How We Began (and How We Will End)

Ariel


Rating: PG-13
Summary: There are patterns for everything, even them. (Brian/Justin, around 9,000 words. I KNOW.)
Author's Notes: Written for comingthengoing, as part of the dream 513 challenge. I'm not sure this is my perfect ending, but I do like it. It's two days late, which I REALLY apologize for. Lateness means I didn't have time for a beta as such, but thank you to starstillwonder for factual help and moral support, and booboosheep for factual help, moral support and looking it over at the end. One day I'll go back and clean it some more, but um, not right now. The title is sadder than the story. :p

There are no spoilers here and this fic has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the actual events of S5. That said, I myself am spoiled so if you're worried about that, beware.



1.

After a week, Justin decides it's probably work, or stress, or work stress. He knows there's a new account that came up recently: some kind of skin thing. Ointment, or exfoliators or cream. Maybe it's soap. It has one of those really annoying names that don't really tell you anything except that some company thinks proactive words move units.

Anyway, maybe that's why.

So he gives Brian a massage and starts to ask if everything's all right, but the massage only lasts for about thirteen-point-five seconds and Justin doesn't actually finish his sentence before they're kissing. Then Brian is on top of him, and there are buttons being opened, and they don't get off the sofa, which is fine because imported Italian sofas are really comfortable.

Afterwards, when they're both limb-heavy and half-asleep, Brian still lying half on top of him, he almost asks again, but Brian says "Hand me that joint on the coffee table. There should be matches... somewhere." His eyes are still closed, and his voice is a slow, rough-edged drawl that sends tingles down to the pit of Justin's stomach, and he's only twenty-one, so they don't stop there. He runs his hand up Brian's side, over his chest.

"Kids these days," Brian says, "I'm almost too tired." Then he tips his head down, and they kiss. Justin gasps; Brian mutters, "Almost."

Some time later, Justin reaches for the joint on the table, and forgets what he was going to say.

* * *


1:30 am, and they're standing inside Babylon by the bar. Brian takes out two pills, and orders a whiskey. On the dance floor, there is the glitter-armed wave of Emmett's dance: he sparkles like a fairy princess, but everyone knows he's more a fairy queen. There's a guy nearby, too, tall and built with dark hair swishing around his face when he turns his head in time with the music.

Justin says, "Hey. He's hot."

Brian pops a pill in his mouth and says, "I'd fuck him," as he offers Justin a pill, too. A minute later, Justin feels the light tingle of a tablet dissolving on his tongue, and Brian says "Don't drink that," and takes his drink. He drinks it, himself. If he's is aware of the irony at work, he doesn't seem to know.

Twenty minutes later, he grabs Justin by the pinky finger and drags him to the backroom.

* * *


After two weeks, Justin starts to wonder if Brian is sick again. That seems like the only reasonable explanation. And, well, he wants to think that if the cancer were back he'd know because he wants to think that Brian would tell him, especially after the last time. But also because of the last time he knows that wanting to think and actually thinking are two different things and even if he does think so, he might be wrong. Maybe Brian would tell him and maybe he wouldn't, but there's no way to know unless he asks.

If he can be sure even then.

Well, it's worth a try, so after dinner, when they're sitting at the table surrounded by open cartons of beef with garlic sauce, chicken with cashew nuts and sesame pork, and Brian is slightly tired from excessive rice intake, Justin hands him a little wax paper bag filled with fortune cookies and says, "How was the ball doctor anyway?"

Brian shrugs and takes them. "Boring. The same as always. I don't know why I go." He twists one open; it breaks with a sharp crack. "'You are talented in many ways.' How did they guess?"

"Come on!" Justin stretches out his legs and rests his bare feet on Brian's lap. "You never update me on these things." He tries not to grin when Brian rests a hand on his foot; it would totally ruin the entire atmosphere to get all happy now.

"That is because there's nothing to say. I went in, they did things I'm definitely not going to get into, and I left." The scent of brown sauce and fried rice drifts over to Justin in waves, and Brian is using his speak-down-to-the-kindergartener tone. At the moment, Justin isn't sure which one wins at the most-irritating-thing-happening-in-this-room contest.

"That's all?"

Brian puts down the fortune cookie halves. He never eats them but then no one does. Except Ted. "Well," he says, "The nurse wanted to blow me, but I had a meeting." He gets up, smiling in that condescending way he has, and a moment later, Justin hears him opening the refrigerator, running water. Doing all the things he does in the kitchen when Justin is sitting on the floor in the living room. Or area. Or whatever you call those things when there aren't any walls.

He's probably counting his poppers.

Justin takes a fortune cookie, himself. Click, snap, it falls open. Education is the road to success! Justin rolls his eyes.

Brian probably paid the takeout place to throw that one in the bag, too.

* * *


Lindsay comes over with Gus, and Justin's always kind of surprised at how old the kid's getting. Soon he'll be going to school. Maybe he's already going to school. He also looks like Brian in most ways: the dark brown hair, the sharp eyes, even that very distinctive Kinney nose (and he's lucky; Lindsay's nose is kind of weird. Justin would never tell her, though.) One day, Justin thinks, that kid is going to be tearing up Liberty Avenue.

Or wherever straight guys go to do the same things, he guesses. If they do that.

Gus sits on the floor with the truck he brought over from the lesbian house, making vroom vroom noises as Brian talks with Lindsay. Yeah, he'll be home tonight, he says. He's not going anywhere. No, he doesn't intend to leave the kid with Justin again. (he gives Justin a meaningful look, and Justin can't help laughing at least a little bit.)

Lindsay says, "No trips to Babylon? Because Brian, if you're going to go out just tell me and I'll get a sitter."

Brian rolls his eyes and says, "Goodbye."

* * *


After a month and a half, Justin starts to wonder if Brian's lost his mind so he asks Michael in the middle of a Rage plotting session. It's early-afternoon; Hunter and Ben are both at their respective schools, performing their respective duties, and Justin ought to be at school too, but they need to finish the next issue and he's never liked that damn sculpture class anyway.

Michael's apartment is tiny and cramped (how living with Brian warps one's sense of space) and they sit on the floor because it has more room for spreading things around. Everything is quiet, save the persistent drop of a recently leaky faucet, the scratch of Justin's pencil, and the occasional coo of one Jenny Rebecca who's been deposited with Michael for the day. From where they sit, the apartment is a wonderland of colors and clutter and Justin wonders how Brian he he dscomes to visit without giving in to his obsessive need to straighten things.

So they sit, surrounded by stacks of paper: notebooks with bits of dialogue, sketch paper full of design work and panel plans. He draws a panel border and remembers storyboarding for the Rage movie. He tries not to linger on the thought.

"Cock zombies," Michael says, and he says it definitively. His eyes go wide like saucers every time he gets an idea. "I was thinking they could look like regular zombies except... I don't know. Maybe they'll have funny heads or something."

"Cock-shaped heads."

"Maybe."

Justin's already thinking of how to draw it. It's absolutely silly, but it works. "That sounds all right," he says, "Except, um, the only thing is I think Brian's gone insane."

Michael stops in the middle of scratching down a note, and 'cock' is left hanging with an incomplete 'k.' "What? What's he doing now?"

Justin thinks, well, perhaps he ought to have thought about how to answer that question before now, but it's hard to explain. Or, not so much hard as strange. But if anyone will understand why he's concerned, it's Michael so Justin says it, just opens his mouth and says it.

"He's not," he says. "That's the problem. He's not doing anything. I mean, anyone." Pretending to be interested in sketching some plot device of a girl tends to drain one's concentration, so Justin puts his pencil down and looks over at Michael. "Or, well, he might be, but not very often. I get home and he's just there, at the computer or on the sofa or mixing drinks or something. It's weird."

Michael's shoulders loosen; he looks relieved and surprised all at once, and he leans back on his hands. "Well, maybe he's just tired."

"It's been a month and a half." Forty-seven days.

A little twitch in Michael's face. "Maybe he's going out while you're at the diner?"

"He goes out. He's not dead." Justin reaches for a cigarette, and backs down from Michael's stern, fatherly glare. Baby in the house. Right. "But usually we fuck in the back rooms. Well, he did do that one guy last week, but that was a threesome. Does that count?"

Michael shrugs. "Was it a threesome with you?"

"Yeah."

"Doesn't count." Michael looks around at scattered papers, preliminary sketches: Rage in day clothes, Rage without any clothes at all. He picks up a handful resting by his knee, and on the top of the stack is concept art for issue six. In the picture JT floats in mid-air, suspended halfway between Gayopolis and the starry landscape of another dimension pulling him away. Rage holds onto him, kisses him, his fingers threading through JT's hair. Rage, holding JT in the real world.

"Well," Michael says, "Does it bother you?"

Justin really wants a cigarette. "Yeah. I mean, no, I don't care if he... I mean, I never wanted him to..." Maybe in another dimension this conversation would go well. He takes a breath, starts over. "It isn't like I miss the tricks. I just keep thinking there must be something wrong for him to stop like that."

"He's been slowing down for a while, anyway. I mean, except when you were in California. Then it was sort of..." Michael catches Justin's glare, and grins, sheepish. "I guess it had to happen one day."

"You're right," Justin nudges Michael in the side, "He is getting old."

"He's not old, he's mature and be careful. I'm older than he is. I mean, only by a couple of months." Michael wrinkles his nose. "Anyway, I didn't mean because of his age." This is followed by the most pointed, meaningful look Michael's ever mustered up for Justin's benefit.

Justin starts to ask what that means, but it clicks before he finishes his sentence. And damned if that wasn't the only reason that had never, even for a moment, occurred to him.

"Just don't bring it up," Michael says, and puts the sketches down. "You know how he is. If you point it out, he'll probably fuck all of Pittsburgh just to prove you wrong."

Sometimes Justin wonders if Zephyr should have gotten the mind powers instead of Rage.

Eleven o'clock and Justin goes home. He walks inside, the heavy bang-screech of the metal door opening and echoing when he pulls it shut again, and he almost entirely expects there to be a trick on the chair with his pants around his ankles, or bent over against a ceiling beam or the countertops or a desk or somewhere else interesting. Just because he's finally admitted aloud that there hasn't been any recently. It would be the perfect ironic twist to the day.

But instead, it's just Brian on the sofa, watching some old Brando movie, his arms spread over the sofa top. He's still damp from the shower and his hair damp sticks to his forehead and falls into his eyes. The lamps shed gold-brown light over everything, and Justin wonders when Brian got rid of the hard lights and replaced it with soft.

* * *


So Brian's rearranging the apples again. Justin provides every move with an internal narrative track: Green on top of red, on top of... wait, no red should be in the refrigerator and the green will stay on the table and... well, he gets out lemons and limes instead and starts all over again.

Justin tries not to laugh. He sketches Brian leaning over the counter, his eyes pointedly searching out any misplaced produce. He sketches Brian, hand extended, placing a lime just so.

Then Brian's working on copy, pencil in his mouth as he types.

Justin sketches that, too. Brian, half bright from the lamp, his bracelet dangling, his left shoulder hidden by the monitor. The little line between his furrowed eyebrows. The smallest frown.

"If you keep making that face, you'll get wrinkles," Justin says as he lays down a line of black.

Brian gives him the finger and keeps typing.

* * *


After two months, Justin only looks to the bedroom when he walks in out of habit. It's always empty except when Brian is there, sleeping.

* * *


They watch old movies every Friday. Rock Hudson and Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh; they make fun of the bad acting, and stay silent for the good. They watch on the sofa, Justin's head cradled against Brian's neck, Brian's arm over Justin's shoulder, hanging limp, fingers curling against the beige of Justin's sweater. Sometimes his fingers curl too, and they brush a bit of throat, a bit of chin. That brings chills; at times it brings heat.

Justin doesn't quite understand Emmett's love of Natalie Wood, but they watch Gypsy anyway. When the credits roll, Justin says "She can't sing."

Brian kisses the side of his face and says, "No. But she was quite a queen."

* * *


At three months, they're sitting at the Liberty Diner, discussing fucks over french fries. Brian's arm slumps over Justin's shoulder. He smells like Acqua Di Gio, that touch of lavender, the brush of juniper; Justin breathes him in and feels like he's drowning.

Emmett passes Michael some ketchup and says, "Well now, we've all been in relationships!" He makes curly little air quotes with his fingers. "Just because you're with the same guy for more than a day doesn't mean everything's boring. It just means everything's usually boring." He smiles around a french fry, and next to him Ted rolls his eyes.

"Some of us haven't had the chance to get bored with monogamy," he says. Ted, the perpetually downtrodden. Justin smiles into a plastic cup of coke. "But it works well enough for Michael and Ben. Even Brian is adjusting."

Now, Justin nearly chokes into a plastic cup of coke. It goes down his windpipe anyway, and the liquid stings his throat like acid. He puts it down, coughing and resisting the urge to throw something across the table. The napkin holder, maybe, or a fork. Maybe a nice steak knife.

Then he remembers that he never told Ted not to mention anything. He never thought to.

Brian, he chokes on his drink and says, "What? I'm not fucking monogamous, all right?" He looks at Justin and grins, that knife-sharp look that twists his face, and pulls his arm away. Justin feels its absence like a punch to the gut. "Sunshine, darling, have you been telling tales? Didn't I tell you to always preface your daydreams with a full and honest disclaimer?"

Justin's return smile is weak. "I didn't say anything."

The table goes quiet, and Michael takes a keen interest in the sausage patties on his place. All around, the customers buzz with chatter. Brian looks up and calls Debbie over; his grin falters just slightly before he orders another water.

They go to Woody's after the diner, and after that they head to Babylon. Brian threads his finger through a belt loop on Justin's pants and pulls him close. They walk together, leaning into one another and Justin smiles at the ground and watches Brian avoid puddles in his polished leather shoes.

Standing on the ledge overlooking the dance floor, Brian points to a new guy: blond, tall and moving like liquid. Beautiful.

"That one." He hands Justin his drink. "I'll be right back," he says, "This won't take long. But don't wait up."

2.

It takes around five minutes of pretending to be interested in Blond Trick's dance skills before Brian's dragging him into the backroom by the hem of his button up shirt. The men are like breathing sculptures: naked bodies bending forward, leaning back, reaching around, gasping. The air is thick with sweat and come and moans, and it's all made beautiful by floods of blue light. It's like being submerged.

Almost enough to make Brian wish he hadn't gotten rid of the lights over his bed. Almost.

Blond Trick says, "God, this place is amazing. It's distracting back here, though. All the guys..."

Brian shrugs as he pushes him against a wall. "They aren't as interesting once you've fucked them," he says into the back of Blond Trick's neck.

Blond Trick laughs, but he wouldn't know, would he. He's new. Blond Trick also turns slightly, and tries to kiss him. Brian jerks his head back. "I don't kiss on the mouth," he says.

Blond Trick says, "Right," and tries again.

"I don't kiss on the mouth," Brian says again, and vaguely wonders if people are studying his old lines. If so, they need to work on their delivery.

Twenty-three minutes later, Brian tells Blond Trick he doesn't take names either, or do repeat performances. He's already bored by the time he gets back to the main body of the club and he looks up at the balcony. Justin is gone. Well, he did say not to wait up.

His watch says 2:15. He walks through the crowd, moving between the grinding bodies, his head pounding with the beat. There are dancing guys in angel wings, and Brian laughs remembering Justin on stage, playing baby Gabriel to a drag queen god. The music changes, and the beat grows darker, harder. Between two guys, Emmett throws up his head and laughs.

* * *


When he gets home, Justin isn't there. But it's only 2:45 and he isn't late either. Not yet.

And then he is late, and Brian does an excellent impression of not worrying before he falls asleep on the sofa. He has strange dreams: Justin in danger, Justin closing the door.

Then morning comes and, the loft is still empty, and silent, and cold.

3.

When Justin turns up at Daphne's apartment, she doesn't even ask what happened. Instead, she offers him something to drink and pours water standing in her tiny kitchen, wearing fluffy slippers and a night shirt.

"What time is it anyway?" he asks between cigarettes.

"I don't know," she says, and yawns. "There's a clock on the cable box. Do you want lemon in this?"

Justin closes his eyes and has no idea if he wants lemon or not.

* * *



Ethan has a new CD out, and this time it's selling at the fucking supermarket which strikes Justin as either really appropriate, really pathetic or both for some reason. On the cover, he's wearing a black turtleneck, his fingers wrapped around his bow, his neck arched the way he does when he comes. There are red roses scattered at his feet. Justin can't tell if he's shaved or if it's just the angle of the photo. He picks up the CD, turns it over in his hand - the back lists off a load of bullshit he's heard a million times, and he thinks I was there when he perfected that one, and he played that one for me when I came for my song. He thinks, I should have stayed home that time.

Maybe it should make him wistful, but it doesn't.

Daphne throws a DVD and some magazines into the shopping cart, and glances over at him. Her nose wrinkles up automatically when she sees what it is, and Justin puts the CD down. "Don't even start," he says, "I was just looking."

Halfway through the dental hygiene aisle, she starts anyway. "What's with you and Brian?"

"Nothing," he says. "Brian was just being a bastard again. I thought we could use a breather."

She chooses a toothbrush. It's powder blue and has some kind of rubber-infused head that moves when you go around a tooth or something and it'd better not be for him. "What did he think of that?" she says, and grabs for the Listerine. The whole cart is just full of non-food items, and Justin starts wondering why they didn't go to a drug store.

"I don't know," he says, "I didn't ask."

Daphne looks at him, eyebrow raised. "Justin. Does he even know you're broken up?"

"We're not broken up." Justin chooses his own toothbrush, thank you. "Just taking time."

Daphne looks at him. "Uh huh," she says.

She looks unconvinced, but as for Justin, he's not sure which part she's unconvinced about.

* * *


He doesn't know what he expects. It's not like Brian will ever come get him. Even so, he's waiting for... something.

Well, it'd be nice if he knew what.

Instead of thinking about it (or maybe while he's thinking about it. If he's honest.) he draws. He sketches landscapes from his mind, just from the memory of vacations he's taken: a summer in Canada once, a long time ago. An autumn in England. He paints sunlight trickling through the windows at Kinnetic: the beams struggle, but they make it. They puddle on the ground by Brian's desk. They reflect in the grates on the floor, the tiles, and in Brian's hair where he sits like a king behind his imperial desk.

Somehow Brian always shows up in Justin's drawings, in spirit if not in form.

* * *


It's cold outside, and raining - that kind of melodramatic drizzle that happens in movies to reflect inner turmoil. Brett Keller told him all about that over storyboards, but he already knew. Justin wraps himself up in his peacoat and lowers his head to keep the rain out of his eyes; he's passing Babylon and it's only a few steps to the corner. He doesn't know what time it is, but he knows it's late enough that the cold is getting bitter and each raindrop is a razorblade.

He lights a cigarette, which might not be the best choice, given the way everything's wet and all. For some reason, he isn't expecting Brian to stumble out of the alleyway, although really he ought to have been.

When the guy comes out of the shadows and scampers off, back to whatever rat hole he crawled out of (which is to say, Babylon), Brian snatches Justin's cigarette from between his lips and takes a drag. "Where the hell have you been, anyway?" He says it with that studied air of indifference that tells Justin he's probably checked with Michael, Debbie AND Justin's mom to make sure everything's all right. It's almost like they haven't not seen each other in a week.

"I've been at Daphne's, that's all." Justin yawns. Given the intensity of the yawn, he's going to guess it's around two thirty. He hasn't been out past three for so long he's started getting tired out of habit.

"Why?" Brian's still awake, and not for the first time Justin wonders how someone whose been abusing himself for God knows how long is still so damn active at thirty-five. He ought to be run down, he ought to look old. It's got to be the drugs, he decides. They'll kill him one day, but until then he's an object in motion and everyone knows what those do.

Justin shrugs. He smiles. "I don't know. No reason. It's quieter there."

"Bullshit." Brian hands the cigarette back. His eyes are bleary, dreamy. He's definitely on something, but Justin's lost track of the pills, the bottles, the smokes, the effects of any of the above. So Brian's hazy, but he still knows how to give Justin that Look. The Look that says, what the fuck is wrong with you? and you're full of shit at the same time. "We're not stupid, Sunshine. We do notice timing."

"What, you're royalty now?" For some reason, that's really goddamn annoying. "If you already knew, why'd you ask?" The air is damp and Justin throws the cigarette away; it lands just in the gutter where a puddle is forming with every gathered raindrop.

Brian watches it soak up liquid, and sink. "Maybe I wanted to see if you were going to admit that you still have those breeder dreams." He looks at Justin, that intense look he gets sometimes. "We had an arrangement."

"Yeah," Justin says. "Yeah, we did."

"A commitment. That you... plan to stand by." Brian smiles, cruel and beautiful in the lamplight. "Or so I hear."

Justin tenses all over, because he doesn't want to have this conversation. It's going somewhere he doesn't want it to go. He doesn't want drama, and he doesn't want to fucking well argue, especially not here, in the streets, surrounded by people. Especially people they know. Especially people they really know. Especially if Brian's going to be throwing words back in his face.

"We should talk about this some other time," he says, "Or at least some other place."

And Brian says, "You need to open your mind."

His heart is pounding. "About what?"

"About what partners really are."

Justin looks at the ground, at the neon lights reflected in puddles, and the tiny ripples when someone passes by. Impact and waves. "It's not like I ever expected anything else from you."

"Then what?"

Justin stops for a moment. "Why do you always start fucking everything that moves as soon as you notice you aren't?"

Brian looks up, and the streetlights glimmer in his hair and in his eyes. Justin follows his gaze to the street corner where they met.

(He remembers that, sometimes, when they're around here, or they pass that damn lamp post. He remembers being 17 and terrified and brave and knowing exactly what he wanted as soon as it stepped down the stairs, surrounded by the losers he'd one day think of as friends.)

"The door's always open," Brian says. Justin hears I'll never change echoing, unspoken, in the air around them. "Do what you need to do."

This conversation, they've had it before, but it's been two years, so maybe it's time for another round. Except Justin's really too tired for it. He says. "What do you want me to do?"

Brian laughs, quietly. He says, "I have to get home," and his voice is quiet too. "Some asshole got me used to getting home by three." The streetlights dance on the raindrops collected on the hood of his car, and he pauses at the door for a long moment before he gets in. Then he's gone, checking the rear view mirror and down the road. Driving under the influence again. One day that will kill him, too.

Too late, Justin wonders if he was supposed to get into the car, too.

* * *


It's 2:58.

Daphne's apartment is dark when he gets there. He doesn't know if she's sleeping or just not home, but he wishes she'd wake up, or get back. So he smokes in the corner near the lamp, and thinks that he's done this before, just after Ethan.

In art class, he learns that when you draw from life, it's all about patterns. You look at the thing you want to replicate and find the patterns and shapes within. The way an eye is kind of an oval. The way the neck is a cylinder. Treetops are ovals. And inside each pattern is another pattern. You copy them, improve them, sharpen them. His teacher calls it rendering. In the end, the pieces - the patterns - they overlap, and you have a whole. It's like jigsaw puzzles.

Well, he "learns" it. He always knew that, too.

Life also comes in patterns.

He doesn't know if he wants Brian to change or if he just wants Brian to accept that he already has.

(Brian's never going to change.)

4.

Maybe they've pulled apart too many times to stand on level ground. It makes a sad and desperate sort of sense, in the end: even the most flexible things break if you stretch them too far and too much. A quiet snap, a rush of air, the scent of plastic light in the air, and the rubber band breaks in two. Pieces drift to the ground, scraps and useless, stretched plastic. Things fall apart. Things die.

So Justin is packing his bags again. He does that a lot. Sometimes it seems they spend as much time packing and unpacking as living. Maybe it's time to stop unpacking and just move on. Brian thinks this between his fifth and sixth cigarette, between his third and fourth shot of Jack, before he picks up his keys and throws on his leather jacket and leather shoes and takes his first step toward the door. He thinks it again just before he opens it. It would have ended sooner or later; better now than then. This way they get the bullshit over with before they're at each other's throats again, talking about fucking commitments and fucking ceremonies (public or private, it doesn't matter, it's all the same and why do people need that shit anyway?).

He takes another drag, still standing at the door. It's a long moment before he realizes he's waiting for Justin to catch up, and another moment to realize that won't happen because Justin is here but Brian's going alone.

He wants to drop his cigarette on the floor and smash it into the concrete underfoot, but there's no goddamn way he's doing that in his loft. But it's an urge.

Maybe he just wants to smash something.

* * *


Babylon is multi-colored bright lights strobing across the shadow-sick floors. It's dancing men and loud music and closed eyes and move and grind and the room thump-thump-thumping around him. It's letting the bad singing and the driving beat drown out his thoughts because they aren't doing him any good today anyway. It works mostly, most of the time. It replaces his something to think about with nothing, and nothing is the more comfortable option so he'll take it.

And then there's a flash of blond hair and a boy dancing just nearby. Pale skin turned blue from the lights, gold hair turned green. Brian is submerged under music and dancing and E, so he almost grabs the kid until he remembers it's just some random twink and not the one he used to have and doesn't anymore.

Just a little while off, Justin is packing again.

Bottoms up for that. He orders a drink and wonders if he should do that and take another hit at the same time. Probably not. But he does anyway.

Mikey isn't even here, this time. Is that a step forward, Brian wonders, or a step backward? It doesn't matter, in the end. He's here, Babylon, the home he fought to protect - protect against the sudden explosion of dicklessness, the domestic bullshit and Justin's home life fantasies, with aprons and rings and happily ever fucking after as though that ever happens. He's seen happily ever after, and it's drunk and frigid and full of shit.

He takes another drink.

Well, if that's what the boy wants, far be it from Brian to deny him, but far be it from Brian to give in, either.

(He isn't ready to grow old and die yet. He'll never be ready.)

The room thump-thump-thumps around him, and the air vibrates. Across the room, someone is giving him those eyes, that look - the guy doesn't really do much for him, but he's bored so why not.

That's the way it goes.

Halfway through one of the better blowjobs he's had since last month, he's even more bored so he tells the guy to fuck off and goes back to the dance floor. But the music is too loud, and there are too many people, so he goes outside to get some air and smokes a sixth, seventh, eighth cigarette and thinks about going back inside for a drink but goes to the car instead. He figures he's driven after more drinks than he's had tonight, so it'll be fine.

(And it is.)

* * *


By the time he reaches Michael's door, he's almost approaching nearly not completely shit-faced but he still trips a little on the curb and thinks, “getting too old for this,” and doesn't acknowledge the thought. It's the middle of the night, and he has a key because Mikey's pathetic and never took it back, so he doesn't knock. And, because it's the middle of the night, he can't claim to be surprised when the lights are off in every room except Hunter's.

For a moment he considers bursting into Michael's bedroom, waking him up and dragging him out, or at least making him perform little tricks to keep him amused. A good idea in theory, but God only knows what Zephyr and his palaeontologist are doing in there, aside from which it's around 2 in the morning and Brian's still at least reasonably shit-faced, so the sofa looks too inviting to resist.

When he wakes up, a phone is ringing and sunlight batters his eyes with a relentless and unacceptable fury. And he's cold. And his head feels heavy, as does the rest of his body. Also, his temples are throbbing. And his back hurts from the twisted angle he finds himself in. For a moment he wonders when his bed got so uncomfortable, then Michael says, "Hurry up, you're going to miss the bus!" and he remembers. Apartment. Shit-faced. Babylon. Immensely boring blowjob. Couch that isn't nearly as comfortable as his. Right.

"Stop yelling, I'm not deaf." Hunter.

"No, but you are slow." Michael. Fucking hell, they're starting to sound alike. "You don't want to be late; you'll miss the beginning of class!"

"Are you gonna pack my lunch for me too, mommy?"

A third set of footsteps come through from the direction of... (Brian tries to remember. The headache puts up a fight.) the kitchen? "That was Susan; she's sick. I need to cover for her 8am class." Ben. "Which means, I'd better be going! Come on, Hunter, I'll drive you to school." There is a silence that can only be a kiss goodbye, and Brian closes his eyes and tries to shut out the incredibly bullshit image of Gay as Blazes style imitation heterosexuality that pops into his head. It's all Leave it to Beaver, without all the beaver. Thank God for small graces.

When the door has opened and closed, Brian risks his eyes opening too, and Michael is standing a few feet away, watching him. "I knew you were awake," he says. "I remember the way you breathe when you're sleeping."

"Mikey," Brian says, "That is truly strange." He tries to sit up, but his head protests and the room lurches around him. Right. Lying down sounds more inviting anyway. "Your couch is pathetic."

"What's going on?" Michael sits down, and it occurs to Brian that the chair would have been a more comfortable bed.

"Nothing," he says. "I didn't feel like going home. I wasn't in the mood for it."

Michael watches him for a long moment, then nods. "It's got to be empty there," he says. "Justin told me he was leaving."

Well, fantastic. Just thrilling.

"He left over a fucking trick." Brian says it, and his voice may be softer than he meant for it to be, or harder. It's difficult to tell when his head is still pounding out "I Love the Nightlife" at five million decibels. He bites his thumb. "We had an agreement. If he doesn't like it, then he can fucking well go."

"He did!" Michael shrugs. He looks like he wants to say something else. Maybe he wants to throw a little fit again, but doesn't want to get punched, or maybe he wants to tell Brian to grow the fuck up. Everyone tells him that from time to time; Mikey's got to be on the schedule sometime, too.

"Yes, he did, and that's exactly what he should do." That time, he thinks, is definitely too soft.

Michael gives him that look again, like he's in the know and Brian is missing something massive, and obvious, and significant.

Brian rolls his eyes, and he can't lie there any longer so he sits up. "What? I'm not a fucking dyke. I'm not his goddamned husband. He knew, Mikey. He always knew."

"Yeah. But then you stopped for a while. Or slowed down, or something. So maybe he thought... I don't know, Brian! He thought you were insane for a while there, when you stopped."

There's been a great deal of insanity about lately. Brian rests his head against the back of the sofa. Thump-thump-thump, like the grinding music at Babylon. Like a heartbeat. "What the hell does he want?"

Michael looks up. "You know what he wants. He wants you to go after him."

And, well, he could do that. That's the oddest bit of it all. It would be easy enough. Three words, the ones that hang in the air every time they're alone for more than a minute or two. He could say them. More likely than not that's all it would take. That he'd mean them is the worst part. But he could do it. He could take some painkillers and a shower, put on some decent clothes and go find Justin and...

...and arrive at Daphne's doorstep with roses and a limousine and whisk him off to some enchanted world of daisies and hot tubs and happily ever after like a page out of some fifties handbook.

Brian snorts. "Well, he'll be waiting a long time."

Michael doesn't nod, or shrug. "Yeah," he says, "I guess he will."

* * *


Two hours later, Brian pushes open his front door, sliding steel and clang. The closet door is open again. Brian wonders if he'll find drawings of JT and Rage scattered on his desk.

5.

Everything Justin takes out of his bag is bothering him. In Daphne's apartment, on her coffee table, on her bookshelves they look wrong; out of place like artifacts from another life, and Justin thinks well, maybe they are. Souvenirs of life with Brian, even though he got them with his own money from the diner, from Vanguard, from Rage.

He didn't bring the computer. It's always so weird thinking of it as his, although really Brian has no use for it.

Daphne helps him unpack, and she talks incessantly. It's not annoying, that little up and down of her voice, that bobbing of her head. It's all comforting, really. She says, "I told him no way is he getting me to go to that place, okay. It's totally inappropriate, and anyway I don't even like trucks," and Justin laughs. She says, "Your mom called me the other day, you know. She was worried about you and school. Did you tell her you're back in?" and he shrugs. She says, "Oh my God, Justin, when did you start wearing beige socks?" and he points out that he's always kind of liked beige, and she snorts and shakes her head.

They gossip about things: about how he saw Cody working at some car wash a few weeks ago, and he looks better with his hair grown in. Better, but barely recognizable. About how Chris Hobbes got fired from his construction job because of his paranoid behavior since something happened last year. He never talks about it. About Mel and Linds and why the hell they don't just get back together anyway because everyone can tell they want to.

Daphne gives him the strangest look when he says that.

When the phone rings, she hands him a stack of navy blue socks as though she's passing a torch. "I trust you can handle these on your own," she says, and nods as she reaches for the cordless. Justin puts the socks in a little stack next to his pants, and tries not to listen in on her conversation.

He stayed here for a pretty long time after Ethan, and it hasn't really changed since then. It's still very, very Daphne: colorful and comfortable. He remembers months of sleeping on the couch, and her coming in with air freshener and a sour expression to chase away the stink of cigarette smoke. Her peeking over his shoulder when he drew. It'll be much the same, he supposes, now that he's back. Except with more quiet. Except maybe with even greater portions of glum.

Drawings of Brian jut out from the edges of his sketchpad. He sees the corners of them, the waves of dark hair, almost black, the corner of a shoulder. The rough, grainy texture of colored pencil, the black swatches of charcoal. He shoves them under the cover and looks for his cigarettes. He can't stop smoking, recently.

Behind him, Daphne giggles and says, "Mrs. Taylor, I don't think that's... um, no, just... Um, right! I think you want to talk to Justin now."

Justin lights a cigarette and wonders how his mother knew to call him at Daphne's. Wonders if she tried the loft first. Wonders if she knows. He takes the phone and sucks in smoke just as his mother says, "...if he's all right?" When he exhales, she says, "Justin?"

"Yeah, it's me. How'd you know? I didn't even say anything."

On the other side of the line, Justin's mom sighs. "Daphne doesn't smoke," she says. He can picture her sitting at in one of the lounge chairs maybe, or standing in the kitchen. Molly is probably coming home from school soon. "Are you all right?

"I'm fine." Justin takes another drag, and wishes he had another hand so he could talk and smoke and unpack all at the same time. "Did you ask Daphne if I'm in school? I told you I registered again."

"Yes, but you register and unregister a great deal." (Justin laughs. He should make up his mind one day.) "I heard about you and Brian."

This is the fun part of the conversation. Justin balances the phone in the crook of his neck and grabs a handful of shirts. "Everyone in Pittsburgh's probably heard by now." Everyone in gay Pittsburgh, anyway. Justin swears there's some kind of newsletter produced to update everyone on who Brian's fucking or not fucking and why. "They're all a bunch of gossipy queens," he says.

Some miles away, his mother says, "What?"

"I guess that was sort of random. Mom, why are you calling?"

"I wanted to make sure you're okay!" There is the sound of a knob turning, a tiny screech, and then running water. It was the kitchen after all, unless she's about to take a shower, and that's just gross. "I ran into Brian at the diner. He told me what happened, and I wanted to know..."

"I'm fine. Honest." T-Shirts. Hair gel. He has an ionized brush. Completely pointless. "Except I forgot my CDs at the loft."

A pause. "Honey, are you sure this is what you want?"

"No." He stops, because he didn't mean to say that.

"Then why..."

"I thought you'd be glad. You never liked him, anyway. " His nerves are screaming, so he sucks in smoke.

"That's not true. I like him. It's just a question of whether a man his age, and with his lifestyle... his experience..." The water is still running.

He pulls up a plastic pouch filled with skin cream, a razor, aftershave. "I know, I know. I've heard it all, already. Anyway, it doesn't matter, it's over. Again."

On the opposite end of the telephone, his mother sighs.

Justin unpacks a t-shirt with Rage's face on it; his own hero-worship staring him back in the face. His fingers trace over the line of Rage's jaw, the highly characteristic turn of his nose. He takes another drag. Hot air and ash, he thinks. It's all hot air and ash.

* * *
The next time he sees Brian, he's at Woody's eating popcorn from a paper plate under the glowing pink of a neon flamingo. It's tacky and the popcorn is bad, but it's one of Justin's many homes.

Brian is with the usual suspects, and he's wearing jeans and a black sweater vest; Justin's never really loved the sweater vests but they ripple with his every movement and Justin watches every step and every wave. Then Brian glances over, and Justin tries to look like he wasn't staring. He suspects it just makes him look like he's trying to look like he's not staring, though. Brian laughs, and that's confirmation so he kind of wants to melt into the floor but instead he looks up and waves.

And, well, he didn't mean for it to be an invitation but Brian breaks away from the guys and comes over anyway.

Apparently this is interesting sport for watching, because Ted raises a glass, Emmett waves, Ben smiles and Michael gives one of those doleful looks that make him seem thirteen. Justin doesn't know why, or how interesting it could possibly be, but Brian is leaning over his table so he doesn't get a chance to think about it. Instead, he looks up and says, "I should have remembered this was one of the Woody's nights."

Brian sits down, uninvited and unapologetic. "Justin Taylor," he says, "Why fancy meeting you here. Are you stalking me again?"

"Very funny, Brian. I was here before you."

Brian smiles. "Pre-emptive stalking. It's the new rage." He has a drink - something amber on the rocks, and grabs a handful of popcorn from Justin's plate without asking. It's kind of weird. It's all very weird, really. Brian doesn't say anything; that's even weirder.

In the end, Justin breaks the silence. "What are you doing here, anyway? Shouldn't you be getting drunk with the guys?"

"I'm getting drunk with a guy." Brian swallows down a kernel of popcorn. "This is shit," he says, "I don't know why you eat it."

"It does the job." Justin takes another handful. He doesn't really want to eat them. It's funny; he did, a minute ago. Confusion is never any fun. "Brian. Rewind to the beginning of this completely bizarre minute and a half. Why'd you come over here, anyway?"

Brian wrinkles his forehead, lowers his eyes. "Well," he says, "You were staring at me, Sunshine. I just decided to say hello."

The music is quiet tonight, and neon flamingo colors Brian's skin gaudy. And, well, Justin knows why he came over. Maybe he knew the instant Brian looked at him, came over, and sat down. "You know," he says, "It won't kill you to say you just wanted to talk to me."

Brian says, "Don't flatter yourself." But his voice, it's quiet, it's low.

"Well," Justin says, "I miss you, too."

The music's still quiet, but thank God for the muttering crowd.

Brian takes his drink and swallows down half of the glass in one gulp. "We're going to Babylon in a few minutes. Coming?" He swallows the rest of the glass.

Everything about this conversation reminds him of the first year they knew each other, when they were always around each other, but never really together. Funny how years fall away. But it's not quite, exactly, the same.

Justin puts down the popcorn, kernel by kernel. "No. I've got things to do. Schoolwork and shit. You know, since you made me go back. And I forgot my CDs, I have to come back for them. Maybe tomorrow or something."

"Fabulous." Brian stares into the glass, all ice and the amber remnants of liquor. "I should have ordered a double," he says. He puts the glass down, and it drips condensation onto the table. Brian stretches and stands up. He's looking through his pockets, probably getting out money for another drink, when he says, "You didn't have to fucking well go."

It sort of comes out of nowhere, so Justin doesn't know what to say. And then Brian disappears back to the bar, so he doesn't have to think of anything.

Justin thinks he might need a double too, now.

6.

It's impossible to guess why people do things, say things, open their mouths and make fools of themselves.

Brian dances till 1:30, and fucks a trick till 2. At 2:45, he's in his car on the way home. Force of habit, he thinks. One day it'll break.

Lying in bed, he's half asleep when he remembers puddles and rain, and Justin wrapped in a coat saying, What do you want me to do?

He should have just said, Get in the car. He did say it, in fact. But sometimes Justin stops listening.

These things are so fucking stupid, when he thinks about it.

The loft never feels right anymore.

* * *


At around noon, Brian is pouring guava juice when Justin comes over for CDs and other miscellaneous shit; little things he forgot because they were so normal they turned invisible. Brian isn't entirely clear on whether he intended to be there when Justin showed up, but he couldn't seem to make himself leave. He tries not to think too much about that.

So when the door opens, Brian looks up and waves and Justin walks inside with a little smile, that bag he carries all the time looped over his neck and shoulder. He looks like he wants to explain all over again, but he doesn't. He doesn't close the door, either; he says he won't be staying long.

Brian says, "You left the computer again. I'm starting to think you keep leaving just to get rid of it."

"No," Justin looks at the desk, where it's not packed, this time. "It's just weird taking off with something like that. I mean, you bought it." He looks down. There are shadows falling across his face, and light there. Just across the edge of his cheekbone, just dancing in the gold strands of his hair. The hair is getting long again, and Brian would miss the short cut, except all that gold makes Justin look ethereal and it's almost like that night again, when they met.

(He remembers seeing some blond twink moving. Remembers feeling like the world moved just a little. Electricity. Justin isn't even his type, really. Sometimes he wonders why he went over.)

The CD book is in the bedroom so Justin starts up the stairs. Brian watches him through the glass, and thinks... it'd be easy to bring him back.

Justin slips the CD book into the bag. It makes him look like a delivery boy. "So," he says, "I guess I'll see you around."

Watching him, Brian thinks it's all stupid. All of the circles they go in. The... patterns. Justin talked to him about patterns once, but he was only half listening. In any case, this is one of them. It's like they're on repeat.

Justin says, "I don't want to stop seeing you or anything. I mean, you know. It's not like last time."

Secretly, Brian's always thought it was a bit strange how Justin always comes back.

"We're not-" He pauses at the door, standing there, framed by steel. He's annoying when he's reasonable.

Brian closes his eyes. "Why the hell do we do this?"

Justin stops in mid-sentence. "What do you mean?"

"You're leaving. Again." Brian won't open his eyes. He won't look as he speaks. "And it's stupid." Around now, Justin will be getting pissed off. "You're leaving over a trick; I don't even remember him. Do you want me to bring you fucking roses, what the hell do you want?"

He still won't open his eyes. In the silence, he wonders if he's alone again. The door open, he could have left at any time.

Then, a quiet voice. "I don't want to change you. It's fine. It's great."

(Brian opens his eyes, and Justin is closer than before. He's only a breath away.)

"I don't care who you fuck." Justin laughs, he lowers his head. "I guess I just wish you'd stop trying so hard to be a bastard."

Brian laughs at that, too. "Justin," he says. His fingers find the perfect resting place, just on the curve between Justin's neck and shoulder. Brian leans forward, forehead to forehead. He says, "Stay."

Maybe he's nervous, just a little, about what might happen from there.

Blond hair falls over his fingers when Justin looks up. "Brian..."

Three little words, he thinks. Just three little words.

"I love you," he says. "Stay." His voice is so low he's not entirely certain Justin will even hear.

Justin laughs, quietly. The kind of laugh that bubbles out when there's too much energy, and nowhere to put it all. He smiles, too, and closes his eyes. "Fuck," he whispers, "Fuck. Fuck."

Brian should be surprised at that reaction, but for some reason it makes perfect sense.

7.

They don't change the rules.

Justin still looks at the bedroom when he first comes in, and sometimes he sees Brian there, moving with some guy, all bare skin. The empty spaces in the loft echoing with sharp breaths, quiet moans. And well, sometimes it's Justin there, and Brian stays outside, drinking Evian from a bottle and working on copy again.

(Sometimes it's both of them.)

Sometimes. It's random and sort of strange, because it's gotten less common. Still, from time to time.

Brian would say it keeps him from being bored, if he were willing to acknowledge the shift at all. He never changes, even when he does.

As for those words, he doesn't say them again.

But then, he doesn't need to.

-end-