Characters: Brian/Justin, Ethan
Rating: PG for language
Summary: You wouldn’t have caught it if you hadn’t been staring at his eyes. Something in them changed, glazed over, and you feel a rush of fear because it reminds you of that one time, when you were together, that he had a really bad nightmare.
Beta: The lovely and most exceptional beathen *huggles* All remaining mistakes are mine alone.
Disclaimer: Queer as Folk and all the characters and situations featured therein are the property of Showtime, Cowlip Productions and their affiliates. I’m only borrowing them for purely non-profit, recreational purposes, and promise to replenish the condom and lube supply when I’m done.
Author's Notes: Written for 25fluffyfics. Set in late S4, so spoilers up to about 409.
Just to warn you, I’ve been my usual experimental self and played around with POVs. The POV switches between three characters, and it’ll be pretty clear when I change character. I hope it won’t be too difficult to follow- if it is, I heartily apologize. But I wanted to see if this would work, and the style kind of suited the fic. :-)
The title is from the song “You and Me” by Lifehouse, which I can’t stop listening to right now even though I’m not a big one for ballads.
Later you would try to tell yourself that hadn’t really expected to see him,
much less were looking for him, but you will conceded that you weren’t at all
surprised to spot his familiar figure from across the lawn.
It’s a semi-formal mixer for the art students at PIFA. For that reason alone he would have actively stayed away (you’ve never understood why he never made any effort to make friends at school) but a guest artist whose work you’d once heard him admire is there, socializing as a PIFA alumnus and coincidentally also promoting his new book, so there’d been a chance that even the elusive Justin Taylor would deign to make an appearance that night, however brief. Besides, your friends were going and you hadn’t seen them for a while, being busy on tour, and it’s not as if you had anywhere else to be now that you no longer have to play until your fingers freeze onto the fingerboard just to pay for tomorrow’s dinner.
At first you don’t really believe it’s him, although there’s no mistaking that hair and that smile, not when you’d lived with it for months and remember the shining, glorious taste of both. You wonder what could have prompted such an act of self-mutilation (for mutilation it is, o his poor lost golden beauty!) and a part of you makes a secret, selfish wish that it’s something that could deliver him back into your arms.
No, you’re not over him at all.
He still looks great, despite the ridiculously short-cropped hair, and with every moment he’s in your sight you find it harder to not approach him, not make your presence known. It’s been nearly two years, but you still feel drawn to him; the hook he embedded into your soul by casting his pencil over the pages of an unwitting concert program that fateful day so long ago is still there, buried deep, and you’re dangerously close to throwing dignity to the wind.
At the start of the affair, the music had been mellow and vaguely like something you’d hear in an elevator, until a group of music students hijacked the sounds system. Apparently they each have different tastes, because the music has been jumping from the Beatles, to Eminem, to Mozart, to Madonna, to Shania Twain. So far only Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody has been the only thing to receive unanimous approval. As the evening progressed and the punch bowl went from being full to half-empty with unidentifiable lumps floating in it, the concrete area in the middle of the quad had become an impromptu dance floor.
An old friend bumps into you and you get drawn into a conversation. By the time you look up and find him again, he is talking to the guest artist, and you know he’ll probably leave soon after. You’re unreasonably pleased to see that he seems to have come alone. You hadn’t heard a definite word about it- it became glaringly clear how separate your worlds were, are, after you left Pittsburgh to go on tour, because the only news your friends could give you of him were momentary glimpses in school- but you’re pretty sure he went back to Brian after you broke up. There’s no doubt in your mind that the asshole had taken him back, no matter the bullshit he’d said to you about not wanting Justin back, because who wouldn’t want Justin? Your body still responds to the memory of the smell, the taste, the feel of him. Once again, you wonder how phenomenal Brian must be that Justin worships him. You still believe that he doesn’t deserve someone like Justin, and in the midst of your internal sonnet for his lost golden locks you feel a flash of pleasure at what must be a sign of dissonance between the two. You don’t doubt that Brian’s stayed the same, whoring himself out to different men every night. Justin deserves better, he probably deserves better than you, but at least you respect him more than Brian does. You made a mistake, on a night when you were floating above the world on the promise of a future long hoped-for, and surely Justin knows more than anyone the value of second chances.
Justin finishes his conversation with the artist, and your feet deliver you to him before you can finish composing your speech. He’s clearly startled to see you, and appears to consider trying to slip away; your heart swells when he doesn’t, instead meeting your eyes and saying, “Hey.”
Inwardly Justin curses his decision to attend the mixer. But Brian got irritable when he passed over too many opportunities to go out in favor of staying at the loft, no matter how much Justin protested that he hated these things, and at least this event had fallen on a ‘good’ night between Brian’s radiation treatments. So Justin has an easier time suppressing images of Brian choking on his own vomit, Brian falling over and hitting his head, Brian overdosing on his meds-
His hand had already slipped into the pocket where he’d put his cell phone when he spotted the very familiar mop of curly hair weaving through the crowd towards him. His first instinct was to just leave, since he’d already done all that he came to do, but after the ordeal with Chris Hobbs Justin had promised himself that he was done with walking away from things just because he couldn’t deal with them. So he waited, and greets Ethan with a polite “Hey.”
Those dark eyes linger on Justin’s short-cropped hair, and he wonders what Ethan thinks about it. “Justin,” he replies, smiling nervously.
Justin finds that he doesn’t really feel much about running into his one true ex-boyfriend, other than annoyance at the prospect of having to delay his departure. It strikes him then how inevitable his return to Brian had been, because no matter how many times he’d told Ethan that he and Brian were over, there had never been an occasion when the sight of Brian didn’t cause at least a twinge in his gut. On the other hand, he’d told Brian that he and Ethan were over precisely once, followed by a promise to give up violin music, and that was that. He’d moved on; more importantly, he and Brian had moved on.
“Finished your tour?” Justin forces himself to ask, because country club manners die hard and the sooner he wraps up this talk, the sooner he can leave.
“Yeah.” Ethan is grinning like a child being given candy, and Justin has to force himself to not step away. “I’m in town for a month, then I start recording my next album.”
“That’s great.” And Justin means it, too. “I’m glad things are going so well for you.” Now, if only Daphne could come back from whatever dark corner she and that hot guitarist had disappeared off to.
“Thanks. I’ve heard that you’ve been up to a lot of things yourself.”
Justin has to smile at that. “It’s been a busy year.”
Ethan takes a deep breath, his eyes taking on that pre-performance intensity, and suddenly Justin knows, can guess what he’s about to say, and the annoyance he’d initially felt burns into irritation. “Just-“
“I’m back with Brian now,” Justin calmly interjects, though his voice is steel.
“I know.” Ethan absently scratches the side of his neck. “Look, since I know you like honesty… I just think you deserve better than him, all right?”
Justin knows too well what Ethan thinks of Brian, because Justin had pretty much provided all the ammunition against him. That’s part of the problem- everything Ethan knows about Brian is colored by what Justin had said of him at a time when he’d been angry and upset and thought he knew what love was. Now he remembers, remembers the strain and fear in Brian during his run with the Pink Posse (which he hadn’t noticed until it was gone); a boxed-up computer waiting for him at the loft (and the drama when Brian had first gotten it for him); the strolls down Liberty Avenue with his nails digging into Brian’s arms (when he could hardly bear to touch anybody else), the heroic “Justin, are you coming?” (his last time inside the house he’d grown up in).
“No,” he says quietly. “No, I think Brian and I deserve each other.” Let Ethan make of that what he will.
The music in the background, which has been genre-hopping since some music students launch a coup de stereo, changes from a Pink Floyd song to something slow. Probably someone had finally noticed that a majority of the party-goers had congregated to the center space, forming an impromptu dance floor. Quite predictably, as if controlled by some shared inner human instinct, the mass of bodies begins dissolving into pairs.
A wave of uneasiness washes over him, though he doesn’t know why. Where the fuck is Daphne?
The bass beat is soft, gentle. He remembers sunlight streaming into the loft, expensive furniture pushed against the walls to make a space. Empty space. A void, a black hole in his own brain that has always been utterly dark, because not even light can escape its gravity. But he sees light now, like that painful cliché about the ends of tunnels, only his light looks more like a spotlight on a distant floor, in which two black-clad figures may or may not be dancing.
The soft, gentle beat hits him like lead bullets, like a splintered bat, and he feels a line of fire racing across his skull, centering on a thin line that can’t even be seen anymore except with fingers and skin. He suddenly gets a weird feeling that the line is glowing right now, hot and bright and red as the rust on his tongue oh God what the fuck is happening why does it fucking hurt-
“Justin.” Mom? “Honey, you look beautiful.”
You wouldn’t have caught it if you hadn’t been staring at his eyes. Something in them changed, glazed over, and you feel a rush of fear because it reminds you of that one time, when you were together, that he had a really bad nightmare. You had managed to get him to lift his eyelids, but he hadn’t really woken up yet, and his eyes had possessed that blankness spreading over them now.
“Justin?” you call loudly, at a loss. In your bedroom it had just been a matter of waiting it out, calling his name repeatedly and waiting for him to come out of it without losing your wits first. (You’d had vague memories of your mother describing something like that happening with your grandfather, especially on the birthdays of the family members he’d lost to the death camps.)
He closes his eyes, face scrunching up, as if he is fighting with something inside him. He makes a little gasp- it sounds like pain. Around you people are beginning to notice. You want to reassure them that nothing is wrong, but you don’t believe it yourself, especially when he begins to stagger back and forth like he’s losing his balance. You think about stepping forward and holding him, but he’d hated being touched after nightmares, and he once told you that he’d pushed over his own mother when he was in a rage.
Clearly someone doesn’t share your concerns, because you’re suddenly shoved to one side when a girl with long, curly brown hair rushes forward, taking hold of Justin’s arms. Justin proves your instinct right when he bats away her hands, whispering a fervent, “Don’t touch me!”
Wide blue eyes swivel around in a panic. Around you the crowd only gathers in closer, with such helpful whispers of “Is he all right?” and “He’s having some sort of seizure!” flitting from mouth to mouth. Daphne glares at everyone, and when she notices you her expression darkens, automatically though silently accusing you of instigating this. She yells at everyone to back the fuck off, points a finger and practically screams at a guy who’d begun to dial for paramedics on his cell phone.
Then you’ve been pushed sideways, and would have fallen had it not been for the press of bodies around you, preventing you from hitting the ground.
On bad days, Justin stayed at the loft, jumped up any time I so much as wheezed even when he was up against a deadline on a big project for school. And days, now, are either bad or good. Good is when I can actually get some work done. Really good days are when the stuff I eat goes through my mouth only once, on its way in. I try to get Justin to get out of the loft at these times, but he argues that I owe him my hours of consciousness for all the time I’ve been pretty much knocked out. Suffice to say that a man who spends most of his waking hours on his knees before the porcelain throne is no match for an ex-twink who had, until recently, been running around at night beating up straight homophobes.
But when I spotted a flyer for the PIFA mixer and recognized in the list of expected guests the name of a visiting artist whose work Justin has fervently ooh-ed over in the past, I put more effort into looking less corpse-like than usual and convinced him that I could survive on my own for a few hours.
I got some work done on my computer, but after having Justin around pretty much on all hours of the day, the sudden cessation of having my nerves being continuously grounded felt a little weird. Especially when Babylon- heck, Liberty Avenue- is not really an option in my state. I’d looked at my watch and decided, on the spur of the moment, to pick Justin up from PIFA.
A bad feeling is tap-dancing its way down my spine by the time I manage to get parking from some early leavers. I open the door and step out. Keeping in mind that Justin may well be happily socializing with kids his own age and enjoying his time away from an invalid, I decide to hunt down a bathroom before giving him a call. A security guard gives me a once-over, but probably decided that a guy who looks like death inadequately warmed-over is not much of a threat. He directs me to the nearest restroom, which also happens to be on a corridor through the front building leading out into the quad, where the party’s happening.
I piss and wash my hands. A kid comes into the restroom, setting off my ‘closet gay’ radar, but the girlfriend waiting outside (and maybe the beginnings of a pain in my insides) kills any ideas right off about doing anything more than make a passing glance.
Occupied with trying to gauge if a Technicolor yawn is forthcoming, I don’t really hear it, at first. But maybe the brain can overcome the body when it needs to, because suddenly the ill feeling changes, shifts. Doesn’t lessen. The nausea, if anything, intensifies, but it feels like it’s coming from somewhere deeper, even deeper than the cancer and the poisoned cells.
I’m rushing out of the restroom, operating on instinct. I feel a surge of panic; it’s a big party, and Justin’s not exactly the tallest of people. But the good thing about a crowd- usually, it’s a bad thing, but tonight I’m grateful for it- is its tendency to coalesce around anything that looked like it could turn into something interesting or entertaining. Soon enough, I see a number of people turning around and gathering around something in the far corner of the quad.
Running, shoving aside people in the way, (because, fuck, if they can’t move faster than a guy undergoing radiation treatment then they really deserve to be shoved), I cut a path right into the center of the crowd.
Sure enough, Justin is there, one arm wrapped around his middle while the other is pressed against the side of his head. Daphne is busy keeping everyone away while trying to think of a way to hold Justin without physically touching him. But it’s not a full-blown freak-out; aside from breathing like he was running a marathon and looking like someone who’s having a root canal, Justin’s quiet. Something like this can be passed off as a really bad migraine, as long as people don’t make a big deal out of it. My panic dying down a little, I realize that I’m breathing hard from the short jog, and feel disgusted with myself.
I step towards him. Someone touches my arm, saying, “He doesn’t want anyone to touch him.”
Wondering who the fuck could be telling me this, I glance to look at the body and face connected to the hand on my elbow. Brown eyes. Dark, curly hair. Looks familiar. Very familiar. Definitely not someone I’ve fucked. Struggling through major pain on at least three fronts, I blink, feeling the rivulets of sweat on my brow. Ah, yes, the Fiddler. What the fuck?
Not important. Never was. “I’m not just anyone.” I brush his hand away and close the distance between myself and Justin.
Some sort of dance music is throbbing in his head. Or maybe his head is just throbbing so bad that he’s starting to hallucinate. The pain hasn’t lessened, but at least it has lost its sharpness, allowing him to take in his surroundings. He doesn’t remove his hands from either side of his head, only peeks out between close eyelids, inwardly mortified at the attention he’s drawn to himself.
Daphne, at least, is making sure he has breathing space. He wonders if she’s seen Ethan there, but maybe even she’s gotten over him, gotten over the inanity of posing as Justin’s girlfriend of all things, because so far there’s been no sign of spilled guts or a rolling head. Or maybe she’d just quietly disposed of the body.
All at once his nose is assaulted by familiar, expensive cologne, and a sort of jolt goes through him, a shocking sense of fusion, making him think of a plug sliding into a socket. And suddenly Brian is there, not just in front of him but in his head.
In his head, standing in front of him. Black jacket, black shirt. Silk scarf, completely white. Breath-taking, as usual.
“I thought you said you wouldn’t be caught dead in a room full of eighteen-year-olds.”
He hears it in his head. But he must have said it as well, unless Brian really has Rage’s mind-reading power, because the strong body that had been holding him loosely tenses, stiffens, fingers digging into his upper arms. The blur in his head slows, catching up with the music.
“I thought I’d recapture my lost youth.” Again, the words are in his head, and he feels a phantom hand trailing suggestively up his coat; he hears the words breathed into his ear, very real arms tightening around him. He thinks he hears Daphne gasping, very far away, even as she smiles at him in her gorgeous pink dress and made-up hair.
The pain leaves, not exactly gradual but not as quickly as it had erupted. A moment of disorientation as he’s aware of the same music being played at different times, but the one in his head is racing to synch with the one streaming into his ears. By some instinct Brian knows to put one hand on his hip and laces the other with Justin’s right hand, holding it up. Holding them both up. He’s surprised to find that his feet are moving easily, apparently having received instruction via some back channels.
He chances a glance around them, past the protective circle of Brian’s arms, sees that the open space around them has gotten wider, though the crowd looks denser from people gathering in to watch. There’s something vaguely ironic about the whole thing, but he decides that it’s fitting that they’d have an audience now, too.
At last, he’s hearing not two songs but one. As the last note, lyric, falls into place, matching past memory with the present moment, he trembles violently. A large tremor passes through his damaged hand; he wonders if he’s going to be ill. He registers that Brian is shaking, too, though not obviously- he wouldn’t have been able to tell if they weren’t standing so closely together, touching. Looking up, he meets the older man’s eyes, edged with pain but nevertheless brimming with emotions he can’t name. He remembers the cancer, feels the underlying weakness in Brian’s body, even while feelings of euphoria bubble up inside him, almost three years late, from whatever sinkhole they’d been locked away in.
One last shudder- and it’s like he’s able to breathe again. He nearly stumbles in the sudden freedom, but for Brian’s slowly faltering support. The pain leaves him- he realizes that it’s been waiting to leave, ever since he aimed that gun at Chris Hobbs, like a vindictive kid, and walked away, without the gun, like a grown man- leaves him breathless and light-headed and empty, leaves him his stolen memories, leaves him for good.
Thank fucking God.
He looks up at Brian. Smiles. Brian smiles back at him, his expression something Justin hasn’t seen in a long time; it reminds him of that dance at the end of the Pride parade, only more.
With a jolt, he realizes that he can remember that look now; from a moment in an empty space, gliding over a polished floor, below a lone spotlight in the dark. No longer in the distance, but there, in his head, within reach.
The people watching probably think they’re a little nuts. Or, if they’d heard about what had happened to Justin, feel sorry for him. It doesn’t matter. In his prom, it had been about messages and final farewell-fuck-you’s and standing up for who he was; this one, three years later, is just for them. A tying of loose ends, a farewell to an old shadow, an acknowledgement of things that have changed and things that have stayed the same.
Their movements are nowhere near as smooth as they had been that first night. Both of them a little unsteady; but the wonder is there, the connection that hadn’t appeared before or since. He feels Brian tensing and can guess what the other wants to do; it may have been years but he knows that a piece of Brian will always be trapped in that night, inside that circle of light, and maybe this is his way of reclaiming that piece. But he’s in pain already, exhausted from holding everything together, and Justin knows that falling over now will harm more than heal.
“Don’t do it,” he whispers urgently, fingers digging into Brian’s shoulder. The shirt is damp from sweat, and the muscles underneath are trembling. “It doesn’t have to be the same. It’s come back now, Brian. It’s all right. I’m all right.”
Something flashes in Brian’s eyes, and he relaxes by a hair. As the song winds down, Justin is still spun around, but this time both his right foot and Brian’s left are the unmoving pivots as they circled in place. It ends with Justin pressed flush against Brian’s body, breathing in the cologne and sweat and a faint hint of bile; he feels like he’s filled to bursting, horny and high at the same time, so good that it’s excruciating. Brian is leaning him backwards a little, so that Justin’s resting some of his weight on Brian’s hand and arms. His mouth is greedily taken in a scorching kiss that, cancer or no cancer, is as spectacular now as it had been that night, filling him even further until he’s intoxicated and breathless and half-expected his skin to be glowing.
Justin thinks this dance, their dance, must be the most ridiculously romantic dance ever in fucking history.
Just like everybody else, you can’t quite pull your eyes away from the sight of them. Dancing together to a cheesy ballad, the sort of thing you’d think the both of them would hate; anyone else doing what they’re doing would have been sniggered at by tonight’s audience of artistic Goths and musical skeptics.
But there’s something too… raw about them, too bright, too genuine. Knowing what you do of both, the scene feels painfully intimate, maybe even more intimate than if they were actually having sex. (You’re reasonably sure about this, because Brian doesn’t look like the kind of guy who’d be shy about having sex in public, and Justin had once hinted at his skill in initiating numerous adventures in various backrooms.) You don’t think it’s even occurred to anyone to stop them, to tell them to go elsewhere; you feel like averting your eyes, like your gaze is glued to their every move, both at once.
They do make a beautiful pair. No, that’s not quite right. By themselves, they’re beautiful men. Together, they’re something else; the sort of vision that makes an artist feel mortal, that in turn fuels the creation of a tribute immortal.
Still, maybe you’re not as enthralled as you thought, because you notice that Brian is slouching more than normal, and the light makes gems out of the sweat on his forehead. He looks like someone who’s been sick, and you can’t help but think, so the mighty Brian Kinney is mortal after all. Conversely, Justin gets steadier, surer, with every step, until he must be leading them. Eyes only on each other, they somehow avoid bumping into people; or maybe the crowd is just moving with them, keeping them always at the center. Everything is quieter, you don’t really hear much aside from the music now, so you know that nearly all eyes in the quad are on them.
What finally makes you breathless, though, is the pure joy on Justin’s face. You don’t remember ever having such a look directed at you, even by your most ardent admirers, certainly not by him. And if Brian’s expression isn’t one of utter adoration, you’ll break your violin in half.
You understand, then, that maybe Justin hadn’t been meant for you, at least not in the way you’d thought. You’ve been brought up by the belief that God works in mysterious ways, and you can’t help wondering if this is what had been meant for you. Not him, but them. Not Justin, but Justin and Brian, and that thing they have that is more than love- at least more than the normal, mundane love the rest of humanity live on. It’s something you can put into your music- you need to put it into music. The great inspiration of your life, ruining you for the world. You’ll never be able to think of love without thinking of them.
They spin around, and the very intense finale kiss receives a murmur of approval and a smattering of claps from the audience; you’re convinced you can feel the heat of it, five feet away.
No wonder that homophobic asshole tried to kill Justin, you wonder in your head, after having seen them like this. There’s something disconcerting, frightening, unmanning, in the intensity of what they have, especially if the observer wants to believe that it is wrong. Easier to swing a bat than to face something unshakably right.
A touch on your arm. Your friend asks if you’re OK, probably recognizes Justin and worries that you’re heartbroken.
Maybe you are. But only a little.
Your eyes take in one final look of the two of them, just swaying quietly to the end of the song and the beginning of a new one while the crowd around them breaks up, before you turn to leave yourself. It’s not like you’re even going to try getting between them now.
You smile. “I’ll survive.”