1 | 2 | 3 | 4

I Would Come to You

Myrna

I suppose it was heartless to sit in the hospital lobby waiting to hear how Justin's surgery went and sort of wish he and Brian had never met. But if they'd never met, I could have been anywhere else in the universe other than there, and I really, really wished I wasn't there.

But where exactly could I take Justin out of the equation without messing up everything else? I kind of like everything else right now. I wonder sometimes if I'd have the comic book shop if Justin hadn't been here--a shining example of bravery and resilience and everything else everybody was always going on and on about. It goes back even further than that, though. I wonder if I'd have gone to Portland if Justin hadn't been here, taking over everything that had once been mine--from my stupid bedroom at Ma's to...to Brian. And you know, if there hadn't been Portland and there hadn't been the comic book shop, there'd have never been Ben, so I can forgive the Boy Wonder a hell of a lot. I'm just not sure I can forgive him for putting Brian through the ringer yet again, and I know that sounds horrible because there's nothing about a fucking brain tumor that Justin could control, but he's still just about killing Brian, and I hate it.

The world came to a stop the day of the surgery. We were all there--Brian, Jennifer, me, Ben, Vic and Ma, Ted, Emmett, Lindsay and Mel. Carl made an appearance and Molly, the Demon Spawn from Hell was there for a little while to spread some of her Taylor Sunshine. Even Justin's ex-boyfriend Ethan was there in spirit. He was supposed to call later that afternoon to hear how it went. Don't even get me started on that bit of weirdness. Brian doesn't seem to care that Justin and Ethan are still close, and Ethan is the reason Brian and Justin broke up! You can bet I wouldn't be bending over backward trying to accommodate my lover's ex, but there's really no understanding Brian and Justin. You'd think I'd quit trying.

But I probably won't.

Brian kept roaming between the waiting area and Justin's room, giving off a DON'T TOUCH vibe you could feel from a couple of floors away. I think everybody's still a little surprised that Brian's hung in there for Justin. You know who hasn't seemed the least bit surprised? Justin. Isn't that amazing? I mean, given what happened after the bashing, I would have been pretty much waiting for Brian to bail, if it was me, but Justin just sort of took it for granted that Brian would deal.

There's been a hell of a lot to deal with. These last five weeks have been awful for Justin. They gave him doses of radiation to shrink the tumor before the surgery, and it made him really sick. He shaved his head before they started the radiation, I guess as an act of defiance. The treatments were going to make his hair fall out anyway, so he beat them to it by shaving it himself. I thought Brian was going to lose it that day, but he didn't. At some point I said something to him like it was okay to be upset, but the comment made him mad. "Then Justin might think there's something to be upset about," he said tersely. "This is temporary. Like a hang nail. And we're not turning into a bunch of screaming, wailing queens over it." I swear, you could almost see him physically push any, sort of, negative thoughts out of the way. It's like he took this really deep breath and by the time he exhaled, they were completely gone.

Some days I couldn't help but see what they're going through as a prequel to what Ben and I might someday face, God forbid. Sometimes it's felt real uncomfortable to watch them. Still, I've tried to stick close because Brian's my best friend, and I know he's needed me, even if he'd rather give up fucking for the rest of eternity than actually admit it or anything.

It's so unfair that after all of the shit they already survived, they had to face this. I've yet to see Justin utter a single, bitter word about what's happening, but, God, he's got to be pissed about it, doesn't he? I figure he unloaded on Brian or something, because how could anyone just accept this shit? Justin must be so relieved that Brian took him back. What if they were still apart? Brian's been all over everything with the brain tumor--researching stuff on the internet, conferencing with doctors, checking out alternative therapies. What would Justin have done if Brian hadn't, like, forgiven him for the shit he pulled that made them break up?

Brian's never really gone in to how they got back together. I know I was here the whole time watching, so you'd think I'd already know without him telling me anything, but that gets us back to the weird universe of Justin and Brian. Who ever really knows what's going on there?

They were apart for almost a year--Justin had two boyfriends in that time and who could do the math with Brian's tricks? The only thing slowing him down were the excessive hours his job required now that he was a partner in the ad agency.

Justin and I continued to work on the comic book after the break up, even though we were both pissed at each other, me because he'd totally shit on Brian, who'd done, like, everything in the world for him and him because I told Brian about the guy Justin was fucking behind his back. Brian's my best friend. It never occurred to me (and never will) to keep something like that from him. Still, the comic book was a hell of a lot more successful than any of us thought it would be, so it was just impossible not to ride it out a little further.

The first day Justin showed up to work on it, we were both pretty wary of each other. Just seeing him again, made me think of all he'd thrown away without a second thought. God, how fucking stupid and ungrateful could one person be? Before he even got his coat off, I said, "Look, I know neither one of us is thrilled to be working with the other, but so what. This is work. There's no law that says you have to be friends with the people you work with, right? So, we're co-workers, nothing more. I won't ask you any personal questions, you don't ask me any, we talk about work and nothing else, deal?"

He kind of smirked at me, and shook his head, then sighed and shrugged. He looked really tired all of a sudden and so damn young. I felt a twinge of guilt at how unkind my words sounded, but after what he'd done to Brian, kindness was about the last thing he deserved. "Deal," he said, and we sat down and began to work.

I did one thing back then that I'm pretty ashamed of. I think about it now, and it makes me feel so damned rotten I can hardly stand it. I fixed it later, but it was pretty unforgivable of me. In the second issue of 'Rage,' I wrote out the JT character who was based on Justin. I know, it was awful. I know it, all right? Jesus, if I'd known he was going to get a brain tumor I never would have done it. It's not like I killed the character or anything, I just sent him off to college out of state.

Justin didn't bat an eye. He was in love with his fiddle player and probably could have cared less what happened on the comic book. I always got the impression that he didn't really give a fuck about it anyway, except for the money it was bringing in. That pissed me off. It was my fucking dream come true. If you'd told me when I was 18 or 19 that I'd have my own fucking comic book with my own fucking superhero, I would have thought you were crazy. Half the time, Justin acted like it was this annoying obligation and the other half like it was this immature little hobby. Either way, his attitude irritated the hell out of me. I know what it's like to be a scared, lost 12 year old kid, and I know what kind of comfort something as innocuous as a comic book hero could provide. What we're doing is important, more important than you can imagine for some people, and I respect that about our work.

So Justin doesn't say a word about JT sailing off into the sunset, but Brian was totally pissed off when he found out. He didn't see the issue until after it was published. I'd dropped it off one night at the loft when he was working late (as usual). He stopped what he was doing to leaf through it, and it got really really quiet all of a sudden. "Was this Justin's idea?"

I could tell right away he wasn't happy, and part of me sort of wanted to say yeah, it was, but I didn't. I just said, "No."

He nodded, still slowly paging through the book. "So it was yours?"

"Yeah."

"Justin say anything when you told him you had a great new story for the comic?"

"I never said anything like that, it was..."

"He say anything?"

"No, as a matter of fact he didn't. He just sat down and took out his pen and began to draw like a good little artist, all right?"

Brian shook his head with parental disappointment that irritated the shit out of me. Like he's so fucking mature he's earned the right to be disappointed in me?

He tossed the comic book on the table and walked away. "Way to go, Mikey. Hey, later maybe we could find some puppies to kick around. That sound like fun?"

"Why do you even care? He totally shit on you!"

"We shit on each other, Michael. But notice nowhere in there was anybody shitting on you! Jesus, I don't need you to avenge my honor or whatever the fuck you think you're doing."

"That's not what I was doing, Brian!"

"I know you can be a petty little shit. We all can be. But you've never been mean before. Or spiteful. Justin didn't deserve that."

Okay, I'd already felt crappy about what I'd done without being reamed by Brian. Still, I'm nothing if not stubborn, so I just muttered, "Yeah, well that's your opinion."

"Yeah, well mine's the only opinion that matters."

And doesn't that just sum up the Brian Kinney experience?

So that whole thing eventually blows over and everything settles down into the kind of predictability that I like. Justin and I got together twice a week to either redo edited stuff or work on new pages. That's pretty much the only time I saw him. He and the boyfriend never came to Woody's or Babylon, and I sort of conveniently forgot to invite him to Ma's for dinner. Occasionally, Justin might show up at the diner, but usually just to visit with Ma. I never saw the boyfriend, Ethan, though I did talk to him on the phone once. He called to tell me Justin couldn't make it to work and before he could tell me why, I guess I blew up at him. It's just, Justin had canceled on me a ton lately, and I was always thinking he was getting ready to quit, so I guess I thought he made the boyfriend call just so he could play hooky. I hung up without letting the guy get a word in, but he called me right back so I'd know that Justin had had a seizure and was in the hospital. It wasn't serious or anything, but I felt like total shit. I'm sure I went a little overboard when Justin came back to work because I felt so bad about being such a prick. He shrugged it all off as just some fluke left over from the bashing. It wasn't like he had to take any medication or anything, so after awhile, I must have forgotten that it ever happened.

About six months after the break up, an old friend of Ben's came to town to work on some major renovations in the historical district. Trevor St. James was a really famous architect (okay, so I'd never heard of him before, but I guess as far as well known architects go he was up toward the top of the list). But who cares about the architect bit anyway, he was so fucking hot it was unbelievable! He looked less like an architect than like some totally hot actor playing an architect. He wore those round, wire-rimmed glasses, and he was tall and built like a swimmer--broad chest, slim waist--with light brown hair that was thinning a bit and cut really short, not to mention eyes so deep and dark you wanted to dive in and never come out.

Trevor and Ben were college buddies who had served on some of the same boards the last time Trevor was in the Pitts for a job. I'd grilled my man six ways from Sunday to make sure Trevor was just a *friend,* for which I was doubly grateful after I'd seen him. Ben was crazy never to have made a play for this guy.

So the first night Trevor was in town, Ben brought him to the store before the three of us headed out for dinner. The store was closed, but Justin and I were finishing up some last minute edits when Ben and Trevor came in. Ben introduced me and Justin, and we traded small talk for a minute before Justin and I went back to work. Trevor moved behind me to look at what we were working on and was shocked by how good the artwork was. Justin admitted that he was fairly new to the comic book world and that he, too, had been surprised at the art produced in the medium.

It became obvious that Justin wasn't going to finish up the changes that night, so he packed up the storyboards and said he'd be by the next day around 12:30.

"What's the story on him?" Trevor asked, still eyeing Justin's ass as he jogged toward the bus stop.

"Ah, no," Ben said, physically turning Trevor away from the door.

"No what? I'm just asking. What's the story?"

"And I'm just saying no. He's 19, he's had a really rough time the last few months, and he's coming off a nasty break up. Besides, I have to live in this town, and I'm not letting you loose on anyone I know."

Trevor smirked at him and let the subject drop. But surprise, surprise, he walked into the shop on Thursday, at exactly the same time Justin had said he'd be there. He gave some lame ass excuse about thinking he was meeting Ben there for lunch, but CM was 30 minutes across town, and Ben has an 11 o'clock and a one o'clock on Thursdays, so he's lucky to grab a PowerBar in his office.

"So," Trevor said, leaning against the counter and watching Justin sketch. "Does an artistic soul such as yourself believe it's just coincidence that I'm here right now, or is it fate?"

Justin sat back in his chair and smiled up at the man. "Are those my only two choices?" he asked.

Trevor laughed and said, "What else could it be?"

"I don't know, maybe it's just a guy who knows what he wants and how to get it."

"Hmm, that does sound a lot like me," Trevor admitted, clearly smitten.

Justin brightened like he'd just come up with a fabulous thought. "Well, I'm a guy who knows he wants dinner tonight, if that gives you any ideas."

I couldn't believe it. I couldn't fucking believe it! Granted, Trevor was so fucking hot it hurt to look at him, but Justin walked out on Brian because he wouldn't sit at home and play the good little hubby, and now here he was cheating on that perfect fiddle player of his. Un-fucking-believable.

Trevor, of course, was lapping it up like a cat. He laughed at Justin's "boldness," and said, "Well, I guess a growing..."

"Ah ah, do not say 'boy,'" Justin warned with a joking glint in his eye. "That will definitely not help you get what you want."

Another laugh from the oh-so-amused Trevor. "Duly noted. You ever eaten at Bartolo's?"

"Oh, yeah, I love it! Excellent choice."

"Give me your address. I'll pick you up at six thirty."

Justin wrinkled his nose. "I don't know. I have a feeling my place might offend your delicate architectural sensibilities."

"I'll risk it," Trevor said and winked--winked!--at Justin. God, if I were only slightly less mature I would have made retching noises it was all so cliched.

"A brave man," Justin said, tearing off a corner of scrap paper and writing down his address.

They traded some more inane chit chat while Justin packed up his case and left.

I shook my head after Justin, downright amazed at how...Jesus, how fucking brazen he was. It made me pissed all over again for Brian. He never had a chance with Justin, never had a fucking chance, and then Justin goes around all fucking pouty like the big bad wolf had run rough-shod over him. What a fucking piece of work. "Ah, he has a boyfriend, in case you're interested," I said to Trevor.

Trevor lifted an eyebrow and looked out the door in the direction Justin had walked. "That's his story to tell," he said and gave me a dismissive smile. "Guess I missed Ben, huh? You know, come to think of it, I'm supposed to meet him at the Liberty Diner for breakfast tomorrow. Tell him I'll see him then, okay?"

I mentioned the date to Ben over dinner, and it was kind of funny. I was pissed because Justin was up to his old tricks again; not that I gave a fuck that he was cheating on Ethan, but he was messing around with Ben's friend. But Ben was pissed that Trevor was messing with Justin when he'd already warned him off about it. At first I thought Ben was worried that Justin would do to Trevor what he'd done to Brian, but he laughed off that idea.

"Michael, Trevor's 36 years old. He thinks he's the center of the universe and expects everybody else to buy into that. He's selfish and needy and won't think twice about taking everything he can from Justin and then tossing him aside. It's not Trevor I'm worried about."

Ouch, that was a pretty tough assessment. "I thought he was your friend."

"He is. He's my friend, but that's all he'll ever be to me. I wouldn't wish him as a boyfriend on anyone."

"Sounds perfect for Brian, doesn't he?" I said with a little laugh.

Ben shook his head. "They wouldn't give each other the time of day. They both know better."

I wasn't so sure about that. Say what you want about Trevor, he was one of the hottest guys I'd ever seen. Why wouldn't Brian go for him?

The next morning, Ben and I met Emmett, Ted and Brian at the diner for breakfast. Naturally, I filled them all in on the scoop. I'd just begun the good part about Justin finagling a dinner invitation out of the famous architect, when who should walk through the door but Trevor himself.

He saw us, but instead of a pleasant hello, he marched over and barked at me, "Why did you tell me Justin has a boyfriend?"

I leaned away, taken aback by his hostility. "Because he does?"

"Bullshit. The boyfriend won some violin thing. He's been in Europe for months. Jesus, Ben, am I that much of a fuck up that you have your boyfriend lie to me to keep me from dating your little fucking mascot?"

The shocked looks all around the table did more to convince Trevor of our innocence than any denial I could have made. "Jesus, you didn't know?" He looked from me to Ben and back to me again. "I thought he was your business partner. You really didn't know?"

I just kind of shrugged and felt embarrassed, even though I didn't have anything to be embarrassed about. It's not my job to keep tabs on the Boy Wonder. Who cared if he was still with the music boy or not?

"Jeez, you really aren't friends. I thought he just said that because he was pissed about the boyfriend thing."

As Trevor retrieved a chair and plunked himself down at the end of our table, Ben said, "Trev, I thought I made it clear the kid was off-limits."

"What are you talking about? What kid? After the night we spent together, I was calling him maestro. Made him show me his ID before he left just to make sure he wasn't some thousand year old demon."

There was nervous laughter from around the table as the rest of us avoided looking at either Trevor or Brian, both of whom seemed oblivious to our discomfort.

"I'm serious," Trevor continued. "He did this thing with his tongue when he was, God, I can't even do justice to the position he was..." Trevor's voice petered out as he grew more aware of the mood "I'm sorry," he said and looked over at Ben. "Do we not dish the morning after around here?"

"I'm the one you should be calling 'maestro,'" Brian said with a snide smile on his face. "I taught that little fucker everything he knows." Trevor looked confused so Brian elaborated. "I'm the boyfriend once removed."

"Oooh," Trevor said, eyeing Brian with greater interest now. "Oh, I get it." He grinned and lifted an inquiring brow at Brian. "Hey, let me get your breakfast this morning. As a thank you, from the bottom of my heart. And various other body parts as well."

I think we all were holding our breath, waiting to see how Brian would take that. He offered a lopsided grin and toasted Trevor with his coffee cup. "You can afford it from what I understand."

The talk naturally--or not--drifted to other things, namely Ted's being named to the board of directors of The Northside Hospice, Inc. He was so proud of himself that even Brian wasn't raining on his parade--for the time being, of course. Ted's major project was helping to put together a fund raising gala, and Emmett was lobbying hard to be brought on board as a party planner.

I only half listened, wondering instead why Justin hadn't said anything about Ethan leaving town. We'd been working well together, the ideas were flowing easily, and I thought we were doing okay.

The next time we worked together, I felt all out sorts, so I finally just blurted it out. "How come you never said anything about Ethan?"

Justin stopped working for a second, I thought maybe he wasn't going to answer, but then he looked up and met my eyes. "They're your rules, Michael."

I was quiet for a few seconds and admitted to myself I'd known all along why he hadn't mentioned anything. "Yeah, well they're pretty rotten rules if you ask me," I said, watching Justin to see his reaction.

"I think so, too," Justin said, then grinned playfully. "'Cause if you were a friend, I'd have to tell you about the totally hot guy I went out with the other night. And I really, really want to tell someone about that."

I bit my lip and wondered whether or not to say something, but I think we all know what route I go when given the choice between speaking up or shutting up. "And if I were a friend, maybe I would tell you that Ben thinks he'll hurt you." I hoped I'd said it gently enough not to piss him off.

Justin shrugged, not seeming to mind. "The thing is, I don't think he could even if he wanted to." I didn't quite get his meaning, so he went on. "I don't think I feel stuff much anymore, you know? Like, nothing goes very deep with me, it's all just...sensation. It's like, everything I could possibly feel for anybody went into Brian and Ethan, and now there's nothing left. Do you know what I mean? Did you feel like that after you and David broke up?"

I nodded slowly. "Yeah, I think I did. It's not like you're afraid you *won't* feel that way again, but that you *can't.* I remember thinking all kinds of things like that--like it just wasn't ever going to be worth the risk to try again. Lots of stuff like that."

"But you took a chance with Ben. A big chance. What happened? Why did you change your mind?"

I shrugged as I tried to think back. "Time passes," was all I could come up with. "Great big hurts get smaller, maybe it gets a little clearer what happened and why. And for Ben and me, the timing was just...right. If I'd met him three weeks earlier, I never would have taken the plunge, but I was feeling pretty damn cocky because of the store, and I wanted to give it a try. And the more I got to know him, the more it was worth it to me to be with him."

Justin nodded thoughtfully, then shrugged. "I guess it doesn't matter much with Trevor. He's only going to be here a few months. I just want something easy. No highs, no lows, just...easy. He says he can do easy, so I'm going to try to do it too."

And it probably would have been easy if not for Brian. It's strange--he never seemed to care all that much about Justin taking up with Ethan, but he was, like, obsessed with Justin and Trevor. After months of barely acknowledging Justin, he was suddenly all over him, just being a total prick. He went out of his way to run into Justin at the diner and the comic book store. He gave Justin shit about missing "family" dinners at Ma's or not showing up whenever the crowd was celebrating one thing or another.

And when he wasn't being a total dick, he was digging for details. Where did Justin and Trevor go for dinner, what had they done over the weekend, what were their plans for spring break, was Justin still in his own apartment.

Finally sick of his pestering one afternoon, I said, "Jesus Christ, Brian, what's the deal? You didn't give a fuck when Justin was with Ethan, why do you care about Trevor?"

Brian shook his head, like he couldn't even believe that I would ask such a stupid question. "Don't you get it? This is real life. Ethan was...he was a fucking cartoon character, sweeping in to save the day. Trevor St. James is fucking real life."

You know, I never told Brian what Justin had said about not wanting anything major with Trevor, about just wanting something easy. I felt like he told me that in confidence, and it really wasn't Brian's business, even if he was driving me fucking crazy with all of his questions. If I ever was going to say something, I guess it would have been then, but I kept quiet. I wonder what would have happened if I had told Brian. Would he have relaxed, and kept up the faade of no longer caring what Justin did--or more to the point, who he did it with?

By the time Trevor's three months were up, there was so much going on in our little crowd, that his pending departure barely registered.

Ted's--or should I say Emmett's-- gala was just days away, and it was like they were mounting a Broadway musical or something. We were all meeting at Ma's before the big shindig, all the guys doing the whole tux bit and everything.

I asked Justin if Trevor was going to be able to get away for the party, since his project was winding down now, and Justin looked confused for a second, then said, "Oh, uh, no. He left for Chicago last week. The job already finished up."

"Oh, God, that's right. Shit, me and my big mouth. So...are you guys split up or what? How did you leave it?"

Justin made a face and said, "He wanted me to quit school and follow him to Chicago. How ridiculous is that?"

That took me back a bit. I thought they'd kept it casual, but I guess you can't always control the way those things go. "Well, you sure didn't think about it very long. He did seem to care about you and..."

Justin rolled his eyes. "I'm a sophomore in college. Trevor doesn't spend more than a few months anywhere, ever. There's no universe in the world where we could make it work."

I wasn't really buying it, you know, that he didn't care. I thought he was just trying to put up a brave front or something, but the look I gave him made him think I was scolding him or something. He sighed like he was the most put-upon person on the planet. "Hey, I told him from the start that I wasn't looking for some great romance. I never made him think I wanted anything more than what we had. Shit, I went out of my way to make sure he knew there wasn't going to be any more, so quit giving me that Church Lady look of yours."

"I don't have a Church Lady look!" I said, which made him start laughing at me.

"Oh my God, you do too! You're, like, the most Church Ladyish person I know."

"That is total bullshit! How can you even say that?"

"Say what?" asked Brian as he walked in the shop.

"That I'm a judgmental prick!"

"I didn't say that," Justin said, rolling his eyes. "You're such a freak. I said you're the most Church Ladyish person I know, that's all."

Brian barked out a cough of laughter. "Why Justin, what a mean thing to say to sweet little Mikey."

"I'm trying to be supportive!" I explained to the both of them. "Trevor left for Chicago. I thought Justin might be bummed or something and want to talk about it. My mistake!"

Justin rolled his eyes again and muttered, "Freak," under his breath, then just ignored the both of us to set out his drawings and start to work.

Brian's eyes had widened at the news of Trevor leaving. "So Mr. Tall Dull and Boring bit the dust, huh? Nursing a broken heart now are we?"

Justin gave a dramatic sigh, acting put out that his work was being interrupted. "He said he was going to be here for three months, the three months are up, he's had a job waiting in Chicago this whole time and shock of all shocks, he's going to Chicago. There aren't any surprises here, are there?"

"Well, I guess some of us die-hard romantics hold out for the happy ending." Brian just oozed sympathy and understanding.

"Mm," was all the reaction Brian got, which I could tell irritated him.

Brian slowly circled around Justin, watching him work. "He ask you to go with him?"

Brian doesn't realize it, but he uses this...tone, when he thinks he's acting all casual and indifferent, but there's something about it that tells you he really, really cares what's going on. I know Justin had to be on to him, but he acted annoyed at Brian's interest as he looked up and glared. "I don't have time for this."

"What, it'll take a nanosecond. Yes or no. Did he ask you to go with him?"

Justin lifted his chin in a gesture of defiance. "Yes."

"And you said no?"

"I'm still here, aren't I?"

Brian tsk'd tsk'd in exaggerated sympathy. "You're just turning into a regular little heartbreaker aren't you? I almost feel sorry for the guy. He gives and gives and gives and in the end, it's just not enough for you, is it? We're all left asking the eternal question: exactly what does Justin Taylor want?"

God, I couldn't believe he said that. I thought Brian was past any bitterness he might have felt toward Justin, but that was a pretty shitty thing for him to say, especially with me standing right there watching them.

Justin didn't even look up from the page he was working on. "Yeah, I'm a real mystery," he said, sounding bored.

I shook my head and pretended to be interested in the storyboard in front of me. Justin had always played it wrong where Brian was concerned. When Brian was in that sneering, pissy mood, it was better to just role over and let him get it out of his system. If you let him know he hit his mark, he'll lay off.

Justin never went for that. He'd just ignore Brian or give it back to him so that Brian would get more and more brutal. It's like Justin wasn't satisfied until he could make Brian say the cruelest, most hurtful thing imaginable. And then Justin would look all, like, shattered at how horrible Brian was. I don't get that. Why put yourself through that when you can just let Brian say whatever he wants and then it'll be over?

"You'd have gone with me if I asked," Brian said arrogantly.

Justin snorted at that. "You never would have asked."

"You'd still try to go. How pathetic is that?"

Justin didn't answer, but he must have felt Brian's eyes on him because he looked up at him and arched his brows. "What? You think I don't know how pathetic I was? Please."

"I don't get it. He said all the things you wanted to hear. Made all the right gestures, jumped through all the hoops. What the fuck do you want?"

"How about for this conversation to be over?"

"He's pulling in millions a year. Fucking millions. He's on every top 10 list in his field. For some reason he thinks *you're* God's gift to art and beauty. Hell, as far as he's concerned, you're all that's good and decent in the world. What more do you want? What the fuck will be enough for you?"

Now, if I was Justin, I would have gone off on Brian. What the fuck business of his was it why he split with Trevor? Justin didn't even bat an eye, just leaned back in his chair and smugly asked, "You want Trevor's number in Chicago? You could call him and offer your condolences. Talk about what an ungrateful little shit I am. I'm sure he'd appreciate that."

"Probably would have appreciated knowing he never stood a chance, too."

"Trevor's eyes were wide open from the start."

"Oh yeah, right. Tell me again why I'm supposed to believe that?"

"Because I'm capable of learning from my mistakes. I fucked up, but I took something away from it. If I don't believe that, what is the point to anything? But if you think I'm gonna keep knocking myself out trying to convince you of anything, you're screwed because I'm done with that." He stood up and threw the unfinished panels in his case. "I'm out of here."

"Fuck you, you are not walking away from me."

"Watch me."

"God, *you're* the fucking coward."

"Don't even try, Brian. It's so easy for you when it's all hypothetical, but the minute it gets real, you start looking for excuses. That's bullshit, and I'm fuckin' calling you on it."

He left with a drama princess flourish and damned if Brian didn't slam out of the door after him. He grabbed Justin's arm and yanked him around to face him. "What the fuck do you want?" Brian angrily asked him yet again.

Justin jerked his arm out of Brian's hold and said, "You know what I want!"

"You can't have it! You won't ever have it!"

Justin backed away from Brian, his arms opened wide. He shrugged and shook his head. "There's an answer for all of this--leave me the fuck alone." Justin turned around and walked a few paces, then stopped and faced Brian again. "You know what? That goes for the hospice gala, too. Don't you fucking show if you're not ready to deal, Brian!"

Brian watched him walk away then turned furiously away and cursed himself with a muttered, "Fuck!"

I'd witnessed the whole scene and still felt like I'd come upon a movie that was more than halfway over.

"What the fuck was that all about?" I asked when Brian came back in the shop, but he just shook his head and spent the rest of the evening in a bitter pout.

Two days later, pressed and dressed, we all headed out from Ma's to the 1st Annual Northside Hospice Spring Gala. It was held at a plain party hall near the hospice, and I remembered Emmett's wailing and gnashing when he first saw it. He was never going to be able to make it presentable, not on their measly budget!

Amazingly enough, the hall looked phenomenal. A friend of Emmett's had provided these unbelievable chandeliers that used candles as their light source. Ted was a nervous wreck, constantly pointing out that if a fire marshal found out we'd all be kicked out, and he'd be lucky not to get arrested. Mauve and silver ribbons shimmered beautifully in the candlelight and the smell of fresh flowers was everywhere. It was simple and understated, and Emmett finally smacked me on the back of the head because I kept saying, "You did this? You really did this?" By the time the band started playing, and the dance floor filled, Emmett had business cards from four different people who wanted to employ his services.

Brian was still nowhere to be seen, and I wondered if that had anything to do with the strange ultimatum Justin had thrown at him on the street the other day. I watched Justin, figuring he'd be nervous and fidgety if he was unsure about Brian showing up because of something he said. On the contrary, he seemed as calm as could be. I'd have been so ill at ease attending one of these things when I was only 20 years old, but he mixed and mingled like he was born to it, which I guess he was. Ted seemed to enjoy introducing Justin around, and I knew that if Brian was there he would have given Ted a terrible time about pretending to be there with the twink.

Later in the evening, I saw Justin dancing with the wife of the hospice chief of staff. He was really good, and after they finished, he was pretty much in demand from one blue-haired biddy to another. He even got Ma out on the dance floor, though I guess she was more of a red-haired biddy.

It was ten minutes to midnight when Brian breezed in, looking...breathtaking is the only way to describe it. He was all in black, and the crowd seemed to part ever so slightly as he moved through the room, unconsciously walking to the beat of the music. Shit, yeah, right. He was conscious of every move he was making.

He walked over to Justin who hadn't moved a muscle since Brian stepped foot in the door. He was just standing there, staring, such a stillness surrounding him that all of us knew something important was happening. But what?

"You looking for a partner?" Brian asked, smiling through the words.

Justin's face was very serious as he slowly nodded. "Yeah."

"I'm your man," Brian answered, and took Justin's hand, leading him out to the dance floor.

They danced beautifully. Sort of...amazingly. It was almost like some old black and white movie, where the characters all of a sudden start waltzing around out of nowhere and miraculously they all know the same steps.

Ma and Lindsay and Mel were all over themselves at how adorable it was. Jesus, you'd think they'd never seen two people dance before. I was glad when it was over so everyone would quit yammering on and on about it. Okay, yeah, they can move in time to the music, we get it, we get it. Next subject please!

When the music stopped, it was really weird, because they had this whole conversation that they should have had before they started to dance.

Brian was standing so close to him that Justin had to tilt his head way back to meet his eyes. "I'm ready," Brian said.

"Oh," Justin said, a soft, startled sound of surprise. It looked like his knees went a little weak, because he reached out and grabbed onto Brian with both hands. "I'm so glad, Brian. I'm so fucking glad."

"I made you wait a long time."

"Yeah you did."

"I might not be worth it." Brian couldn't keep a straight face at that and neither could Justin, whose smile lit up the room far brighter than a million candles ever could.

"Fuck you, you know you are."

Brian shrugged then, all careless nonchalance. "Yeah, I suppose I am."

The other weird thing was that when Brian leaned in to kiss Justin, he sort of stopped, paused, kind of, almost like he was asking if it was okay, which believe me has never happened before. Justin smiled and nodded and Brian planted one on him that suggested they were going to make up right then and there for every single kiss they'd missed in the last year.

When they finally came up for air, Brian spun Justin back out on the dance floor, but just for a minute. Justin grabbed him by the hand and pulled him toward the door, and they left without a single glance backward.

All of us were still talking about the scene the next morning at the diner, wondering what it meant, when our two drama queens moseyed in, both of them looking so freshly fucked it bordered on obscene.

Having a mother who possess no tact whatsoever was a blessing at that moment. Ma walked up and said, "So what the fuck are you two jokers doin', huh? Fuckin' spill."

Brian tried to maintain that air of aloof disdain he'd perfected over the years, but he kept smiling like a fucking idiot and ruining the effect. "Finally convinced the little shit that where he wants to be is at my beck and call," he said.

Justin nodded. "Yeah, since he's completely delusional now, I figure it's the perfect time to take him for all he's worth. Versace here I come."

"So you two are tryin' again!" Ma said, smiling like this was the best news since sliced bread. "Well fuck me, it's about time!" She wagged her finger at the both of them. "You two better shape up and fly right this time or I'll kick both your asses!"

"Yikes," Justin said. "On that note, I've gotta go to class." He pecked Brian's cheek and turned to go.

Brian grabbed his wrist and pulled Justin to him and just fucking swallowed him whole, made the kiss on the dance floor the night before look like a peck on the cheek. They were both kind of laughing when they broke apart. Justin was glowing like a fucking night light.

"Later," Brian said softly.

"Oh God, yeah," Justin said with a breathy sigh and reluctantly walked out of the diner like he was being shipped off to the battlefield for a few decades.

I was floored, just totally fucking floored. "Are you nuts?" I said, the minute he was gone. "Jesus, you oughta fucking be committed. After what he did to you? How can you even think about this? Have you even thought about it? Jesus, Brian, you have to talk about this stuff, you don't just jump into things without talking about..."

"I've talked about it ad nauseam for-fucking-ever. I want to eat breakfast! A huge, cholesterol bomb of a breakfast." He looked up at Ma who was beaming at him like ordering breakfast was some sort of huge accomplishment. "I want the Barn Stormer, extra bacon, eggs over easy, with a side of pancakes." He grabbed Ma as she started to go and planted a big, wet kiss on her cheek. "And don't be stingy with the syrup."

"He'll do it again!" I said, irritated at being ignored yet again. "How's he changed in the last year? He'll do it all again. God, after what he did to you, how can you..."

Brian placed his hand on my arm. "Hey," he interrupted in a quiet voice. "Whatever happened, whatever we *did,* we did to each other. You know that. The fucking amazing thing is that I know that."

I figured that would be about all Brian would ever say on the subject, but he kind of ducked his head and tilted it to meet my eyes which were firmly fixed on my bowl of cereal. He gave me that little-boy smile of his that made my stomach flip over like I was on a rollercoaster. He lowered his voice, quickly looking around to make sure no one else was listening in. "I know what I want and so does he. I'm ready this time."

Brian may have been ready, but I wasn't. I'll admit I had a little trouble with the two of them getting back together, and I was kind of crappy to Justin there for awhile. How could Brian just forget what had happened the first time?

I watched the two of them kind of closely, trying to see if anything was different this time, but I couldn't tell much difference. They partied a lot less, but that was only because of Brian's schedule now that he was a partner. Justin had a lot on his plate too, with school and work and the comic book. When they did go out, things looked pretty much the same to me. Okay, there was a lot less talk of three-ways and stuff like that, but Brian still tricked and I assumed Justin did too. They seemed to have a kind of don't-ask-don't-tell policy which I'm surprised Brian would go for. Honesty, like, in-your-face honesty has always been his MO, so I couldn't see him agreeing to cover something up, although I suppose there was a lot of room to navigate there. Not rubbing Justin's face in the tricking wasn't the same thing as pretending not to do it at all.

I was shocked Justin didn't move back in with Brian. I'd only seen his apartment a couple of times, but it was a shithole, pardon my French. To hear Justin describe it, you'd think it was some kind of showplace that would put Brian's loft to shame, but it was little more than a crappy efficiency. I guess it was cute how proud Justin was of it. Even so, I expected him to push Brian to let him move back into the lap of luxury, but he didn't. Brian was always making cracks about Justin's place, but I knew for a fact that he spent as many nights at Justin's place as Justin spent at his (though he would've denied it up one side of the street and down the other if you pointed that out to him).

I should've cut Justin some slack, because when it was all said and done, the two of them seemed really ... content. And that might not seem like much to you, that might even seem like faint praise, but Brian Kinney and contentment are about as opposed to one another as Brian Kinney and abstinence. They were happy together; for once, they made it look...easy, you know?

And I was just all over the map about it. Some days I was really glad for Brian. He's my best friend, of course I want him to be happy. But some days, it still, after all this time, it still stuck in my craw that his happiness seemed to be found with this annoying blond twink who just dive-bombed into all of our lives without warning.

I was irritated with Justin on another account, too. He was having increasing trouble with his drawing hand, and I know it sounds like I was a total bastard, but I really thought he was making a big deal out of it to get off the comic book.

Finally, one day, he'd just had enough of me bitching about it. Brian had come to pick him up, and as he packed up his bag, I told him again that if he didn't want to work on the comic book, he didn't have to.

"Michael, you have got to be less defensive about this, okay?" he said, tossing his case down on the desk. "Granted I was never some hyper-obsessed comic book geek like you, but I do have some appreciation for what we're doing here. I'm not running around behind your back making fun of you for this, so stop acting like everything I do is some poorly disguised insult. If I didn't want to do this, I wouldn't. Period. End of story. But I'd have the balls to tell you to your face that I was quitting--I sure as hell wouldn't manufacture some pathetic little excuse. Okay?"

I turned wide, what-the-fuck eyes to Brian who chuckled and shrugged. "Yeah, you've got to be careful when he gets that look on his face. I believe the response you're looking for is 'Yes, dear.'"

"Yes, dear," I echoed meekly.

Justin smirked and lobbed a 1999 Superman action figure (retail $5.75) right at my head. I threatened to dock his next royalty check, but I don't think he bought it.

I guess I really needed to hear all that from Justin, because things were really good between us after that. Unfortunately, his hand seemed to be getting worse. We all kind of acted like nothing was wrong, but it was taking him longer and longer to finish up his work on the comic book, and I knew he had fallen behind some at school.

We were working late at the shop one night, and he was really bummed. He felt like he was letting me down, and he'd had another professor after him about a project, and the hand was bothering him, and he was having headaches again which he'd thought were gone for good.

There was a knock on the door--probably Ben, coming to walk home with me, but I hesitated a second to go let him in. Justin was sitting at the desk, and he kept swallowing and smacking his lips. He was breathing fast, his mouth open, and I asked him for the third or fourth time if he was okay. He nodded, and I went to open the door for Ben.

I was away for maybe a minute. When we returned to the back room, Justin was on the floor having a seizure. He sounded like he was choking to death; his lips turned blue, and he lost control of his bladder. He threw up a white, milky foam and then lay shockingly, terrifyingly still.

Ben calmly checked his airway and his pulse while I not-so-calmly called 911.

Justin was awake by the time the EMT guys arrived, but he was really out of it. He kept moaning, this awful sound of, like, complete misery. He kept saying he was sorry, and every time he became aware that his pants were wet, he moaned again, tossing his head in terrible distress. He asked over and over again if he was at school, had it happened at school, and I finally realized he was afraid people had seen him have the seizure. Ben kept petting his forehead and telling him we were at the store, and we were alone, and it was okay.

We decided that Ben would go with Justin to the hospital, and I'd pick up Brian at his office and meet them there. I didn't want to tell Brian over the phone.

I drove to Brian's office and let myself in. It was after hours, but Brian had long ago given me a key swipe to get in. He looked up when I tapped on his office door, and it took him maybe three seconds to figure out that this wasn't a happy little social call. He paled and stood up, his eyes about ten times wider than normal. When he spoke, his voice was so scared, so defenseless, it made my stomach clench. This is the Brian no one sees; the one no one knows exists; the one I will always love and always protect. "Is Gus all right?"

I nodded and took another step, but Brian held out his hand to ward me off. "No," he said, backing away from me. "Then...no, there's nothing else." I guess, maybe given the headaches and other problems Justin was having, he must have suspected something was up. Maybe he just realized that Justin was the only other reason I would ever be standing in his office like that.

People who think Brian is hard to figure out because he doesn't talk much just don't fucking know him the way I do. He could go ten years never speaking a word, and I'd still know what in the hell he was saying most of the time. Right then, his eyes begged me to shut up, to turn around and get the fuck out.

Instead, I took another step, talking quickly to try and stave off a melt down. "It's okay, it's not anything ... dangerous, okay? Justin had a seizure, but he's okay. He's awake and talking and he's fine, okay? He's fine, but they want to run some tests or something, so they're going to admit him."

Brian flinched at the word seizure and started breathing kind of heavy. "Why are you here? Why are you here and not with him, who's with Justin?" He moved kind of unsteadily over to his desk and started shutting down his computer.

"It's okay. Ben's there."

"Shit, where was he? Was he at school? Fuck! Was he at school?"

For some reason that kind of tore me apart, that he was as worried as Justin that it had happened somewhere public. God it was so unfair that after everything with the bashing they still had to deal with it in such major, major ways.

"No, he was at the shop, and it was already closed. No one saw anything."

"Good, good," Brian muttered and seemed unsure of what to do next, so I closed his laptop and put it in his case. Brian swiped at the sweat on his upper lip and heaved a sigh. "He'll be okay, then. He's okay."

Three days later they diagnosed the brain tumor.

After that it was like life had two speeds--it was either tearing along at a million miles an hour or it was slowed to an absolutely endless crawl. I remembered from Vic's last hospital stay that most of the time in the hospital is spent waiting--waiting endlessly for news about this test or that test, waiting for the radiation appointment to end, for the sickness to pass, for the doctor to sit down for another conference.

I was so worried for Justin, not only because he had a fucking brain tumor--how horrifying was that? But I was afraid Brian would bail just like he did after the bashing. And I know Brian was traumatized by the assault, and I know we all should have looked after him better than we did, but that doesn't excuse him for leaving Justin like that. I was pretty sure he'd do it again, and I didn't know if Justin could take that.

The first inkling I had that things would be different this time came about three or four days after the diagnosis was made. I walked into the diner and spotted Ben at our table, but stopped short. Brian sat across from him, jotting down notes on a legal pad. I wondered who Brian's new client was that had him seeking out Ben's input on an ad campaign, but I didn't get the chance to ask.

The minute Brian saw me, he packed away his pad of paper and stood up to go.

The door was still swinging closed when I asked Ben what that little meeting was all about.

Ben scrunched his eyes shut for a second and said, "Damn! I lose."

"What do you mean."

"I bet Brian that you'd last until the food came before asking. He said you might make it to right after we ordered."

"Fuckers," I said.

Ben chuckled, but sobered before he answered me. "He wanted to talk about Justin."

"What do you know about Justin?" I asked.

"Maybe nothing specifically. But I know what it's like to be a healthy young man one minute and facing your mortality the next. I know what it's like to sit in front of a handful of doctors and have no idea what in the hell they're saying to you. I know which floor has the best vending machines..."

"My mom or Vic could give him that spiel," I said

"Yeah, probably with a few 'don't fuck this up, Brians' thrown in for good measure. I don't think he was looking for editorial comments."

"I guess not. Were you able to help him?"

"I don't know. I hope so."

"I hope so, too," I said and reached for his hand, so happy he was in my life. Our lives.

I don't know if it was that, as a professor, Ben just had a natural affinity for college kids, or if it was perhaps the shared experience of being sick, but he and Justin grew very close after the diagnosis. Brian watched them fairly closely at the start, and at first I thought maybe he was jealous, but I realized later he was actually, sort of, monitoring Ben, making sure he didn't say anything to Justin that Brian didn't want said. He just about took Emmett's head of when Em cried in front of Justin the first time he visited, and every time Ma walked through the door, Brian was completely on guard, ready to jump in and shut her up if he didn't like where the conversation was going.

I could tell it irritated Brian that Jennifer didn't "supervise" visitors the way he did, but you could hardly blame her. She seemed like she was sleepwalking through a lot of the days, just barely hanging on. She probably thought they'd had their one close call, yet here they were, having to go through more shit.

There was one thing, though, about how Ben was with Justin that kind of stuck out to me. I felt stupid even bringing it up to him, but it was on my mind enough that I finally just had to mention it to him. Over breakfast at his place, I said, "Can I...ask you something, Ben? About you and Justin?"

Ben looked a little confused, I guess not realizing there was a 'you and Justin' to ask about. "Sure," he said with a shrug.

"I don't understand why you're all of a sudden all over him. I mean, I know he's going through a rough time and all, but, Jesus, I thought you were gonna crawl inside his mouth yesterday when we were leaving. I just don't really get it."

Ben smiled and kind of chuckled, and I knew I'd amused him with my nave ways. "One of the first things you notice when you're sick is that people quit touching you. With HIV, you've still got ignorance about getting infected if you get too close. With Justin, it's probably the appearance of illness--losing his hair and looking thin and kind of fragile. Maybe people are afraid of hurting him. Maybe it's just human nature to be uncomfortable around infirmity. People stop...looking at you and touching you and dealing with you as anything other than diseased. I think it's almost more demoralizing than the actual symptoms of being sick. I know what that feels like, so I try hard when I'm around someone who's sick to see them, you know? Touch them, let them know they're still here, still human, still part of the world."

I felt a little more stupid now that we'd talked about it, but it was one of those moments when I realized all over again what a good man Ben was. Just an all-around good man. I kissed him, but of course, he couldn't resist a little dig at me. He pulled away and winked and said with this shit-eating grin, "Plus, Justin's a little hottie, don't you think? A guy's gotta cop a feel where he can."

I let Ben cop all the feels he wanted to in the shower, which I'm sure he appreciated.

The next evening, it was close to seven o'clock when I finally got to the hospital, cursing Justin and his manipulative little pout the whole time I rode up in the elevator. He was always calling me and going on and on about how his tummy was all upset, and the only thing that sounded good was ice cream from Diebel's, which is fifty fucking minutes from our side of town. And then he'd start in on how he was sorry about the time we were losing on the comic book and how he probably had the brain tumor the whole time I was accusing him of sandbagging and oh, did he mention how much he really wanted some Diebel's vanilla ice cream. Little shit.

The door to Justin's room was opened, and I could see Brian sitting on the bed next to him with one of his storyboards on the tray table.

I know I'm a fucking nosy shit, but I paused out in the hall and listened in. I still found the two of them so fucking curious as a couple, I was always looking for some kind of insight--something to explain what made Brian break all of his rules for this kid.

"Who's your target?" I heard Justin ask.

"Who is it ever? Eighteen to 35's."

"What's the split?"

"Why do you do this?"

I could hear the smile that was no doubt on Justin's face. "Because it kills you, which amuses me. What's the split?"

"Eighteen to 24 roughly 80 percent."

"You want to grow that or you think you can gain in the 25 to 35?"

"Fucker."

"I'll take that as a grow the 18 to 24's. I've told you before that this gay-people-love-it approach may work with your generation but it backfires with mine."

"Here we go with the generation thing."

"Brian, that's not an age crack. The 12 years between us exists and there are differences because of it."

"Go on."

"All I'm saying is that even though strides had been made, your generation of gay man was largely ignored by business and the media and everything else, and that's if you weren't being pilloried. So when your generation sees an ad purposefully targeted to them as gay men, you see it in a much more favorable light. You're being acknowledged, valued, recognized. My generation has grown up in a climate of political correctness, greater strides in visibility, the age of extreme niche marketing. We see an ad targeting us, and we react much more cynically. 'Here's another corporation who thinks I'll buy their shit just because I'm gay.' It's insulting because I'm a man before I'm a gay man, and they just see me as gay."

"So what's the approach?"

"The ad that runs in The Advocate should be able to run in Men's Health and GQ without any editing. Jesus, you're selling a computer. I'm not gonna fuck some guy because he's using a Mac instead of a Dell instead of a Compaq."

"This is a pretty interesting point of view for a guy who's selling a gay comic book."

"That's different, and you know it. The comic book is by, for and about. Your PC is none of the above."

I sort of held my breath and waited for Brian to dismiss him. Who did Justin think he was going on and on about how the ad wasn't right? Brian was the best advertising guy there was--I've loved every ad he's ever shown me. Besides, what would I know about making it better? Still, I hoped Brian would go a little easy on the kid; he was stuck here in the hospital feeling sick after all.

Instead of Brian rejecting Justin's ideas, I heard the sound of them kissing, then Brian said, "You're pretty hot stuff there, aren't you? How about I buy you dinner for all your hard work?"

Justin pretended to be insulted. "Dinner? Jell-O and clear broth? No way, I want a consultant's fee!"

"I'm a partner now. That's money out of my pocket."

"It all spends the same to me. You'd think you'd want to spread the cost of me around a little."

"You're gonna bankrupt me one way or another, aren't you, Sunshine?"

"You know it."

More kissing followed, so it seemed an opportune time to give Ben's approach a try. "Hey guys," I said. While Brian moved over to a chair I took the spot on the bed but not before giving Justin the most energetic hello kiss I could muster.

He responded with a look that suggested I ought to be committed. "What are you doing?"

"What? I'm just saying hello."

He shoved me away from the bed with his good arm. "With your tongue down my throat? I think you're confusing me with Brian. He's the one sitting over there." Then he went through this big production of, like, wiping his mouth off. I'm surprised he didn't spit into the bedpan or something.

Brian started laughing, and I was kind of insulted by the whole thing. "You let Ben paw all over you!" I pointed out.

"Ben's a total fox."

"Well thanks a lot!"

Justin smiled all prissily. "You're welcome."

I glared at him for purposefully misunderstanding me, but he smacked my arm. "What, that is so a complement. Not everyone can land a boyfriend as hot as Ben. And he is totally hot."

I wasn't sure if he was egging Brian on or me. Brian looked pretty amused by the whole thing, so I guess it was me. "For your information, I was trying to make you feel like you're still here."

Justin looked all confused for a second. "Are you under the impression I feel like I'm some place else?" Brian was still snickering over in the corner. I don't know why I even bothered.

"Oh, just forget it." I gave up with a huff and tossed the bag of ice cream onto Justin's bed. His eyes lit up, but Brian snatched the bag off the bed before he could grab it. "Traffic was a bitch getting out of town and getting back in," I groused. "Enjoy that fucking ice cream, Boy Wonder. That's, like, two hours of labor right there."

The little shit looked at me with the fakest fucking innocence you ever saw. "I didn't want you to make a special trip, Michael. I just meant, you know, if you were out that way."

"I've told you a hundred times, I'm never out that way! I am only ever out that way because you call me and whine about the only thing you could possibly keep down is Diebel's vanilla ice cream!"

Brian was doing this thing with his mouth, trying not to smile, and I wanted to be like, "Hello! Sixteen years, you fucker, I know what you're thinking!" I gave him a look that said as much, and he huffed an exasperated sigh.

"Mikey, tell him no, for God's sake. For all of our sakes, just look him right in the eye and say no, I won't do it."

"It's not that easy!"

"Yes it is. I tell him no all the time."

"Well, yeah, and then go ahead and do whatever in the hell he asks you to. Fucking lip service no is all you do."

"I won't ask again," Justin said, still with the Bambi doe eyes.

"Oh, shut the fuck up and eat your ice cream," I said

Brian opened the container and sat down on the bed, and they had the conversation I'd witnessed over and over again since Justin was admitted to the hospital.

"You are not feeding it to me. Give me the spoon."

"You eat too much of this shit every time and then I have to listen to you belly ache about your...surprise surprise belly ache. So just shut up." He shoved a huge load into Justin's mouth, and they both kind of laughed about it.

"You shut up," Justin said around the mouthful of ice cream.

Brian leaned in and kissed him, hard and messy and said what he always said. "Besides, this way I get a taste. All the flavor none of the calories."

I made the mistake once of getting in the middle of it. It's nasty enough to have to sit there and watch them making out all over the place, but then for Brian to, like, refuse to let Justin serve himself? It just seemed stupid to me. I said something like, "Jeez, Brian, give him the fucking spoon."

Brian turned to glare at me like I'd suggested pimping Justin out on 15th and Grace. "Stay out of it!" he barked.

I stayed out of it for a minute, but later, when we were walking out to the parking lot, I brought it up again. I was still kind of pissed at the way he snapped at me. All I got was another, "Stay out of it," but of course, I didn't.

I said, "Well, sue me, all right! I just think if the guy wants to shovel his own food in his mouth you oughta let him."

Brian stopped walking and said, "Michael, the ice cream's too fucking hard when you first open it, and he can't manage it with just his left hand. It needs to melt a little. So sue fucking me if he doesn't want anyone to think he's getting fed like some helpless fuck, okay?"

Now I found it sweet the way Brian managed the scene without embarrassing Justin. He did a lot of that--managing--and I don't know if Justin was aware of it or not.

At the start, before any of us knew what it was going to be like, we all kind of came and went within the hospital visiting hours. Some of us would stop by on the way to work, some of us at lunch, some on the way home from work--really it was just when we could fit in a visit, we would.

The effects of the radiation were cumulative, so after the first few treatments, there wasn't that much reaction, but it got progressively worse.

One night I dropped by on my way home from work, and Justin was getting violently ill. Mom had kept me pretty insulated when Vic was at his worst, and when Ben was hospitalized, he'd been unconscious most of the time. I've never seen anyone suffering like that.

When I walked in the hospital room, Justin was gagging into the bedpan Brian was holding for him. Brian didn't even look up; he was too busy trying to calm Justin down.

"I can't breathe, I can't breathe," Justin kept saying, desperately grabbing at Brian, then pushing him away. He was gasping for breath when he wasn't dry heaving.

"Yes you can, slow and steady," Brian reminded him. "Quit fighting it. You're panicking, Justin."

"Oh God, I need to get up, I need to get up." Justin pushed Brian away again and tried to get up off the bed. Brian gently held him in place, but that made Justin more distraught. "What are you doing? I don't want help, I don't...need, don't, stop! I'm strong! I have to...get up, don't. I'm strong, I can do it!"

Justin's right arm was virtually paralyzed by that time, and his right leg wasn't much better. The doctor said it was because of where the tumor was pressing down on his brain. Whatever the cause, he couldn't get out of bed or move around without help.

He finally gave up fighting Brian, but when he turned to his side, he vomited all over the bed before Brian could get the bedpan under him. With a muffled curse, Brian tossed the soiled top sheet to the side and moved back around so Justin could hit his mark.

Jesus, half the time, I don't think Justin even knew where the fuck he was. At one point, he looked up at Brian and said, "What's wrong? What's the matter, Brian?"

I about shit. How could he not know what was happening? "Do you want me to get a nurse?" I asked Brian. "Can't they give him something?"

Brian tersely shook his head. "What he's not allergic to reacts badly with the radiation," he replied in just as soft a voice. Returning to a more normal decibel, he said, "Besides, Justin doesn't need anything. He's gonna be fine. We've just gotta relax, right Sonny Boy?"

Justin sobbed and coughed and gagged and pushed at Brian to leave him alone. "Please, God, I have to get up," he moaned, arching his back up off the bed. At one point, Justin was lying on his back, resting for a minute, and he just, sort of, puked, like, out of nowhere. He didn't even move to his side or try to sit up and lean over, he just...threw up. But he was on his back so he started choking and coughing and struggling to breathe, which made him panic and try to get out of bed again. He grew increasingly distraught and was sobbing, just begging Brian to let him go, when it looked like that the sickness was passing.

Brian was sitting on the bed, holding Justin who's face was hidden in the crook between his neck and shoulder. He looked up and said, "Mikey, would you go ask the nurses to send an orderly in with sheets and a gown?" I nodded, thrilled to be able to do something, *anything,* to help. "Hey Mikey?" Brian whispered. "Wait out in the hall until they're done cleaning up, okay?"

I did as he asked and was standing by the door when the orderly came. She looked about 12 and chatted gaily about the last episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and how this one girl who was in her psyche class was all into the Buffy/Spike thing but she so totally thought that was, like, completely dysfunctional. She acted like she was bussing a table, not changing fucked up sheets and mopping up a vomit-covered floor.

Brian smiled and thanked her when she left.

"I'm sorry," Justin said, his voice rough and hoarse from all the puking. He sounded so awfully tired, like he hadn't slept in days. "I'm so sorry, shit, why are you still here? I'm such a fucking faggot, why are you wasting your time. I'm sorry. Shit, this is...I'm sorry. Christ, I'm so fucking weak! How can you stand to even be here..."

Brian sat on the bed and grabbed Justin's chin, hard, and forced the kid to look at him. "Two things," he said harshly. "One, you had your ten minutes this morning when they wouldn't let you have Cap'n Crunch for breakfast. Two, I hate when you fish for complements. You're the strongest person I know, so shut up. They're shooting your full of radiation, and it's making you sick. You need help right now."

Justin sniffed and moved his head so Brian would let go, and he could look away. "Just a little bit," he finally said.

It must have been some kind of joke between them because Brian gave him the sweetest smile. "Yeah," he said, pressing his forehead to Justin's. "Like Gus wants a little bit of whip cream in his cocoa."

"I want to go to sleep now," Justin said.

"Have at it, Sonny Boy," Brian said, and in a few minutes, Justin was sleeping peacefully like nothing horrible had gone on in the last half hour.

I moved into the room, stepped up next to Brian and slid my arm around his shoulders, playing with the hair at the nape of his neck. "Jesus," I whispered.

Brian leaned in to my hold, then turned and pressed his forehead to mine and whispered, "Mikey? You weren't here tonight, okay? You worked late at the store."

I opened my mouth to say something, then closed it, floored by the desperate look on Brian's face. It hurt too much to look at him, and I glanced over his shoulder, but it hurt too much to look at Justin too, so I just lowered my eyes and nodded. "I worked late at the store," I agreed.

"Leave the ice cream," Brian said after awhile. "I'll tell him I picked it up on the way home last night."

"No way!" I said, snatching the bag back from him. "I trekked all the way over there, you'd better believe I'm getting the fucking credit for it!"

"You are such a pushover!" Brian scoffed. "He's got you wrapped around his little finger."

"He does not!" I denied, but Brian just shook his head at me in mock disgust. "Well," I amended. "Maybe. Just a little bit."

Brian laughed or maybe it was more of a sob. But how would I know? I wasn't even there; I was working late at the store.

After that, Brian tightly monitored Justin's visiting schedule. God forbid he tell you to show up at 6:30 and you walk through the door at 6:15. The rest of us were only going to see Justin at his best, and if there was even a hint that he wasn't feeling so hot, you weren't getting in the door.

Back then, I didn't think Justin was aware of Brian's maneuvering, but now I'm not so sure.

A few days after the new rules went into effect, Justin called me a little before noon. "Don't you fucking ask for ice cream today," I warned him before he could get started on me. "I've got a 4:30 with that new editor--what's his name, Frankener?--and an interview with some internet comic site. It's around here somewhere--can't remember the name right now."

Justin laughed at my instant suspicions. "Actually, I need you to do me another favor. Take Brian on a play date tonight. He's driving me fucking crazy, and I need a break."

God, he could be such an ungrateful asshole sometimes. "Jesus, Justin, he's put his whole life on hold for you. A little appreciation wouldn't kill you." Oh man, did I feel shitty after I said that. You know that hot, prickly feeling you get when you suddenly realize you've said the absolutely wrong thing. It was like the temperature in the room shot up 20 degrees.

"I bet I'll appreciate him a little more if we throw some absence in there makin' my heart grow fonder. Come on, Michael. I'm giving you first dibs. I'll have to sic Lindsay and Mel on him if you don't come get him. And Ted and Emmett if they can't! I'm desperate!"

"Fine. Tell him I'll pick him up at the loft at eight."

"No, he'll be at the diner for lunch. Ask him there. He thinks it's my idea and he'll say no just to be a dick."

"Look here, that dick has been..."

"Oops, Tim's here for my sponge bath. Gotta go. Buh bye."

Little shit. But of course, I trudged over to the diner at lunch and told Brian we were going out. He had this laundry list of reasons why he couldn't go--work, bills that needed paying at home, he was behind in his workouts. I stared at him like the alien he was and shook my head. Used to be, Brian mistook a sneeze as an invitation for a night out.

When it became clear that he really wasn't going to budge, I had no choice but to resort to the truth. "Look, Brian...you're kind of...you're kind of driving Justin a little crazy, okay? He asked me to take you out."

I expected Brian to get pissed--he hates being manipulated for all of his fucking puppet mastering. But he sort of stopped and got this totally amused look on his face. "Oh yeah? He called you, huh?"

"Yeah, and made me promise not to say anything, so you can't mention it, okay?"

Brian started laughing of all things. "He made you promise not to say anything, and here you are saying something. Mikey, I'm ashamed of you."

"Well, shut up! You weren't gonna come. I had to say something!"

"Yeah, I guess you did. Pick me up at the hospital at nine. I'm gonna torture the little fuck with a Versace Fuck Me ensemble. Payback for messing with me."

At nine sharp, I walked into Justin's room, jingling my keys as I did.

"Hey, where are you going?" Justin asked, when Brian stood up. We was wearing tight black pants and a silk shirt, and even if Justin *hadn't* engineered the whole night, he would have to have known Brian wasn't sitting in all night long. I glared at him not to pour it on too thick, but he ignored me.

"Out," was Brian's answer.

"You're leaving me here?" Justin asked, his eyes ridiculously large. "All alone? Practically on my death bed!"

"Justin!" I couldn't believe he'd say that.

But it made Brian laugh. "You're such a fucking shit."

Justin seemed awfully proud of himself. "Yeah, but I'm your fucking shit."

"Only 'cause no one else will have you."

"That's what you think. There's guys having me all over the place when you're not around."

Brian's smirk made it clear what he thought of that assertion. He seemed reluctant to leave which was kind of cute, if you want to know the truth. He moseyed over to the bed and thread his fingers through Justin's, and they kind of pushed and pulled at each other for a minute.

Justin tilted his head and studied Brian's face for a minute. It reminded me of the way he looked at a half-finished drawing when he was deciding what to do next. "You know that tall, dark-haired guy who always comes in late and dances near Vinny's part of the bar?" he asked. "You always say something about his ass."

Brian nodded absently. "Good dancer, good dresser. Owns a record store or something, doesn't he?"

"A restaurant called Freddy's. His name's Louis, though."

"What about him?"

"Have him tonight."

"We comparing notes?"

Justin shook his head with a sad sigh. "Not for lack of trying. I'm too young. Said I was cute but unseasoned."

"Mmm. Must not be part of the grapevine, huh?"

Justin shrugged. "Guess not. Can I have a mocha in the morning? Decaf? Please?"

"No." Brian kissed him and brushed a hand over his smooth head. "I've got a meeting first thing with a prospect. I'll bring you a sample of the goods, though, which will be better than a mocha."

"What could be better than a mocha?"

Brian kissed him again and shook his head. "I have really fallen down on the job if you're serious about that. How 'bout I show you tomorrow?"

"I'll be really pissed if it turns out the mocha would've been better."

With a gentle slap on Justin's cheek, Brian stood up. "Suddenly, it's so easy to go," he said.

"Later," Justin said. "If you feel guilty at all for leaving me alone in my sickbed, bringing me a mocha tomorrow morning would probably make you feel a lot better."

"That only works on Mikey," Brian said, pushing me out the door before I could say more than, "Hey!"

We could hear Justin laughing as the door to his room swung closed.

When we got to Babylon, Emmett, Ted, and Ben made a big deal about seeing Brian out on the town. He traded a few pleasantries, but after scoping the crowd for about five minutes, he made a beeline for Vinny's part of the bar.

"How charming," Emmett said.

"He's on a mission from his better half," I informed them with a shrug.

Ted shook his head. "I will never understand those two."

"That's probably a good thing!" Ben said. "The universe would be way too scary if most of us got the two of them, you know?"

Brian waved at me as he headed toward the backroom with Louis. Or was it Freddy? Either way, I had to shake my head in amused admiration. We'd been there all of ten minutes.

And Brian was back in less than that. "Totally ordinary," he said with a superior sniff. "Justin could've taught him a thing or two his third week at Babylon. Unseasoned, my ass."

He jogged over to the bar, grabbed Emmett by the wrist and pulled him over to stand in front of Ben. With a devilish grin, he grabbed me and pulled me out onto the dance floor.

"Thanks!" Brian shouted. "You were right. I needed this!" He tilted his head back and spread his arms open wide, shouting, "God, did I need this!" He had a big smile on his face, and he looked happy and beautiful as he moved along to the music pounding through the club.

For some reason, that's the image of Brian that floated through my brain all day while we waited interminably for Justin's surgery to conclude.

Finally, a nurse approached us in the waiting area, clearly looking for the head of the family, but Brian wasn't there. Jen stood up with Ma right next to her. "You're here for Justin?" the nurse asked and watched all of us nod. She smiled, but it was one of those polite, may-I-help-you smiles they give you at a store or something. It didn't reach her eyes. "Dr. Garrettson will be out in ten minutes to speak with you. Justin did very well through the surgery. His vitals remained strong, and he should be moved to recovery in the next five minutes."

I hurried back to Justin's room where Brian was. He was sitting in a chair, looking out the window. There was nothing to see, just a full parking lot that went on and on for what seemed like blocks.

"Hey," I said softly. "Dr. Garrettson is coming to talk to us. The nurse said Justin did great in surgery, and they're moving him to recovery. Good news, right?"

"Mm," Brian said. He pushed himself upright with a grunt, and I sighed at how tired he looked. God, could you get a good night's sleep when your lover had a brain tumor? Could you ever just collapse into bed without a thousand horrible thoughts flying through your brain?

I touched Brian's back as he walked past me, but he flinched and arched away like a prickly cat.

We got to the waiting room just as Justin's surgeon, Dr. Garrettson, was walking in. You think Brian's an arrogant asshole, try spending a few minutes with a surgeon. Brian may think he's God, surgeons know they're God.

Garrettson shook Brian's hand and then Jen's before motioning for all of us to sit down. There wasn't any small talk or anything, he just dived right in. "We got all of the tumor and having seen it, I'm even more convinced there's no malignancy. We'll test a sample to be sure, but you can generally recognize a malignancy on sight, and I see absolutely no evidence of that."

We all kind of sighed in relief at that, but something in his demeanor held back any real celebrating.

"The size and position of the tumor did pose more of a problem than we originally anticipated." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees and continued. "The tumor was growing inward, toward the brain tissue instead of outward toward the skull. Given the placement of the tumor and the amount of brain tissue it was necessary to remove with it, we can be certain there will be some degree of impairment to the motor functions on Justin's right side."

Brian made a sound like he'd been punched in the stomach.

"I am not convinced that this is in any way an irreparable condition. You have to remember there's been absolutely no physical damage to Justin's spinal cord, much less his hand or leg--the only issue is the communication center in his brain that governs movement to those areas. What we need to do is relocate that command center from its present, damaged location, to another. That is entirely feasible, entirely doable. To some degree this is what we did when Justin was hurt last year."

Jennifer's hands were shaking as she nervously fussed with her hair. "Can we...is there any reason to tell Justin all of this? Can't we wait a little while? Give him a chance to...to catch his breath. You can tell him it's just...just swelling, from the surgery causing the problem, and then when he's strong..."

"No," Brian said, in a deceptively cool tone. "I promised Justin one thing at the start of this shit, and that was honesty. No sugar-coating anything, no sins of omission, the truth. I'm not about to go back on that now."

"I agree," the doctor said. "I won't consent to keeping this from Justin. He's a legal adult and it's up to him to determine the course of action we take."

Brian smirked at that, obviously disagreeing either that Justin was an adult or that he could determine the course of action. Probably both. "What now?" he asked.

Garrettson nodded thoughtfully. "Too early to say. We'll keep Justin sedated through tomorrow. As he regains consciousness we'll begin testing to see exactly what our baseline is..."

Ma started to cry. "I don't understand what the fuck you're talkin' about here! Impairment of motor functions, moving command centers, testing baselines. What the fuck! This is a kid you're talkin' about! A beautiful little boy, not some...some fuckin' inanimate object!"

"Deb, it's okay," Jen whispered. "It's okay, it'll be okay."

Emmett slipped up next to Deb and led her out of the waiting room.

Garrettson gave Jen an apologetic look. "I know it seems awfully clinical. We need to just get through this part, know what we're facing, and then we'll face it. The emotions are in there, and we'll get to them, but right now it's all about cold, hard facts."

Jen nodded, still shaking. Brian hesitantly reached for her hand, and she grabbed it like a lifeline. I felt sorry that she had no one to lean on through this. Well, that wasn't entirely true. She had us, motley crew that we were, but no lover, no one to hold her when the day was through and tell her it was all going to be fine.

Jen took a deep breath and said, "Okay, let's go on."

"We need to know where Justin stands now before we can determine the nature of the therapy. So I really don't have anything definite to tell you right now, except that we have to wait and see. I know you want something more definite, and we'll get it, but not for a few days. For the next few days, we'll be bringing Justin to consciousness. He might be confused for awhile, but he won't be in any pain and I don't expect any complications. Like I said, we'll know more in two or three days. I do know that Justin is a strong, determined, utterly capable young man. He's going to come through this exceptionally well. I don't doubt that for a moment."

He made plans to see Justin in the morning with Brian and Jen in attendance, then he left.

Ma had come back by then, and she and Jen headed up to recovery where they'd be able to see Justin through an observation window.

Brian remained sitting there, staring at nothing. Finally he swiped his hands over his face. "Fuck," whispered. "God damn fucking shit..." He stood up, but couldn't seem to make up his mind what to do next. He headed for the elevator, then stopped and turned back toward Justin's room, then started back for the elevator again.

I reached for his arm, but he bolted out of my reach and turned to me with a fierce glare. "Don't!" he ordered. "Don't you fucking say a word to me. Leave me the fuck alone." He looked past my shoulder where I'm sure Ben, Emmett, and the rest were watching him with worried faces. "That goes for all of you. Leave me the fuck alone."

Brian stormed off, leaving the rest of us to divvy up jobs for the next week or two. Ma was responsible for Jennifer; Mel and Lindsay would continue watching Molly after school. Ben was going to speak to some colleagues at the medical school to see if there was some inside scoop we could learn. Emmett and Ted were assigned domestic chores like grocery shopping and yard work and stuff like that.

My one and only job was Brian, so I left to chase him down and make sure he didn't do anything too irrevocably stupid.

I was only 45 minutes or so behind him, but when I walked into the loft, Brian was leaning against the kitchen counter with an open bottle of Jim Beam in his hand. "What the fuck took you so long?" he asked irritably. "Come on, we've got to go." He headed out the door, and I had no choice but to follow him back out. Apparently we were taking my car somewhere.

After two or three turns, I knew where we were headed--the defunct B&W rail yard. It had been on its last leg when we used to sneak in back in high school. The place seemed so dangerous at night, when any second, a train could come flying by. Brian always threatened to jump one and take off for parts unknown, and I always made him promise to stay here with me. It's not like it was some secret place or anything, there were always tons of other high school kids there looking to drink and get high. Maybe get lucky. The cops were always coming in and shooing us out of there, but I guess that was part of the allure.

It looked deserted now, as I pulled in near a broken stretch of fence, and I wondered where the high school kids went to party. Then I thought of Justin, barreling into Babylon at the ripe old age of 17, and I had my answer. Stupid, brave little fuck.

"You go in, I'll find you," I said to Brian. I wanted to call Ben and let him know everything was as okay as it could be before everyone fanned out all over town looking for a runaway Brian.

"Yeah, make sure Professor Perfect calls off the troops," Brian snidely replied.

I made my call, then slipped through the fence, hoping I'd be able to find Brian. I didn't have to worry--it was really easy to find him because he was yelling his head off, just fucking screaming at the top of his lungs. "Jesus Fucking Christ how much is enough? What the fuck do you want from us? When is it enough? This is fucking shit, do you hear me? Fucking SHIT!"

Years ago, when the trains ran, we could scream as loud as we wanted to when they were rushing past us, and no one in the world could have heard us. Even with the trains silenced, Brian must have remembered this place as the perfect spot for ranting at the gods.

He caught sight of me and said, "Jesus, Mikey, I know the world's a fucked up place, all right? I know it. But Christ, he's a kid. He's just this fucking stupid, beautiful, brilliant kid. Don't you think it's enough? He's fucking had enough, hasn't he?"

I nodded at him and felt tears flood my eyes.

"You hear that?" he shouted at the sky. "Do you fucking hear that? It's enough, God damn it! It's enough so leave us the fuck alone! Leave him alone!" His throat was going to be raw and soar in the morning.

Or maybe not. He seemed to be hydrating pretty well. He took another hit of Beam and swiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He turned to ask me, "What was the first time all about? Seriously, what the fuck was that all about if we just have to go through it all again? Who's making this shit up?" He swallowed more bourbon and shrugged at his next thought. "Maybe it's me, you know? Maybe I'm being punished for not giving a flying fuck about anything. What better way to punish me than by hurting him, right? That'll fix me, won't it? Won't it?"

"Oh no, Brian, no!" I denied. "God, of course not. It's not your fault, you know that. You couldn't make this happen, you know that."

Brian sank down to the ground and leaned his head back against a tree trunk. I could see his face in the moonlight, and it was a mess--smeared with snot and tears and sweat. "I asked Justin."

"Asked him what?"

"If maybe it was me. Something about me...my fault somehow."

"What did he say?"

"He laughed. I mean, really laughed, this great big, gut busting belly laugh."

Jesus Christ! That stupid twink wasn't 24 hours out of surgery and already I was pissed at him. "He laughed at you? Jesus, that fucker..."

But Brian didn't look mad about it. His lips were turned up in this fond little smile. "When he stopped laughing, he got mad. Just flat out pissed as hell. Good thing we were at his place; if we'd been at mine he would have started throwing things. He was so mad at me--that I had to make it somehow all about me. I remember him saying, 'sometimes shitty things happen. And you didn't cause 'em and you can't fix 'em. All you can do is fucking survive 'em!' Then he threw me down and fucked the shit out of me. And I said to him...I said, 'hell, if I can survive that I can survive anything.' I made him laugh again. And then he fucking bawled like a baby. I just held him for the longest time, and he cried and cried."

"He's so lucky to have you, Brian," I said, wanting to rid him of any possible thought that this could be his fault. "I hope he knows it. I hope he knows you didn't have to...to be there for him like this."

Brian sniffed and shrugged away my words. "He offered to let me out, you know."

But of course, I didn't know that. Brian would have to fucking talk to me once in awhile for me to know that. Suddenly I felt guilty for all the times I thought Justin was taking it for granted that Brian would stick by him. He'd offered Brian the chance to bail, but since he didn't take it, of course Justin expected him to stay.

"Right after the old gavel came down, he sat me down, with that serious, we-have-to-talk face of his. And he's trying to be so mature about it, trying to be calm and, and considerate. And he tells me he knows I didn't sign on for this kind of shit and if I want to get off the ride, he'd understand. Fucking doctors tell him he's got a tumor in his brain, but if I can't handle it, he understands. Little fucking twat..."

"I guess he was trying to...to protect you, maybe?"

Brian wasn't listening though. He pushed himself up and walked in an unsteady circle, the bottle of Beam dangling from his hand. "It was all bullshit, of course. He couldn't do this without me. Jesus, look around! His fucking...mother doesn't want him to know what's going on, the nurses and doctors would have let him cough up a lung if I wasn't riding their asses every minute, and the rest of you act like he's some pathetic ... glass trinket a strong wind would blow over. He couldn't do this without me. I'm his fucking lifeline. I'm the only thing getting him through this, and he tried to tell me it's okay if I can't suck it up? Well fuck him, Mikey, just fuck him! I'm air and water as far as he's concerned, fucking alpha and omega, and he thinks he'd be okay if I walked out? He's so full of shit. I'm all there is of him!"

Shaking his head, Brian came to stand before me, poking me in the chest as he spoke. "I want you to tell me where he'd be if I wasn't here! How he'd be handling all this crap! You tell me, Mikey, where the hell would that little fucking shit be, if I wasn't here, gutting out this fucking bullshit lame ass fucking shit! How would this be going, Mikey, huh? Tell me! I want you to fucking tell me how he'd be handling this shit if I wasn't here!"

I grabbed Brian's hand and held it to my heart. "He...he couldn't, Brian. Of course he couldn't. I think he knows that. I know he does. Maybe it seems like he's taking it for granted, but..."

Brian jerked his hand out of my hold. "Damn straight he couldn't. Mother trying to keep this shit from him and Garrettson! Fucking Garrettson sayin' he's an adult? They're gonna let him 'determine the course of action' they take? Bull fucking shit! You think I'm turning this over to Justin? How fucking stupid does that quack think I am? He still spends his Saturday mornings watching cartoons in his jammies, and I'm gonna let him determine the course? I don't think so. Fucking doctors. They think they know him? Know what he needs? That's fucking shit, Mikey. Fucking shit!" He was screaming again.

He started roaming around a little more, swigging from the bottle now and then. "At least now he has to move home, right?" he called to me. "They want me to find some fucking silver lining, I'll take that. I'm not even asking this time, just bringing him home and that's all there is to it. Let him have his fucking little hissy fit, but it's not up for discussion. That can be one of our little field trips next week, packing up that fucking rat trap of his."

"You're not really gonna let stuff that's sat in that apartment back into your place, are you?" I joked lamely, not even trying to keep up anymore.

Brian stopped and seemed surprised at his own laughter. "God, that place is a dump, isn't it. Reminds me of that apartment off of Cole I had right after I graduated. What a fucking pit."

"Better not let Justin hear you say that."

Brian chuckled again, but shook his head. "Nah, he's not really attached to that place. He just thinks having it makes me feel less trapped. Little fucker's probably right, too. Well, too bad, huh? That place is history." He guzzled some more shit and shouted up at the stars, "What do you think about that, huh? You think you're gonna split us apart, but now he's fucking moving back in! What do you think of that, you fucker?"

He took this really shaky breath and swiped at the wetness on his face. He shook his head at some conversation going on in his brain, and doubled over, burying his head in his hands. "I can't fuck this up," he whispered. "Oh God, I can't fuck this up. You can't let me, you can't let me, you've gotta...you've gotta do something, okay? If I'm screwing up you've gotta do something."

I thought Brian was still talking to God or the fates or-or whoever, but he stood up straight and looked over at me and he was, like, begging me, I mean, Brian Kinney was begging me. But I wasn't quite sure what in the hell he was begging me for. "Brian, I don't...what do you want me to..."

Brian reached over and grabbed me by my upper arms and kind of shook me. "Mikey, you have to, you have to. You just...I can't fuck it up, and you're...I count on you, you know? You're the one I count on. You know that, Mikey, you know you're the one who's got my back, so you've gotta do this, okay? Say okay. Say it, Mikey, say okay."

"Okay," I whispered, and pulled Brian into a hug so he'd stop, just stop ranting and begging and crying and fucking falling apart into a million pieces right in front of me.

He hugged me backed and gave me a sloppy kiss on the mouth. "You promised, right? You fucking promised me, so you've gotta come through. You always come through for me, don't you? Always. That's what we say, right? Always have, always will."

"Right," I said, my voice sounding forced, strangled, as I thought of all of the promises I'd dreamed of making to this man, all of the times I just wanted him to ask for one, just ask me, Brian, please, God, just ask me.

This so wasn't anywhere close to what I had in mind.

"Do you hear that?" Brian shouted, his head tilted back. "Do you fucking hear that? It won't work! It won't work so screw fucking you! Ha! You thought you had me, you fucker, but it won't work!" He kissed me again, then pulled away with a whoop of victory. He took the bottle of Beam and threw it at a rusty old railcar, laughing when it splintered into a million pieces.

"It won't work so just leave...us...the fuck...alone!" After that final, hell-raising shout, Brian wiped his nose on his coat sleeve then jumped up and down, rubbing his arms. "Mikey, let's go!" he ordered in an irritated voice. "It's cold as shit out here!"

As if I was the one who had us out here in the middle of nowhere in the fucking middle of the night! Jesus!

Brian hardly said another word the rest of the night. I didn't say much either--it's always a little unsettling with the unflappable Brian Kinney becomes unglued. I guess I was staying the night because Brian threw some blankets and pillows at me before he tumbled into his big, comfortable bed and left me on the not-so-big, totally-uncomfortable couch.

When I woke up the next morning, Brian was drinking a cup of coffee and sitting in front of his computer. He'd already showered and dressed, so I jumped in the shower myself. When I came back out, Brian was still nursing the coffee, though now he was standing in front of a window and looking out at the street.

I poured myself a cup of coffee and took a handful of Cap'n Crunch, and still Brian stood there with his back to me.

Finally, I cleared my throat and said, "Shouldn't you be getting over to the hospital?"

"Mmm." Brian carelessly shrugged, not looking away from the window. "I don't think so."

"You don't think so? But Justin's waking up and Garrettson is meeting you and..."

"I'm tired of hospitals. Hospitals are boring. Brain tumors are boring. Doctors and nurses and tests and therapies and breaking bad news are fucking boring."

I wasn't quite sure what was going on, so I tried a lame joke. "Yeah, well, it's not a comic book store, that's for sure."

Brian clearly wasn't listening to me. "You know what isn't boring? Miami. Miami is pretty fucking hot, in more ways than one. I think I'm going to Miami."

I scratched my head and thought, 'Huh,' to myself. To Brian, I managed a far more articulate, "Um, what?"

"Internet makes it almost too easy these days. It'll take me, what, ten, fifteen minutes? I can have tickets, a place to stay, be on a plane before noon. Hell, I don't even have to miss work with e-mail and laptops, fucking Mailboxes, Etc. on every corner. No reason to sit around here, is there?"

Well, hell, what could I say to that? God, he goes all fucking drama queen the night before, and now he's got to get out of town. Jesus. "Umm, so...you need me to get your mail?"

Brian whirled around to face me with the most 'gotcha!' look I've ever seen since Ma caught me lying about ditching school in the fifth grade. "Michael!" Boy, he got her tone right, too. "What the fuck did you say to me last night?"

"When?" I asked, backing up a few paces as he advanced on me.

"I don't know, how about when you were fucking promising me you wouldn't let me screw this up? What did you say to me?"

"Umm, I promised not to let you screw this up?"

"And are you keeping that promise right now?" God I hated that! He was talking to me in extra.slow.motion/. like I was some kind of fucking idiot.

"I don't think this really..."

"Well, perhaps you should think for a minute. Is my going to Miami the right thing to do at this point in time?"

"Not exactly, but..."

"Not exactly. No, no it's not. Would you agree that perhaps it might be the kind of a move that could possibly fuck things up ?"

Bullshit! No way. No fucking way! "So what, you're testing me? Are you fucking serious? This was some kind of test?"

"It's a good thing, wouldn't you say! Jesus, a few hours ago, you fucking promise me you're not gonna let me screw up and now I'm halfway to Miami, and you're just gonna let me go!"

"You're a freak, you know that? An absolute freak." I turned and walked away from him, but he was following behind, right on my heels.

"What if I was an alcoholic?"

"If?" I stopped walking, and he plowed right into me.

He kind of pushed me away and said, "I tell you I'm giving up drinking, and you're plying me with scotch the next day?"

"Hey, hey, hey! *I'm* not doing anything!"

"And that's the problem! You made a promise to me Mikey, I expect you to keep it for more than ten hours."

"This is unbelievable! Fucking unbelievable! I listen to your drunken ranting all fucking night..."

Brian's voice was quiet when he interrupted me. "Mikey?"

"What?"

"I wasn't drunk."

"Yeah, right."

"I wasn't drunk. I meant every fucking word and you did too, right?"

Brian had walked back to the kitchen and was leaning against the counter, his head lowered, but he was staring at me with that sidewise glance of his, studying me and my reaction.

I stood there, kind of...kind of paralyzed by the way he was looking at me--it was all sort of tender and...and loving, but somewhere in there, it was kind of like he was sorry too, sort of like he was apologizing for something.

And I knew that this was something important happening between us. This was, like, a Moment, with a capital "M." See, in the past, we would have had that whole scene at the rail yard, but Brian would have passed it off the next day as some kind of drunken mess so we could ignore it. That's what would have happened before. But this time, he wasn't denying what he let me see, what he let me know. Hell, he was making me fucking responsible for what I knew.

It wasn't just speculation anymore, this thing he had with Justin. It wasn't temporary, it wasn't guilt-based, it wasn't even all about sex. All of the "never's" I'd always ascribed to Brian were as shattered as that Jim Beam bottle back at the rail yard.

And I guess I seem pretty fucking stupid that I had to get all the way here before I could say that, but I did.

I cleared my throat, but my voice was still kind of rough when I spoke. "I meant every word," I said, and I was fucking proud to say it, too. And I was rewarded with a smile mere mortals just don't get out of Brian Kinney.

That beautiful smile settled into his normal, mocking grin as Brian said, "You're my hero, aren't you, Mikey?"

"Damn straight," I said, scooping my keys off the counter.

"Not in this lifetime," Brian promised, and fucking goosed me as we headed out the door.

Brian walked me to my car and stood there while I revved the engine and rolled down the window.

"Tell me you love me," he ordered.

I smiled back and felt warmed all the way down to my toes. "I love you."

His smile widened, and he said to me what he fucking always says in reply. "Me too."

He smacked the side of the car and waved, then jogged over and got into the Jeep.

Someday I'm going to get up the courage to ask him what he means with that 'me too.' 'Me too, I love you too,' or 'Me too, I love me too.' Not that knowing the answer would make any difference. I'm never going to understand Brian Kinney.

You'd think I'd quit trying.

But I won't.

Next Part

1 | 2 | 3 | 4