, corner of Tremont, you said?" asked a familiar voice.

"Alex!" He recognized her silky voice immediately. "Are you already back in NY?"

"Actually, I'm at your door. Do you really live here?"

"Come upstairs," he said, pressing the button that opened the door downstairs. "Third floor."

Justin had sent her his portfolio, by her request, the week before. He wasn't anxious to go back to work, but he wouldn't let her down. She had already helped him so much, and she wanted to show his work to a few people in LA.

When he opened the door Alexia was there, beautiful as always. She didn't wait for an invitation to come in, just stepped forward and hugged him.

"I just came back from LA. I thought I would come here and see how you're doing." She released him, giving one step back and looking at him. She immediately frowned. "Justin, what happened?" she asked tenderly.

It was all it took for him to let the repressed anger and hurt flow freely. He covered his face with his hands and let out a sob. Alexia hugged him again while his tears started to fall freely.

"Shhh..." she said. "Come on, tell me what's wrong."

 

"It's Brian," he sobbed. "He left."

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Claire took off her uniform and put on her clothes. Grabbing her bag, she picked the brown paper bag with some muffins that was on the counter. "Bye, Martha. See you tomorrow!"

She till had the whole afternoon to kill, because Peter was at his friend's house studying and she would pick him up at six. Her cell phone rang as soon as she left Starbuck's.

"Hello."

"Claire."

She almost choked. "Brian?!!"

... ...

The house was big and beautiful. But it looked abandoned from the outside. Claire walked around it, just like Brian had told her to do and arrived at the back door. There, under the carpet, was a small key. Picking it up, she opened the wooden door and entered.

She found herself in a big kitchen, with lots of natural light coming from the big windows. The kitchen was equipped with top of the line appliances, but it looked like no one had ever used them. Only the refrigerator was turned on and opening it, there was only mineral water and some green apples inside.

She tried to listen for sounds coming from the other rooms, but it seemed there was no one in the house. Strange, she thought, because Brian had told her that he would be there.

Walking further inside, she passed a huge living room. There were a few things piled in a corner and a white leather sofa facing the fireplace. Nothing more. The whole place was empty, sad. She saw the stairs and decided to go upstairs to look for her brother.

The second floor was full of doors, all leading to more empty rooms. She was almost giving up when she saw a flicker of light coming from under the door of the last bedroom. Then she heard a series of coughs and curses from inside. That was definitely Brian, who couldn't put three words together without a curse.

She approached the door and knocked on. "Brian?" she called.

"Claire?" he answered. "Come in."

She did, and had to suppress a gasp at what she saw. Brian was on the bed, his back resting on some pillows, as white as the sheets covering his legs. He had a bottle of water in one of his hands and the other was clutching some tissues.

"Jesus, Brian, what happened to you?"

"Can't you see for yourself?" he said, eyes closed. Even his voice was weaker than she ever had seen it.

"You're sick, alright," she said, "but what did the doctor say?"

"I didn't call you here to talk about this shit, Claire. I need a favor."

"Brian...' she approached the bad and sat on it, next to him. "You did saw a doctor, didn't you?"

"What for?" he spat angrily. "I don't need any fucking doctor to tell me what's happening."

"And what is it?" she asked, taken aback by his appearance. He had dark circles around his eyes and looked skinnier that ever, even with the amount of clothes he was wearing because of the cold."

"The cancer's back," he muttered.

"WHAT?" she practically yelled. "Oh my God, Brian, what did the doctor say? Did he tell you where it is now? It's your other testicle?"

"Shit, woman! Didn't you hear what I just said?" he asked, eyes flaring. "I don't need a fucking doctor to tell me that this" and he showed her the tissue full of red specks, "and this" he grabbed her hand and put it on his burning forehead, "is going to kill me. And soon, very soon."

She covered her mouth with her other hand, eyes huge, "Oh, God, you need to see a doctor now!"

"Shit!" he said, releasing her hand. "If you're gonna start this shit, just leave me alone." He coughed again, covering his mouth and nose with the tissue. "The reason I called you was because I thought that you wouldn't freak out seeing me like this."

"Why?" she snapped. "Because you think I hate you? You thought I wouldn't care if you were..."

"Dying? Yeah, something like that. I know I'm not your favorite person in the world."

"That's not entirely true, you know. I know how much you hate sentimentalisms, but my opinion about you changed lately. Don't ask me why." She tried to smile, but couldn't. "I hope your opinion about me had changed too, even if it was just a little."

"Why the hell do you think I called you? I wouldn't ask a favor from a person I particularly hated."

This time she managed a tiny smile. She knew it was Brian's way to say he didn't mind that much having her around.

"So, when did you get back?" she asked.

"Two weeks ago or so."

"What? And you didn't contact your friends? God, Brian, they are freaking out! And you can't stay here alone. You're sick, for Christ's sake!"

"I don't recall asking your opinion about how I choose to live my life. Or what's left of it," he spat. "If you're going to start this conversation about ‘we all need each other', please spare me. I can't imagine hearing it from you. I don't need this shit. I thought you, of all people, wouldn't be too sentimental, considering where we come from."

"Okay," she raised her hands in a calming gesture. "I'm not sentimental, you are right. But what about Justin and Gus, uh?"

He looked at her angrily. "What about them?"

"They miss you. I saw Justin the other day. And Gus."

"You saw them?" he asked, with a softer tone. "You saw Gus?"

"Yes. I went to the loft looking for you and Justin was there with Gus. He's adorable, and he looks so much like you!"

"Is he alright?" he asked, eyes clouding.

"He seemed fine to me. He and Peter got along very well. But Justin..."

"Justin what?"

"He looked really sad, Brian. He's hurting, not knowing where you are. Why didn't you call him? He's your partner."

"Since when do you care about a bunch of fag's feelings?" he asked bitterly.

"Shit, Brian. I know I wasn't the loving sister in the past, but then again, you weren't exactly a tender brother either . Can't...can't we try to leave this behind for a while? I...can't deny there's something strong between you two, and even if I'm not used...um...two men living together, I'm not exactly against it. It's just...different."

"Yeah, whatever," he mumbled and coughed again.

He waited for a few seconds, and averted his eyes before adding, "It's getting worse, Claire. Since I came back, it's getting worse fast. Maybe it's the cold, I don't know. I just... don't want them too see me like this. They don' deserve this. Especially Gus."

"But you can't be here alone! You should -" she started.

"Stop it, dammit!" He shifted on the bed. "Stop it or leave right now. Justin is young and I'm sure he'll live, even of he...suffers," he whispered.

"Okay," she sighed, defeated.

"Anyway, I need you to take me somewhere. That's why I called you. Can you drive?"

"Of course I can drive! Where do you want to go?"

He showed her a newspaper, carefully folded under the covers. There was Justin's picture and a note saying that there would be a show at the Gay and Lesbian Center with Justin Taylor, a great artist, a guy born in Pittsburgh who had won a national contest.

"It'll be two days before Christmas." he said, shrugging. "I would go by myself if I could drive, but I'm feeling dizzy all the time, and this house is so fucking far from everything."

"Of course, I'll take you. But Brian..."

"If this is about Justin I don't wanna hear it ." He closed his eyes. "You can go now. I'll see you in a week. I'll wait for you at the front door. Rent a car and come, I'll pay it."

"You're gonna stay here alone?"

"That's pretty obvious, isn't it? Go home, Claire. Peter must be waiting for you. I'll be fine."

He left her no room for arguing, so she only nodded. But she doubted he would be fine at all.

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December 23rd was a beautiful day; not a cloud in the sky. Justin spent the whole morning sleeping and woke up around noon. At four PM Lindsay called asking him to go to the GLC and see if the paintings' disposal was to his liking.

 

He thought for a moment to ask Alexia to go in his place, but she and Lindsay had instantly disliked each other. Maybe because they both knew a lot about art but Alexia was far more sophisticated than Lindsay. Maybe because Lindsay was jealous of Alex, she had always seen herself as Justin's mentor or something like that. But while she had made sure he left to NY alone, leaving Brian behind mere days before their wedding, Alexia urged him to come back to be with whom he loved.

He liked them both, but there was a big difference. Alex understood he didn't need to fight to be an artist because he already was one; he had to fight to be happy with Brian. Or so he had thought before coming back. Now he was uncertain, feeling his life go in slow motion, living each day without thinking about the next. It was all he could do not to go crazy.

The night was beautiful. At seven he started to get ready for the show. He wore the blue cashmere sweater Brian loved so much and his black pants. At eight he left the loft, praying that the night would end soon.

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Brian was waiting at the front door, leaning against it. As soon as Claire stopped the car he went down the steps and got inside. He had shaved and was all in black, except for a blue shirt under his sweater. He was still beautiful, in spite of everything he was going through.

"Ready?" she asked.

"Yeah, let's go."

It took them half an hour to go from West Virginia to Pittsburgh, and Brian dozed off, chest heaving, head against the closed window. Claire mused if she should have tried to contact Justin or maybe Michael, but Brian didn't want to, and it was his life. She just hoped she could convince him to see a doctor with time, if he had any.

Claire wasn't entirely convinced he had cancer, but stubborn as he was, she couldn't tell him otherwise yet. There were a large number of diseases that could give him symptoms like that. If Brian wasn't so stubborn...She had returned to the house two other times, bringing some food he said he didn't want but ended up eating a little. Just to make her shut her mouth, he insisted.

When they arrived in front of the GLC it was already nine. She parked the car and put her hand on his shoulder, shaking it gently. "Brian?"

He opened his eyes and looked around. "Are we here"

"Yes, let's go." She motioned for the car's door, but his hand on her arm stopped her.

 

"Where the fuck do you think you are going?"

"Err...inside?"

"No," he said. "I'm not gonna talk to him." When she looked at him without understanding, he added, "I just wanna see if he's alright ."

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Justin was tired. After eleven the crowd finally started to leave. In Alexia's words, the show was a success, but all he could feel was relief it was finally over. Between one glass of wine and the other, he was glad he had managed to smile to everyone, pretending his heart wasn't breaking in a million pieces. Brian had always been in all his shows. Except for this one.

All the members of his extended family had come, his mother and Molly too. They all smiled at him, but he could see in their eyes a question: are you alright?' He smiled to assure them and silently asked them to leave him the fuck alone.

One by one they started to leave. Lindsay and Mel left too, because Gus and Jenny were tired. Alexia stayed with him until the two of them and the GLC staff was the only people left. She was going back to NY the next day and he was thankful she had stayed until the show to support him.

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Brian watched from inside the car his family leaving the GLC: Emmett, Ted, Michael and Ben. His breath hitched when he saw Gus with his moms and his sister, jumping excitedly about something Lindsay said. He missed them, but it was better this way.

"Are you going to wait for Justin to get out?" Claire asked.

"No, let's go inside. He only leaves after his last painting is properly covered and protected. He sees personally to that."

Without a word they left the car to the cold night. The wing was strong and Brian buttoned his coat, trying not to cough. Claire followed him silently and together they entered the GLC.

 

 

They stopped after going up the stairs, which Brian did particularly slowly. And there was Justin, blue turtle neck sweater, hair longer than he remembered. Simply beautiful. Breath caught in his throat, he just stayed there, partially behind the wall near the door, hand on Claire's shoulder for support. The blond was waving at the staff, pointing to his paintings, making sure they would be properly taken care of. Beside him was a beautiful woman, hand on his arm in a clearly friendly gesture. Brian wondered if this was the agent Mr. Benini had mentioned.

 

Heart beating faster than he thought possible, Brian looked at Justin's profile while the blond talked. He looked thinner and tired, but other that that he seemed to be alright. It was all Brian wanted: to see him, make sure he was in one piece and going on with his life.

 

A part of him wanted to call Justin's name, to see his beautiful blue eyes looking at him once more. But Justin would want an explanation for his actions and Brian didn't have one. And he really didn't want Justin to see him like this.

 

When they said goodbye months ago, he was so sure he had taken the right decision. Telling Justin how much he loved him and then leaving the blond follow his own path seemed the right thing to do, because he would never stay between Justin and his dreams.

 

But now the blond was back, he had left the Europe program, and even though Brian didn't know why he had done that, his own actions seemed fool and coward right now. All the secret, all the hiding...going to Ibiza...what for? Shouldn't he have stayed and faced whatever was in storage for him?

 

While he silently kept looking at Justin, hand on Claire's shoulder to steady himself, he reached to the conclusion that, although his actions were pointless, because Justin was back, it was too late for anything now. He was definitely getting worse, and he couldn't let Justin see him dying. He couldn't stand the despair he knew he would see in the blond's eyes.

 

"Okay, Claire, let's go," he whispered to his sister.

 

"Are you sure?" she asked.

 

"Yeah. Take me home."

 

He looked once more, and suddenly the woman raised her head and looked straight at him. He gave her a sad half-smile, before turning his head and with Claire's help, went down the stairs.

 

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Alexia and Justin were talking. She was trying to convince him to come with her to NY for the holidays. She doubted it would be a pleasant time for him, but staying home alone sounded terrible and she doubted he would feel better going to the party his friends were planning.

 

She saw some movement in the corner of her eyes and raised her hand. And stared directly in the eyes of a beautiful man standing beside a not so beautiful woman. They were looking at Justin, but his expression spoke volumes. It was longing.

 

It took her a few seconds to register where she had seen the man before. Although she was sure she had never seen him in person, he seemed strangely familiar. And then he half-smiled at her. In that moment, something clicked inside her mind. Alexia had seen those intense hazel eyes and that slight sarcastic smile in Justin's paintings. The man was Brian.

 

She opened her mouth to say something, but before she cold say anything, he sighed sadly, turned his head and left. Wasn't he going to talk to Justin? What the hell...? She was so astonished that she didn't even know what Justin was saying to her.

 

"Justin..." she raised her hand to stop him, still looking at the vacant spot Brian had left.

 

"What?" he stopped in mid-sentence, following her gaze. "Alex? What are you looking at?"

 

"I-I...I think I saw him...I'm not sure, I have never seen him, but he's the same face from your paintings..."

 

"Wait, wait, wait! What are you talking about?"

 

"Brian...I think I just saw him over here, looking at you."

 

"WHAT?" his face turned pale. "Are you sure?"

 

"No, but the man I saw looked exactly like the one in the painting you have at the loft and..."

 

"Oh God," he was running down the stairs before she could finish.

 

When he reached the street, there was no one here. Looking wildly around, he froze when he saw a brown head getting inside a car with a woman that looked too much like Claire.

 

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The drive back to Britin was silent. Brian didn't say a word, nor did he doze off. He just stared blankly ahead of him, like he was in another world. Claire wanted to say something. But she couldn't. From her point of view, what he was doing to himself was pointless and foolish.

 

Thinking about it, what he was doing to Justin was unfair, because he wasn't giving the younger man the right to choose, to decide if he wanted to stay by his side if he was really dying. Maybe that was why Brian was doing that, she thought. He could say that he didn't want Justin to see him like this, but in her opinion, he was truly afraid the blond would leave him alone. So he pushed him away to avoid the risk of rejection. A typical Kinney reaction.

 

She stopped the car in front o the mansion. She wanted to say something, but they weren't the most intimate siblings, and he surely wouldn't like her intruding his life. What the hell, she thought, she would say it anyway.

 

"You should have talked to him."

 

"Claire..."

 

"I mean, you went there just...to look at him? How can you stand - "

 

"Don't," he warned.

 

"God, why are you so stubborn?" she said exasperated.

 

He straightened himself and opened the car's door. "I...appreciate your concern, but I know what I'm doing," he said, looking at her. "Anyway...you were alright today."

 

"Thanks," she murmured.

 

He started to get out of the car when she talked. "Brian?"

 

He just looked at her.

 

"Can I come back tomorrow?"

 

He snorted. "Would it really work if I said ‘no'?"

 

"Not really," she managed a little smile. "We Kinneys only do what we want."

 

He shrugged. "I guess so." Then he left the car and walked to the house's door, opened it and closed it silently behind him, all the time feeling that Claire was there, looking at him.

 

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The next day an angry Justin entered Starbuck's as soon as the place opened, looking around. He was fuming. When he found the person he was looking for, he walked determinedly though the place in large steps.

 

"Claire," he said.

 

She had her back to him, but he saw when she froze. Slowly she turned her head and attempted a smile. "J-Justin," she said, approaching the counter.

 

Without wasting another second he grabbed both her arms with his hands and looked directly in her eyes.

 

"I saw you, and don't deny it," he said angrily. "You were with Brian at the GLC last night."

 

"Justin, I..."

 

"You had no right. Hell, he had no right."

 

"The thing is..."

 

"Shut up." His eyes were on fire, so angry that she flinched. "You're gonna tell me where that asshole is, and you're gonna tell me now."

Chapter Text

Pittsburgh - December the 24th

 

 

"I - I don't know what you mean," Claire stuttered. Shit. This couldn't have happened. Now what was she going to do?

 

Justin looked at her accusingly. "You said you didn't know where he is."

 

"I wasn't lying." She said, thinking ‘when I said that I really wasn't' and glancing at her colleagues who looked curiously at the scene. Thankfully there were only a few costumers and Martha was dealing with them. "Let's go outside, I'm not allowed to chat in here, especially if you're going to loose your temper like that," she added, deciding to use the old Kinney technique ‘I-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about'. It usually worked.

 

"I saw you," he said, looking angrily at her. "I fucking saw you, Claire. I'm sure it was you and him, right there outside the GLC yesterday night." Justin's eyes were flaring but his voice was cold like ice.

 

"Well, I didn't see you."

 

He raised his index finger, practically shoving it in Claire's face. "I saw you two; don't try to bull shit me. You were there, I saw you leaving with a man who looked too much like Brian to be a coincidence."

 

She grabbed his finger, loosing her temper too. "There are lots of tall men with brown hair."

 

"Do you deny you were at GLC last night?"

 

"For your information, GLC is not the only thing on that street. There's a nice Italian restaurant nearby."

 

"So you were really there."

 

"I'm entitled to have a personal life, thank you. If you saw me with a man, that's none of your business," she said, nonchalant.

 

"Not any man. It was Brian."

 

"Oh, yeah?" she snorted. "How can you be so sure? Did you see him?"

 

"Uh...I saw his back, getting in the car."

 

"Well?" she raised an eyebrow. "If that's all you have to say, I need to go back inside."

 

He grabbed her arm. "Please. Tell me where he is. I know it was him."

 

Her heart clenched. She knew he knew, but she couldn't just tell Justin where her brother was. Her new connection with Brian was still too fragile to mess with.

 

She looked at his hand in her arm, then at his eyes. He was desperate. "I'm sorry, Justin," she said softly. "I can't help you."

 

He let her go, closing his eyes and sighing, defeated. She hesitated, looking at his profile. Shit, that young man really loved her brother. Maybe she could go to Brian tonight and talk some sense into him.

 

"But I think he must have had a good reason to do what he did, at least in his opinion. Remember, he's Brian. His mind doesn't work like the rest of us. Try to think like him, and maybe you'll find your answer. See you."

 

 

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Justin just stood there. He didn't know what to do. He was sure it was Brian, getting in that car with Claire. He would recognize Brian anywhere. But Claire had denied everything, and although he was sure she was lying, he didn't know how to make her talk.

 

He hadn't slept all night. His fingers still hurt from calling practically every hotel in Pittsburgh and asking for a Brian Kinney. Because Brian didn't have anywhere else to go, since the loft was Justin's and he obviously wasn't there.

 

He felt stupid, betrayed, angry and sad, all at the same time. A good reason, she said? He snorted. No reason was good enough to do what Brian was doing. He had just left, on purpose, just like that. Fuck, Justin had just left everything behind in Europe to be with whom he loved, and the man he loved had just abandoned him with no explanation at all. How fucked up was that?

 

He had the distinct impression that destiny was playing with him. Someone up there was mocking him, and all his efforts to be with Brian seemed to be in vain, no matter how hard he tried. It was never enough, it was never the right moment.

 

... ... ...

 

"I can't go, Mom." Justin said unhappily. "I know it's Christmas but I can't stand the questions, the worried looks, the pity. All I can think of is about him."

 

Jennifer looked sadly at her son. "I had no idea Brian was missing. We didn't speak much after you left for New York. Why didn't you tell me before?"

 

"I don't know, Mom. That first week, when I came back, I didn't want to worry you, and since Deb obviously didn't say anything to you before, I thought it was best to wait a little. But then you and Tucker went to San Diego, I - I didn't want to spoil your vacation with my problems."

 

"Oh honey, if I knew I wouldn't have gone. I would never leave you alone."

 

"That's exactly what I didn't want, Mom. You have your life, you deserve to be happy and enjoy your vacation. I can deal with this."

 

Jennifer hugged her son. "I'm here if you need me, okay?"

 

"Thank you, Mom. You understand why I can't go to Deb's, don't you? I would spoil the Christmas party."

 

"Okay, baby, I understand."

 

"I can't believe he did this, Mom. I can't. He went to the GLC last night and didn't talk to me."

 

"Are you really sure it was him?"

 

"I know him. I'm sure," he said. "I tried every single hotel in this city but I couldn't find him.

 

"Honey, it's pretty obvious where he is."

 

Justin looked at his mother, puzzled.

 

"He's at the house," she said.

 

"House? What h... Oh."

 

She looked at him as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

 

"But...but..." he stuttered. "I thought he had sold it, because every time I talked about the house, he changed the subject."

 

"That's typical, honey. That's how he reacts when something bothers him. He pretends it doesn't exist."

 

"I think he must have had a good reason to do what he did, at least in his opinion. Remember, he's Brian. His mind doesn't work like the rest of us. Try to think like him, and maybe you'll find your answer." Claire's words echoed in Justin's mind.

 

"I'm sure he didn't sell the house, Justin. Not through me. And a house that big, I would have known if he did." She gave him a little smile. "You told me Brian didn't tell anyone about the house. You told me yourself when you were already in New York. What better place for someone who wants to be alone?"

 

Justin looked at his mother. She was right. Claire was right. Brian never did the most obvious thing. In fact, he always did something unbelievably stupid, because his mind was just like that. Something stupid, like going to the GLC just to see him, Justin, and then go away.

 

He tensed. Something was wrong. Brian wouldn't back off from him after all they had lived in NY. Unless he had a reason, and Justin knew Brian's reasons sometimes made sense only for himself.

 

"Shit, Justin, how could you be so stupid?" he said to himself out loud.

 

It was just a guess, but at that point, it was as good as any. Brian wouldn't go to a fucking hotel. He would go home. But if he wanted to get away from everyone, it would be somewhere no one knew about. And the loft wasn't the only house Brian Kinney owned.

 

Brian was at Britin.

 

 

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He hadn't slept much the whole night. Every time he closed his eyes, Brian saw Justin with his blue sweater, proudly showing his paintings, his bright blond hair seeming to reflect all the light in the room. Brian would wake up covered in sweat, trembling with fever and gasping for air. It was colder than ever and probably the snow would start soon.

 

Some part in his mind registered that tomorrow would be Christmas. Gus would probably get loads of presents and, being a white Christmas, would go to the park and make a snowman. The boy loved snow. Who would go with him? Last year it had been him and Justin, and they had laughed the whole afternoon, playing and running like a bunch of kids. He had never felt so alive.

 

At seven he just gave up any attempt of sleep and decided to get up, but it took him almost fifteen minutes to have the strength to do so. He was really dizzy today, and he could feel the familiar shivers approaching, telling him the fever would come soon, but he went downstairs anyway and fixed himself a cup of coffee. After drinking the coffee along with two aspirins, leaning on the kitchen counter, he decided not to go upstairs; he didn't want to lie down now.

 

The house was silent, but his bare feet made practically no noise on the wooden floor. Justin would have loved this house properly furnished and decorated. There were many rooms, but Brian had planned how to decorate every single one after the wedding, with Justin's help, of course.

 

But Justin never came back to the house, and when he left, Brian managed to cancel most of the furniture he had already bought, except for the sofa and a few other things. It wasn't much, but hey, he wanted to buy the rest with Justin, so the house would look just like them... but that never happened.

 

He went to the living room and opened the drapes of the big window, but it was snowing, so he left the window closed and lit the fireplace. Then he sat on the white sofa in front of the fireplace and just stayed there, staring at the flames but not really seeing it, his mind filled with thoughts about Justin and Gus, the two most important persons in his life, the only ones that really mattered.

 

He was never a man to question is decisions, and now, he thought bitterly, was a little too late for that. But part of him understood how stupid his actions were. He didn't want to leave Gus wondering forever when he would be back. And he didn't want Justin to think he had left because he didn't love him.

 

Brian briefly considered getting up, calling a cab and going to see his two boys. He couldn't stand the thought of them angry or hurt, and to know he was possibly be the one doing that killed him. Pun intended. Maybe tomorrow, when the snow stopped...It would be a hell of a surprise for his boys.

 

Only, what would he say? ‘I'm sorry, I fucked up big time?' Sorry was bull shit. He felt trapped in a battle between heart and the firm conviction that he was doing what was best for everyone. He wanted to see Justin, needed to see him, but for the first time in a while, he felt completely powerless, not knowing what to do, afraid to have hope and fight this fucking disease, just to discover in the end that he was going to die anyway.

 

What would have happened if he had told Justin about the cancer? The blonde wouldn't have gone to Europe; he would have stayed at Brian's side until the end, because that was the way Justin was. And in return, he would lose his big chance, waste the opportunity he had fought so hard for. Just to stay at Brian's side. Brian would never let his happen. He would never hold Justin back.

 

 

Again, he wondered why Justin had come back from Europe. Was it for good? Had Mr. Benini lied saying that Justin had gave up his big chance? Was the blond just spending some time in the Pitts before going back to New York, where another wonderful opportunity would be waiting for him?

 

So many questions and no way to answer them. A part of him wanted to just go and see the blond, and ask him everything. But that would only make Justin suffer, he pondered, because they could never be together now. At least he was at Britin, and if he believed in happiness he would have said he had been the happiest at the old mansion, the night Justin agreed to marry him.

 

Unlike the impersonal hotel room, Britin was a place he could call home. Hell, he had almost lived there. It was a place he wouldn't mind staying until the...whatever came. Somewhere he registered his cell phone ringing, but he was so tired...so cold...Maybe if he just closed his eyes, whoever it was would give up.

 

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Claire's trembling fingers tried to dial Brian's number but it was hard, she was nervous as hell. She needed to tell him that Justin had seen them, but Brian wasn't answering the phone. He was probably sleeping, it was still early. But every time he didn't answer, she feared something bad had happened.

 

She hated the idea of Brian alone in that house. It was so big that it seemed it was never warm enough. She had stolen the house's key from Brian, of course, he would never give her the key. Just in case she needed to get inside the house if some emergency happened and Brian needed her help...

 

Shaking her head to pull the thoughts away, she tried again, but Brian didn't answer it. Cursing, she briefly thought if she should run to the house to see him, but her boss was already eyeing him with an irritated look.

 

Thinking of Justin's expression had made her feel bad. Justin looked completely lost, and that was the thing that almost made her lose her firm conviction to keep her mouth shut. Brian would be pissed with her if she had told Justin where he was. She knew it wasn't her place to intrude his life like that, but she also knew he needed someone, and that someone was Justin.

 

She remembered Brian's eyes when he left the car. Dull, with no light at all, as if he had just given up. That kind of attitude was so anti-Brian, and that's exactly why it scared her. The man she saw yesterday looked nothing like the self-confident asshole she had always believed him to be.

 

The fact was that she didn't know what scared her the most: if his brother's anti-Brian attitude, or her own attitude, completely anti-Claire. Because she was really worried about him, and she couldn't explain that, not even to herself.

 

She felt like she had betrayed him, and it was really strange, because this never had bothered her before. But seeing him vulnerable, so different from the Brian she knew, and knowing he was hating this with everything he had, made her feel strange. Because she wasn't soft, or vulnerable, and she hated to feel that way too. That's why Brian had asked for her help, because he knew she would let him do what he wanted and she wouldn't whine about it.

 

Still, someone needed to convince him to see a doctor, and Justin was the right person to do that. She knew that if Justin found out where Brian was, the blond would go there and make him change his mind. That was the obvious thing to do. How could an intelligent man like Brian be such a stupid bastard? Had he no sense at all?

 

Claire almost smiled at the situation. If someone told her a year ago, that she would be musing about her homosexual brother's health and love life, and she wouldn't mind because she had recently realized she actually liked to be around him, she would have laughed. But here she was, worried if Brian was alright, if he would let her call Justin and tell the young man where he was.

 

"Hey, miss!" called the bald man by the counter. "What about my frapuccino?"

 

 

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Slowly, Justin turned the key inside the lock and the heavy wooden door opened with no sound at all. He had searched for his copy of Britin's key for hours; he was glad he still had it.

 

It was snowing, and if it wasn't for the heater he could feel was turned on, he would swear there was no one inside the house. It was so quiet that he almost thought he had guessed wrong.

 

All he could think of, all he wanted was to get inside and see for himself that it was true, that Brian was in Pittsburgh, had gone to the show at GLC and had left without talking to him. Because every explanation he could think for this was so ridiculous that his mind was racing with the mere effort of thinking.

 

He walked further inside, his feet taking him to the living room without really thinking about it. The fireplace made his chest tighten, the memories of one of the happiest moments of his life filling his mind. Other than a white sofa, there was no other furniture inside.

 

At first, he didn't realize there was someone there. All he saw was the dancing flames, reminding of the time he had felt that all his dreams would come true. When he saw a mop of chestnut hair on the sofa, his heart almost stopped, Startled, he dropped the keys he was holding and they fell heavily on the wooden floor.

 

"Don't make too much noise, Claire," he heard Brian's faint voice saying. "My head is killing me."

 

Justin took a deep breath, heart beating fast. "It's not Claire."

 

Brian gasped in surprise. "Justin," he said, almost to himself.

 

"What the fuck happened Brian?" Justin said. "What the hell do you think you're doing with me, with us?"

 

Brian didn't say a thing. Slowly, using the sofa's arm for support, he got up and turned to face Justin, blinking a few times, thinking that he was probably dreaming. Justin couldn't be here. But there he was, painfully beautiful. Looking at the blond, Brian could see that Justin was even more perfect than he remembered.

 

Justin was angry. On his way to Britin, he couldn't stop thinking what he would do when he saw Brian. Maybe punch him. Or strangle him. He was really angry, and by the time he opened the door, he was seeing red. Brian had no right to run away from everyone, from him, like that.

 

But the moment his eyes rested on Brian's face, all his thoughts and his anger vanished. Brian looked tired and thin, leaning against the sofa, looking vulnerable and alone. Justin's protective side kicked in immediately. His feet kept moving without him even realizing it, and before he knew, he was in Brian's arms, enfolded in his embrace.

 

Justin was enveloped by a sensation of utter calm and relief. All the things he wanted to say died in his throat and for that moment, all that mattered was that he was holding the man he loved.

 

Holding him, Justin knew by instinct that Brian was hiding something from him. Something had happened, and he wouldn't leave without the explanation he knew he deserved. Brian was clutching him for dear life, as if he was the most important thing in the world, and part of Justin's heart decided that his anger could wait a little while. He had missed Brian's arms around him too much.

 

The moment Brian saw Justin was there, he knew there was no way to stay away from him. He had waited so much for this moment and he thought he would never see Justin again. He didn't even feel his arms opening. All he knew was that Justin was there, in his arms, and he could smell him and see his blue eyes. It was all that mattered. And he couldn't find in himself the will to let Justin go.

 

"You're here," Brian murmured, relieved, mirroring Justin's thoughts.

 

They stayed like that for a long time, just holding each other, Justin resting his head on Brian's chest, Brian with his nose buried in Justin's blond hair.

 

"What happened, Brian?" was all Justin could think of to say after what felt like an eternity.

 

Brian was taken aback with the sudden calmness in Justin's voice. He expected an outburst of rage from the blond. But he was tired and his head hurt so much... "What do you mean?" he asked wincing, because he knew how ridiculous it sounded.

 

"Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about," Justin said softly, without moving. All he could think of at that moment, was about all the anguish he had gone through these past weeks. He needed to understand the reason, otherwise he would burst.

 

Brian just sighed tiredly. There was so much he wanted to say and ask. Like ‘why did you leave Europe' or ‘how did you know I was here'...but he realized he couldn't.

 

"Well?" Justin asked. "I'm waiting."

 

"I'm really not good about talking things out, you should know that by now," the older man murmured after a while, but even this small effort was too much. His head was spinning now and he was tired.

 

"Oh, God, are we back to that again?" Justin didn't want to leave Brian's arms, for fear the man would disappear if he did so. "Because you didn't seem to have that kind of problem when we said goodbye at NY." He paused. "Or was it all a lie?" he asked still calm, and Brian was startled by the sadness in his voice.

 

"You know it wasn't," Brian said slowly, inhaling deeply and feeling Justin's scent. God, how he had missed this. "I meant every word I said and everything I did."

 

"Then why did you disappear, Brian?" Justin asked, resting his hand in the small of Brian's back. "Please, tell me!"

 

"I thought you were in Europe," he lied.

 

Justin gave a humorless laugh, but kept holding the brunet. "Great. That explains everything, You thought I was in Europe."

 

Brian didn't say anything, so Justin went on. "And what excuse do you have for the fact that I wasn't been able to reach you for months?"

 

The brunet closed his eyes and released the young man, turning around to face the fireplace. Justin wouldn't let him go easily. "I didn't want to get in your way."

 

"God, not that again,” Justin said, sounding desperate. "Why the hell do you always have to come back to this shit? Get in my way in what sense, exactly?" He grabbed Brian's arm and tugged, making the brunet look at him.

 

Brian turned around reluctantly, and Justin could take a really good look at him for the first time in months. He was definitely thinner, his face tired, dark circles around his eyes. He looked like he had a really bad hangover, except for the fact that his breath was a little faster than normal and his skin looked so pale that it seemed he hadn't seen the sun for ages.

 

"Brian?" he asked a little worried, searching for the brunet's eyes. "What happened?"

 

Brian didn't look at him, kept his eyes on the floor, but muttered in his typical nonchalant way: "Nothing."

 

"Yeah, right, like I believe you. You look like shit." He said, matter-of-factly, holding Brian's chin and forcing his hazel eyes to meet his.

 

Brian made a fragile attempt to resist, but didn't, and when his eyes rested on Justin's face he felt suddenly too exposed. He could never run from Justin's blue eyes, because they could always see too deep inside him. "I do feel like shit," he admitted reluctantly, coughing a little.

 

Justin touched Brian's forehead with his hand. "You have a fever."

 

"I know." Brian said, sighing tiredly and swaying a little in Justin's grip.

 

"Come here, sit down," Justin said, holding Brian's hand and leading him to the sofa.

 

Brian complied quietly. He wasn't being able to concentrate, the fever always left him like this, drained.

 

"Do you have something for the fever?" Justin asked, looking around.

 

"I already took a couple of aspirins," Brian said, resting his head in his hands.

 

"Okay."

 

Brian closed his eyes, but his hand automatically searched for Justin's. They intertwined their fingers and Justin's other hand caressed the back of Brian's neck, pulling his head gently until it rested on the blonde's shoulder.

 

Brian sighed, relieved, almost content. Justin was here, and for a brief moment he could pretend that everything was fine, that they were just enjoying the warmth of the fireplace in their house.

 

"Better now?" Justin finally asked, after a few moments.

 

Brian only nodded, head still on his shoulder.

 

"Did you eat anything?" Justin asked again.

 

"I had some coffee," Brian murmured.

 

"Frankly, Brian...coffee? No wonder you're so thin." Justin got up and, still holding Brian's hand, pulled him to the kitchen. The older man went with no resistance, and sat down on the chair Justin pulled for him.

 

"Be a good boy and stay here, I'll make you something to eat." Justin said, opening the fridge.

 

"I don't want to - "

 

"Yes, you do," said the blond with a bossy tone that made Brian shut his mouth. The relief of seeing Brian was slowly giving place to impatience, because so far Brian hadn't offered any explanation for his disappearance, and Justin doubted he would. The explanation, as always, would have to be forced out of him.

 

"What's the problem with you anyway?" Justin asked, his tone a bit sharper than before.

 

"Nothing." Brian said, after coughing again. "Just a cold, that's all."

 

There wasn't much in the fridge, only some apples, a little wheat bread and some cheese. Justin figured Brian wouldn't eat bread right now, so he peeled and sliced an apple and put it in a plate in front of the brunet. He couldn't help but notice the fully equipped kitchen, the top line appliances and his heart ached thinking that it all had been bought for a life that never really happened.

 

Brian nibbled a slice, but his stomach rebelled against the food. ‘I can't," he said, pushing the plate away.

 

"Fine," Justin muttered between teeth, grabbing the plate and shoving it in the sink with a little more strength than he intended.

 

Brian flinched at the noise. He knew Justin was angry, he was expecting that reaction sooner or later. Only the shock of seeing him had stopped Justin's ‘inquisition' earlier.

 

"That's it," Justin said. "I've had enough." He turned to Brian and looked directly at him. "You're gonna tell me why you acted like a complete asshole. Again."

 

"I already told you," was all Brian could think to say at the moment. God, he was tired.

 

"Oh, right," Justin said sarcastically. "You didn't want to get in my way."

 

"Yeah," Brian said, trying his best to act like it was the most normal thing in the world. "I figured you would be better without me holding you back."

 

Justin sighed. "Don't you think that's my decision to make?"

 

"No," Brian said. "You are a fucking sentimental young man who often acts on impulse and against your better judgment. You would never make the right decision."

 

"So," said Justin, eyes flaring, "instead of talking to me and asking what I wanted, like a normal human being would have done, you just took the decision out of my hands and disappeared, so you wouldn't get in my way."

 

"That's right."

 

"You can't treat me like a child. You can't make your decisions without telling me. We're supposed to be a couple, remember? And couples discuss everything, decide things together. What you did is so disrespectful that I can't even look at you right now. I deserve more from you," Justin said calmly, but sadly.

 

"Stop acting like a drama queen. You always end up doing something silly when you're like this."

 

"You never saw me as your equal, as someone capable of making my own decisions. I'm still a silly kid to you."

 

"That's bullshit and you know it; it has nothing to do with this."

 

"The fuck it doesn't! Do you realize what you did? You disappeared, your asshole! Everyone was going crazy because of you!"

 

"It's no one's business what I do with my life," Brian said feigning nonchalance. "You did what you wanted with yours, so why can't I?"

 

"I did what I wanted...? Please, tell me you didn't do this just because I left to Europe."

 

"Don't put things in your head. I never said that, quite the contrary," Brian said, coughing a little again.

 

"That's it, isn't it? I can't believe this!' Justin covered his face with his hands. "You said I should go! That it was a one in a lifetime chance!"

 

"And I meant it. You're overreacting. You couldn't throw a big chance like that away." Brian took a deep breath, wincing when he felt a dull ache in his chest. "But life goes on, you know? I just don't see why I should be here waiting for your triumphal return."

 

"God, Brian, even you can't be so fucked up. If you didn't want me to go, why didn't you tell me?"

 

"Don't make any assumptions about me. I never told you what to do. You said I don't respect you and I don't let you choose, but I do. I always treated you like a big boy, Justin."

 

"The hell you did," said Justin. "That's no way to treat me. I thought we were okay, I only left because you were okay with this."

 

Brian shrugged, not trusting himself to talk.

 

"And what about that night in NY? What about the dinner, the music, the fucking golden gardenia, for God's sake? What was that?"

 

Brian took a deep breath, fighting the urge to cough. "That was me saying goodbye," he said.

 

Justin looked at him, stunned. "Goodbye? What the fuck, Brian?"

 

Brian looked at Justin, startled. Had he said that out loud? Fuck! "I - I meant..." he coughed again, covering his mouth.

 

"And what about that ‘it's only time' bullshit, uh?" Justin asked, desperate.

 

Brian's answer was so low that Justin almost didn't hear it. "I was wrong. Time changes everything."

 

"Shit!" Justin yelled, frustrated. "Why do you have to make this so hard?" He turned his back to Brian, facing the kitchen window and the snow outside. He was tired of this, really tired. He knew there was something wrong with Brian, something he wasn't telling him, but Brian wasn't making the conversation any easier. Did he think Justin had a fucking crystal ball to predict his thoughts without him saying a word?

 

Several minutes in silence passed. Justin felt tears threatening to fall and pushed them back. He wasn't going to cry. He wasn't.

 

"You're pushing me away again, Brian." Justin finally said. "Don't do this. I can't go through that again. Stop using my art as an excuse to push me away, because it's not working anymore."

 

Justin turned at Brian again. He was silent, his head resting on the table.

 

"Fuck," Justin murmured, hurt with Brian's silence. His inability to talk always drove the blond crazy. "You're not going to do that to me again. Look at me!" he said determined, when Brian didn't raise his head. "Be a man and tell me where we stand, because if you don't I - "

 

Brian's shoulders shook, holding back a cough.

 

"Brian?"

 

Brian didn't answer, just coughed, but this time it didn't go away so fast. It took him a few seconds to recover his breath. When Justin made a motion to go to him, the older man raised his head slightly and made a gesture to stop the blond. Justin remained where he was.

 

"God, Brian...what happened?"

 

"I'm fine," came the reply, and Brian got up from the chair, grabbing the table with so much strength that his knuckles turned white.

 

"If you're fine, look at me."

 

"Can't" he whispered, leaning heavily against the wall.

 

"Jesus, Brian, you're scaring me." Justin said, stepping closer to the brunet.

 

The effort of standing too fast left Brian dizzy and out of breath. Maybe it was the fucking cold, maybe it was the emotions he wasn't ready to deal with, but his head was throbbing and the room was slightly out of focus.

 

Brian tried to cough again, but he felt an acute pain ripping through his chest and he swayed a little.

 

"Brian?" Justin asked again, his calm being rapidly replaced by worry.

 

"I didn't want you to come back." It was hard to breathe. "I wanted you to be far from here when..." every word a supreme effort.

 

"Brian," Justin was in panic now. He could hear Brian's labored breathing.

 

"Don't want...to be a...fucking burden." Another series of cough and a moan. "Oh, God."

 

"Brian, what's wrong?" Justin grabbed Brian's shoulders, turning him so he could look at his face.

 

"You shouldn't...see me like this...your whole life...ahead..."

 

Brian coughed again, and his chest felt like it was being ripping apart, and this time it seemed the cough wasn't going to end. Brian sank to the floor, still coughing, Justin frantic beside him, hands on his waist, trying to support him.

 

Justin felt the moment Brian's body gave up, a frailty that scared him beyond any measure. Brian went slack, crumpling to the floor, his ragged breathing the only noise now. Justin looked in panic at the brunet, whose chest heaved painfully.

 

Brian coughed again, loud and hard, and Justin saw, in horror, Brian's lips red with blood...staining the white floor, his clothes and Justin's hands...It wasn't too much, but it was so red, and Brian's eyes were huge and scared, and he desperately clutched Justin's hands, silently asking for help as he tried to breath...

Chapter Text

The last time Justin was in a hospital was after the bomb. He remembered Debbie, Ben and all the others waiting anxiously in Allegheny General Hospital for news about Michael's state. They all were anguished, but they had each other, and waiting for something like Michael's surgery with people that were sharing the same feeling made it all more bearable.

 

So, he found extremely difficult to remain in Brattleboro Memorial Hospital's waiting room as the nurse had told him to do. He was all by himself and there was no one here to share the feeling that the world was crashing down on him.

 

The uncomfortable plastic chairs were empty and he was left alone in a room with a television and a broken coffee machine. He couldn't remember how he had been able to stop at the reception to fill the required forms. All he could think of was that Brian was being taken away from him.

 

He shivered, remembering Brian's wide and scared eyes looking at him, his feverish face, every breathe looking extremely painful. Justin had called 911 immediately after having seen the blood, but by the time the paramedics arrived, Brian's lips were almost blue and he had almost passed out

 

Justin never let go of his hand, not even when they put him inside the ambulance. But then Brian's breathing had gotten even worse, if this was possible, and the paramedics asked him to give them some space so they could work on the brunet.

 

Judging by the amount of tubes and wires attached to Brian by the time they arrived at the ER, Justin didn't even want to think what would have happened if he wasn't at Britin with him when he started to cough all that blood. He shivered again, knowing that if Brian was at Britin alone when it happened, he could have died.

 

He had been waiting for hours now. He wanted to cry, but part of him still hoped he would wake up any moment and realize he was just having a nightmare. His back was killing him and he shifted uncomfortably on the chair, waiting for news from Brian. One of the nurses took pity on him and, once in a while came to him and told him that the doctors were still working on Brian and would give him some news about his state as soon as he was stable. Which could only mean he still wasn't.

 

Justin didn't have the heart to call the others. It was Christmas Eve. They already knew the blond wasn't going to the party at Debbie's house. He didn't want to be alone, but he really couldn't deal with them right now. The last thing he wanted was noise, and they would keep asking him questions, demanding explanations he couldn't give, because his own thoughts were in turmoil right now..

 

The door opened and the nurse came back, but this time the doctor was with her. Justin felt his heart skip a beat. The man looked tired and his face was grave. In that split second, Justin prayed like never before, that the man would tell him that Brian was alright.

 

"Good evening, Mr. Taylor. I'm Dr. Schneider. I'm in charge of Mr. Kinney's case."

 

"How is he?" was all Justin managed to say.

 

"He's stable now, but we had to take him to the ICU."

 

"Oh God," Justin whispered, paling and grabbing the nearby door for support.

 

"Are you alright?" the doctor asked. "Do you want to sit down?"

 

"I'm fine," Justin said, taking a deep breath to calm himself. "Please, tell me what happened, why is he like this?"

 

"Mr. Kinney has a severe Pneumonia that progressed to Septicemia, which means he has a severe generalized infection. When he was brought here, he wasn't able to breath properly, and this is very dangerous, because with low oxygen levels in the blood, the brain may be damaged. We had to perform an endotracheal intubation, that is, we put a tube in his throat to help him breath properly, and now he is heavily sedated and in artificial respiration."

 

 

Justin sat down shakily. He looked up to the doctor trying to fight the tears. "Will he be okay?"

 

The man looked at him hesitantly. "Well... he has an extremely low blood pressure now. This is due to the infection, so he needs some medication to help him stabilize the pressure levels. He's also dehydrated, and it contributes to the low pressure. We already started a therapy with heavy antibiotics to fight the infection, let's see if he responds to the treatment."

 

"What about the blood? There was blood in his mouth."

 

"We're still running a few tests, it's early to say. Either he had a problem with the blood's coagulation, or there is something else in his lungs other than the Pneumonia."

 

"But can you tell me what it is?" Justin asked, already afraid to hear the answer.

 

"It can be a lot of things, Mr. Taylor. It's still early to tell. We'll need some information about Mr. Kinney's medical records, if you can help us."

 

"I don't know much," he murmured, realizing that, indeed, he didn't know as much about Brian's past life as he would like to. "He had testicular cancer a few years ago and he smokes a lot."

 

"We're still running some tests to find the cause for the blood. At this point I don't want to say anything yet. Don't worry, we're doing our best to find out. You're listed as his next-of-kin, so as soon as we find something, we'll let you know."

 

"Thank you, doctor."

 

"The next 24 to 48 hours will be very important. He's being constantly monitored, so if there's any change, we'll tell you."

 

"Can I se him?"

 

"Uh... we have a rigid policy, visitors are allowed in the ICU only once a day, at four PM."

 

"Oh. Okay, then," Justin said, sighing disappointed.

 

Dr. Schneider shook Justin's hand and left the room, leaving Justin with the nurse.

 

"Why don't you go home?" she asked softly, when he covered his face with his hands.

 

"I can't," he said, taking a deep breath to calm himself. "I can't leave him here."

 

"He's being taken care of. You should rest."

 

"No, I can't even think of sleeping while Brian is..." his voice died.

 

"You need to have faith, Mr. Taylor. Dr. Schneider is very good. And Mr. Kinney is still young, he can fight this."

 

"He would love to hear you calling him that," he said, giving her a small smile that soon died. "God, I can't believe this is happening. What more do we have to go through?" he whispered to himself.

 

"Um....is he your partner?" she felt sorry for the young man but she couldn't contain her curiosity. They were both beautiful men, they must look great together.

 

Justin's eyes clouded and he could barely speak. "Yes, he is," he murmured.

 

Her heart almost broke at the look of despair in the young man's face. "Listen, I'll ask the doctor again if you can see him later, okay? It's way passed visit's time, but I promise I'll try."

 

He only nodded, not trusting his voice.

 

"My name is Helen. Let me know if you need anything." She said with a small smile, before leaving him alone in the waiting room again.

 

Justin sat back on the uncomfortable chair, rubbing the back of his neck, feeling like the floor had suddenly vanished. He couldn't imagine his world, his life, without Brian in it.

 

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Christmas was different this year. A pale shadow of the years before.

 

They were all at Debbie's home. The food was excellent, there was wine and champagne. But it seemed that, if it wasn't for the kids, there would be no party at all.

 

Gus and Jenny Rebecca sat in the middle of the living room opening their presents, oblivious to the adult's moods. Mel and Lindsay sat nearby, smiling with affection at their children. Emmett, Drew, Hunter, Ted and Blake were standing in a corner chatting, but their voices were low. Debbie, Carl, Michael and Ben were in the kitchen, sat at the dinner table, drinking wine.

 

"Shouldn't we try to call Sunshine again?" Debbie asked.

 

"I already tried," sighed Michael. "His cell phone is on voicemail and he's not at the loft, apparently."

 

"Yeah, well, Jennifer told me she talked to him this morning and he said he wasn't coming," she said.

 

Carl held her hand. "Let the poor boy alone. If he wants to spend Christmas by himself, let him be."

 

"I agree," said Ben, sipping his wine. "If he wants to be alone, I think we should respect that."

 

"But Ben, it's Christmas," Michael argued. "I feel bad for leaving him alone."

 

"I don't think he wants to celebrate anything, Michael," answered Ben. "Not without Brian."

 

"I wonder where Brian is," Michael murmured. "I'm worried about him."

 

"Please, Michael, not that Ethan story again," Debbie snorted.

 

"Who's talking about Ethan?" Michael asked. "I'm worried because Brian hates Christmas."

 

"He pretty much hates every single holiday," Ben said matter-of-factly.

 

"But Christmas is different," Michael said almost to himself, "since that year his father broke his arm and he came running here, he - "

 

"Michael, honey, let's respect Brian's privacy, okay?" Debbie said, wincing as she too, remembered the scene.

 

"Uh, guys, the kids are hungry. Shouldn't we serve dinner?" Emmett's head popped in. "Or are we waiting for someone else?" he asked hopeful.

 

"No, dear, it's just us. Well, let's go. The kids need to sleep." Debbie agreed. "Thankfully Gus didn't speak about his father."

 

"Oh, honey, he did," Emmett said. "I was watching him opening his presents and he asked Lindz if his father was going to send him a present or if he was going to wait until he comes back to give him his Christmas present."

 

"Oh, poor baby," Debbie murmured. "Sometimes I fucking hate that asshole for what he's doing to him."

 

"Ma, please!" said Michael. When Debbie glared at him, he raised his hands in a surrender gesture. "I know! I know I always defend Brian, but it's just because I feel something big happened !"

 

"Me too, honey," she said. "But he's making Gus and Sunshine go through a really hard time, and I love them as my own. I can't understand him."

 

"Who can?" Emmett said, frowning a little.

 

"Let's hope he doesn't hurt them more than he already did." Ben added.

 

 

 

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Justin's eyes were tired and his nose was running because of his allergies. They always chose to appear when he was stressed. He felt his pockets, trying to find some tissues, but he had none. He felt numb, tired and strangely detached. He couldn't understand how his life had turned to such a mess.

 

But Brian's face didn't leave his mind. His cold and sweaty hand grasping Justin's, as if asking for help. It was a sight he never wanted to see again. He was so immersed in his thoughts that he didn't notice when someone stepped inside the waiting room.

 

"Hey," said Claire's hesitant voice.

 

He looked at her and just nodded, not trusting his voice to speak right now.

 

"I - I went to t - the house tonight, I wanted to see if everything was fine." She showed Justin the key in her hand, explaining, "I kind of stole it. God, that blood in the kitchen...! I didn't know where to go looking for him," she said awkwardly, not meeting Justin's eyes. "I already went to Brattleboro Retreat and Central Vermont Hospital, I was so nervous that I couldn't find him." She looked around uncomfortably. "This hospital seems to be very good," she added. "But they're so rigid here, they just let me in because I'm his sister."

 

Justin didn't answer, just stared at her, expression blank. He wasn't in the mood for small talk.

 

"I'm sorry," she said finally, looking shaken.

 

"Don't you know?" he said finally, bitterness in his voice. "Sorry is bullshit."

 

"I wanted to tell you, I really did," Claire said. "But he didn't want me to. And I didn't want to betray his trust."

 

"That's really a lame excuse." Justin said angrily.

 

She was standing in front of him, and he got up from the chair, looking directly in her eyes.

 

"Do you know what would have happened if I haven't figured out where he was by myself? He would have fucking died!" Justin almost yelled.

 

"Oh God," she murmured, covering her mouth with her hand.

 

"Yeah, oh God." He snorted, still angry. "All because you are as full of bullshit as he is!"

 

"Is he going to be alright?" she asked, eyes scared.

 

"He's in the fucking ICU, Claire! What do you think?"

 

"But what did the doctors - "

 

"They don't know. He's breathing through a fucking tube now."

 

"Shit."

 

Justin sat down again, his outburst left him drained. "All there is to do is wait."

 

She looked at him, almost hesitant. "I...I'll be on my way. I understand you don't want me here. You probably want to be alone...and Peter is waiting for me. But please, tell me if anything changes?"

 

He didn't answer. His right hand was throbbing like it always did when he was tense. He cradled it with his left arm.

 

"I asked him to go see a doctor...he refused to listen. He hides his feelings so well, that...I'm sorry if I didn't..." she grabbed her purse nervously. "It's the first time he trusted me for anything, the first time he asks me a favor. You may not believe me, but I didn't want to fuck up things with him again, after all I did." She headed for the door. "I'm really sorry."

 

She left without another word, leaving him to his thoughts, waiting alone again in the cold and impersonal room.

 

 

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At eleven PM Nurse Helen returned. Justin was still sat on the plastic chair, resting his head in his hands.

 

"Mr. Taylor, I just talked o Dr. Schneider and he allowed you to see Mr. Kinney for ten minutes."

 

Justin almost jumped from the chair, feeling suddenly alert.

 

The nurse put her hand on his shoulder. "Follow me."

 

She made him wash his hands, wear a mask and put on a ridiculous sterile gown over his clothes. But finally she let him in, saying she would wait outside.

 

Justin stepped inside the room hesitantly. His senses were instantly invaded by the antiseptic smell, the noise coming from the artificial respirator and the insistent beeping from the monitors.

 

And there was Brian, looking uncharacteristically small and lost on the hospital bed, surrounded by several machines and monitors, face as pale as the sheets. His eyes were closed, and there was a tube coming from his mouth and attached to the respirator. There was another tube dripping medication and disappearing somewhere near his collar bone.

 

Justin tried to fight the tears but it was impossible. Not even when Brian had cancer, had Justin seen him like this. Never before the possibility of loosing Brian seemed so palpable.

 

He moved the sheet a little so he could see Brian's left hand resting on the bed. Carefully, he held it and, bending his head, kissed the pale hand through the mask.

 

"Hey," he said, voice cracking. "It's me."

 

His hand went to Brian's hair of its own volition. "You are an asshole, did you know that?" he sniffed. "You were sick and you didn't tell me..? How could you hide something like that from me?" He started to run his hand through the chestnut hair he loved so much. "Were you afraid again that I would leave you? Or you didn't want me to give up my ‘dreams' for you?"

 

The tears that took so long to come started to run freely down his cheeks. "Don't you know there's no ‘me' without you?" His heart ached so much that even breathing was difficult. "You're everything to me. I thought you had already understood that by now."

 

He lost track of the time while he stood there, looking at the sleeping man and the ten minutes passed too fast. The nurse knocked softly on the door and came inside the room.

 

"Hey, it's time," she said.

 

Justin nodded at her. Bending his head, he kissed Brian's hand again. "You won't push me away again, okay?" he said, still crying. "This time I'm staying for good. I'm here and I'm not going anywhere. But please...don't go anywhere I can't go with you."

 

 

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Justin ended up calling Michael and the others around five AM, because the nurse told him that Brian's blood pressure was even lower, and Justin feared the worst. In less than one hour they were all there with him in the waiting room, demanding to know about Brian's state and asking why he hadn't called them before. Except for Melanie, who had to stay home with the children, all the extended family was here. Even Jennifer, whom Debbie hadn't forgot to call.

 

Michael stormed in the waiting room and went straight to Justin, asking, "How the hell something like that happened?"

 

Justin just shook his head sadly. He didn't have any answers to give them; he didn't have any answers himself. After a while, he became tired of giving explanations and telling exactly what had happened, how he had found out where Brian was. But even so, he felt better to have them with him. It had been one of the hardest nights of his life, and being alone without is friends had definitely made it worse.

 

He could tell that Michael was a little angry with him because he hadn't call before, but when the visiting time came, at eleven AM, Justin told him that he could go in his place. Only two visitors were allowed, and each one had fifteen minutes to stay in the ICU. So Justin told Michael and Debbie that they could go. They were Brian's family, after all.

 

 

Debbie went first, and when she got out of the ICU, her eyes were red and puffy. For once, she was left without words and held Lindsay quietly. When Michael left the ICU, he was crying. Without a word he stopped in front of Justin and held the blond. At first Justin let himself be held, but after a while he held Michael back, and the two stayed there, holding each other as tears went down their faces.

 

No one left Justin's side the whole afternoon. Emmett, Ted and Ben insisted that he and Michael ate something, but Justin felt as if his throat was closed. He could barely speak, let alone eat. Michael didn't want to eat either, not even Debbie's threats could make him.

 

Doctor Schneider came around four PM and insisted on talking with Justin alone. He explained that Brian's blood pressure was better, although still dependant of the medication. And they had found out hat his coagulation was normal, which was a good sign. But they were still running some tests to explain the blood.

 

In the second visiting time, Lindsay went first and when she left her eyes were dry but scared. Justin had been in the hospital without any sleep for more than twenty-four hours, but he wouldn't pass the opportunity to see Brian again.

 

The familiar beeping machine greeted him, and Brian's pale face hadn't changed. He just stood there, holding the brunet's hand between his, not daring to take his eyes off his face. He could feel an icy hand gripping is heart and squeezing it every time he looked at Brian, but he didn't look away not even for a moment

 

 

"What do we have with hospitals, uh?" he murmured, absent mindedly caressing Brian's arm. "It seems one of us always ends up in one of these places." Sighing, he looked at his watch. "I have to go, but I'll be just outside, okay?" It seemed a little foolish to speak to Brian, the doctor had assured him Brian was sedated and couldn't hear him, but Justin couldn't help. "I'm not letting you give up, do you hear me? Don't you dare to leave me alone."

 

..............................................

 

 

They insisted he should go home to take a shower and rest a little. He didn't want to, but Michael promised him to stay and call him if there was any change.

 

 

Justin didn't have the energy to go back to Pittsburgh. He decided to go to Britin, his mother had brought him some clothes, and it was a lot closer to the hospital. He didn't want to leave Brian too long.

 

As soon as he stepped inside the house he heard a noise. Someone was in the kitchen. As silently as he could, he went further inside, and stopped. Claire Kinney was kneeling on the floor, a brush and some soap in her hands, furiously cleaning the blood from the floor. Brian's blood.

 

"You don't have to do that," he said. He didn't know why, but he wasn't surprised to find her there.

 

She didn't turn around to face him, not even a little bit surprised that he was there too. "Yes, I do," she answered. "The cleaning lady went home for the holidays, and I just couldn't leave all this..." she hesitated, gesturing to the blood, "here."

 

He just stared at the kitchen's floor, trying his best not to remember the horror he felt when he saw the blood coming from Brian's mouth.

 

"Don't worry, I'll be on my way out as soon as I finish here," she continued, pointing to the key over the table. "I forgot to give it back to you yesterday, but I'll leave it here."

 

He looked at her frowning. It was surreal to have Claire at Britin cleaning Brian's blood, of all things, from the kitchen's floor. With a dull ache and a pang of regret, he noticed that she was almost familiar with the house, a house he should have lived in but barely knew.

 

"I'm gonna...take a shower," he murmured.

 

"Uh...Justin...can I talk to you for a bit?"

 

"Really, Claire, I'm tired, I need a shower," he said, trying to get away.

 

"Please," she said, getting up and going to wash her hands in the kitchen sink.

 

Justin looked at the floor. It was clean now. "You didn't ask about him," Justin said opening the fridge and grabbing an apple. It wasn't supposed to sound like an accusation, but it did.

 

"I was already there today. You were in the ICU with him. I talked to Doctor Schneider."

 

"Oh," was all he said, sitting down at a chair and looking at her, silently telling her that he was waiting for her say what she wanted.

 

She hesitated, wiping her hands on her pants and approaching the table with uncertain steps. She couldn't explain the sudden need to make this young man understand her, but then again, she couldn't explain a lot of things that were happening with her lately. The mere thought that Brian could have died because she had kept the secret to his whereabouts filled her with fear.

 

"I had my reasons," was all she managed to say.

 

"Are we going back to that?" he said sarcastically. "You told me that before and frankly, I couldn't see said reasons. All I know is that if I hadn't been here by the time he...oh God, I don't even want to say what..."

 

"You don't understand, Justin," she said.

 

He looked at her coldly. "Make me understand," he said simply.

 

"Uh?" she asked astonished.

 

"Make me understand," he repeated. "I can see that, apparently, you understand the fucked up notion that Brian has, that he can do everything he wants and he'll be forgiven in the blink of an eye. Tell me how long has he been hiding this disease thing, because it clearly didn't happen overnight, and especially, why the fuck he hid it. Make me understand, because I don't."

 

Claire sat down across from him, at the kitchen table. "I...I don't know."

 

"Then there's nothing you have to say that will interest me," he said, starting to get up.

 

"Wait!" her hand automatically went to his wrist. He looked at her, eyebrows raised. "Sorry," she said, removing her hand. "I...he got in contact with me a few days before the show. When I was at the loft I really didn't know where he was."

 

Justin sat down again, looking at her, trying to control his annoyance. "So it was really him at the show."

 

Claire closed her yes and nodded. "He asked me to take him, he didn't trust himself to drive to Pittsburgh. He just wanted to see you from a distance, make sure you were okay."

 

"I don't believe he told you that," he muttered.

 

"He didn't. I figured it out for myself."

 

"God!" Justin covered his face with his hands. "And why the hell you didn't call me, for Christ's sake"

 

"I told you, I didn't want to betray the trust he put in me."

 

"That's really a fucked up notion of betrayal," Justin said.

 

"No, it's not," she said. "It's been a long time, a very long time, since he trusted me for anything. When John...stole his money," she said, looking at her own hands, "I...accused him of...and mother agreed with me..."

 

"I remember that perfectly" Justin said coldly.

 

Claire nodded, still unable to look directly at him. "After you went there with that policeman to...retrieve the bracelet, I thought...this is it, I'm never going to talk with my faggot asshole of a brother again."

 

He looked sharply at her, but she just went on. "It was alright, we weren't exactly close before that...but I don't know how I could imagine that he would have...that he and John..."

 

"And yet you did," he said accusingly. "You did a lot more that imagine, Claire. You accused your own brother."

 

Claire sighed. "I know." She started to play with the table cloth. "Practically all my adult life I...resented him...for being beautiful, successful and completely sure of himself. Things I never was."

 

"Oh, that's really lame." He said, still unable to forget Carl telling him that Brian was in trouble with the police because of Claire. "I can't believe you accused him out of envy."

 

‘It's not that simple," Claire murmured.

 

"Yeah, right," Justin snorted.

 

"Really, it's far more complex than that," she sighed. "When I was sick, he was the only one who helped me. You can say it was only money, but that money probably saved my life. I'm...not sure he would have given me any money. Especially after what happened with John..."

 

"But he did," Justin said . "That surprised even me."

 

She smiled a little. "I went to Kinnetik to talk to him...to thank him. It was a...difficult conversation. But after that, he got me a job, in a place he usually goes...I thought that if he didn't want to see me again, he would get me a job in Timbuktu."

 

Justin nodded, thinking that it was not unusual to Brian to say one thing and then do something completely opposite. "It's still new to me, this sudden ‘friendship' between you two."

 

"I wouldn't call that. We're...tiptoeing around each other." She sighed, looking at him. "After the cancer I was surprised with the realization that I wanted to change everything about my life. I - I wanted to rescue my life. Somewhere...along all these years I lost Claire Kinney. I wanted to find her again. And rescuing the...the relationship I had with Brian is part of that."

 

"Rescuing?" Justin asked. "I thought you and him had always hated each other."

 

"No, it wasn't always like that," she said sadly. "We...when we were kids...things were a lot different. That was before our father started to..." Claire frowned and took a deep breath, as if she wanted to send some memories away. After a few seconds she looked at Justin again, a faraway expression in her face, a half-smile. "Did you know I was funny? When Brian was a baby he followed me everywhere. We were always playing and laughing. I used to tell him stories, because mom and dad never did, and I made all the voices of the characters and he laughed so much..."

 

"It's a little hard to imagine that," Justin said.

 

"Yeah. Even when I think about that myself, it feels like it happened to another me."

 

"So you were close when you were kids," asked Justin, interested in Claire's story, because it was Brian's story too. And he doubted Brian would ever tell him something like that. Brian avoided any mention of his family like the plague.

 

Claire frowned, pondering if she should tell her private memories to this young man, whom she barely knew. But these were not typical days, and it felt good to have someone with whom she could talk about that. She certainly couldn't talk with her mother. Peter was too young and she doubted she would ever tell him something like that. The only one who would understand her was her brother, but Brian was...

 

She shuddered, not wanting to think about that. "We were close, but...just until my father lost his job. I was twelve and Brian was six." Claire started to twist her hands, a gesture that showed how uncomfortable she was. "That's -that's when dad started to take his... anger and frustration on us. E-especially on Brian, because he was smaller and too proud for his own good. He never cried, only when it was too much. I made much more noise, and it annoyed dad, so he sometimes left me alone."

 

Justin cringed, trying to imagine how hard it was for a little child to be the target of a drunken man's anger. "He never talks about it."

 

"It's hard, you know?" she said, voice trembling a little.

 

Since he knew Brian and his friends, Justin knew about his childhood. No one told him directly, maybe because they didn't know themselves. It was between the lines, in comments Lindsay, Michael and Debbie made. Especially in the way they always ended up forgiving Brian's actions. Justin was good at reading between the lines, so he always knew there was something there. But no one had ever told him how bad things were. Until now.

 

"But ...you turned out being completely different, the two of you. You seemed...close to your parents."

 

"I was older when....things started to...change. I think this made a difference, because I could always run to my friend's place when dad arrived home." She looked everywhere but the blond, trying to avoid his eyes. "Brian couldn't. He was so...dependant, so...small and thin when he was a boy; sometimes I don't understand how he turned up to be so handsome."

 

Justin smiled a little, wanting to encourage her.

 

"My therapist - did I tell you I'm seeing a shrink?" When he shook his head no she went on. "She says I stayed close to them because I was scared to let go, that I felt so incapable of doing anything by myself that I stayed trapped in that life, until I got married. Then I changed from one prison to the other."

 

She didn't wait for him to comment, and frankly, he couldn't think of anything to say.

 

"Brian, on the other had, ran away. He tried to run away from home several times...one of them on Christmas Eve...I think he was fifteen. Dad was so mad that he broke his left arm."

 

"Oh my God," Justin said, astonished.

 

"When he was eighteen he went to college and never came back, not even during the summer, he always found a job somewhere far from home." Claire sighed. "And I stayed. I was twenty six, and I never liked studying a lot."

 

Justin nodded, unable to think how they got through that kind of life. Craig Taylor was an asshole when his so came out, but Justin had wonderful memories of his own childhood.

 

"My mother never helped us. Dad used to-to beat her too." Claire was taking deep breaths now, and Justin suspected she was doing this to avoid unwanted tears. "Not that dad was loving and caring before that, it only got worse."

 

"God, it must have been hard," he said with sympathy.

 

"It was," she whispered, lost in her own thoughts. "I...I think that Brian probably resented me for not defending him. But I was scared too. And I said to myself that was mom's job, not mine. I...I was so relieved whenever dad didn't pick me...so...so relieved." Claire was looking at Justin's face now, but not really seeing him.

 

She stopped talking, looking at nothing, lost in the terrible memories inside her mind. Silent tears started to fall, and Claire wiped them angrily from her face, but didn't speak.

 

Justin didn't know what to do. He wanted to help but didn't know how. "I'll make some coffee," he said, getting up from the chair. He hadn't opened the cupboard yet when he heard her voice, so small and quiet that he wasn't sure if she was talking to him or to herself.

 

"That wasn't the... worse part, you know," she murmured. "The worst of all was the way they had to make us feel...small...unworthy...unwanted. Mom even told Brian that...that dad wanted her to have an abortion when she found out she was pregnant with him."

 

"Shit," Justin murmured from the counter. "Why did she tell him something like that? She's his mother, for Christ sake!"

 

"That is Joan Kinney," was all the explanation she gave.

 

"That's really fucked up. I can't imagine my mother doing that to me."

 

"You're lucky," she said softly. "Anyway...Brian started avoiding me, and I was pretty much content if no one disturbed me in my room. After that...we just became strangers, and that was it."

 

"That's a sad story," Justin murmured, thinking he would probably had gone mad if he had to live in a place like that.

 

"So...you see why I couldn't tell you? He...Brian would hate me again. I didn't want that. I really felt guilty for not telling you, but I was hoping I would get him to see a doctor."

 

"I think I understand. I...can't say I think it was the best thing to do, but it was what he wanted."

 

"When I saw all that blood on the floor...oh God, I realized what had happened, and it was all my fault..."

 

"Wait, wait, wait: your fault?" Justin asked with disbelief.

 

"I could have done something. He-he was here alone...if that had happened at night...God, he could be dead." She shuddered again.

 

Justin felt that icy grip in his heart again, but he tried to ignore it. "It wasn't your fault, Claire. I was...mad at you, I won't lie, but it wasn't your fault. If it was anyone's fault, it was Brian's."

 

"But I should have -"

 

"What is the problem with the Kinneys and guilt? I can see some similarities here. Brian loves to feel guilty, it's his specialty. It. Was. Not. Your fault."

 

She got up from the chair, grabbing her purse, physically and emotionally drained. "I'm going home...Peter must be waiting."

 

"Gus doesn't stop talking about his cousin," Justin said to lighten the mood.

 

"Peter liked him too. He and John were never too close, they are completely different. Peter and Gus have the same age difference that Brian and I have," she said with a sad smile.

 

Claire headed for the door, Justin behind her. "Can you call me if there's any change with him?" she asked. "I need to work tomorrow, I'm not sure I'll be able to go to the hospital."

 

"Sure," he said.

 

Claire nodded and smiled sadly again. "Thank you," she whispered, and left.

 

Justin headed upstairs. He was tired but there was no way he would be able to sleep, not with all the uncertainty about Brian's life. He went straight to the master bedroom, trying to ignore the messy covers on the bed. In the bathroom, he entertained the idea of filling the bathtub with warm water and just let his stiff muscles relax, but he didn't want to be away from the hospital for too long.

 

The shower was a quick one, but it helped a lot, the water soothed his body a little. His stomach growled, but he couldn't think of eating. He put on his clean clothes and went down the stairs. Looking at his watch, he knew he still had one or two hours to go back, so he went to the living room.

 

Memories of a happier time danced in his head and before his eyes. "Yes, I will marry you," he had said. And that had never happened. He couldn't stop thinking that his life would have been much easier and happier if they had married as planned. Maybe not so easy, I fact, but it certainly wouldn't be like this, a never ending roller coaster that left him gasping for air.

 

Justin lit the fireplace and sat on the comfortable sofa. He wasn't going to sleep, only rest a little. But as he stared at the yellow flames, his eyes started to close on their own volition, his mind diving in the comfortable sea of sleep. He dreamed about Craig, playing baseball with him in the backyard of the house in which Justin spent all his childhood, and unaware of it, a small smile played on is lips.

Chapter Text

"Mr. Taylor."

 

Justin woke with a start, feeling doctor's Schneider's hand on his shoulder. Almost four days sitting on this damned plastic chairs made his muscles protest when he moved.

 

"Yes, doctor? Any news?" he straightened himself on the chair and the older man sat beside him.

 

"I am optimistic. The fever is almost gone now, and we discovered why he was coughing up blood."

 

"What is it, doctor?"

 

The doctor smiled indulgently. "Something that would have been far more easy to treat if diagnosed a few months ago. It's Tuberculosis."

 

"But how the hell did Brian catch that?"

 

"Well, the germ is usually spread in the air, but you usually need close and prolonged contact with someone with the disease to be at risk of being infected."

 

"I have no idea who. Brian has no close contact to anyone." But then again, he had been away for two years now, just seeing Brian sporadically...he didn't even know what Brian did in his everyday life. And this thought saddened him more than he could tell.

 

"If you have a healthy immune system, in most cases nothing happens, the infection will remain dormant without doing any obvious harm. But months later, however, the disease can become reactivated in different organs if the immune system is weakened. The lungs are the favorite place for the illness to strike."

 

"But Brian rarely gets sick," he argued. "His immune system is fine, I'm always the one who gets a cold all the time, because of my allergies."

 

The doctor nodded. "Not until recently. His medical records showed that he was here six months ago with a severe hypoglycemia, this is not common for a healthy man; he was brought in a very bad shape. He left the hospital against medical orders. He was already coughing by then. And the information you gave me about his habits... Not sleeping or eating properly...working too much, always under a lot of stress...that kind of thing can weaken one's defenses."

 

"I didn't know he was sick." Justin murmured astonished. Brian had been in the fucking hospital and no one told him?

 

"Well, his immune system was impaired. He probably had Tuberculosis for a long time and didn't pay attention to the symptoms. Then his body couldn't handle the aggression, and the winter made it easier for him to catch Pneumonia which progressed to generalized infection."

 

Justin gulped. "That's a hell of a lot of diseases for one single person. How about the treatment?"

"Standard therapy for active TB consists of a six-month regimen with basically three different drugs. Treatment takes that long because the disease organisms grow very slowly and, unfortunately, also die very slowly." He smiled encouragingly to the blond. "We're working on his recovery, Mr. Taylor. We're doing everything we can. Now we need to wait for his body to respond to the medication. We already started the treatment today."

Justin only nodded. He felt a lump in his throat, he couldn't say anything. Dr. Schneider turned to leave; then he hesitated before addressing Justin again.

 

"Also, Mr. Taylor...I need your authorization to collect an HIV-test. It's not usual for someone like Mr. Kinney to have a disease like this, especially one with so many complications. We need to know if the Tuberculosis is not secondary to another disease."

 

Justin felt his head spinning. HIV? "Sure," was all he managed to say.

 

The older man nodded at him and left Justin to his thoughts.

 

"Hey, there!" said the nurse, Helen, entering the room with a smile. "It's almost visiting time. I'm going to change his IV medication, do you want to go in with me?"

 

Justin smiled a little and nodded, following her to the ICU. He washed his hands carefully, now completely used to the ICU's routine, put on his mask and the sterile gown over his clothes.

 

The nurse entered right behind him. "Don't mind me," she said smiling gently, "I'm just going to change this and leave you alone."

 

Brian was quiet, as always, surrounded by wires and tubes. Now that he was used to the noise, Justin didn't even register the constant beeping of the monitors. His hand went automatically to the side of Brian's face and he softly ran his fingers through the pale skin of Brian's cheekbone.

 

"Hey," he said. "I missed you."

 

Brian's head moved at the direction of his voice and he leaned his face into Justin's touch. Startled, Justin's heart started to beat fast. "Brian?" he said softly. And Brian's head moved a little again.

 

Justin looked around for the nurse. She was smiling at him. "He's reacting to your voice. The doctor suspended the sedatives this morning. He's starting to wake up."

 

Relief washed over Justin. "Do you think he can hear me?"

 

"I'm pretty sure he can," she said. "The physiotherapist is being working with him. His lungs are getting better, and when he's fully awake they're going to see if he's able to breath on his own."

 

When she left, Justin looked at Brian again. "You scared the shit out of me, did you know that?" he said, touching Brian's forehead, tracing the contours of his face with his fingers.

 

Brian frowned, eyes closed, as if he was trying to hear what Justin was saying.

 

"Shh..." Justin said, smoothing Brian's forehead. "Calm down. I'm here." The brunet's face relaxed again.

 

Justin stayed there, caressing Brian's face and hair, lost in thoughts. Part of him was relieved to know Brian had something perfectly treatable, but from what the doctor just said, Brian had been sick for a long time.

 

He remembered all the times he had worried about Brian, how thin he was, how he was always smoking and coughing. But he always assumed that Brian had been stressed because of work and because of the twists and turns their relationship always took. God knows Justin was stressed with their separation too.

 

But now he knew Brian had been in a hospital before, and had hid that from him; which meant he had been deliberately hiding from everyone that he was far from alright for a long time.

 

Justin didn't even want to think what something like that meant, what was behind Brian's reasons. He thought Brian was alright, that he had changed, even if just a little, that he was expressing his feelings more freely now. But he could see that Brian was in fact hiding something bigger from him. Like the top of an iceberg, he was showing just what he wanted Justin to see, and hiding everything else. And Justin didn't know what to do.

 

All he knew was that they needed to have a conversation, a very serious one. And very, very soon.

 

 

... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

 

 

Michael sighed, looking at Ted and Emmett, sitting side by side across him at their usual table at the diner. Ted was reading the paper, Emmett was reading a magazine and Michael was...just being Michael and worrying bout Brian.

 

"Here, you three, you need to eat," said Debbie, putting a plate full of pancakes on the table.

 

They all eyed the plate with disinterest, but Michael was the only one who mumbled "Not hungry."

 

Michael Novotny-Bruckner," she put her hands on her waist in a very Debbie-like manner, frowning at him. "You better eat, we don't need another sick person in the family! The same goes for you, Ted and Emmett."

 

"Um...I need to go to work," Ted murmured.

 

"I..." Emmett started to say when Debbie lost her patience.

 

"Listen, boys," she put one hand on Michael's shoulder, "we're all worried about Brian. But stop eating won't help him. And when he wakes up, he'll need you at full strength."

 

"Brian has Justin," Michael mumbled.

 

Debbie sat beside her son and put her arm around his shoulders. "Yes, he has Justin. But last time I checked, Justin was your friend too. He will need your strength. Both will. You are a family, all of you."

 

Michael just sighed again. Emmett held his cup and sipped his coffee. Ted smiled at Debbie awkwardly. "You know how Brian hates us to fuss over him. When he wakes up, he will be pissed if he finds out that you stopped eating because of him," she said.

 

"We didn't stop eating!" Michael protested. "It's just that, whenever I thing about Brian with that tube down his throat..."

 

Yeah, I'm sure there are lots of things far more interesting for him to have down his throat," Debbie commented.

 

"Ma! This is no time for joking!"

 

 

Emmett grimaced. "The thing is...we're always complaining how an asshole Brian is, but..." he trailed off.

 

"Without him, our breakfast looses half the fun," Ted said.

 

"How come something like that happened? I still can't believe it." said Michael, scratching his chin.

 

"This kind of things just...happen," Emmett reasoned, shrugging

 

"Yeah, but I'm his best friend. I'm supposed to be there for him, you know? I feel I failed him, somehow. Shit."

 

"Now you're really being silly, Michael. None of us could have prevented what happened, because we didn't know where he was. He was the one who cut himself from everybody, not the other way around." Emmett said.

 

"But... How come we didn't notice something was going on?"

 

"Excuse me, we did notice. I tried to talk to him so many times that...he was working almost to exhaustion, I saw something like that coming, I just never thought it was that huge," Ted said.

 

"I can't stop feeling that I should be doing something," Michael murmured. "I want to help him and I don't know what to do."

 

Debbie looked at them, smiling a little. They all had been in her life for so many years that she really felt like their mother. "I think all we can do is to be there for Justin, baby." she said. "You know, keeping him company, making sure he's alright..."

 

"I almost miss Brian's sarcastic remarks," Emmett said.

 

Ted smirked, "And his sharp sense of humor."

 

"And his smart tirades," Michael completed.

 

"Hey, you! "Debbie said, looking at them with soft eyes. "Stop talking about Brian like he's already dead." When they looked sharply at her, she tried again. "Look, Brian is in good hands. We have to keep the faith that everything will be fine. He's going to be just fine, you'll see. Brian and his dry comments will be back in no time."

 

For a few seconds none of them spoke, lost in their own thoughts. Then, Michael nudged his mother with his elbow. "Do you have a fork? This smells good," he said, looking at the pancake s with a newfound interest.

 

"And plates?" Emmett said smiling a little.

 

"And the apple syrup?" Ted asked with hopeful eyes.

 

 

... ... ... ... ... ...

 

 

Claire looked hesitant when Justin asked her if she wanted to see Brian, but she nodded and went inside. It was already four in the afternoon and she had come all the way from Pittsburgh, right after work, like she was doing every day, just to sit with Justin in the waiting room.

 

Not even ten minutes later she left with big and scared eyes, taking deep breaths, trying to calm herself. "Oh my God," she whispered. She looked at Justin and Michael who were standing near the window, talking. "I...I couldn't stay there any longer." She said softly.

 

"Everything will be fine," Justin said simply. It was easier to feel confident with the room full of people, Justin thought. The hard part was when everyone left at night and he had to stay here alone with his thoughts.

 

Michael had been there practically the whole day and he had already announced he would stay for the night. Justin was so grateful for the company that he held Michael for several seconds, without a word.

 

"Brian never gave up easily," Michael said to Claire.

 

She tried to smile, not quite succeeding. "I hate to see him like this...vulnerable. We're not exactly friends, but...all the discomfort between us was just...gone."

 

"I think you forgave each other, if you don't mind me saying. You were the one he asked for help, after all," Michael added, sounding a little hurt.

 

"He only did that because I wouldn't fuss over him, he said that himself. I should have done something, though. I feel guilty."

 

"Welcome to the guilt club." Justin said. "I was just talking to Michael about this. As much as I love Brian," his voice cracked a bit, "it was his choice not to see a doctor, it was his choice to go away. Besides, what would you do?" Justin asked. "Tie him to the bed and call 911?"

 

"It might have worked," she said.

 

"Sunshine, I'm going to the cafeteria with Emmett," Debbie said approaching them. "Do you want something?"

 

"No, thanks, Deb."

 

"I'll go with you, Ma," said Michael.

 

When they left, Justin looked at Claire. They had developed an almost-friendly way of acting toward each other after the conversation at Britin. "Why don't you go home earlier today? Michael said he'll stay the whole night."

 

"Will you go to the house later?" she asked.

 

"Yeah, I need a shower."

 

"Okay," she answered. "I think I'll go home, then. Peter is staying with Mom when I'm here, and he's not very happy about it."

 

"Your mother..." Justin started, knowing it was a difficult subject. "Does she know what happened?"

 

"She does," Claire said. "I wasn't planning on saying anything, but Peter accidentally mentioned it, so I had to tell her."

 

Justin only nodded, thinking how unpleasant it would be to see Joan Kinney when she came to see her son.

 

"And before you ask, no, she is not coming." Claire said grimacing, as if reading Justin's thoughts.

 

Justin frowned. "She's not coming? What the hell...?"

 

"She said she hates hospitals and there's nothing she can do, and the weather is too cold for an old lady to leave her house..." she snorted, "and that she'll pray for him."

 

"Pray? Well thank you very much. What kind of mother is that?" he asked, indignantly.

 

"The kind who lets her husband beat the shit out of her own kids and doesn't do anything to stop him," Claire snapped, eyes flaring.

 

"Sorry, I didn't want to..." Justin said uncomfortable.

 

"That's okay," she said. "My therapist said I need to face it in order to move on. The problem is that before the therapy I was able to control my hurt, anger or whatever I feel when I talk to my mother. Now it feels I'm angry at her all the time."

 

"Maybe that's part of the process," Justin said. He still wasn't used to Claire's sincerity, the way she talked about things most people would avoid. It was quite the opposite from Brian, where he never talked about his parents, she didn't seem to mind. Only, her comments about them weren't always nice.

 

"Yeah, maybe...Listen, can I call you later? To know if there's any news about him?"

 

"Sure," Justin answered. "Uh...thanks for coming. I'm sure Brian would like to know you've been coming every day and staying with me."

 

She half smiled. "He would be the first one to tell me to fuck off."

 

"Being Brian, I don't think ‘fuck off' really means that much. He said that to me a lot and I'm still here."

 

She looked at him and for a moment Justin thought he saw her eyes glistening a little. "Shit," she murmured, "I must be getting soft."

 

In another situation he would have laughed, because that was something he expected to hear from Brian. "I'm sure he'll like to know you came. Even if he says the opposite."

 

"He's going to be alright, you know?" she said, averting her eyes. "He's strong, he's in the best hospital. He has lots of reasons to live for. Everything will be fine."

 

And Justin strangely realized he was glad she had come.

 

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

Lindsay opened the children's bedroom, where Gus was trying his best to play silently with his LEGO while Jenny took her nap. . "Gus, honey, come downstairs. There's milk and chocolate cookies for you," she said.

 

"Oops," said Gus. "What did I do, Mommy?"

 

"Nothing, sweetheart...why?"

 

"Something is wrong. Every time you and Momma want to say something that you think I won't like, you give me milk and cookies."

 

Lindsay smiled while she took his little hand in hers.

 

"Like when you told me were moving to Canada, or when you said Dad and Justin weren't going to marry anymore," Gus said.

 

"When did you get to be so clever?" she asked, kissing the top of his head. "Come on, your Momma and I want to talk to you."

 

"I'm smart like Daddy," he declared.

 

He sat down at the kitchen table. Mel was already there, waiting for him and Lindsay.

 

Lindsay sat beside him at the table.

 

"Baby..." said Mel, taking his little hand in hers. "You know we love you very, very much, don't you?"

 

"Yep," said the boy. "Are we moving again?" he asked.

 

Lindsay smiled. "No, Gus, we're going to stay here. I mean, we're trying to find a house so you and Jenny have more space."

 

"But I like Grandma's house," Gus said. "It's always full of people."

 

"I know, but don't you want your own room? A place where you can play and decorate the way you want?"

 

"Okay,' Gus said, starting to eat the cookies.

 

"Honey, uh...we...wanted to talk about your daddy," said Mel.

 

"I told you, Momma, I don't know where he is!" Gus complained, rolling his eyes, and Lindsay had to fight the urge to laugh, he looked so much like Brian when he did this.

 

"The thing, Gus," Lindsay said, adjusting her beautiful golden hair in the ponytail, "is that we know where daddy is, I mean, he came back."

 

"He did?" Gus's eyes lit up and he looked at her excitedly. "Can we see him today? Please, Mommy?"

 

She smiled, but looked at Mel, and the brunette answered for her.

 

"The thing is, daddy is a little sick, so he had to go to the hospital to get better."

 

"Oh, no! He must be very sick, because you only go to the hospital when you're very, very sick and you'll need an injection," said Gus worriedly.

 

"He's going to stay there for a while," Lindsay said.

 

"Do they have needles? Do you think he's going to need an injection, Mommy?"

 

"Probably yes, darling."

 

Gus's eyes glistened with tears. "Poor Daddy," said the boy, genuinely worried. "I don't want them to use needles on him. They hurt."

 

"Don't worry, baby," said Mel soothingly. "Your dad is gonna be fine, the doctors are taking care of him."

 

"I wanna go see him," he announced firmly.

 

"Oh, no, you can't," Mel explained. "It's a hospital made only for adults, they forbid all the little and handsome boys to go in."

 

"But Momma, Daddy needs to see me! I have to tell him that I behaved like he asked, and I need to give him a hug and a kiss so he will get better soon! That's what he does when I get sick."

 

Lindsay's heart clenched in her chest. She hated to see Gus crying and he was just about to do so. "I know, baby. Let me talk to the doctor, first, okay? I'll ask him to let you go inside."

 

"Oh." Gus said, sniffing. "I hope he's okay soon. Dad never gets sick," he said, dropping the cookie on the plate again. "I don't wanna eat anymore," he said.

 

"Gus, I have an idea," Mel said, smiling at him. "Why don't you go upstairs, pick your coloring pencils and make a beautiful drawing for Daddy, huh? Mommy can take it to him when she goes to visit."

 

Gus's eyes lit up, again. "Yeah! I'm gonna use the sketchbook Jus gave me, so the drawing will be very big and Daddy will know I love him that much!" he said, jumping excitedly from the chair, tears forgotten, and he ran upstairs.

 

Mel and Lindsay looked at each other.

 

"It was better than I thought," said Lindsay.

 

"Don't fool yourself," Mel argued. "This boy is too smart, he won't be easily fooled. If we don't take him to see Brian soon, we'll run out of excuses."

 

"By then Brian will have waken up," Lindsay said hopeful.

 

"I hope so, Lindz. Because, as much as I find it amazing, Gus adores Brian...and the last thing I want in the world is to see our boy breaking his heart."

 

 

 

... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

 

 

Brian left the ICU two days later, breathing on his own but still too weak to do anything but sleep. Justin wanted nothing more than to stay with him all the time, but since his disease was highly contagious, Brian was moved to an isolated room, still with restricted visits, and Justin still had to use a mask around him.

 

Sometimes Brian would open his eyes and look at him as if trying to remember who he was, and sometimes he would just stare at the ceiling with vacant eyes, barely acknowledging Justin's or anyone's presence.

 

The doctor explained that it was normal because Brian had been sedated for days, and his body needed a lot of sleep to recover. He was still under heavy antibiotics for the Pneumonia, and combined with the Tuberculosis's treatment, it was just an awful amount of medication that left him sleepy and feeling sick all the time.

 

Once in a while, in his sleep, Brian would mumble Justin's or Gus's name and frown or whimper, as if having a nightmare. All it took was Justin's hand on his forehead or his face and he would sleep peacefully again.

 

Justin was staying at Britin, just because it was the practical thing to do. It was nearer to the hospital than the loft, and he hated to drive in the snow. But whenever he was at the manor to shower and sleep a little, he went straight to the bedroom, trying his best to avoid the living room where his happy memories lived. This was not how he had envisioned living at the country manor: alone. Wherever he looked he saw Brian, and the future they could have had if Justin hadn't left. He frequently asked himself if they would ever have that life together, of if destiny would find more shit to throw at them.

 

It was New Year's Eve and Justin was sitting on the armchair in near the window, across Brian's bed, sketching. The little TV was on but with no sound; once in a while Justin looked at the images of people celebrating the New Year around the world. He was a little hungry, but in no mood of the cafeteria's food, and he was tired of the fucking mask he had to wear all the time. He got up, deciding to go downstairs for a coffee, if only to stretch his legs. But when he looked at Brian, he saw a pair of hazel eyes looking at him.

 

"Hi," he said, not expecting Brian to answer.

 

It was common for him to slip in and out of consciousness without a word, so Justin's heart warmed all over when Brian managed a small smile and murmured, "Sunshine..."

 

Justin immediately ran to Brian's side, grabbing his hand. He knew Brian would probably think he was being a drama queen, but he felt his eyes tingling with tears that soon started to fall, because it was the first thing Brian said directly at him since that night at his kitchen when he was all fever and cough and blood.

 

Justin knew he wasn't supposed to remove the mask he was wearing, but he wanted Brian to see his smile and the fucking mask was going to get soaked with tears anyway. Brian frowned at the mask, but Justin dismissed it shaking his head slightly. Brian raised his hand with effort and cupped Justin's face, his thumb caressing the path the tears left.

 

"You're beautiful," Brian murmured.

 

"So are you," Justin said shakily.

 

"Why are you crying?" he asked in a raspy voice.

 

"Because I'm happy," Justin said smiling.

 

"Even so. Don't like it. No tears."

 

Justin shook his head no and leaned into Brian's touch. "I missed you."

 

Brian tried to sit up, his hand leaving Justin's face, but gave up with a groan as his muscles protested. "Dizzy," he said, closing his eyes.

 

"Keep still," Justin said, putting a hand on Brian's chest.

 

Brian turned his head slightly, looking around. "We're not home," he stated, confused.

 

Justin wondered how much he should say, but before he could say anything Brian closed his eyes again. "I'm tired," he said with a small sigh.

 

"Sleep," Justin replied, running his hand through Brian's hair in a soothing gesture.

 

Brian suddenly opened his eyes and his hand searched for Justin's. "Stay?" he asked.

 

"I'm not going anywhere."

 

"Good."

 

Brian slept almost immediately, still holding Justin's hand. The blond kept his other hand caressing Brian's hair for a long time, until Brian's face was completely relaxed. Then he put the mask again - he wouldn't wait for the nurse to get in and reprimand him - and resumed his position at the chair, coffee forgotten, feeling his chest light and still smiling.

 

He didn't care if ht was New Year's Eve and he wasn't celebrating with the others. All that mattered was that Brian had finally given some sign of being fully awake, even if for a short time. Claire had been here earlier, but Brian hadn't waken up, so she left after a while. She never stayed too long now that he was out of the ICU, and Justin supposed she was afraid of her brother's reaction when he saw her. She still went to the hospital every day, but left quickly after hearing the news about Brian. Clearly, the old Kinney's method of denial.

 

Michael had been there too, but he and Ben were taking the kids to see the fireworks at the park tonight, so he had left early. Jennifer had called, and so had Debbie, and Justin had assured them he would be alright. Even Alex had called earlier, telling him he was missing a wonderful party at her apartment, and Justin told her there was no place he'd rather be than next to Brian.

 

He actually liked those quiet moments he spent at Brian's side, watching him sleep. He felt at peace there, surrounded by silence, Brian's steady breathing assuring him everything was going to be fine.

 

......

 

Around two AM he heard a faint knock at the door. Moaning, because he had slept on the armchair again, he got up and opened the door, surprised to find Ted behind it.

 

"Ted? Something happened?" he asked, stepping aside to let Ted come in.

 

"No, everything's fine. Blake and I were at a party at the rehab center...we were on our way home and we decided to come here and see you."

 

Justin raised an eyebrow. "A little far from your way home, isn't it?"

 

Ted looked at him sheepishly. "Okay, I blackmailed him to come with me. We can't drink anyway, and the road is empty at this time."

 

"Where's Blake?"

 

"Downstairs, he met a friend who works here. She's a nurse, they are chatting at the cafeteria. I figured you would be alone here."

 

"Well, I didn't want to leave Brian alone. And I don't feel like going to a party."

 

"I know." Ted sighed, and suddenly remembered something, giving Justin the brown paper bag he was holding. "I - I brought you some food from the party. Daren made it. Just some canapés and sandwiches, but it's very good."

 

"Wow, thank you, I was starving, but the food here tastes like shit." Justin said, opening the package. "You even brought me coffee!" he said, drinking the hot black liquid that tasted like heaven in a cold night.

 

"The least I can do..." Ted murmured. "I know I haven't come here as much as I should. I'm sorry."

 

"Don't worry, Ted. I know you have to work. With Brian out of the market, I figure you and Cynthia have been pretty stressed lately."

 

"Tell me about it," Ted said. "Speaking of Brian, how is he?"

 

"Getting better. The doctor said the treatment is long but he is breathing okay now, and he just woke up a few hours ago. The first time I hear his voice in a week.."

 

"Thank God. Long treatment, uh?"

 

"Six months."

 

"Holy shit! You're gonna spend six months without fucking?"

 

"Damn! I haven't thought about that!"

 

"Poor Brian..."Ted said, looking sincerely upset. "He'll be devastated, they're taking his favorite thing in the world..." he then mused with a playful smile.

 

"Fuck. He'll be a bitch to live with." Justin remembered when Brian had testicular cancer and couldn't have sex. He was a nightmare, always complaining about everything. Sex was his fuel.

 

Ted wanted to laugh, but then he remembered he would have to deal with a deprived-of-sex Brian at work. It would be hell. "Oh my God, and I'm the one who's gonna suffer at Kinnetik." He paused, looking at Brian's sleeping form. "Do you know when he'll be going home?"

 

"Nope," Justin said, still munching. "Too early to tell."

 

They stayed in silence for a few minutes while Justin kept eating. Ted's eyes traveled around the room and stopped at the sleeping man again. "Shit, he is really thin."

 

"Yeah. And he's still not eating. Even the smell of food makes him sick. When he's awake, that is."

 

"Shit." Ted murmured.

 

"They're worried, you know. And so am I."

 

Ted sat on a plastic chair and looked at Justin hesitantly. "I...feel responsible for this."

 

Justin stopped eating, rolling his eyes. "No, not you, Ted." He turned his head to Ted. "Why all of you feel responsible for Brian's shit? Michael already said that, so did Claire, now you?"

 

"Well, I - I ..."Ted stuttered.

 

"Look, Ted," Justin said very patiently, "Brian is an adult. I know all of you like him a lot, and believe me..." he drew a deep breath, "None of you...love him more than I do." When Ted nodded, Justin went on "But we can't feel responsible for the things he does to himself. As far as I know, you can't predict the future, neither can I, so please, you and Michael should stop saying that you should have seen it coming. Because if you do so, I'm gonna start feeling guilty too, and that's completely unhealthy for our sanity."

 

"But the thing is...I saw it coming, Justin. I did... and I did nothing to stop it."

 

Justin got up from the chair and went to where Brian was, adjusted the covers, brushed a strand of hair from Brian's face and walked to where Ted was sitting again. All to gain some time.

 

Now that the worst was gone and he knew Brian would be alright, it was hard not to be angry at him sometimes. But seeing Brian like that made him feel guilty for being angry at him, and Justin hated guilt. He had seen what guilt had done to Brian after the bashing, and it was not pretty. He shuddered, thinking about the silk scarf smeared with dried blood that Brian used like a second skin. He would be damned before he would allow any form of self-inflicted guilt to fall on his shoulders.

 

"Ted," he said, "please...stop feeling like that. You had nothing to do with what happened to him. Hell, we don't even know everything that happened to him, because he never told us anything."

 

Ted took a shaky breath, and Justin realized he was witnessing a typical Ted's drama queen moment.

 

"I could have helped, you know..." Ted said. "When he want to Allegheny Hospital six months ago. I was there all the time."

 

Justin's eyes went wide. "You were?"

 

Ted just nodded.

 

"The doctor saw in his medical records that he was in the ER six months ago. But I thought he was alone."

 

"He made me and Cynthia promise we wouldn't tell..." Ted murmured. "I'm so ashamed. I found him out cold at his office one night...and we took him to the ER. They said it was only hypoglycemia, but it took him a long time to wake up."

 

Justin closed his eyes, shivering. Brian out cold was something he never wanted to see in his life again.

 

"The doctor said something like that wasn't common and asked him to stay for a few tests. He said he wanted an x-ray because he saw Brian coughing."

 

"And? Did the exams showed anything?"

 

"Um...he never had them. Me and Cynthia, we...helped him to get out of the hospital..."Ted sighed, "against the doctor's orders.

 

"He ran away? God! Why would he do something like that?"

 

"Uh...it was one day before your graduation, he said there was no way he would miss the plane."

 

Justin closed his eyes again. "God...all this time...he already knew something was wrong and he didn't tell me anything."

 

"But I knew, Justin..." Ted said, eyes full of anguish. "I knew he was far from alright...I could have told you...but I didn't. Over the last two years we've been getting...close, I dare say. Late nights working, eating take-outs on Saturdays at Kinnetik... and before I knew it I was the only member of the gang who still saw him on a regular basis. I could have done something."

 

"What, Ted?" asked Justin, sniffing. "From what you told me, Brian didn't want any help..." his voice was sad. "I don't get how he can do this to himself."

 

Ted was now unashamedly crying. "He - he helped me when I needed him the most. When I almost went to jail, he made St - Stockwell give up using me as an example."

 

"I know, Ted," Justin said, putting his hand on Ted's shoulder.

 

"Th - then he...he g - gave me a job at Kinnetik...I n - never liked so much to be an accountant," he smiled a little. "Then the partnership..."

 

Ted clutched Justin's t-shirt and rested his head on Justin's shoulder. "He saved my ass twice and I wasn't able to help him not even once..."

 

Someone knocked softly at the door, and Justin was relieved to see Blake. "Your boyfriend is having a meltdown," he said, relieved. As much as he felt sympathy for Ted's moment of guilt-gratitude towards Brian, his head was in turmoil. He was still trying to process the fact that Brian had deliberately hidden that he was sick for over six months...

 

As Blake hugged Ted, smiling apologetically at Justin, the blond excused himself. "I'm going to get another coffee," he said, leaving Blake and Ted alone. "Won't be long."

 

"Okay," said Blake, holding Ted in his arms. "Shh, baby," Blake said, to a drama queen Ted who kept saying murmuring he was a lousy friend.

 

"I - I'm sorry, Blake, I just got carried away...he g - gave me a way to start my life over again and - and I did nothing to h - help him..."

 

"Shhh..." Blake said. "You're a wonderful friend...You're wonderful in everything you do...Brian is so lucky to have you..."

 

"You - you think so?"

 

"No doubt," Blake murmured, kissing Ted tenderly.

 

"Oh God, I'm in hell," said a weak but annoyed voice.

 

Ted and Blake looked astonished to a very awake Brian.

 

"This is my punishment, right?" Brian said weakly, resting against the pillows, but there was a smile on his lips. "To watch you grope each other for all eternity... Is this your idea of payback, Theodore?"

Chapter Text

"And then Brian wakes up and says ‘I'm in hell, this is my punishment, to watch Ted and Blake grope each other for all eternity...' exactly the same thing I said to him when I came back from my coma," Ted said.

 

They all laughed, trying to picture the scene.

 

"I'm so relieved he's okay," said Debbie, trying to stop laughing, hand in her chest.

 

"And apparently, his old dry sense of humor is intact," Emmett commented, smiling.

 

"Thank God for that," said Lindsay.

 

They all were at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital's waiting room. The first day of the year was cold and snowy, but when Ted told the members of the peculiar family that Brian was finally awake, they all but ran to the hospital.

 

"We told Justin to go home and rest a little. He was sleeping on his feet, I think it's been two days since he last went home," Ted said.

 

"If he's that tired, he shouldn't be driving," Lindsay said.

 

"He didn't," Ted explained. "Ben and Michael arrived early, and Ben took him. He said he was going to the house, not to Pittsburgh."

 

"Oh, the house," said Emmett with a knowing look.

 

"I don't know how the hell Brian has a house in West Virginia and he never told us," Debbie said.

 

"Apparently, there's a lot of things Brian didn't tell us...and it's not just a house, it's a manor," Lindsay commented. "Have you seen it?"

 

"Nope," Emmett shook his head. "I guess none of us did."

 

"I wonder for how long he's owned it," Lindsay said almost to herself.

"Don't look at me," said Ted feeling all eyes on him. "I only take care of Kinnetik's accounts. Brian's personal account is his business, and he invests in what he wants, he's been doing this since forever, so I trust he knows what he's doing with his own money."

 

"So you mean he didn't tell you he was buying a country manor?" Debbie asked.

 

"Not a word."

 

Lindsay stayed quiet, a memory playing in her mind...Justin telling her with a mischievous face that he and Brian wouldn't live at the loft after the wedding...She shook her head. Was it possible that Brian had bought the manor back then? Was it possible that he had been really willing to change and settle down? Did he love Justin that much?

 

"What are we doing here, anyway?" Emmett asked. "It's not like we're going to see him. Visits are still restricted."

 

"So why did you come?" asked Ted.

 

"Well, because Brian is my friend and I wanted him to know I'm here," he declared.

 

"Same for me, I want him t know I'm here." said Debbie. "Brian is my son."

 

Lindsay looked at her with affection. "I came to see him. I really hope they let me in sometime."

 

------------

 

"I'm really glad you're back," said Michael smiling.

 

"Shit, Mikey, it's the tenth time you say that!" Brian sighed. "And I hate that you have to use this fucking mask."

 

"Doctor's orders."

 

"Still, I hate it. And I hate to be here. It makes me feel really sick."

 

"Excuse me, mister, you are sick! I still don't get how you didn't - "

 

"Don't." said Brian frowning.

 

"But you shouldn't have -"

 

"Mikey! I said don't!" Brian said exasperated, covering his mouth with his hand and coughing. "I don't want to talk about this!"

 

"I hope you realize you almost died."

 

"Shit, Michael, what part of ‘I don't want to talk about this' don't you understand?" he said weakly after another cough fit.

 

"But you have to. I'm your friend and I care about you. I almost went nuts thinking where you could be."

 

Brian turned his head on the pillow and looked at the window. "Can we have this conversation later? I'm tired."

 

"Oh, shit, I'm sorry..."said Michael, worried. "Are you alright?"

 

"Not as much as I would like to be, and you fusing over me isn't making it any easier", Brian said.

 

"You can't be that bad, considering you're already bitching."

 

Brian snorted. "What do you expect? I fell like I'm in jail. I can't get up, can't go out, the food smells like cat piss. Fuck! I feel like shit. And I probably look like shit too."

 

"Well, you should have seen you in the ICU, full of tubes and wires, looking like you were already dead..."

 

"Gee, thank you, Mikey, I could have lived without this image in my head."

 

"Oops...sorry," Michael said with a sheepish face. "Trust me to always say the wrong thing."

 

"Some things never change," Brian sighed tiredly, but he was smiling.

 

They looked at each other and Michael extended his hand to Brian, who rolled his eyes but held it anyway.

 

"I'm really glad you're back."

 

"Did you swallow a tape recorder?"

 

Michael laughed. "I can't help it. I'm happy. I thought I was going to lose you."

 

"Shit, there you go again..." Brian sighed. "If you wanna talk that much, talk about something else, will you?"

 

Ted chose this moment to slip inside the bedroom, mask already in place. "Hey Michael, the doctor said ‘a few minutes' and you're here for half an hour already! There's quite a crowd outside, everybody wants to see this guy. Debbie is driving us crazy, she wants to come in."

 

"Um...sorry..." Michael got up from the chair, ran his hand through Brian's hair in a tender gesture and shrugged. "See you later," he said, with glistening eyes.

 

Brian rolled his eyes but smiled. Trust Michael to be all emotional about the smallest things. "I'll be here," he joked. "Where else he would go?"

 

Michael left the room, Ted right behind him, but before the older man could go out, Brian called him.

 

"Ted..?"

 

"Yes, Bri?" Ted walked back in the room, stopping beside Brian.

 

"Uh...can you help me with these pillows? I'd ask Mikey, but he would start fussing and treating me like an invalid. I'm just tired."

 

Brian was trying to joke, his trade-mark smirk in place, but behind the request Ted saw that Brian really wanted to avoid Michael's lectures, and he trusted Ted enough to ask him something that showed how weak he still was, without Ted queening out about it.

 

"Sure, Bri, what do you need?"

 

"I want to sit up a little; if Deb sees me like this I'll never hear the end of it."

 

Ted rearranged the pillows, helping Brian to stay in an upright position against them. The effort left him pale and tired, but he smiled a little and said something Ted never thought he would listen from him. "Thanks."

 

Ted just smiled and turned to go but Brian, looking at him with a pensive expression, called him again. "Hey Ted..."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"I heard what you said to Justin. At least part of it."

 

Well, I..." Ted shrugged uncomfortably.

 

"Don't be hard on yourself. You had nothing to do with...all this shit, so...stop blaming yourself."

 

Ted looked at him with wide eyes. "I..." he didn't know what to say.

 

Brian shook his head and coughed. "Shit," he murmured, putting his hand on his chest. "This hurts." A pause. "Listen...one of the things I...appreciate about you is that...you don't interfere. You know what I mean?"

 

Ted nodded, mouth hanging open.

 

Brian coughed again and went on. "You...you're always there, always around when I need you, but you never try to make me change my mind, so...I mean...I like that."

 

"Uh...thanks, I guess." Ted said.

 

"Okay, now send Deb in. If I have to go through this, better make it quick."

 

Ted turned around and left, hiding a small smile and feeling lighter all of a sudden. His friend was back.

 

 

... ... ... ... ... ...

 

 

Justin overslept. For the first time since he returned to Pittsburgh, he really slept. Because now, he knew where Brian was, and he knew he would be alright. It was more than enough to make him relax and fall in the blissful sleep he needed so much.

 

When he woke up, it was almost night. He opened his eyes and looked at the clock, disoriented, and cursed. He hadn't planned to sleep the whole day. Grabbing his cell phone from the bedside table, he pressed the speed button.

 

"Michael?" he asked, as soon as he heard the voice on the other side of the line.

 

"Hey," Michael greeted, "welcome to the land of the living."

 

"I'm sorry, I slept more than I should have. How's he?"

 

"He's fine, the physiotherapist is with him now. And don't worry, he had plenty of company today."

 

"Okay, I'm gonna take a quick shower and I'll be there soon."

 

"Hey, take your time," Michael said. "You really needed the rest. And for Christ's sake, eat something."

 

"Okay, see you," said Justin, already feeling his stomach growling at the mention of food.

 

He got up from the king size bed and looked around properly, for the first time in days. The master bedroom at Britin was beautifully decorated, but Justin, worried about Brian's life hanging by a thread, hadn't taken his time to truly look at it. He often went there like a robot, just to shower, change and take a nap, running back to the hospital. It had been a crazy rhythm, but he couldn't bear to leave Brian in the hospital.

 

Knowing Brian was with his friends calmed him, so he went lazily to the bathroom and took a long shower, feeling the hot water relaxing his muscles. The bathroom was equally big and luxurious, suiting the bedroom, like everything in the country manor. He tried to imagine how it would be like to live here, to wake up every day in a place like this, with Brian by his side.

 

Shaking his head, he pushed the thoughts out of his mind. Because he and Brian still had a lot of talking to do, and it wouldn't be a pleasant conversation. He was, again, a mix of emotions, mostly relief and hurt. Brian had no right to push him away once more, it showed he hadn't change like everybody thought he had; it made him feel angry, like Brian had fooled him the whole time, and he didn't like to feel fooled. On the other hand, he was so relieved, so fucking happy to know that Brian was going to be alright, because his life without him would simply loose its meaning.

 

He went down the stairs, to the fully equipped kitchen and opened the fridge, not really expecting to find anything other than water, but to his surprise, there was actually some fruit inside, cheese, bread and some juice. The kitchen, like the whole house, looked cleaner than it was the last time he was here. He suspected it was Claire's doing, she had asked for the spare key again, for the cleaning lady, but Justin doubted the cleaning lady would bring him food.

 

Smiling softly, he made himself a sandwich and sat down, munching quietly. The silence in the big house was comforting, because he could think in peace. He was a little uncertain about how to act around Brian. He didn't want to vent on him, he was still recovering from a serious disease, but he couldn't stop thinking if he would be able to just look at him and not saying anything about all the hurt and pain Brian had made Justin go though. Again. And again, for reasons only Brian understood, reasons that made sense only for him.

 

 

... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

 

 

 

All the doubts Justin had about how to act around Brian vanished as soon as he entered Brian's bedroom and saw him looking breathless, pale and with an oxygen mask on his face.

 

"What happened?" he asked alarmed.

 

"Nothing serious," said the young woman by his bedside. "He just got tired because of the respiratory physiotherapy. Besides, he had a busy day. Too busy, if you ask me."

 

"His friends wanted to see him," said Michael's voice from the other side of the room. Justin turned his head and looked at Brian's best friend, greeting him with a smile.

 

"Too many visitors," the nurse said. "This is only his first day fully awake. He needs all the rest he can get, if he wants a quick recover."

 

"Will you stop...talking about me...in my presence?" said Brian's tired voice from behind the mask. "I'm...here, you know." He frowned and took a deep and somewhat shaky breath. "I'm not a...fucking...invalid." Looking at Justin his eyes softened and he raised his hand, waiting for Justin to take it. "Hey...Sunshine."

 

Justin all but ran to his side, grabbing the offered hand and caressing his hair with the other, something he was getting used to do. "Hey," he said.

 

Brian let a sigh escape his lips and closed his eyes, sinking into the pillows with relief written on his face, almost as if he believed Justin wasn't coming back.

 

"Leave the oxygen on," the nurse told Justin. "When he feels okay you just press this button to turn it off, okay?" she smiled warming. "Call me if you need anything," she said before leaving.

 

Justin stayed there, holding Brian's hand and looking at his face, tying to get used to how vulnerable he looked. Brian's breathing slowly returned to normal and his face relaxed. In a few minutes he seemed to be sleeping peacefully, but still grasping Justin's hand. The blond turned off the oxygen, removing the mask from Brian's face, looking expectantly at him, searching for any sign of discomfort. But Brian remained quiet, his chest moving softly as he breathed easily.

 

Michael got up from the armchair on the corner or the room and stretched his arms and legs. "I'm going home," he announced, whispering so he wouldn't wake his friend up. "Ben must be waiting for me, we always have dinner together."

 

"Thank you, Michael," Justin whispered too, slowly removing his hand from Brian's, intending to walk Michael to the elevator.

 

But when he reached the door he heard Brian's sleepy voice. "Don't go, Sunshine."

 

He turned to look at the brunet, whose eyes remained closed, and his heart sank at the pleading tone. Not sure if Brian was awake or dreaming, he walked to him again, running his hands trough his soft hair. "Hey, I'm not going anywhere," he whispered next to Brian's ear. "I'll just walk Michael outside. I'll stay here all night. Okay?"

 

Brian sighed and mumbled, "I like when you stay." He turned his head on the pillow, eyes closed.

 

... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

 

 

"Give me a cigarette." Michael said.

 

"You don't smoke." Justin answered, exhaling the smoke slowly.

 

"Right now I do."

 

Justin handed him the package and the matches, watching while Michael fumbled with the cigarette, lit it and coughed a little when he sucked on the filter for the first time.

 

They sat on a bench outside a small café, on the other side of the street, looking at the ever present movement at the ER of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital .The night was cold and quiet, but the flow of ambulances coming and going was constant.

 

"Shit," said Justin after a while.

 

"Yeah," answered Michael. "Shit." He inhaled again, feeling the smoke filling his lungs. "I hate to see him like this. So..." he stopped, at a loss of words.

 

"Fragile?" Justin asked softly. Michael only nodded. "I bet no one hates it more than him," Justin murmured, using the remnants of his cigarette to light another one. "There's nothing Brian hates more than being sick. It reminds him he's human."

 

Michael looked at Justin with a puzzled expression at the bitterness of his friend's voice. "Are you okay?" he asked.

 

Justin shrugged. "As okay as I can be." He looked at the starless sky and then at Michael again. "I know he needs me. Shit, I never thought he would show that so...clearly."

 

"But...?" Michael asked, sensing there was more.

 

"But...what about me, Michael? What about what I need?"

 

"What do you need, Justin?"

 

Justin looked at him with a mixture of sadness and anger. "I need to tell him how stupid he is, for doing this to me, to us! " he finally exploded. "For almost dying alone, believing I would be ‘better' without him to hold me back... Shit! What a son of a bitch he is! Everything he does affects me, is he so blind that he can't see that? Who gave him the right to decide our lives alone? God, I really, really, hate him so much, for being such an asshole..." he said loudly. Then his voice dropped to almost a whisper. "And I love him so fucking much...if he had died, I..." he stopped, unable to go on.

 

Michael put his hand on Justin's arm, trying to comfort him. "You have a lot to talk about, don't you?"

 

"Yeah, I'm not gonna let him get away with this," Justin said, voice strained. "But I guess it has to wait...He's sick, he still has a way to go before he recovers fully..."

 

"Don't wait too much, Justin," Michael said. "Things left unsaid can...tear people apart."

 

"Ha!" Justin said sarcastically. "Care to tell me how to do this? How to talk to Brian Kinney, the king of denial?"

 

"Well, if someone can figure out a way, it's you."

 

"My life is worse than shit without him, and yet I'm so pissed at him that I could strangle him right now and I'm not sure I'd be able to stop. God, I'm totally fucked."

 

"And not in a positive, life-affirming way..." he and Michael said almost at the same time, with half smiles.

 

Michael's cigarette died and he threw it on the floor. "If he was an easy person to live with, he wouldn't be Brian."

 

"And we wouldn't love that asshole so much, would we?" Justin asked, snorting.

 

"Oh, we would," Michael answered, shrugging. "But I bet he would lose half his charm."

 

"The story of my life," Justin said, getting up. "I'm always after a challenge. I'm not giving up, Michael. Not this time."

Chapter Text

"Hey, Sony boy," said Brian smiling, holding his cell phone. "I miss you too, but you know what your mommy said: you can't come to visit, this is not place for a little boy." He listened to Gus's arguments on the other side of the line with a soft smile. "I know, I know, I can't wait to see you too. Your mommy told me you're taller.... But daddy's still sick and we don't want you to catch it." He smiled at Gus's indignant voice. "I know. Listen...I'm going home in a couple of days. I promise you'll see me there. Bye, Sonny boy. Love you too."

 

"Shit," he said, flipping the cell phone closed. He hated the fact that he still wasn't allowed to see his son. "Ouch! That's my collar bone!" he complained.

 

The nurse put her hands on her hips. "Perhaps if you keep quiet, Mr. Kinney, it would be easier to take the catheter off," she said, exasperated.

 

"I was talking to my son," he said coldly.

 

"So talk with your mouth only, no need to use your arms."

 

"How long has this thing been here?" he asked eyeing the nurse suspiciously, while she cleaned the place where the catheter had been seconds ago."

 

"Um..." she said, thinking a little. "I'd say three or four weeks."

 

"Shit. It'll scar, I'm sure of it."

 

"Hello, Brian," said Justin opening the door and stepping inside the room. "Annoying Helen again?"

 

"Stop right there, Sunshine!" Brian said, raising his hand. At Justin's puzzled expression, he added, "Before you come any closer, take off the fucking mask for a minute. I wanna see your smile. It's the best part of my day."

 

Justin blushed, but took the mask off, giving Brian his bright smile. "Thanks, Helen," he said to the nurse as she passed him by the door on her way out. Brian's public display of affection had always been something rare, and even after all the years together, they still had the power to disarm him.

 

They stayed in silence, looking at each other for a few seconds, Brian trying to stop the stupid grin he knew he had on his face, but knowing it was a hopeless attempt. Justin's smile always got the same answer from him: he smiled too.

 

Justin put the mask on again and walked to Brian's bed. He stopped in front of the brunet and bended a little, resting their foreheads together briefly. Brian turned his head away.

 

"Shit, Justin, you heard the doctor, this shit is fucking contagious. Don't come too close."

 

Justin sighed, giving a step back. "I know. But I wanna kiss you."

 

"Well, you can't," Brian grimaced. "And I still have two months - fuck, two whole months, I can't believe it - before I can fuck you.

 

"Always the romantic," Justin giggled. "I miss you too."

 

"Well, I never thought I would say this, but this place makes my dick soft. Everything smells of fucking ether."

 

"I'm sure we'll find a way to...take matters in our own hands," the blond said suggestively, "when we get home. You know how...creative I can be."

 

Brian groaned. "Don't make things harder than they already are, Sunshine."

 

"But that's exactly what I'm aiming at," Justin said, putting his hand on Brian's crotch. "To make things harder."

 

"Fuck!" Brian moaned. "Did you come with the sole purpose of torturing me?"

 

"You have no idea of how much I want to...'torture' you."

 

"Am I interrupting something?" asked Claire, opening the door.

 

Justin jumped a full meter away from Brian and the brunet looked at his sister, feigning annoyance. "Has anybody told you that you have a serious problem with timing?"

 

"My asshole brother, several times," she replied without even blinking. "Hi, Justin."

 

"Hey, Claire," Justin greeted.

 

"When will they throw you out of this place?" she asked Brian. "The nurses can't stand you anymore. It's been three weeks since you left the ICU, you're driving them crazy."

 

"A couple of days, I guess," he answered. "My tests are okay, including the HIV test. I'm eating, and I hardly cough anymore. All I have to do now is to keep swallowing these fucking pills, that leave my stomach feeling like a tornado, for six more months, and I'll be bad as new," he added sarcastically.

 

"You know, for someone your age, you can be such a baby sometimes," she said shaking her head playfully.

 

Justin silently thanked the mask he was using because he couldn't stop smiling. Only a person with suicidal tendencies talked about Brian's age. He recently had discovered that Claire had the same caustic humor Brian had, and it was always amusing to watch their exchanges.

 

"Considering you're older than me, you shouldn't be that eager to talk about age."

 

"Come on, little brother, lighten up!" she joked, blinking at Justin. "I'm sure Justin here finds your remarks and your shitty mood sexy somehow, because he's still putting up with you...but now it doesn't suit you so well as before, considering you're getting a little older and..." she stopped almost in front at him and frowned. "Wait a minute...what are these...wrinkles around your eyes?"

 

"Expression lines," Brian said, between teeth.

 

"Can't be,' she mused. "I don't see you laughing that much. You're always grimacing and complaining about something. And you could use a good haircut."

 

"Claire..." Brian said menacingly.

 

Justin couldn't control his laughter anymore. He let it out suddenly and loudly, hands on his stomach. Brian's indignant face when he started to laugh made it even harder to stop. Claire soon joined him, and their laughter apparently was contagious because even Brian started chuckling.

 

Claire's cell phone rang, and when she looked at the display the smile vanished from her face. "Hi. I can't talk now," she said, serious, stepping away from the boys and going to the window. "I'm at the hospital right now. No, I'm not gonna change my mind!"

 

Justin and Brian looked at each other and, shrugging, decided to give Claire some privacy. They resumed their previous subject, Brian looking at Justin suggestively saying..."So...you think you can give me a "hand" later?"

 

"You don't change, do you?" Justin asked, holding Brian's hand, amused.

 

"I don't need to change. I'm perfect," Brian said nonchalantly.

 

"And modest," Justin added.

 

"Really, Sunshine, this place is full of sexually frustrated people. You don't expect me to feel at ease here. The bathroom's door doesn't have a lock, can you believe that?"

 

"And why do you want to lock the bathroom's door?" Justin asked suspiciously.

 

"Well, as much as I know all the nurses - male and female - of this place fancy me...it would be a little strange if they saw what I do when I'm taking a shower," Brian arched his eyebrows at Justin. "Not that the sight of me jacking off isn't wonderful, but still..."

 

"No, please, don't tell me you..." Justin looked at Claire, stopping right before saying the word. He still wasn't entirely comfortable to say some things around her. "In the bathroom? In the hospital? How can you do it? I'd never be able to...not in a place like this!"

 

"Well, to me is like breathing," Brian said smirking. "And frankly, Justin, I'm sick. Not dead. The best part of me is still fully functional."

 

"Your brain?" Justin asked feigning innocence.

 

Brian slapped Justin's ass playfully, making Justin yelp. "If it wasn't for dear Claire here, I would show you where my ‘brain' is right now," he said, hand resting playfully on Justin's ass.

 

"Brian!" Justin said, eyeing Claire worriedly but enjoying the contact he missed so much.

 

"What?" Claire practically yelled, making Justin almost jump and dragging the men's attention again. She paled, looking at them. "I can't believe he got you to do this..." she shook her head, astonished. "No, I don't want to see him. I already said everything I had to say. You're wasting your time. I'll sign the papers, but not on these terms. Please, stay out of this."

 

"Probably her stupid ex-husband...about the divorce or something like that." Brian murmured to Justin. "Never liked him, he's a loser."

 

"You're right," Claire said on the phone, clearly distressed, "but we have another son...Peter! His father has a duty to him! I don't want anything for myself, it's Peter I'm trying to protect!"

 

Justin's stomach sank when Claire eyed Brian worriedly. "Don't! Leave him out of this. He already helped me a lot and he has his own life. You know what? Leave me and my son alone. I'm not as incapable as you think I am!" She flipped her cell phone closed and sat heavily on a chair, shaking.

 

"Problems?" Brian asked, but when she looked at him he saw how troubled she looked. "Claire?"

 

Justin opened the small fridge and picked a bottle of mineral water. "Here," he said, pouring some into a glass. "Drink this."

 

"Thank you," she murmured, taking the glass from Justin's hands with shaking ones. "My divorce is...a little out of control."

 

"You need a lawyer?" Brian asked.

 

"Thank you, Brian...but this is something I have to solve on my own."

 

There was a knock on the door and Justin went to open it. He gasped when he saw the last person in the whole world he expected to see.

 

"Hello, young man," said Joan Kinney coldly. "I believe my daughter is here?"

 

Claire practically jumped from the chair, mouth hanging open. "How...Why...What are you doing here?" she managed to say.

 

"Your husband brought me. He's waiting at the car. He really needs the papers signed today, and he asked for my help."

 

"I don't believe this..." Claire said, throwing her hands in the air. "You came with him all the way from Pittsburgh, just to make me sign the damned papers? Why you didn't say you were already here when you called?"

 

"Now you're swearing!" said Joan sadly. "You're really changed, Claire, I don't recognize you anymore." Then, she turned her head at Brian's direction and said, almost as an afterthought: "Hello, Brian. I hope you're feeling better."

 

Brian was paler than the sheets. Rigid as a brick wall. Jaw set, hands in fists, looking like he just had been punched. "I'm perfectly fine," he said, hardly moving his mouth.

 

Justin looked at him alarmed, but he was paralyzed by Joan's coldness towards her son.

 

The older woman turned to Claire again. "I decided to call you before coming here to spare us all this..." she sighed, "little scene. But you refused to talk to your mother like a civilized person. Now come with me, talk to your husband and go home with him like a good Christian wife. Or sign the papers he needs and let him go on with his life, if you prefer to live in sin."

 

Joan's presence seemed to dominate the place, Claire, Brian and Justin looking at her like statues. Claire was the first to recover from her mother's speech. "He's not my husband anymore," she whispered, sounding lost. Risking a glance to Brian, she saw his rigid posture and his haunted eyes and added, alarmed, "Please mother...go back to Pittsburgh. I'll talk to you as soon as I get back."

 

"I'm not leaving until I put some sense into your mind, young lady," Joan answered.

 

"All right, I'll go with you," Claire said, defeated. It was the fastest way to take Joan away from Brian's room before the growing tension exploded into something hurtful. She knew from personal experience that Brian and Joan's encounters always ended badly.

 

"Very well..." Joan said. "Now you're being reasonable."

 

"She said she doesn't want to see him," Brian growled to his mother. "Leave her alone."

 

Claire and Joan looked at him at the same time. Joan's eyes were cold, but Claire's were grateful. "It's alright, Brian." Claire said almost smiling. Looking at her brother, she tried to send him the message ‘I just want to take her out of here' with her eyes. But he was looking at Joan with a cold and barely controlled fury and didn't pay attention.

 

"No, it's not," Brian said stubbornly to Claire, but still determined, looking at Joan. "She can't make you do things you don't want to. You're not a child anymore."

 

"Stay out of your sister's business. You're not helping," Joan snapped at Brian. Turning to Claire, she said calmly, "Let's go, Claire. Your husband is waiting; he doesn't have the whole day." Looking at Brian again, she added, "Good bye, Brian. I'll think of you in my prayers tonight."

 

She was already near the door, but suddenly Justin couldn't control himself anymore. "Is that all you have to say?" he asked.

 

"I have nothing to say to you, young man," Joan said, barely looking at the blond.

 

"I meant your son!" Justin practically yelled.

 

"Justin," Brian said coldly.

 

"What kind of mother are you?" Justin went on, horrified with the way Joan had simply ignored Brian. "This is your son here! He almost died, did you know that?"

 

"Justin!" Brian said more forcefully.

 

"I'm aware of his tribulations, yes," replied Joan.

 

"Excuse me? Tribulations?" Justin's eyes almost popped out of is head. "Where were you when he was in the ICU? I'm sure you knew his life was in danger!"

 

"Yes, Claire told me. But I decided to stay home, praying for God to forgive his sins and give him another chance," Joan replied, as if was the most natural thing in the world. "First the cancer, now this...he brought this upon himself."

 

"You got to be kidding." Justin said, mouth hanging open.

 

"Justin!" Brian said again.

 

"W-what?" asked Justin, at a loss of words.

 

Joan turned from Justin to Brian, addressing him with a voice with no warmth at all. "I'm your mother, Brian. I tried to raise you in the best way I could, following God's rules. But you refused to listen to His word; you chose a life of sin. Now you managed to drag your sister into your...life style.

 

"Mother, stop!" said Claire shakily. "I'm responsible for my own actions!"

 

"No. He needs to hear this." Joan looked at him again. "You made Claire turn her back on me, on her husband, on the Church. But the Lord, in all His mercy, didn't give up on you yet. I hope you realize how much God loves you, how merciful He is. This is the second chance He has given you. Don't waste it. Chose the right path, Brian. Be a real man and find a god woman, marry, have children. Listen to God's plan for your life."

 

Brian remained strangely quiet, looking at his mother with a blank face.

 

"Mother, please, go home," said Claire again.

 

"How can you say this to your son? You came all this way and you practically ignored him, now you say this? How can you be so cold?"

 

Joan looked at Justin with disgust, barely hiding her repulse for the blond. "My family's problems don't concern you, young man," she said coldly. "You should look at the wrong path you chose for your own life. I'm not going to listen to someone who lives in sin, selling himself to an older man to cover his expenses. You should be ashamed of all this."

 

Brian, who was until now unable to move, as if shocked, suddenly got up from the bed so quickly that startled Justin. He stopped a few steps from Joan, and there was so much hatred on his face that his eyes were flaring. "Don't you ever talk to him like that, you hear me?" he said in a guttural tone, hardly controlling himself.

 

Joan looked at him without moving a single muscle of her old face. "I give up, Brian. All that's left for me to do is praying for your soul."

 

That was when Brian lost it. "You gave up on me the moment I was born, mother!" he yelled, and Justin had never heard the word "mother" said with so much venom. "You and good old Jack made sure I never forgot your "lessons" every time you beat the shit out of me, and believe me, your God sent you both exactly the kind of son you deserved," he spat, and his face was so red that Justin feared he would have a stroke.

 

"Brian, calm down," Justin asked.

 

"I don't need your kind to defend me from my own son," she said to Justin with disdain.

 

And Brian suddenly gave one step further, stopping mere inches from his mother. Fearing the worse, Justin grabbed Brian's arms from behind, pleading, "Brian, don't!"

 

Brian pulled his arms free with all his strength, moaning at the effort. "Let me go!" he yelled to Justin. "Who the hell do you think you are?" he screamed in Joan's face with all the strength he could muster.

 

His voice sounded like a thunder and his eyes burned with anger as he hovered over Joan. But when his mother recoiled, showing fear for the first time, he stopped, eyes suddenly wide, showing surprise and astonishment. "Oh God," he murmured, closing his eyes. He drew in a shaky breath and murmured almost to himself, "I'm not my father."

 

For a few seconds, he remained quiet, just trying to control his breathing, and it was evident the effort he was making to control his impulse. Finally, opening his eyes, he looked at Joan, face impassive. "I don't care what you think about me. But I'm not like him."

 

Justin and Claire looked at each other, understanding Brian's unspoken message, ‘I'm not going to hurt her'.

 

Brian almost touched Joan's forehead with his own, and addressed her in an emotionless tone, looking directly at her eyes. "Do us both a favor. Forget that you ever gave birth to me. If you cross my way on the street, just pretend you didn't see me. I never, ever, want to see your face again. Consider me already dead, because that's what you are to me from now on."

 

Joan opened her mouth to speak, but Claire grabbed her arm. "Please, mother!" she begged, feigning a calm she didn't feel. "Leave now. Haven't you caused enough pain?"

 

"So...you sided with him, Claire. I lost my daughter too," Joan said, opening the door and leaving the room.

 

Brian slammed his hands on the closed door behind his mother with a fury that Justin had never seen before, and let out a scream of rage and pain that made Justin's insides turn to ice. Brian sank to the floor, moaning "oh God, oh God, oh God" over and over again. Justin was immediately by his side, trying to stay calm but losing it as he watched Brian's face turning paler and paler.

 

Claire just looked at them, hands covering her mouth, paralyzed, tears streaming down her face. "Brian, please..." she said, still unable to move.

 

"I could...I could..." Brian tried to say between gasps, feeling his throat closing, head exploding with pain and his heart practically jumping from his chest. His whole body felt on fire and he couldn't control it. "Oh God, I could have hurt her," he said, looking terrified. "I was this close..."

 

"Shh, calm down, don't say that, you would never hurt anyone," said Justin almost crying at the despair he was seeing on Brian's face.

 

"When she...looked at you...with repulse...and she said those things to you, I..." Brian said with ragged breathing, hand clutching at his head, trying to control the pain, "Despising you, Sunshine...as if you were...worthless...you are so much...better than...she'll ever be...and I...I wanted to...to hurt her so...so badly...just like Jack..." he said, almost in panic, eyes wide. "Oh God, oh God, I wanted her dead."

 

"Brian, stop!" said Justin now in panic too, grabbing Brian's shoulders and shaking him. But Brian was beyond hearing now, lying on the floor in ball, almost as if he wanted to disappear.

 

"Oh God, oh God, it hurts so much, oh God..." he repeated, eyes wide and empty.

 

"Claire," Justin snapped, "Get Dr. Schneider, the nurse, anyone!"

 

Claire left the room in a desperate hurry, while Justin curled himself protectively over Brian, crying silently while Brian's "oh God" rang on his ears over and over again.

Chapter Text

"Justin."

 

"Mmmmm?"

 

"I wanna be cremated."

 

"What the fuck...?"

 

"Did you hear me? I wanna be cremated."

 

Silence.

 

"How many painkillers did you take?"

 

"Dunno. Three or four."

 

"Shit, Brian! You know you're supposed to take only two at a time!"

 

"..."

 

"Brian?"

 

"Can't help it. Hurts."

 

Sigh. "I know it hurts...but then you get all drowsy and you talk bullshit."

 

"It's not bullshit. I really wanna..."

 

"Be cremated, yeah, I got it."

 

"And my ashes...spread them all over Liberty Avenue."

 

"God, that's really morbid. And gross."

 

"Not gross," Brian mumbled, his hazel eyes half-mast. "This way, every queer at Liberty Avenue would have a piece of Brian Kinney."

 

"That's not gonna happen," Justin said. "You're not gonna be cremated because you're not going to die."

 

"You don't know that," he mumbled, already half-asleep. "I may be gone tomorrow, before you wake up."

 

...

 

"Shit!"

 

Justin woke up with a start, sweating, hand on his chest, heart racing, panic coursing through his veins. It took a while for him to realize he was on the sofa in Brian's bedroom at the hospital. He could see that it was already morning, and the silence of the place was only broken by his ragged breathing.

 

It was a long time since he had a dream about the time when Brian had cancer. That strange conversation they had about Brian wanting to be cremated scared the shit out of him every time he thought about it. So he tried not to. He knew it was a product of an upset and sick Brian with more painkillers than he could handle. But he couldn't stop the shivering that went down his spine.

 

His eyes traveled to the hospital bed where Brian had been sleeping for two days in a row. Sedated, of course. The incident with Joan left him in a state Justin had never seen before. Brian was all panic and horror at himself, at his own reaction toward his mother. Knowing a little more of Brian's childhood, thanks to Claire, Justin could understand the sheer panic he had seen in Brian's eyes that day: the fear of being violent like Jack Kinney.

 

While Brian curled in a ball repeating his "oh God" mantra, Claire had ran out of the bedroom and returned with Doctor Schneider and a male nurse, and it took them both and lots of persuasion and soothing words on Justin's part to take Brian from the floor. While a trembling Claire explained the doctor what had happened with Joan's "visit", Justin helped to hold Brian still so the nurse could sedate him. And that was all. Two days ago, and Brian was still sleeping.

 

Of course he had developed a fever that night, but the doctor told Justin not to worry, it was purely emotional. As if that wouldn't scare the blond more than anything. Brian was perfectly capable to fight every fucking disease life kept throwing at him; he had left the ICU with his sarcasm and his "bad" humor intact. But an emotional breakdown really scared Justin, because he knew that Brian, as beautiful and strong and intelligent as he was, had no way to fight his own demons by himself.

 

The conversations he had with Claire, who had been there with him practically all the time after what happened, really helped him to understand what he had witnessed between Brian and his mother. Claire told him details about their lives in the Kinney's residence that made Justin flinch even now, merely thinking about them. So, it wasn't a surprise when Doctor Schneider told him that he would keep Brian sleeping for a couple of days. And that he could go home as soon as he agreed to a psychological evaluation.

 

Justin got up from the improvised bed, running a hand through his hair. He walked toward the window and opened the curtain a little, peering outside. The pale sun that often came on winter mornings told him it was going to be another cold day.

 

"Don't move. You look beautiful like that," said Brian's voice.

 

Justin didn't turn around. He just smiled at the comment. "Like what?"

 

"The sun...it makes your hair shine."

 

Justin heard the sheets ruffling and a soft groan, indicating that Brian was sitting up on the bed. He repressed the urge to help him; Justin had years of experience that told him that Brian hated to be fussed over. "What's so special about that?"

 

"Everything about you is special, Sunshine. But right now, you hair is one of the most beautiful sightings in the world."

 

Justin couldn't contain the bubble of joy inside him anymore. He turned around and ran to Brian's arms, holding him so tight that they almost fell on the bed again. Masks and precautions be damned, he just wanted to feel Brian's arms around him.

 

"Shit," murmured Brian.

 

"What?" Just asked, concerned, trying to push back from the embrace, thinking he had hurt Brian.

 

But Brian's arms didn't let him go, they only held him stronger. "I said something lesbionic...I know I did. To provoke a reaction like that." He chuckled. "And the worst of all is that I just realized it when you made the most perfect imitation of Scarlet O'Hara ever."

 

"Getting soft, Kinney?" Justin said, resting his chin on Brian's shoulder.

 

"There's no such word in my vocabulary," Brian answered. "But I'm well known for always saying the truth. So, there's no point in denying it."

 

"What truth?"

 

"That you're fucking beautiful, Sunshine. And don't think I didn't realize that you're making me say this again. Just because I said something ridiculously corny, doesn't mean I'm an idiot."

 

"God forbid," Justin laughed. "I like corny, though."

 

"Mmmmm. I know." After a while, Brian stated, "You had a nightmare."

 

"I thought you were sleeping."

 

"I was. Woke up a while ago...I was thinking about...stuff, you know. Then I saw you tossing and mumbling...didn't want to startle you." Brian shrugged. "Was it bad?"

 

Of course it was, you were talking about death. "No. And I don't wanna talk about it, okay?"

 

"You look a little tired. My guess is that you're not sleeping and eating enough."

 

Justin chuckled. "Look who's talking."

 

"You've been having nightmares again. Since when? About what?" asked Brian in his protective mode around Justin.

 

Since you almost died, you moron. Nightmares where I'm losing you forever. "I don't remember."

 

"Liar," Brian said chuckling. "I know you."

 

"Okay...I had a nightmare about the time you said you wanted to be cremated, when you had cancer."

 

"There you go again. I already told you...I never said that."

 

"Oh, yes, you did."

 

"How come I don't remember?"

 

"Hum...because you took such a large amount of painkillers that you didn't have a clue of what you were doing or saying?"

 

"Okay, let's change the subject."

 

Justin smiled silently. Brian was no match for him in any argument. Not now, not ever.

 

They stayed like that for a while, neither too inclined to move. Justin's hands started to caress Brian's back under the t-shirt he was wearing. The older man hummed in approval and held the blond tighter, if it was possible.

 

"We shouldn't be this close, you know, I don't want you to get this fucking disease." Brian said.

 

"Yeah," Justin answered, not moving even an inch away from the brunet. "But I missed you. Besides, you're already on medication. A couple of weeks and you'll be as god as new."

 

Brian sighed and inhaled deeply. "Mmmm, I missed the smell of your hair. God, I miss all of you. Do you have any idea of how badly I want to kiss you?."

 

Justin groaned. "Don't talk like that. I can't even think about your kiss without getting hard."

 

"Shit, Justin, now I'm the one getting hard," Brian complained, and they were so close that Justin knew it was true. Well, Brian Kinney never disappointed as far as sex was the task at hand. "The fucking problem is in my lungs, but my dick is perfect, as always."

 

Justin chuckled. "How are you feeling?" he finally asked.

 

Brian's hands traveled to the small of Justin's back. "Besides this?" he asked, indicating the obvious bulge visible through the hospital gown. "Like I have a major hangover...like I spent the night drinking really bad whiskey. Head is pounding. Nothing new."

 

"It must be the medicine," Justin said, trying his best to avoid the word ‘sedative'. He didn't know how much Brian remembered and he had no intention to spoil the peaceful and intimate moment. Besides, Brian was in a good mood, so his headache wasn't that bad.

 

After a few seconds Brian replied, "You mean the sedatives."

 

Justin stiffened in Brian's arms. But Brian caressed his soft golden hair, saying, "Relax, Justin. I'm not gonna freak out now, I'm fine."

 

"You sure?" Justin wanted to know, still tense, unable to forget the scene from two days ago.

 

"Yeah." A sigh. "When I woke up I started to think...I don't know what happened to me, why I acted like that...I guess Joan always inspires my best reactions, she really has a gift." He sighed again." Don't make me repeat this, but...I'm...sorry you had to witness that."

 

Justin actually gave a step back, looking at Brian's eyes, not wanting to believe the word he just heard. "Did you just say sorry?"

 

"Hey, I said don't make me repeat it! Don't turn me into a twat; being a twat it's your job."

 

Justin slapped Brian's arm lightly. "Hey!"

 

"Come here," Brian said, holding Justin closer again. "I'm a fag, but I'm still a man. And a man needs to admit it when it's true. I never wanted you to see that. It was...ugly."

 

"No shit," Justin murmured surprised that Brian was willing to even talk about the fact that he had lost control. He didn't want to press on his luck, though. An open Brian was something rare, and Justin wondered if Brian was still half sleeping. He changed his mind when Brian's hand travelled to his buttocks, squeezing them gently.

 

"So," Brian said, clearly changing the subject and smiling when Justin yelped. "When will they let me out of this shithole?"

 

Justin took a deep breath. Disentangling himself from Brian's embrace, he walked to the window and opened the curtains widely. "Better to take out to let the sunshine in. This place needs a little light. You look pale."

 

"Justin," Brian said, getting up from the bed. He was feeling a little dizzy, but fuck if he was going to remain one more second lying down like a fucking invalid.

 

"Mmmmm?" Justin asked, not really wanting to tell Brian anything that would spoil his apparent good mood, especially after what had happened...but already knowing he would.

 

"What exactly are you not telling me?" Brian asked. Justin wasn't the only one who could read him. The blond's reaction told him there was more shit coming his way...if that was even possible. "What the fuck is the problem now?"

 

Justin turned to him and looked at his eyes, silently asking him to understand, to agree.

 

"Justin...?"

 

"They had to sedate you."

 

"I think I figured out that part by myself, thank you," Brian said dryly , arching an eyebrow.

 

"You were out for two days. So...the doctor told me he'll let you go only if you agree to a psychological evaluation."

 

"WHAT?" Brian gave a step backwards, his chin almost dropping to the floor. "Not even in your dreams!" he said angrily.

 

"But Brian..." Justin started.

 

"Don't ‘but Brian' me, Justin." He started to pace the room, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"

 

"Brian, calm down." Justin said. There it was. The reaction he had been waiting for.

 

"Calm down? You're not the one been treated like a fucking lunatic! This doctor has no right to make me do anything I don't want to! Who the hell does he think he is?" Brian stopped in front of Justin, face turning red.

 

Justin didn't flinch, didn't back away. He knew that if there was someone capable of calling Brian on his bullshit, that person was him, Justin Taylor. So he mustered his best matter-of-fact tone.

 

"He's your doctor, Brian. The one who helped me and Claire to pick you from the floor when you were having a breakdown; the one who sedated you, who stood by your side almost the whole night while you were burning with a fever that he believed to be ‘emotional'. The one who found out that you're NOT dying of cancer, who treated you while you were in the ICU, and if we're here having this conversation now, with you all in one piece, it's mostly because of his effort."

 

"Shit." Was all that Brian managed to say after Justin's outburst.

 

"Yeah, shit. Now, stop being an asshole and respect his opinion. If he thinks you need a psychological whatever, I believe he has his reasons."

 

"It's not that I don't respect his opinion," Brian said in a softer tone. "But to have a fucking shrink analyzing me...'Tell me about you past, Mr. Kinney. How was your childhood?' he said in falsetto. "Fuck if I'll do it."

 

"Yes, you will," Justin snapped. "You will, because I never want to see you like that again. I'm fucking tired of this hospital, and I want you to go home with me." Then, in the soft voice he knew Brian loved, "Please, Brian... do it, and we'll get out of here the next day."

 

Brian grimaced and poked his cheek with his tongue. Opening his arms, he dropped them, helpless. "You've already decided everything, didn't you? I guess I have no choice, then."

 

Justin knew he had won. Relieved, he walked to Brian and hugged him again, resting his head on Brian's chest. "Thank you," he murmured.

 

"You're bossy, you know that?" Brian asked, kissing Justin's hair.

 

"But you love it." When Brian didn't deny it, Justin smiled, but then looked at Brian worriedly.

 

"What?" asked the older man.

 

"You agreed to easily," he said, looking suspicious. He had expected to see Brian raging about the fact that he had to see a psychiatrist. Brian had once told him he thought it was all bull shit. "I hope you're not planning on running away from the hospital like you did a couple of months ago."

 

"Fucking Theodore and his big mouth," Brian complained.

 

"He just wanted to help."

 

Brian didn't say anything for a while, but Justin could almost see his mind working, and braced himself for what was going to come next.

 

"You don't need to stay here at the hospital all the time, Justin," Brian said, sighing.

 

And Justin understood why Brian had agreed with the shrink with just a little arguing from his part: because, once again, he thought that he was making Justin "suffer" or something like that, as if it was bad for Justin to stay by his side. So Justin made sure he put all the conviction he already felt in his voice, before he answered. "Yes, I do."

 

"You don't." Brian shook his head. "You should...hell, I don't know. You have your life to live, you shouldn't waste..."

 

"Don't, Brian. Just don't. Now it's not the time to talk about this. I'm doing exactly what I want, and if I stay here, it's because I want to be with you. So I would appreciate it if you let me do what I want just once. My life is with you, my place is here. This subject is not open for discussion. Unless you don't want me here."

 

Brian tightened the embrace again. "Bossy bottom. And I'm supposed to be the lunatic here," he said. Then his voice dropped to a whisper. "How the hell would I not want you with me, you twat, when you're...everything?"

 

Justin chuckled, but felt tears in his eyes at Brian's admission. "I love you too," he replied. Brian didn't answer. There was no need to, Justin already knew how he felt. There was no hiding anymore.

 

 

--------------------------------------

 

 

 

"Mr. Kinney..."

 

"Brian."

 

Dr. Meredith Carter sighed again, taping her pen against Brian's file. "Very well. Brian. I thought you had agreed to do this."

 

"I said I would see a shrink. I'm seeing you, am I not?" Brian asked sarcastically.

 

"Well, at least I can write in my report that you have the ability to talk." If he wanted sarcasm, he was going to have it. Not a very professional attitude, she thought, but she needed something to make the amazingly beautiful but terribly stubborn man react. She had a kind of sixth sense that told her this one really needed help.

 

Brian rested his head on the wall near the armchair where he was currently sitting. He had refused to lie down and he had refused going to the psychiatrist's office in a wheelchair. Hospital's rules be damned. When the nurse who took him to the session replied that he was sitting on the doctor's chair, he looked at the petite woman defiantly, but Dr. Carter didn't even bat an eye. She calmly sat on the sofa, crossed her legs and adjusted her glasses.

 

He tried to remember again why he had agreed to do this. Apparently, doing what Justin wanted wasn't always pleasant, he thought. He still tried to change his mind after he said he would go, but Justin informed Brian that if he didn't go and he didn't behave, he could say farewell to the blond's ass for the next six months, treatment or no treatment. Judging by the frown in Justin's forehead, Brian decided to do what the young man wanted. An angry Justin Taylor was something that even Brian didn't like to face.

 

"Look," said the doctor, "I know you don't want to do this. And frankly, if this is how it's going to be, neither do I. I have people here who really need my help, and being here with you for the last twenty minutes without a word is a complete waste of..."

 

"So why don't you just let me go?" Brian snapped.

 

"Because my colleague asked me to see you, and knowing him, I know he had a good reason."

 

"You can write down there that I'm completely normal and I'll leave you alone in no time."

 

The doctor smiled politely. "No, I can't. Because you're acting like a five-year-old child, and in my opinion, something like that coming from a thirty-seven year old man..."

 

"Thirty six."

 

"...thirty six, whatever...is far from normal. And I don't have the habit of lying in my reports."

 

He glanced at her stubbornly again. She was beautiful, a petite woman in her mid-thirties, but had the most serious and determined expression he had seen in a long time. If he was straight - and he frowned in disgust at the thought - he wouldn't want to be her husband.

 

"Well, if you don't want to talk, fine by me," she said. "Same time tomorrow." Meredith Carter got up from the sofa, put the pen and the papers on her desk and walked to the door, clearly dismissing him.

 

"Tomorrow?"

 

She raised an eyebrow. "You really don't expect it to be that easy, do you? I have all the time in the world. Tomorrow, and the day after, and the other...until you start to talk, so I can fill my report and tell Dr. Schneider that you're not a danger to yourself and to the others." She smiled again. "Good afternoon, Brian."

 

He didn't get up. "I'm not a danger to anyone," he said, annoyed, fidgeting with the collar of is shirt.

 

The woman put her hands on her hips. "Well, I can't tell that just by looking at you. I'm not a mind reader."

 

"Fine," he said, gritting his teeth. "You keep saying you want me to talk. What the hell I'm supposed to talk about?"

 

"You can start with the breakdown," she said casually, walking toward the sofa, but this time she didn't grab her pen or Brian's file.

 

"I didn't have a breakdown," he said impatiently. "That was just...people over reacted, that's all."

 

Meredith raised both her eyebrows this time, looking at him pointedly. "You don't give up, do you?" she asked, the left corned of her mouth raising a little.

 

Brian half-smiled. "Never," he said. "Neither do you." He liked smart and stubborn people.

 

"So what do you call what happened?"

 

"There was a...disagreement between me and my...mother," he finally hissed.

 

"Oh. And Dr. Schneider was passing by and thought it was a good idea to sedate you, then called me so we could meet each other." She looked at him pointedly. "How lovely."

 

He grimaced. "Look, It's no big deal, okay?" he said, throwing is hands to the air. "I hate her, she hates me. She is a frigid bitch, who thinks I'm going to hell and that I deserved cancer, tuberculosis and any other fucking disease you can think of."

 

"I see. When did your relationship with your mother started to take this direction?"

 

Brian sorted. "Since I was born. They didn't want me, she told me that. My father wanted her to get an abortion, but her religion didn't permit such a sin. So she locked herself in her bedroom while my father, who was a drunken failure, had the habit to beat the shit out of me anytime he wanted. And no, he didn't molest me, that's not the reason why I'm homosexual. Satisfied?"

 

"It's a start," she said. "But I'm not here to judge you, Brian. That's not the reason why we're having this conversation."

 

"I really don't care what your opinion about me is. Believe me, you wouldn't be the first to say I worth less than shit." His words were defiant, but there was no anger in his voice, just sadness.

 

"What happened that day to trigger the reaction you had? Do you remember?"

 

"Of course I remember. It was the way she talked to Justin, the way she looked at him. The same way she used to look at me, before I started to earn real money. She looked at him...like he was worthless. I don't care what she thinks about me, but Justin...he's the best person I know, and fuck if I'll let her treat him like she and Jack treated me."

 

"Jack?"

 

"My father. He's dead, the son of a bitch."

 

"So you and he didn't get along either"

 

"That's an understatement." Brian shifted on the chair, uncomfortable. "Do we really have to talk about this?" He looked around, as if looking for a way to escape.

 

For the first time she allowed herself a sympathetic smile towards him. "I'm afraid we do."

 

"I'm not sure I can do this, I would kill for a cigarette right now." He raised his hands before she could speak. "Oh, I already know I can't smoke, doc, so save your time."

 

"That's right, you can't." She gave him a small smile and raised her eyebrows at him. "Well?"

 

He sighed. "You have unconventional methods, did you know that?"

 

"Well, I'll take that as a compliment."

 

"I'm not sure it is," he mumbled. "How can I spill my guts to you? I don't even know you."

 

"Don't you see that's exactly why you can say whatever you want? I'm not your friend. You don't owe me anything. I don't have a pre-conceived opinion about you, so I won't judge anything you tell me. Try to see me as a mirror. I will throw back at you anything you show me, without any kind of subterfuges. Just the plain and simple image you show me. Talk to me as if you're talking in front of a mirror. It's you who's going to take your own conclusions about yourself, not me."

 

Brian pinched the bridge of his nose. Suddenly he was feeling uncharacteristically shy. He knew he had no way out of this, and he cursed inwardly at Justin, at the fucking doctor, at the disease and whoever else he could think of, for putting him in a situation like this. "Shit. Okay, but I'm warning you...I'm not one to choose words around anyone, and I have a vast repertoire of fucked up things that...I'm not even sure I can repeat half of them."

 

"Don't worry. Take your time. We're not in a hurry here...you're not on trial. And I think I can manage a few curses."

 

 

.........................................

 

 

Justin was drawing again. He had started to draw again since Brian was in the hospital, at first just to pass the time, but now it was almost like a compulsion. He drew everything he saw, mostly people from the hospital. The patients and their families.., some of them smiling, some crying, some just hopeful. The staff...the doctors and nurses' determinate faces, sometimes tired, sometimes sad, sometimes concerned. But most of all he drew his extended family, and Brian.

 

Strangely, his hand didn't hurt as much as it did before. When he was in New York, he had tried to draw, but he never could do it for too long. These days, however, it was easier. Of course it hurt, the cramps were still there. But then he looked at the people around him, and somehow the burden some of them carried seemed so bigger than the problem with his hand...and looking at Brian, fighting for his life - even if it sounded lame and dramatic to others, that's exactly what was happening - made his problem so small, that he realized that, despite the physical injuries he had, part of his problem was in his head. So he already had his sketchbook almost full of drawings. It made him feel good about himself, like he had out stepped a major obstacle.

 

It was afternoon and Brian was in the psychiatrist's office for an hour and a half now. Part of Justin was worried, part of him relieved. He knew they would go home soon. He and Brian still had a lot of ground to cover, he knew that. But going home was the first step to what he hoped was something new. If he and Brian could go through the serious talk they needed to do. Justin was a little apprehensive about when would be the best time to do it, especially after the scene with Joan. He wasn't afraid of Brian, of course, but he didn't want to put him in distress before he was fully healed. Whether ‘fully healed' meant physically or emotionally...that remained to be seen.

 

The door opened and Brian stepped into the room, followed by Nurse Helen. She seemed to have grown fond of Brian, despite his constant complaints about almost everything. As for Justin, judging by the way she always brought him hot coffee and little snacks in the middle of the night, she was fond of him too.

 

"See?" he said, looking annoyed. "No need for the wheel chair again."

 

"It's hospital procedure, you know," she rolled her eyes, but smiled nonetheless. "I already let you go to the session in your own clothes. That's more than breaking the rules around here."

 

"As if I would go anywhere in that ridiculous dress."

 

"That's not a dress."

 

"Even so, it's terrible."

 

"Don't worry, you look cute anyway," she said smiling and winking at Justin. "See you tomorrow, boys."

 

"Hey Sunshine," Brian said, looking at Justin.

 

"You look tired." Justin held Brian's hand briefly as the brunet passed by his side.

 

"I feel like a train had just run over me."

 

"How's the doctor? Is she nice?"

 

"There's no such thing as a "nice" psychiatrist, Justin. Damn woman, she could work for the CIA. She has a way of making you talk...it's almost infuriating, before you know it you're telling her the name of your teddy bear."

 

"I didn't know you had a teddy bear," said Justin teasingly.

 

"It's just an example, twat. "Brian threw himself on the bed with shoes and all. "I perfectly recall Mother Taylor saying you had a teddy bear named Gus." He smiled a little, but Justin could see Brian was a little too quiet for his taste. "And put your fucking mask on, we already pushed your luck too much for today."

 

"Okay." Better not argue with a cranky Brian. "Did she say you could go home?"

 

Brian made a face. "She said I'm ready to go, but she wants to see me again."

 

"That's good."

 

Brian looked at Justin like he had turned green with pink dots. "Good? What's good about seeing a shrink, for Christ's sake?"

 

"Um...n-nothing." Justin stammered. But since she said so, maybe you should..."

 

"She also said it's my choice. I'm not in dire need of therapy." He frowned. "And I told her I'm not coming back here, ever."

 

"Except for your check-ups."

 

"Yeah, except for that." Brian yawned.

 

Looking at him, Justin saw his eyes almost closing. "Do you want something from the cafeteria?"

 

"No, thanks. I guess I'm gonna sleep a little, if you don't mind."

 

"Go ahead."

 

Brian stayed quiet for a while, than closed his eyes. "Justin?" he finally asked.

 

"Mmmm?" Justin asked distractedly, already sketching again.

 

"You're gonna stay here?"

 

Justin had briefly entertained the idea of going home, but had already changed his mind. He had brought spare clothes, anyway. And now, hearing the almost pleading tone behind Brian's apparent nonchalance, he knew he had made the right decision.

 

"Of course I will," he said. "I'm not leaving this place without you."

 

"Good," Brian murmured, sighing contently and sleeping almost instantly.

Chapter Text

Brian paced around the loft's equivalent for a living room, anxious like a child on Christmas's Eve. He tried to hide it from Justin, but it was so evident that the blond tried his best not to laugh. Justin didn't know why Brian still bothered to try to hide his emotions from him. He was as clear as crystal to the young man.

 

As soon as the doctor signed his release from the hospital, Brian had called Gus and arranged with Lindsay to meet the boy. They had barely stepped inside the loft and already Brian was running to the bathroom for a shower to "take the fucking hospital's smell" off him. Then he had dressed in jeans and a white long-sleeved shirt and now was checking his watch every two minutes.

 

"They're late," he grunted.

 

"Only five minutes, Brian," Justin replied.

 

"Being on time was never one of Lindsay's best qualities."

 

"Stop complaining and sit down. You'll make a hole on the floor"

 

Brian glared at Justin. "Shit. I need a drink," he muttered.

 

"Don't even think about it, Mr. Kinney."

 

"I didn't say I'm gonna do it."

 

"Why are you so nervous, anyway? It's Gus. He's dying to see you."

 

"What if..." Brian started but didn't finish the sentence.

 

"What?" Justin pressed.

 

"Do I look sick?" Brian asked suddenly.

 

Justin looked at him, trying to guess what was hat about. "Um...Not sick. Thinner, maybe."

 

"Shit." The older man sighed. "Do you think he'll be...scared? I mean, he didn't know I was sick. I don't want him to worry."

 

Justin understood what the nervousness was about, finally. Brian was feeling guilty about leaving Gus like he had done. He was afraid the boy wouldn't want to see him, or something like that. Something that only made sense in Brian's mind, of course.

 

The blond approached the older man and looked at him pointedly. "Look. Gus is crazy about you. You're his father and nothing can make him hate you."

 

Brian only shrugged.

 

 

The loft's big windows were completely opened, and it was good for once that it wasn't so cold outside. The doctor had told Brian to avoid completely closed places, especially if he had to share them with other people. And around Gus, Brian was supposed to wear the mask the hospital gave him. He hated the thing, an orange mask that made him look like Donald Duck. He didn't need to use it all the time around the others, but visits were still restricted. Plus, if he and Justin were to spend too much time in the same room, one of them would have to wear it. The nurse had given Justin a mask too, "just in case" Brian didn't want to wear his.

 

Justin had to laugh at Brian's complaints. "You have nothing in common with a duck, Brian," he said smiling.

 

But Brian bitched about it all the time, from the moment the nurse handed him the mask, to the moment he stepped inside the loft. "I'm only doing it for Gus," he made clear. Fuck it if he was going out with that ridiculous thing on his face.

 

Finally, ten long minutes later, someone knocked at the door.

 

"It's them," Brian said, running to the bedroom and grabbing the orange mask he was supposed to wear around his son.

 

Justin opened the door and Gus stormed inside, followed by his mother.

 

"Where's daddy, Jus?" He asked as soon as he hugged the blond.

 

"Here, sonny boy," Brian said from the bedroom's stairs.

 

"Daddy!" Gus giggled, looking at his father. "You looked like Donald Duck!"

 

Brian glared at Justin. "I told you so," his eyes said, and Justin covered his mouth with his hand trying to stifle a giggle of his own.

 

Gus smiled at his father. "Can I give you a hug?" the boy asked.

 

Brian only opened his arms and Gus ran to him. The brunet hugged the boy, closing his eyes in relief.

 

"I missed you daddy," Gus declared.

 

"Me too, sonny boy."

 

Lindsay and Justin stood side by side, smiling. She discretely wiped her eyes, sniffing a little. "I love to see them together," she said after a while.

 

"Me too," Justin said.

 

"I brought you some food," she said. "But Gus was so excited to get out of the car that he didn't wait for me to bring the bags."

 

"Do you want help?"

 

"Sure, let's leave these two to enjoy each other for a while." She winked at him. "Hey, Bri! We're going downstairs to pick up some bags from the car. I brought you a few things."

 

"Sure, Lindz," Brian said, eyes still closed, enjoying his son's presence.

 

"I love you, daddy."

 

The simplicity of Gus's words made Brian's throat suddenly tight. It never ceased to amaze him how Gus was always able to bring his emotions to the surface. "I love you too, Gus," he said.

 

"Are you alright?"

 

"Yep, good as new," Brian said, releasing his son and, taking him by the hand, he pulled the little boy toward the sofa, where he sat down with Gus on his lap. "I just need to use this mask around people for a while, but I'm fine. In two weeks I won't need even this."

 

"I took care of everyone, daddy. Just as you asked."

 

"I knew you would, sonny boy."

 

"Yeah. Mummy and Mom, and Grandma Deb, and Uncle Michael and Uncle Ben too. I'm a big boy, you know."

 

"You really are," said Brian, amused.

 

"They were all worried about you, daddy. They made me repeat what you told me a million times!" Gus giggled again. "I think they thought you weren't coming back, daddy. But I knew you would."

 

Brian felt a pang in his chest. He almost didn't come back, and the worst part was that there was no one else to blame but himself and his own stubbornness.

 

"Listen, Gus..." he started, hesitantly. "I'm sorry I left you. I shouldn't have done that."

 

Gus patted his arm. "It's okay, daddy. I know you had adult's stuff to take care of."

 

"You do?"

 

"Yep. Jus told me. But I never thought you wouldn't come back. I mean, you love us, and we love you. They said I shouldn't wait too much for you...but I said ‘why would daddy stay away from me and Jus? He loves us'...that's what I told Mummy and Mom."

 

"Oh, Gus," Brian gave a soft laugh, messing with the boy's hair. "You make everything seem so simple..."

 

"I hate complicated things, you know," Gus declared as if he had all the wisdom in the world. "I'm not an adult," he said matter-of-factly. "It's adults who like to complicate simple things."

 

Brian smiled, asking himself what he had done to deserve such a wonderful child. Gus was a blessing. "We do, don't we?"

 

"Complicate things? Yep."

 

"Even so..." Brian took a deep breath. "Do you forgive me?"

 

"For what?" Gus asked, frowning a little.

 

"For leaving you. I swear, sonny boy...I didn't mean to make you worry about me. Or our family."

 

"Of course I forgive you. You're my daddy. But..." Gus looked at Brian hesitantly.

 

"What?"

 

"Next time you go...you take me with you, okay?" Gus asked, hugging his father again, resting his chin on Brian's shoulder.

 

The pang in Brian's chest returned. He felt like a true asshole for leaving Gus like that. No excuse he could think of was good enough for what he had done, because he knew deep inside that he thought he would never come back. He wanted to spare Gus of seeing him dying, but thinking about it now, it seemed so ridiculous and pathetic that he almost snorted at his own expense.

 

He didn't even want to think about what Justin had to say about his actions. Shit.

 

Hugging Gus tighter than ever, he smiled behind the orange mask and murmured, "I promise. I'm never gonna leave you again."

 

Gus only sighed contently.

 

 

--- --- --- --- ---

 

 

 

"Wow, Lindsay, you didn't have to buy the whole grocery store!" Justin said adjusting the paper bag in his arms.

 

"I didn't want you and Brian living off Chinese, Thai and pizza. He needs to eat properly.

 

"Yeah, you're right, but he still barely eats at all. The medicine makes his stomach ache and he's always a little sick."

 

"That's because all he had so far was the hospital's food. I bet he won't resist a home-made meal." Lindsay smiled and she and Justin stepped inside the building again, each one carrying a large paper bag full of groceries.

 

"Well," he rolled his eyes playfully, "I guess I'll have to subject Brian to my cooking, then. Poor guy."

 

"Don't worry about it, Justin. I'm sure your cooking is very nice. But I found a nice girl who can clean and cook, and if you want it she can start tomorrow."

 

"We already have a cleaning lady, Lindsay. And I prefer to do the cooking myself."

 

"But she'll take care of Brian really well, I'm sure! This way you can concentrate on your art again."

 

"I have plenty of time for my art later, Lindsay. Brian is my priority now."

 

She looked at him puzzled. "But...I thought that...now that Brian's settled and out of danger, you...you'd go back to Europe...?"

 

Justin suppressed the irritation he felt for Gus's sake. "I'm not going back, I told you that. I left the Europe program."

 

"Well, I...I..." she stammered, "I thought that you had said that because you were worried about Brian. Now that he's fine I thought you would have changed your mind."

 

"But I didn't," he said drily.

 

"Um...so...you're going back to New York, then?"

 

"Why this sudden urge to see me away from here, Lindsay?" Justin said, clearly irritated now.

 

"Oh, baby, don't get me wrong!" she said when the elevator arrived, and both stepped inside, Justin pushing the button to the third floor angrily. "I'm just worried that you'll leave your brilliant career for Brian, that's not fair and you know that," she continued.

 

"What brilliant career, Lindsay?" If Justin's arms weren't busy with the bag he would have punched the wall. "I barely graduated. I had a job in a gallery that was sold. I sold a few paintings but after two years I still didn't have a solo show, I was in Europe, alright, but Europe is not going anywhere. I can do all this later. But right now, I need to be here."

 

"With Brian," she said.

 

"Yes."

 

"But Brian already has his business; he's a successful and rich man. Don't you want to be his equal?"

 

"Are you trying to say that just because I'm not a famous painter yet," and he put an emphasis on the "yet" part, "I'm less than Brian? Because frankly, that's not how I see it. Considering I'm more that ten years younger than you guys, I figure I still have plenty of time to do whatever I want with my life." He tried to hide the sarcasm from his voice, but it was hard.

 

"Sure, baby!" Lindsay gave him a forced smile and they exited the elevator. They could hear Brian and Gus laughing inside the loft and Justin wanted so much for the stupid conversation to finish before they got inside. He didn't want to spoil Brian's time with his son.

 

But he wasn't that lucky. When grabbed the door's handle, she spoke again.

 

"It's just that...to give up on your career...because of a relationship like yours...Are you sure this is going to work? Are you sure that it's the right decision to make?"

 

"Are you implying that Brian is not worthy of my effort? Because let me tell you, he is. More than you or anyone will ever know. And I'm not that lovesick teenager anymore. I'm a man, I know what I want and right now what I want is to stay here. Alex says that -"

 

"Oh, stop it! Who's Alex to talk about your life?" she snapped. "I'm your friend, Justin, I want what's best for you. And I care a lot about you, I know how talented you are! It pains me to see you taking care of a sick man, who barely gives you the attention you deserve, and now you want to cook for him?"

 

Justin looked at her for a few seconds, mouth hanging open. "I don't believe you're saying this."

 

"If you're worried about Brian, you don't have to. We'll take good care of him, you know that. We're his family. And now that Gus and I came back to Pittsburgh..."

 

"Lindsay," Justin said, taking a deep breath. "If you really treasure my friendship as you say, I don't want to hear you talking about my relationship with Brian like that ever again. We're together, more than we have ever been before. He's not a "sick man", he's sick ‘now'. Period. He's not senile, Jesus, did you hear what you just said? " He ran his free hand through his blond hair, trying to remain calm. "Don't belittle our relationship, because Brian shows me everyday that he loves me. And he's worthy of every minute I spend by his side."

 

"I...I didn't want to..."

 

"Yes, you did. Don't assume you know anything about us, because you know shit. Any of you. I said it once to you and I'm saying it again: New York is not my opportunity of a lifetime. Brian is." He forced a smile. "Now, shall we get in?" he said pulling the loft's door open.

 

"Uh..." she looked at him a little taken aback, and suddenly she handed him the bag she was carrying. "I need to go, honey, I'll come and get Gus later." With that she went down the stairs without even waiting for his answer.

 

"Shit!" he murmured, dumfounded. "What the hell was that?"

 

Justin stepped inside the loft hurriedly, the two bags now very heavy for him to carry alone and put them on the kitchen counter, relieved.

 

"Hey." Brian greeted him from the floor, where he was sprawled with Gus watching Sponge Bob. "Where's Lindz?"

 

"Uh...she had to go. She'll be back for Gus later."

 

‘Wanna join us?" Brian asked.

 

"In a minute. Let me put those things away," Justin said, a little at a loss about Lindsay's little speech. Trying to understand her and why the hell it seemed that she wanted so much to see him and Brian apart.

 

 

--- --- --- --- --- ---

 

 

 

Lindsay didn't come back for Gus. Mel called around seven P.M. saying she would be there in a few minutes, but she took almost another hour to come. By then, Gus was sound asleep on Brian's bed, after eating as much popcorn as he could take. Brian was sleeping too, on the sofa, his head on Justin's lap. They had started to see one of Brian's old movies after they carried Gus to the bed, but the brunet didn't last fifteen minutes awake. It had been a long day and Brian was still weak.

 

Mel didn't knock on the door, she simply pulled it open and got in. She looked calm but tired, and she gave Justin a little smile when she saw him and Brian.

 

"You're funny," she said, seeing he was with his orange mask on.

 

"Don't start. He slept and I didn't want to wake him up to put his mask back on, so I put mine. He had just taken his own off, he was wearing it all the time he was with Gus," Justin explained.

 

"You really are good to him," she whispered.

 

"Did you have any doubt?" He tried to joke but his tone was serious.

 

"Not even for a minute."

 

"Good," he said, running his hand through Brian's hair. "Because I intend to stay by his side from now on."

 

He knew instantly by the way Mel looked at him that Lindsay had told her about their little conversation. Mel averted her eyes, something she rarely did. "Where's Gus?"

 

"Sleeping. He's exhausted, they had a lot of fun together."

 

"I can imagine. Gus's been talking about Brian since they talked on the phone."

 

"Brian's been a pain in the ass without Gus too," Justin smiled.

 

Mel walked to the bedroom and saw Gus sleeping with the shadow of a smile on his face. "Um...Justin, can you help me to carry him? He's a little heavy for me, and I don't want to wake him up," she said approaching Justin and Brian again.

 

"Sure," he said, "Give me that pillow on the armchair, please." When she did, Justin carefully got up, holding Brian's head, and put the pillow under it, trying not to wake him. Brian mumbled something, frowning when he lost contact with Justin, but remained sleeping.

 

Justin picked Gus from the bed while Mel grabbed the boy's backpack and his toys and opened the door. They went down in the elevator silently, and Mel opened the car's door so Justin could put Gus on the chair and adjust the seatbelt. Closing the door, Justin looked at her, deciding to break the awkward silence between them.

 

"Listen, Mel...I didn't mean to upset Lindsay or anything, but...she pissed me off when she started to decide things for Brian and I."

U

 

"I know...she's bossy. She always wins with me, but I knew it wouldn't work with you."

 

"I didn't want to lose my temper, but you should've heard the way she spoke...like I was sacrificing my whole life to, and I quote her, take care of a sick man, who barely gives me the attention I deserve."

 

"Jesus, Justin, that was harsh."

 

"Her words."

 

"She came back pretty upset, but she didn't tell me anything until she asked me to come and get Gus. I ‘felt' she didn't want to come, so I made her talk."

 

"She keeps telling me I'm sacrificing my art for Brian, when is quite the opposite. I sacrificed Brian for my art, and neither of us was happy with it. Look where it got us."

 

"Hey, nothing that happened was your fault."

 

"I know. But I let other people tell me what to do. Again. When I won the contest, everyone told me how wonderful it would be, even Brian, and I didn't doubt that I should go. But I didn't ask myself if that was really what I wanted. Just like I did when I went to New York."

 

"Don't tell me you didn't want to go!"

 

"I did. But I could have waited. It still amazes me how quickly I gave up our marriage to pursue a dream. I could've tried to have both: Brian and a career. I let people tell me what to do and didn't ask myself if that was what I truly wanted for my life."

 

"I'm sure that Lindsay had only the best intentions when she showed the art magazine to Brian."

 

Justin wanted to tell Mel what he thought about Lindsay's "best intentions", but he liked Mel too much to hurt her. "I'm not saying she didn't. Besides, Brian was the first to tell me I should go. But if I let people tell me what to do that easily, all I can say is that it made me discover a new side of me: I'm not as "mature" as I like to think I am. I fucked up, big time."

 

"I don't think you did, Justin. Brian never said he was sorry you went, not even once."

 

"I'm not saying that, he probably wasn't sorry. But I was sorry, Mel. All the time I kept telling myself how wonderful New York was and how lucky I was to be there. But I was fucking scared to shit."

 

"Justin...you never needed to be scared. I don't know anything about art, but you're talented."

 

"Oh, I was not scared of failing, Mel. I was scared of losing Brian. All the time. Maybe marrying was a little too much for us at that time, but I could have stayed, graduated at PIFA, get an agent...go to New York now and then to the shows...I don't know. A should've done anything but go."

 

"You shouldn't regret it, Justin. What's done is done."

 

"Since when did you got that wise?" Justin asked with a smile.

 

"I'm a lawyer. Lawyers are always wise."

 

He chuckled. "Take care. Drive safely."

 

"I will," she smiled. "One more thing...I know it's a little hard, but...try to understand Lindsay. I think she's a little...jealous."

 

Justin looked at Mel, stunned. Was Mel trying to tell him that Lindsay wanted to see him and Brian apart?

 

"You are smart, Justin, and one of the most mature guys I know. So I'm sure you'll understand what I mean. What I mean is..." she went on, "Lindsay was so happy when we decided to move back. She thought Brian would be delighted."

 

"But he was. When I told him that Gus was back for good, he was so excited that he called him immediately."

 

"I don't mean Gus." Mel sighed. "I mean her."

 

"Huh?"

 

"Lindsay always had...um...she always cared a lot about Brian. You know that," she looked at him pointedly.

 

He only nodded. He couldn't deny, could he? But to say Lindsay "cared" was an understatement.

 

"I think...she wanted him to be happy because of her coming back. And since we came back they hardly spent any time together."

 

"He was in the hospital."

 

"I know. And she knows it too. But part of her has trouble to understand this."

 

"So maybe if I step aside and leave him by himself she can play his dear friend and savior...?" he asked bitterly, but the moment the words left his lips he regretted it. "I'm sorry, Mel. That was uncalled for."

 

Mel sighed. "I'm sure tomorrow I'll regret saying this, and I hate to admit it, but...maybe you're right."

 

He blushed. "I didn't want to hurt you."

 

"You didn't. I know she loves me, but there's a part of her that will always want the "dream life" she could've had with...with a man. It's so much easier being straight. And Brian is Gus's father, so he'll be part of her life forever."

 

Justin looked at the sidewalk, embarrassed. "Mel...I didn't mean that."

 

"But it's true. Listen, Justin. I've always considered you my friend, and if Brian and I never were too friendly around each oher, with you is completely different. You're my friend. I love you dearly and I trust you. I hope you'll keep this conversation to yourself, because I've never told anyone what I'm telling you. It's hard to admit even to myself."

 

"I love you too, Mel, and I'd never betray your trust."

 

"Okay. For a long time I was really jealous of the closeness they shared. But that's because I know that they have a son, and as much as I want it, Gus isn't really mine, you know. Brian can be a bastard sometimes, and I know they had something intimate during college. But he never gave her false hopes, this much I know. He never said he loved her romantically nor that he would stop being gay for her."

 

"There's no way to stop being gay."

 

"I know that," she snorted, "and there's no one more proud about it than Brian. I can't stop being a lesbian either too. But Lindsay is... bisexual, I know that now. I always thought that it was bullshit...but that's the way things are. She has already cheated on me with a man. She can fall in love for one. Brian."

 

"She loves you."

 

"I know. And Brian loves you. I know now that he's not a threat to us. Since you came into his life, there was no more room for anyone else."

 

"Do you really think so?" he asked with a huge smile.

 

"Oh, it was always so obvious. He never had a chance." She winked and kissed his cheek. "Good bye, Justin."

 

"Bye."

 

 

--- --- --- --- --- ---

 

 

 

The doctor had released Brian telling him that in two weeks he would be ready for "prolonged and intimate contact with other people". Tuberculosis' treatment lasted six months, but after the first two months fully on medication, Brian was supposed to go back to the hospital for a check up. If the results were good, he could gradually return to his life.

 

Unfortunately, that meant no sex for two whole weeks. And no kisses either. Justin grimaced at the thought. As if he wasn't tempted enough by his and Brian's prolonged separation, living under the same roof with him and not being able to touch him would be a challenge. He was Brian-deprived and he wasn't happy about it.

 

As Justin stepped inside the loft again, closing the heavy door carefully behind him, he remembered that they would have to deal with the fact that they would not sleep in the same bed and he knew neither of them was too happy about it. Michael and Ben had left Hunter's bed for Justin, now that the boy was in college and he only came home for holidays.

 

Michael and his husband had already used Michael's key of the loft and made a little "surprise": They moved the television and the armchairs and put a panel in the corner. Behind it, a bed and a bedside table. "Justin's room", Michael announced proudly when Justin called him to ask what had happened to the loft. Needless to say that Brian almost had a heart attack when he saw the panel and the furniture. He spent almost two hours bitching about Michael's horrible taste. Justin pointed out that he was happy and relieved that Debbie hadn't helped to decorate his "room", but Brian didn't think his comment was funny at all.

 

Justin suspected that Brian didn't like the fact that, on another corner, near the dinner table, there were boxes, some of his paintings and his easel. He hadn't had time to move his things and unpack them properly. Well, maybe he had, but he didn't have the energy, with Brian gone and everything. But Brian didn't say anything so Justin let it be.

 

He approached the place where he had left Brian sleeping but was greeted with an empty sofa. Immediately he heard a stifled groan coming from the bathroom and he all but ran toward the sound. The door was opened and he saw Brian leaning against the counter, his face pale.

 

"What happened?" Justin asked worriedly.

 

"Just a little bit of nausea. I guess I got up too fast, but my bladder was screaming."

 

Justin knew how much Brian hated throwing up. When he had cancer, the nights he spent facing the toilet and smelling his own vomit, after radiation, in Brian's opinion, was worse than the pain or everything else he felt.

 

"Take a deep breath," Justin said.

 

Brian nodded and turned to the sink, opening it and splashing cold water on his face. "I'm okay, really. It's already gone."

 

"Brian," Justin didn't know why Brian wasted his time trying to fool him. "You're sweating, you're pale, and for fuck's sake, if you have to lean on the counter for support you're dizzy, so don't you bullshit me, okay?"

 

Brian sighed. "Okay. You win. My head is spinning, I feel like shit. Last time I felt like that I woke up in the hospital with Ted and Cynthia at my deathbed."

 

Justin was no doctor, but he had spent a long time asking Doctor Schneider about the side effects of Brian's treatment, and he guessed what was happening. "Do you feel lightheaded?" he asked.

 

Brian nodded, taking a deep breath. Then he turned to go back to the bedroom and almost lost his balance. "Shit," he said, but Justin's arms were immediately there, steadying him.

 

"You're sweating and you're cold. Stay here," he said helping Brian to sit on the bed.

 

He returned less than a minute later with a glass half filled with water. "Drink it," he said.

 

Brian eyed the glass suspiciously.

 

"It's just mineral water and sugar; I think I know what this shit is. Now drink everything." Justin's tone showed Brian that the blond wasn't up for discussions, so Brian complied, drinking the water to the last drop.

 

"Now lay down," Justin said.

 

Brian obeyed, closing his eyes and sighing. Justin put the glass on the bedside table and sat on the bed beside the older man. Brian's hand reached for Justin's and they intertwined their fingers. They stayed silent; Brian's rapid breathing slowly returning to normal.

 

"Feeling better?" Justin asked after what felt like an eternity, but were only ten minutes.

 

Brian opened his eyes. "Yeah. I think I owe you one."

 

"You were having hypoglycemia."

 

"I didn't know you talent for medicine, Doctor Taylor," Brian joked, but his voice was still weak.

 

"I don't. Dr. Schneider warned me about it. It seems your reluctance to eat earned you the ability to have this shit with a certain frequency. "

 

"Oh."

 

Their hands were still joined, and Justin looked at them. Brian's hand wasn't sweaty anymore.

 

"Did you eat the sandwiches I made for lunch?" Justin asked, suspicious.

 

"I was with you and Gus. Of course I ate, you saw it." Brian answered, but he averted his eyes.

 

"No, I didn't see it." Justin grimaced, trying to recall their lunch. "We were eating, and there was a sandwich on your plate, untouched. Then Gus wanted to go to the toilet and I went to help him. When we came back your plate was empty and you said the sandwich was good." The blond raised an eyebrow. "So?"

 

"So? It really was good. What's your point?"

 

"My point is that I didn't see you eating. Not even a bite."

 

"Just because you didn't - "

 

"Brian," Justin interrupted him. "Please."

 

Brian pinched the bridge of his nose. "Okay."

 

"You didn't eat it, did you?"

 

Brian made a face. "Not really. I tried, but after the second bite I just couldn't."

 

"And why didn't you tell me?"

 

"Huh...I didn't want to upset you. Your cooking is fine, but I have no taste at all. All I can feel is the fucking medicine's taste and smell. Even the water I drink tastes like the fucking pills."

 

"Good thing the doctor told me to keep an eye on your eating habits. I should've done it, but with Gus here I just didn't remember it."

 

"I'm not a baby, Justin. I don't need anyone ‘checking' on me. I'm gonna be fine, I just need some time. It's not your fault if I threw the food away. And you don't need to look after me. And put your mask on."

 

"Oh, Brian..." Justin reached his pocket and grabbed the mask, putting it on. It wasn't easy because he didn't want to let go of Brian's hand. Finally he did it, and he laid down beside the brunet. "When are you going to understand that I don't need to take care of you: I want to take care of you. There's a huge difference."

 

Brian grimaced, squeezing Justin's hand. "It's not fair to you, Sunshine. You already did it when I had cancer. And you know me, I'm not the type to bother anyone with my shit."

 

"I'm not anyone, Brian," Justin squeezed Brian's hand back. "I'm the guy who loves you. And when you love someone, all you want is to see the person you love safe and well, whatever it takes."

 

Brian's other hand travelled to Justin's face and caressed his cheek, partially hidden by the mask. "I know," he murmured. "All you want is to know the person you love is alright."

 

Justin felt a lump on his throat. He leaned into Brian's touch and closed his eyes. "So please, let me be here for you, okay? It's what I want."

 

Brian's thumb caressed Justin's chin. "I'm an asshole."

 

"Yes, you are," Justin replied, and his other hand went to the back of Brian's neck, caressing the soft hair. "But you're my asshole, and I won't ever let you go."

 

Brian half smiled and his fingers sank on Justin's blond hair. He sighed. Then he started to run his hand over Justin's arms, his neck, his chest. It was a soft caress, as if he was checking if Justin was really there.

 

"I missed you," he said.

 

"I love you so much," Justin answered, wanting more than anything to hold and kiss the man.

 

"Me too," Brian admitted.

 

Justin smiled widely, but then added seriously: "Don't you ever scare me like that again. I'll be keeping an eye on you, so don't bother hiding your food. Or lying about it."

 

Brian nodded. "I'll be a good boy."

 

Justin put his hand on Brian's chest, feeling his heartbeat, and Brian did the same, both taking reassurance and comfort by the other's presence. They stayed like that, facing each other, blue eyes on hazel ones, feelings running too deep to be expressed with words. Looking at Brian's eyes, Justin had a sense of peace he hadn't felt in a long time. And he knew that, despite all they still had yet to face, they were going to be alright.

Chapter Text

They spent the weekend practically in front of the TV. Brian and Justin watched every DVD Brian had in the loft's bookcase, plus Yellow Submarine, Justin's DVD, taken to the loft in a bag full of Justin's clothes so many years ago. Of course Brian didn't watch them all, he was still sleeping a lot, but he insisted on staying on the sofa with Justin. Whenever Justin noticed he was sleeping, the blond would make him lie down and rest Brian's head on his lap, an arrangement he was rapidly growing used to. The first two times Brian had pretended he wasn't sleeping, he was "merely tired". By Sunday, though, he didn't seem to want to hide it anymore, he just sighed in his sleep every time Justin ran his hands trough his chestnut hair.

 

Justin also made sure Brian ate. He bitched about the chicken soup Justin cooked, insisting that he wanted "real food", but when he had a full plate of soup and his stomach didn't hurt, he just smiled sheepishly and thanked Justin, praising his cooking abilities.

 

All in all, it wasn't as hard as Justin thought it would be. Brian seemed to be in a fairly good mood, given the circumstances, mostly the "no sex" policy, After the first night, when they talked and Brian promised he would let Justin take care of him, the brunet stopped complaining and hiding whenever he didn't feel so good. Justin knew he still was uncomfortable with all the care and he hated being vulnerable, but the blond wanted Brian to know without a doubt that he didn't need to be always strong to be loved.

 

The only time Brian got really cranky was in the mornings, when he had to take the pills. He would fight a wave of nausea for about an hour and a stomach ache for the next one. Justin would stay by his side on the bed, pretending to read a book or an art magazine, holding his hand and wearing the horrible orange mask, while Brian took deep breaths and tried not to vomit. Eventually the older man would sleep and wake up two or three hours later feeling much better.

 

The weather was cold the whole weekend, which required lots of hot chocolate for Justin and herbal tea for Brian (because he would never get fat by drinking chocolate, and his stomach couldn't stand it anyway). Brian had called his doctor and asked for something for the nausea, and by Tuesday he was able to eat a real meal (chicken salad, Jennifer's recipe), without grimacing.

 

The extended family and friends tried to come to the loft, but Justin acted like a true gatekeeper, and everyone stayed obediently away, except for Michael, but he and Gus were the exception, of course.

 

So it was a surprise for Brian when, Thursday afternoon, he woke up from his nap to find Ted sprawled on his sofa, in front of the TV, with the remote on his hand but sleeping with his mouth slightly opened and snoring loudly.

 

"Hey, Theodore, wake up," Brian said, tapping the man's head lightly.

 

"Huh...?" Ted opened his eyes, blinking a few times. "I guess I fell asleep."

 

"You guess? Jesus, Theodore, I hope you don't snore like that near Blake. The poor guy doesn't deserve something like that. I could hear the noise from my bed. I thought the whole building was going down," Brian complained, but there was a glint of amusement in his eyes.

 

"We-well...look who's talking," muttered Ted, blushing. "When I came you were out cold."

 

"I wasn't sleeping, I was recovering."

 

"Yeah, recovering, alright, and drooling on your pillow is part of the healing process."

 

"I don't think I heard you very well, Theodore. Could you repeat it?" Brian asked feigning menace.

 

"I said...of course, Brian, you were recovering. You need to regain your strength." Ted looked at Brian innocently. "But for your information, I don't snore. Blame your sofa. My head was in an awkward angle, my vocal chords were strained and it made me snore."

 

Brian was barely stifling his laughter by now, and after Ted's made-up explanation, he couldn't hold it any longer.

 

"Shit, Ted, you've been spending too much time reading comic books with Michael," Brian said when he stopped laughing at Ted's embarrassment and his flushed expression. "Where's Justin?" he asked, looking around.

 

"Oh, we were about to have coffee when his mother called. His sister‘s play at school was today and apparently he had forgotten it. So, as I was here, he asked me to keep you company."

 

"Good. He needs to go out more often. But I don't need a baby-sitter."

 

"No one said you did, Bri. But I was coming here with the documents anyway, so...

 

Brian sat on an armchair across the sofa. "Alright. I guess it's just you and me, then. Let's see what you and Cynthia managed to do for Kinnetik while I was away."

 

"Are you sure you're ready to go back to work?"

 

"Hey, the doctor said I should stay at home, and I'm home, right? No problem if I work here. I can't spend the whole day doing nothing, it's driving me crazy."

 

"Well, Bri, if you say so..."

 

"So, what's going on in the most famous advertising company of Pennsylvania?"

 

"Everything's fine, Bri," Ted said, getting up from the sofa and picking his briefcase from Brian's desk. He opened it and picked some papers, showing them to Brian. "As you can see, the campaigns you left in pre-production are now in post-production, and soon will be on magazines and outdoors. And that TV campaign for Brown Athletics is almost ready."

 

"And the clients are pleased?"

 

"More than pleased. Those two guys you hired are good. Not as good as you," Ted added hurriedly, "but they get the job done."

 

"Of course. No one is as good as I am."

 

"I see your modesty is still intact," Ted commented. "The campaigns are running smoothly. I'm personally taking care of some of them and I even made a presentation or two."

 

"New accounts?"

 

"One of them. Millennium Mall. I got the account, by the way. The other was for Liberty Air and they seemed very pleased."

 

"Well...it appears we have an advertising genius hidden somewhere inside you."

 

"Not a genius, no. I'm unashamedly imitating your style."

 

Brian shrugged. "Feel free to. I'm the best anyway."

 

Ted hid a smile. "The only concern we've got is Leo Brown. The man's been asking about you. Said the campaign is good but it lacks your special touch. He asked if you were alright."

 

"What did you tell him?"

 

"That you had some family problems to deal with and had to make a small trip. But Cynthia talked to him several times. He seems to like her a lot."

 

"He does. He said she's the smartest woman he met. Don't worry. I'll call good old Leo tonight and we'll schedule a meeting."

 

"Are you sure you'll be up to it?"

 

"A hundred percent sure." Brian studied the numbers on the white sheet. "Now, off with the partner, in with the accountant. What about the expenses?"

 

 

--- --- --- --- --- --- ---

 

 

After Ted's visit, Brian started to work a few hours a day and his mood improved considerably. He called Leo Brown and they decided to change a few things about Brown Athletics campaign. Brian was full of ideas and being creative left him awake almost all the time. After a few days he and Justin had developed a new routine: he would work a little on his computer in the mornings, while Justin would try to paint.

 

Soon Justin realized he couldn't. Organization wasn't one of Justin's strong points, and when it came to his art he freaked out every time something was out of his usual "organized disorder". And the loft, as much as he wanted, simply didn't have room to accommodate all his paintings, his easel, his brushes and paints.

 

He didn't feel at ease to paint at the loft like he usually did when he was somewhere else. He often left brushes everywhere, and paint on the wooden floor would give Brian a heart attack. Paintings drying on tables, the ever-present smell of turpentine, clothes he usually forgot to change when he was in a surge of creativity...He needed to be alone to do that. He should get a studio, and he should do it soon. But he didn't want to stay too much time away from Brian. At least for now, he wanted to be around him all the time. Maybe it had to do with the fact that he had almost lost him.

 

He had already thought about the possibility of finding somewhere to store his paintings; he knew the loft wasn't the right place to do it. But the simple fact that his work would be hidden somewhere made him extremely annoyed. He wanted to show is paintings, not hide them, but he didn't have a gallery to work at anymore. He could talk to Lindsay about Sydney Bloom's gallery, but right now he knew he wasn't her favorite person in the world. And she wasn't his.

 

Justin enjoyed looking at Brian. Whenever the brunet was concentrating on something at his computer, frowning slightly, Justin would study his profile and thank God he was alright. Justin noticed that Brian's cheeks had already gained some of their color back, and he wasn't that thin anymore, although the blond suspected that it would take sometime until Brian was back to his old shape: no fat on his gorgeous body, but no bones showing through the skin. Just perfect.

 

The lack of sex was driving Justin crazy, and he knew Brian felt the same way. He thanked whoever was listening that they were in winter, so Brian wouldn't walk around the loft half naked like he usually did. The Things had gotten to a point where Justin couldn't even be near Brian during the brunet's shower; he got hard all the time. And Brian insisting that Justin closed the bathroom's door during his own showers made the blond suspect that the same thing was happening to the older man... judging by the way Brian's hungry eyes followed Justin every time he mentioned the words "shower" or "soap".

 

It was almost funny that the two of them, who had already christened every surface available in the loft and fucked in every position known by mankind, were almost shy around each other. Justin had tried to give Brian a hand job once, but Brian's hand stopped his, and a husky voice told him that he wouldn't be able to stop if Justin started anything.

 

Brian even suggested that Justin go out, spend some time in Babylon's backroom one night, only to "take the edge off", he had said. But Justin glared at him and said that he hadn't come back to Pittsburgh to have meaningless sex with a stranger. Brian smiled and caressed his face, murmuring "just one more week to go, Sunshine," then went to the bathroom and locked the door. Judging by the amount of time he spent there, Justin guessed he knew what Brian was doing, because he'd been doing the same lately, much more frequently than he ever had. Shit, the last time Justin jacked off this much he was a teenager.

 

 

--- --- --- --- --- --- ---

 

 

"Hey, Sunshine," greeted Brian when Justin pulled the loft's door open. But as soon as he saw Justin's face he knew something was wrong. "What happened, Justin?"

 

Justin's shaken appearance made shivers run up Brian's spine. "My mother had a car accident," he whispered, sitting tiredly on the white armchair.

 

"Jesus, Justin! How's she?"

 

"She's fine. Just a broken arm and some bruises. She's going to be fine." He sighed, taking a deep breath to steady himself. "But she scared the shit out of me."

 

"Why the hell you didn't call me?"

 

"My cell phone ran out of battery."

 

"You never charge that shit."

 

"That I don't."

 

The blond sighed again, rubbing his face with his hands. "She and Tucker had a fight. She doesn't want me to call him, and they're making her spend the night at the hospital."

 

"You have to spend the night with her," Brian stated.

 

Justin nodded. "There's no one else. I mean, I could call Deb, but..."

 

"No," said Brian emphatically. "You need to be there for her. She's nothing but a wonderful mother."

 

"I don't want to leave you here alone. Maybe you could call Michael to spend the night with you?"

 

"Justin. Listen to me. Are you listening?"

 

"Yeah, I am." Justin glared at Brian.

 

"I don't need anyone to take care of me. I'm fine." Brian got up from the sofa and stopped in front of Justin. "Get up," he said, and when Justin complied, he grabbed the blond's shoulders "You, young man, will take a nice hot shower, because you look like shit." When Justin opened his mouth to protest, Brian put a finger on his lips. "Yes, you will. Then you'll pack your things, eat something and take a short nap. You need to be rested to spend the night with your mother."

 

"But..."

 

"No ‘but', Justin. I'll take care of everything, okay? Now be a good boy and do as I say."

 

Justin took his time. The hot water felt like heaven on his tense shoulders. When he left the bathroom, Brian was on the phone. Justin grabbed his backpack, put some clothes in it and sat down on the bed, only in his briefs.

 

Brian put the phone on the table and came to his side.

 

"Alright, everything is taken care of," the brunet said, in his business mode. "Deb is already on her way to the hospital to stay with Jen until you arrive. Mel and Lindz will stay with Molly for the night; you know she loves to spend time with Gus. Ted will take care of her car; see if the insurance covers the damage. And Craig - "

 

"Wait. Craig, as in Craig, my father?"

 

"Do you know any other Craig?" Brian raised his left eyebrow.

 

"No. But...you talked to him...?"

 

"Well, someone had to. He wasn't very happy to talk to me, but I figured you didn't want to talk to him."

 

"You're right, I don't . But why the hell did you call him? He doesn't give a shit about us."

 

"Remember you told me your mother's car is still in his name after all this time?" Justin nodded. "Well, Ted is going to need the car's papers. I don't understand why, after all these years your mother never bought a new car."

 

"She's an real estate agent, Brian, with a daughter to support and an apartment to keep. She doesn't have money to spare. Besides, she's a very careful driver, the car is still good. I mean...was."

 

"Anyway...Craig the asshole was very civilized, surprisingly. And he told me to give your mother his best wishes."

 

"He can shove his ‘best wishes' up his ass."

 

"Why, Sunshine, I didn't know you had this much consideration for your father."

 

"Shut up, asshole," Justin said, a ghost of a smile on his lips.

 

"Because you, of all people, knows how good it feels to have something up your ass."

 

"Well, it's been a long time since anything has gone up there." Despite his worry for his mother, Justin felt good to see Brian joking again.

 

"Patience is a virtue, young man," Brian said. "Now, lie down on your stomach."

 

"What for?"

 

"I'm gonna give you a massage. You're too tense."

 

Justin only nodded, speechless. In all their years together, Brian had never given him a massage. But, hey, he wasn't complaining, and he was really tense. He had spent the last couple of months practically living inside a hospital, he wasn't anxious to spend the night in another one.

 

After he laid down, Brian went to the bathroom and returned with a bottle of baby oil. Brian knew the blond used it often to keep his pale skin always soft to the touch. The brunet sat on the bed, straddling Justin and put some oil on his hands, rubbing them together to warm it.

 

"Now, I know that in another occasion, this could be extremely sexy," he said. "But now is not the time for that. Now I'm just going to make sure you relax, okay?"

 

"Mmmm..." Justin moaned in agreement, already starting to get hard by Brian's proximity. They haven't had this kind of close contact for a long time.

 

"Now, just relax and enjoy," Brian murmured, trying to control his breath. He was affected by Justin's proximity too. Justin's bubble butt in the vicinity always made his cock jump happily. He took a deep breath. "Try to sleep, okay? I'll wake you up in an hour or so."

 

His hands started on Justin's shoulders, and the blond sighed and moaned when Brian worked on the stifle muscles of his back. Brian had never given a massage before, but he mimicked the movements his masseuse used to make back in Ibiza, and concentrated on making Justin feel good. Judging by Justin's sighs of appreciation, he was doing it right.

 

"Brian..."Justin whispered.

 

""Hhmmmm?"

 

"Thank you."

 

"For what, Sunshine?"

 

"For taking care of me. I love when you do that."

 

"I like doing it," he admitted quietly. It was true, one of the things Brian Kinney loved doing the most, was taking care of Justin Taylor.

 

"We take care of each other, right? Like partners do," Justin murmured, already half asleep.

 

"We are partners, Sunshine," Brian answered. His hands kept traveling along Justin's back and in a few seconds Justin was sleeping.

 

Brian kneeled beside him, covering him with the duvet. He caressed Justin's cheek. "When you love someone, taking care of him is the most natural thing in the world." He knew Justin couldn't hear him, because God forbid, but it felt good admitting it, because it was true.

 

When he turned his back on the blond and went to the kitchen, Justin smiled. "I love you too," he murmured and let sleep truly take him.

 

 

--- --- --- --- --- --- ---

 

 

Brian didn't know how the hell news traveled so fast. Less than two hours after Justin left for the hospital, his loft was invaded by Michael, bringing Debbie's tuna macaroni .

 

Therefore, an hour later Brian found himself in serious pain. His ribs were killing him. And he realized it had been a long time since he laughed this much. The more he laughed trying to picture the ridiculous situation, the more he wanted to laugh.

 

"Shit, Mikey! Stop it!" he said, hands on his ribs. "You're gonna kill me." He laughed some more. "I can picture you three, hiding in the comic shop, thinking the FBI or whatever was after me, talking in whispers about me killing the fiddler. You're so -"

 

"Pathetic, I know," Michael said, laughing too. "But hey, what did you expect? First you disappear, then the fiddler died. You weren't exactly crazy about him. I just put two and two together."

 

"And what makes it all the more pathetic is that Ted and Emmett bought your story. You're really drama queens, all of you."

 

"Go ahead, make fun of your friend."

 

Michael knew that this was the first night Brian would spend alone in the loft. Although his friend claimed to be alright, Michael knew he would miss being with Justin, even for just one night, because Justin never left him since they came home. So Michael made it his mission to lighten up Brian's mood. They didn't have pot, and even if they had, Brian couldn't smoke any.

 

So he did the next best thing that came to his mind: he made fun of himself. He immediately decided to tell Brian the story about his "reaction" to Ethan's death, and how Ted and Emmett had bought his theory and how they had worried that Brian was living in the ‘underworld', trying not to get caught by the police. And it had worked. Brian had laughed so hard and for so long that he now had a dull ache on his ribs.

 

"You deserve it, people making fun of you" Brian said, still smiling, "for being a true drama queen."

 

"Yeah, alright." Michael got up. "I'm going to get some water. Do you want some?"

 

"Sure."

 

Michael walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge. "Wow! This is maybe the first time in years that I see this fridge with real food in it!"

 

"Justin's been cooking."

 

Michael took a look at the mashed potatoes and the steaks in the fridge. "I didn't know Justin cooked like that," he said, grabbing two bottles of mineral water. He handed on to Brian and sat down on the sofa again.

 

"Well, I'd rather he didn't," Brian mumbled, opening his bottle and taking a large gulp.

 

"Why? Is his cooking that bad?"

 

"On the contrary; it's very good."

 

"So...?"

 

Brian rolled his eyes. "Because here he is, Michael, playing domestics with me, wasting his time with someone he's not even allowed to fuck."

 

"There you go. I told you before, it's his choice. He's not a boy anymore, or haven't you noticed?

 

"He told me that." Brian shrugged. "I guess he's entitled to do whatever he wants with his life. But living like a monk is not something he should do. He's twenty four, for Christ's sake!"

 

Michael nodded in understanding.

 

"He could go out, you know. He's been here with me all the time, and I can't even kiss him. I know it'll be just for two weeks, but still, it sucks. And not in a positive, life-affirming way."

 

"I'm sure he doesn't want anyone else."

 

"Well, he should!" Brian glared at Michael. "It would be better."

 

"Better for whom? You were a fucking mess since he left, and don't deny it!" he added when Brian opened his mouth to speak. "Look at the shit you did just because he wasn't here!"

 

"Fuck, better for him!"

 

"Shit, Brian! Do you know what's better for Justin? You, asshole! Because it's you who he wants."

 

"Yeah, I know." Brian sighed. "But I still don't get it."

 

"What? You don't get how a great guy like Justin can still be in love with you after all this time?"

 

Brian didn't answer, he just averted his eyes.

 

"Because you're Brian Fucking Kinney," Michael added. "And because you love him too."

 

"Fuck, don't start getting all sentimental on me, Mikey I can't stand it."

 

"Right, right." Michael smiled. "And...not that it's any of our business...but everyone's happy because he came back."

 

"Except for Lindsay," Brian said.

 

Michael crossed his arms. "She told you that?"

 

"She didn't have to. She was here the other day to bring Gus again, and she all but glared at me all the time. If looks could kill I'd be dead by now. It's almost like I'm holding Justin here against his will."

 

"Oh." Michael said knowingly. "Now I see why you still have so much trouble accepting that maybe, for Justin, staying with the man he loves is the best decision. Did Lindsay brainwash you or what?"

 

"Excuse me?"

 

Michael cleared his throat and took a deep breath. Maybe Brian would be upset, but he had something to say and he would say it anyway.

 

"Brian...have you ever stopped to think that Lindsay maybe jealous?"

 

Brian furrowed his brow. "Jealous? Don't be stupid, Michael. Lindsay is as lesbian as they come. Mel's there to prove it."

 

"I didn't mean she's jealous of you. She's jealous of Justin."

 

"Justin?"

 

"Think about it. If Lindsay had half the talent Justin has, do you think she would be here?"

 

"I'm sure she wouldn't. She always wanted to go to New York."

 

"Exactly. And, as far as painting is concerned, I think she always felt like Justin's sort of...mentor. I don't know. Then he had the chance to go to New York, and he went to Europe, to see and to do everything she always wanted for herself."

 

"And your point is?"

 

"My point is that, when Justin left all behind without so much as a backward glance, she...she couldn't understand it. Maybe she never will. How can he throw away what she wanted so much but never had the chance to get? It makes perfect sense!"

 

"Listen to me, Michael. Are you listening?"

 

"Yeah," Michael said, annoyed, "I'm listening."

 

"Lindsay wants what's best for Justin, that's why she insisted that he went to New York. She doesn't want him to waste his talent."

 

Michael threw his hands to the air. "Hey, I'm not blaming Lindsay for anything!"

 

"You shouldn't."

 

"I'm not! I swear! But she wanted so much for him to go, for him to be everything she couldn't be...that she didn't see she was influencing him to do something that maybe he didn't want to do that much."

 

"I don't recall him tossing and screaming that he didn't want to go," said Brian darkly.

 

Oops. Michael knew in that moment that he had stepped into a mined territory. He always knew his best friend's feelings about Justin's departure for New York were a bit...conflicting, to put it mildly. Brian wanted him to go, he wanted Justin to take his chance in the art world, but at the same time he wanted Justin to stay, to chose him and their life together.

 

It looked like Brian and Justin still hadn't had that conversation they needed so much. It worried Michael to realize that they were stalling the moment, because the more they waited, the harder it would be to get there.

 

‘Time to change the subject', Michael thought. "Hey, did you know Hunter has a girlfriend at college?"

 

"The boy clearly needs some advice," said Brian, silently accepting Michael's attempt to avoid any unpleasant conversation. Now wasn't the time. And Michael wasn't the person he wanted to discuss his private life with right now. If ever. "Why would he have a girlfriend when he can have a boyfriend?" He shook his head in mock disapproval. "Tsk tsk...It needs to be said...You and Ben didn't raise this boy well, Mikey."

 

 

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

 

 

Justin had to spend the next day at the hospital too, because Jennifer's arm hurt a lot and they kept her for another day. Debbie went to Jennifer's house to prepare everything for her arrival. Justin went back to the loft for another shower and clean clothes, looking guilty, but Brian assured him he would be fine by himself.

 

But at night, Brian was unable to sleep. He tossed and turned, and his stomach ache came back with a vengeance. His rational mind kept telling him that Justin would come back the next day after his mother was settled, and hell, they weren't even sleeping in the same bed. But the fact was that Justin's mere presence in the loft soothed him, and he was nervous. His doctor had called the day before scheduling an appointment for the next day at nine AM.

 

The next day, at eight in the morning, someone knocked at the loft's door, as Brian was getting dressed to go. He planned to call a cab and go to the hospital without a fuss, but when he opened the door, his plans went downhill.

 

"Are you ready yet? You can't loose miss your appointment with the doctor."

 

"How the hell do you know about that? The man called me yesterday!"

 

Claire stepped inside the loft with a smart smile. "I happen to be friend of Helen, the nurse who took care of you."

 

"I know. Annoying woman," Brian muttered.

 

"Anyway... I asked her to call me if she knew about your appointment's date. Do you..." she hesitated.

 

Brian arched an eyebrow.

 

"Um...do you mind if I go with you and Justin?"

 

"I'm going alone."

 

"Why? I thought Justin was going with you."

 

Brian sighed. "I didn't tell him. He already has too much on his plate. His mother broke her arm in a car accident."

 

"Oh my God!"

 

"It's okay, she'll be alright. But Justin's place right now is with her."

 

"All the more reason that I go with you."

 

"No way. I know you came here to babysit me, but it's not gonna work. I'm fine and I'm going alone."

 

"Come on, Brian...you're my ‘baby brother', remember? And don't be such an asshole, it's okay to be scared about the results."

 

"Who the hell said I'm scared?"

 

"Well, I am," she admitted, hoping her sincerity wouldn't push him away. She knew how Brian was when feelings were involved, Gus and Justin being the exception.

 

"But you shouldn't be," he retorted. "There's no reason to be. I'm invincible, and I'll outlive all of you. You won't get rid of me anytime soon."

 

She raised her eyebrows. "I can see you're in a shitty mood today. Is it just Justin's absence or you're nervous because of the appointment?"

 

Brian shook his head and turned his back on her, walking toward the bedroom, muttering something about nosy sisters. "Let me put on my shoes and we're good to go," he said, admitting there was no way of stopping her from going with him. To tell the truth, he didn't mind her company at all. "And take this smirk off your face."

 

... ...

 

"Do you want me to drive?" Claire asked as they went down the stairs.

 

"Oh, so that's why you wanna go with me...You're dying to drive my Corvette again."

 

"You got me. Your car is everything I ever wanted," she said sarcastically.

 

"Hey, you can drop me there, spend the day with the car and I'll call you when it's finished."

 

"No way. I'm going to wait there for you."

 

"Don't bother. It will probably take the whole day"

 

"Will you please stop complaining and get in the car? We're going to be late."

 

"Just what I needed. Another bossy shit in my life." He muttered.

 

"Get used to it, little brother. We bossy shits are here to stay.

 

... ... ... ...

 

 

Claire was in the waiting room of Dr. Schneider's office. During practically the whole morning, Brian had been prodded, examined and poked with needles. They had taken his blood, spit, urine, even his stool. There had been x-rays, questions about how he was feeling, and his weight, blood pressure and every other unpleasant exam he could think of had been made.

 

She hated hospitals. Before, a hospital was a place she thought of with a certain fondness, a place that gave her two of the happiest memories of her life, because it was where she saw her sons for the first time. But so much had happened since then. Her father had died of cancer, agonizing in a hospital bed. Claire herself had spent some time inside a hospital as a patient when she had cancer. Too much time for her taste. And Brian had almost died, and spent more than a month inside a hospital.

 

So, Claire Kinney decided she hated hospitals, and as she twisted her purse strap nervously, waiting for her brother, she asked herself again why it was taking so long for Brian to get out of the office. The doctor had called him inside more than half an hour ago and Brian insisted to speak with the man alone. Surely the doctor had all the results by now, and they couldn't be bad, could they? Brian seemed better, he had gained some weight and his sarcasm was as intact as ever. But diseases were traitorous, Claire knew that. She shook her head, sending the bad thoughts away. She wasn't going to lose her brother, not after finding him again.

 

The door opened and Brian stepped outside the room. Turning to the doctor, he shook the man's hands, a serious expression on his face.

 

"Call me if you need anything. I'll see you in a month," said the doctor.

 

"Thanks, Doc," Brian answered.

 

Turning to Claire, he stared at her, still serious. Her heart started to beat fast.

 

"Well?" she asked, unable to contain herself any longer. "What did he say?"

 

Brian kept looking at her.

 

"Come on, Brian, you're scaring me! What did the doctor say?"

 

Suddenly, Brian's face lit up in a grin and he shrugged. "He said I'm fine."

 

On an impulse, Claire got up from the chair she was on and approached her brother, opening her arms to hug him...but she stopped less than a meter from him. They had never, in their adult life, held each other. She didn't even know how to do it. Claire wasn't a tactile person, having been brought up in the Kinney's household. The only person she hugged was her son Peter.

 

Surprisingly, it was Brian who shortened the distance between them, stepping further and giving her an awkward hug. "It's alright," he said. Then he gave one step behind, releasing her, and patted her on her back. "I'm fine, I can go back to my normal life. I just need to be careful."

 

"Does this mean you're cured?"

 

"They didn't find anything. There's no trace of the disease in me, just a scar in my lung, but that's expected. And I still have four more months of taking those fucking pills. But other than that, everything's fine."

 

"That's really good to know, Brian," she said. "Do you want to call Justin?"

 

"Nah, he's busy with his mother right now. I'll tell him when he gets home, hopefully tonight. I'll surprise him."

 

"Okay, let's go back to the loft."

 

"Actually...there's a place I want to go first. I want to see Gus."

 

 

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

 

 

Brian drove Claire home and went straight to Mel and Lindsay's. Gus was delighted to see his father. When Mel opened the door, Gus came running down the stairs when he heard Brian's voice in the hall.

 

"I came directly from the hospital. The doctor said I'm fine," Brian explained, before Gus launched himself in his father's arms yelling "Daddy!" The brunet carried his son, spinning with him in the living room and laughing.

 

He planted a kiss on Gus's forehead. "I'm okay, sonny boy, no need for that horrendous mask anymore."

 

"Does it mean I can hug you?" Gus asked, smiling, and already throwing is arms on his father's neck. "We can spend more time together?"

 

"We can be together all the time now, sonny boy."

 

"I'm glad to know you're fine, Brian," said Mel with sincerity.

 

"Thanks , Mel. Where's Lindsay?"

 

"She took JR to buy some clothes. According to her I have no sense of fashion. I have to work on a case, so I stayed with Gus."

 

"I hope you don't mind that I came. I missed Gus," Brian said.

 

"Of course not. I'm glad you're okay."

 

Brian arched his eyebrows. It was still strange to him that he and Mel were so civilized around each other, almost friendly. He never really understood why they didn't get along. Maybe they were too much alike sometimes.

 

"Daddy, come to my room, I wanna show you my new light saber! I got it from Santa!"

 

Brian looked at Mel and the woman nodded. "Go ahead, guys. I'll make some coffee."

 

In Gus's room, the boy made Brian sit down on his bed.

 

"Look, Daddy," said Gus, holding the toy for Brian to see. "You press this button here and the lights go on and it has all the noises a real light saber has! "

 

"That's cool, Gus," Brian said, pressing the button and waving the light saber in the air. "I always wanted one of these when I was a kid."

 

"You can have my old one, Daddy. It's not as good as this one, it's made of plastic," Gus said, wrinkling his nose, "and it doesn't have lights or noises..." then his face lit up. "But hey, Mom always said that the good thing about it is that it doesn't need batteries! And it doesn't break!" Gus handed Brian a light saber that, by the looks of it, had been used a lot and had seen better days.

 

Brian laughed. "Thanks, sonny boy."

 

"Hey, I have an idea! Let's have a duel!" Gus said excitedly, then added matter-of-factly. "I always wanted someone to duel with me, I need to practice my Jedi moves, you know."

 

Brian got up, smiling. He felt like a child again near his son, and it never ceased to amaze him how Gus loved him so much.

 

"Okay, I'll be Darth Vader and you'll be Luke Skywalker."

 

"No, no," Gus raised his little hand in front of Brian. That's from the second trilogy, he announced, with an expert's voice. "I wanna play like the first one. Look, you'll be Obi-Wan Kenobi and I'm your Padawan learner, Anakin Skywalker. We are training before going on an dangerous mission at Coruscant.

 

Gus pressed a button and the saber lit up. "Come on, Master Obi-Wan, let's see if I learned the move you taught me last time we practiced!" He waved the saber and the thing made a noise that sounded like the real thing in the film.

 

Brian laughed again in pure delight, and, grabbing his own and old plastic light saber said, "Get ready, young padawan, let's see how good you are." He waved the toy and made the saber's noise with his own mouth, because his didn't have any of its own: "Whoooom..."

 

 

-------------------------

 

Justin spent the whole day with his mother. He, Debbie and Emmett took her home and helped her to settle. Jennifer was feeling good, aside from a slight pain the painkillers took care of. Debbie cooked them lunch and Justin went to pick up Molly at school. After lunch he took a shower in his old bathroom, but he was so tired that he practically collapsed on the sofa after lunch and slept for several hours. When he woke up it was already night, and he jumped from the sofa, awake in the blink of an eye when the nurse Brian had hired the day before knocked at the door.

 

He left Jennifer and Molly at home with the nurse and practically ran home. He had tried to call Brian through the whole day, but his cell phone was on voicemail and he didn't answer when Justin called the loft. The blond figured that Brian was sleeping or didn't want to answer...but he wasn't ready for what he saw.

 

Justin opened the loft's door only to find it deserted. He felt a pang in his heart, remembering the time he came back from Europe and Brian wasn't there. The loft was dark, no one in the living room or the kitchen.

 

"Brian?" he called, heart beating fast.

 

No one answered.

 

"Brian?" he called again.

 

"Over here!" Brian answered from the bedroom.

 

Relieved, the blond walked toward the bedroom, noticing for the first time that it wasn't in complete darkness. It was dimly lit, and as he went up the stairs he saw candles of various sizes on the bedside tables.

 

Brian, clad in black, was standing near the bed with an enigmatic smile.

 

"Something happened?" Justin asked, feeling goose bumps all over his skin, because he knew that face. It was Brian Kinney's trade-mark predatory smile.

 

"Yeah. Something did happen," Brian answered, voice hoarse. "Something good, for a change."

 

"Are you alright?" A shiver went down Justin's spine.

 

"Not yet." Brian approached him slowly, like a cat and stopped right in front of Justin, mouth inches from his. "But after I kiss you, everything will be just fine."

 

With that, his mouth descended over Justin's in a hungry kiss.

Chapter Text

‘Oh God'...was the last coherent thought Justin managed before he felt his mouth being explored by Brian. He didn't ask why Brian was kissing him, what had happened to the ‘no close contact' rule...he just wanted to feel. His arms went automatically to Brian's neck, and he melted into Brian's embrace, moaning, letting Brian's tongue savor every inch of his mouth.

 

They only parted because they needed to breathe, and they did it reluctantly, panting and resting their foreheads together.

 

"I went to the doctor today," Brian whispered close to Justin's mouth, and Brian smelled of soap and aftershave...and oh my God, Brian's own unique scent...so good that Justin inhaled deeply, sighing in contentment. "He said I'm fine, I'm not transmitting the disease anymore."

 

"You're cured?" Justin breathed, unable to take his gaze off Brian's mouth.

 

"Not yet, not fully cured, still need to finish the treatment." He kissed Justin's neck lightly. "But I'm alright."

 

"I'm sorry you still have to take the pills" said Justin, knowing fully well how much Brian hated the medicine, how they still made him sick almost every morning.

 

"I'm not," Brian whispered in a husky voice again, "If that's what it takes...so I can do this," he said, kissing Justin's neck, "and this," he kissed Justin's jaw, and the blond closed his eyes in pure bliss, "and most of all, this," he planted a soft kiss on Justin's lips.

 

Justin immediately pushed his tongue inside Brian's mouth, eager to feel his kiss again and the mouth that Justin knew was only his and no one else's. It was Brian's turn to moan, and his hand went to the back of Justin's neck, deepening the kiss.

 

Justin felt like he was floating. He didn't know if he wanted to laugh or to cry, his heart was beating fast and he couldn't control it. He couldn't even move, pressed as he was between Brian and the wall, but he couldn't care less. His knees were so weak from the kiss that he would have sunken to the floor if not for Brian's strong arms holding him. It was almost hard to believe that Brian was so close again...kissing and holding him, defining him, anchoring him...His Brian, responsible for the rollercoaster he always seemed to live in, and who made every minute worth the ride, despite the ups and downs.

 

They broke the kiss again, but they didn't move at first. Locking gazes, they read in each other's eyes all that didn't need to be said: things like "I missed you" and "I love you" seemed too little to express the feelings passing between hazel and blue eyes. They started to unbutton each other's shirts, slowly at first, but as more skin was exposed, their movements became urgent, desperate. They needed to feel, to touch, to taste. Bare chests touched and they moved together, kissing again. The pants and underwear followed the shirts to the floor, neither man wanting to stay away from each other for even a second.

 

Brian's leg slipped between Justin's and their erections touched for the first time in so many months. They both gasped, knowing right then that this would be fast. It had been too much time apart, too much time without touching each other. They started to rock against each other, hands and arms everywhere. They couldn't stop touching and kissing. They were close to the edge in a matter of seconds, sensations too strong to be contained now.

 

"Justin," Brian gasped, "I'm not going to last."

 

Justin already knew that, but he was beyond caring. He was almost over the edge too, and he knew they had all the time in the world later.

 

"Me neither," he gasped, when Brian's hand cupped his ass, bringing their groins even closer. "Just let go. Let go for me."

 

"Oh God, Justin, I..." Brian breathed, face hidden in the crook of Justin's neck, and then he came, shuddering, panting, his movements erratic. Justin rested his forehead against Brian's chest, and the beautiful sound of the man he loved moaning in pleasure made him come too, trembling and gasping while he murmured Brian's name.

 

They kissed softly now, riding the last remnants of their passion, and held each other tight, still breathing heavily. After a while, Brian chuckled and kissed Justin's neck.

 

"What?" the blond asked.

 

"That was fast. We almost came with our pants on, like two fucking horny teenagers."

 

"Yeah," Justin giggled. "But hey, what did you expect?" he slapped Brian's arm playfully.

 

"It took us what? Three minutes to get off?"

 

"More like thirty seconds," Justin giggled.

 

Brian pulled Justin's hand and they both collapsed on the bed, laughing like children. Justin grabbed Brian's hands and kissed his knuckles, still smiling.

 

"You know," Brian said, "You sleeping in that fucking bed out there was driving me crazy. Some nights I just wanted to rip your clothes off...It was hard to control the impulse, believe me."

 

Justin giggled again. "Me too... God, I never jerked off so much in my life," he added with a grin. "I kept hearing you snoring at night, thinking that you were so close and yet I couldn't touch you."

 

"Hey!" Brian's indignant face made Justin laugh again. "I don't snore, twat."

 

"Yeah, keep dreaming, old man."

 

They stayed silent for a couple of heartbeats.

 

"I never jerked off so much either," Brian said. "And the fact that you're a tease doesn't help a bit."

 

"Me?" Justin asked in mock shock. "What did I do?"

 

Brian glared at Justin. "Are you kidding? Well, where do I start...The other day you were in the bathroom all wet...and I happened to get inside to brush my teeth, then I hear you say," and Brian imitated Justin's voice "I love this soap, Brian, it leaves my skin so soft. You should try it."

 

"What? It was just a statement! I really love that soap! You're the one that's always complaining that my soap is cheap. That one I got from Emmett." Justin laughed. "As if you didn't go inside the bathroom to see me naked."

 

"Shut up, brat," Brian smiled, cupping Justin's face. "You were trying to make me horny."

 

"You're always horny, Brian," Justin deadpanned, but leaned into Brian's touch.

 

"Look who's talking," the brunet said. "I've never met someone so eager for a little bit of fun in the shape of a cock as you are."

 

"Not any kind of fun," Justin put his index finger on Brian's nose. "Just with you." He sighed. "By the way...I loved the candles." Justin wondered what Brian would do with the comment. He really couldn't tell, but he could bet Brian was embarrassed, even if just a little, for being caught in the romantic gesture.. "I love it when you're romantic."

 

"I wasn't trying to be romantic," Brian argued. "I just thought it would set a better mood for the occasion."

 

Justin almost snorted. Brian was so transparent sometimes that it was funny.

 

"Well, for what it's worth, thank you for ‘the mood' you set. I loved it."

 

"Shut up, brat,' Brian said, reading the playful tone in Justin's words. "Come here and show some appreciation for the candle thing."

 

They kissed again, this time slower, savoring each other's mouths, taking their time. "I'll be right back," Justin said, disentangling himself from Brian's embrace reluctantly and getting up; he went to the bathroom and returned in a few minutes with a small wet towel in his hands.

 

"Time to clean you up, Mr. Kinney."

 

Brian's hands reached for the towel, but Justin stopped him.

 

"No," he murmured. "Let me."

 

Brian nodded. Justin sat on the bed and slowly, painfully slowly, started to kiss every centimeter of Brian's skin while he started to slowly clean the brunet. While he removed the dried come with the towel, he kissed, licked and nibbled Brian's hipbone and bellybutton, making Brian's breath hitch while his hands automatically traveled to Justin's hair. In seconds he was hard again. Brian's hands roamed over Justin's body and rested on his lower back. "You're perfect," he murmured.

 

 

Justin was lost in the feeling of Brian's skin under his lips, exploring Brian's collarbone with his tongue, and the tiny mark left by the catheter the brunet used in the hospital. Justin sighed and closed his eyes for a second, banishing the bad thoughts from his mind. Now wasn't the time to remember the hospital and the pain, and the fact that he had almost lost the love of his life. He wanted to celebrate life, his and Brian's life, together. He wanted to celebrate Brian, who was very much alive, whose sweet skin tasted like the most intoxicating drug, who was his life.

 

Suddenly, Brian flipped them both on the bed so he was now on top of Justin. His mouth slowly traveled through Justin's chest and his tongue caressed it slowly, making Justin arch his back and press Brian's mouth against him.
"I missed this...your taste," he said, licking the blond's sweat.

 

"God, Brian..." the young man moaned.

 

Brian smiled and resumed kissing Justin's body, while his hands ran over his sides, eliciting groans and sighs from his mouth. He trailed wet open mouthed kisses along Justin's torso, slowly going down, until his mouth found the blond's hipbone. Justin's hands sank in Brian's hair, while Brian sucked a spot until it was dark red, marking Justin as his. He wanted to take his time cherishing the young man's beautiful and perfect body, paying attention to every detail of his flawless skin.

 

"Brian..." Justin murmured, unable to say anything other than his lover's name. His body was on fire, every touch intensified by the feeling of Brian's mouth and hands everywhere on his skin.

 

Brian planted his hands firmly on Justin's hips and his mouth traveled further down until he found his target, red and almost begging for attention. In one swift move, he took Justin in his mouth, going all the way down.

 

"Fuck!" Justin exclaimed, surprised, attempting to thrust forward. If not for Brian's hands pressing his hips against the bed, keeping him in place, he would have come right then. It had been a long time since he felt Brian's wonderful mouth on him.

 

Brian had missed Justin's taste so much that he soon found himself sucking him eagerly, his head moving up and down, his tongue running all over, until Justin was a mess, moaning loudly, eyes closed, head arched back, completely lost in the pleasure Brian was giving him.

 

"God," Justin panted, "I can't..." he tried to say, but the words escaped him.

 

Brian knew Justin's body as well as his own. The bond was close again. He stopped abruptly, and planting an almost chaste kiss on the tip, he released Justin, smiling when the younger man bit his lip and whimpered in of disappointment. "I want you to come with me inside you," Brian said softly, mouth now close to Justin's earlobe, licking and making Justin shiver.

 

"Yes..." Justin hissed. "Inside me, where you belong," the heat coming from Brian's big hands on his body making him tremble.

 

Brian grunted a "mine" of approval. The kiss now was deep and messy and seemed to last forever, and Justin sighed against Brian's mouth, feeling his body tingling in anticipation. It was amazing what Brian was able to do to him with just his kiss. Brian kissed Justin's collarbone again, tracing with his tongue the contours of the young man's neck. Justin was breathing fast now and whimpered as Brian left a wet trail along his torso, while his hand started to stroke the very much hard young man, causing a guttural moan to leave Justin's pink lips. "Oh my God, Brian..."

 

But Brian was far from finishing. It had been a long time since he felt Justin's ivory skin on his and he intended to make every second last. His thumb traced the dripping hot tip a few times, and his mouth slowly invaded the blond's right ear, making Justin shiver when he puffed lightly inside it.

 

"Brian..." Justin said again, completely lost. He spread his knees wider in a silent plead, giving the brunet easier access to him. He didn't care that he was completely exposed, looking needy. He only wanted to feel Brian inside him, invading his body and his soul, leaving room for nothing else, as it always was when they were together. Brian's other hand searched blindly at the nightstand and before Justin could tell how it happened, the condom and the lube were in Brian's hand.

 

They looked at each other again, both men panting, while Brian put some lube on his fingers and warmed it a little. He started to prepare Justin slowly, never taking his hazel eyes off the blue ones, making the feeling highly intense and erotic. Justin was tight and warm, and Brian grunted when he saw goose bumps on the young man's skin. He knew Justin was almost ready. It was hard, pun intended, but he didn't want to rush things, he wanted to prepare the blond slowly and good, he wanted to see him thrashing and moaning his name when he came.

 

"God, Justin...you're so...I need to be inside you," he murmured, hot breath on Justin's ear, his fingers never stopping their work inside Justin.

 

"Do it..." Justin begged, panting.

 

When he was sure Justin was ready, Brian put the condom on himself and started to enter achingly slowly. As soon as he felt Brian, Justin bucked his hips, whimpering a little, impatient to feel the man he loved inside him.

 

"Shhhh..." Brian steadied him, a hand on his stomach. "I want it to last."

 

"I know it...but I missed you so much..."

 

Brian had missed Justin too. More than he could tell. He tried to keep going slow, but Justin's arms pulling him closer and the blond's movements dragging him in made it difficult to contain himself, and he went the rest of the way inside in one swift move, making Justin gasp.

 

He stopped, breathing harshly, the feeling of Justin around him too much. Justin's eyes were wide open, staring at him, making impossible for Brian to look anywhere else but inside the deep blue. Justin's forehead was glistening with sweat, and when he licked his lips invitingly, Brian just had to kiss him, devouring his mouth like a thirsty man in the desert.

 

Brian started to move again, slowly at first, going almost all the way out and back inside, making sure he made Justin moan each time he hit the bundle of nerves that he knew gave Justin so much pleasure. It was the most amazing feeling in the world...Brian felt like Justin was everywhere: body surrounding him, eyes piercing into his soul. Soon Justin was gasping for breath, finally resting one of his arms over his eyes.

 

"I want...I want..." the blond whimpered, unable to form the right words.

 

"What do you want, Justin?" Brian panted, trying to keep the slow pace, but knowing he was about to loose it completely, because he couldn't think straight anymore.

 

"Hard and fast, Brian...make it hard and fast..."

 

Brian didn't need more encouragement, and before Justin could even finish, his thrusts became faster, his own eyes closing, feeling that he couldn't hold on anymore, and he gave Justin what he wanted, what they both wanted, what they had craved for so long. It was like they were about to burst, a feeling so strong, a pleasure so intense that they lost themselves in the movements, unable to think, unable to stop.

 

Somewhere behind the fire on his skin, Justin's brain vaguely registered moans and ragged breathing filling the bedroom, but he couldn't tell who they belonged to. Brian inside him made him feel whole, claimed, and it made his heart almost burst. It was always like that with him and Brian. They lost themselves in each other, consumed by a combination of the strongest lust and the deepest love, so intense that he didn't know where he ended and Brian begun. He pulled him closer, heart beating fast, feeling Brian deeper than before, and he kissed him with all he had to give.

 

Brian was going fast now, and impossibly stronger and deeper each time, and Justin dug his nails into the brunet's arms, marking him. Their mouths clashed messily, the kiss salty from their sweaty bodies. Justin moaned unintelligible words that sounded like Brian's name and Brian panted "Justin" in response. They were on fire, and each time their bodies connected with each thrust it seemed the fire would consume them in seconds and leave nothing behind.

 

And then Brian's hand was on him again, pumping expertly, their bodies glistening, their skin touching everywhere, and Justin couldn't hold on any longer. He was flying, floating as his whole body tingled and a bright light behind his closed eyelids almost blinded him. Throwing his head back, he shuddered, groaned Brian's name and surrendered completely the jolt of electricity coursing through him, knowing that nothing and no one in the world would ever make him feel like Brian did.

 

Brian opened his eyes, knowing Justin was coming, and the sight of Justin lost in pleasure was the most beautiful thing in the world. It was suddenly too much, and his thrusts became erratic, stronger, harder, and suddenly Brian was in a spiral throwing him in waves of pleasure that made him gasp and tremble and he just let go. "Mine," he grunted again, as if he didn't want Justin to ever forget it, as he just let the waves crash, making him forget who he was for a moment, as he came hard inside Justin, holding on to him like he wanted to melt their bodies together. He collapsed on top of Justin, instantly feeling the young man's pale arms holding him close and Justin's soft reply, "Yours."

 

It was a several minutes before either of them could say anything. It had been too intimate, too intense, and they didn't want the comfortable haze to end. Brian had his head in the crook at Justin's neck and Justin's face was buried in Brian's chestnut hair, as their breath slowly returned to normal. Finally, Brian raised his head and kissed Justin softly, his hands running through the soft blond hair in a tender caress.

 

"I love you, Brian," Justin said, loosing himself in hazel eyes once more.

 

Part of Brian's brain told him to keep quiet as always, but before he registered it, he was whispering "me too," in Justin's ear, and he was rewarded with the bright smile he had missed so much. He rolled off Justin, took off the condom, tied it and threw it off.

 

Brian positioned himself behind the young man, spooning him, his arms around Justin's waist. Justin sighed, eyes closed, mouth curled in a satisfied smile, and his hands held Brian's, their fingers intertwined. The last thing Brian thought before sleep took him was that he didn't really care if had just sounded like a fool in love. God helped him, he was a fucking fool in love. And he was finally home.

 

 

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

 

 

Brian woke up slowly. The first thing he realized was that it was early morning. Too early, because the pale winter sun barely brought light to the bedroom. The second thing he noticed was that he was alone in the bed. He frowned, raising his head to look at the bathroom, but the door was opened and the lights were turned off.

 

"Justin...?" he called, but no one answered. Shit, had something happened? It was way too early for Justin to be already awake. Unless he'd had a nightmare, Justin never woke up early on his own. Brian always had to call his name and shake him several times for the blond to open his eyes.

 

Straining his ears he could hear a soft tapping, and Justin's voice humming softly an old tune. He looked around for his underwear but didn't find it, so with a groan he got up reluctantly, pulling the blanket with him and wrapping it on himself, he padded through the bedroom's floor to look for the blond.

 

Justin had his walkman on his ears and he was dancing and swirling near the loft's window. The heat was turned on, because he was only wearing Brian's pajama bottoms in the winter morning. He seemed lost in the music, oblivious to the fact that he was being watched.

 

But what really made Brian smile was the brush in Justin's hand and his right cheek smeared with yellow paint. He loved to see Justin painting or drawing...It made him feel proud, like it was his own achievement. Justin's talent was beautiful. Suddenly the young man stopped dancing and eyed critically the canvas on the easel near the window, inclining his head and scratching his chin, leaving there an adorable blue mark. After a moment of deep contemplation, he approached the canvas as he was approaching a lover, an intense gaze and a half-smile. He started to stroke the canvas with the brush in measured movements.

 

Brian lost track of how long he stayed there, just watching Justin painting. He marveled at Justin's face as it acquired an extremely relaxed expression, almost as if the blond was in a trance. He didn't follow any pattern, alternating his actions between painting with passion, swinging to the music only he could hear and stroking the canvas almost like a caress. It was one of the most beautiful sights, Justin immersed in his art, blinded to everything else.

 

The more Brian looked at him, the more he was enthralled by the young artist, and it almost felt like he was seeing Justin for the first time. Fuck, he was beautiful. Although he wasn't tall, Justin had the most appealing body he had ever seen, a combination between a boy and a man, pale glowing skin, blond hair falling on his forehead, and blue eyes that were brighter than the candle's lights with a hint of mischief in them. Brian loved how those eyes, when they were together, burned with passion and seemed to dig holes on his skin. Just looking at the blond and knowing he was his made Brian half hard again.

 

Brian approached him slowly, not wanting to startle the young man. But Justin could always feel when Brian was near and he eyed the brunet, rewarding him with his thousand-watt sunshine smile. A smile like that was something Brian was never able to resist, so Brian walked toward him with a wicked grin and suddenly stopped, feeling something wet on is foot. Looking down he saw an orange stain on the wooden floor.

 

Justin turned the walkman off and looked at him sheepishly, smiling a little. His eyes traveled to the floor and to Brian's foot where now an orange blotch could be seen. "Um..." he said hesitantly. "Sorry about that."

 

Brian's first instinct was to ask "what the fuck?" and make the young man understand that an expensive wooden floor deserved a lot more respect than that. But Justin was too cute, covered in paint and looking like a little boy who was caught eating too much chocolate. He immediately suppressed an urge to slap himself at the corny thought. "Cute" was so lesbionic that he almost flinched. But looking at Justin again he thought, "What the hell," he had already broken all his old rules for the young man, what was one more? So, he admitted Justin's cuteness to himself - and surprisingly it made him feel good - and invaded his personal space, putting his arms and the blanket around the slim frame.

 

"Sorry..."said Justin again as Brian tried o remove some yellow paint from his nose. "I didn't see the orange can, and I stepped on it, and..."

 

"Yeah, well...you're a careless twat, that's what you are," Brian said softly. "Lucky for you I'm in a good mood and I won't lecture you about spoiling the wonderful wooden floor."

 

Justin looked at him as if Brian had grown another head. "Excuse me? You said no lecture?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"Who are you? What have you done to Brian Kinney?"

 

Brian slapped his ass playfully. "Hey!" But the fact was that he was surprised at his own reaction about the offending stain.

 

"You're not him," Justin went on, a glint of mischief in his eyes. "The real Brian would be queening out right now just to see the tiniest stain on his floor."

 

Brian wanted to say that if the stain on the floor meant that Justin was back to stay, he would gladly have the floor covered with paint. But he blinked and, thank God, managed to stop himself before he would grow a pussy and breasts like a real woman. "I don't queen out, Sunshine, that's something Emmett would do. Or you, by the way."

 

"U-uh..." Justin eyed him skeptically.

 

"Hey," Brian reminded him, running his hand through the blond hair. "The loft is yours now." He hadn't forgotten that the loft and the vette were now Justin's, just like the country manor. Hell, every fucking thing he had would belong to Justin and Gus someday.

 

"No," Justin shook his head, determined and very serious. "It's ours. If you're not inside the loft or the house, I don't want them."

 

"Alright," Brian sighed. "Ours." He tried not to linger on the thought that it was too good to say something like that, his past experiences telling him, like always, not to get his hopes up too much. But for now it was good to know they shared the loft, they shared each other's lives again. "I see you're working." Brian said, trying to change the subject, too deep for his liking.

 

"Yep. You like it?"

 

Brian looked at the abstract painting where blues, yellows and oranges mixed together in a perfect combination. In all their years together, Brian had acquired the ability to read Justin's mood through his art. It was clear that Justin was happy. Just looking at the piece made Brian feel good. too "It's beautiful," he said.

 

Justin blushed. "I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep. This painting was inside my head, screaming to be made." He shrugged. "It's not always like that...but sometimes I just have to paint...I need to leave everything else and paint until I get it out of my system."

 

"It's perfect. You're a genius, Sunshine." Brian smiled as Justin stroked the canvas once more with blue.

 

"There. It's ready," he said. Then, leaving the pallet and the brush on a chair, he put his arms around Brian's neck. "You better get used to it, Mr. Kinney. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to paint...this one was fast, but I can paint for days. When the urge to paint comes, there's no way to stop it."

 

Brian held Justin by the waist, smiling. "As long as you don't make me stop fucking you so you have to paint...I understand it perfectly. Some urges can't wait," he said suggestively, arching an eyebrow.

 

Justin slapped his arm playfully. "Always the romantic...If you have any kind of urge right now, I thing we should take care of it," he smiled too, feeling Brian already hard against his thigh. "It's no good to leave some things neglected..."

 

"I couldn't agree more. I still need special care, you know."

 

"Although I'm not a nurse I'll see what I can do for you."

 

"I'm sure you can do a lot."

 

"Brian..."Justin said when he felt Brian's hot mouth on his neck.

 

"Mmmm?"

 

"I'm happy."

 

Brian stopped and looked at Justin's eyes, reading in the clear blue what he had already guessed from the bright painting beside them. He wanted so much to be like the young man and say that he, against all he had always believed in, right here and now, was happy too...but words never came easy to Brian Kinney...The deeper he felt, the harder it was to talk about it.

 

Brian took Justin's hand and led him to the sofa near the window. He undressed Justin slowly and they kneeled, facing each other, like they had done once before. Justin had a feeling of déjà vu, because two years earlier, in (on) this sofa, in this very same position facing Brian, he felt like his heart was about to break in a million pieces. But now it was different. He felt like his real life, a life with the only man he had loved in his life, was within his grasp, and he couldn't wait for it to start.

 

Brian kissed every inch of Justin's neck, marveling at the feeling of the ivory soft skin against his. His hands slowly traveled up along Justin's arms, shoulders and neck and stopped there, his thumbs caressing the soft spot behind Justin's ears. Then his hands traveled oh so slowly to Justin's back and torso, mapping every curve, every spot that he knew made Justin gasp, as if his hands wanted to imprint Justin's body in their memory.

 

Justin trembled and arched under Brian's thought, and he smiled knowing that this was Brian's way of showing his love. He silently vowed to always read Brian's unspoken words of love in his actions, because he was the only one who could do it. And he was the only man in the world that Brian Kinney had ever made love to.

 

Without a word, Brian opened a condom that he always left hidden under the cushions. Justin picked it and put it on Brian with trembling fingers, sighing, his desire for Brian so strong that he almost felt a lump on his throat. He loved it hard and fast...but it was in moments like this that he felt truly loved, no matter that Brian couldn't say the words as frequently as Justin did. What he could read in Brian's hazel eyes made everything in the world pale in comparison, and Justin didn't care if just looking into those eyes made him want to cry with happiness like a silly princess.

 

Brian sat on the sofa and pulled Justin to his lap, and the blond straddled his slim hips. Justin was still relaxed from the few hours before and, silently and slowly, blue eyes fixed Brian's, Justin went slowly down inch by inch, until all he could feel and smell and hear was Brian, inside his body, leaving no space for anything else.

 

They kissed slowly, the connection they had so strong in that moment, that any sudden movement would be too much. It was Brian who started to move, at first just a little, barely thrusting inside, taking his time, as if he wanted this to last forever. Justin arched his back and threw his head back, lost in the feeling of Brian everywhere. It was slow, and tender, and almost peaceful. It was beautiful, a moment not to be forgotten for along time. The feelings they couldn't find the right words to describe poured out of their hearts as they made love on that sofa, while the pale sun bathed them in the winter morning light.

 

 

--- --- --- --- --- --- ---

 

 

Brian opened the door to his office and stopped dead on his tracks.

 

"Surprise!!!"

 

The entire room was horribly decorated with balloons of all sizes, ribbons, banners, and every single ridiculous party ornament he could think of.

 

"Welcome back, Bri!" said Cynthia smiling slightly.

 

"What the fuck is this?" Brian asked, trying in vain to sound angry.

 

"A welcome back party, of course!" A sarcastic voice said from behind him, and Brian turned to see amusement showing in his friend's eyes. "Your employees want you to know how happy they are that you came back. I knew you would love it. Please, don't thank us."

 

Brian looked around. "How the hell did you manage to put this fairy decoration together? I'm impressed. I didn't know you had it in you, Theodore."

 

"Thank you, it was made thinking of you. Especially the pink ribbons. I had some help, of course."

 

Brian narrowed his eyes at Cynthia, and she immediately raised her hands in a defensive gesture.

 

"Don't look at me. I had nothing to do with it."

 

"Emmett helped me," the older man clarified.

 

"I knew it. This terrible rainbow over my desk...I smelled Honneycutt's fairy taste as soon as I came in. And what is this? Fucking flowers?" he glared at him.

 

"Uh...that was sent by Michael and Debbie."

 

"I see." Brian eyed his employees, who were hesitantly looking at him behind Cynthia and Ted's mischievous faces. They looked at him as if they were waiting for something, but he didn't have a clue what it was. Surely they weren't waiting for him to thank them, were they?

 

A nudge in his ribs from Cynthia told him that, yes, unfortunately they were. And apparently they would not leave until he did it. The things he had to do for Kinnetik...God, now what, he would have to be "nice" to them? "Uh...okay, I..." he was almost choking. Trying to thank his God damned staff and to put a nice smile on his face at the same time was hard. Ted and Cynthia were definitely in trouble for that.

 

"Thanks for the welcome, guys," he said in a hurry, looking at the floor. If there was no way out of this, better make it quick. God helped him, he was really turning into a soft sentimental faggot...now he was being ‘pleasant' to the assholes of the art department! Where the hell was the menacing boss he was so proud to be? He made a mental note to ask his doctor if the medication he was taking had any effect on his behavior, maybe a side-effect or something like that. "Now, why don't we all go back to work? I believe the campaigns don't make themselves."

 

"You heard the boss," Ted said, finally showing Brian some mercy. "Let's go back to work."

 

People slowly started to leave the room and Brian had to painfully suffer through each one of his employees who decided to shake his hands and say "welcome" once more.

 

"Now, please," he said to Ted and Cynthia, who remained inside, his old tone of annoyance filling the room, "someone take these fucking flowers off my desk, and the horrible banners from the walls...I can't see a thing in here."

 

"And I'm supposed to be the queen..."Ted murmured.

 

"What was that, Theodore?"

 

"Nothing, Bri, I was just talking to myself."

 

"You better be. And who the hell do I have to kill here to get some decent coffee?"

 

Ted and Cynthia looked at each other, hiding their smiles. The good old Brian was back, crankier than ever.

 

 

--- --- ---

 

 

The menacing boss was proud, and back in no time, as soon as the initial good feeling of being back to work passed and the days ran into weeks. His art department lacked his enthusiasm for the campaigns. Or the talent. It was the only explanation why he had to always fix the boards at the last minute. Like now, when all he really wanted was a shower, his bed and Justin, not in that particular order, the bed and the shower being optional, as long as Justin was included, preferably naked.

 

"Okay, big guy, time to take a break. I can see you've been working non-stop since you arrived. How many times do I have to tell you not to bring work to home?"

 

Brian blinked and raised his head, taking his eyes from the boards he was studying.

 

"Hey," he said, smiling at Justin, who was leaning on the door. He was so absorbed in his work that he didn't hear the heavy door of the loft opening.

 

"Come on, you need a break."

 

"I have to finish this, Justin. I can't stop now."

 

"Oh, yes, you can, Mr. Kinney." Justin approached Brian's desk with a smile. I won't take "no" for an answer."

 

"Justin..." Brian sighed. "I can't. I mean...look at these boards. The presentation is tomorrow. The account is new and it's a big one. If we manage to impress the client, we're gonna be a big fucking success. But there's something wrong with them and I can't figure what it is. I already changed the phrase, the letters, the size of the picture, the models. And it's still not right."

 

"You already are a big fucking success, and I see nothing wrong with these," said the blond looking at the boards on Brian's desk.

 

"Yeah, well, they're good. But good is not enough, I need them to be impressive. Fabulous. That's Kinnetik's trade-mark, we're always over the edge. Shit. Maybe I'm losing my touch."

 

"You're not. Maybe if you take your mind off it for a while...I'm sure the solution will come to you."

 

"It's better come before tomorrow morning, or I'm fucked. And not in a positive, life-affirming way."

 

Justin circled the desk and stopped behind Brian, putting his hands on Brian's shoulders and starting massaging them. Brian moaned in approval and closed his eyes, marveling at the feeling of the knots on his stiff muscles being massaged by Justin's expert hands.

 

It had been a month since Brian was back to work. Kinnetik was doing more than fine and Brian loved what he did. Creating intelligent and irresistible campaigns was one of his passions. But the new account, INFOSTORE, was driving him nuts. The client was big, a famous software's fabric based in New York, with branches all over the country. The owner was an asshole breeder, famous for being hard to please. Brian really wanted the account. It was his first challenge since he came back.

 

As for Justin, he was bursting with creativity. He wasn't painting too much, but he was drawing again, and being able to use his hand almost as he did when he was younger gave him a joy he couldn't describe. He couldn't remember drawing this much since the bashing. His hand miraculously almost never hurt, and every time it did, Brian was always there to massage it.

 

He was never without new ideas, and almost everything he saw was a reason for inspiration. Of course, the loft soon became too small for him, and when his paintings from Europe finally arrived, and when Brian almost tripped in one of them, they decided it was time to do something drastic.

 

They rented a room in the same building, first floor, and moved everything related to Justin's art to the place. The young man loved the room, it had big windows and a lot of natural light, and it was close to home, so if he got in one of his "artist's trance", as Brian called it, he just had to go down the stairs. He called Alexia and she promised to go to Pittsburgh to see his work as soon as possible. It had been a wonderful month, in Justin's opinion. His heart felt light, and he could barely contain his enthusiasm every time his fingers grabbed a pencil.

 

Brian was getting better and better each passing day. He was almost always in a good mood, and another visit to the doctor confirmed that the treatment was being effective. They were almost every night at home, Debbie's dinners on Sunday being the only exception so far. Brian still wasn't allowed to drink, so they didn't want to risk a trip to Babylon. Brian complained it was no fun, all the dancing and the fucking going on there and he not being able to drink at all. Still, they went to the diner frequently and had a good time with the guys, and they spent a lot of time with Gus too. Life was good.

 

It was almost like a honeymoon, Justin thought, amused. Lots of time just enjoying each other at home, lots of fucking, lots of take out food and DVDs and sleeping on the sofa with his head on Brian's lap or the other way...Not that he would ever say that to Brian, God forbid. They were happy, finally together and with no problems or big crisis to solve at last, and if they still had some important things to talk about, it could wait. Justin knew it was up to him to start a serious conversation. The world would come to an end before Brian would do that on his own free will. But right now, Justin preferred to enjoy the quiet nights at home, than to engage in a difficult conversation that he knew would leave them both angry. He wasn't putting it aside, he often said to himself, he was just postponing it.

 

They never talked about the house nor about moving there. Justin suspected that Brian still had someone to take care of it, to clean the place and water the plants, but he didn't ask for now. Because the house, as special as it was, held his most wonderful and his most terrible memories: the night Brian proposed to him and he said yes, and the day Brian almost died in his arms. Justin wasn't sure he wanted to test these waters right now.

 

Because the loft was basically, in Jenifer's words, a fuckpad, it obviously didn't have room for everything. So they had both decided not to bring too much work to home if they could avoid it, meaning that Justin almost never painted at the loft and Brian rarely took home any kind of work from Kinnetik. It was Justin's idea, but to his surprise, Brian complied without too much fuss. Until now. But as he massaged Brian's back, seeing how tense he was, Justin decided he was going to make an exception this time. He knew how much Brian wanted the INFOSTORE account. He thought about offering some help, but gave up. He knew Brian wanted to do this on his own. It was important to Brian, Justin knew, to prove to himself that he was still good at what he did. And Justin knew he was brilliant, he just needed time.

 

"Mmm...it feels so good, Sunshine," Brian murmured, feeling the pain on his back starting to lessen with the magic of Justin's hands.

 

"You have some pretty stiff muscles here," Justin said, kissing the back of Brian's neck.

 

"I have another stiff muscle here that you also should take care of," Brian said, and he grabbed one of Justin's hands and pulled him to his lap. Justin laughed and put his arms around Brian's neck. If he wanted to distract and relax Brian, sex was always the best choice.

 

"How was your day, dear?" Brian mocked, kissing Justin's neck and the place behind his ear, marveling at the goose bumps that immediately appeared on Justin's arm.

 

"Perfect, darling," Justin said, his breath already faster than normal. "I took the kids to school and we went shopping afterwards."

 

"What..." Brian took Justin's shirt off in one swift move, nibbling the place where neck met shoulder, "do we have for dinner, honey?"

 

"Oh..." Justin was having a hard time concentrating now, with Brian's mouth on his earlobe. "Jambalaya," he breathed.

 

"I love Jambalaya," Brian said, while his fingers started to unbutton Justin's pants, and he kissed Justin with an intensity that left the blond dizzy. "But I think I'll skip dinner and eat the dessert instead."

 

In seconds they were on the bed, laughing, playing, touching, moaning, anxious to feel each other as close as physically possible. When Brian was finally inside him, Justin looked at his flawless face, marveling at how it was possible for someone to be this beautiful. He would never tire of Brian, of his taste, his smell, his touch. There would never be anyone who would be able to compare to the man he loved.

 

When Justin came, Brian looked at his face, mesmerized. His tousled blond hair, his long eye lashes, his half-opened mouth with a pink tongue between very white teeth...Justin was beautiful. The most angelic face combined with the tightest ass and the most flexible and sinful body. As his own pleasure built, pulling him in a blinding spiral of sensations, Brian forgot everything, boards and presentations and asshole clients, replaced by the beautiful blond beneath him.

 

Later, when both men were relaxed and dozing in each other's arms, Brian wondered lazily how the hell Justin always seemed to know what he needed. He needed to relax, take his mind out of the fucking approaching deadline, but he was unable to stop working, too tangled in the presentation to take his mind out of it. Justin had did just that...made him stop without he even realizing it, made him relax. He smiled. It was really good to have the blond in his life. Suddenly, he opened his eyes, fully alert, as an idea about the boards struck him.

 

"What happened?" Justin asked sleepily.

 

"Go back to sleep, Sunshine," Brian kissed Justin's shoulder. "I just had the perfect idea for the boards."

 

"Oh..."Justin said, still half sleeping. "So you too have a...what do you call it? An artist's trance?"

 

"You can say that. Maybe your creativity is contagious."

 

"Thank God for that," mumbled Justin.

 

Brian worked until 3 A.M. The boards were perfect and the next day the presentation was a big fat success, leaving Kinnetik with a big brand-new famous account and the asshole hard-to-please costumer very much pleased. Brian Kinney was once more in perfect shape, boys and girls.

 

 

--- --- --- --- ---

 

 

Emmett's voice sounded amused. "Two guys were having drinks when they got into an argument about who enjoyed sex more: the top or the bottom. The first man said, "Tops obviously enjoy sex more than bottoms. Why do you think we're so obsessed with getting laid?" "That doesn't prove anything," the second guy countered. "Think about this...when your ear itches and you put your finger in it and wiggle it around, then pull it out, which feels better-your ear or your finger?"

 

There was a massive laughter at the dinner table were Justin, Michael, Ted and Emmett were having dinner. Near them, Debbie was busy taking another large plate of vegetarian Lasagna from the oven.

 

"Really, Deb, I can't have another go. I already ate too much," said Ted when she put the Lasagna on the table, grabbed his plate and started to pour more food on it.

"Nonsense, Ted. You're getting too thin, just like Brian," she said.

 

"Because I'm on a diet. I need to look good in my new suits."

 

Emmett patted Ted's arm affectionately. "You go, baby. Vanity suits you. Trying to look good is never too much."

 

Debbie looked in mock disgust at the living room where "the health club" was chatting animatedly. Ben, Blake and Drew had left the table early, claiming they had eaten more than they should and were talking about sports. With them was Carl who, being unable to lace his own shoes the week before (because he was so fat that he couldn't look at his own feet), informed an indignant Debbie that he was on a diet.

 

"Where did you say the girls went?" Emmett asked again.

 

"Mel took Lindsay out on a date and we're taking care of the kids today," Michael explained. "Lindsay is stressed lately because she just got her job at the gallery back and the owner wants to sell it."

 

Justin's interest peaked. He loved Sidney Bloom's gallery. Sidney was a gentleman and Justin had good memories from the time he showed his work at the gallery. It was the best one in Pittsburgh. "He does? It's a pity."

 

"Well..." Michael continued, "Apparently, his finances aren't too good. Since his wife died a year ago, he's been neglecting his books. She was the one who took care of them, and he doesn't want or doesn't have the energy to do that, Lindsay told me."

 

"Poor guy."

 

"I hope he doesn't sell it. Lindsay loves the place," Michael mused.

 

Brian came down the stairs with a grin on his face.

 

"Hey guys, what's up? Talking about Deb's questionable abilities in cooking again?" Brian said with his tongue-in-cheek smile, as he sat beside Justin.

 

"Watch out, asshole," Deb said, not bothering to hide her affection for Brian and giving him a huge smile despite her words, "You'll never know what poisons I can put in your plate for that remark."

 

"Wouldn't make any difference. The food here is pure carbs, anyway. Hey Deb, you didn't happen to make a salad, did you?" Brian asked.

 

"Sure, your majesty!" she said sarcastically. "Now sit down and eat. Don't think I didn't see that you went upstairs with Gus before the dinner started."

 

"Someone had to play with he boy and put him to sleep," Brian said, frowning when Deb put a green salad and lasagna on his plate and handed it to him with raised eyebrows.

 

"Shit, Deb, I can't eat all this."

 

"Sure you can, kiddo. What's with you guys? Everybody is on a diet lately!" She sounded offended, as if wanting to be in shape was a personal offense to her cooking.

 

"Not me, Ma," Michael replied with his mouth full of lasagna.

 

"I know, baby. You make me proud," she patted his cheek.

 

"Justin either. How can you eat all this food and not get fat?" Brian eyed Justin's plate, where a huge portion of lasagna and French fries rested, with disgust.

 

Justin picked one of the fries and stuffed into his mouth unceremoniously. "Benefits of youth," he winked.

 

"Yeah, well, don't count on it forever," Brian said, kissing Justin's lips again. "Humm...salty."

 

"Deb's food is wonderful," Ted said. "I just don't want to eat too much."

 

"Well said, Theodore. If you get fat you won't fit in the new suits we brought for you last week and then you'd have to do more than chat with Emmett and pretend to exercise when you go to the gym." Brian eyed Emmett's plate frowning. "Serves for you too. Beware all this oil on your plate, Honeycutt."

 

"Ha, ha," Emmet said with mock annoyance, "Very funny. And don't. Call. Me. Honneycutt." He eyed Ted, "I think Ted looks gorgeous! And you're turning him into a label queen just like you."

 

Brian kissed Justin soundly. "My pleasure. But really guys, you should have seen...Our friend Theodore here just closed us another big account today," he announced to his friends.

 

"W-Well..." Ted stammered, "Brian was busy with Leo Brown, so he couldn't do the presentation for Energy Plus."

 

"Where are the couple of guys you hired a few months back?" asked Justin, holding Brian's hand with his own.

 

"Home with the flu." Ted answered.

 

"Both?" Michael asked, puzzled.

 

"Apparently no one bothered to inform them that I don't approve of affairs in the office, and they're more than close friends." Brian said.

 

"Don't be hypocrite," Justin giggled. "We fucked at Vanguard more than once."

 

Michael's chin dropped to the floor. "You did?"

 

"Of course," Brian poked his cheek with his tongue. "It's not nearly as much as we did at Kinnetik, but it was pretty hot."

 

"Spare us the details of your sex life," Emmett said, smiling.

 

"Why? Maybe you could use some advice and surprise Drew."

 

"My sex life with Drew is wonderful, thank you very much."

 

"Anyways," Ted said enthusiastically, "you should have seen me at Kinnetik! I was brilliant! It's the beginning of a whole new career to me.

 

"Hey, Theodore. Slow down." Brian drank a little of his orange juice. "Although I admit you were good today, if Cynthia is to be believed...It takes more than luck to be a successful adman."

 

"Like you." Emmett deadpanned.

 

"I wasn't going to say that, but since you did..."

 

Debbie sat down and put a large bowl with the dessert on the table: chocolate mousse. The guys immediately attacked their plates, especially Justin, who could kill for anything with chocolate on it...while Brian grabbed his fork and started to poke salad on his plate.

 

"Brian..."Justin eyed him. "You're not eating."

 

"Yes, Brian, be a good boy, don't play with your food..."Emmett teased.

 

"Since when you turned into my mother, Honeycutt?"

 

"Shit, Brian! Don't call me Honeycutt!' Emmett said, annoyed.

 

They all ate in silence for a few minutes, watching vaguely interested while Ben and Drew argued about the last season's championship, while Blake and Carl nodded enthusiastically beside them.

 

 

"So, Brian," Michael said with his mouth full of food, "Emmett told us a joke about the top and the bottom guys..."

 

"I already know this one," said Brian, munching a bit of lettuce. "Totally lame."

 

"We're not discussing the joke," Michael explained. "We're trying to decide who gets to have more fun: the top or the bottom."

 

"I think it's the bottom," Emmett said smiling dreamingly. "When you find yourself a good top like my Drewie...La-di-da!"

 

Brian rolled his eyes when he heard Emmett saying ‘Drewie'.

 

"Yeah, well..."Michael said, blushing a little. "I agree with Emmett. Ben is great."

 

Brian wanted to say that Ben, judging by his own experience, was a great bottom too, but of course, it would cause such a huge drama that he kept his mouth shut.

 

"I'm not sure about it." said Ted. "I've been on both sides. And I like both."

 

"Don't tell me Blake lets you top him," Michael said with huge eyes. For the look on his face and from Emmett's awe, Ben and Drew were yet to be topped by their respective partners.

 

"Actually, he does!" Ted said indignantly. Then he blushed. "Err...I mean...occasionally."

 

Brian snorted. "Translation: he topped Blake once or twice in what...two years?"

 

They all laughed as Ted's face looked so red Justin feared it would explode.

 

"Oooookay," Michael said. "We have me, Emmett, Ted and Justin as bottoms, and Drew, Blake, Ben and Brian as tops. Who do you think have the best fun, guys? I think we have a match."

 

"Wait a minute..." Brian said, "I didn't hear Justin's opinion."

 

"No one asked," Justin deadpanned.

 

"Because it's obvious, for Christ's sake!" Michael threw his hands in the air like a real drama queen. "Everybody knows who tops who."

 

They all laughed again, and it was Justin's turn to get his face red. Debbie patted then pinched his cheek and got up, saying, "Don't bother, Sunshine. They're like sharks today. Everything is a reason for them to laugh at the other's expenses."

 

Justin grabbed some empty plates and got up from the table. "I'll help you do the dishes, Deb."

 

Brian looked at his partner, feeling annoyed at the other's laughter. He knew they were just joking, but he had just realized that maybe his friends still didn't see Justin as his equal. Not because he was almost always the bottom...but because they hadn't even bothered to ask him.

 

"Actually," Brian cleared his throat. "I think that when you're together for so many years like Justin and I are..."

 

Justin's eyes went huge on his face and the others stopped talking and laughing, looking at Brian with interest.

 

"It's natural that, sometimes, the roles are reversed. I mean..." he shrugged, "It's natural that the one who tops more frequently gets to bottom from time to time." There. He had said it.

 

Justin looked at him with his mouth open. Ted and Emmett's eyes were about to pop out of their heads. Debbie was looking at him with the hint of a smile and a disturbing affection in her eyes.

 

"You mean...you...he..." Michael stammered, eyeing Justin with newfound respect. "Does he...Err...do you..."

 

Brian gave his tongue-in-cheek smile again, and grabbed Justin's hand, pulling him to the door.

 

"Sure, Mikey. The professor should let you try it sometime. It would give you and him...a new perspective. And you get to have more fun trying both ways. Thanks for the diner, Deb. See you around, guys."

 

Justin laughed, grabbing his and Brian's coat as Brian pulled him through the door to the cool air of the Sunday night.

 

--- --- --- --- ---

 

 

Justin jumped on Brian as soon as he closed the loft's door. Kissing his mouth, jaw, everything he could reach, he pressed the older man against the door and started to unbutton his shirt.

 

"Wow," Brian managed to say between kisses, "I should have admitted it to them sooner, if I knew you'd be horny like this.

 

Justin held Brian's face in his hands and kissed him hard on the mouth. "I am. I'm really, really horny," he murmured.

 

"I can't complain about that," Brian said as he took more control of the kiss, holding Justin closer against him, pressing their bodies together.

 

Justin stopped and looked at Brian questioningly. "Why did you tell them?"

 

Brian looked at the floor as if there was something really interesting there. "Didn't like they way they laughed...the way they didn't even ask if..."

 

"It doesn't bother me, Brian," Justin said, looking at the hazel eyes. "I was just surprised that you let them know."

 

"Why? I mean, it's true. I know I don't bottom frequently, but it does happen."

 

"It's just that it was so...out of character for you...You just as much admitted to your friends, the ones who idolize you as the eternal Stud and best top ever, that you let me top you."

 

"Well, you do top sometimes. And I'm still the best top ever." Modesty wasn't Brian's strong point.

 

"Yes you are," Justin murmured kissing him again. His hands slowly traveled to Brian's back and stopped on the small of his back. "You're also the best bottom," Justin said, grinding his hard rock erection against Brian's equally hard one.

 

"Something tells me what happened at Deb's house put ideas in this little blond head of yours."

 

"Well..."Justin tried hard to hide his disappointment. "If you don't want to..."

 

"Shut up," Brian said, huskily, pulling Justin to him again. "I didn't say that."

 

The kiss was hungry, Justin more than tipsy from Deb's cheap wine. He pulled Brian from the wall he was pressed against and without breaking the kiss started to walk, pushing him not so gently towards the sofa. But as soon as they reached the white carpet, they sank to the floor, still kissing messily.

 

Justin started to unzip Brian's pants, and Brian whispered, "Condom. Lube."

 

Justin's hand traveled to Brian's back pocket and picked the items the brunet always carried with him. He placed the little packs on the floor near him and resumed undressing his lover, marveling at Brian's firm and flat stomach and his beautiful navel. Brian's hands worked on Justin's clothes too, feverishly removing them.

 

"God, Brian...I want you so fucking much..." Justin murmured, when they were both naked, pupils dilated with lust. Topping Brian wasn't as rare as it used to be before their aborted wedding, but still, Justin treated the occasion like he was receiving the most precious gift. He knew that for Brian, bottoming wasn't just about the act per se. It was also about showing vulnerability, something Brian hated to do. Not that it wasn't incredibly hot. Justin hadn't lied when he said Brian was a perfect bottom. Hell, the man was perfect at everything that had to do with sex. But whenever Justin topped, he knew Brian was letting him in on all aspects, not only in his body.

 

Justin's hand traveled to Brian's throbbing erection, feeling the velvety hot flesh pulsating on his hand. Brian gasped at the contact, closing his eyes. Justin stroked him, while he kissed the older man's chest leaving a hot wet trail behind.

 

Brian had his eyes still closed, like he was immersed in his own world. His hands cradled Justin's head, fingers sinking in the blond locks. He wanted Justin so much that he could barely breathe, let alone speak.

 

"Turn around," Justin said softly, and Brian complied, resting his upper body on the sofa for leverage. The blond prepared his partner slowly, kissing and licking Brian's back, nipping at his neck and shoulder, listening to his lovely grunts of approval as Justin's fingers worked their magic inside him.

 

Brian turned his head and his hand grabbed the back of Justin's neck, pulling him into a heated kiss. It was a sign he was ready, so Justin withdrew his hand and put the condom on, sighing with anticipation. He started to enter the brunet slowly, trying to give him time to adjust, but Brian met him halfway, moaning when Justin was fully inside.

 

The blond gasped, breathing deeply and trying not to come too soon. Then he started to move in a steady pace, looking enthralled as Brian met him on each thrust, his perfect back undulating, sweat running down his skin in tiny drops.

 

Brian always grunted and moaned when he was on top, but when he bottomed he was curiously quiet, his hard breathing the only indication Justin had that he was on the right pace. But when Justin changed the angle of one of the thrusts, Brian let out a guttural moan, his head dropping to rest on the sofa, as he blindly grabbed a pillow. "Oh, fuck!" he moaned as Justin thrust at the right angle again.

 

Justin grabbed Brian's hips and increased the pace, until he was so far inside Brian that he had bright spots on his vision. The older man continued to push against him, bucking his hips to meet Justin's body with equal force, as if his body couldn't stop moving too. The movements were feverish, a frenzy of motion and lust. Justin knew he was close, and when his hand held Brian's hardness again, he felt the brunet's body convulsing and his hot essence on Justin's hand. Brian's cries were muffled by the pillow, and he unashamedly bucked his hips back, riding the last remnants of his explosion. Justin followed shortly after, his erratic thrusts melting into shudders as he moaned and cried Brian's name.

 

Still panting, Justin rested his face on Brian's back, feeling the movements of the older man's still rapid breathing under him. "Wow..." he managed to say when speech returned, "That was one of the hottest fucks ever."

 

"Yeah," Brian said when his breathing returned to normal. "We should make a list of out top ten."

 

"Ever the romantic," Justin laughed and kissed between Brian's shoulder blades. "Do you even remember half of them?"

 

"We're probably on our fuck number five thousand...all of them prefect, of course...but I still think the best ones deserve to be remembered."

 

"Come on, let's take a shower," Justin said, getting up.

 

"I can't," Brian said, face hidden on the pillow. "Can't move."

 

"Pity," said Justin, getting up. "I was going to suck you off on the shower, but since you're so tired..."

 

Brian was up in a second, his tongue poking his cheek. "Not that tired, Sunshine."

 

 

--- --- --- ---

 

 

They ended up sucking each other off, and a very much tired but sated Brian left Justin finishing his shower, went to the kitchen wrapped in a towel and poured some guava juice into a glass. He was thirsty, and Sunday nights were never his favorite times of the week. Too close from Monday. More out of habit than anything else, he turned the answering machine on to listen to his messages, while he absently looked at his email.

 

The machine beeped. "Bri, it's Cynthia. Remember, Mr. Jacobs from INFOSTORE is coming tomorrow to Pittsburgh. I'll send someone to pick him up at the airport in a sedan and I made a reservation at The Plaza. You have an appointment with him for two-thirty. Oh, and I booked dinner at The Golden Steak. See you tomorrow, and don't come late. We have staff meeting at nine."

 

"Shit," Brian muttered.

 

The machine beeped again. "Brian...it's me." Brian cringed at Michael's voice. "Why the hell you never told me Justin tops you? I mean...we're best friends...I thought something so important like that should...a secret like that between us...I tell you everything! It's not fair! How can you let...It's really hard to believe. Anyways...call me."

 

Brian sighed. Now he realized that maybe he shouldn't have dropped the bomb like that, in the middle of Deb's dining room. But what the fuck, did they expect him to live with Justin for seven fucking years, counting their ups and downs, and not let the man top? He was gay, for Christ's sake! Shit, Ted and Emmett were probably talking about him too. He only hoped they wouldn't tell it to the whole fucking Liberty Avenue. He had a reputation to take care of.

 

Another beep. "Mr. Taylor, I'm sorry to call on a Sunday, but the matter is urgent. My name is Vincent Adams, from Adams and Noble attorneys, NYC. I'm calling you regarding Mr. Ethan Gold, my late client, deceased a few months ago. We're reading his Will in a few days and your presence is mandatory, since you're one of his heirs. Please call me as soon as possible on 412-634-7329. Have a good night, sir."

 

Brian's mouth dropped open and he had to concentrate not to let the glass fall from his hand. Justin...Ethan's heir? Fucking shit!

Chapter Text

Justin sighed again. Alexia was supposed to meet him at the café, but she was late. He was already on his second cappuccino and his agent hadn't arrived yet. The meeting with Ethan's attorney had ended sooner than Justin had expected to. He wanted nothing more than a warm and nice bed, but since he was staying at Alexia's house, he had to wait for her. New York was really cold. It was still winter, after all.

 

Ethan had left him Hart's Gallery. Justin still couldn't believe it. When he fled from the gallery after knowing Ethan had bought it, he thought that, when Ethan said he had bought the place for Justin, it was just bullshit to get him back. After all, Ethan was always full of bullshit, using words in his favor, words and promises that didn't always match his actions.

 

Now, coming from the attorney's office, he had in his coats pocket the list of the necessary documents he had to bring to the attorney, and in a few days he, Justin Taylor, would be the owner of Hart's Gallery. It wasn't something he could refuse because it was written, black ink on white paper, in Ethan's will. Justin realized sadly that, although his ex-boyfriend had killed himself in the heat of the moment, he had left every member of his family in a good situation, even his most distant relatives, so he had apparently spent a lot of time thinking about his will. It made him sad that his former lover had been so full of angst, so completely lost, that he thought that death was the only way out.

 

Part of him felt a little guilty that he had treated the violinist so badly, but given the fact that the man stalked him, called him almost every day and acted like a freaking lunatic in the past, insisting that they had a future together, what could he had done? Ethan stalking him had freaked him out and more than pissed Brian off.

 

Brian.

 

On an impulse, Justin took his cell phone from his pocket and pressed the speed button. He had talked to Brian only briefly the night before, and suddenly he missed the older man very much.

 

"Hey," Brian said after the fourth ring.

 

"Hey," Justin answered. "Are you busy?"

 

"Yeah, I have to finish a lot of paperwork."

 

"Oh."

 

Silence. Uncomfortable.

 

"So..." Brian said after a loud sigh that sounded like defeat to Justin. "How did it go? Did you see the lawyer?"

 

"Yeah, I...I just came from the meeting."

 

"And?"

 

"They read Ethan's Will."

 

"That's pretty obvious, considering that was the reason you went to New York," Brian's irritated voice said.

 

Justin frowned. Brian sounded annoyed.

 

"So...?" Brian asked again. "You're gonna tell me or what?"

 

"Um...he left me Hart Gallery."

 

There was a long pause in which Justin could hear Brian's tense breathing through the phone.

 

After what seemed like an eternity... "Brian?" he asked.

 

"Yeah."

 

"Aren't you gonna say something?"

 

"What do you want me to say?" Brian paused again. "Congratulations, I guess. Did you accept it?"

 

"I can't refuse; it's already in my name."

 

‘You could if you wanted to' was left unsaid, and it hung heavily between them.

 

"I see."

 

"I'll still have to stay here for a few more days. I need to sign some papers."

 

"Of course."

 

"And I think Alex is going back home with me...she wants to see my new pieces."

 

"Okay." Silence again. "Listen, Justin...I have to go back to work."

 

" Oh...sure. Of course. Talk to you later, then."

 

"Okay. Later."

 

"Brian?"

 

"What?"

 

"Is everything okay?"

 

"Fabulous. Why wouldn't it be?"

 

"Okay. Later."

 

"Later."

... ...

 

"Sorry I'm late, honey," said Alex, sitting in front of Justin fifteen minutes later.

 

"That's okay."

 

She turned to the waitress smiling. "Hi, I'd like a cappuccino, please." Then she saw Justin's worried face. "Uh-uh... What happened?"

 

"Nothing," Justin lied. He liked Alex but he wasn't going to talk about the uneasy feeling after his talk to Brian. He wasn't even sure why he was feeling like that.

 

"Your face says otherwise."

 

"No, everything's fine. I guess I'm still in awe." It was a lot safer to change the subject.

 

"About?"

 

"Ethan left me Hart Gallery."

 

Alex's chin almost dropped. "Patricia Hart's gallery?"

 

"Yeah. That's where I used to work before she sold it. I told you, remember?"

 

"I do." The waitress brought Alexia's coffee and she sipped it. "But...didn't he already say that he had bought the gallery as a gift to you? To get you back or something like that?"

 

Justin nodded, frowning a little. "He did. But I thought it was just bullshit. Ethan liked to talk sweet but his actions never matched his words."

 

"Wow."

 

He drank a little more of his iced coffee, thinking. "I'm going to sell it."

 

Alex eyed him, raising her eyebrows slightly. "Are you sure? Owning a gallery in New York is something big, Justin. Really big."

 

"I know."

 

"I mean...you could make wonderful contacts here. The gallery has a very good reputation, and you would always have a place to show your work."

 

"But I would have to live here."

 

"That would make things a lot easier, yes.""

 

"But that's exactly what I don't want to do, Alex. Live here. I want to stay in Pittsburgh."

 

"Are you sure? Because deciding to stay there and start from zero is one thing, but...owning a gallery and throwing it away is another."

 

He shrugged. It was difficult to explain, to make people understand that moving to New York permanently would make things harder, not easier. Because if he left his heart in Pittsburgh, soon he wouldn't be able to paint.

 

Alex gave him a knowing smile. "Oh, I see. You want to stay there for romantic reasons."

 

"I'm not sure they're so romantic, Alex. Maybe they are. Or maybe I'm just being selfish."

 

"Selfish?" she frowned. "How can you be selfish choosing a path that will be a lot harder because you can't stay away from the person you love?"

 

"Exactly because of that. Because the only way I can be happy is with him. Everything else pales in comparison. I don't want to suffer, and I can't imagine a reason more selfish that that. I'm not giving up on my art, Alex. I can't live without it either. I'm just trying to keep both. I wish people would understand that."

 

Alexia patted his hand. "I understand, baby. And I'm here, okay? For anything you need."

 

"I'm not even sure how we managed to hold on to each other these two years. We almost didn't, you know that. I..."Justin's voice dropped to a whisper. "I almost lost him forever. If I move definitely to New York because of a gallery...it would be the end. And I can't let that happen. It would kill me."

 

She didn't know what to say to that.

 

They stayed in companionable silence for a while, Justin seeming lost in his thoughts. Alex couldn't stop thinking how brave this young man was. Choosing the harder path over the easier one because of love. She couldn't imagine a better reason. And in fact, she was sure that Justin had a brilliant future as an artist ahead of him. It would just take him longer to get there. But as long as he was truly happy, living the life he wanted with the one he loved, everything was fine.

 

"When do you plan to sell the gallery, then?"

 

"As fast as I can."

 

"You do realize that you're gonna have to stay here longer than a week to do that, don't you? I can take care of the sale for you, but you'll have to take care of the papers before you leave."

 

"Okay," he said sighing. "I love Hart Gallery, Alex. But I can't keep it. I'm an artist, not a business man. I would ruin the place in a heartbeat. Besides, showing my own work at my own gallery seems to me like cheating. I want a show for my own merit, not because I own the place."

 

"A lot of people do that, Justin. Several artists are gallery owners too."

 

"I know. But you're talking about well established artists, I'm only starting. I'm too inexperienced to do this on my own. If I had a partner, someone who would take care of the business...and if the gallery wasn't here, where there's a lot more pressure to succeed that back in the Pitts...Wait a second! Of course! Why didn't I think of this before?"

 

"What?" Alex asked, seeing Justin's eyes shining with what seemed to be a brilliant idea.

 

"Let's sell the gallery, Alex. I know exactly where to invest the money.

 

 

---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ----

 

 

Brian hung up the phone, smiling. Lying on his bed and hearing Justin's voice had been the best part of a particular shitty day that started with several problems with Liberty Air's campaign at work. He was really stressed because it was one of his biggest accounts, and when he came back to the loft his mood didn't get any better. He was so used to Justin's presence in the loft that he almost dreaded coming back home to find it empty. Again.

 

Brian wondered how someone so small and thin could have such a strong presence. When Justin was home, his presence was everywhere. His sneakers always in Brian's way whenever he came back from work. Or his used sweaters, that could be found everywhere but in the dumpster. Or the fridge, always full of junk food, that made the cholesterol in Brian's arteries dance around his body just for looking at all the carbs and grease.

 

Part of him felt a little bit guilty, because he knew that he hadn't been too nice on the phone with Justin these past few days. He wanted to blame it on the stress at work, but the fact was that Brian had been more than worried that Justin had to go to New York as one of the fucking fiddler's heirs. And in doubt about how to act, Brian always acted like an asshole. It was automatic. But shit, what if Ethan Gold had left Justin a mansion in Europe or in New York? What if the fiddler had left him everything?

 

It all went downhill when Ethan left him a gallery. When Brian heard the news, he felt his insides turn as cold as ice, as if a cold hand had just grabbed his guts. He and Justin were doing more than fine together, but Brian knew that they had a lot to talk about, especially about the fact that the blond had said he had come to Pittsburgh for good. Brian wanted him to succeed in the art world, but he couldn't stop the jolt of joy he felt when he heard Justin saying that. But now, owning a gallery could make the blond change his mind. After all, he wouldn't have to struggle at all to have his work shown.

 

So Brian had been cold on the phone, sometimes dismissing the blond with excuses about Kinnetik and the amount of work he had to do. Shit, but what could he say? ‘Please don't accept the gallery and come home?' He would never do that. It wouldn't be fair to Justin. Brian was a successful business man. He wanted Justin to succeed as well. Even if Justin's success would take the blond away from him.

 

Thinking rationally, Brian knew Justin would be back. He unconsciously started to number the reasons why he was sure Justin would come back to Pittsburgh: 1-He had already said that he would, even before he left. He had decided to sell the gallery. 2-They were fine. 3- He had taken only a small suitcase. 4- He hadn't taken his favorite sweater. Nor his sketchpad. 5- They were fine. 6- He had stocked the fridge with his junk food the day before he left. There were several packages of Cheerios and Oreos on the kitchen counter. 7- They were fine.

 

But a small part of him - okay, maybe not so small - feared the pull New York City could have on the young man. Enough to make him stay there; enough to make him realize that Brian wasn't worth the sacrifice to stay in Pittsburgh. It was like having a little devil inside his head, that kept telling him that Justin now owned a gallery, so he wouldn't have to struggle so much to find a place in the Big Apple. Why the hell would he come back? Even though he knew that he and Justin were alright, the little devil said that one day Justin would be tired of struggling so much and realize the mistake to commit to an older and complicated man. He wanted to shut the little devil's mouth, but it had a will of its own. And Brian knew he wouldn't be in peace until he saw Justin here in the loft with him. Hopefully not to collect the rest of his things and say goodbye.

 

It turned out that Justin didn't even ask Brian for his opinion, probably because Brian, with his cranky mood, didn't leave room for too much dialogue between them. Justin just called and said he had already made up his mind, and that he would come home as soon as possible, and that they would talk when he came back. Brian wanted to ask what Justin was going to do with the gallery - as if there was any doubt - but his pride kept his mouth shut. He cursed himself for that, but he couldn't help it. He would turn into a fucking woman before he asked the blond to stay. Justin was an adult, perfectly capable of making his own choices. Brian just hoped it would be something that he could deal with. But every time the blond called, he said that he would be "home" soon - Brian paid attention at the word "home" - so that was enough to put Brian's demons to rest for a little while. First things first. Justin would be back, they would talk about Justin's plans and then...He would have to accept what he couldn't change.

 

So that night, after the shower, Brian had lay on his bed and called Justin for a change. Not to apologize for his mood the past few days. Even if he wanted to, he didn't know how to do it. So he had called, and to his surprise, Justin had acted as if Brian was the most loving of the partners, telling the older man how much he was missing him and that he couldn't wait to get back home so they could spent an entire day - hopefully more than one - in bed fucking.

 

Taken aback with the young man's behavior, Brian had relaxed and they had talked for more than an hour. That's why he was relieved to be alone in the loft. He could talk to Justin and even smile once in a while when Justin said he loved Brian and he would be back soon, without having to worry if someone was looking at him smiling. Justin had the power of making him smile, and even if he tried to fight it sometimes, the muscles of his face seemed to have a will of their own.

 

He hung up the phone and got up from the bed, trying to decide what to do with his night. It was Friday night and Brian was a little antsy, as it always happened on weekends, when he knew every fag in Pittsburgh was having a good time. If Justin was here they would probably be fucking. Or watching a movie. Or eating Thai. Or fucking again. Shit, he couldn't take the blond of his mind! What the hell? He had without any doubt turned into a fucking dyke.

 

He wanted a drink, but Justin had taken all the booze from the loft to ‘keep Brian away from temptation'. Only God knew what could happen if the mixed alcohol and the fucking medication he was still on. He thought about going to Babylon, but a meaningless fuck wouldn't take away the uneasy feeling and surely wouldn't shut up the little voice in his head. He couldn't even smoke, for Christ's sake! Nicotine and all the shit in the cigarette could bring the cough back. Maybe he could try some pot? After all, no one had warned him against other kinds of smoke...

 

He called Michael instead.

 

"Are you a mind reader?" asked his friend, laughing.

 

"Not that I'm aware of."

 

"I'm just on my way to the loft. I figured you could use some company."

 

"Okay," he said, hoping that his relief wasn't too evident. "But what about the professor?"

 

"Ben has tons of essays to read. He asked his students to write about ‘The influence of gay culture on television and how families see so many gay couples on primetime'. He needs to give them the essays back on Monday."

 

"Good for him."

 

"Do you want me to bring something?"

 

"Pot wouldn't hurt."

 

"I meant food, Brian."

 

"Not hungry."

 

"I don't know why I bother asking. See you soon. Bye."

 

He barely put the phone on the table when it rang again.

 

"Yeah?"

 

"Bri?" said a cheerful voice.

 

"Theodore! To what do I owe the pleasure of hearing your voice on a Friday night, after spending practically the whole day with you? The word better be ending."

 

"I love your sense of humor."

 

"I wasn't joking."

 

"Oh."

 

"Come on. You and Cynthia spent the whole afternoon in my office. I hope you have a good reason to call."

 

"I - I ..."

 

"Yes?"

 

"Blake and I are going to Woody's to play some pool. Do you wanna come with us?"

 

"I'm not sure it's a good idea, Theodore. You are a lousy player and your...husband isn't much better. Besides, I'm waiting for Mikey."

 

"Oh. Alright then. Good that you'll have some company. I just figured you wouldn't like to...you know...be alone on a Friday night. I know how much you hate it."

 

Brian sighed. Ted was a good friend. He had called because he knew Brian was alone and here he was being bitchy with the older man. He felt like an asshole. Nothing new with that.

 

"Thanks, Ted," he said, forcing his voice in a softer tone. "Really, I...appreciate your concern. But Mikey is really coming over."

 

"Okay. Are you going to Kinnetik tomorrow?"

 

"It's Saturday."

 

"That never stopped you before."

 

"I know. But no, I'll stay home. You stay with Blake. You deserve some rest too."

 

"Okay, Bri. Bye, then."

 

"Bye."

 

He went back to the bedroom and changed to his old jeans and black wife beater. He was finishing taming his hair when his cell phone rang.

 

"Brian?" said cheery a voice when he answered.

 

"Emmett?"

 

"We are going to Babylon later. Why don't you come with us?"

 

"Me? With you and Drew?"

 

"Sure, why not?"

 

"I don't think it's a good idea, me and the happy couple?" He shook his head in disbelief. Emmett calling him to go to Babylon with him and his better half? How crazy was that? That had never happened before.

 

"So? Come on, It'll be fun!"

 

"Uh, I can't. Mikey is coming over."

 

"Oh! That's good! Maybe some other time, then."

 

"Okay." But he really didn't think so.

 

"Err...are you okay? I mean, it's Friday night and Justin is in New York..."

 

"I'm fine, Emmett. He's just taking care of...something that came up. I'm not about to commit suicide because he's not here, you know."

 

"Well..." Brian could almost see Emmett shrugging. "We just wanna be sure you're okay, you know. That's what friends do."

 

"I know." Again he had to use the damn softer tone with a friend. One more and he would break a world record. As strange as the invitation was, he knew Emmett was only worried. "Thanks. But I'm fine, really."

 

"Okay. See you Sunday night at Deb's. Bye bye."

 

"Bye."

 

Wow. That was a first. Brian frowned. His friends were worried just because he was alone in the loft, like it was some big deal. That had to be some kind of warning that the world was about to end, because they had never worried like that before. Well, maybe they did, when Justin first went to New York two years ago. But Brian really didn't pay any attention; he was too busy drowning his self-pity in his old friend Jim Beam. He was so used to always be the asshole that it annoyed him that they acknowledged he had a heart only when it was fucking broken. So he shut them off for weeks, not answering their calls, not going to the diner or Woody's. Until they stopped calling and left him alone, acting as if nothing had changed. It was good, it was what he wanted. He couldn't stand their pity.

 

This was the first time he had bothered to answer and tried to be nice, although he couldn't explain the reason for such an uncharacteristic behavior from him. He hated to be fussed over, and he always answered to any attempts with bitchy remarks. But today he had just realized, a little bit surprised, that his friends actually cared that he was alone in the loft, even if for a few days. His friends really seemed to care about him. He wondered why he hadn't realized that before. Maybe because he didn't want to.

 

He heard the buzz announcing Michael's arrival. He pressed the button and let his best friend inside the building. "Come up!"

 

When he opened the metal door, Michael had his cell phone in one hand and a bag with what seemed to be take-out food in the other. He was talking to someone and he rolled his eyes and pointed to the phone when he saw Brian.

 

"Yeah, Ma," Michael was saying. "I'm already here. Yes, he seems to be in one piece. No, you don't need to bring lasagna Ma, I already brought us some dinner. Yes, I have my scarf and my gloves. Don't worry, I'll tell him. Bye."

 

Brian stepped aside and Michael went straight to the kitchen, putting his cell phone in his pocket and the food on the counter.

 

"It was Ma," he said. "She wanted to come and bring you some food, but I figured you'd rather spend the night without her nosy questions."

 

"Yeah you're probably right. Besides, it's already nine, and lasagna is nothing but carbs." Brian sat next to the counter watching Michael rummaging through the drawer looking for plates.

 

"She said you're too thin."

 

"The fuck I am."

 

"She's only worried."

 

"She and the fucking whole Liberty Avenue. Ted and Emmett already called inviting me to hang around. Deb called too. You actually came all the way from the suburbs to my humble abode. It looks like everyone is afraid I'll cut my wrists because Justin is away. What the fuck, I think I can take care of myself. Shit, Mikey, do I look like I'm fucking dying?"

 

"In case you didn't notice, you almost did. And we were scared to shit. Now we know you are alone, brooding because Justin had to travel. So we're all worried."

 

"Who the fuck said I'm brooding?"

 

"Shut up, Brian. Let's eat, okay? I brought Chinese food."

 

"I thought it was Thai."

 

"The place was too packed. Come on, I brought fried rice and that chicken with orange sauce I know you like."

 

Brian sighed in defeat, but the truth was that he was glad his friend was here. "Alright. What choice do I have? If I don't eat you'll never stop complaining."

 

"As if you don't love fried rice," Michael muttered, smiling a little.

 

An hour later they were sprawled on the carpet, talking about Patrick Swayze and the infamous Dirty Dancing poster in Michael's bedroom...and Debbie walking on them jerking each other off.

 

"Shit," said Michael, "I was so embarrassed that I couldn't look into my mother's eyes for days. And she would look at me and smirk, can you imagine that?"

 

"'I spent a week without eating in your house, afraid that she would poison my food because I dared to touch her precious baby."

 

"I wasn't a baby. I'm actually older than you!"

 

"But you were so cute, Michael! Actually, you still are. Back then, you looked totally adorable, as if you wouldn't harm a fly. Every mom wanted you as their son-in-law. "

 

"Ugh, don't put images in my head. Can you imagine me with a girl?"

 

"If they only knew your preferences were...cock," Brian laughed, his tongue-in-cheek smile making his face look younger.

 

"Shut up. I always hated to be described as ‘cute'. No gay boy wants to be cute. They want to be hot, sexy, anything but cute. Nobody fucks cute."

 

"But you were. So, so different from big bad asshole Brian."

 

"You can be big, but you were never bad, Brian."

 

"Yeah, tell that to my employees. I scare them to shit."

 

"I don't know why you insist on keeping that façade. Kinnetik has actually the best salaries, Ted told me. And if I can recall, you were a total geek!"

 

"They work better under stress. And I was. Never. Geek."

 

The phone started to ring again.

 

"Shit! Now what? Everybody already called!" Brian frowned. "This telephone is busier than Kinnetik's."

 

"You better see who it is. Maybe is Justin."

 

"Nah. I already talked to him and he said he was going to bed. He spent the whole day taking care of...stuff. He was tired." Brian grimaced and got up. "What?" he almost barked when he answered the phone.

 

"Uncle Brian?" said a hesitant voice.

 

"Peter?" Brian said, puzzled, looking at his watch. It was almost eleven. "What's up?"

 

"Can you come over? Please?"

 

"Something happened?" Brian asked, worried. His nephew had never called the loft, let alone at this time of the night.

 

"It's Mom. She came back from work and locked herself in her bedroom. She seemed pretty upset, but I had a lot of homework to do, so I left her. But she's still in there, and she won't open the door."

 

"Maybe she's sleeping...?" Brian offered, his forehead all wrinkled now.

 

"She's not. She said that I should go to bed and leave her because she had a headache. But I waited just outside her door and I heard her sobbing. She's crying, uncle Brian."

 

Brian didn't know what to say. He hadn't spoken to his sister for a week now, but as far as he knew she was fine. And he really didn't consider himself the best person to help, whatever the problem was. Not only he and Claire weren't that intimate, but he hated to have to fix family problems.

 

"Uh... Peter," he said, "maybe you should let her rest? She probably had a bad day at work and she's upset, or tired. She just need some time alone. You know, shit happens." He winced. Had he just said ‘shit' to his nephew? Then he winced again. Since when did he care what he said in front of anyone but Gus?

 

"You don't understand, uncle Brian," Peter insisted, and by his voice Brian knew the boy was on the verge of tears himself. "Mom is pretty tough. She never cries. Not even when she was sick and Daddy left us. She always says crying is for weak people. So, it must be something really bad, 'cause she's crying a lot."

 

Shit. What could be so bad to leave Claire in a state like that? Maybe Peter was overreacting a bit. But he didn't have other option than to go there and see for himself.

 

"Right. "I'll be there in a few minutes. Try to stay calm."

 

"Okay, uncle Brian. Bye."

 

"What happened?" asked Michael when Brian hung up.

 

"It was Peter. Claire is crying nonstop and he thinks something happened to her. He wants me to go there."

 

"Are you going?"

 

"I promised the boy I would. He is pretty worried. Scared even."

 

"Do you want me to go with you?"

 

"No need to. I think it's better if I go alone. But I can give you a ride home if you want to."

 

"Let's go, then."

 

 

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

 

 

Peter opened the door with red-rimmed eyes and sniffing. "Thanks for coming," he said.

 

"Where is her bedroom?" Brian asked after petting the boy's head awkwardly. He still wasn't comfortable with family stuff.

 

"First door to the left."

 

Brian felt a little uncomfortable. He had never gone to Claire's apartment before. She had gone several times to the loft, Britin and the hospital to see him, but he had never gone to her home. She had already said that he was welcome, but they still felt a little awkward with each other sometimes, so he had left this for a proper time, whenever that was. It seemed the ‘proper' time was now. He left Peter in the living room and went to Claire's bedroom. He forced the door, but it was locked.

 

"Claire?" he called after knocking a few times.

 

"B-Brian?" he heard Claire's faint voice.

 

"Open up. I wanna talk to you."

 

He heard a sad sigh and after a few seconds Claire opened the door. Her face was red and her eyes swollen. She was still with her uniform.

 

Brian wanted to say his usual 'you look like shit' remark but he decided not to. "Do you know you're scaring your son?" was what he said instead, trying not to use a reproachful tone.

 

"Oh, God, Peter...what am I gonna do?" she moaned, turning away from him and going back to her bed. She lay down, grabbed a pillow and resumed crying.

 

Brian closed the door carefully behind him and approached the bed.

 

"Okay," he sighed, feeling more than a little embarrassed, as if he was intruding something he shouldn't. He was a very private person and he guessed Claire was like that too, having grown up in Kinneyland like him. "Are you gonna tell me what happened? Because there's a boy crying in the living room who asked for my help and I don't know what to do with him."

 

"Did he call you?"

 

"Yeah."

 

"Do you wanna sit down?"

 

Brian looked around but there wasn't any chair in the bedroom.

 

"You can sit on the bed, you know," Claire said matter-of-factly.

 

Brian sat on the far end of the bed and looked at Claire pointedly. "Well?"

 

Claire took a deep breath and rubbed her red eyes with her hands. "They want to take Peter away from me."

 

"Shit."

 

"He already has Jonnie! Why the hell does he want Peter now? It's not like he cares for his son, I mean, the other day he was denying to pay for his studies! And he never, ever calls the boy! Do you think Peter doesn't notice? John was always closer to Johnnie, they are so alike, but we had agreed that Peter would stay with me!"

 

Brian guessed "he" was Claire asshole of an ex-husband. He had barely said two words to the guy his entire life but he disliked the man a lot. He was a stupid homophobic breeder who was a drunk just like Jack. Claire must have been really desperate to leave home to marry the guy.

 

"His lawyer came to Starbuck's when I was leaving. He kindly informed me that there will be an ‘audience' in a week to get to an ‘agreement' about Peter's custody," she said between sniffs. Grabbing a tissue from the bedside table, she blew her nose soundly.

 

Brian tried not to flinch. "Based on what?" he asked.

 

"Based on the fact that he is a bastard that wants to ruin my life!" she cried angrily. "Now what am I going to do? Peter is all I have! He is the reason I get up every morning and go to work. And we're just fine without him, thank you very much!"

 

"Maybe you should try to talk to him? This audience shit is a pain is the ass and you two will end up fighting even more."

 

"Oh, I called the asshole, believe me. But he said he has nothing to say to me. "I'll speak to you in court', that's what he said. Can you believe it? Now what am I going to do? I only have one week to find a lawyer, if I ever have the money to pay for one!"

 

"If that's your main concern, consider it solved. I know an excellent lawyer and I'll contact her tomorrow morning. Don't worry; she'll take care of everything."

 

"What if he wins? What am I going to do?" she moaned again, cradling her head in her hands.

 

"We're not going to let the asshole win."

 

"I...I don't want to cause you trouble, Brian. This lawyer must be expensive and..."

 

"Will you please stop talking about the fucking money? Money is just paper, Claire. I have it, so why shouldn't I help you? Peter's much more important than money. I don't mind using it to show that fucking prick that he can't mess with the boy's head tossing him from one place to another as he pleases."

 

"I don't know what to say..." she sniffed a little, but managed a ghost of a smile. "This is the second time you come to my rescue."

 

"I'm no knight in a shining armor, Claire. But I have a son too, and all I want is for him to be happy. That's why I gave up my parental rights a long time ago." He saw her eyes widen in surprise. "But that's a story for much later. Peter needs you to fight for him. I'll just give you the weapons so you'll have a chance."

 

"Thanks, Brian." She put her hand in his arm and looked him in the eyes. He averted his, embarrassed. "You have no idea how important it is for me that you're helping me to keep my son."

 

He interrupted her, patting her hand awkwardly. "Come on. Get up from this bed, wash your face and go talk to your son. He's old enough to understand things and I think you should tell him what the problem is. He's not stupid, he knows there's something going on and you shouldn't lie to him or hide things from him, ‘cause you need him to be on your side. But tell him you'll do your best so everything's gonna be alright. He will need as much reassurance as you can give him."

 

"If only I felt this reassurance myself..."

 

"Hey, I'll take care of it, okay? Try to stay calm."

 

"How can I stay calm, Brian? He wants to take my son from me."

 

Brian got up and headed for the bedroom's door, but he stopped at the threshold. "No one is gonna take your son. We'll do whatever it takes, okay? Trust me this once."

 

 

--- --- --- --- --- ---

 

 

 

Brian had hesitated a little before asking Melanie to take care of Claire's case, but what the hell, Melanie loved a good fight, especially if it was against an asshole breeder like John Senior.

 

Now, a week later, she and Claire were ready to go to the first hearing. Melanie figured it was a good case and told Claire she had plenty of chances to keep Peter. She had a job, a rented apartment, she was a dedicated mother. Peter seemed happy. He was going to school and he had good grades. He seemed well-adjusted in his new life. So Mel would ask that Claire keeps Peter's custody based on the fact that John Senior had left his wife when she was sick and he had already John Jr. living with him. And that Claire had been supporting Peter and taking good care of him since her divorce, and she was doing a pretty good job.

 

Brian spent the day at Kinnetik working his ass off with the new Liberty Air campaign. They had just started to fly to Europe and South America and they wanted a big campaign to promote the new routes.

 

It was late, as usual, and Brian was trying to come up with a big idea for the outdoors and the magazines. It wasn't easy, especially because he had spent the whole day trying to get in contact with Justin, but the blond's cell phone went straight to voicemail. And Melanie and Claire had left for the audience early in the afternoon and hadn't contacted him yet.

 

"Brian?" Cynthia opened the door and put her head inside. "Claire and Melanie are here."

 

"Send them in."

 

"I'm on my way home. Do you want me to ask for Stephanie to wait until you go?"

 

"No. Let the poor girl go home, it's late. I'll ask the janitors to lock everything when I leave."

 

"Okay," said Cynthia. "See you tomorrow."

 

He rubbed his temples with his fingers, the beginning of a headache telling him it was time to stop. His tired mind wouldn't conjure up any brilliant ideas today, not at this time at night.

 

Claire and Melanie entered his room and for the looks on their faces, Brian knew that things weren't as easy as they had hoped. Claire looked like a train had just came over her and Mel had a worried expression.

 

"Do you have something to drink?" Claire asked.

 

"I think there's some juice at the bar."

 

"I meant something with alcohol, Brian," Claire deadpanned.

 

"I can't drink alcohol ," he said.

 

"Well, I can," Claire said. "And I would appreciate it if you told me where it is. I know you have some pretty strong stuff here."

 

He sighed. If Claire's shitty mood was any indication, things had gone worse than expected. "Open the small door over the bookcase," he said, pointing to the farthest corner of the room.

 

Claire opened the door and took a bottle of Chivas Regal. "Yeah, that's exactly what I was talking about. Do you want some?" she asked Mel.

 

"What the hell, why not?" the brunette answered.

 

Claire poured a generous dose for her and for Mel and some Orange Juice for Brian. He grimaced looking at the juice in his hand and the whiskey in theirs, but knew it was pointless to complain. He waited for them to sit comfortably in front of him and watched as his sister took a large gulp, starting to cough immediately.

 

"Shit, this is strong," she said, her face read.

 

"I didn't know you were used to drinking, he said raising his eyebrows.

 

"I'm not. But I'm in such a mess that I thought, what the hell..."

 

"What happened? Are you gonna tell me or you came here just to drink my whiskey?"

 

Mel smirked at his comment but then shook her head sadly. "We're in trouble. That's what happened."

 

"The idiot hired a man to follow my steps, can you believe that?" Claire said as if she was still in awe. "He knew every little thing I did in the past two months. "

 

"So what? You do nothing but work and take care of your son," Brian answered.

 

"It's not that simple," Mel said, sighing. "She left him alone at home a few times and once or twice she arrived really late at school to pick him up."

 

"I had a late shift!" Claire explained. "And I had no one to leave him with. Peter is very mature and he helps me to take care of the house. And he only stayed by himself for a couple of hours!"

 

"I know, Claire," said Mel. "But the judge may see his as negligence as a mother."

 

"Negligence?" said Claire. "I'm a good mother! I am!"

 

"No one's saying you're not," Brian said, glaring at Melanie.

 

"That's right, Claire," Mel clarified. "I'm just saying that because I know how these things are. It's a fight and the weapons our adversaries use are not always fair." She turned to Brian to explain. "' John Senior says he can't pay Claire's pension to support Peter, but if Peter lives with him it will be easier to support both boys and stop giving money to Claire."

 

"Fucker." Brian said between teeth.

 

"It's alright, I don't want his money. His pension is so small that I can live perfectly without it and support my son."

 

They all stayed quiet for a moment, sipping their own drinks. But Claire was really upset and finished hers on one last gulp, coughing again.

 

"Whoa! Careful with that, or you'll end up dancing La Bamba. This stuff is strong," said Brian.

 

Mel cleared her throat a little. "Um...Brian and Claire...there's more. I was waiting until you were together to talk about this."

 

"What do you mean?"

 

"I...talked to John's lawyer privately, on our way out. He and I went to law school together and we were good friends. I know it's completely against the rules, but he...he advised me not to take John Senior for granted. The tone he used...kind of...hinted that John has a few things up his sleeve to use against you, Claire."

 

Claire shrugged. "I have no idea what he's talking about. Really."

 

Mel hesitated a little, but went on. "He...may have said something about...you and Brian."

 

"What the fuck? What do I have to do with this shit?" Brian asked puzzled.

 

"Um..." Mel looked at them, uncomfortable. "I...think that...maybe John wants to use the...that incident with...you and the police, Brian. And...your...nephew."

 

"Oh," was all he said.

 

"But...but..." Claire stammered, "I dropped the charges against him!"

 

"I know. But the records stay anyway," Mel said. "And I believe your ex-husband knew about the incident and agreed with you at that time?"

 

Claire nodded slowly. "He...didn't want me to drop the charges, but...Jonnie confessed he was lying, that he...got angry because Brian didn't want to give him money..." she looked at Brian, who had his eyes fixed on his own hands over the desk.

 

"The lawyer didn't specifically say anything about this, that's just a guess." she shrugged. "I hate to bring this topic now. But what could he have to use against you, that has to do with you and Brian, and is strong enough to take Peter from you? We need to think about everything, we need to be ready for everything."

 

"But..." Claire murmured.

 

"Mel's right, Claire." Brian's face was stony, his expression blank. "Your ex-husband doesn't want your son to be close to the faggot, especially a perverted child molester."

 

"Brian..."

 

"But it's true," he said, eyes cold. "Not that I care about what they think about me. But if people will start to dig this shit again, things will gonna get ugly. I live my life the way I want and to the hell with those who don't like it. But you can really lose Peter's custody because of this. Because Peter is around me."

 

"Listen, guys," Mel said, "let's not jump into conclusions. I just said that because we need to be ready for everything, really. And the fact that your mother is against you and totally friendly with John senior doesn't help."

 

"What?" Brian said, eyes wide.

 

"She was there, Brian," Claire said. "My own mother...said she wants to protect Peter from my disgusting life-style. But I never left my nine year-old daughter taking care of a toddler in the middle of the night to go from bar to bar looking for my drunk husband like she did so many times!"

 

"She's completely full of shit. A perfect, drunk, hypocrite bitch," was all he said. Then he turned to Mel. "What can be done about that, Mel?"

 

"We'll have to wait. John didn't say anything against you. He only said that Peter is being exposed to people with a dubious moral. I thought he was hinting at something and I went to talk to his lawyer and...bingo. This first meeting was just to officially explain what the case is about and to set a date for a next one, when the parts will try to get to an agreement."

 

Brian was all business now, as if Joan's mention had turned off something inside him. "Thank you, Mel. I think I don't need to ask for your discretion about this?"

 

"Of course not. Nothing that was said here will leave this room."

 

"Good. Now, I thing we better go. It's late and you must be tired."

 

"No shit," said Mel.

 

He calmly collected his briefcase and coat, all the time feeling his sister's worried eyes on him. He opened the door for the women and Mel passed, but Claire stopped in front of him, her hand in his arm.

 

"I'm sorry," she said.

 

"Sorry's bullshit," he said icily.

 

"Brian..." Claire's hand squeezed his arm stronger and he looked at her, seeing all the guilt and agony she couldn't hide.

 

"Listen Claire," he said a little softer, averting her eyes while speaking. "There's no point in talking about this. It's in the past. If...if we don't leave this shit behind us..." he shrugged, "This won't lead us anywhere. I'd rather not talk about this ever again."

 

"I wish I could erase this, but I can't. I'm really, really sorry."

 

"Claire..." he said stronger this time, "Leave it."

 

"Can you really, Brian? Can you really put this behind you?"

 

He sighed and said in a low voice, "I don't know if I'll ever be able to. But I'm trying." Then he turned around and left, not waiting for her or Mel.

Chapter Text

"Fuck!" Brian cursed as he slammed his cell phone shut. A week later and there had been no improvement on Claire's case. Asshole John senior apparently had his mind set. Brian cursed the judge, the law, the constitution, and the conversation ended up with a very stressed Mel telling him that she was glad he wasn't allowed to go to the hearings or she would end up having to bail him out of jail...So sure she was that he would jump on the gray haired, austere, homophobic judge the minute he saw the man.

 

Facing Claire was a nightmare, the big dark circles around her eyes speaking of sleepless nights, and every time she looked at Brian or he heard her voice on the phone, he could feel her desperation; and there was a new and unwelcome strain between them, now that the story of Claire's accusation against her brother was being brought back to life. As for Brian, he just wanted to end all this and go on with his life, without having to dwell on ancient wounds - again. The sooner, the better.

 

As the slow and noisy elevator took him closer to his loft, he refrained his impulse to kick the old walls. He was anxious to get home and just try to forget that the outside world existed. But kicking the walls would probably make the whole thing crack, and Brian's Prada shoes would have to pay the price for his stress. He muttered a curse of relief when the elevator stopped at the third floor and unlocked the heavy metal door, pulling it angrily.

 

Immediately he knew that Justin was home. His red suitcase was opened on the floor next to the steps leading to the bedroom, and his light brown coat was abandoned on the sofa. Brian's first impulse was to go straight to him, but he was still fuming from the conversation with Mel and he wanted to calm down a little. He put his briefcase on the counter and opened the fridge, grabbing a bottle of water. Hell, how he missed his good old Jim Beam. In moments like that the burning of his throat and the oblivion that came next would be more than welcome.

 

Brian drank his water slowly, trying to take his mind off all the problems he had faced that day. Kinnetik's new campaign...the asshole that had scratched the 'Vette's paint when he parked his car downtown...Claire on the verge of losing her son's custody. He felt, more than saw, Justin's presence in the room, because a soothing feeling descended over him when he heard the light footsteps getting closer. He didn't move, trying to put a slight smile on his face before turning to face the blond, so hopefully Justin wouldn't notice how stressed he was.

 

Pale hands and arms enveloped him from behind and he heard a soft sigh as a forehead was pressed against his shoulder blades. "Hey," Justin's voice said, and Brian felt the young man's face against the back of his neck as Justin inhaled deeply.

 

"Hey yourself," Brian said as he turned to face the young man. Justin was draped in a white towel and nothing more, hair still damp from the shower. "Didn't know you were coming today."

 

"I wanted to surprise you," Justin smiled as he pressed himself against Brian.

 

"I'd say you achieved your goal," Brian said, wrapping his arms around Justin's slim waist and giving him a small smile.

 

Justin pierced Brian's eyes with his, frowning a little. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but appeared to change his mind. Then he pressed his mouth firmly against Brian's, while he opened the towel and let it drop to the floor, wrapping himself around the older man as if he wanted to crawl inside his skin. Brian didn't waste any time, his hands tangling themselves in the blond locks, tongue seeking entrance in Justin's mouth until all he could feel was Justin's sweet taste and the smell of soap and arousal.

 

"Fuck me, Brian," Justin murmured breathlessly against his mouth when the kiss ended. "I've been aching for you since I left..."

 

That's when Brian lost it. With a low groan, he grabbed Justin's ass and lifted him from the floor, and when the blond circled Brian's waist with his legs, he started walking toward the bedroom carrying Justin, never breaking the kiss. He stopped next to the bed and all but let Justin fall on the mattress. The blond lay sprawled, naked, blue eyes dark with lust, lips swollen, chest heaving. Brian started to loosen his tie and unbutton his shirt as fast as he could. In seconds he was also naked, on top of Justin, face buried on the crook of the blond's neck, licking the spot behind his ear, while Justin's nail dug into his arms and he arched his head to give Brian better access to his neck.

 

Brian couldn't wait, he wanted, no, he needed to be inside Justin now. "Roll over," he said, panting, and he reached for the bedside table in search of the ever present condom and lube. He positioned Justin on all fours and started to prepare the young man, trying not to think about the incredibly needy sounds Justin was making. He stopped for a second, taking a deep breath, making Justin whimper as a strangled "Don't stop" escaped the blond's lips.

 

Brian didn't want to hurt Justin, but he knew he couldn't wait or he would explode. He put the condom on and started to enter Justin slowly, trying to compensate for the quick preparation. But Justin had other ideas and as soon as he felt the brunet inside him he pushed himself back, Brian going all the way inside.

 

They gasped in unison and stayed still for a while, their labored breathing the only noise in the loft. But Brian was too far gone and Justin was far too hot for him to keep his composure, so he grasped Justin's hips and started to move inside the blond in a fast pace.

 

"Brian, Brian," Justin chanted like a mantra, as if he was in a trance, eyes shut tight, his entire being focused on the pleasure of Brian inside and around him.

 

Brian felt every nerve of his body awake, the feeling of being inside Justin too good to hold back. Soon he was pounding inside with all he had, his heart beating so fast that he was dizzy. "Missed you," he grunted, changing the angle and the little yelp Justin gave made him even herder.

 

"Brian..." Justin gasped, "Please, please..." the blond repeated over and over, begging, pleading, and Brian knew he was ready to come. Hell, he was close to coming himself.

 

But it wasn't enough; Brian wanted more, he always wanted more from Justin as if he could never get enough of the intoxicating feeling of him. When he felt Justin's walls closing around him, Brian sat on his heels and pulled Justin with him. The blond, caught off guard, sat now on Brian's lap, his own weight making the brunet go even deeper. Brian bit Justin's shoulder, wanting his mark on the blond; Justin shuddered and cried out, coming hard without even touching his cock. Brian came right after, his arms firmly wrapped around Justin's waist, his whole body tingling like an electrical current.

 

It took them a while to get their breathing back to normal. They just stayed still, Justin sitting on Brian's lap, head thrown back resting on Brian's shoulder. Brian nuzzled Justin's neck and made them lay on their side slowly, Justin's legs too tired to cooperate. Brian didn't want to move, but he reluctantly left the blond's body, took off the condom and tied it.

 

Justin breathed evenly now, eyes closed, and Brian spooned him from behind, pulling the duvet over both of them. He was a little hungry, but he was also tired as if he had just been running a marathon. The extremely stressful day he had combined with the surprise of having Justin back and the intense coupling had left him drained. Justin seemed to be dead to the world, probably tired from the plane. Brian was almost drifting to sleep when he heard Justin's voice.

 

"Brian?"

 

"Hmmm?"

 

"Is everything alright?"

 

"Why wouldn't it be?" Brian answered, a little more alert now.

 

"Don't know. Your eyes seemed to be..." and Justin trailed off, as if searching for the right word.

 

Fuck. Brian had forgotten that Justin could read him like an open book sometimes. He'd read The Kinney Operating Manual, hadn't he? Michael surely had given the blond some lessons about how to read the manual. Knowing Justin, he must've written a few chapters himself. "Shhh ..." he said. "Sleep, Sunshine. You must be tired."

 

"I am." Justin sighed. "I know we have to talk about my trip and...Ethan's will, and everything, but...can we leave for tomorrow?" asked the blond, eyes already half mast.

 

Brian didn't say anything, busy as he was trying to control the cold grip he felt inside his chest; he sighed and adjusted himself against Justin, and Justin murmured in appreciation, holding the brunet's arms over his chest and intertwining their fingers.

 

"Hey, no one is in a hurry here. You're tired, I'm pretty tired myself," he said after a few seconds. "Sleep. We'll talk tomorrow."

 

"Brian...?" Justin asked again.

 

"Yeah?"

 

"You're okay, aren't you? You would tell me if something was wrong, wouldn't you?"

 

Brian almost told him why he was so tense. He almost told him about how it was killing him not to know what had happened in New York and that he was dying to know what the hell Justin was going to do with the damn gallery he now owned. He almost told Justin about how Claire's problem had affected him, especially because it had brought back the incident with his family and the police. He almost said how surprised he was to find the wound still open, especially because he was sure he had left the incident behind him a long time ago. And how fucking scared he was that Justin would decide to live in New York again.

 

But there was no way Brian would spoil the moment of Justin's return with problems that no one could fix. He wouldn't waste Justin's first night home with bullshit and yadda yadda yadda about his fucked up family and his silly worries. Besides, he was tired too, sleep approaching fast. Tomorrow he would tell Justin everything. Yes, tomorrow he would talk. Not now, while Justin's hair was so soft against his face and his skin felt so good against his own.

 

"Mmm...everything's fine, Sunshine. Now sleep and let me sleep too. You wore me out." Brian felt Justin's heartbeat against his hands and let the rhythm calm him and lull him to sleep.

 

 

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He felt a hand slowly tracing the contours of his body, caressing his face, neck, hair. It was a wonderful dream, one he didn't want to wake up from. He felt warm and comfortable, and the hand felt so good that he sighed, eyes still closed. He'd like to have a dream like this every day; he would surely wake up in a better mood.

 

He turned his head to the side, arching a little at the touch, wishing he could stay like this forever. Then the hand was replaced by lips. Wonderful, soft and warm lips that seemed to know him well, because they felt sure and went to all the right places, making him sigh even more. It was a wonderful sensation, especially when said lips went further down and took him in one swift motion.

 

He groaned, wishing the dream would never end. And when a wonderful tongue joined the lips, a shiver went down his spine and from there, to his entire body. It was too good, and suddenly it was all bright and amazing, and he woke up moaning as an electric current made his heart beat fast and his body tremble.

 

"Wow," Brian said, blinking, still not fully awake, as his hands tangled in softy blond curls. "That's a hell of a way to wake up."

 

"Hmm..."murmured Justin from some point near his thighs. The young man straddled him and kissed him lightly. "Good morning."

 

"Morning, Sunshine. Had a good night?"

 

"Yep, slept like a dead man," Justin cupped Brian's cheek, caressing it with his thumb. "But you didn't."

 

"What? Don't tell me again that I snore. That's bullshit and you only say that to annoy me."

 

"You didn't snore, but you tossed and turned all night. And you were mumbling something too. Had a nightmare?"

 

"Don't remember," Brian shrugged. "Might be all the stress from work."

 

"Sure," said Justin, a little skeptically. He looked deep into Brian's eyes as if analyzing him. "Are you alright?" he asked, a little frown between his bright blue eyes.

 

"Better now that you're here," said Brian, pulling him for a kiss. He tasted himself on Justin's lips, smiling a little. "I missed waking up with you."

 

"Me too," said Justin kissing him again, this time more deeply.

 

Brian could feel Justin's hands on his hair and the warmth of his body. Right now, in this bed with the only person that he had ever gave his heart to - as lesbianism as it sounded - his only thought was how good it felt to have Justin here with him and that he never wanted to be apart from him again. It was a selfish thought, he knew, but he was unable to control it as Justin's body pressed over his and Justin's scent and taste took control of his whole being and made him forget that everything else existed in the world.

 

Later, lying on the bed side by side, hands entwined, after their breathing returned to normal, Brian and Justin stayed silent, listening to the faint sounds that came through the window as the city slowly woke up.

 

"So," Brian said, almost as an afterthought, because fuck it if he was going to make a big deal of this shit, "Ethan left you a gallery."

 

Justin noticed that, perhaps for the first time, Brian hadn't said "Ian" instead of Ethan...but he didn't know it that was a good or a bad sign. "Yes, Hart Gallery. The one I used to work at."

 

"The one you left in a hurry because he said he had bought for you. Shit, I thought the guy was just playing all his cards to win you back."

 

"Me too. But he wasn't joking."

 

Brian sighed. "It's a pretty well known gallery, if I recall."

 

"Yes," Justin answered, fearing the resignation in Brian's voice. "Although it's not big, people like it."

 

"You're gonna make a big success out there with it. Owning a gallery in New York is a big deal. I'm sure it'll be a big step." When Justin only nodded, Brian suddenly wanted to scream ‘what the hell, why don't you say what you're gonna do with it?' But he didn't. He was gay, but he wasn't some little woman, he wasn't going to freak out, throw himself at Justin's feet and demand an answer like a wife. He took a deep breath, put on the best nonchalant expression he could manage and asked, "Well? What does your agent think about it?"

 

Justin kept looking as all the emotions Brian tried unsuccessfully to hide played across his face. Part of him wanted to laugh, because Brian was so transparent. And part of him wanted to smack Brian's head. It was clear the older man was thinking that Justin was going back to live in New York, and Justin couldn't understand why the hell it was so hard for Brian to believe that Justin wasn't going away, ever again.

 

"Alex thinks it's great. In fact, she came with me, to help me close the deal."

 

"Oh," Brian said, trying not to sound disappointed. "I thought all the papers about Hart's Gallery were already signed."

 

"They are, and the sale was amazingly fast." Justin looked at Brian, waiting to see the effect his words would have on the other man.

 

But Brian apparently didn't understand. "Sale? There were any paintings left behind?"

 

At that Justin couldn't hold on any longer. He let the small laugh escape his lips, but he laughed even harder when he looked at Brian and saw his pissed off expression.

 

"What the fuck did I say that's so funny, huh?" asked the older man, sitting up abruptly on the bed.

 

"You really have a thick skull, don't you? " asked Justin, sitting up beside Brian and intertwining their fingers again. "I meant the gallery's sale, dumb ass. I sold it."

 

Brian, who had his face turned to the wall, away from the blond, looked at him in awe. "What...what do you mean, sold it?"

 

Justin smiled and kissed Brian's jaw. "Sold it, as in, I sold it to someone and received money for it, which is now in my account. I'm not gonna stay in New York, Brian."

 

"Why not?" the older man asked, almost in a whisper, as if it was hard to believe Justin's words.

 

"Because," and he cupped Brian's face with both his hands, making the brunet look at him, "as much as it may be hard for your stubborn self to understand it, I love you. I can't live away from you anymore. Been there, done that, and I've had enough of this. And I'm not going anywhere where you don't go with me. Ever again."

 

Brian looked at Justin with an intensity that made the blond's soul feel exposed. The brunet's hands lost themselves in the blond locks and he took a deep breath. "Justin...you...you can't do this, lose an opportunity like this because of...of me."

 

Justin sighed. "You are really dense, you know," he said affectionately. "I'm not doing anything for you. I'm doing it for me, Brian. For us. Yes, us." he continued when he saw that Brian was about to protest "Because every day I spent in New York was great, but not knowing when I was going to see you again was hell. Even my work started to suffer because of the periods I went through with barely enough inspiration...usually when we were apart for too many months. I'm sorry you don't believe this, but it's true. I love you, and I want to spend my life with you. Is it too hard for you to understand?"

 

Brian tilted his head to one side, looking at Justin with sparkling eyes. He felt a little embarrassed at Justin's words. He admired the blond's courage to say what was in his heart. If only he could be like this. "I want you around too, Sunshine," he managed, with a low voice. But he knew he needed to say more, he wanted to say more. Justin deserved every bit of emotion he could pull out from inside him. He took a deep breath and shrugged a little awkwardly. "Without you I'm just...incomplete."

 

"Oh, Brian..." Justin kissed him with renewed fervor, and they lost themselves in each other again.

 

 

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"Wow. I loved everything, dear, but these sketches you made at the hospital are wonderful," said Alexia, looking at Justin's sketchpad. "We could make a show only with them, you know? Your perception of people is amazing. Not only the lines and faces, which are perfect, but their emotion. It's all here, in black and white."

 

Justin blushed a little. They had spent almost the entire morning at his studio, looking at all the paintings he had, including the first one he made, when being an artist for a living was still a dream. "Thanks," he said.

 

"Your paintings are amazing. Sometimes...angry, sometimes sad...shit; I don't even know how to describe them. Sometimes full of joy. I love them all."

 

"I can't see myself painting anything other than what I'm feeling. I did this one when I didn't know where Brian was, right after I came back." He said, pointing to a canvas to his right.

 

"This is one of my favorites. But...I can tell there's a pattern here..."she said, sounding amused. "It seems that all of your work has something to do with Brian."

 

He laughed and shook his head. "Not all of my work, no. But great part of it. Brian...makes me feel alive, you know?" he shrugged. "That alone has given me lots of different emotions through all these years, and it is excellent material for lots and lots of paintings, I can assure you."

 

She laughed too. "You artists and your muses...Now come on, or we'll be late for our meeting."

 

"I still don't believe I'm doing this. I mean, I'm an artist, not a businessman. And I'm using money that wasn't even mine to start with. "

 

"If you feel this way about the money, why didn't you refuse the gallery, baby? You know you could have."

 

"I'm not sure. I feel like I...owed Ethan something."

 

"Owed him? What the hell, Justin! I'm really not following you."

 

"It's complicated. But..."Justin shrugged. "We were together for some time. And during that time, I thought that I loved him, even though now I know I didn't. When I met him in New York, he wasn't...normal. He started to stalk me and I hated it all along, but he wasn't the same. And I felt it, I knew it. I just didn't pay attention. Now I feel like I could have done something for him, help him somehow."

 

"It seems to me that the only thing that he wanted you to do for him was go back to him."

 

"Well, not that, God forbid. But I could have tried to be his friend, you know? Maybe we could have talked...I don't know. Maybe if we had talked about the problem he was obviously having, you know, living with the fact that he needed to hide who he was...He could be still alive."

 

"Please, Justin!" Alex said, annoyed, "Don't tell me you're blaming yourself for what happened to him! He is the only one responsible for doing something so stupid..., and you know it."

"Yeah, well..." he shrugged and smiled sadly, "I don't know." He wasn't really feeling guilty, that was Brian's specialty, but he had the feeling that he could, or rather should have done something. "If I refused the gallery, I would feel like I was giving him the final rejection. And really I don't need that money, I never wanted it. Do you think I'm crazy?"

 

"What I think is that you are a very sensible young man. No wonder you're an artist."

 

"Anyways, thanks for listening to me, Alex. It's not something I can talk about with Brian. He can't even hear Ethan's name." Ethan taking his own life was something that Justin would never come to terms with

 

"Oh, a jealous man...How cute is that?"

 

"Be careful not to call him ‘cute' in front of him, you can cause him a stroke or something like that."

 

 

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Brian hated Mondays. He was restless. Not even the memory of night he had spent with Justin in his arms was enough to make him relax now. What a way to start one's week. He eyed suspiciously the brown envelope on his desk. The private investigator he had hired to dig any dirt he could find about John Senior's life had just given him the envelope, saying that he was sure Brian would be more than satisfied, and left with a package of one-hundred notes.

 

He had hired Paul Black just one week ago, and he wasn't expecting anything about his ex brother-in-law's life so soon. At the time, part of him had thought that perhaps he was going a little too far. He had never invaded other people privacy, but when Mel told him that they could use his little problem with the police years ago against Claire, he made his decision.

 

And he was glad he had made it. Mel had called early in the cold Monday morning to tell him that she had read the documents for the conciliatory hearing and, in them, John's lawyer said that Claire was associating with people with dubious morale, and of course, that meant Brian.

 

Brian snorted, thinking about Mel's words. John had stated that Claire's companies weren't a good influence for his son, because she was seeing people who had already been accused of molesting children, and although the document didn't mention what the case was or who the people were, Brian was pretty sure they eventually would come to that. And he wouldn't allow it.

 

He had spent the whole morning worrying about the whole thing, even though worry was for silly weak faggots, which he was not; feeling slightly sick and like he'd had rocks for breakfast. He hated to feel helpless more than anything. Feeling helpless always brought Jack Kinney's face to the back of his mind. Finally an hour ago, as if on cue, the investigator had called, saying he had already a lot of material for Brian. And here he was looking at the envelope that could give Claire - and himself, maybe - a little peace.

 

He opened the envelope and it was all there: pictures, reports, documents. John the Asshole was a gambler - poker player - and he already had too many debts than he could manage. He frequented a bar called "The Devil's Hole" - Brian arched his eyebrows at the suggestive name - and apparently good ol' John used to take home one or two prostitutes. The same home, in fact, where his teenage son slept. He had already lost his car and it seemed to be only a matter of time before he lost his house too.

 

Brian wondered what Mel would say about all this. Or what John's lawyer would say about it when Mel showed him all this shit; because she would, even if Brian had to make her do it. It was blackmail, but at this point Brian didn't care. If John didn't give up Peter's custody and left Brian alone, the shit about him was going to hit the fan.

 

"Mr. Kinney," said Stephanie from the intercom "Ms. Peterson is here."

 

He shoved everything inside a drawer hurriedly. "Send her in."

 

Lindsay stepped inside Brian's office and as soon as he saw her he braced himself for the shit that was apparently coming his way. Brian knew Lindsay for too many years now, and whenever she made that stony face to him, he could tell she wasn't happy about something and he was the one to blame. Who else? Although, for the love of God, Brian had no idea why.

 

"Hey, Lindz," he greeted

 

"Brian." She wasted no time; walking straight to him, hands on her hips, she stopped in front of his desk. "What the hell is Justin trying to do?"

 

Brian set his jaw. "What do you mean?"

 

"Oh, don't tell me you don't know Justin offered Sidney a 50/50 percent partnership at the gallery! You didn't even tell me Justin was back! And why did he - "

 

"Calm yourself, Lindz." Brian said, trying to fight a sudden headache. "First, no one knew Justin was back until today because we spent the weekend at home, fucking. And last I checked, we don't owe you a report of our actions. Second, if he wants to buy 50% of the gallery, what the hell do I have to do with it?"

 

"Where did he get the money? Or are you buying it for him?" She was fuming and Brian couldn't quite understand why.

 

"That's none of your business where he got it," he replied, tongue in cheek. "But I assure you the money is his."

 

"And why on Earth did you let him do something stupid like that?"

 

"Fuck, Lindz, I'm not Justin's owner. He is his own man, he does what he wants. You should know that."

 

"No, Brian. He always does what you want, or what he thinks you want. It was always like that, and it will always be. If you really care about him, you should stop him from doing this kind of mistake."

 

"Shit, I don't see how owning a gallery can be described as ‘mistake'. "

 

Lindsay shook her head sadly. She calmed herself and sat down in front of him. "It is and you know that. He was in Europe, living the dream of his life. Do you think that staying here will ever compare to that?"

 

Brian pinched the bridge of his nose. Just what he needed; as if he wasn't stressed enough. "You'll have to ask him. I had nothing to do with his decision of coming back. And about the gallery, he came back from New York with his mind set," he said, trying to remain calm. He really didn't want to lose it in front of her.

 

"He came back from Europe for you, Brian, because he missed you. And then nobody knew where you were, and I think he freaked out about your disease. Whatever the reason was, he decided to stay because of you. And you know damn too well that he's throwing his talent away because of you." She said softly, as if she was talking to a child.

 

Brian felt a pang in his heart and had to fight to keep the acid from his stomach back down his throat. "You know, Lindz, sometimes you can be really a bitch."

 

"You know I'm right. Pittsburgh will never be enough for him. Buying a gallery will never be enough. You are his partner; you should want what's best for him. Don't be selfish, Brian. If you love him, let him go."

 

Brian slammed the desk with his hands making her flinch. "And what the fuck do you think I did almost three years ago? He just keeps coming back, and maybe, maybe he's doing what he really wants in spite of what we all think he should do! Did you ever think about that?"

 

"He's young, easily influenced, especially by you. God, you're so much older than him! You should be able to see things a lot clearer. If he stays, he'll regret it in the future."

 

Brian closed his eyes and sighed. For someone who claimed to be his friend and to love him, Lindsay really knew how to hurt him. "Do you think I influenced him? Fuck you, Lindz. And you know what? I don't know why you're complaining. He just saved your job. Sidney would have sold the gallery and you'd be back to teaching art in high school."

 

Her face turned as cold as ice. "You're an asshole, did you know that?" She got up. "I don't know who is more immature: Justin or you."

 

"Get out." He got up too, and walked to the door, opening it for her. "If you have something to say to Justin, tell him yourself. But I'm sure that if he wanted your advice, he'd have asked. Or maybe he was far too smart not to."

 

Lindsay looked at him icily again. "I don't know why I came."

 

"Neither do I," he said coldly, waiting for her to cross the door and slamming it shut behind her.

 

"Fuck!" he murmured, walking back to his desk; his stomach felt full of stones, and he swallowed to stop the bile from rising. "Fuck!" he said loudly this time, massaging his temples. ‘Not this ‘if you love him let him go' shit again', he thought. He took a deep breath trying to keep his heart from slamming against his chest, but it was too much. Suddenly, Brian lost it, grabbing a vase and throwing it against the wall, where it shattered in a million pieces.

 

 

 

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At five PM, Justin opened the loft's door. The TV was on, but apart from that, there was no other noise in the loft. He assumed that Brian must have come home earlier from work, because they were going to have dinner with Alex. Justin could barely wait for her and Brian to meet each other. But when he was on his way to the bathroom, he saw a familiar pair of feet dangling from the sofa. Turning his way toward them, he saw Brian sleeping peacefully on the sofa. He was laid on his right side, arms wrapped around himself just in his jeans and a white t-shirt.

 

Justin smiled at the sight. He loved to see Brian sleeping, because all the worries and stress that always showed on his beautiful face were gone. He kissed Brian's forehead and went to the bathroom, where he took a much needed shower and change to more comfortable clothes. Going to where Brian was resting, he kneeled in front of the older man and kissed his lips lightly.

 

Brian smiled and slowly opened his eyes. "You smell good," he said still sleepily.

 

"Hey," said Justin, kissing him20again.

 

"Hey," Brian said back, rubbing his eyes with the tips of his fingers and blinking. "What time is it?"

 

"Already six."

 

"Shit. Then I slept a lot."

 

Justin frowned. "A lot? What do you mean? When did you get home? Are you feeling okay?"

 

Brian smiled again. "Calm down, Sunshine.. I came back around two. Had to humor a client at lunch and I think the food was poisoned or something. Right after I finished eating my stomach started to hurt like a motherfucker."

 

"Did you take something for the pain? Do you want some water?"

 

Brian didn't like to see Justin worried. He felt he had given the young man a lot of trouble already. Justin was too young, he should be drinking and partying and fucking. Not worrying every time Brian coughed or winced. It simply wasn't fair. So, he didn't tell the blond - again - about the problem with Claire and the private investigator. And especially, he didn't say a word about Lindsay's visit.

 

After she left and he broke the vase in an access of rage, Ted ran inside his office alarmed with the noise. By now, Brian was feeling like his stomach was flooded with acid and Ted, seeing the way his face turned pale, canceled all his meetings and sent him home. He hadn't actually eaten a thing since breakfast.

 

He almost didn t recognize himself. In other times, he wouldn't have bat an eye about Claire's problem. But since his private life could actually help Peter's father to get his custody, it made him so pissed off that he couldn't even describe the feeling. He had always lived his life with the "no apologies, no regrets" motto, but it didn't sound as great as he wished, now that people were being involved in all his bullshit and dragged along his past mistakes. Claire was an adult and she had her own amount of bullshit to deal with. But Peter was still a child, and Brian hated to see that John the Asshole had a chance to take the kid from his mother because he, Brian, lived his life that way he wanted.

 

He hated the whole fucking world, that wouldn't allow a man to live his own life the way he pleased without judging him, even if he had helped the community countless times, paid his taxes, helped to bring down a fucking prick like Stockwell. He hated to feel helpless like that; hated to feel guilty because Claire wouldn't stop crying; hated Claire for accusing him of molesting John Jr.; hated John Jr. for being an inconsequent liar; hated John Sr. for teaching his son how to be the most homophobic asshole ever at such an early age; hated his mother for not having an abortion when she was pregnant with him.

 

And what to say about Lindsay? She seemed determined to hurt him, and Brian couldn't understand why. He still could hear her voice, telling him that Justin was making a big mistake. Why the hell people assumed that he could tell Justin what to do? If he could, the blond would have never joined the Pink Posse years ago. Justin was a determined little shit, and he always did what he wanted.

 

He could have told all this to Justin, who were there in front of him, an open expression on his face, ready to help with whatever Brian needed. But he couldn't find the guts to do it, not when Justin's eyes sparkled with excitement with the excellent day the young man had obviously had.

 

Instead, Brian took a deep breath and shrugged, smiling a little. "I'm fine, really. Took a couple of pills the doctor gave me back at the hospital. Maybe is this damned medication. To think I still have one more month to go..."

 

"Maybe you're developing gastritis? Because all of the medication you're taking, plus the stress I know you are under because of the new accounts at Kinnetik." Justin offered helpfully..

 

"Really, Dr. Taylor?" Brian said, smiling slightly. "Come here then, give your favorite patient the better treatment you have."

 

Justin leaned above him, smiling, and kissed his jaw, then his mouth. Brian happily opened his, feeling Justin's warm tongue banning the bad day from his thoughts. Justin was the only person in the world that could make him feel that everything was alright. Even when it wasn't. He kissed Justin slowly, savoring his taste, letting his presence take Claire, Lindsay and everyone else away from his mind. "So, did Sidney Bloom accept the partnership?" he asked, when they stopped kissing for obvious need for oxygen.

 

Justin's eyes sparkled again. "Yep. I offered him a 50/50 partnership. He can keep running the business, I mean, the gallery, provided that we have a new accountant - Ted, as you suggested - and I will always drop by, because I'll have a say in everything, like, about the shows and stuff like that.

 

"I like the way your mind works, Justin. It's brilliant."

 

"It's fucking genius." Justin caressed Brian's hair. " I Iove Bloom's gallery. It was the place that gave me my first real show. I would hate to see Sydney selling it to God knows who."

 

Brian shook his head still thinking about Lindsay a little. "You're crazy, you know that? Selling a gallery in New fucking York to buy 50% of a small gallery in the Pitts. You must be out of your fucking mind."

 

Justin chuckled. "You don't fool me, Mr. Kinney. I know you damn too well to know that this is your way to tell me that you fucking loved my decision."

 

Brian wanted to say how much he did. But would he be influencing Justin to stay if he said something? He opted for a detour. "I still don't understand why you didn't buy the whole gallery, Justin. The money from Hart's gallery sale was more than enough to buy20two galleries like Bloom's in Pittsburgh."

 

Justin sat cross-legged on the floor, next to Brian. "I'm not a businessman, Brian. I'm an artist, and I still have a lot to learn. Mr. Bloom is in the business since you wore diapers, he really knows the métier."

 

"I want just to see Deb's face when you tell her that you're donating the rest of the money to Vic Grassi's House."

 

"God, I think she's going to suffocate me with hugs and kisses."

 

"Don't worry, Sunshine. I'll protect you." Kiss. "And now you have a place to show your work without having to stress about it."

 

"Yeah, but I don't want my work permanently on display. I don't want to show it just because I own half the place, but because I deserve it. I'll be more than happy with any show Alex can get me in New York, even if it's with other artists, in the smallest gallery of the city. I don't care. I don't want to spend my life wondering if I have talent or if I just get my work on display because the gallery is mine."

 

"You are such a drama queen," Brian said, smiling again. He traced Justin's bottom lip with his thumb and Justin leaned for another kiss. They rested their foreheads together, and Justin sighed. "What, Sunshine?" Brian asked. He knew Justin well enough to know that the sigh he'd just heard was not a happy one.

 

"Um..." Justin put his hands on Brian's chest and looked at him, suddenly serious, "Lindsay was there."

 

Brian had seen it coming, because how else would Lindsay know about the sale? He poked his cheek with his tongue and waited.

 

"She wasn't happy, Brian. In fact, she didn't like it one bit. She...looked at me as if I was stabbing her or something. She kept telling Sidney that I'm an artist and I don't understand a thing about galleries. I worked in a gallery for almost two years and she knows that!"

 

"And what did you do?"

 

"I almost told her to fuck off. But in the end I just said that I was sure of my decision and you and I had already talked about it, because she kept asking me if you knew what a big mistake I was doing. Like I was doing something behind your back. Then she stormed out of the gallery during her lunch break without a single word to me."

 

"Hum." Was all Brian managed to say.

 

Justin knew how much Brian loved Lindsay. But she was being a bitch ever since she found out that he decided to live in Pittsburgh again. "I guess she really doesn't want me to be her boss, huh?"

 

Brian gave a half hearted laugh at that. If things were that simple. "Justin...don't take Lindsay's actions too seriously."

 

Justin rolled his eyes. "There you go. You always defend her, Brian. I know she's your friend and Gus' mother, but that doesn't mean she's always right or gives her any right to say anything about my life nor tell me what to do! Why the hell does she want me to go back to New York so much?"

 

This time it was Brian who sighed. Hell, the last thing he wanted now was to see Justin and Lindsay fighting. It would make his life a lot more difficult; not that it was that easy now. "Because that was her dream, Sunshine. Lindz always wanted to g o to the big apple to paint."

 

"Then why doesn't she just go and leave me in peace?" Justin asked exasperated.

 

Brian ran his hand through Justin's blond hair. "Because she doesn't have half your talent, brat," he said softly. "And I think she hates to see you throwing away the chance she never had."

 

Justin kissed him again. "I told you I'm not throwing anything away. I'm just gaining from the whole thing, don't you see? But she has nothing to do with it. And shit, she could give me a break, couldn't she?"

 

Brian snorted. It couldn't be more ironic that he, of all people and after everything he had heard from the woman, would have to be the one to mend Justin and Lindsay's relationship. But it would be a living hell if they suddenly decided not to like each other anymore. And of course, Gus would suffer, he liked Justin a lot. Brian could only imagine the excuses Lindsay would make not to take Gus to the loft because of Justin. Sad as it was, Brian was starting to realize how manipulative she could be.

 

"Justin...I'm not defending Lindsay. And...I understand that you are pissed off with her. She's being childish and maybe acting out of envy, who knows?" He sat up and pulled Justin to the sofa with him. "Listen to me. Are you listening?"

 

"Yeah, I'm listening."

 

"Don't be too harsh on her." When Justin snorted, Brian went on. "Seriously, don't. Remember that she was the one who took your drawings to the GLC. She always gave you incentive. Even your show at Bloom's gallery, she helped you with that too."

 

"I know. I hate that we've come to this. But...sometimes I can swear that she wants you all for herself, and she would be happy with me gone. She may be a lesbian, but I have the feeling that if you suddenly turned straight - God forbid - she would leave everything behind to be with you."

 

"Bull shit. Lindsay is my best friend other than Mikey, my fag hag, just like Daphne - whom you fucked, if I recall well - is yours. And Lindsay could have a nine inch dick, I wouldn't care. There's only one blond I want, " Brian said, pulling Justin to him and kissing him soundly.

 

"But you fucked her." Justin said almost pouting.

 

Brian rolled his eyes. "Centuries ago, in college. And only for experimenting purposes. You have to actually taste pussy before you say with conviction that you don't like it."

 

"Agh," Justin made a face. "I bet she liked it a lot."

 

"Hey, it was me fucking her. Why wouldn't she like it?"

 

"Gotta love your modesty."

 

Brian gave a small laugh, but his face turned serious again. "Remember when you almost gave up college because of your hand?" Justin nodded. "Remember that Lindsay was the one who took you to see that artist, the one in a wheel chair that painted with her mouth? You only spared a second look at the computer I brought you after she took you to that show. She didn't want you to give up then, Justin. And she doesn't want you to give up now. She really cares about you."

 

"I know. But I wish she would respect my decision."

 

"She will. Give her time, okay?"

 

"Okay."

 

"Hey, if Sidney said yes, I guess we have a lot to celebrate tonight, don't we? Is our dinner still on? Do I get to meet the famous Alexia Monroe tonight?"

 

"Yep. She's dying to meet you too. You'll love her, Brian," said Justin, all excited again, like a little boy. "She's so sure of herself, she's funny and gentle, but she doesn't take bull shit from anyone."

 

"Well...as if we don't have lesbians enough in our lives to deal with. Come on, let's take a shower. I'll let you blow me before I fuck you so hard you'll have trouble sitting at the dinner tonight."

 

Justin slapped Brian's arm lightly. "Always the romantic."

 

 

 

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Saturday morning found Brian in front of Lindsay's house. An excited Gus opened the door and the little boy threw himself at his father. "Daddy!" he yelled with a happy smile.

 

"Hey, Sonny boy. You ready?" said Brian smiling, running his hands through his son's chestnut hair.

 

"Yep. Lemme get my backpack upstairs, okay?" said Gus, running up the stairs. "Mom!" the boy yelled. "Daddy's here!"

 

Brian stepped inside the house as Lindsay came from the kitchen. "I hope that Mel didn't forget to tell you I was coming today," he said as a greeting.

 

"She told me. What time will you bring Gus back?"

 

"Around six."

 

"Okay," she said, not quite meeting his eyes. An uncomfortable silence made her speak, because since when she and Brian were like this with each other? "I hope you and Justin have a good time with Gus today."

 

"Cut the crap, Lindz, will you? " he said sharply.

 

Lindsay looked at him, taken aback. "Brian, you have no right to - "

 

"I have every right, Lindz," he said coldly. "You're not the only one who can say what you think without a second though. But I didn't come here to hurt you; I just came for my son."

 

Lindsay paled at his comment, because deep down she knew she should have measured her words back at Kinnetik. "I just want to tell you something," he continued without waiting for her reply. "You think Justin should go to New York, Europe, fucking Timbuktu? That's your opinion and I'm not interested in changing it. Fuck it if I know why he stays in this shithole. But there's one thing I want from you: don't hurt him."

 

"I didn't do anything!" she protested.

 

"You think Justin is stupid? You think he doesn't know that you called in sick the whole fucking week because you don't want to see him at the gallery?"

 

"I'm with the flu; it has nothing to do with Justin being my...my boss."

 

"Bull shit, Lindz. You can't even say it. You didn't go because you're a coward."

 

She looked at him sharply. "Listen, Brian..."

 

"No, Lindz, you listen. Justin is not a boy. He's a man; a talented, fucking brilliant man. He can do what he wants with his life; if you can't agree with his decisions, at least have some fucking respect and treat him as an adult, not as a petulant child. He's not doing anything deliberately to hurt you or to piss you off."

 

"I always treated him as an adult. But as a friend It's my duty to tell him when he's making a big mistake," she said, almost regretting it instantly when she saw a flash of pain through his eyes.

 

Brian shook his head. "You wanna be his friend? Act like one. Your duty as a friend is to treat him with the respect he deserves as someone who is more mature than both of us together. You were the first one who helped him with his art, and he loves you for that. You're acting like a total shit, hiding at home instead of being at the gallery."

 

Before she could answer, Gus came running and grabbed Brian's hand. "Let's go, Daddy. Bye, Mom!"

 

"Bye, baby," Lindsay kissed Gus's head without taking her eyes from Brian's. "Have fun with Daddy and Justin."

 

Brian nodded at her and turned to go, but she put her hand on his shoulder. "Brian..." she said with a low voice, "I'm sorry about what I said at your office..."

 

"Sorry is bullshit," he whispered, rolling his lips into his mouth. "Try to start acting like the woman Justin admires so much. Just be at the gallery on Monday and it'll be fine."

 

"You forgive me, then?" she insisted.

 

Brian smiled, but it didn't make her feel better, because the small smile didn't reach his eyes. "Come on, Sonny boy," he said to Gus, who ran to the car excited. Lindsay waved at her son as the car started to move on the driveway, but the entire time her gaze was focused on Brian's blank expression and his set jaw. She stayed at the door long after the corvette had disappeared from her sight.

Chapter Text

"Come on, honey, get up."

 

Lindsay mumbled something and hid her head under the pillow.

 

Mel rolled her eyes. "Come on, it's seven already. You told me you're going to the gallery today." When she didn't hear an answer from her wife, Melanie grabbed the pillow not too gently and took it from the blonde. "Lindsay," she said again.

 

Lindsay opened an eye and looked at Mel from behind the mass of blond hair. "I can't get up. I'm sick," she said. "Call Sidney and tell him I can't go in today, okay?"

 

Mel threw the pillow on the bed. "Call him yourself because I'm not gonna lie for you. You're not sick; you spent the whole Sunday running at the park with the kids."

 

Lindsay sat up, running her hands through her hair. "Mel, please. I'm not feeling well. I need..."

 

"I know what you need: courage. Get a grip, will you?" Mel turned her back on Lindsay and opened the wardrobe, her head disappearing momentarily inside it. She grabbed her black high heels and sat on the bed to put them on. When she noticed that Lindsay was looking at her, chewing her nails, she stopped. "What?" she asked, trying to sound calm. Lindsay's behavior was starting to annoy her.

 

"What do you mean I need courage, Mel?" Lindsay asked expectantly.

 

Mel turned to look at her. "Because you're acting like a child, and you think I'm blind enough not to see what's going on."

 

"And what do you think is going on?" Lindsay asked, this time defiantly. Mel was always so full of herself, and she thought that she knew her wife so well...this time Ms. Marcus was wrong. "I admit, I'm a little depressed lately, but there's nothing wrong with me."

 

"Bullshit."

 

"Really, Mel. Everything's fine."

 

"Linds, I'm not stupid. Please, don't insult my intelligence, okay?" Mel said still calmly. "You've been..."depressed" since Justin came back. Don't think I don't know that you and he are not the best of friends nowadays, although for the life of me I can't understand it."

 

"I know!" Lindsay said, relieved that Mel was starting to see her point. "I don't understand it either. I mean, Justin is so talented, I can't see why he doesn't..."

 

"I didn't mean that. There's nothing wrong with Justin. The problem is with you."

 

"Me?" Lindsay looked puzzled. "Can't you see that he's throwing his life away?"

 

"No, I can't. But I'm starting to think that you feel you threw yours."

 

"WHAT? I can't believe what you just said. This is not about me. I only want Justin to be all he can be, because - "

 

"Let me say something, Linds. You didn't ask my opinion but I'm giving it anyway: First you didn't like when Justin came back; you didn't "approve" that he left Europe, but Brian was...missing, then he was sick, and you dropped it for a while. When Brian was out of the woods you came back with full force with your "advice", when you found out that Justin was staying in Pittsburgh. Don't think I didn't notice that you two barely speak every time we go to Debbie's dinners. Now, Justin bought half the gallery, and instead of being relieved you're gonna keep your job, you're acting like the world is ending." Mel got up, shoes still in hand, gesturing wildly. "If you were a gay man I'd say you're queening out about it. You haven't gone to work for a week and you must think I'm dumb or something worse, because you want me to believe your only interest is about Justin's art, Justin's well-being!"

 

"And what on Earth do you think it is?" Lindsay pushed the covers almost to her chin in a protective gesture.

 

"If you haven't figured out, I'm not the one who's telling you."

 

"No, tell me! I want to know what conclusion you reached about my life!" Lindsay's tone was a little sarcastic, but she was still grabbing the covers.

 

"Okay, since you asked so politely, I'm gonna give you my two cents about it." Mel was sarcastic too, but she could feel her eyes tingling. Shit, she wasn't going to cry now.

 

"By all means, do."

 

"You are a mess. You think you wasted your life with me, with Gus and JR, with the family and the life we have. Your dream was to go to New York, but as you couldn't, you're transferring this dream to Justin, and the fact that he doesn't want it, that he can chose his personal life over his success is driving you crazy."

 

"That's not true! I care about him, and I don't want him to regret his decision later, because Brian will never give him what he wants."

 

"And how the hell do you know what he wants? Or what Brian gives him? Have you ever stopped to think that perhaps Brian gives him exactly what he wants? Or are you just jealous that he doesn't give you all he gives Justin?"

 

"Mel!" Lindsay opened her mouth in horror. "That's crazy! It has nothing to do with Brian and Justin, or with me! It's about Justin's chances!"

 

"Justin's chances and decisions are his to take, you can't choose for him! You're not only sticking your nose in his life, you're also messing with our lives, Linds!"

 

"Our lives? It has nothing to do with us!"

 

"It has everything to do with us!" Mel almost screamed. Then she took a deep breath and started again in a calmer tone. "I know you've put up with my shit several times. I insisted that we moved to Canada and it didn't work, I know that. But I put up with your shit too. I had to live with the fact that you wanted Brian to be our son's father, although you knew we couldn't stand each other. I had to see you siding with him several times, sometimes against me. I had to live with the fact that you're not as sure of your sexuality as you said you were," Mel finished, voice trembling a little.

 

"How can you say that?" Lindsay's face was as pale as the wall. "We're together, aren't we? For more than ten years?"

 

"What about Sam? Hmm? What about Brian?" Mel gave a humorless laugh. "Poor Brian, it's not even his fault, he's so crazy about Justin, he has no idea what's going on with you."

 

Lindsay shook his head. "Mel..."

 

"Stop this shit, Linds, ‘cause I can't take it anymore. You want to take your chance in New York in Justin's place, go. You want Brian, go for it. But get a grip; stop acting like you're innocent and full of good intentions, because hell is full of people like that. You're hurting yourself, but you're also hurting Justin, hurting Brian and, most of all, you're hurting me." Mel grabbed her purse and headed for the bedroom's door, but before she left, she added in a whisper, voice failing a little, "Because you're making me feel like shit, knowing I'm not and I'll never be enough for you."

 

With that, Mel left, closing the door behind her with a thud, leaving an astonished Lindsay with her mouth hanging open.

 

 

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"Mmmm, I could stay here forever," said Justin, kissing Brian and tasting himself in Brian's lips.

 

Brian rolled on the bed covering Justin's body with his. "Why, Mr. Taylor, I thought you would be tired by now."

 

"Tired? Come on, we just did it once!"

 

Brian raised his eyebrows, looking at their bodies entangled, covered in sweat and come. He never thought that one day he would find someone that had as much stamina as he did, but Justin almost always wore him out. Almost. "I thought you had a meeting with Sidney."

 

"I do," Justin flashed one of his thousand- watt-smile at him, "but not until ten. And..."he kissed the tip of Brian's nose, "I can re-schedule it to...after lunch...? Besides, it's still early."

 

"Well, unfortunately," Brian smiled too, running his hand through the blond locks, "some of us do have to work," he teased.

 

"What is the point of being the boss if you can't go to work a little late?"

 

"The point is that, being the boss, you get to be responsible for things you can't just...re-schedule to...after lunch." Brian said with a glint of amusement in his eyes.

 

"Asshole, you're the CEO, you can do whatever you want," Justin smacked Brian's ass playfully, and started to laugh with gusto when Brian yelped. Not that he would ever tell Brian that he had actually noticed the yelp, but he loved it.

 

"You're going to pay for that, Mr. Taylor." Brian's hands grabbed his wrists and pinned them above his head, as the older man started to laugh too. "No one smacks me."

 

"Oh yeah?" Justin asked, still laughing; he raised his head and met Brian's mouth halfway, his tongue seeking entrance. Brian still held Justin's wrists, but the laughter was gone now, the hazel eyes suddenly darker with lust. "I bet I could smack you all I wanted and you wouldn't complain," Justin said huskily when the kiss ended.

 

Brian rolled them on the bed and now Justin was on top of him. He cupped Justin's face with his hands and murmured in the blond's ear: "You can do whatever you want with me."

 

... ...

 

Brian poured the hot coffee in the cups. His, a striped blue and Justin's a white one written "I love NY". He put six spoons of sugar in his coffee - yes, six, damn it, mornings were the only time of the day when it was relatively safe to eat carbs - and for Justin, a little cream and just one spoon of sugar. "Come on, Sunshine; let's have breakfast in bed today. We'll have to change the sheets anyway."

 

"In a minute. Your toast isn't ready yet."

 

"That's because you take too much time with yours; look at this thing, it's almost burned."

 

"Shut up, my toast is perfect," Justin said, spreading a ridiculous amount of peanut butter on his dark brown toasts. Then he took Brian's ones out of the toaster and put non-fat butter on them with a slice of white cheese.

 

Brian was already sitting on the bed, cross-legged, squinting at the newspaper in front of him. Justin's cup was on the bedside table and Brian sipped his coffee slowly. "Shit, I don't know how people read this crap."

 

"Yeah." Justin said, putting the tray with the toasts in front of Brian and sitting down too. "All you see is violence nowadays. It seems that the only thing that sales is bad news."

 

"It's not that," Brian said irritated. "The letters are getting smaller. Look, it's almost impossible to read." and he shoved the paper on Justin's empty hand.

 

"Um...Brian..." Justin asked after looking at the paper, raising an eyebrow, the corners of his mouth going up a little.

 

"Hmmm?" the brunet asked, biting his toast. "This toast is good."

 

"Have..."Justin cleared his throat. "Have you ever thought about wearing...err...glasses?" When Brian's head snapped at him, he added hurriedly, "...because the letters seem alright to me."

 

"Brat. There's nothing wrong with my eyes. I'm too young to wear glasses anyway."

 

"It has nothing to do with age," Justin said casually. "You work too much, spend hours in front of the computer...your eyes are tired. I think you have presbyopia."

 

"Fuck, you are calling me old!" Brian opened his eyes wide as if to make a point. "It has everything to do with age. For your information, presbyopia comes in the forties, and I'm not even close."

 

Justin put his coffee down and leaned close to Brian, licking a butter spot on the corner of his mouth. "I'm kidding, Brian. You're perfect; you'll always be beautiful, no matter what." Justin smiled and nuzzled Brian's neck. "Besides, I bet you'd look sexy wearing glasses."

 

"Twat." Brian shuddered a little. The idea of getting old was scary, but the fact that, maybe, Justin would be there made it seem more bearable. "I always look sexy."

 

They ate in companionable silence for a while.

 

"Justin...I was thinking..." Brian said, finishing his toast and taking the crumbs off his lap.

 

"About?"

 

The brunet took a deep breath. "I want Gus to have my name."

 

In less than one second Justin was on Brian's lap, hugging him tight. "That's wonderful! He will be so happy!"

 

"Whoa, cowboy." Brian laid down taking Justin with him. "I need to talk to his moms first."

 

Justin's initial enthusiasm died right away. "Shit. I forgot that. How hard do you think it will be?"

 

"Hard enough. But I'm willing to try. I want him to have my name. I'm his father, for Christ's sake!"

 

"And let me remind you that you've been supporting him since the day he was born."

 

"Money is not the question, I don't care about that. The question is that I just gave my parental rights to Mel so our dear lesbian friends could get back together. And every once in a while one of them will remind me that I have no right over him. Well, that's got to change."

 

"They will be pissed." Justin chewed his lower lip thinking about Mel and Lindsay's reaction.

 

"Yeah, I know. But it's not like he is going to live with me all of a sudden.. Everything is going to stay the same. Now that they are back we are seeing more of each other. I...just want him to have my name and to know that..." Brian took a deep breath. "I'm proud to have a son like him and that I'll be here for him whenever he needs me."

 

"He knows that. And I bet he's proud of being your son too."

 

"You don't know that." Brian shrugged "Let's wait until he's older and understands what a fucked faggot asshole he has for a father. Then we'll talk about being proud."

 

"Shit, Brian, I hate when you talk like that. You're a great father and Gus loves you; you know that."

 

"Yeah, whatever."

 

Justin kissed Brian's chin. "You're great at everything you do."

 

"If you're trying to inflate my ego it's not working." Brian said, but he gave Justin a small smile.

 

"Well, I was more focused on inflating another part of you." He planted butterfly kisses on Brian's face.

 

"Oh, Mr. Taylor, haven't you had enough already?" Brian batted his eyelids playfully despite the instant hardness at Justin's words. Shit, how come after all this time the little shit could turn him on with no more than a few words and a chaste kiss?

 

"There's no such thing as enough, Mr. Kinney," Justin said, his tongue tracing the side of Brian's neck. "I learned that from the master."

 

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

 

 

"Justin."

 

Justin took his eyes from the pile of documents in front of him. Lindsay was leaning on the doorframe with a hesitant smile. He started to roll his eyes but stopped because only God knew where Lindsay's mood would take the conversation. Although he wasn't feeling particularly inclined to talk to her right now, especially after the wonderful morning with Brian, he decided to be at least polite, if only for Brian. He nodded shortly. "Hey."

 

"Can I come in?" she asked, giving one step further.

 

"Sure," he said, looking at the pile of documents again.

 

"Where's Sydney? I see he left you alone with paperwork?" she asked, looking around when she didn't see the older man.

 

"He left a minute ago, he'll be back soon; he just had this irresistible urge for a Starbuck's coffee, so he went to get one." ‘Or perhaps he saw you coming and decided we should talk in private', he wanted to add, but didn't. Instead he shrugged and looked at the papers. "I'm just putting these papers together because Ted is coming to pick up everything. We need to sign the contract. Ted will be our accountant now, you know. I don't know shit about this and apparently Sidney is not much better than me."

 

"I know. Berta, his wife, used to take care of everything for him. When she died he just lost control; he's not a business man."

 

"Neither am I," Justin said, "But we're trying to decide what's important and what's not among all this," he gestured for the table full of papers. "I guess it's better that we just give Ted everything and let him put this in order."

 

"Yes, I think you're right," she said, sitting down in front of him. She took a deep breath. "I'm glad Ted is taking care of everything...it would be a shame if Sidney lost the gallery. And I'm not saying this only because of my job, but because he and Berta worked really hard to have this place; this gallery is his life now that she's gone."

 

"I know. I would hate if he lost it," he said, then he looked at the papers again and started to put everything in a box. He didn't want to look at her piercing gaze right now.

 

"Justin..." she started again, and seeing that he didn't say anything, she went on. "I'm...I know that maybe I acted on an impulse storming out of the gallery the other day."

 

"It's alright," he said, still trying not to say what he really thought about her reaction, even after all that Brian said about her and how much she ‘liked' Justin. "I understand that you don't want me here, as your boss. But I'll come here just once or twice a week, so you don't have to worry."

 

Lindsay sighed. She didn't want to hurt Justin, she really didn't. But looking back now, she could see that she had been a little harsh with him lately. "I'm..." she sighed again. "I'm sorry, Justin. I have no problem with you being my boss. It would be very, very nice to work with you."

 

"Really?" he asked, a sarcastic expression on his face, not quite believing her words.

 

"Yes. It's just that...it drives me crazy to see you wasting your talent here."

 

Now Justin really rolled his eyes. "And there you go again. I think we already had this conversation, more than once, and it didn't end on a happy note.

 

"No, wait. I need you to understand why I'm saying this." She put her hand on top of his and he resisted the urge to take it back. "You're such an amazing artist, Justin. It's a pity to see you here where nothing exciting happens, when you could be in New York or Europe. If you stay here, you can still succeed; I have every confidence in your work. But it will take you twice the time it would take if you had stayed there, where things happen."

 

"Been there, done that." he said, looking at her pointedly.

 

"I just want what's best for you, and I'm afraid you're too young to see."

 

"In that case, you should be deliriously happy, because I already know what's best for me, and I'm doing exactly what I want. I'm not a boy anymore, Lindsay; I'm a man."

 

She didn't remove her hand, but averted her eyes. "I guess I still see you as that seventeen year-old boy who sought refuge in my house after seeing Brian with a trick."

 

Justin looked at her, trying to understand why Lindsay was insisting so much on this. Didn't she want to see him and Brian happy together? He sighed. "Do you really think he's not worth it?" he asked not hiding the hurt tone. It pained him that, after all this time, some people still judged his and Brian's relationship as some kind of sacrifice for Justin, when the truth was that Brian was, and will always be, the most important person in his life.

 

Lindsay's face turned pale suddenly. "I didn't say that," she said.

 

"You don't have to. Everything you say makes me think that's exactly how you feel. I hope you didn't say any of this shit to him, because he might believe it."

 

She opened her mouth to deny it, but then remembered her words at Brian's office, then his sad expression at her home. Shit. And apparently Brian hadn't said a word to Justin about their talk.

 

"And frankly, Lindsay," Justin continued, "I hope that you didn't tell him about the "huge" sacrifice you think I'm doing, because if Brian pushes me away again because of this shit, after all we've been through...you don't need to talk to me ever again."

 

"I didn't do anything."That wasn't exactly true, but if Brian hadn't said a word, she wouldn't say anything. "I just want what's best for you two."

 

"Really Lindz? Then why do you insist on the same thing over and over again? Why it's so hard to believe that this is what's best for me?"

 

"Because you're so young, and..."

 

"This is bull shit and you know that. I'm young, not retarded, and I know what I want. I want to paint, yes, and nothing will make me give up on my art. But I also want to spend my life with Brian, trying to make this thing we have work, because..." he took a deep breath. Shit, since when does he open his heart to Lindsay? But the words stuck inside him just insisted on getting out. "Look, it's not an infatuation. Maybe it started like that when I was seventeen, he was my first everything. But right after that it evolved into so much more. None of you guys have the slightest idea about our relationship, about how we work together. He's the only one I'll ever want to be with, and believe it or not, it hurts me to stay away from him. That's too much to ask of me. I'm sorry if it's hard for you to accept that, but it's my life and I'm entitled to do what I want with it."

 

For a few seconds none of them spoke anything. Then Lindsay blinked a few times. "Wow," she said. "You sure are a determined young man."

 

"That I am."

 

"I'm sorry, Justin," she said, finally taking her hand from his. "It's not really my place to tell you what to do. I...I don't know what happened, I just..."

 

"You're afraid of losing him."

 

Lindsay grimaced. How on Earth could this kid be so smart? She had already asked herself if maybe she was afraid of losing Brian, but in fact, he was never hers to start with. He was nobody's, until Justin arrived in their lives.

 

Justin looked at her with uncommon wisdom for his age. "Which is bullshit, because you and Michael were there, in his heart, before I came into the picture. You're one of the people Brian loves the most, Lindsay, and you're the mother of his son. How could you lose him? He will always love you."

 

"I know." ‘He'll always love me...in his own way,' she thought.

 

"You think he was never afraid of losing you too? Especially when you and Mel went to Canada and took his son with you? He'll never admit it but I bet all my paintings that he thought ‘Does Lindsay still love me? Will Gus forget I'm his father?'... Shit, Lindsay. You know he didn't want you to go, but he let you go anyway, because he knew that's what you wanted to do. But Brian...he lost not only his best friend, but also his son in one day. How do you think that it made him feel?"

 

Lindsay got up, clearly uncomfortable, and walked to the window, looking outside. "I know," she murmured. "I know it was a big shock for him. I...I could blame the bomb and say that we were all I a shock...Michael hurt, Dusty dead...and that I had my family to think about, but..."

 

"But it wasn't exactly like that. And you forgot that Brian is Gus's family too." Shit, Justin could remember Brian saying that Gus would be better in Canada with his moms and his eyes full of sadness at the thought of losing the boy. He suppressed a shudder. "And right after that, I left," Justin thought. Shit, this whole thing was completely fucked up. If he could turn back time he would never had gone to New York like that, in an impulse and alone, especially in that particular moment. It was a series of bad timing events. Sometimes timing seemed to be their biggest problem.

 

"Listen, Lindsay. I care about you a lot, and I'll never forget that you helped me find my way back to my art when I almost gave it up. But please, if you don't agree with the way I'm living my life, at least accept my decision and let me make my own mistakes, okay? I'm staying right here in Pittsburgh. Period."

 

Lindsay shook her head and straightened herself. "I guess I should go back to work, then." Her voice had no warmth, she sounded defeated.

 

He looked at her with a determined expression and nodded. "Yeah, maybe you should."

 

"I'll be in my office if you need me." With that, she gave him a small smile and left, her heels echoing on the wooden floor.

 

Justin sighed and suddenly felt an overwhelming need to hear Brian's voice. He couldn't understand why the hell their ‘family' had so much trouble accepting that despite all the differences between the two of them, they really wanted to be together. He grimaced and pressed the speed dial button...and after two rings Brian's "Hey, Sunshine" made him smile and lessened the knot in his chest.

 

 

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

 

Brian woke up on Friday morning a little too anxious for his liking. Claire and Mel would go to the hearing in the afternoon and Brian was dying to know if the shit he had found out about John Senior would put his sister out of her misery.

 

Justin had woken up anxious too, but in a good way, because he and Sidney Bloom were finally signing the papers of the partnership at the gallery. The blond said that he and Alexia were going to spend the whole day together at is studio trying to decide which paintings would go to his new portfolio and Alex was going back to New York at night.

 

The day at Kinnetik was hectic and Brian spent the whole day antsy, a little more irritated than the usual. Cynthia and Ted wisely kept their distance but poor Stephanie left at five PM almost crying. When Brian's cell phone rang at the end of the day and he heard Claire's happy tone, he couldn't stop the smile on his face right in the middle of the Art Department. Ignoring his employees and their puzzled expressions to see the angry boss who was practically ripping their heads off a minute ago, smiling all of a sudden, he stormed out of the room and went back to his office. "I can't talk now. Just wanted you to know that we won!" Claire practically screamed with joy. "Have to go now, have some papers to sign. Be at my house at seven. That's an order; don't forget that I'm older than you." He smirked at that, but she had already hung up.

 

So, here he was at seven PM, parking the corvette at Claire's old building. He opened the car door and grabbed his briefcase when he heard "Let's Hear it for the Boy" coming from his cell phone. Smiling, he looked at the caller ID and flipped the phone open. "Hey. You changed your ringtone again," he said, locking the car and stopping at the building's entrance. It was a beautiful night, not chilly at all.

 

"Yep," said Justin. "I figured "Like a Virgin' was a little old."

 

Brian laughed. "You certainly are not a virgin anymore, Sunshine. So, did you sign the contract?"

 

"Yeah, we did. Now I officially own half of Bloom's Gallery."

 

"That's great, Sunshine. Where are you?"

 

"I'm still at the studio with Alex; we just finished here. I'm gonna take her to the hotel now; she leaves tonight, you know."

 

"Tell her goodbye for me."

 

"How about you? Are you coming home already? If you want, I can just put her in a cab and go upstairs and..."

 

"No need to, Sunshine, stay with your friend."

 

"But I can't drive her to the airport anyway, I don't have a car."

 

"Another situation we have to correct."

 

"I was thinking of using a little of the money to buy a second-handed car."

 

"Shit, Justin, don't tell me you're buying an old car! You have any idea of how unsafe it is?"

 

"I said second-handed; not old. And coming from the man who drives a corvette..."

 

"My car isn't old; it's vintage."

 

"Yeah, whatever you say. Anyway, I can put Alex in a cab and wait for you at home."

 

"Listen to me, Sunshine. Are you listening?"

 

"Yeah, you know I am."

 

"She's your agent. She dragged her ass all the way to glorious Pittsburgh just to help you with the gallery thing. Least you can do is pampering the woman. Besides, I'm going to Claire's."

 

"Claire's? Something happened?"

 

"Nothing bad. I'll tell you when I get home. She demanded that I came so..."

 

"So as an obedient little brother, you're there."

 

"Shut up, brat."

 

"Okay, then. I'm taking Alex to the hotel. See you later."

 

"Later."

 

Brian grimaced when he remembered the building had no elevator and Claire's apartment was on the fourth floor. Shit.

 

"Hey, little brother!" Claire greeted him, smiling, and threw herself at him. "We won! We won!"

 

Brian felt a little strange holding his sister, because they never did that at the Kinney's residence. "Whoa. Tell me what happened. I bet the asshole almost had a heart attack."

 

"Almost," said Mel. Brian released Claire and saw the lawyer standing in Claire's living room. "Hi, Brian."

 

"Mel," he nodded at her. "So, girls, care to tell me what happened?"

 

Mel smiled triumphantly. "John's lawyer was speechless when he saw the papers the PI gave you, and he wisely advised his client to give up Peter's custody. When the hearing started, it was easy to make a deal. John will have Peter with him once a week, but the judge gave the custody to Claire."

 

"Uncle Brian!" he heard from somewhere near him, and suddenly Peter was hugging him too. "Thank you, Uncle Brian. Now I can stay with my mom."

 

"Hey Pete." He ruffled the boy's hair. "You have a good mother; you're a good boy. It's just fair that you stay together."

 

"Come on, let's have a toast!"Claire said, taking a bottle of champagne from the fridge.

 

"Okay, just one," Mel said. "I need to go home. What about you, Brian? I thought you weren't allowed to drink?"

 

"Just a glass to make a toast won't hurt," he shrugged nonchalantly.

 

While Claire busied herself in the kitchen with the glasses, Brian pulled Mel aside. "I need to talk to you and Lindz later,"

 

"What, you want Gus's custody too?" Mel said, smiling at her own joke.

 

"Now, Mel, why would I do that? I just want him to have my name, no big deal."

 

Mel stared at him for a few seconds. "You know, I'm not going to give you a hard time on this one. I think Gus will be very happy to have your name."

 

He looked at her barely able to hide his surprise. "Frankly, I didn't expect that."

 

"I'm not always a bitch, you know. As long as you don't want to take him..."

 

"Hey. He's happy; I don't think his life should change. I'll call you and Lindz this week, okay?" She just nodded.

 

"Hey guys, here is the champagne!" Claire came from the kitchen with a radiant smile. She gave Mel and Brian each a glass and poured champagne for them and for herself. "Cheers,"she said. "I have no words to thank you both enough. You saved my life; I don't know what I would do without my son."

 

"I didn't do anything," Mel said smiling and sipping her champagne. "Well, I have to go, it's late."

 

"Do you have to go too?" Claire asked her brother.

 

He looked at his watch. "No. Justin's not home right now. I can stay a little longer."

 

Claire walked Mel to the door. "Bye, Mel. Thanks for everything."

 

"Hey, Kinney, thanks for the check!" Mel said to Brian. "Pretty generous, aren't you?"

 

"That's only fair. And I hate to admit it but you deserved it. You're a fucking damn good lawyer."

 

Claire closed the door and sighed. "Well, all I can say is that I'm happy to go back to my old life, no worries about John anymore." She looked at her brother again. "If it weren't for you, I don't know what..."

 

"Hey, don't start to get sentimental on me. You know I'm allergic to this shit."

 

"Yeah," she sniffed. "Me too."

 

"Sure you are," he snorted. "I guess women are all alike." The door buzzed again. "Are you expecting someone?"

 

"Maybe Mel forgot something?" Claire asked, looking around. "Or maybe it's Peter's friend from downstairs." Claire walked to the door and started opening it. "I swear one of these days someone will complain about the amount of noise those two do together and...Oh." She held the doorknob tightly.

 

"Aren't you inviting your mother in, Claire?"

 

Brian felt his insides turn to ice when he heard Joan's voice. As if on cue a dull throb started at his temples. "Fuck," he said under his breath.

 

"Uh...sure, come in, mother," said Claire hesitantly, risking a glance at Brian who was paler than the wall. She didn't feel good herself, her heart beating fast and her stomach rebelling against its content.

 

Joan stepped inside and looked around with a disapproving look. "I don't understand how you could leave the comfortable house you had for this place. You deserve better." Then her eyes registered Brian standing near the window. "Oh. I see you're not alone. Hello, Brian."

 

He nodded at her stiffly; annoyed that he couldn't find anything to say. His tongue seemed glued inside his mouth.

 

Joan stopped in the middle of the living room. "Where is my grandson?"

 

"He's doing his homework. I'd rather you didn't disturb him," Claire answered. "He has a Math test tomorrow."

 

"Very well. I just came to congratulate you on your victory today. Poor John called me to say he lost the case. He was devastated."

 

Claire snorted. "I bet he was."

 

"You shouldn't have done that, Claire. John was always a good father, he provided for you and your children."

 

"Right. He provided for us, but he was an absent father, an absent husband and he abused me verbally so many times that I can't even count."

 

"Then why did you put up with him all that time?" asked Brian, finding his voice.

 

Claire looked at him sadly. "What choice did I have? I had nowhere else to go. I certainly couldn't count on my parents to have me in their home with two children and no job."

 

"Of course not!" Joan exclaimed. "A divorced woman...!" She put her purse on the coffee table and sat down rigidly on the edge of Claire's old sofa. "Your father abused me too, not only verbally but also physically. But I held firmly, like a good woman. Divorce is a sin."

 

Brian snorted, addressing his mother for the first time. "But it's not a sin to stand aside while your husband beat the shit out of me?"

 

"And what about me, mom?" Claire asked bitterly. "He didn't hit me so much, but he was always making sure I knew I was useless and stupid. And I don't recall you defending me not even once!"

 

"He was your father. It was his duty to educate you both; and he did what he had to do for you to be a man," Joan said coldly, looking at Brian.

 

"Yeah, look what a brilliant job the two of you did. You and your wonderful husband raised a faggot," he answered.

 

 

"Don't you dare to say it's my fault you're going to burn in hell, Brian! I did what I could to protect you, but as always, it was all for nothing." Joan said ice on her voice. "I was nothing but a good servant of the Lord."

 

"Enough. I'm out of here," Brian said, grabbing his coat and heading for the door, but Claire grabbed his arm. "No. I invited you, not her." She looked at Brian, decided. "Why did you come here, mom? If it was to insult me and my brother, I think you should leave now. You have already done enough damage with us as it is."

 

"So now it's you and your brother, Claire?" Joan said sarcastically. "You two are turning against your own mother?"

 

"I don't consider you my mother anymore," Brian answered.

 

"Good, because I don't consider you my son anymore, young man," Joan retorted. "I had a talented, intelligent and handsome son, who could have married and formed a family. Instead, he turned his back on the Lord, preferring to live in sin, having..." she paused, face contorted, looking disgusted at the mere thought of it, "sex...with men, corrupting a young man much younger than you are, and now you are dragging my only daughter into your disgusting lifestyle. You certainly are no son of mine."

 

Brian balled his fists so tight that it hurt, and if it wasn't for Claire's hand still holding his arm, he could have slapped Joan right then. As soon as the thought crossed his mind he drew in a sharp intake of breath, thinking immediately about his father and the way he used to hit everyone when he was mad. He started to shake slightly trying to control the blind rage his mother seemed to provoke in him. He was not Jack Kinney and he had never hit anyone weaker than him in his whole life; especially a woman; especially his mother.

 

"Brian helped me when I needed it most, mom!" Claire said. "When you, my own mother, turned your back on me, helped John to take my Peter from me! How can you say that?"

 

"No, Claire," Joan said. "How can you say he's helping you? He may be bribing you with all his money but he's making you lose your soul!" She turned her disapproving gaze at Brian now. "How can you associate with someone who did that horrible thing to John?"

 

Brian paled and had to place his hand on the wall for support, feeling like he had just been slapped on the face. Claire gasped and looked at Joan, eyes blazing. "Johnny lied and you know mom, he told you! He made up that story because he was angry at Brian!"

 

"I see you have already made up your mind, lady," Joan said bitterly. "You were never very intelligent. You should thank the good Lord that you found a husband to give you a roof over your head, because you would never have gone to college anyway. But no, you had to be ungrateful, divorce your husband, live in a place like this," she looked around frowning, "and befriend...gays and lesbians. You disappointed me so much, Claire. I never thought you would follow your brother's path to hell."

 

"Please, take her out of here, Claire," Brian murmured between teeth, feeling Claire's hand squeezing his arm so tight that he was sure it would leave him bruises. "Take her away from me because she will make me do something I will regret."

 

"Like father, like son," Joan snorted.

 

Claire shook her head at Joan. "How can you say that to us? We're your children, for Christ's sake! You're supposed to love us!"

 

Joan got up, picked her purse and headed for the door. "My only obligation is with my conscience. And it's clean because I did what I thought was best for you. But maybe I didn't do enough." She turned to Brian. "Maybe I should have put you in a special school where they would cure you, like your father wanted, and you would be a true man now." Then she turned to Claire. "Maybe I shouldn't have let Peter stay with you in the beginning, because you are a bad influence to your son and you'll never be a good mother because you have no moral values to teach him." Joan stopped at the threshold. "This must be my punishment for what I didn't do: to be ashamed of my own children."

 

Claire and Brian stood there, paralyzed, looking astonished at their own mother while she once more stepped on and twisted her feet over the bruises she inflicted on them so many years ago.

 

"Please, go," was all that Claire could whisper. "Leave us alone. Please."

 

Joan assumed a hurt expression that made Brian feel sick. "You don't have to worry about me anymore. I'm moving to Kansas with my sister. She's a widow too and they have a good church there. I'm going to spend the rest of my days with people who respect God and who live by his laws. I don't think we'll see each other again."

 

"Please, leave," Claire repeated, her voice already breaking.

 

"Goodbye, Claire. Goodbye, Brian. I'll pray for your souls."

 

"Please, don't," Brian said, voice cracking a little. "Because if I have to go to hell so I never see you again this life and the next, I'll go gladly."

 

Joan's eyes closed. "May the Lord have mercy of your soul," she said, turned, and left.

 

"We don't need your pity, you hear me?" Brian screamed, holding the doorknob as she went down the stairs. "You're the one who deserves pity, you drunken bitch!" His face was red all of a sudden. "Go away! We don't need you!"

 

"Brian!" Claire said, behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "She's gone."

 

He turned his head and looked at his sister's sad face. He knew that, despite everything that Joan did, Claire still liked their mother because she had always had more contact with the woman. "Okay," he said, closing the door while she went to the sofa like an automat, sitting down heavily.

 

Brian suddenly felt very tired, like his legs were made of steel and weighted one ton each. He walked slowly to the sofa, and sat down beside Claire.

 

"Mom?" They heard from behind and both turned to look at Peter's worried face. "Is something wrong? I heard Uncle Brian screaming."

 

"Nothing's wrong, Pete," she said. "We were just arguing with someone, but this person won't bother us again."

 

"Okay. I'm going to bed. ‘Night mom, ‘night Uncle Brian."

 

"Night, kid," Brian said, but even his voice sounded strange, like he had to make a tremendous effort to speak.

 

"Good night, honey," Claire said.

 

Peter smiled and started to leave and then he came back. "Uh...Mom...You're the best mother in the whole world, okay? And you're a great guy, Uncle Brian. Goodnight."

 

"Oh God, he heard." Claire murmured, tears already streaming down her face. She started to cry, trying to muffle her sobs with her hand. "We don't have a mother anymore, Brian," she said, unable to top the sobs.

 

Brian opened his hand at her direction, palm upward, and Claire grasped it. They could feel each other trembling with rage, hurt, sadness, rejection, but they kept holding each other's hand, seeking a silent comfort, because only they knew what the other was feeling. Brian couldn't see straight because of the tears that blurred his vision and that he refused to let fall.

 

He took a deep breath and blinked several times. "We never had a mother, Claire. That's what is really sad about the whole story," he whispered. And they just stayed there; Claire's quiet sobs the only sound in the small living room.

Chapter Text

"Sit down," said Justin.

 

Brian looked at him and blinked, as if he was not registering what the young man was saying.

 

"Come on, big guy," Justin insisted. "Sit down."

 

Brian sat down on the bed and let Justin take his jacket off, then his tie and his shirt. His mind traveled to the time when Justin helped him to take his clothes off and get in bed when he had cancer. Funny, he thought. He had felt so tired that day, but it was understandable, he was sick. Now he wasn't; well, not anymore, but he was feeling as tired as he had felt that day. Part of him registered that Justin was taking his shoes off, then his socks and his pants. He even helped the blond with the belt. But he felt strangely detached from everything, as if part of his mind had just shut down, and he could see what was happening now as if he was watching a movie, as if he wasn't in his loft, on his bed, in his underwear, with Justin's hand gently resting on his shoulder.

 

"Lie down," Justin's voice filtered through the haze in his head. Brian obliged, because he felt so fucking tired. The blond pulled the duvet and Brian lay down on his side. Justin took his own clothes off, and laid down by Brian's side, facing him, and pulled the duvet over them. Brian looked at Justin silently and blinked again. He wanted to say something, to thank his partner for taking him home, but he couldn't. It seemed like such a simple thing to do, but it really wasn't. Speaking required too much effort and although his thoughts were racing, it was so hard to put them in order and actually speak, that he soon gave up. He just wanted to shut everything down and sleep.

 

Justin's hand caressed his face and took some strands of hair off his forehead. "Sleep, Brian. I'll take care of you," he whispered, blue eyes serious.

 

Brian wanted to say no. He was the one that should be taking care of Justin. He was older, and he hated to be taken care of. But he just nodded and closed his eyes, grateful that the blond hadn't made him talk, because he was sure he wouldn't be able to. He wanted to ask the blond to leave him alone for a while, but at the same time he felt so fucking relieved that Justin was still here with him, because being taken care of by Justin felt so good and so right that he didn't mind at the moment. Not much. He kept his eyes closed, feeling Justin's soft caress on his face, and let the touch of the young man's hand take him to a place where no one and nothing could get to him, only Justin's touch. It felt good; it felt safe. It wasn't long before Brian's racing thoughts left his mind and sleep took him.

 

Justin's hand didn't leave Brian's face. It was almost as if he couldn't stop touching Brian, as if he needed to make sure that Brian was alright. When Claire called Justin earlier that night, asking him to go to her house and get Brian, and he listened to her cracking voice, he knew that some shit had happened. His mind played the worst scenarios, and when he got there and Claire opened the door with her red-rimmed eyes and red nose, Justin's heart almost stopped.

 

"Mom was here," was all she said, pointing with her head to the sofa, where the back of Brian's head could be seen. "I don't think he should drive now, nor be alone."

 

Justin approached Brian, whose eyes were closed, head resting on the sofa. "Is he sleeping?" he whispered to Claire, but Brian opened his eyes and looked at him.

 

"Hey," Brian greeted him. Then he turned his face to Claire and said, "You shouldn't have called him. I'm fine and perfectly capable of going home on my own."

 

"Sure you are," Justin said, looking at the way Brian's hand trembled when he ran it through his hair. "Maybe Claire overreacted a bit by calling me, but now that I'm here and I am going to take you home, okay?"

 

"I'm not a child and I don't need you to take me home," Brian retorted. He sounded annoyed, angry even, but his eyes showed sadness, and Justin's heart clenched. "Don't think you fool me. You both are worried that I'm going to freak out because saint Joan said that being gay is a fucking disease and I'll march right into hell as soon as I die, but I'm not freaking out. I'm fine. Nothing she said was new to me."

 

Justin looked at Claire worriedly, and she just shook her head sadly. The blond cursed Joan Kinney inwardly. What kind of mother could leave her son and daughter like that, so devastated, so...raw? Because that was the way they were, each one reacting in their own way. Brian just put his walls up, insisting he was fine, while his vacant expression and trembling hands showed exactly the opposite. Claire looked as if part of her had just been ripped off. And Justin could only imagine what Joan had said to her to leave her like that.

 

"Come on, let's go home," Justin insisted, taking Brian's keys from the coffee table. "It's getting late, let's go."

 

Brian got up reluctantly, sighing heavily. "Will you be alright?" he asked his sister with a monotone voice.

 

"Yeah, I'm okay," she said. "I think I'll sleep with Peter."

 

"Do that," he said. "You shouldn't be alone either."

 

"Okay," she answered and Justin saw the look that passed between them, the silent understanding and the worry for each other. Brian could deny all he wanted but he really cared for his sister, and it was plainly clear that Claire cared for him too. The thought almost made Justin smile. It was a relief to know that at least one person in Brian's family really cared for him. Brian had him and his family of friends, but knowing your real family despises you hurt a lot, left an empty place inside you that would never be completely filled. Justin knew that from experience because Craig's place was still vacant in his own heart and it would never be replaced.

 

They left Claire's building in silence, Justin holding Brian's hand, and got in the car. Brian sat on the passenger's side without complaining and closed his eyes again, saying just "God, I'm tired." Justin sat on the driver's side and took them home.

 

Now, seeing Brian sleeping, Justin thought about his and Claire's expressions. Being despised by your own mother had to hurt. Craig had hurt Justin a lot, but he had never said things as "you shouldn't have been born" and that kind of thing was so hateful that he couldn't imagine hearing something like this. In his opinion, Brian and Claire were among the strongest people he knew because if they had to put up with this kind of thing when they were growing up and didn't turn out to be complete assholes - well, maybe a little - and still were capable of showing love for their own children...that was almost a miracle.

 

"I'll always be here for you," he vowed, knowing that Brian couldn't hear him. "I'll always be ready to catch you," he whispered. Justin closed his eyes and let himself drift toward sleep, holding Brian's hand.

 

 

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

 

 

"How can you say he's helping you, Claire? Brian may be bribing you with all his money but he's making you lose your soul! How can you associate with someone who did that horrible thing with John?"

"Maybe I should have put you in a special school where they would cure you, like your father wanted, and you would be a true man now."

"This must be my punishment: to be ashamed of my own children."

"Like father, like son."

"Like father, like son."

Brian sat up on the bed drenched in sweat, looking around. In a second of panic, he expected to see his mother laughing at him, her wrinkled face mocking him. He took a deep breath, calming himself, and looked at Justin, sleeping peacefully beside him. Looking at the clock, he saw it was still two AM. Sighing, he got up carefully. Justin had looked tired the night before, and Brian didn't want to disturb him.

 

He sat on the sofa then got up again, restless. Approaching the window, he stared at the empty streets. "Like father, like son," his mother's voice echoed in his head. "I'm not like him, dammit," he murmured, but the blind rage he had felt facing his mother reminded him so much of his father that it wasn't hard to believe that he really was like Jack Kinney.

 

Brian shivered, thinking of how he had almost raised his hand to slap her. Maybe he was like Jack, who knew? He looked around, trying to find something that would help him sleep again. If Justin woke up and didn't find him in bed he would start to ask what was wrong in that all caring way of his, and Brian just couldn't bear that now. He needed something that would help him stop thinking, something that would take Joan's voice out of his head.

 

Booze was out of question. With all the medication he had taken just a few weeks ago, his liver would complain, and it wouldn't be pretty. Pot...well, he doubted smoking would do his lungs any good now, if ever. Scratching his neck, he padded through the loft to the bathroom and opened the drawer. Grimacing, he grabbed the little flask labeled "Valium", took one pill - okay, maybe two would make him sleep faster - swallowed them dry and went straight to bed. He spent half an hour looking at the ceiling before sleep claimed him.

 

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

 

 

Brian woke up with the mother of all headaches. Wincing, he tried to sit up but a sharp pain between his eyes stopped him from doing it. He was still under the duvet, and he felt like he hadn't slept for a single minute, although he knew he had slept all night. Sighing, he ran his hand over his face, looked at the ceiling, and tried to to focus on anything but the pounding inside his head.

 

He heard footsteps and Justin's lithe frame appeared, holding a cup of what it seemed to be steaming coffee. "Hey," said the blond with a smile.

 

"What time is it?" Brian asked. He made an effort to sit up and this time he succeeded, frowning at the sharp pain again and grabbing the coffee that Justin gave him.

 

"Careful, it's hot," Justin warned. "It's twelve-thirty."

 

"PM? Shit! I was supposed to pick Gus at ten!" Brian placed the cup on the nightstand and got up, almost losing his balance when his head throbbed. "Fuck. I need a Percocet."

 

"Calm down," Justin replied, placing both hands on Brian's shoulders and forcing him to sit down again. "Mel called earlier and said that Gus has the flu. It's better that he doesn't leave his house today, it's raining a little."

 

"Oh."

 

"And you're not having a strong painkiller with an empty stomach," Justin finished. "Stay here. I made lunch."

 

"I don't think I can't eat anything right now."

 

"Yes you can." Justin looked at him pointedly. "It's just a grilled cheese sandwich."

 

"Would you stop treating me like a child?" Brian asked irritated.

 

"Sure, as soon as you stop acting like one."

 

... ... ... ...

 

They ate in silence, Brian only nibbling his sandwich and drinking large gulps of water. Once or twice he winced, cursing softly. Justin knew he was with a terrible headache, but opted for silence. He knew Brian well enough to understand that the older man wanted to stay quiet and the less Justin tried to probe about the past night's events, the better.

 

Brian finally gave up pretending he was eating. Sighing, he got up, mumbling something about not being hungry and fled to the bathroom. Justin thought about going after him but the distinct noise of the door closing - something that rarely happened - told him that he'd better stay where he was. Brian really, really wanted to be alone.

 

The blond grimaced. It was hard to be there for someone like his partner. Brian couldn't be labeled as a "private" person when it came to sex. He surely didn't mind having sex in public; Justin had lost count on how many times they had done it in the backroom or at the baths. But when it came to emotions, Brian was as closed on himself as humanly possible; especially when it came to his parents. He had never, in all the years they were together, talked about them with the blond. Everything Justin knew about his childhood were things Michael or Debbie had said. Justin wasn't nosy, he never asked.

 

He didn't see himself as a possessive person. He didn't want to know everything about Brian to control him; as if it would ever be possible to control Brian Kinney. He just wanted to understand the man he loved better. He knew Brian avoided the subject of his childhood as if it were the plague. But sometimes it wasn't fair to be in the dark about Brian's life when Brian knew everything about Justin. He had been present in almost every important moment of Justin's life. Of course Justin couldn't do the same, being twelve years younger. But...it was almost thirty years of Brian's life that Justin knew nothing about.

 

 

Justin was doing the dishes when Brian came from the bedroom, dressed in jeans and a black shirt. He opened the fridge, grabbed another bottle of mineral water and drank it fast. "I'm going to see Gus," he announced, stopping behind Justin but not touching the blond.

 

"Okay," the blond answered without turning around. He wanted to give Brian the space he obviously needed, so he opted for acting nonchalant.

 

"Did you see my car keys?" Brian asked sounding irritated. "They're not on the counter."

 

"Huh...I'm not sure." Justin tried to remember where he had left the keys. He had practically dragged an apathetic Brian to the loft the night before, worried at whatever had happened at Claire's house without really knowing, because Brian wouldn't tell him. How the hell was he supposed to worry about the damn car keys?

 

"Well, could you help me and find them?"

 

Justin sighed, counting silently to ten, and remained as calm as he could. "Sure." He turned off the water, dried his hands and went to the sitting area. He had a vague memory of tossing the keys aiming for the coffee table, but he couldn't find them there. He turned to the sofa, lifting some cushions, conscious of Brian's impatient eyes on him. He finally found the keys on the floor, almost under the sofa; they must have slipped there. He threw them at Brian. "Here."

 

"Fuck, Justin," Brian grabbed the keys with an annoyed sigh, "could you be a little less messy?"

 

"Fuck, Brian, could you be a little less of an asshole?" Justin snapped. Shit, he was trying not to lose his patience but it was hard when Brian acted like a spoiled child.

 

Brian pinched the bridge of his nose. "Fuck." He walked to the door, but stopped and turned to face the blond before opening it. "Look...it's not you, okay?" He sighed. "Just give me a little time."

 

Justin nodded his understanding. "I'm going to Michael's later; he had a few ideas for the next issue of Rage and we're going to work on it a bit."

 

"Do you need a ride?"

 

"No thanks. I still have some things to do at the studio."

 

"Okay," Brian said. "Later."

 

"Later."

 

Getting into the car, Brian stopped for a moment, the keys in his hand. "Fuck," he said again. He didn't want to be an asshole with Justin, of all people. But sometimes he couldn't help it; being an asshole seemed to be a second nature to him. Shaking his head in disapproval at himself, he murmured, "Great, Kinney, you're fucking it up again." He turned on the car, thinking of a way to make it up to the blond somehow, once he got back from Lindsay's house.

 

... ... ...

 

"Hey Mel. How's Gus?"

 

"He was a little warm a while ago, but we gave him some Tylenol and now he's sleeping," Mel said, stepping aside to let Brian inside the house. "At least he went to his bed after some protest."

 

Brian grimaced. He hated to see Gus sick. "Can I see him?"

 

"Of course," she said. "He's in his bedroom. Why don't you go there and sit with him a little? I'm making Jenny's soup."

 

Upstairs, he opened the door to Gus's bedroom, careful not to wake up the boy. But Gus's eyes were opened. The boy was on his bed, under the duvet, only head and arms visible, reading a book.

 

"Dad!"

 

"Hey, Sonny Boy," Brian closed the door behind him and sat at his son's bed, beside him. "How's it going? Are you feeling better?"

 

Gus shrugged. "I'm fine. Mom told me to sleep but I'm not tired," he complained. "She didn't let me go out because of the rain, but I said that I'm not a baby anymore, I can take anything, Dad! And it's not even raining that much!" He sneezed. "She didn't hear me, though."

 

"You rest, Sonny Boy. There'll be plenty of time for us to go to the park."

 

Gus put the book on Brian's lap. "Read for me, Dad?"

 

"Sure." Brian opened the book. "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," he read the cover. "Isn't this book too dark for a boy your age, Gus?"

 

"Dad, I told you," Gus rolled his eyes, so much like his father, that Brian had to control himself not to laugh. "I'm not a baby."

 

"You really like this sh...er...book, don't you?"

 

"Yeah. Now read."

 

Sighing, Brian started to read. "Harry sat at the table with Tom Riddle's diary in his hands. The pages were old but there was nothing written on them..."

 

After ten minutes the boy was asleep, so Brian closed the book and got up carefully from the bed. He kissed Gus's forehead lightly, carefully not to wake him up. "Sweet dreams, Sonny Boy. I'll come back tomorrow," he whispered.

 

He closed the door silently behind him and turned around, coming face to face with Lindsay.

 

"Hey, Lindz."

 

"I want to talk to you," she said, and her stony face and cold eyes told Brian that the conversation wasn't about anything pleasant.

 

"Lead the way."

 

She went down the stairs, Brian right behind her. When they reached the living room, she turned to him, hands on her waist and looked at him very serious. "What do you think you're doing, Brian?"

 

"What do you mean?"

 

She grimaced and sat on the couch. "Mel told me that you want Gus to have your name. Can I ask you why?"

 

"I'm his father," he said drily. "I don't see any problem in that."

 

"But I do."

 

"What?" He frowned. "What do you mean? What about all the times you said you wanted me to be more present in his life?"

 

"I did, didn't I?" She said calmly. "And all the times I said that you just ignored me. Then all of a sudden you want him to have your name? Funny that, isn't it?"

 

"What the hell, Lindsay, you took him to another country! You know I didn't want you to go. When you did it I was already spending more time with him. When he was born I was...I was a different person."

 

"That's exactly what I'm talking about, Brian. You're too..." she hesitated. "Why don't you sit here beside me?"

 

"I'm fine here. Cut the crap, Lindz, will you? I'm too what?"

 

"Very well," she sighed, resigned. "You're...unstable. Hard to trust."

 

He pinched the bridge of his nose, his headache returning with a vengeance. "Unstable? What do you mean? Shit, Lindz, hard to trust? Me?"

 

"You change too much, Brian. When Gus was born you barely wanted to see him. Now you want him to have your name. What will be next? You'll want your parental rights back? You'll want to take him away from us?"

 

"He's happy with you and Mel. I'd never do that."

 

"Oh, Brian..." Lindsay shook her head sadly. "Don't you see? How can I be sure? How can I know for sure that you won't change your mind? You seem to change your mind a lot about people. Look at Justin, for example."

 

"What the hell? Justin has nothing to do with this," he said, pacing.

 

"He has a lot."

 

Brian sighed, massaging his temples. He was so sure he wasn't going to like what Lindsay was about to say that he was seriously tempted to just turn around and leave. But he wasn't going to give up Gus now. He wasn't going to step back. "Look, Lindz, I just want Gus to have my name. If Mel is okay with that, I don't see why you are not. And please, leave Justin out of this. I promise Gus will stay here with you and Mel, nothing will change, ever."

 

"Everything will change, Brian. Gus adores you, you're his hero. Do you realize that he will be very happy about having your name and then will be devastated if you let him down? You'll break his heart!"

 

"I'm not going to let him down, dammit!" he said exasperated.

 

"Yes, you will, because you're...look, I'm sorry, but you're selfish, Brian. You're all you care about. You manipulate people so they do what you want, and sometimes you don't even realize that. You did it with Justin; hell, you're still doing it with him. But you're not going to do it with my son." She sighed again. "I'm sorry. That's my final word."

 

"How the fuck did I manipulate Justin, for Christ's sake?"

 

"Maybe we should leave this conversation for some other time, Brian. We're not here to discuss your relationship with your partner. This is about my son."

 

"Yes, this is about our son, Lindsay. But you started this talk about me manipulating Justin, and I would like to hear what you have to say about that, if you don't mind."

 

"In fact, I do mind, Brian, because I'm sure you're not going to like it."

 

"It never stopped people before. Come on; you started this. Now shoot."

 

Lindsay averted his eyes for a few seconds. "Well," she started hesitantly, "you treated him like shit when you met him and he didn't care because he was so in love with you and totally blind about your flaws...he was such a cute and sweet boy, and I think for you it was convenient to have him around so you let him stay." She got up and started to pace, never looking Brian in the eyes. "Then Justin got bashed and you let him stay out of pity, that's what everybody said then."

 

"In