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Picture Perfect

E


Timeline: Post-220
Rating: NC-17
Genre: Angst, romance
Author's Note: Justin and Brian are confronted with a physical reminder of prom.

One – Worth a Thousand Words
 

Walking into the cramped coffee shop located just off Carnegie-Mellon’s cloistered campus, Brian immediately felt claustrophobic. This little hole-in-the-wall place could hardly be called a “café” as the sign outside attested to, and if the air didn’t smell of caffeinated drinks, he would have doubted coffee was served on the premises, since he didn’t see any coffee-making equipment and the vapid-looking cashier behind the counter didn’t look as if he could boil water, let alone serve up lattes.
 
Brian’s scowl deepened as he stepped around the too-close-together tables, heading steadily toward the shadowy back area of the tiny café to where a lone figure sat in a booth, head bowed over something. A book, probably, or, more likely, a drawing.
 
The executive stopped momentarily when the figure looked up, transfixing him with clear blue eyes. Justin blinked, then smiled widely, which impelled Brian to continue. When Justin had called him at the loft, asking him to meet him at this dump, the executive hadn’t been sure what to do or think. He hadn’t had what he’d call a conversation with the boy since he took up with the Fiddler some months back, and he was the last person Brian expected to call him wanting to get together. But there was something in the manner in which the artist spoke that got Brian moving – some sort of urgency that came through loud and clear, even over the crappy connection of Justin’s cellphone. It was a tone that belied need. In fact, that’s what the boy had said: “Brian, I need to see you. Right away. I know you’re busy, but – it really can’t wait.”
 
Need. After nearly two months of being apart, Justin still needed something from him. That amazed Brian, as it had been his apparent inability to meet Justin’s needs that had sunk their relationship. Needs apparently the Fiddler could fill. Or maybe he couldn’t, Brian thought as he slid his sunglasses off his face and treated Justin to a smirk.
 
“This had better be good. And quick,” Brian said by way of greeting as he slid in opposite the blonde teen. “I’m double parked, got two projects I need to finish to present bright and early on Monday  . . . so whatever this is about, I hope you can give me the condensed version. I don’t have all day.”
 
Justin’s smile wavered a little bit, and he stared at his former lover for a moment without speaking. Sighing heavily, he nodded. “Sure. Thanks for coming. I  . . . appreciate it. I didn’t think . . . I thought maybe you wouldn’t.” He took a sip of something that looked too dark to be tea and too light to be coffee. “In fact, I was kinda shocked you didn’t tell me to fuck off when I called you. Or just hang up the phone.”
 
“Well, you caught me in something of a charitable mood,” Brian said, tongue in cheek. “And I’m curious, Sunshine. You said it was important.” He raised his eyebrows, and leaned closer. “If it’s about money . . .”
 
“No!” Justin’s face turned beet red. “I don’t want any more of your money, Brian. With all that you’re giving me for tuition and working at the diner, I get along just fine.”
 
“Okay, okay.” Brian’s voice was low, but inside his brain churned. He was sure that Justin was going to make an appeal for more cash; he’d even brought his checkbook along. He couldn’t imagine what else the boy could need from him. He’d already gotten all of his things from the loft, leaving the cavernous space emptier than Brian cared to admit either to himself or to anyone else. “So what’s the big emergency? Your mom doing okay?”
 
“She’s fine. So’s Molly. I think we’ve finally gotten used to living together again.” Justin grinned around a mouthful of whatever it was he was drinking. “It was a little touchy for a few weeks. My mom’s nowhere near as cool as Deb and Vic were about some stuff . . . but it’s working out all right.”
 
“Swell.” Brian pushed down the surge of pleasure he felt about the “stuff” Justin was undoubtedly talking about. He knew that Deb had allowed Justin to have tricks in his room up to a certain time, and he was sure Jennifer Taylor wouldn’t be so liberal, and that pleased him. But then, what use did Justin have of tricks? He was in loooove with the Fiddler. They were probably screwing like bunnies in the musician’s little hovel. “So, then, what’s up? And what the hell is that you’re drinking? I’m losing muscle tone just looking at it.”
 
“A double-dip hot chocolate,” Justin answered. “It’s this place’s specialty . . . it’s so good. The only reason to come here. I come here every time I come to visit Daphne.”
 
“Well, I wouldn’t think it’d be for the décor,” Brian said dryly. “I don’t suppose they have that in a nonfat version?”
 
“What would be the point?” Justin wiped away a whipped cream mustache. “Want some?” He held out his cup.
 
“I’ll pass.” Brian put on his “strictly business” face. “Now spill it, Sunshine. What’d you want to see me about?”
 
Justin took another deep draught of his drink, and behind the mug, Brian could see the teen’s face become serious, almost hesitant. Brian forced himself to appear unconcerned, even when he saw what appeared to be fear and hesitation appear in the boy’s blue eyes. It was comfortable being with Justin, he had to admit, and Brian found that he’d be content to talk with the boy for awhile and catch up on what was going on his life – aside from being with the Fiddler, of course. But he hadn’t been lying about having a shitload of work to do, and he had a feeling that the more he dithered with Justin, the harder it would be to leave. And they would have to leave each other at some point. Isn’t that what everyone had said back in the beginning of all this madness? And it had come true, too. Brian swallowed back the bitter taste in his mouth, and suddenly he wished he’d taken a sip of Justin’s fast-disappearing drink.
 
“It’s . . . um . . .” Justin toyed with his cup. “Uh . . . you sure you don’t want anything to drink? They’ve got lattes, mochas, ch—”
 
“Justin . . .” Brian’s voice carried a warning, and the boy immediately stopped fidgeting. He looked Brian full in the face, and the older man shivered under that intense stare, afraid suddenly of what the boy was going to say. He’d seen that look before, the night of the Rage party, in fact, just before the boy turned and walked out with the Fiddler. And now that look had made another appearance, but this time Brian had no mask handy to cover his distress.
 
Shit. I shouldn’t have come. I don’t need this right now. I didn’t need it then . . . but I definitely don’t need it now. “What is it?” Brian’s voice was a little harsh, and he cleared his throat, wondering how it got so tight all of a sudden.
 
Justin looked down then and pushed something across the table at Brian. The executive followed the movement, frowning down at what appeared to be a magazine, not a book or a sketchpad as he’d initially thought. “Um . . . it’s kind of funny,” Justin began in a low voice. “I had it all rehearsed . . . well, not rehearsed . . .but . . . I, uh, knew what I was going to say to you before you came. . . when you told me you’d come.” Justin raked his hand through his hair, and Brian noticed the boy wasn’t looking directly at him.
 
“I even ran what I was going to say by Daphne. That’s, uh, why I asked you to come here, by the way. I crashed at Daph’s dorm last night . . . her roommate’s out of town for the weekend.” Justin paused, then took a deep breath. “We talked all night – Daph and me. We were up at least ‘til five in the morning.” Justin took a noisy sip from his cup. “But I think it’d probably be better if you just look at this . . . ‘cause I can’t remember half the stuff I’d thought I’d say.” Justin pushed the magazine closer to the executive. “Just . . . look at it. And then you can . . . you can . . .” He faltered, and took refuge in staring into his coffee cup.
 
“I can . . .?” Brian raised an eyebrow, studying the pale face. “I can . . . what?”
 
“I don’t know. Leave. Go back to work.” Justin’s lower lip trembled, and he averted his eyes. “Or . . . we can talk –” Justin stopped abruptly, and squirmed on his seat. “Whatever. Just . . . just look at it, please. Maybe whatever I was gonna say will come back to me by the time you’re done.”
 
Brian was thankful that he’d had a few nice hits of E and some prime weed the night before at Babylon, otherwise he was sure he would have started screaming. Justin, his ex-whatever, had called him from out of the blue after two fucking months of virtually no contact, after making a fool out of him in front of friends and would-be hook-ups by sashaying out on the arm on a guy who looked like he could fry an egg in his hair, to read a magazine? A magazine?!
 
The executive glanced up at Justin, a biting, caustic comment on his lips, but the stricken, penitent look on the blonde’s face gave him pause. The blue eyes were darting all over the café, studiously avoiding looking at Brian.
 
Brian studied the boy for a few moments longer before shrugging slightly and casting his eyes downward at the table. Drawing the magazine closer, he let out a large sigh and flipped to the cover. Purple letters announced that he was reading PREEN – the cosmopolitan alternative for the alternative community. Great. Another fag rag – a glossy one, at that. “This is for queers? No dick . . . no ass. Not even simulated rimming. Gotta tell you Sonnyboy, I’m bored already.” He looked up at Justin who still wasn’t looking at him. Shrugging slightly, he flipped back to the page Justin had open and scanned the page. It seemed, on first glance, to be some sort of column. There was a picture of young-looking woman with green braided hair and horn-rimmed glasses grimacing at the camera. The caption below the . . . portrait introduced the reader to Teren Longner, the voice of the “Baby Dyke Community of Greater Pittsburgh.” Brian rolled his eyes. Kids today . . .
 
“You were reading this?” Brian raised the magazine. “Since when have you given a shit about the life of the Gen-X Muncher?”
 
Justin bit his lip, shrugging slightly. “I don't . . . didn’t. I mean, not really.” He paused. “Uh . . . Teren went to St. James. With me. And Daph. I always wondered about her . . . she totally started wearing flannel before it was the thing to do, and she’s always been freaky with her hair. There was this one time that she wore this huge orange Afro wig at the National Honors Society induction.” The teen’s smile was fleeting, and he cleared his throat. “Uh   . . . she’s an intern for that magazine or something, and she’s a decent writer, so . . . uh . . .  she’s coming out. That’s what this article’s about.” He tapped the page. “She talks about her family being totally queer-hating and how her dad’s this CEO of a huge company, and they have vacation homes in Palm Beach and on the Cape, but she’s living in this shithole and working third shift at some restaurant ‘cause they kicked her out after she told them she was a dyke. It’s really harsh. In a lot of ways, she had it a lot worse than I had it after I came out.” Justin went quiet again, thinking, no doubt about his past skirmishes with his parents – especially his father. “Daphne found this . . . and she came all the way to PIFA yesterday to show this to me. She actually barged into my mosaics lecture and dragged me out to show me this.” Justin traced circles on the page, biting his lip. “I thought Daphne was being a total freak . . . we didn’t even know Teren that well. I mean, we were all in NHS together, and we had some classes, but we never talked or anything. And even though she was a total weirdo, I never pegged her as a dyke.”
 
“I dunno, Sunshine – the only women I’ve seen willingly wear glasses like this have been munchers and Supreme Court justices. Not that there's really any difference.” Brian rested his chin in his hand, toying with the page. “So . . . if you don’t know this chick, what was getting Daphne’s panties wet about it? Busting into your class seems a little extreme. . .”
 
“That’s what I thought, too.” Justin took a deep breath, held it, blew it out, and took the magazine back. “It’s nothing I haven’t heard from a bunch of out queers every day at the student union. But Daph wanted me to see it because Teren talks about what made her come out to her folks.” Justin caught Brian’s gaze. “And Daph wanted me to see this . . .” The boy hesitated, and then flipped the page. Staring at it for a moment, he put the magazine gingerly on the tabletop and scooted it close to Brian, his eyes never leaving the executive’s face.
 
With a raised brow and a wry smirk, Brian glanced down at the page . . . and froze. There, in full color for all to see was him – was them – him and Justin at the boy’s senior prom. In the middle of the floor. Dancing. And staring into each other’s eyes, smiling, pressed close. Utterly lost in each other.  Brian blinked, feeling his jaw practically graze the tabletop. He saw himself looking deeply into Justin’s eyes, smiling a smile he’d never thought himself capable of manufacturing . . . and Justin. Justin just looked . . . he looked radiant. Gazing at the picture, Brian was transported back to that night. He recalled it vividly – his fear upon entering that den of nubile breeders, the way the fear dissipated upon seeing Justin’s welcoming smile. The dance. Their dance. Brian’s breath caught in his throat as he stared at the picture, which was taken, so far as Brian could figure, near the end of their waltz . . . right before they broke into their sensuous salsa-esque routine . . . right before their kiss . . . right before their “later” at the garage. Right before . . . before . . .
 
“Brian?” Justin’s voice was soft, pleading with him to look up, but Brian kept his gaze on the page, on the two men in the picture, both so blissfully happy, so blissfully . . . in love . . . so blissfully unaware of what was to come just moments later, when that world they’d created with their dance was shattered to pieces.
 
“Brian?” Justin tried again, softer this time. “You all right?”
 
The older man waited until he couldn’t quite hear his heart pounding in his ears to look up, steeling himself for the tears he knew he’d find in those crystal blue eyes. And the tears were there, but what caught him off guard, what shattered his already weakened resolve completely, was the anguish in that beautiful face . . . a look of pain in Justin’s eyes that nearly made Brian cry out. He had to say something . . . had to talk before his brain switched over and made him incapable of making sounds more intelligible than whimpers.
“Where did this come from?” Brian was aware of the quiver in his voice, but he ignored it and hoped Justin would, too, for now. “Daphne told me there weren’t any pictures of . . . of this. No video.” He swallowed hard, fighting against the tears as he read the caption beneath the picture, which read: the look of love . . . the picture of bravery. St. James Academy. Prom 2001. “We checked . . . we thought that maybe . . . maybe if you saw something . . . it would help your memory.”
 
“She told me that.” Justin pushed the cup away. “That’s why she totally flipped out when she saw this.” He pointed to the page. “She’s gonna try to get in touch with Teren and see if maybe there are anymore of these somewhere.”
 
Of “ us.”  Yeah . . . back then there was an " us." Brian closed his eyes briefly, then opened them when he felt the boy’s gaze on him. The tears weren’t glittering so brightly in those eyes, but the sadness was still there. “Do you . . . does this bring back any memory? Do you remember anything else about the  . . . about that night?” Brian held his breath, and then exhaled noisily when Justin shook his head slightly. Fuck. Fuck. “Nothing . . .?”
 
“No. . . but I . . .” Justin paused, and swiped at his eyes. “It’s like . . . when they told me that you came . . . that you and I danced in front of everyone . . . It’s not that I didn’t believe them, but I just couldn’t see it . . . couldn’t picture it.” Justin gnawed his lower lip. “It just seemed so . . . unreal. Even looking at this . . . it seems unreal. Except . . .”
 
Brian tilted his head. “Except . . .?”
 
“Except . . . that smile. Your smile.” Justin’s mouth tilted into a grin and he gazed at the page. “This smile. I remember that smile. After I got out of the hospital, I’d have dreams almost every night . . . about you.” Justin frowned a little, his brow creasing with the effort of remembering. “It would just be the two of us somewhere alone. You’d just be . . . looking at me for awhile, not saying anything. And then you’d start smiling at me . . . just like this . . .” His thumb caressed the page just above Brian’s head. “And then . . . then . . .”
 
Brian was finding it hard to breathe, but somehow he managed to get the words out. “And then  . . . what?”
 
Justin’s thumb continued to circle the glossy surface of the page as he stared, dry-eyed now, into Brian’s eyes. “And then . . . you’d tell me that . . . that you loved me.”

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