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I'd Swim the Seas

Myrna

When the doctor told us Justin had a brain tumor, I laughed.

Not some out and out belly laugh or anything, but a loud, coughing bark of laughter. I shocked the doctor, horrified Justin's mother, and amused Justin. But shit, what a fucking cosmic joke. And yet, so fitting as a chapter in the Brian Kinney life story. Justin and I get together and are figuring out a way to make it work, I mean, to really make it work, and right as we take it around the first bend in the road, boom! Brain tumor. How perfectly, perfectly scripted.

"Sorry," I'd muttered, brushing my hand over my mouth and feeling my skin darken with a flush of embarrassment. "So what the fuck do we do now?"

After the surgery to remove the tumor, the doctor told us to expect some impairment to the motor functions on Justin's right side. He phrased it just like that, clinical, emotionless, like you might expect some dust on your table when you return home from vacation, like you can expect phone calls from telemarketers during dinner. Expect some impairment.

I had little appreciation for the universe's sense of humor by then, so there was no surprised laughter at this bit of news, just bitter, angry disappointment that God or the fates or whoever is writing this fucking shit can't see their way clear to giving my kid a God damn fucking break. Expect some impairment. Fucking shit.

I showed up early at the hospital the day after the surgery so I could tell Justin what was going on. Jennifer and the doctor would be there too, but I'd be damned if I was going to let either one of them tell him. The doctor would freak him out, Jennifer would try to protect him and end up confusing the hell out of him, so it had to be me.

As it turned out, I didn't have to tell Justin for another two days because he had an adverse reaction to the anesthesia. I swear, that kid has the weakest fucking constitution of anyone on the planet. So we spent a couple of days trying to get his blood pressure regulated, his blood gases normalized, his fucking liver and kidneys pumping out toxins at the appropriate rate and *then* I got to tell him he was, for the time being, fucked as far as the right side of his body went.

His mother was standing there, all teary-eyed and wringing her hands, while the doctor stood next to the bed, ready to get down to the nuts and bolts of what we had to do to get beyond this shit.

They didn't exist for Justin yet. He stared at me, into me, measuring my reaction to see if I really believed that the results of the surgery were only temporary. I must have seemed pretty damned confident, because he was able to joke around. He took a deep breath and looked away from me for a second. "I'm gonna need a little more than 10 minutes today," he said finally, and damn if that didn't make me laugh out loud.

"I'll give you 15," I said.

Justin is a drama princess of the highest degree, and I knew when we started with this brain tumor shit that I had to keep a tight rein on him or else he'd have a fucking hundred piece orchestra out in the hall to provide the tender soundtrack to his tragic circumstances. I told him he could indulge in ten minutes of self pity every day and that was enough for anyone, no matter what the fuck they were going through.

"Unless it's you, and it's a bad hair day," he'd scoffed.

"There are different rules for me," I'd said with an arched brow.

In the old days, that would have perplexed Justin. How serious was I? Did I really believe that? What was the appropriate response? As it was, he just rolled his eyes at me. In the old days, that might have aggravated me. As it was, it amused me, perhaps because he was learning to apply that response in all the right places.

After the doctor gave us his spiel, which boiled down to waiting it out for several days before they could accurately measure how much "impairment" there was, and after Jennifer hung tight and melted down and just generally tried my patience for a good part of the morning, we were finally alone.

I knew it would be awhile before I could figure out where Justin's head really was in all of this. At first, he'd act like he thought he was supposed to act, then he'd try acting like everyone else wanted him to act, then we'd get to the real reaction.

We didn't say much that day. There wasn't a hell of a lot to say. It was all fucking shit, and we had no choice but to live with it. Mostly Justin slept, and I worked on the laptop and ducked out in the hall to return calls when I had to. I was becoming a walking one-man band of an office these days. Figure out a way to strap a printer/fax to my back, and I'd be all set.

I thought Justin was still asleep when he sighed and said, "I feel like I'm letting everybody down."

"What do you mean?"

He shrugged his left shoulder. "PIFA's history, I won't be ready by January. God, I feel like I fight and fight and…I don't know what else I could have done, you know? I mean, how do you try harder at this shit? I thought I was trying, but, Jesus, what can I…"

I interrupted that train of thought right away. "Hey, if we can't blame me, we can't blame you."

A faint smile crossed Justin's face, and I knew he was remembering the last time we played the blame game over this shit.

When he was first diagnosed, we only had a few days before we had to pack up and head right back to the hospital. He was scheduled for five weeks of radiation prior to the surgery. We were both functioning on autopilot, totally plowed under by…Jesus, by how fucking horrible it was. I hadn't had time to get my game face on yet, hadn't mapped a strategy. Hell, I didn't even know what I didn't know yet. I was flying blind.

Shit, did I miss a cliché there? Can anyone guess what I do for a living? Christ, I'm lame. That's the gist of it--I'm fucking lame, and I wasn't thinking clearly. See, I felt like I'd…like I'd *tainted* him, you know? Like somehow my fucking luck, my fucking…track record had oozed over onto him. I know it's irrational, but that's how I felt.

Anyway, I'm not making excuses for how I felt, I'm making excuses for telling Justin how I felt.

After meeting with the doctor, we'd gone back to his place, but neither one of us knew what to do. What the hell do you pack to go sit in a hospital for five weeks while they shoot you full of radiation?

I watched Justin move half-heartedly from the kitchen to the living room, picking up a book here and a CD there, then setting them down again. He finally looked at me with a helpless shrug and sank down onto the couch.

"I'm sorry," I said, the words sounding ridiculous. No wonder I rarely say them to anyone.

"Yeah, me too," Justin said absently.

He obviously didn't understand that I was actually apologizing. "No, I mean, I'm sorry. *I'm* sorry."

He gave me a confused look. "What are you talking about? You shit on me all the time, and you're going to apologize for *this*?"

I spared him an annoyed glance. "What if it's me, huh? What if this is happening because of me? Shouldn't I be sorry for that?"

Justin snorted. "Brian, as aggravating as you are, even you can't give someone a brain tumor. I mean, an ulcer? Absolutely. Herpes, gonorrhea, hell, any number of STD's, it's a wonder it hasn't happened before. But I really don't think you gave me a brain tumor."

"You don't get it," I said dismissively. "There's a fucking pattern here, all right? Crap follows me. Hell, it comes *looking* for me. Only now, you're standing close enough that it's going to find you too."

"You do not really believe that, do you?"

"Look at my history here. We're probably fucking lucky it's not fire and pestilence. Maybe there's a price to pay when anything you want can actually be yours, you know?"

Justin snickered, then out and out laughed. Like, doubled-over-at-the-hilarity-of it laughed. "Would you listen to yourself? You think the world begins and ends with you."

"You mean it doesn't?"

"No, it doesn't!" he said, suddenly irritable. "Sometimes shitty things happen. And you don't cause 'em, and you can't fix 'em. All you can do is fucking survive 'em!"

I cocked an eyebrow at him. "All you can do is fuck?" I asked, tongue in cheek.

Justin smirked. "You would hear it that way."

"Hmm, if all you can do is fuck, how could you *possibly* be talking right now?"

Justin tried to act like the idea didn't appeal to him. "You can't fuck all your problems away, you know," he said sullenly.

I walked over to the bedside table and retrieved a condom. I tossed it to him and said those three little words guaranteed to make his cock hard regardless of the turmoil swirling around us.

"Put it on."

Nowadays, I find it hard to believe that I was reluctant to let Justin fuck me. True, at the start, I had to be careful to dole me out in small chunks, because that kid is the poster boy for 'give him an inch…' God knows he would have read way too much into topping me, simply because of his inexperience. Sex *meant* something to him then--every look, every touch, every kiss, every fuck--was steeped in significance. He hadn't yet realized that when you have your prostate massaged in just the right way by just the right cock, there really doesn't have to be any overriding message in the activity, except, perhaps, 'more,' or 'harder!'

Besides, it didn't appeal to me visually. I once saw a Chihuahua humping a German Shepherd, and it scarred me for life.

I realized early on, though, that the kid was a sexual idiot savant. Those who think his genius lies with paints and canvas have never had him between the sheets, because that's where he is DaVinci and Michelangelo and every other master rolled into one. It's not only his technique, which is impeccable, thank me very much, but it's the whole experience--the flavor, the mood of the encounter is as much a part of it as the actual act. It can be teasing or playful, reverent, rollicking, dangerous, aggressive, borderline violent. He reads my mood and enhances it, intensifies it, reflects it, and encourages it. I never walk away thinking he could have given me more because no matter what we do, I get all of him, every last remnant of him. It's all mine. He's all mine.

That night, he knew that fast and furious was the only way to play it, and he fucked me within an inch of my life. That always amused me, to think of this harmless, pretty little boy turning me inside out like that.

After I finally let him slide out of me, I rolled over on my back, slipping my arm around him and pulling him down to lie across my chest. "Hell, if I can survive that, I can survive anything."

Justin buried his face in my neck and started to laugh, and it was such a genuinely happy sound, that I was stunned when he hiccuped and started crying.

I held him tighter and kissed the top of his head and waited for it to quickly pass, like a summer thunderstorm, but it didn't. I whispered his name over and over again, I'm not sure why. Maybe because the words, "It's okay," would have stuck in my throat. It wasn't okay. There was nothing okay about any of this. I just kept whispering, "Justin, Justin," and sometimes, "My boy, my good boy." I don't know why.

He cried and cried that night and I just held him, because I couldn't fix it, and it was all I could do.

There wasn't much I could do, either, when Justin sighed and said he felt like he was letting us down by not coming through the surgery with flying colors. All I could do was remind him that there wasn't any use blaming himself.

I moved to the hospital bed and sat down as he smiled at me and said, "I keep forgetting that the infamous Kinney mojo hasn't rubbed off on me."

I encouraged him to curl up against me, and he eventually slipped off to sleep again. I looked down at him, barely recognizable with his bald head and gaunt appearance. I used to love to watch him sleep, but now the only time he looked like himself was when he was awake, when I could see his eyes, when he smiled. I sighed and kissed the smooth, soft skin on the top of his head. Out of reflex, I cast my eyes around the room to make sure we were alone, then whispered, "My good boy."

I had a shitload of work I should have been doing, but it seemed far less important than holding Justin while he slept. I couldn't help remembering the rest of the days leading up to the hospital stay.

The day after Justin fell apart, he sat me down with this preposterously serious look on his face and had the nerve, the fucking *nerve* to look me in the eye and say, "I know you weren't anticipating anything like this, Brian. If you want out, if you can't handle it, I'll give you your get-out-of-jail card now, okay?"

That pissed me off. Like, really pissed me off. Jesus Christ, I'd fucking sat there with him through eight thousand fucking tests, I was the fucking poster boy for Supportive Partner of the Fucking Year, and he tells me to bail if I can't handle it? Fuck him!

I said as much, loudly, and waited for his hurt, pouty face and the apology sure to follow.

Instead, he leaned forward, intently meeting my gaze. "Brian, I'm not going to sit in that hospital day after fucking day wondering whether or not you're gonna show. You tell me you're sticking with me, then that's it, I know you're sticking with me, and I won't give it another thought. But if you can't deal, if you won't deal, tell me now, that's all I'm saying."

I sat down and took a deep breath, knowing he wasn't that far off base for broaching the subject. I met his eyes with just as much intensity. "I can deal."

"Do you mean that?"

"Yeah, I do," I answered, and I swear to God, I walked into a fucking trap. His eyes glittered with sudden amusement, and a smile started tugging at the corner of his lips. I could just hear him gloating, 'Awww, you said I dooooo…'

I cut him off at the pass. "If you say one word about in sickness and in health, I'll kill you."

He laughed and leaned over to kiss my cheek. "Keep fightin' it, Babe," he said easily.

It was one of those moments where I clearly recognized how different we were now than before, and I wasn't entirely sure I liked it. At least before, I knew we were a train wreck waiting to happen. Believe me, there's comfort in knowing you're doomed to failure. This shadowy possibility of actually coming through for someone made me edgy as hell.

But we had more pressing matters at hand.

One of the nurses suggested Justin shave his head prior to the radiation. She said the hair falling out in clumps was not only upsetting in and of itself, but it intensified the feelings of powerlessness over the illness. She found it gave the patients a little of their own power back to shave the hair themselves.

I gathered the gear we would need and told Justin to head for the showers.

Justin looked at my supply of tools and said, "I thought we were just doing my head."

"Nope," I said. "We're doing the whole shebang ourselves."

"Why?"

It took me a second to answer against the surge of anger coursing through me. "Radiation isn't *taking* anything from us," I said, studying the items in my hand--scissors, razor, shaving cream. "We'll give it what we have to so you get over this, but it's not taking a fucking thing from us."

I stalked into the bathroom, trusting that Justin knew where my anger was aimed. I set the shit in the shower and started the water. "How's the hand today?" I called, and Justin joined me in the bathroom.

It seemed like a non sequitur to him, but he nevertheless stretched the hand a few times for me. "It's fine."

I finished stripping off my clothes and stepped into the shower, motioning him to follow. "Okay then, me first."

He looked up at me and squinted, like he was trying to figure me out. Good luck.

"Come on, Sonny Boy." I gestured at my groin with the scissors. "A little trim off the top, then we shave the beast."

Comprehension struck, and Justin's grin threatened to split his face in two as he knelt down in front of me and began to clip. In a minute he returned the scissors to me and jokingly ordered up the shaving cream, like a surgeon barking for another instrument. Next he demanded the razor, and that's when I closed my eyes and lifted my face toward heaven, thinking I should know better than to give a man a sharp object and access to my cock. I felt the cold blade touch my skin, and I almost laughed when I realized what Justin was doing. I opened a single eye and looked down at him.

He grinned up at me, the delight on his face forcing me to smile as well. Someday I'll bottle that smile of his, call it "Infectious," and blow this fucking town for a palatial estate on the island of Oahu.

"Let's leave it like this," Justin said.

He'd shaved a perfect letter J into my pubes.

I put up the pretense of at least thinking it over. "I'll tell people I got so tired of everybody thinking my name was Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! that I decided to just go with it and change my name."

We both laughed, and Justin turned his attention back to my groin, shaving the rest of the hair with typical Taylor concentration. It looked fucking weird as shit, and you want to talk about razor burn. Shit! Now I know why I don't make the grand gesture too often. What *was* I going to tell the next trick about this? They'd probably think I had some mutant form of crabs or something.

Justin read my train of thought with staggering accuracy. "Tell 'em it enhances sexual performance. Tell 'em that's why you can come and keep fucking. All of a sudden all the guys on Liberty will be just as bare."

I laughed at the idea, then motioned for him to hand me the scissors and razor. I shaved his pubic hair, then his arms and legs, pointing out that this kind of thing was hardly noticeable on an albino.

"End step one," I said when I finished. "We'll do step two in the kitchen."

We used electric shears on his hair. I spread paper on the kitchen floor and sat him down on a bar stool and without any fuss, shaved off all of his pretty blond hair. It took less than fifteen minutes.

"How is it?" he asked, looking at me with eyes made enormous by the change.

I tilted my head, and I know my face gave away more than I wanted it to, but I was able to nod slowly and say, "It's okay. We'll be okay."

The truth was, he looked…ill, like I should have realized there was something wrong, some fucking tumor growing in his brain trying to kill him, trying to take him from me. I should have known.

I followed him to the bathroom and stood behind him with my hands on his shoulders and waited while he stared into the mirror and acclimated himself to, well, himself. Our eyes would meet in the mirror, then he'd look himself in the eye, then look back to my eyes. Finally a small smile appeared on his lips.

"Will you still love me if it grows back brown?"

I shuddered at the very idea. "No," I said without missing a beat. "It's blond bombshell or nothin', Baby."

Justin laughed and leaned back against me. "Could be worse," he said with a sigh. "What if radiation deflated a guy's ass?"

With a chuff of laughter, I smacked the guy's ass and sent him into the shower again. I swept up the hair on the kitchen floor and wouldn't let myself think about anything else. The hair was soft and clean--it seems ridiculous now, but he'd insisted on washing it before we shaved it. I picked some of the hair up between my fingers and smelled it and smiled in spite of myself. It smelled like baby shampoo. On impulse, I stepped over to my desk and took out a plain white envelope. I dropped the soft, downy hair into it, wrote "Justin" and the day's date on the outside, then slipped the envelope into one of my desk drawers.

Justin had been showering long enough that I wouldn't be able to distinguish between tears and the water on his face, so I joined him, telling him we had to practice for the deposit he was making at the sperm bank.

They'd asked Justin if he wanted to freeze some sperm, since after the procedure his little radioactive guys wouldn't be so keen for baby making.

Justin didn’t see the need, but I told him he should do it. I just…fuck it, I just hated the idea of a door, any door, being closed to him. Yeah, he'd probably never want a kid, never be asked to provide sperm for a kid, but Jesus Christ if he wanted one, he should fucking be able to have one!

I promised to go with him and help him any way I could, which brought about the predictable eye roll. He gave in pretty quickly, which only meant he hadn't felt that strongly about it one way or the other. I used to be able to get him to do anything I wanted him to do. Lately it seemed the only time I could talk him into anything was when he didn't have much of an opinion about it. They grow up so quickly, don't they?

I paid for talking him into freezing the sperm, though. The whole way over in the car, the kid threatened to pretend to the staff that we were married and trying to have a baby. I was tense as hell waiting for him to embarrass the fuck out of me, and Justin said that night that if he'd only shoved a lump of coal up my ass that morning, we could have had a diamond by dinner time.

Yeah, he's a shit, but he's my shit.

Back in the present, in Justin's dimly lit, claustrophobic hospital room, I grinned as I remembered the time spent in the surprisingly non-claustrophobic cubicle at the sperm bank, and my dick began to fill, falsely anticipating the opportunity to relive the experience.

Justin coughed and frowned in his sleep. Fearing he was uncomfortable, I shifted out from under him and settled him on his back. He felt warm to me, and I made a mental note to mention it at the nurses' station on my way out.

Sure enough, Justin did have a fever. Two days later, it was full blown pneumonia. What did I tell you? Weakest fucking constitution on the planet. So I came in from work a day after they started him on the antibiotics, and he was sedated and on a ventilator. Now, a couple of things were wrong there. First, I should have been called.

Jennifer Taylor has a passive aggressive streak a mile wide and twice as long. You ask me, she got what she deserved in Justin and the Demon Spawn. She resented that I was running the show, but the second a doctor or nurse didn't hop-to, she fell apart and handed it all over to me anyway. But then I turned around, and she was fucking *guarding* Justin's condition from me, trying to call some shot that was so fucking beyond her control, it's almost laughable. I don't think so. To put it kindly, *no*.

Second, if you think I powered through six weeks of fucking suck ass hell so Justin could go belly up from a bad cold, you are fucked in the head, people.

I gave Ms. Taylor a look to suggest how very pleased I was at the phone call she hadn't bothered to make, then went to find a nurse who could get me a meeting with the doctor.

I'd gone to Ben right after Justin was diagnosed, looking for anything he could tell me about dealing with this shit. The first thing Professor Perfect told me was to align myself with the nurses. Alienate them, and Justin was in for a long, hard ride. Make them my ally, and Justin would be home free.

Doctors are the biggest fucking prima donnas on the planet, and if the nurses aren't pulling for you, you're up shit creek, because you need them to clue you in to how to finesse the doctors.

You have to stroke the doctors' egos like they're 50 year-old drag queens, and you have to make sure they think everything you want done is their idea. You get too emotional about anything, and they write you off on the spot, they just totally check out, and any request, suggestion or demand you make is fucking white noise to them. I watched it happen again and again with Jennifer. The doctors are just so fucking clinical about what they have to do that introducing emotion into it offends their sense of supremacy over the situation.

Hey, I appreciate that. If someone's cutting my kid's head open and digging around in there, you'd better believe I want him thinking he's God. But you see, their deification ends when they sew the boy shut. As far as Justin is concerned, in the beginning was Me.

I wanted to know what was going on--why the sedation, why the ventilator--and I wanted to know when I could bring Justin home. Obviously, lying around a hospital wasn't doing much for his continued good health. I wanted to know what I had to do so he could continue his recovery at home because I'd had just about enough of this hospital shit.

The neurosurgeon had already passed us off to some other fucking -ologist or another who was apparently on rounds when I called to speak to him. It looked like the good doctor wouldn't be able to meet with me until morning. When I started to protest, Cheryl, the nurse who'd tracked the doctor down for me, motioned for the phone. Without a second thought, I handed it over to her.

"Hi, is this Sandra? Hey, Sandra, Cheryl Morton up on neurology. Uh huh. Look, anything we can do to get Rinaldi here tonight? Right, Taylor, Justin. No, oh God no, not that one, the other…riiight, uh huh." Her eyes traveled slowly from my toes up to my forehead as she spoke, and I rolled my eyes at her. "Uh huh…you have no idea. Mm hmm…oh absolutely, tomorrow afternoon. Oh, you're just great, thanks. Appreciate it. Bye now."

She hung up and smiled at me. "Fifteen, twenty minutes in the conference room over there, okay?"

"I don't even want to know what you were talking about, do I? What are you doing tomorrow afternoon?"

She smiled innocently and said, "Mr. Kinney, we're two healthcare professionals, discussing a patient. I don't know what you’re insinuating."

Rinaldi was like every other doctor we'd had throughout this mess--middle aged, medium height, medium build, medium good looks, relentlessly straight. Where the hell are all the gay doctors? Do *not* tell me a fucking chiropractor is the best we can do.

Jennifer had insisted on meeting the doctor with me, but she'd already had her chance. When the doctor walked in the conference room, I stood up, stepped in front of Jennifer and offered him my hand. "I'm Brian Kinney, Justin's partner. Thanks for taking the time to see me."

"No problem," Rinaldi said, perusing Justin's chart as I spoke.

"I'm surprised to see the ventilator. No one mentioned sedating him last night. What's changed?"

Rinaldi set the file down on the table and looked me in the eye. I liked it when they did that because it meant that Justin was more than just words on a page to him. I hated the doctors who never looked up from the chart, like they were too fucking important to actually see the person they were treating.

"We're having difficulty bringing Justin's fever down, and given his history, I have some concerns about the fever triggering a seizure. The sedation should take care of that, but his breathing's depressed, and his lungs are pretty congested, so we'll keep him on the ventilator for now."

It made sense, and I nodded, then got down to what I really wanted. "When the fever's down and he's off the ventilator, I'd like to move him home. I'll add a fucking hospital wing to my place if I have to, but being here is going to finish off what the brain tumor started."

That's when Jennifer spoke up, as if she had some place in this conversation, some right to an opinion. "If we're talking about releasing Justin, I hope you understand he'll be coming home with me."

Bitch. I'd be damned before I'd air any of our pathetic Melrose Place drama in front of the doctor, so I resisted the urge to point out that she'd just dump him at my place after his first temper tantrum anyway.

No doubt used to dealing with bickering families, Rinaldi spoke smoothly. "Right now, Justin still needs the facilities of a hospital. We could consider moving him to a convalescent center, but the costs tend to be prohibitive. Most insurance won't cover the full cost of the better centers, and the care is superior here to the lesser centers."

"I just don't see how I can swing that," Jennifer said quickly, still pretending the doctor was speaking to her. "If the insurance won't cover it, what choice do we have?"

It took some effort not to snap at her, so I said slowly, almost as if I was bored with the whole conversation, "Jennifer, the money's there. I'd already set aside Justin's tuition." It went unspoken that we'd no longer be needing that little nest egg, but the implication was clear.

Justin should have been halfway through his sophomore year of college; instead, here I was figuring out where best for him to recover from having yet another hole drilled in his head. Well boo fucking hoo. These are the cards we were dealt, we're gonna fucking play 'em.

She flushed and looked away from me, and I hoped the satisfaction I felt wasn't too glaring. There probably hadn't been many instances in Jennifer Taylor's life where she had to admit she couldn't afford something. It tastes pretty bitter, if I recall correctly.

She cleared her throat and said vaguely, "No, that's…that's not necessary. I appreciate the offer, but…"

"It's not an offer," I said, irritated despite my vow to remain cool. "And if it was, it wouldn't be yours to accept or reject."

She lifted her chin in a way that reminded me of Lindsay at her haughtiest. "I don't want Justin obligated to you like that."

Jesus Christ, how badly did I want to say, "Like you were obligated to Craig for twenty years?" Of course, the chances of that exchange getting back to Justin were just too great. He'd crow from morning 'til night if he knew I'd made even the slightest comparison between his parents and us. I almost smiled just thinking about how fucking delighted he'd be. Stupid little twat.

I slouched down in my chair and said carelessly, "He'll be changing my diapers and rolling me out to sit in the sun before you know it. He's going to pay me back in spades."

"Look," the doctor said. "Justin's not going anywhere until we've cleared up the pneumonia. Then, he'll have a series of tests to see where we are, then we'll design a rehab program to fit where we need to go. But until we light on an effective antibiotic, I can't even give you a timeline for any of this, so let's table this discussion for now."

Naturally, Jennifer acquiesced without a thought. Jennifer always gives up on Justin too quickly and too easily. There's not much fight in her because she's never had to fight for anything. It's why she got such a lousy settlement in the divorce and why she's always been so willing to foist Justin off whenever the going got just a little too unpleasant for her modest sensibilities. It's also why I hadn't had much use for her flitting around Justin's sick bed and why I wasn't in any hurry to have her nosing in on his recovery either.

Justin gets that same rap too, that he's had it too easy, that he's never had to work for anything, but it's so fucking bogus. Yeah, he may have had it cushy growing up, but he knows what it is to have to fight for what he wants, to fight to be who he wants to be, to struggle just to get what it is he deserves. You'd think he'd be as spineless and feckless as his parents, but the apple fell far, far from that tree.

Some nights I sit and watch him draw. I used to think it was for effect the way he agonized over some line or shadow or mark on the page. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about when I ragged him about it. "But it's got to be right," he explained, as if it was the simplest idea imaginable. But it's not just his art, it's everything. God forbid you take the pasta off the stove 45 seconds before the timer sounds; he'll study for a 20 question quiz like it's the most important final exam he'll ever take; and a 95 on that quiz is as distasteful to him as a 65.

He may seem easy going, but Justin is a perfectionist, and after spending time with Jennifer and knowing what I do of Craig Taylor, I no longer wonder why. He isn't given a lot of room to fuck up, you know? It's like they're all poised and ready to write him off the second he doesn't meet their expectations. And don't fucking point your fingers at me; I know I've never provided much of a safe haven for the little cherub. But we're not talking about me right now.

I sighed at the doctor's suggestion and grudgingly nodded. Hey, I sure as hell wasn't giving in, I was just sitting back. There's a difference.

I wasn't particularly surprised by the doctor's words. It's astounding to me how much 'wait and see' there is in a hospital. Let's wait and see how devastating his impairment is; let's wait and see if the kid drowns in his own fucking fluids; let's wait and see if there aren't enough germs in this hell hole to do the fair lass in. Fucking wait and see was the answer to everything around there.

Jennifer and I trudged back to Justin's room, the silence between us no more or less stifling than it ever was. Thankfully there was Molly to see to, so she left around seven.

I'd slept over at the hospital a lot while Justin was having the radiation treatments. Toward the end of them, he felt lousy all the fucking time, and he hated being alone. I knew the feeling. Too much thinking happened when you were by yourself.

The nurses were usually pretty lenient with us, but since Justin was really sick this time, they were actually enforcing the visiting hours. I kept watching the clock as I paced around the small room, studying Justin and thinking, "It's okay, it's okay, it's okay."

As the minutes ticked closer and closer to nine o'clock, I felt increasingly anxious, the same way I'd felt when they'd taken Justin down to surgery.

The morning of the surgery, Justin knew better than to play out some maudlin farewell scene, and I was proud as hell of him for his restraint. We traded small talk about the music videos we were watching, and Justin reminded me again of the breakfast he was planning to eat when all of his dietary restrictions were finally removed. I swear the kid got more mileage out of that particular daydream than anything I tried to do for him.

Out of the blue, he turned to me and said, "You know what my all time favorite memory of us is?"

I looked up from the newspaper I was pretending to read and said, "I don't know. We're naked, of course. After that, how do you separate one from the other?"

He chuckled but shook his head. "Nope. It's stupid, really. We were at the mall, and that guy grabbed you to go listen to that timeshare spiel, remember? He was so fucking square, and I don't know who he thought I was. Your brother maybe? Your nephew? I don't know. But he's giving you the big sell, and you kept asking me what I thought, and could I afford it, and you promised to start spending less on clothes, and maybe even get a job if I thought that would be okay, and the guy's eyes kept getting bigger and bigger. God, we laughed our asses off for days about that. That's my best day with you."

It seemed an odd choice to me, given some of our randier escapades, and the fact that we didn't seem to exist on a very even keel. We had soaring highs and stunning lows, but not much in between. On second thought, maybe it wasn't so odd a choice after all.

Justin went on, happily reminiscing. "You didn't save me from anything or buy me anything or do something extraordinary for me. We were just really…together. If I could get 10,000 days like that, it's all I'd need to be happy. Eating breakfast with you. Looking at storyboards. Discussing some project or your newest account. Going to the grocery store together, even though you're worse than a five year old. Watching Shark Week. That's all I need. All I want."

"I want to hear a 'having sex with you' in there," I said. "And maybe a 'sucking you' and a 'fucking you…'" I kissed him, hard, to remind him that those were all very nice things about being with me.

He smiled and happily agreed. "Yeah, I guess I want those too."

A nurse came in before I could give him a hard time about using the phrase 'I guess.' She administered a pre-operative sedative and told him the orderlies would be down in a half hour to take him to surgery.

The sedative took effect quickly. His eyelids grew heavy, and he kept licking his lips. He seemed surprised at the deep breaths he kept taking, like they were being forced on him by something outside of himself. "Hey, don't fight it," I said. "They're giving you the good stuff. Enjoy it."

"Told Michael you'd only stick around until you could steal some drugs for your stash," he said sluggishly.

I shook my head at him. "Why do you say things just to make poor Mikey mad?"

"Same reason you do it to Melanie, I guess. Fun. Sport. 'T's easy."

"Guess you really were made for me, weren't you, Sunshine?"

"Mmm."

They came to transport him to surgery, and I felt a surge of panic. Mikey was there at that point, standing next to me, and he knew better than to touch me--I think I would have blown apart if he'd laid a hand anywhere near me. But his presence grounded me, made me aware of where I was and kept me from throwing myself on top of Justin to keep them from taking him from me. That's what it felt like, like they were ripping him away from me.

"It's okay," I'd whispered, too quietly for the words to matter to anyone but me. "It's okay, it's okay." I whispered the mantra until I could no longer hear the wheels of the gurney rolling along the linoleum floor.

Every time we'd get past some milestone, every time we jumped through some fucking hoop, I'd think, 'okay, now it gets better. Now it gets easier. Now we'll be okay.' And the next thing you know, you're standing in some dimly lit hospital room, staring at your lover's pale, wasted body, watching a machine breathe for him because his lungs are too weak to do it on their own.

Wasn't it enough that Justin survived five weeks of brutal radiation? Didn't we pay our dues when they fucking drilled his head open and dug out a tumor? What the fuck, now we were dealing with pneumonia? When the hell would it be enough?

"It's okay, it's okay," I whispered to myself.

Did Justin think the advertising campaigns I worked on wrote themselves? Did he have any idea how fucking behind I was at work? That nearly every day I had to endure Vance asking me how my "young man" was? Could he comprehend how much I hated that? Did he appreciate the fact that when I got home there would be fifty fucking messages on my answering machine--all asking about him--that I'd have to return? Did he think my time and patience were infinite in their breadth and generosity?

They're not.

As I leaned against the door and watched that machine forcing air in and out of his lungs, I tried to tamp down on the rising bitterness. Finally I pushed off the wall and leaned down so my lips were close to his ear. "Listen, you little shit, you even *think* about checking out on me, and I will follow you into hell, strap you down and make you watch me fuck every tall, dark, muscle-bound stud I can find."

On that loving note, I headed home to get a good night's sleep so we could do it all over again in the morning.

And before anyone flips out over how nasty mean old Brian is to the baby boy, I'll have you know that the next morning his fever had broken, the antibiotics finally kicked in, and by noon, they'd taken him off the ventilator.

Don't fucking imagine you know what's best for Justin. Lest anyone forget, in the beginning was Me.

It took two more weeks for Justin to fully recover from the pneumonia. In that time, they got the necessary tests completed and told us that with therapy, Justin would be able to walk and would have use of his hand. There was a hell of a lot of ambiguity in there, given all they *didn't* say. They didn't say Justin would walk unaided, without a brace or crutch, they didn't say he'd have "full use" of his hand, merely that he'd have use of it, and they wouldn't even venture a guess about whether or not he would draw again.

By then, I didn't give a shit what the prognosis was so long as we could get the fucking hell out of the hospital. Rinaldi tried to suggest four weeks at a rehab center. I balked, to put a mild spin on it. I believe others might describe my reaction as "ballistic".

Surprisingly, it was a subject about which Justin held little to no opinion, so he left it up to me. My opinion on the matter was quite strong, and I impressed it upon Rinaldi--tell me what the fuck to do to get Justin home, and I'll do it. It was as simple as that. Sure it would cost some money--in-home therapy, temporary modifications so Justin could get around, things like that. But like I told Jennifer, the money was there. College was out of the question for six months, so I liked to think of the expense as just another semester of tuition. Somehow it seemed less fucked up that way.

So I found a contractor who could make the necessary changes to the loft--and who assured me those changes could be easily *un*made when they were no longer necessary. They said it would take 10 days to make all of the alterations, so that's how long I gave Rinaldi. I told him they could work as many therapy sessions into those 10 days as they wanted, but we were going home on the 11th day, come hell or high water.

They scheduled four therapy sessions in the remaining ten days, but they were light, mostly dedicated to showing Justin how to use the equipment necessary to get around until his right leg and arm were more reliable. There was an electric wheelchair and a brace that ran the entire span of his leg. He had to learn how to fasten the brace, how to get into and out of the wheelchair, how to take a leak, how to do a hundred shitty little things that most people did without ever thinking about them.

Justin was champing at the bit to get at the nitty gritty of the therapy, the part of it that was actually going to get him back to where he was before the surgery. He felt like he was wasting time with all of this elementary crap, but it was crap we needed to know.

It was his last therapy session in the hospital when I walked in around 6:30, pissed at the way Pittsburgh drivers "drive" when they think it might snow. "I'd've been here forty five minutes ago if everyone in this town wasn't a fucking moron," I grumbled, throwing my coat, suit jacket and tie on a chair and moving immediately to the Tupperware container on the ledge. Bless Deb and her old fashioned belief that there's nothing that ailed you that couldn't be cured by a big old pan of baked ziti. "If you didn't leave me dinner, I'll kill you," I said, then frowned at the miniscule portion Justin had eaten. With a shrug, I spooned a more generous serving onto my own plate, and it was only when I sat down and started to eat that I took any notice of what was going on.

Justin was looking at his therapist with big blue orphan eyes and begging, "Nester, just give me some stuff to do on the off days, that's all I'm asking. Stuff I don't need to be spotted to do, just…anything. Please? Please, Nester?"

He was crying, which just didn't happen in front of anyone but me. He'd been a little weepy when his fiddle player visited before the surgery, though the musician milked the whole thing if you ask me, playing his cheesy violin concerto for the poor, suffering waif. Of course, Justin lapped it up. Thank God that drama princess in training was stationed across the Atlantic, because I wouldn't have been able to stomach his sniveling all over Justin. The kid did have a scrappy, determined air about him that I appreciated when he wasn't going overboard with the pretentious musician shit. He thought the sun rose and set on Justin, and for that, he got a few points in my book as well.

Michael, and probably most of the others, couldn't understand why I let the fiddler see Justin. They assumed I'd be jealous or at least nursing a grudge. Now, granted, right after Justin and I split, I wouldn't have been starting any fan clubs for the kid, but even back then, I knew the path to destruction Justin and I rode had absolutely nothing to do with the pretty musician. It just so happened that when the last grains of sand ran through the hourglass, he was standing nearby.

And anyway, you don't get jealous when two puppies frolic. You cock your head, think, "Aww, isn't that precious," then when they're all tuckered out, you pick your mutt up and go home.

And how could I even care when the guy was so fucking wrong for Justin it was comical. They'd moved beyond…Jesus, I don't even know what to call whatever it was they had together. Suffice to say they'd moved beyond it to a tight friendship--tight enough that Justin wept in front of him. I don't think he'd shed a tear in front of his mother over all of this, much less anyone else in our esteemed little family.

It must have been a particularly shitty session for Justin to lose it in front of Nester. Not only was he "totally hot", the highest of compliments from one Justin Taylor, but he pinged the gaydar, and Justin was such a fucking sucker for a pretty, flirty face that he usually performed for Nester like a trained seal.

Not that I worried too much over him either. He was more my type than Justin's--I tend to like them tall and dark. Justin tends to like, well, me. I'd cruised Nester a couple of times, but he always pretended not to notice, like every other fucking "caregiver" at that hospital. How come no one was ever in a hurry to give me any care? Once or twice, you do a Shirley MacLaine in the lobby so your kid won't projectile vomit for an hour or two, and all of a sudden you're in a "Relationship," and tricking with you is in bad taste. What the hell is that all about?

Nester gave Justin the same speech he'd given him after the last three sessions. "Justin, I admire your drive. I wish the rest of my patients had *half* of your determination, I really do. But it's not a question of intensity or anything like that. It's time. You've got to put in the hours."

"I know that, I do," Justin said. "I'm willing to put in as much time as necessary. But if I work on my own *and* with you, I can get there faster, right? Not with less work, just quicker, right? So why can't I do more on my own?"

"We're not going to hit a homerun everyday. I know it's frustrating as hell. But we're not rebuilding muscles and tendons here. We're blazing new neural pathways. It's a whole different beast."

Justin sniffed and chuckled. "Blazing new neural pathways. Sounds like something the crocodile hunter does."

"Crikey, mate, you're right!" Nester said in a positively horrendous Australian accent.

Justin laughed a little harder and said, "Okay, Nester. Sorry if I was a total bitch today. I just get impatient, I guess."

Nester scoffed at the boy. "Shoot, you were a pussycat today. You didn't throw anything or try to hit me, and you hardly called me any nasty names. That's almost a record for you."

"I'm not that bad," Justin said, though the dark flush that shot all the way up his forehead and down the back of his skull said Nester wasn't that far off the mark.

"One of these days, I'm parking a nurse outside the door so when I complain about you, they'll know what I'm talking about. I say a cross word about you and one of them slaps me upside the head. 'Don't you bad mouth our baby. He's an *angel*!' It's totally not fair, dude."

"Shut up!" Justin ordered, slapping Nester's arm. "I'll just say you're being a slave driver, then they'll run in and save me from you."

Nester shook his finger at Justin. "There you go, taking a swing. I'm getting out now. Leave you to this joker." He pointed his thumb at me and ruffled Justin's non-existent hair. He stopped at the door, his face uncharacteristically serious. "You've surprised everyone, Justin, a second time, even. You'll get there. I'll fucking get you there. It's just going to take us awhile."

I admired Nester's ass as he left the room, shaking my head with unmasked appreciation. "Mm mm. At least your slave driver is hot as fuck, huh?"

Justin nodded and said wistfully, "Yeah. A full head of hair, no limp and a hand in perfect working order. What's not to like?"

That was over the top, even for Justin. I laughed and said mockingly, "Tough day, honey?"

He sheepishly wrinkled his nose and shrank into his shoulders. "Sorry."

"What's up?" I asked, sensing it was more than just a disappointing therapy session.

He shrugged and looked away, but I took it as his needing more time before he could talk about it.

I tossed my paper plate in the trash and sat down next to him, my back against the headboard of the bed. I threaded my fingers through his and brought his hand to my lips for a quick kiss. He laid his head against my shoulder and for awhile we just sat there and… decompressed.

It was probably 20 minutes later when he whispered, "Dean Larsen came by today." Shit. I knew what was coming next, but I let him say it. "I'm officially out. They have to give my spot to someone else."

"Fuckers," I muttered. "Jesus, don't let the body grow cold or anything."

"They waited longer than I thought they would."

"Fuck them," I said, getting up off the bed. "Forget 'em. You don't need them! You can't teach talent and vision and…and fucking passion. Just fuck 'em!"

"It's okay," Justin said, then reached out and placed his hand on my forearm. "Brian, it's okay."

"It's not okay. It fucking sucks! We'll put a spin on it tomorrow, but for right now it sucks!"

Justin's droll shrug conceded the point, but I was just getting going. "You know what? I can't wait. I can't fucking wait until you're some world renowned, fucking rich as shit artist, and they come crawling to you, begging for you to show up at some fucking invitation-only fund raiser. The answer's no, of course. So fucking no. But we'll string 'em along first. Oh, you have to check your schedule, maybe you can rearrange a thing or two, but at the last minute, you know what? Sorry, no free time-y. Fuckers. Those fucking, selfish, short-sighted fucks! God damn it!"

A nurse walked by, her eyebrows raised at my angry voice. Justin smiled and waved at her, and she shrugged and kept walking.

"Like any of them would know art if it bit 'em in the ass. They probably have pictures of dogs playing poker in their front halls. Fuckers. I've a good mind to pay them a little visit tonight. I'll show them what paint and a brush are *really* for. Thinking they can play God with us, like we fucking need them for anything? Like you aren't already so far beyond their pathetic concept of what an artist really is? It's almost fucking funny is what it is. I can't wait for their fucking placement office to call me about taking one of their students as an intern. That'll be a pleasant phone call won't it? I'll tell you what, Vanguard is one agency they can just cross off their list right now, because I'll be dead before I take one of their pitiful graduates into *my* agency. Fuckers."

Justin had started leafing through a magazine while I ranted, and it took him a minute to realize I'd stopped. He gave me a sardonic look and said, "Don't glue anybody to anything. I may not be a student there, but I still have to live in this town."

I glared at him, but he didn't deserve a response, so I didn't give him one.

And he didn't wait for one. He said, "Since you're still, like, the Simon Legree of visiting hours, can I have a party Friday with everyone? Please?"

Frightening the way he plays me, isn't it? He acts all pitiful while he drops the news about school, knowing I'll be pissed as hell about it and feel rotten for him, then he slips in the request to have the party.

Justin thought he wanted people hanging around his room all the time. I hated having everybody there at once--there was too much to keep track of. I'm sure a party with the crowd sounded fun to Justin, but to me it was nothing but work. I had enough to do riding Deb's ass (sorry) to make sure she didn't start bawling all over the place or say something bone numbingly insensitive. Vic and Ben, both brothers-in-arms, could be counted on to smooth over a lot of rough spots, but Michael and Emmett were clueless enough to need full time minders of their own, and Jennifer was a wildcard--strong and upbeat one minute, lost and forlorn the next. Did I say forlorn? Why, yes, as a matter of fact, Ted would be there. Things were still strained with Lindsay, and, owing to her ignorance of that whole sordid mess, Mel's presence wouldn't relieve any of the stress. Daphne would probably be a no-show. Thank God for Molly. At least she could be counted on to amuse Justin with her shitty pre-pubescent attitude.

I agreed to the party, but only because after Justin came home, everyone would be under strict orders to stay the fuck away until further notice. The therapy was going to be intense, and I had to dive back into shit at Vanguard, so I wouldn't be around to make sure…well, just to make sure things ran smoothly. I wasn't going to have people running in and out of the loft all day, messing with Justin's concentration and attitude.

The day before the party, Michael and I had lunch at the hospital cafeteria, and I recited the guest list for him as if someone new and not boring might be coming.

When I got to Molly, Michael sighed with gusto. "I thought we were supposed to be celebrating. Why not just leave her off the guest list?" Molly scares the shit out of him, which cracks me up. She kicked him in the shins once because he was standing on the strap of her backpack and didn't hear her asking him to move. I can't wait to sic her on him when she's 15 or 16--she'll fucking eat him alive. Of course, I'd miss my Mikey, so maybe I'd best keep a closer eye on the girl (meaning Molly, of course).

"Are you kidding?" I said to Mikey. "Next to her, I look like the patron saint of comfort and joy. I need the points I get by comparison."

Michael grinned at me. "Man, you know you're the demon spawn from hell when you make Brian Kinney look good." By reflex, he ducked *before* I hurled my used napkin at him. Luckily, I anticipated the move and nailed him right on the forehead. Sucker.

"I told Justin to work her into the comic book as an evil genius but he said no one would appreciate the art-imitating-life aspect of it."

Michael smiled self-consciously and ducked his head and looked around the room and did just about everything but stand on his chair and shout, "Talking about Justin and the comic book makes me very uncomfortable!"

"He's going to draw again," I said, and my tone came out more irritated than I meant it to be.

"I know," Michael said quickly. "Ben said he was standing by himself for a few minutes yesterday. It's just…God, you know, he already had to relearn how to draw and now he's back where he started. I just feel bad about it."

"Well stop. He doesn't need your pity, Michael."

Michael held up his hand to ward me off. "Jesus, I know, I know. Lecture #1,748."

"I don't lecture," I said, insulted at the very idea.

"Ha!" Michael said, and backed up that scintillating rebuttal with examples. "Lecture #1,748-there will be no pity expressed in this room; Lecture #1,747-you will never mention the words pretty or blond or hair while in Lord Justin's presence"; Lecture #1,746…"

"Shut the fuck up." I looked around the table, but the bastard had taken away all of the napkins and loose paper while he spoke.

"Sucker," he leaned down to whisper as he slipped out of the chair to carry his tray to a trash can.

I chased him out of the cafeteria, but let him escape into the parking lot. I'd seek revenge another day.

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

Michael ended up bringing three pages of stories for the comic book to Justin's party, and I know that was hard for him. He wouldn't necessarily see his gesture as faith that Justin was going to get better so much as evidence that he wasn't well *yet*, you know, like he was rubbing Justin's nose in the fact that he couldn't draw right that minute.

But Mikey trusts me more than he trusts himself, so he tried to play it the way I wanted him to. He was uncomfortable bringing up the subject with Justin, but the kid was so fucking delighted when Mikey handed him the folder, I thought Mikey was going to cry. He managed to hold it together, though, and at some point, I hugged him from behind and planted a wet kiss on his cheek. "Thanks," I said quietly.

He grinned at me over his shoulder and shrugged. "You don't think selling used comic books puts food on my table, do you? I need those drawings so I have a roof over my head."

"Me too!" Justin agreed, fairly bouncing on the bed. Mikey did one of those s-l-o-w looks from Justin back to me. Obviously I hadn't exactly mentioned to Justin that his apartment had been returned to the slumlords from whence it came.

For the next few minutes, Michael and I had an entire conversation without either one of us uttering a word. He lifted his eyebrows in obvious condemnation, and I glared at him to keep his big mouth shut. His lips pursed in disapproval, and I grinned when I remembered Justin calling him the most Church Ladyish person he knew. Michael gave *me* a look that said we'd talk about this later, and I returned a look that said that's what *he* thought.

Justin noticed the by-play between us, but he simply smiled at me and pulled Michael closer to talk of the further adventures of Rage and company. Of course, Justin was in his 'I'll-act-the-way-you-want-me-to-act' mode by then. He smiled and hmm'd and haw'd and played the demure boy-child. He was brave and calming and so fucking sweet it made you want to puke. Well, you might have been okay. I sure as hell wanted to hurl all over the place. Why the fuck was it his job to put everyone at ease?

Around eight o'clock, I told our guests to wrap it up and go home. You'd've thought Justin was heading out to the front the next day given the weepy farewells he kept getting. Jesus, it was less sappy in the room the day before the surgery.

I sighed impatiently and resisted the urge to physically separate mother and child as Jennifer sniffled into Justin's shoulder. "It's okay, Mom. Everything's fine." He rubbed her back and smiled soothingly, and I wanted to throw something so badly I could taste it. Jesus, in addition to making sure none of you are taking any of this too hard, why doesn't he just change your oil and mow your fucking lawns while he's at it? Anyone need their dry cleaning picked up? Christ.

Finally, *finally*, they all left, and I could fucking inhale without feeling like a 12 ton weight was pressing down on my chest. With a sigh, I laid down next to Justin and buried my face in his neck. "You're so brave," I snarked in a high pitched falsetto. "My hero!"

Then I kissed his cheek and switched back to my own voice. "I want to be you when I grow up."

Justin ran his hand through my hair and said absently, "That'd be sweet if you had any intention of growing up."

"Fucker."

He yanked on the hair at the nape of my neck, which fucking hurt! I smacked his hand away, and he said, "You're so mean to me! And I'm *bald*! And a gimp! You oughta be ashamed."

"I am," I admitted sadly. "But mostly because of the naughty things I'm thinking of doing to my bald little gimp." I trailed a line of kisses from his neck to his collarbone and grinned when he started humming.

"I resent the ownership implications implicit in your use of the pejorative 'my.'"

Is there anything more annoying than a teenager who's taken Psychology 101? I lifted an eyebrow at the kid and said, "If you want me to shut you up with my tongue down your throat, I wish you'd just say so. You know how I appreciate a good discussion."

Justin responded with a smirking, "Mostly I know how full of shit you are."

"You're the mean one," I whined. "You're all wrapped up in a pretty little package but you're just downright nasty."

Still smirking, Justin said, "I'm going to start fining you every time you use the word 'little' in reference to me."

"On whose authority?" I challenged.

"On the authority of me."

I hrmphed at him. "Well, on the authority of *me* we're blowing this joint tomorrow. What do you think about that?"

Justin wrinkled his nose at me. "I think the bastard who forfeited my apartment has some 'splaining to do, that's what I think."

Damn it. Like there was a chance in hell he wouldn't figure it out.

I mimicked his expression, but I have a feeling the effect wasn't quite as "darling" on me. "Yeah, about that. I thought I mentioned it. Are you sure I didn't?"

He snickered, ducking his head down against my shoulder. "I think I would have remembered if you had."

"Not necessarily. Your brain is Swiss cheese right now. They gouged out a huge chunk of it."

He socked me in the arm. "Knowing how much you appreciate a good discussion, now might be a good time to talk about boundaries. What are they and what does it mean to respect them?"

He sounded like Mr. Rodgers, and I snorted in spite of myself. "You never liked that place. It had no character, no aesthetic integrity. No me."

"It had you twice a week at *least*! And it was close to the organic market and school." His voice trailed off at the mention of school, and he seemed to accept my decision. "Still, it didn't have you *every* night. That's a pretty big selling point. I just…I don't know…I just…"

Exasperated, I thunked him on the side of the head. "You just what? Spit it out!"

He looked up at me with the soupiest doe eyes you ever saw. "I just thought that when you asked me to move in this time, it'd be at some fancy restaurant with flowers, candles, bottles of champagne, maybe some nice jewelry changing hands…"

I thunked him on the side of the head again, only harder. He laughed into my chest and hugged me.

"I've told you to move in a thousand times," I reminded him. "See? Swiss cheese for brains."

"I always thought the 'pack up your shit and move back with me' approach was pretty dreamy, but this going behind my back and just giving up my apartment is really a beautiful gesture. Probably not legal or anything, but really, just unbelievably touching."

I smirked at him. "All right already. Point taken. God, you're worse than Deb trying to guilt Mikey into something. We just didn't have time. I'd say give up the shithole, you'd say no, I'd say yes, you'd say no, I'd say yes, you'd launch into some huge, long, boring discussion about your need to assert your independence blah blah blah, boring, boring, boring."

"If you want to be responsible for a kid all the time, I have some sperm you could borrow. Maybe Lindsay will grow you a baby you could keep at the loft."

I groaned. "I get it, I get it! I'm a controlling bastard who treats you like a child." I looked at him and tried to return that innocent doe-eyed look. "I've learned a very valuable lesson here, okay? I won't ever do it again."

Justin gave me a gravely serious look and slowly shook his head. "Liar liar pants on fire."

I gave back a devastatingly sexy look and said in a low voice, "If my pants are on fire, it's not because I'm lying."

Justin groaned into my chest, shaking his head in dismay. Finally he lifted his head and sighed in sad resignation. "You know, a guy would have to have a hole in his head to put up with you."

I burst out laughing, then shook my head in censure at such black humor. Justin laughed too, looking so much like his old self, his *real* self, that a swell of warmth flowed through my body.

I brushed imaginary hair from his forehead and said, "Lucky for me, I happen to know just the guy for the job."

He leaned into my caress with a happy sigh. He shook his head at some inner dialogue, then said, "Yeah, you're a lucky guy aren't you." There was more than a hint of sarcasm in his tone.

I slid a finger under his chin and tilted his head so we were looking eye to eye. "Yeah, I am," I said. "Things are definitely looking up, Sonny Boy."

Justin's sweet smile turned mischievous in the blink of an eye. "Could it be that the universe is *finally* cutting Brian Kinney some slack? Setting aside the centuries old curse that has followed him from one day to the next? It is possible?"

I grabbed him tighter and tickled his side, and he shrieked and giggled and struggled--all three like a fucking girl. "Where did you get the idea that I *won't* kill you and stuff you down a laundry shoot, that's what I want to know. Huh? Huh? When did that happen?"

He shrieked again and it wasn't long until one of the nurses, Lynn, came in. She was casually munching from a bag of potato chips, and as the door swung closed, Lynn leaned against the wall, crossing one leg in front of the other and tossing another chip in her mouth. I lifted an eyebrow in question. "Are we being too loud?" I asked.

Lynn shrugged. "You're not bothering me," she said cheerfully. "I'm on break. Just thought I'd drop in and watch."

I rolled my eyes while Justin hid his head, still laughing helplessly. "We oughta charge you guys admission," I grumbled.

Another shrug from Lynn, who finished her potato chips and tossed the bag in a trash can. "Name your price, honey. I may have to sell a kidney or two, but that's doable."

"Would it have killed you guys just once to knock and say, 'keep it down’?" I pointed at the door. "Out." Justin and I silently watched her saunter out. "That's one thing I'm not gonna miss," I said dryly.

Justin lifted his head and gave me a perplexed stare. "Again with the lies," he said. "You so fucking love your Gay Boy Pin-Up status it's not even funny. You've probably hired actors to dress as nurses and stand around the bed for a few weeks."

"Why just a few weeks?" I asked, tongue in cheek.

Justin smiled knowingly. "Because after a few weeks, it won't be enough. We'll have to do it on the corner of 15th and Grace or in the feminine hygiene section of Krogers or…"

"You're a shit."

He laughed at that and settled back down against me. "Yeah, but I'm your shit."

"Lucky for me," I whispered into the top of his soft, bald head.

I felt his smile as he nuzzled his cheek against my chest. "Yeah," he sighed. "Lucky me, too."

**********

Getting Justin home was something of an ordeal, but most of that was due to his mommies trying to "help." Deb and Jennifer were both on the job, and I deserve a fucking medal for not saying or doing anything extreme. Justin was on edge, probably afraid I'd blow a gasket, and with two healthcare attendants added to the mix it was enough to drive me nuts.

I knew Justin would be bothered by the obvious changes in the loft--a ramp to get up to the bedroom, temporary shelving in the kitchen so he could reach plates and glasses, modifications to the sink so he could turn the faucet on and off, the furniture repositioned so the wheelchair could freely maneuver. The thing is, it sucked. Here's a novel idea--let's let it suck and then we'll move on, how does that sound? Jennifer and Deb were knocking themselves out trying for happy-happy, but that just made it worse. "Oh, look honey, you can turn the water on just by pressing this button? Isn't that clever? Isn't that *wonderful*?"

Well, no, actually, it's not wonderful, it's fucking shit, but if Justin wants to rinse out a fucking glass, we need a fucking button right now.

Justin tried to pretend for their benefit, but he was barely holding on. Finally, I suggested to Deb that maybe Jennifer could use some cheering up anywhere that wasn't the loft, and then I put a little bug in Jennifer's ear that maybe Deb should get off her feet and relax for once. So right about the time I would have heaved one of them out of the plate glass window, they decided it was time to leave. Jesus.

I dismissed our little nursing elves as well, not caring which one reported back for duty at five a.m. the next day, so long as one of them showed.

When we'd tried to get Justin into bed, he whined that he'd been lying in bed for two fucking months, so I settled him on the couch, and I found myself fussing with covers and pillows until he snapped at me to leave him the fuck alone.

I headed to the kitchen, but it wasn't time to eat. I came back into the living room to fire up the computer, but I felt too antsy to work. I sat down next to the couch, then got up to hunt for the morning paper. I sat back down with it, but realized it was the paper from the day before so what was the point to that? I stood back up again and toyed with running on the treadmill, but it seemed like too much effort. I realized that every spare moment of the last two months had been filled by something having to do with Justin being sick. Whenever I was at the loft, I was either heading out to the hospital, just getting back from the hospital, falling into bed, or leaving for work. "I can't think of what to do," I admitted with a laugh.

"Now you take off your clothes," Justin said, as if reminding me of something he'd already told me a hundred times.

I lifted an eyebrow at him. "Then what?"

He gave me one of those enormous smiles and said, "Fuck if I care. I just want me some Naked Brian. Come on, strip."

Well now, the boy's been sick. How could I possibly refuse him?

I undressed slowly, only a little provocatively. I didn't want to shake my hips so much as to be ridiculous--table dances were Justin's specialty, not mine. I kicked the pile of my clothes to the side and advanced slowly onto a smiling Justin, who was starting to take his clothes off as well.

"Ah ah ah," I said, slapping his hands away from a button. "You get a chill and half of Pittsburgh will have my ass in a sling."

Justin rolled his eyes. "You can't get sick from being cold," he scoffed, but he laid back down as I settled gently on top of him.

God, he felt small and fragile, until he wrapped his arms around me and hugged me fiercely, almost painfully. It was like he'd found a release valve--all of the tension and stress I'd been storing were instantly set free. I relaxed over him, on him, just let myself go. The way he sort of sighed and purred all at once told me if nothing else, I certainly wasn't causing him any pain.

I couldn't get close enough to him, and it wasn't something fucking could fix. Being inside him wasn't what I needed, I needed…all of him, I needed just fucking all of him and I couldn’t get it, I'd never be able to get it, and that tore me apart. I don't know how long it went on, but then I realized Justin was shaking, shuddering really, almost inconsolable. I shook my head and concentrated on what he was saying, and I realized what he was saying was, "It's okay. I'm here. It's okay. It's okay."

And then I realized it wasn't Justin shaking, it was me. I was clutching him and whispering into his neck, "Don't you leave me, don't leave me."

"I won't," Justin whispered back to me. "I won't leave, I'm here. I'll always be here."

When I stopped shaking, when I trusted myself to lift up and look at him, I said, "Add that to the list of rules."

He smiled, oh Jesus, that smile, that smile that makes me see beyond tomorrow, want beyond tomorrow, that makes me believe beyond tomorrow. Is it any wonder I ran away the first time? When a fucking *smile* can do that to me? Is it any fucking wonder?

Is it any wonder that I came back for seconds?

Is it any fucking wonder?

It's a miracle Justin did, I'll tell you that much.

When I think back to the first time Justin and I were together, mostly what I remember is hurting him. Not the individual hurts, mind you, just the overall sensation of hurting him. I remember anticipating how it would feel and then enjoying how it felt. I remember that moment of…of fucking euphoria when I saw the shock and sorrow and misery and *pain* in his face.

In that moment I knew, despite every determination not to be, that I was my father's son.

He reveled in my mother's weakness. In my weakness.

The first time--the only time--I raised my hand to my father, he was drunk off his ass and tried to give me crap for coming in after midnight. I had no respect for him by then. He knew it, and it pissed him off. But when he came for me that night, I clocked him and told him if he ever hit me again, I'd fucking kill him while he slept.

It wasn't that I gained his respect that night--I knew too well what a complete fuck up he was, so the only thing he felt for me was contempt--but he knew he no longer had any power over me. He couldn't scare me, he couldn't hit me, he couldn't threaten me. I became a non-entity to him at that point. Unless, of course, he needed money. Or an alibi. And then I could revel in *his* weakness.

Oh, there was always this lame ass part of me that thought maybe I could change…Jesus, what? Him? Me? The past? The fucked up future waiting for all of us? I don't know. Maybe it's human fucking nature to want to matter to your own parents.

Anyway, I'm not a moron. I know they fucked me up, but my plan all along had been to at least keep the sickness from spreading.

Then I gave my sperm to Lindsay and something God damn else to a fucking teenage twink. Way to keep the dysfunction in-house, Kinney.

But still, knowing all I know, vowing all those fucking empty vows to myself, there was that terrifying moment when I savored Justin's weakness. That moment when I knew I'd made a direct hit, and I'd exposed all there was of him, when we both had to acknowledge for one passing moment that I controlled all of it--his mind, his body, his future. And I could make it good or I could make it bad, but no matter what, it was mine to make.

But that moment of triumph was always followed by disgust. I hated myself for feeling that way, but no more than I hated Justin for *making* me feel that way. Why wouldn't he fight me? Why wouldn't he give in or give up or fucking walk away? Why wouldn't he *react*? Why wouldn't he stand up to me? Why wouldn't he *fight*, God damn it?

When he did leave, when he actually walked out on me, my one overriding thought was *'Jesus. Finally.'*

Don't get me wrong--some other, far more bitter thoughts came quickly after, but I remember feeling relieved that he finally reacted, that I'd finally *made* him react.

I know there were moments of peace and quiet that first time. I know we laughed sometimes and goofed around and had fun. I know we had some wild ass sex. I know there were glimpses of happiness in there. But my single, prevailing memory is of purposefully and spitefully hurting him. Because I could. Because he wouldn't stop me. And because if he wanted me so God damned badly, he fucking deserved it.

And you know what? At first, when he was gone? I missed it. I said *it*, not him. I missed the opportunity to inflict damage. I missed the anticipation of planning it and seeing it to fruition. I missed the elation that came with proving to him yet again, *again*, that I was omnipresent and everlasting. The beginning and the end. Alpha and omega. Jesus, I missed that.

I thought he'd sneak back for a fuck or two, but it wasn't any skin off my nose that he didn't. Maybe I figured that through Michael, I'd have, if not a front row, then certainly a second row seat to the little soap opera fest that was his life. It didn't take Mikey long to admit that he and Justin weren't exactly swimming in warm fuzzy feelings toward each other, but that was okay too. Mostly.

The first issue of Rage that came out after the split saw JT, the character based on Justin, leaving the scene for college out of state. Michael had brought it by and was putzing around when I picked it up and leafed through it. My heart started thudding against my breast bone as I read, wondering if it was a final "fuck you" from Justin. It wasn't particularly his style, though, but I had to know. "Was this Justin's idea?"

The long pause that followed the question was answer enough, but finally Michael said, "No."

"So it was yours?" I clarified.

"Yeah." He sounded a little defiant, but I heard shame lurking there as well.

I hadn't wasted any time thinking about how Justin was feeling about anything, but I knew that had to have hurt him on some level, and I didn't like that. "Justin say anything when you told him you had a great new story for the comic?"

Michael resented the implication, but I could tell it applied by the way he jumped to his own defense. "I never said anything like that, it was…"

"He say anything?" I asked again.

"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?"

That pissed me off. Justin wasn't his fucking lackey on this project, he was Michael's partner, and he didn't have to swallow every lame ass idea Michael came up with. Besides, he had enough to deal with, he didn't need Michael rubbing salt in his wounds. "Way to go, Mikey. Hey, later maybe we could find some puppies to kick around. That sound like fun?"

Michael popped up and followed me into the kitchen "Why do you even care? He totally shit on you!"

So, this was about Michael restoring some Kinney pride? What the fuck? "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!"

Oh, but it was. Jesus! I don't know what made me more angry--that Michael had tried to hurt Justin or that he was forcing me to stand there and defend the fucker. "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."

Michael merely said, "Yeah, well that's *your* opinion," and that's where we left it. I was pissed for a few days, but what the hell, it was only a stupid comic book. I wasn't going to hound Michael to bring back some little fairy princess character. It wasn't my job to look after little Sunshine anymore, and if he wanted to let Michael shit on him, that was his business. Besides, Michael may have moments of dumb ass insensitivity, but he's so tenderhearted, he's a fucking pushover. If Justin had cared enough, he could have made Michael change his mind.

I'll admit I was surprised at how thoroughly Justin absented himself from my life and the lives of my friends. I imagined he'd stubbornly refuse to be ignored, but when he walked, he didn't look back. I expected digs from Emmett and Ted whenever they had news of the boy, but they never materialized. I expected lectures from Deb, but she never said much at all about him. Vic never broached the subject, Professor Perfect never really knew him, and the lesbians were curiously silent on the whole subject. If nothing else, I expected some mother henning on their part, but Mel was on a major case that had her traveling to New York almost weekly, and Lindsay, naturally peeved on my behalf, wasn't in any hurry to nurse the kid.

Now and then, I think back to that time and wonder if I had wanted sides to be taken, if I somehow hinted that they should be; if, perhaps, I unconsciously orchestrated it. It's not surprising to me now that sides *were* taken, but at the time it was. In my mind, I'd driven Justin out on purpose, so there wasn’t any fault to be found with him. And not all that much fault to be found with me, either. It was just the nature of the whole stupid experiment in futility. But Lindsay and Michael had spent decades refusing to find fault with me, so I'm not sure why I expected this little episode to end any differently.

I didn't give any thought to it at the time, though, because Justin just didn't exist to me. Oh, there were twinges every now and then. Sometimes I wished there was someone around to squeeze fresh juice in the morning or to pick up the dry cleaning. He'd always been a great fuck, and there's something to be said for having a sure thing as a nightly back-up, but finding someone to suck my dick had never been difficult. Mostly, it was like Justin had never been. It's not like I divided my life up between pre-Justin and post-Justin. It was simply same old, same old.

Now, in case any of you missed it, the take away here is that I am utterly and completely full of shit.

See, the truth of it, the absolute bitter, fucking, pathetic truth, is that in my mind, the split was temporary. I never for a minute, for a fucking second, didn't think we'd get back together. Swear to God, it never occurred to me that when I wanted him back, he'd wouldn't come back. And it wasn't that I didn't want him back, it was merely that I didn't want him back *yet*. Who was it that prayed every morning, "Please God, make me straight, but not today?"

So there I was, content in my status quo, working 90-hour weeks, pulling down cash hand over fist, owning the fucking world around me, and most importantly fucking whomever whenever wherever however. If a thought or two strayed to Justin Taylor now and again, it sure as hell wasn't enough to take me off course. It felt good to be back in the swing of things. Hell, it felt fucking fantastic.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Michael "Chicken Little" Novotny came scurrying into the diner one morning, positively outraged at young Taylor's brazen flirtation with some friend of Professor Perfect's. Naturally, my curiosity was piqued. Could pretty Saint Ethan have stumbled from his pedestal? Hmm, intriguing. But before Michael could give us any juicy details, the friend showed up.

He was hot, I'll give him that, even despite the receding hairline. He lost a few points for attire--he was still wearing the whole yuppie uniform, which was passe if you ask me--but at least he wore it well. His suit was custom made, his shirt well tailored. I could tell he was built--not as ripped as Ben was, but he worked at it. Instead of politely introducing himself, he marched right over to Michael and said, "Why did you tell me Justin has a boyfriend?"

Michael's eyes were about as wide as they could get, which is saying something, believe me. "Because he does?"

"Bullshit. The boyfriend won some violin thing. He's been in Europe for months!"

Okay, that took me back a bit. Ethan had been out of the picture for months and I never knew about it? I was amazed that Justin could keep quiet about it for that long and a little curious as to why he bothered. Of course, who in my circle would he have told? Obviously, he and Michael didn't talk about anything, and there was no one else who spoke to him on a regular basis.

I'm sure we all looked surprised at this bit of news because Trevor said, "Jesus, you didn't know?" He stared pointedly at Michael. "I thought he was your business partner. You really didn't know?"

Michael looked embarrassed and shrugged his response.

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

I guess that fact made us all buddy-buddy again. The guy grabbed a chair and sat down at the end of our table as Ben said, "Trev, I thought I made it clear the kid was off-limits."

Hmm, another interesting tidbit. Why didn't Professor Perfect want Mr. St. James and our Sunshine seeing each other? Was *Trev* an old boyfriend? Who exactly was Ben protecting there, Trevor or Justin?

Trevor looked at Ben like he was nuts. "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." He grinned proudly, oblivious to the discomfort around the table. No one knew what to expect from me, which was amusing to say the least. What, like I was going to run sobbing out of the diner to hear my darling Justin discussed in such an ungentlemanly fashion? Jesus.

"I'm serious," Trevor said, blithely buttering a slice of toast right off of Ted's plate. "He did this thing with his tongue when he was, God, I can't even do justice to the position he was in…" The mood started to impress upon the good man, and he innocently glanced around the table, taking in the various looks on people's faces--Emmett trying not to laugh, Ted trying not to salivate, Mikey trying not to be sick. "I'm sorry," Trevor said. "Do we not dish the morning after around here?"

I decided to let everyone relax, so I smiled at the man and said, "I'm the one you should be calling 'maestro.'" I paused for effect, then continued. "I taught that little fucker everything he knows." Trevor didn't quite pick up my meaning, so I explained a little further. "I'm the boyfriend once removed." I waited for his reaction, curious to see if Justin had mentioned me or not. Trevor reacted with amusement and humor, which meant Justin hadn't said anything. Affront and disdain would have clued me in otherwise.

"Oooh," Trevor said, giving me a thorough once-over. "Oh, I get it." He smiled and said, "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 raised my glass to him, and even then, recognized that moment as the beginning of my end.

With Ethan, I had time. He and Justin were fucking Ken dolls pretending to be in a relationship, so there was no sense of urgency on my part. I had my boy off playing in a clean little sandbox with his pretty friend, and I was free of all the fucking bullshit. I liked that arrangement very well, thank you, so to learn in the same day that not only was Ethan *out* of the picture but Trevor Fucking St. James was waltzing into it, well, that upset my apple cart.

Because anyone could see that Trevor St. James was, for all practical purposes, Brian Kinney Lite. All the perks, none of the psychosis.

In less than a week, I'd read everything I could get my hands on about the man, and the news wasn't good. He was gorgeous and richer than fuck. If someone was making a list of the most what-fucking-ever architects in the world, you can bet he was on the list. He was charming and witty and from what I could gather through the subtle hounding of Mikey, he was rushing Justin like a fucking pro. Maybe he was looking for a trophy, but he seemed just healthy enough to have a genuine interest in the boy.

Jesus, I was pissed to have the matter taken off of my time table. The way I'd figured it, I had at least until Justin graduated before I had to really think about shitting or getting off the pot. Well, fuck. No use crying over the way things were supposed to be.

The first thing on my list was to get Justin back in the fold. It was hard to believe, but it had been almost a year since we'd done anything more than vaguely nod in one another's direction. I think I'd run into him at the comic store a grand total of twice, and I couldn't remember the last time he'd been at the diner or one of the bars. Hell, maybe the whole thing would take care of itself if it turned out I couldn't stand the little shit anymore.

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

It was easy, the first few times, to run into him without it looking deliberate. Okay, so maybe I hadn't shown up at the comic store on a Tuesday or Thursday anytime in the last year, but I'm a partner in an advertising agency, fuck you very much. I have obligations. Maybe I'd just found some free time to drop in on my oldest and dearest friend. And if Justin just so happened to be there, I wasn't so petty as to ignore him.

My first foray into reacquainting myself with Justin was just prior to the birthday party Vic was throwing for himself. I showed up at the comic store under the guise of checking with Mikey about what I was supposed to bring.

Michael and Justin were in the back room, working at the computer. Printed pages were spread out everywhere, and I was careful not to nudge anything, lest I mess up the order of something.

When I walked in, Justin had looked up and offered a small nod and a neutral, "Hey," then returned to his work while I quizzed Michael for the details he'd already given me over the phone.

"Jeez, you never listen to me!" Michael groused, and seemed embarrassed at my questions.

I looked over at Justin, apparently concentrating on the computer, and said, "So, Sunshine, you making an appearance at the shindig?"

Justin looked up, obviously surprised by my interest. "Uh, no, I don't think so. This is the first I've heard of it." Ah, well, that explained Michael's embarrassment. Something told me a lot of invitations extended to the boy had been lost in the mail for awhile now. Which actually worked to my advantage. It was time to put out a little feeler and see who our Boy Wonder was these days.

"Jesus, Justin, what the fuck is your problem?" I asked, feigning irritation. "When was the last time you showed up for dinner at Deb's? This is your family. Your fucking family. And maybe it's not Norman Rockwell, but you respect it and protect it. And you play your part."

He should have ripped me for that fucking bullshit. I mean, where the hell had his fucking family been the last year, you know? I'm pretty sure that's what he was thinking, given the expression on his face--he looked pissed, but there was a fair amount of incredulity in there too.

"Excuse me?" was all he said, eyes wide in disbelief.

"Jesus, when I think about all Vic and Deb have done for you in the last two years! They took you in, fed you, fucking supported you every way they could, and you just walk away from them like it was nothing, like they fucking owed you something."

"You don't know what the fuck you're talking about," Justin said, and now he seemed mildly amused.

"I know you're never at the diner," I countered. "I know you haven't come to a Sunday dinner in months. I know you weren't at the parties to celebrate Ted selling his company or Emmett's…whatever in the hell we celebrated for Emmett. And now you blow off Vic's birthday? Shit. You know, to hell with the rest of us, Deb and Vic deserve a little something from you. A little respect if nothing else. Like showing up at a fucking birthday party. Jesus."

The Justin of old would have reacted first with barely concealed delight that I was focusing on him at all. Then he would have reacted to what I said, basically taking it as fact. He would have felt terrible that he was treating Deb and Vic so disrespectfully, then scrambled to assure me he would make it right. It had been an amusement to me to say something to him and watch it take root, watch it matter so fucking much to him that he would disregard what he actually felt or thought or knew and replace it with whatever in the hell I felt or thought or knew.

Not much of the old Justin faced me after my little diatribe. Justin stood there and stared at me, one eyebrow raised in a look of confusion, as if I'd just jumped up and down and yelled at him in Swahili. His tongue darted out to the corner of his mouth, then he set his shoulders and looked me in the eye. "If I somehow gave you the impression that I was entertaining your opinion about anything, you're mistaken," he said. "I don't need you to tell me who I owe and how to repay them. In fact, I don't need you to tell me anything about anything."

"This isn't about me," I lied. "It's about Deb and Vic. I hate to think you're the ungrateful little prick so many assume you are." With that, I turned to leave, never having verified with Michael what I was bringing to the party.

"Hey!" Justin called, after I'd opened the door. I looked at him over my shoulder and was taken by the steely look in his eyes. "Not that I give a flying fuck what you think about me." Now it was his turn to lie. "But just so you know, I have Deb and Vic over for dinner a couple of times a month. I haven't lost touch or written them off or anything like that." He smiled coolly. "Just so you know."

Oh yeah, this was a different Justin Taylor altogether. And damn it all to hell, I kind of liked this one.

Thus began my illustrious campaign to reassert myself in Justin's life. The boy I used to know would have been beside himself with joy at my butting in wherever possible. This new young man always looked like he smelled something vaguely unpleasant when I went off on him. And I went off on him every chance I got, finding fault with his choices of everything from clothing to classes to what to eat for dinner.

For the most part Justin silently accepted my slings and arrows, but every once in awhile he'd volley one back with staggering accuracy.

One evening I'd dropped by the comic store to find Justin and Michael debating whether or not Rage should tell Zephyr that his newest crush was a suspect in an underage porn ring. Hey, don't look at me, it's a fucking comic book.

Anyway, the evidence was entirely circumstantial because the culprit was really the crush's partner at a law firm, and said guilty partner was framing the crush. Still, the crush looked mighty guilty to Rage. What's a superhero to do?

Three guesses what Mikey thought. "Rage would tell Zephyr. They're best friends. Best friends tell each other shit like this."

Justin disagreed. "It's none of Rage's business yet. Besides, innocent until proven guilty. Rage fights crime, rights wrongs, it's all about fairness, and ratting out Keller because Rage thinks he *might* be involved goes against everything he's supposed to stand for."

"Bullshit!" Michael countered. "What about honesty, huh? Rage values the truth above *everything*. And not telling Zephyr what's going on is the same thing as lying about it."

"Talk about bullshit!" Justin said. "That's such a crock. Not saying anything is like not saying anything. That's all it is. This has nothing to do with Rage's being honest, it's about him being fair to Keller."

"What about being fair to his best friend?" Michael asked, sounding incredulous that Justin couldn't see his point of view.

"Jesus, Michael, they're grown men, not 12 year olds. Yeah, they're friends. *Best* friends, but Rage isn't going to race over to Zephyr every time something is turned up in an investigation."

"So he's just going to continue lying to him. Every time they're together and Rage doesn't say anything, he's lying."

"No he's not."

It seemed like a good point at which to offer my unsolicited two cents. "Come now, Mikey, you don't really expect Justin, of all people, to champion the cause of truth, do you? We all know honesty isn't our Sunshine's forte."

Justin jerked his head to the side to glare daggers at me. "Loving me and going out of your way to make me think you didn't was just as dishonest as anything I ever did or said to you, so you can just shut the fuck up, you asshole!"

So I shut up. For awhile. Then I'd start all over again.

The thing is, while sporting and fun, all of this baiting of young Taylor really wasn't getting me anywhere. Hell, after awhile, I looked like some fucking school boy dipping a girly girl's braid in the inkwell 'cause I liked her.

I needed to move forward somehow, to get from snarking ex-boyfriend status to…well, shit, I don't know what to call it, but to get somewhere the fuck else.

Turns out, my window of opportunity came about after one of Justin's PIFA art shows. The school sent a critic, and I use that term in the loosest possible manner, to review the show, and the guy just went off on Justin's stuff. It was like Justin had taken a brush in hand for the sole purpose of offending Sinclaire Bainbridge's delicate sensibilities.

To say the review was scathing was to say Emmett slightly flamed. I wondered if the guy was nursing some kind of grudge against Justin personally or if he was another one of those frustrated but untalented would-be artists, jealous of another's far greater talent. I guess it didn't matter why, but the acrid review seemed far more sour and harsh than any college art show could possibly generate. The line that stuck out to me was something about Justin's work being soulless. Justin's art is not soulless. His soul is in every piece he does. You can't look at his work, at any of it, and not feel something. Maybe what you feel makes you uncomfortable, but you'll fucking feel something, I guarantee it.

I found out about the review when I stopped by the diner for lunch. Deb was fuming all over the place, and she shoved it into my hands before I could even sit down. "Would you read this shit? Where the hell does he get off printing garbage like that? I oughta sic Carl on this fucker. Hey! Maybe he has some unpaid parking tickets or something. What a fuckin' asshole, huh? What's his beef with Sunshine, that's what I'd like to know. Kid's a fuckin' genius, and this shithead acts like he oughta be drummed outta town or something. You want a turkey sandwich?"

I nodded absently, reading the angry words with a smile that grew in proportion to the vitriol of the reviewer. Good God, Justin couldn't have paid for better PR. I don't think the infamous Brian Fucking Kinney could have performed a better service. The small campus gallery would be packed tomorrow, that's for sure. People would be falling over themselves to see if Justin's work could possibly be as terrible as this Bainbridge asshole seemed to think.

"Can I keep this?" I gestured with the paper when Deb delivered my lunch order.

"Yeah, sure," she said. "You gonna go punch the guy out or something?" she asked hopefully.

"Not my job," I said, but kissed her cheek for suggesting it.

Review in hand, I left the diner and returned to the office, detouring into the graphics department and putting a stop on all current projects. I had a rush job for them that needed to be on my desk by 5:30 or heads would roll. Of course, I say that about every job, so my credibility is shot. I described to my department manager, Tyler, what I wanted done, then handed over the newspaper.

Tyler read the first paragraph, then the second, then didn't move a muscle until he'd read the whole thing. "Jesus, that lucky bastard," I heard him mutter as I headed back to my office with a smile on my face.

A couple of hours later, I stood outside Justin's doorway, pissed at myself for being nervous. Christ, what was I, some pimply faced loser?

I knocked sharply on the door, which Justin opened, looking about 10-years-old. He was wearing sweats (that were ridiculously too large, the little thief) and that ratty, hooded sweatshirt I will some day burn just so I can collect the ashes and burn it again. His face was the pasty white color it went when he was depressed, though he flushed at the sight of me, probably expecting another lecture or rebuke.

"Excellent. Perfect ending to a perfect day," he said, leaving the door open as he turned around and headed back to the couch.

"Always nice to see you too, Sunshine," I said, taking that as an invitation to come in.

"I assume you, too, have come to bury me, not to praise me?" Surely it comes as no surprise that my little drama princess would heighten his dilemma to Shakespearean proportions.

I held up a bottle of champagne. "Hell no. We're celebrating, Sonny Boy."

He rubbed his forehead in a way that suggested intense irritation. "Jesus, even for you that's pretty fucking insensitive, Brian."

"You aren't serious?" I said, digging through the drawers in the kitchen in search of a hammer. I came back with a can opener. The walls of his shithole couldn't have been made of anything thicker than cardboard, so I was pretty sure I could get a nail in there with just about any tool-like apparatus. Hell, my thumb would probably work if I pushed hard enough.

I tapped a nail into the wall, then hung up a professionally preserved and framed copy of his review. I stepped back to survey my handiwork, nodding that it would do for now. "You're on your way, Sonny Boy."

Justin stood beside me and lifted an eyebrow when he realized what I'd done. "Not like oblivion and destitution are that far a drive," he said dryly.

I laughed, always one to enjoy sardonic wit, especially when it came from such a pretty, white-bread boy.

Justin turned away and returned to the couch. "I have an old report card somewhere that talks about my inability to pay attention when I'm not interested in the subject matter. Let's frame that too. Maybe ask my dad and Chris Hobbes to write up some fond memories of me. We'll paper the whole fucking place."

"You really don't get it, do you?" I said, joining him on the couch. "Paul Russette's show in Philadelphia. How did that go?"

Justin didn't say anything for a beat, but the corners of his mouth turned up when he answered. "The Observer said he was trite, overwrought, and obviously destined for suburban art fairs."

"Karen Traverse McKay, Chicago."

"An affront to decent people who expect art to uplift and not disgust and horrify."

"Alex Juarez, Houston."

"I get it, already," Justin said. "They're professional artists, Brian. They already had a body of work preceding them, and their work was being reviewed by…"

"They're only professional because someone bought some of their shit. Hell, you're as much of a professional as they are. The common thread is that some art critic with his head up his ass didn't get it. And that, Sonny Boy, is the fucking kiss of *life*. Believe me, I've worked on more than a few campaigns for the Frick, and the only thing they pray for harder than a raving write up is one that rips 'em all to hell."

"So if I'm successful I can look forward to feeling like crap for the rest of my life? Terrific. Break out the champagne, then."

I went back into the kitchen and opened the bottle, pouring it into jelly jars with pictures of cartoon characters on them. I handed him a glass and said, "Here's to churning out soulless drivel that makes stick figures seem imbued with life."

He smiled, raised his class and said, "Cheers."

I took a sip of the champagne and headed back to Justin's bedroom where I threw open the closet. "Okay, we've got to find you something passable to wear tomorrow."

With a sigh, Justin followed me into the bedroom. "I thought I'd stick with the black cape and mask, carry the sickle thing."

I told you, didn't I? Drama princess of the highest degree. I rolled my eyes and continued to look through his clothes. Seemed like he had a lot more shit when he lived with me.

"Why exactly do we care what I'm wearing tomorrow?"

"Because tomorrow the line is going to be out the door with gawkers who have to take a look at the scary pictures that shocked poor Mr. Sinclaire Bainbridge. You've got to look like the avant-garde artist they're all expecting."

I pulled out a pair of black low riders and eyed them critically. It seemed "clean" and "well-pressed" were about the best we could do with the boy's wardrobe. "Before too long, you're going to have to decide if you want a career in *art* or if you want a career as an *artist*. You choose the latter, and you're going to have to invest in presenting yourself appropriately."

Justin threw me a dubious look. "Yeah, I'll get back to you on that. Right now a career in fast food is sounding good to me. Here, I'll practice: You want fries with that? Can I biggie size that for you?"

I handed him a red, button-down shirt just queer enough to wow the art lovers, and just tight enough to wow the queers. "The line'll be out the door, Justin. I guarantee it."

Of course, I was right. Was there ever any doubt?

Justin was fucking elated, that luminous smile of his shining at its brightest. It was a beautiful sight. He was a beautiful sight.

You know, the day would have happened without me--the crowds, the interest in his work, all of it--but that doesn't mean I didn't lap up the appreciation he kept throwing my way. If he wanted to think I had something to do with the hordes of people traipsing through the gallery, far be it from me to mess with those illusions.

I'd hounded the rest of the family into being there for our baby boy, and a steady stream from Michael, Ben and Deb to Emmett to Ted to Lindsay filed through the doors. Unfortunately Trevor St. James apparently had some free time on his hands, and he prowled around the gallery most of the afternoon. He spent most of his time lurking around the front door, and it seemed to me he was waiting for someone in particular to arrive. It would have never occurred to me that Lindsay was the one he was waiting for, but when she walked in, he pushed himself off the wall and followed her to where Justin's work was housed.

I greeted Lindsay with a perfunctory kiss as she approached, and we stood side by side looking at the largest piece--an abstract, oil on canvas, done in angry shades of red, orange, yellow and black.

Trevor moseyed up to the two of us, saying, "Quite the crowd-pleaser, our Justin, hmm?"

He seemed to be talking more to Lindsay than to me, and I was curious about where their connection came from. I'd have heard if Trevor and Justin were hanging with the lesbians.

Lindsay shrugged and said, "Certainly. If…well, if this is your cup of tea anyway."

Trevor nodded sagely then said, "I'm guessing you prefer something a little more seasoned, an artist with a little more, what was it, life experience, am I right?"

Lindsay turned so red, you'd've thought she'd been scorched by a sunlamp. When she spoke, though, her voice was so smooth she almost sounded bored. "Did Justin tell you that?"

"No, I told him."

Lindsay stared at the portrait and spoke to Trevor without looking at him. "And how would you come to know something like that?"

Jesus, had I fallen into a Victorian novel somewhere? Who talks like that?

I looked sidewise at St. James, who also spoke at the artwork in front of him. "I was a bit surprised with the way things played out so I asked around a little. You'd be surprised at the things people tell you when your face has been on the cover of a magazine or two."

"Trevor," Justin's voice was low and ominous. None of us had heard him come in, and we all gave a start as he spoke. He was obviously displeased with Trevor. "I told you to let it go."

"You let too much go," Trevor answered sharply. With a final, cold look at Lindsay, he turned and walked back toward the main gallery.

"I'm not looking for any favors," Lindsay said after him, her chin lifted in characteristic defiance, or perhaps I should say pretension.

"Good." Justin smirked as he turned and followed Trevor out to the other room. He paused and glanced back over his shoulder, looking Lindsay in the eye. "I’m not a person who'd give you any right now."

I watched him for a few seconds before turning back to Lindsay, who was still staring at the picture. "Okay," I finally drawled when it became obvious she wasn't going to tell me anything. "What the hell was that all about?"

"Nothing," Lindsay said, her face back to that startling shade of red.

"Please. You and Justin are usually the wonder twins. Now you're glaring at each other and re-enacting scenes from Pride and Prejudice. What the fuck?"

Lindsay rolled her eyes and tossed her hair around in rich-girl annoyance. "Fine, you might as well know. It's not like *I* did anything wrong. I was one of the adjudicators for this year's Creighton Memorial Scholarship. Justin was one of the finalists."

"And?"

"And what?" Lindsay sounded impatient, like I should already know the whole story, but she spelled it out for me anyway. "He didn't win, all right? Obviously they assume it's because of me."

"Didn't sound like Trevor was assuming anything. Sounded to me like he was pretty damn sure what he was talking about."

Lindsay finally turned to face me. "You should have heard them fawning over Justin like he was doing something they'd never seen before. Look how frank his work is, how candid. Look at how he lays himself bare to you. He's 19--how much is there to lay bare?"

"I'd say he's lived through a hell of a lot. You ask me, there's a fucking boatload of shit he has to lay bare!"

"It's true he's lived through a lot, survived a lot. Maybe even suffered a lot. But he doesn't know how to…to process what he's learned. He doesn't know how to use his art to make other people understand what he's learned or feel what he's felt. He's just too young."

"He's too young? So I guess all of the other students up for the *college* scholarship were geriatric cases, is that what you're saying?"

"No, I'm not saying that. But the Creighton *is* generally awarded to an upperclassman, someone who will be graduating soon and could use the notoriety to gain a foothold into the scene."

I could pretty much connect the dots from there, but I couldn't believe what I was coming up with. "What did you do?" I asked, sounding dazed. "Lindsay, what did you do?"

"It wasn't me!" Lindsay said. "Although more than one judge thought his work was just…playing on a computer."

"Bullshit!" I yelled, quickly lowering my voice as surprised art lovers looked our way. "That is fucking bullshit, and you know it. You were the one who was all over him when he was going to drop out, lugging him off to see Our Brave Lady of the Wheelchair. So all of a sudden, what he's doing isn't worth the effort? Bullshit! Tell me what you did."

"I didn't say I felt that way." She turned back to stare at Justin's painting. "The rest of the judges went on and on like he was the second coming or something; praising him for his artistic eye and his integrity! A boy of 19. They just wanted to give him this prize like…well, like anyone can do this, like it's nothing. You have to work for these things. They're not just handed to you. And after everything he did, they wanted to reward him for his *honesty*--how ironic is that?"

"You're jealous," I stepped back, stunned at the revelation. "You're jealous of his talent, and you're jealous that he has me."

"*Had* you," she cruelly corrected. "Had you and threw it all away, Brian. And we're all supposed to, what, applaud his resilience? His inner strength? That's the bullshit. He's a liar, he cheated on you, and then he bailed because it got just a little bit too hard."

"In what way?" I asked, her confused look pissing me off even further. "I mean, you're such an expert on what happened with me and Justin, I'm curious. In what way did it get too hard? How about some specific examples of just how hard it got, how does that sound, huh?"

I was getting louder and louder, and Lindsay was blushing again and glancing around the gallery. "Brian, stop it," she hissed.

It will always be one of those moments I return to from time to time, wondering what would have happened had Lindsay not done what she did, had I never learned of it, had the idea of it not blown me away so completely. I know myself well enough to know there was a time where Lindsay's actions would have amused me, another time when they would have impressed me, still other times when they would have bored me.

Would events have transpired anyway eventually, or was this one of those moments that had to occur so everything else could follow? There's no conclusion to draw, of course, and that kind of reflection is pointless at best, self-indulgent as worst.

But still, I recognize that moment, standing in a make-shift art gallery on the campus of Justin's college, as an epiphany of sorts. The idea that someone *else* would hurt him just flayed me. And believe me, I'm fully aware of the ridiculous hypocrisy of that sentiment.

I flashed back to Michael's little shot at retribution shortly after the split--writing the JT character out of the comic book. Sure I'd been pissed, but that was fucking junior league compared to Lindsay's stunt. Yet both of them had taken it upon themselves to exact a pound or two of Justin-flesh on my behalf. Jesus.

Here were two people, adults, in their thirties, picking on this…this kid because he had the audacity to quit blindly accepting all of the bullshit I threw at him. God, it said something so ugly about the three of us, Lindsay, Michael and me. Had we found each other or had we made each other? Was it too late to put a stop to the dysfunctional cycle we were in? It's like all three of us were vested in keeping one another trapped in these useless roles we'd been playing since we were teenagers. I had do be the slutty unrepentant bad boy, Michael and Lindsay my worshipping sycophants, clamoring to show me their faith and devotion despite the rest of the world's disapproval. We'd been playing the parts for so long, could we break out of them? Could I break out of it? Did I even want to try?

I don't remember how Lindsay and I left that conversation. I do remember calling my secretary and telling her I wouldn't be in for the rest of the day, and then I started walking. I must have walked 20 miles around the city that day, stripping as much bullshit as I could from my psyche and asking myself over and over again, what the fuck do you want, you asshole? What the fuck do you want?

Because, really, it was as simple as that--figure out what the fuck I wanted, then take steps to get it. I'm not saying that figuring out I wanted Justin back meant I'd get him back--I knew enough of the "new and improved" Justin Taylor to know it wouldn't be that simple. But if I wanted him back, if I wanted to try again, I had to forget the pathetic, lame ass digs and insults a junior high school student could see through and fucking be a man about it.

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

I ended up standing outside of Justin's building, not completely sure what I'd decided in my city-wide sojourn. I finally caught sight of him walking toward the building, carrying a couple of canvas bags full of groceries. Fucking little tree hugger.

He smiled at me like he hadn't seen me that very afternoon and called, "Hey! What are you doing here?"

I shrugged as I took one of the bags from him, then negated the shrug with an explanation. "I talked to Lindsay. I can't believe she did that to you."

Justin wrinkled his nose and said, with surprising good humor, "Well, coupled with poor little JT being written out of the comic, I'll admit to feeling a little persecuted for awhile. I suppose that's good for my artistic soul, Sinclaire Bainbridge notwithstanding."

"I didn't ask either one of them to do that shit," I said, still feeling shell shocked.

Justin busied himself putting away groceries. "I tell myself that one day, when I'm a much bigger person, and everything is going perfectly in my life, and all of you are miserably jealous of me, that I'll be glad there are people who love you that much." He gave me that cocky little grin of self-satisfaction which usually accompanied some tease about my rapidly advancing age.

I couldn't believe he was ready to joke about this. It seemed so monumental, and it was imperative to me that Justin know I would have never, *never* asked them to do anything like that. "You believe me, don't you?"

Justin looked at me like I'd just told him I'd banged a woman in the parking lot. "Of course I do. I know you, Brian. None of that penny ante shit is your style."

"Right, you've known me for, what, two whole years, and you've got me totally figured out? That's bullshit!"

Justin stopped what he was doing, his mouth gaping in disbelief. "So wait, you're pissed that I *don't* think you're out there plotting some sort of diabolical revenge for my leaving you?"

Woah.

Woah, woah, woah.

*His* leaving *me*? Um, no, I don't think so.

"First of all, you didn't leave me. We, and this is the technical term here, imploded, all right?"

Justin stared at me for a beat then shook his head and went back to unpacking groceries. "This is a ridiculous conversation."

I walked over to the shelf where he was just blindly shoving things and shooed him away. Jesus Christ, the soup was next to the spices which were next to the cereal which was next to the canned vegetables. There was absolutely no order or logic to the entire pantry. "Now you know why I discourage all that talking you always want to do."

"Well if I'd known it would be this stupid, I would have agreed with you." Justin shook his head at me as I deftly rearranged, ordering by food group, then size of package.

"It's not stupid. I just don't want you thinking I'd have Lindsay cost you a scholarship. Jesus, a fucking *scholarship*! I still can't believe it."

Justin hiked himself up on the counter while I put the rest of the food away. I didn't even want to know how he'd organized his dishware or, heaven help us, his linens. He grabbed an apple from a nearby bowl and bit into it. "You say 'scholarship' like it was some full ride, all-expenses-paid kind of thing. It was more like a prize, you know? An award. Just twenty-five hundred bucks toward tuition or supplies. I mean, it would have been nice, but I'm going to be paying off student loans until I'm 90 anyway. Twenty-five hundred dollars wouldn't have made much of a dent."

I shook my head. "It doesn't matter. It just…shit, it floors me. Fuckin' floors me. It's so off the map for her, and you don't even seem surprised! Or pissed. Or any fucking thing about it. This isn't par for the course, you know."

Justin made a face that suggested he wasn't entirely sure how honest he should be with me. He squinted at me and said, "You think the dysfunction thing is new? It's not like Lindsay ever let go of her happily-ever-after fairy tale where you're concerned. Who forces their lesbian lover to accept a *guy* they're still in love with as the father of their child? I realized pretty early on there's some subtext in the mix."

"Oh well, sure, put it that way, and it sounds creepy."

Justin shrugged. "You're a man who engenders intense emotion in people. It's one of those part and parcel things about you that I had to accept going in. Lindsay and Michael were part of your parcel, so, you know, I dealt."

The past tense of that sentence stood out to me. "You're through dealing?" I asked casually.

Justin shrugged good-naturedly. "I'm off their radar screen now so I don't have to deal. Let's put it that way."

"What about my radar screen?" I asked.

With a smile, Justin swept away the loaded question. "You're your own air traffic controller, Brian. If you don't know what's on your radar screen, you could cause an accident."

I rolled my eyes at that bit of pop psychology. "That is so profound. You ought to write books, maybe go on talk shows, spread your wisdom around."

"I'll keep that in mind in case the art thing falls through." He jumped off the counter and stowed the canvas bags in a cabinet. "You want to stay for dinner?" he asked, pulling some pasta down from the shelf. "I'm making clam sauce."

I didn't even consider it. "No. I've gotta go."

I waited for the crestfallen look, the sagging shoulders, the whole poor-pitiful-me thing he had down to an art form.

Instead he simply said, "Okay. See you later. Hey, thanks for framing the review…" His grin brightened, "And for helping with my frame of mind. I appreciate that. Today was…it was awesome. I'm glad you were there."

I wondered if this was some new technique he was trying out--acting like my coming or going didn't matter to him. Then I wondered if it was possible that he actually didn't care whether I came or went.

I was going to eat dinner anyway, what did it matter if I ate clam sauce or lo mein take out? Justin's clam sauce is really good--it's not tomato based but he chops fresh tomatoes and adds them right before serving, so…well, hell, so it's really good, all right?

"I guess I could have a quick bite," I said, moving to the kitchen to get the plates. I had to open three cabinets to find them. Who in the universe *doesn't* store plates in the cabinet closest to the dishwasher? It's only common sense that you want the lowest possible range of motion between the dishwasher and the…oh, fuck it. There's no reasoning with Justin about some things. I glanced at him over my shoulder and couldn't resist adding, "If you're sure it won't bother your boyfriend."

Justin sighed and shook his head. "No one believes me when I say it's not like that. I don't want a boyfriend right now. I didn't want anything right now, but Trevor…he's great, you know? We have a blast together, but nothing's going on below the surface of it."

Right. That explained Trevor stalking Lindsay at the art show. I may engender intense, dysfunctional emotions in people, but our little Sunshine hits that protector nerve every time.

"He's awfully pleasant to me," I said as I set the table. "You never mention me at all, do you?"

Justin smiled at me and wrinkled his nose in a way that should have annoyed the crap out of me. "You were never as bad as we both thought your were," he said.

"What spin did you put on it? The ad man in me wants to know."

"You're such an ego hound," Justin scoffed. "There's no spin."

"Bullshit, there's always spin. I just want to know what you told him. I'm not going to run off to Trevor to set the record straight or anything."

Justin studied the tomatoes on the cutting board, then looked up at me with a surprisingly bland face. "Michael gave him the… disinterested third party view of events way before I did. No point in spinning after that, right?"

I snorted at the idea of Michael recounting the relationship for Trevor. Gus could probably give a more impartial rendering. I rolled my eyes and spoke with exaggerated slowness so Justin could quit willfully misunderstanding me. "So, Mikey gives Trevor the See Dick and Jane version, Trevor immediately recognizes it for the utter bullshit it no doubt was, then he comes to you to set the story straight. What did you tell him?"

"Brian, what do you want? Do you not remember what happened? You need me to refresh your memory?"

"Are the words I'm using too big? I want to know what you told Trevor about me."

Justin stopped chopping parsley (Parsley? What 19 year old boy has fresh parsley in his refrigerator?) and set down his knife, leaning back against the counter to list for me. "I told him that I met you on Liberty Avenue. I told him you were the first man I ever had sex with. I told him you were with me the night I was bashed. I told him we lived together for a few months. I told him you and Lindsay have a son named Gus. I told him you and Michael have been best friends for 15 years. I told him you were a partner in the Vanguard advertising agency. Stop me if I get to something you don't know about yourself."

Justin drained the pasta, then added the clam sauce, chopped tomatoes and an artistic sprinkling of parsley. He carried it over to the table and served our plates.

I quietly tsk'd tsk'd as I sat down and poured horrifyingly cheap wine into equally horrifying plastic cups. "No sad tales of unrequited love? How once upon a time the big bad wolf shattered the fair prince's dreams of happily ever after?"

"No." His tone was astonishingly even, and I found myself irritated by his attitude. All this studied casualness. What the fuck was he doing, taking yoga? Studying meditation with Professor Perfect? As if following my train of thought, he slowly shook his head at me. "I'm not playing, Brian. We don't talk about you very much. I'm sorry, but there it is. We talk about what he's doing at work, we talk about my schoolwork, we talk about where to eat dinner or what he wants me to make. Your name has come up when we talk about stuff we like in bed, stuff we don't, what we've tried, what we haven't. I'm not out here running around trying to make sure everyone I meet gets my version of events."

"Love to be a fly on the wall for that particular discussion." I gave a mocking, sing-song version of it. "He never took me anywhere but the baths. He never gave me flowers or sang me love songs or hired sky writers, he never painted my name on a highway overpass. He never talked to me. He never listened to me. He never said I loooove you."

There was absolutely no reaction from Justin. Nothing changed--not his posture, not his eyes, not the tilt of his head nor the shape of his mouth. He repeated what he'd said earlier, but without any of the affection. "You were never as bad as we thought you were."

We ate in silence for awhile, warily eyeing one another. This wasn't turning out to be the cozy little dinner Justin no doubt anticipated. But still he soldiered on. When we finished with the pasta, he stood up and took my plate over to the sink. "There's chocolate ice cream for dessert," he said, glancing at the clock on the microwave. "Or you could have some fruit salad. I just made it yesterday."

"For your non-boyfriend?"

"And me too," Justin said, still refusing to be baited. "An old client of Trevor's sent him a couple of boxes of peaches that are really good."

"How delightful."

Come to think of it, it wasn't quite the cozy evening I anticipated either. I'd come over to, what, to try and…explain or mollify Lindsay's little venture into soap opera vixenhood, and I end up antagonizing him. Not that I could stop at that point. The evening was pretty much spinning out of my control.

"Of course, we'll have to think of something to tell poor, unsuspecting Trevor when he comes over expecting a nice bowl of fruit and finds it all gone."

Justin's cool demeanor slipped a little bit. I wondered how far and how hard I'd have to push to see it evaporate completely. "I'm not lying about Trevor and I'm not lying to Trevor. Why is that so hard for you to believe?"

I sat back in my chair, ignoring the fruit Justin slammed down in front of me. "Hmm, I don't know, let's think about that for a minute. I seem to remember the guy I was living with, supporting, really, when you think about it, fucking around behind my back and lying his ass off about it. Maybe--and I'm just saying *maybe*--that's where the idea was planted in my little brain."

Justin sat down across from me with a huff. "This whole Justin-as-lying-sack-of-shit thing is fucking boring."

"And yet, so very fitting."

"Fine. You're so interested in what I tell Trevor, how about I tell you what I told him about *me*?"

"Oh, please do."

"I hated how I handled our breaking up…excuse me, our implosion." The exaggerated eye roll told me what he thought of that interpretation. "I hated myself, I hated how I felt and what I did and how I handled every last thing about it. But I can't change any of that, as much as I'd like to, so fuck it, you know? But I won't make any of those mistakes again. I can learn from what happened, from what I did. I can take something away that makes it more than just a fucking pointless disaster."

"Well how nice for you. So glad I could be your practice round!"

Justin shook his head at me. "What's with you? Have you been stewing about all this shit the year you were ignoring me?" He opened his arms wide and said, "Go ahead, then. Have at me."

"I haven't been stewing about anything. It's just somewhat interesting to me to find out that you have no fucking idea what actually happened between us. I mean, Christ, you're *leaving* me? What a crock of shit!"

"Is that what this is about? Okay, then fine. You kicked me out, all right? That's the official version. You didn't want me anymore, you were tired of the fucking charade of a relationship so you chucked me out on my ass, let's go with that." He rolled his eyes once again, then stood up and turned away from me, like I was some fucking ridiculous faggot not worth his time. I lost it.

I grabbed his arm and forcibly turned him around, then shoved him against the counter and moved in quickly so he had to tilt his head back to look at up me. "Maybe I just got sick and tired of what a fucking pussy faggot you are. Let's go with *that*!"

Justin's eyes bore into me, but he wasn't angry so much as just…totally…seeing into the heart of me. "What, like I never knew you thought I was some pathetic little weakling? My "weakness" has always been circumstantial, just like yours was when you were growing up in that fucked up house of yours. Where were you going to go? Where would you live; how would you eat; how would you make ends meet? It was all external. Inside, you're fucking steel, Brian. You always were, you always will be. You couldn't be where you are or who you are if you weren't so fucking strong. But so am I."

I scoffed loudly at that, but he continued like he hadn't heard me.

"You've always underestimated me. You thought what made me weak was something intrinsic to *me*, but it's not. A baseball bat to the head; my father flaking out on tuition at the last second. Maybe I get kicked in the teeth from time to time, maybe I get flayed wide open, but you're fucked if you think you can march in here and level me with a pathetic insult or two."

"Ahh, you're such a big boy now, is that it?" I derided. "Used to be all it took was a cross look in the baby boy's direction and the tears would start, isn't that right? Has our little Justin grown up that much in a few months? Has hisums gotten so strong that he won't go cryin' to Mama or Deb or Daphne or one of the other girls when mean old Brian hurts hisum's widdle feelings?"

Justin's voice softened, an indication of deadly seriousness. "All the times you hurt me, when you went for the jugular and did your little victory dance over it, I want you to know that I *let* you hurt me because I'm fucking crazy enough, fucking *brave* enough to put myself out there for you. I laid myself bare for you, Brian. I gave you all there is of me, but I *gave* it to you; you never took anything from me. Never. And you never will. I gave you everything already so there's nothing left to take."

"Jesus Christ, you are so pathetic. You lifted that speech from a very special episode of Dawson's Creek, didn't you?"

He smiled now, certain that he was affecting me. "Your mistake was thinking there was something you could take from me. You think you have some kind of power over me, but here's what I know now. There aren't degrees of devastation. I can't be more broken than I already am, and that's *my* power. I know how bad it can be, how much it can hurt, how totally fucking awful it can feel, so there's nothing to be afraid of, nothing to guard against. The absolute worst that can happen already has, I've already been there. And guess what? I'll live. Maybe not so happily ever after, but so fucking what! The world still turns, the sun rises, the sun sets. Life goes on."

"Hey, you oughta write that down, make a song out of it."

Justin just lifted his chin and went for the jugular with so much more finesse than I ever managed, and I'd had a fucking million times more practice. "You were terrified of everything, Brian. 'What if he goes? What if he stays? What if it hurts? What if I *feel*? What if I lose?' You're terrified of what you can't know, what you can't determine and what you can't control. So instead of sucking it up and going ahead with it anyway, you cower behind this bravado, this fucking creed of yours--you can't change, you won't change, no love, only fucking with a minimum of fuss. What a load of crap."

"Is that what you tell yourself to make it through the day? That it couldn't have been anything about perfect little baby-faced Justin that prevented me from *loving* you? It had to be screwed up Brian all the way, a hundred percent. Let's see how far you get walking away with that conclusion."

"I'll take my share of the blame," Justin said, tossing his head with obnoxious superiority. "The difference is, I learned from my mistakes. Fuck, I'm still learning from 'em, every fucking day. And I won't repeat them, and I won't fucking stagnate for the rest of my life because of them. And here's the kicker, Brian. The part of it you'll never understand. I'm not afraid to go out there and make more of 'em."

"Oh well bully for you." I moved in closer, and he backed up into the counter I'd pushed him against earlier. Trapped there in a corner, he couldn't move when I started to slide my hand down the waistband of his pants. "I bet I could get you to repeat a mistake or two, a little cock lover like you? Shouldn't be too hard, should it?"

He vehemently shoved me away. "I'm not turning over for you, Brian. You can't fuck me into submission anymore." He watched me for a minute with a smug sneer marring his features. "You've been counting on that all this time haven't you. Walking around so fucking sure of yourself, that all you'd ever have to do is offer to shove your cock up my ass, and I'd come crawling back, begging for you to shit on me all over again."

I feigned shock at the very idea. "What? A big tough man like you? Perish the thought, Mr. Taylor. Perish the thought."

Justin opened the door and again lifted his chin to me in outright defiance. "I hope you wallow in it, Brian," he said with that steely quiet in his voice. "Wallow in your *impotence*. I'm free of you."

I'll go to my grave wondering if he had that whole rant planned out from start to finish. Some days I think he wrote it down and memorized it a few days after we split, because he knew, he so knew there was no way in hell he'd be free of me before I was God damned fucking free of him.

Not quite a week later, I stood out in front of his hovel and waited for him to get home from class. The way I figured it, this was going to be a negotiation--like two business entities discussing a possible merger. We needed to lay out the terms and conditions right from the start, really nail them down, and then go into this with our eyes wide open. I wasn't about to start going on and on about my *feelings,* I wasn't going to tell him his eyes were like pools of beautiful sapphires or any of that crap, but I was willing to pound out the day-to-day shit that nickeled and dimed us to death the first time through.

Justin spotted me and stopped short and just stood there for a good long while. Eventually, he took some slow grudging steps in my direction, and I let out a chuff of laughter at his posture of doom. Condemned men have walked with more vigor toward the electric chair than Justin toward his front door.

I suppose I should have wooed the boy. Coaxed him back to me with pretty words and fancy promises, thrown him some of the meaningless bones he imagined were important, but I think Bob Dylan said it best. It ain't me, babe.

And Justin knew that. He might not have been certain what in the hell I was doing lurking around his door, but he knew I wasn't there to pledge my undying faith and devotion.

He didn't speak until he was standing close enough to whisper. "I'm not doing this," he said, though he'd lost much of the unwavering bravado from our last encounter. "I don't know if you think this is some rough kind of foreplay or that I get off on feeling like total shit or what. But I'm not going to be your evening's entertainment. I'm just not."

"Fair enough," I said. "I thought a lot about what we said. What you said. I heard you, okay? Loud and clear. I don't think I can say that about a lot of the conversations we've had in the past, but I heard you this time, and I want to talk. We can do that, right? Just talk."

"What's left to talk about?" Justin asked. "I think we said pretty much everything we could, don't you?"

I briskly shook my head. "Not by a long shot, Sonny Boy." I paused a second, then dropped my little bombshell. "If we're going to do this again, we've got a shitload of stuff to talk about, don't you think?"

Justin reacted with comical disbelief. "You have got to be kidding! How do you go from ignoring me for, like, an entire year, to fucking riding my ass like some drill sergeant, to shoving me around in my apartment, to 'if we're going to do this again'? I mean, what the fuck?"

I moved in and took his face in my hand, caressing the smooth underside of his chin. "Justin," I said, my tone softly admonishing. "We both know you're the only chance I've got. We both know that. If not you, then no one." I was entirely sincere in the sentiment, but looking back, it was a really shitty thing to say to the kid. Who needs that kind pressure? Maybe I wouldn't have said it if it wasn't true for him as well, to a lesser degree certainly, but still true. With some other slob, he'd never have anything close to what we have.

"And I want…" I lost my courage for a second, then found it again. "I want there to be you." I swallowed nervously and lost my courage again. "I think. Maybe. Well, probably. I probably want that. Maybe."

I wouldn't have blamed Justin--much--if he'd hurled something at my head right about then, but he just shook his head and snickered at me. He craned his head back and looked at me with his hands on his hips. "So, you want to talk about maybe, possibly, probably, thinking about maybe discussing the possibility of considering getting back together? Is that right?"

"Sort of," I answered, tongue in cheek.

He was watching me with the oddest look on his face, almost like he was proud of me, if I didn't know better. He must have given the idea a lot of thought at some point because he didn't stand there for long thinking about it. He nodded slowly then cocked his head to the side and said with a soft, but determined voice, "So let's talk."

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

It was my inclination to dispatch with Trevor St. James right from the start. Justin didn't share my opinion. He had said he'd be up-front with Trevor, and tell him we were working on thinking about possibly negotiating the terms of our getting back together. Maybe.

I'd pulled a face at Justin's sarcastic phrasing, but he wasn't that far off the mark. Yeah, I was holding back a little, but Justin took it in stride.

Shortly after renegotiations began, I ran into Trevor at a benefit for the old Salem house. I hate those things, but as a partner at Vanguard I had to do more schmoozing, and every big muckety muck in PA was going to be there.

Good old Trev seemed pleasantly surprised to see me, offering his hand to me and almost immediately introducing me to Randolph Wallace Richards. Yeah, I know, *the* Randolph Wallace Richards, CEO of Richards' Department Store. Their advertising account had been with Potter, Lash, & Midland (or as I've always liked to say Potty, Trash & Middling) since 1956, and yet twenty minutes after I shook *Wally's* hand, I had a lunch scheduled for Tuesday of the following week to discuss the current state of advertising affairs.

Trev and I both watched Wally lumber back to the buffet table, then I shook my head at the man and said, "I'm sorry, I don't buy it. No one is as self-actualized as you pretend to be."

Trevor laughed, and for a second I wondered if Justin really had been straight with him. "What did you think, Brian, that I'd look at you as some sort of threat to me and Justin?"

Well now, this was looking to be an interesting conversation. I shrugged and said, "I don't know, if my little boy toy told me he was talking about getting back with his old, uh, partner, I might feel like my status with the lad was somewhat in jeopardy."

"You're not a threat to me," Trevor said arrogantly. My look of skepticism urged him to continue. "Look, I'm sorry if some guy fucked you over and made you gun shy or that your momma breast fed you too much or not enough or that daddy never loved you. We've all got shit that's fucked us up, you know? But I love him. And some day, soon, he'll love me too. And if someone comes up to me and says, 'hey, do you love, Justin?' You know what I'll say? 'Why yes, as a matter of fact I do.' So whatever it is that makes you unable to love him, I don't have it."

"What is it with every fucking person on the planet telling me what I feel and don't feel for that kid?" I asked.

St. James rolled his eyes. "Don't even try to run with the big dogs here. I don't *care* for him, I don't *have feelings* for him, I don't *want* him. I love him, and you don't. That, my friend, is why you are not a threat to me."

All this talk of love was ridiculous, but I couldn't resist pushing the man a little. "He's an immature 19-year-old brat. He's spoiled and whiny and needy, and I'm sorry, but I don't understand how someone like you could fall in love with him."

Trevor maintained his cool, not the least offended at my assessment of the kid. He answered easily, "And I don't understand how anybody couldn't. He's pretty, he's sweet, he's smart; he's got a wicked sense of humor and a talent that's eclipsed only by the passion he has for it. And what do they say every man wants? A cook in the kitchen and a whore in the bedroom. That's Justin, wouldn't you say? And yeah, he may be spoiled, he may be bratty, but he also wants to make someone happy, and I see no reason why that person shouldn't be me."

Okay, enough with the kid gloves. "Except, of course, that it's *not* you."

His shrug conceded the point. "Not yet."

Well that just irritated me. Like sweet little naïve Justin wasn't smart enough or aware enough to be believed. "I'm curious," I said. "Do you think he doesn't know his own mind or that he just doesn't mean what he's saying when he tells you he's not looking for the next great love of his life?"

"I don't waste time thinking about shit like that," he said, lifting his chin in defiance. "I love him. And I think you don't or won't or can't or shouldn't . Whatever the fuck. I don't really give a shit. We'll see that I'm the last man standing."

"Stop seeing him," I said to Justin the next day.

Justin laughed. "No." He was washing the pots and pans from dinner, and I was crazy enough without watching his anal retentive performance. Swear to God, my grandmother would have been less thorough if the Pope were coming to dinner. But I'd learned the hard way that you just have to let him do it his way, because if he comes back later and finds a spot on something then he has to do the whole fucking thing over again. And people are clamoring to get *me* into therapy.

"Yes. Stop seeing him. Stop fucking him. How can we do this if Prince Fucking Charming is hovering back there, just waiting to pick up the pieces when I fuck up."

"Don't fuck up," was Justin's unconcerned reply. He didn't even look up from the pan he was scrubbing.

"So while you fuck around with good old Trev, I'll just be standing here like some fucking loser? I thought we were going to try again."

"Excuse me, we're talking about you deciding if you *want* to try again. We're not trying anything. Shit, we're, like, fifty steps from actually trying anything. And if anyone's the fucking loser just standing around, it's me. I'm ready to go. But I have to keep waiting and hoping and wishing for you to maybe decide to get off your ass and go for it."

"Bullshit, you're ready. You've got your back-up already waiting, the only difference is I know about this one from the start!" That was a low blow, but Justin barely reacted.

"That is not what's happening. I've told you a thousand times, I'm not in love with Trevor. He's a friend and a fuck buddy, but nothing more. We're not even talking about him anymore--he's only going to be here a few more weeks. If you can't handle what happened before, if you can't trust that I learned something, if you can't trust *me*, then, damn it, quit sounding me out about this shit. Just leave me alone."

"These ultimatums of yours are childish, not to mention boring as hell."

"It's not an ultimatum," Justin said, sounding only a little petulant. "Why can't we just enjoy casual sex in different ways? You like it from a bunch of different partners, and I don't. That doesn't mean it's not still casual."

"What a load of shit. If it's with the same guy over and over again, it's not casual."

"Says who? That's not in my copy of the Gay Man's Home Companion." He walked over to the light above the stove, and I am not shitting you, he held up the pan and angled it around to make sure there were no food particles or spots on it he couldn't see by the sink. The kid's cabinets are in complete disarray, I've never even seen him hang up an article of clothing so the jury's out on whether he even knows what a closet is for, but he'll stand in the kitchen for twelve hours washing dishes with a fucking toothbrush. I snatched the pan from him and shoved it into the cabinet, ignoring the horrified look he sent my way.

"Please, you're as bad as a lesbian," I said. "A fuck or two and you're picking out curtains and china patterns."

"Since when and says who? You and Ethan are not the only men I've ever fucked, you know."

"Right. And how many of that huge tally have fucked you, hmm? Not many I'm guessing, because you want it to be *special*. You want it to mean something, right?"

Justin shrugged, a rueful look on his face. "When I was 17? Yeah, I did. But I grew out of that. What are we talking about here anyway--you trick whenever, wherever, whomever, and I, what? Sit at home and knit sweaters for you? It's not going to play that way, I'll tell you that right now."

Which reminded me. "Will we have rules again?" I asked.

Justin headed toward another pan, but I really didn’t feel like killing him that night, so I took his hand and led him out of the kitchen. He wrinkled his nose at my question. "Those were…dumb," he said, after searching for the right word. "And not just because I couldn't keep any of 'em." He cocked his head to see how I received the joke and shrugged at my less than amused reaction. "I wanted to distinguish myself from all the tricks beyond just the fact that I was there in your loft, you know? But it was pretty obvious early on that not knowing their names and not kissing their mouths, that was all superficial shit, and it didn't really help. I wanted to feel like I mattered to you."

"You did!" I couldn't help interrupting, old resentments quickly rising to the surface. Christ, how could he doubt that? How could he not realize how I felt? I made a million adjustments and compromises I'd sworn I'd never make, and it was never enough for him. "You always mattered!"

Justin nodded. "I know that now. It didn't always feel like it though. Sometimes I felt pretty interchangeable." He moved over to the couch and sat down. "I want to build a life with you, Brian. That means talking about shit sometimes, and making plans together and making decisions together, it means giving in sometimes, it means thinking of "us" sometimes instead of just thinking of ourselves, you know?"

I sighed and looked away, already feeling claustrophobic. Justin could tell. He leaned forward to catch my eye. "We need to be real clear about what we're looking for with this. Do you want a roommate? Someone to hang with when you get home from work? Someone to fuck around with when you're bored or tired or just…in the mood?" I sighed again and stood up to pace, the displeasure clearly evident on my face.

"I'm not making some judgement," Justin started to say.

"Bullshit," I said. "You're asking if I'm weak and unable to commit or…"

"That is not what I said, and it's not what I implied. There's nothing wrong with wanting a casual relationship. We just need to know where we're coming from. If what I want is completely opposite of what you want, what's the point? I just want to be clear."

"Fine," I said, tiredly. "For the sake of argument, let's say I'm thinking about making a life or whatever the hell you said, then what. Are there rules or not?"

Justin tried to manage his amusement in the face of my quibbling. He physically wiped the grin from his mouth, but his eyes still danced with mirth. "Not in my face and not in my bed, that's all I'm gonna ask, okay? I don't want to play games about it, and I don't want to hear about it. You do whatever you want as far as tricking goes, but I'm not gonna be some appreciative audience over your latest exploit. You've got Michael for that. So … okay?"

I nodded slowly. Since Justin had his own apartment, I wondered if "my bed" meant just his bed at his place or the bed at my place too. It seemed in bad taste to ask for a clarification, so I decided it meant the loft as well, and if I mentally went through a list of some eligible fuck sites, well, I wasn't going to change all my spots at once, was I?

"What about you? Are you off casually fucking your casual fuck buddies? Over and over and over again?"

Justin looked up at me for what felt like hours, then surprised me. "No, I'm probably not," he said, in that silky smooth voice of his. I tried not to look victorious, but the sour expression on Justin's face told me I wasn't all that successful. "I'm not promising you fidelity while you fuck your way through the east coast. It's not like that. The same goes for me--not in your face, no games, none of that shit. But we both know we get different things from sex… we need different things from sex. I don't want much outside of what we do. We'll leave it at that, okay?"

I nodded again and wondered if we'd been too vague or not vague enough.

"One more thing," Justin said, and I lifted a skeptical eyebrow at him.

"How many one more things are on your list?" I asked.

Justin smirked, but didn't answer. "I don't want sex to be this…tool that you use to try to tell me shit. You have something to say to me, then say it, even if I won't like it, even if it'll hurt me for a little while. Maybe I don't have the best track record listening to you, but I swear, I'll listen now. I'll hear you, but you've got to talk to me, not … humiliate me into doing whatever you want me to do. And, Jesus, Brian, not to bring me to heel, all right?"

I wasn't about to insult the kid's intelligence by feigning ignorance of his point. I nodded again, not necessarily in agreement, so much as to indicate I knew exactly what he was talking about.

I sat down on the coffee table in front of Justin, and it was quiet for a few minutes while I pieced together what I wanted to say. "For a long time, sex was just about the only way I communicated with anyone about anything. It's a crutch, but it's also a habit. I can tell you right now, I'll fuck that up. It's too ingrained in me not to. I can try. And when you call me on it, I'll try not to be too pissed about it. How's that?"

Justin smiled and nodded. "*That* makes me wish we hadn't decided to wait to fuck around."

I gave him a lazy once over, and he felt my gaze as heat if the flush that went clear up to his forehead was any indication. "That was all you. I never decided any such thing," I said in a low voice and moved in for a kiss. But as usual when I was actively trying to seduce the little shit, he got the giggles.

He snickered at me and easily pushed me away. You know, I spent a year telling the kid to fuck off and he couldn't get enough of me. I pour on the charm, and he laughs and suggests asking Gus and the lesbians to come out and play. What the fuck is wrong with that picture?

Over the next few weeks, we talked a lot about choices. I still believed that's what it boiled down to--where did we want be? Find out and just fucking *be* there, you know?

It was never quite that easy to Justin. "You kept saying it was up to me where I wanted to be, but you never let me make an informed decision," he complained when I told him once again all we both needed to do was figure out where we wanted to be. "What you wanted made a difference, Brian. What the fuck does it matter that I want to be with you if you don't want to be with me?"

"When did I say I didn't want to be with you? If I hadn't wanted to be with you, I would have let you know."

Justin gave a groan of frustration and gestured at me as if I'd just proved some point. "So if you *didn't* want to be with me, it was okay to say something, but you couldn't say anything if you *wanted* to be with me. That's fucked, Brian. I don't want to navigate through those kind of minefields, playing guessing games about everything."

"Why do you have to have everything spelled out for you? I can say anything I want, and it means shit if I don't follow through. What I *do* is what matters. Look at what I *do*, and it's perfectly obvious what I want."

"Bullshit. It was never clear what you wanted! And you did that on purpose! You'd make some beautiful gesture to me, then take it away by saying something cruel, or by making sure I couldn't doubt for a minute that the gesture was meaningless to you. What were you letting me know? You want to know why I needed the words so badly--it's because your actions were too fucking convoluted to figure out!"

"I'm never going to be some fucking poet writing you love sonnets, littering the bed with rose petals…"

"You're so black or white. You really think your only choices are never saying anything or becoming some ridiculous character from a romance novel? Those are the only two options you can imagine? Come on!"

It was sort of ridiculous the amount of talking we did about, well, talking, and I hated every minute of it. Justin couldn't quite follow my resentment of the entire idea, and I finally quit pussyfooting around the reasons and laid it out for him.

"I don't want to become my father, Justin. All this shit, this talking, endless talking, it's like I'm back in my parents house, watching them go at it. And it was all fucking lies, all of it--what she wanted, what she thought, what she saw, what he promised, what he did--fucking lies from start to finish. And worst of all they lied to themselves--they believed the fucking shit they spouted--they'll try harder, they'll stop, they'll start, they will, they won't. Worse than lying to each other was lying to themselves. It was so totally fucked. I don't want that. I don't need that. I'm not gonna be some fucked up loser promising to be someone I have no intention of being, then blaming every fucking person on the planet but myself when all the shit hits the fan. That's Jack Kinney, not me."

"Okay, I get that. I get what you're saying. But talking doesn't equal lying, if you tell the truth when you're talking."

"God, I've fallen into an episode of Sesame Street, and I can't get up. Bullshit, you get it. Like you could understand, Your Royal Highness of the Country Club. You have no idea what I'm talking about."

Justin went quiet and still, and I thought it was my dismissive attitude that got to him as opposed to my telling him he couldn't understand what I was talking about. "You know what I don't get?" he asked softly. He sounded genuinely confused, and I shrugged in response, foregoing a snide quip for once in my life. "Everybody seems to think that I grew up in some Leave It To Beaver, Brady Bunch perfect family. It's like they think my dad was this supportive, nurturing guy until the day he found out I was gay and then he instantly transformed into a hateful prick." He shook his head at me and gave a small laugh at the idea. "I gotta tell you, it wasn't that much of a transformation. I'd lived with that guy my whole life. The attitude came and went, you know? After he found out I was gay it just never went."

"So what are you saying?"

"I'm saying you're not the only one who wants to make sure he doesn't end up being his father. The difference between us is you don't seem to feel like you have any control over that, and I know I do. Shit, you don't want to be your father, then don't be him."

"It's not that simple, Justin."

"Yes it is! I'm responsible for who I am now. I determine who I am, who I'll be. And if I don't want to be some quick-tempered, mean-spirited, selfish son of a bitch, then I won't be!"

Justin and I joke around about his being the most mature person I know, and for the most part that's pretty true. But sometimes he struck me as such a sweet little boy. I felt that way as I watched him angrily deflect my words--he was like a child insisting the moon was too made of blue cheese and Santa was too real and there was so such a thing as Big Foot. I'm not saying Justin didn't believe what he was telling me, so much as his belief in it was…well, childish. No, that's not the right word--childlike.

Christ what that kid can do to me from a thousand paces. Then he makes it worse by coming for me with those desperate eyes of his. "I'll listen harder to what you do," he offered helpfully, and I couldn't help but think he was more interested in keeping his bubble from bursting than he was in brokering a compromise. "And maybe you can…you know, check in sometimes and make sure I'm hearing what you're doing, all right?"

What the fuck could I say, but "All right." I mean, Jesus, I'm only human, all comments from the peanut gallery notwithstanding.

Later that night, as I crawled into my pathetically empty bed, I remembered the words Justin had used to describe his father--quick-tempered and mean-spirited, and I felt a weight on my chest. I was just as guilty as everyone else in thinking he'd lived a charmed, easy life in the upper crust 'burbs, and I'd thought less of him for it. One of the reasons I was quick to remove him from his home when Craig Taylor had laid out those asinine rules of his was that I hadn't thought Justin could handle the scene, handle the *hatred* aimed at him. Honest to God, it never dawned on me that he'd faced that kind of tirade before.

But now… now that I knew he hadn't grown up the way what I'd thought, I *wanted* that easy life for him, fucking ached for him that he hadn't had it. Suddenly it wasn't so easy to explain the fact that he'd always seemed to understand me as youthful stupidity. Perhaps he understood me because he…understood. I tossed and turned all fucking night and went to work pissed as shit and wondering if all this fucking talk was worth it. I sure as hell slept better when oblivion was the order of the day.

Who knows how long we would have crept toward reconciliation, but there was such an air of inevitability in the air that all the talk started to seem redundant. How much more could we possibly clarify? Why not just fucking live it and seal up the cracks and fissures as they appear?

But then Trevor was finally removed from the picture, and I had a little panic attack. And by little, of course, I mean ridiculous and overblown. But shit, look at Trevor St. James on paper. Justin is a fucking idiot to let him go in place of me. A fucking idiot.

We were at the comic store, and I went off on him. It started with my fishing for details about the dearly departed Trevor. I asked if Trevor tried to get Justin to leave with him, not really expecting to hear that he had, and when Justin said yes, I gave him a hard time about being hard to please and nobody being able to figure out what he wanted. It was shit I had blown his way before, but we'd pretty much settled it. Or so Justin thought.

Michael was standing there through the whole thing, but I'd kept him completely in the dark about the talks Justin and I had been having, so he just watched us with a look of total disbelief on his face. Justin, as usual, refused to be provoked, and he pretty much held his tongue until I called him a coward. Oh man, if he hadn't been onto me before, he was so fucking on to me now.

"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'd been on to me from the start, so it was no surprise that he read me so well.

"What the fuck do you want?" I asked, as though we hadn't talked that whole thing into the fucking ground for the last month.

"You know what I want!" Justin said.

I felt caged, claustrophobic once again, and I lashed out at him. "You can't have it! You won't ever have it!"

Justin backed away from me, shaking his head. I couldn't read his look--was it disappointment or was he finally fed up with my shit. But he responded the way he had from the start, not with anger, but certainly with resolve. "There's an answer for all of this--leave me the fuck alone." He left with this parting shot, "That goes for the hospice gala, too. Don't you fucking show if you're not ready to deal, Brian!"

We'd made tentative plans to attend a fundraiser for a local hospice. Ted was on the board of directors and Emmett was planning the whole thing, and when I tried to beg off, Justin delighted in giving me a rousing "respect and protect your family" speech. I had no choice but to agree to go. How nice to have an out offered up to me.

Yeah right, like there was a fucking shitload of uncertainty about how it would all play out.

I waited until just before midnight, then swooped in to the gala to collect my erstwhile Cinderella. Hey, I never said I didn't appreciate a little drama now and then.

I walked in to the party, and I remembered a similar scene, now more than a year in the past, and my heart began to thunder louder than a herd of stampeding stallions. I spotted Justin almost immediately, standing still, glowing in the reflection of hundreds of candles.

"You looking for a partner?" I asked him.

He nodded and said simply, "Yeah."

"I'm your man," I told him, and led him out to the dance floor.

And if you knew all there was to know about Justin and me, everything that had happened before both good and bad, perhaps you'd forgive me for thinking that for all the myriad of ways the fates had ever fucked with me, they made up for it in that moment.

They gave us a do-over. An honest-to-God, fucking do-over.

A live band was playing this time, and we were surrounded by a sea of blue-haired blue-bloods instead of pasty-faced teen-agers. But like once before, the music was from another time and the words to the song were as fitting as they were schmaltzy.

Oh, my love, my darling,
I've hungered for your touch
a long, lonely time . . .

I held Justin tightly against me, and waltzed him around the room, and the crowd stood still and watched us because we were beautiful, and the night had been made for us, and everyone there knew, they *had* to know that they were privileged to bear witness to it.

Time goes by so slowly
and time can do so much.
Are you still mine?

I whispered the words of the song into his ear, though I already knew the answer.

Are you still mine?

It wasn't until the music stopped that I released Justin enough so that he could look up into my eyes. "I'm ready," I said.

His face was soft and serene in the candlelight, but he gave a wispy, startled, "Oh," and reached out for me. "I'm so glad, Brian." His voice was breathy with relief. "I'm so fucking glad." He sounded like he had dodged a bullet.

"I made you wait a long time," I reminded him.

He answered with affection, "Yeah you did."

"I might not be worth it." I couldn't float that idea for even a second. I grinned at him, and his answering smile was so fucking beautiful it almost hurt to see it.

"Fuck you, you know you are."

No point arguing with the truth, is there? "Yeah, I suppose I am."

I leaned down to kiss him and the déjà vu was overpowering. I hesitated, just like I had in some other lifetime, though I knew Justin had no recollection of that part of a long-ago evening. He smiled at me as if he did, though, and with his gentle encouragement, I covered his mouth with mine and made a damn good pass at swallowing him whole.

I twirled us around back onto the dance floor, but Justin laughed and took my hand, fairly sprinting toward the door.

Now, imagine a man as beautiful as I am and another as incandescent as Justin. Imagine them undressing in the bedroom of a cheap little first apartment, lit only by mismatched candles from a discount store. Imagine a night of earth-shattering sex so profound the entire solar system is realigned. Now magnify it, multiply it, blow it so far out of fucking proportion, panties you haven't even put on yet are sopping wet, and maybe, just maybe, you'll begin to have some inkling of our first night back together.

On second thought, forget about it, because you won't even come close. In fact, it pisses me off to know how far off the mark you'll be, so I don't even want you to think about it.

If I were writing a screenplay, this would be a good place to roll the credits. Let everyone tromp back home with visions of two beautiful men waltzing through life without another care. No hair out of place, not a line on their faces, not a tear to be shed.

It's interesting. You ask me what I remember about the first time Justin and I were together, and I'd tell you hurting him. You ask me what I remember about the second time we were together, before the tumor, and I'd tell you laughing with him. It all felt so fucking free and easy. I mean, so damn fucking easy, what had I ever been afraid of? Being with Justin, really being with him, a hundred percent, was as effortless as breathing. We only had a couple of months of it, but I remember that feeling of…Christ, was it contentment, so vividly, so intensely. We should still be enjoying those days; we fucking deserved them, fucking deserve to know them still, but since when did that win you any favors? Nope, no endless days of fucking and frolicking for us, we head straight for the world of radiation and brain tumors. Knocking on death's door yet again.

Ask me what I remember after Justin came home from the hospital, and it would be the fear of losing him. Engaging in a little armchair psychology, it's easy to assume the fears I refused to acknowledge when Justin was diagnosed somehow came to the fore after the danger had passed. Hey, I'll buy that. Doesn't change anything, and unless Justin plans on coming down with brain tumors from time to time, there's not a lot to take away here, but, what the hell. A little bit of self-knowledge never hurt anyone, right?

It's not even that I thought I'd lose him to someone else a la Ethan, it was just this completely irrational idea that if I wasn't controlling every last fucking detail, he was going to disappear on me.

This didn't matter much at first, because there was precious little for me to control.

Mostly, Justin slept when he first came home--part of that was recovery, but part was also depression and avoidance. He put on an unbelievable show for his mom and Deb and the rest of the crowd, but he was devastated by the setback. Setback. If that's not the hugest fucking spin, I'm not an ad man. He worked so hard trying to speed up his recovery, but some days it was too much, just too fucking much, and he could hardly bear it. Then it was up to me to…to bolster him, you know?

It took about five seconds after I walked in the door from work to gauge the kind of day he'd had. If he was fixing dinner or messing around with his computer, he'd had a promising day of therapy. Sacked out on the couch meant the therapy was hard but productive, and dinner was going to be take out. If he was curled up in bed, the therapy was for shit. Those nights, I'd quietly change my clothes, then lie down with him for a little while, my arms wrapped around him, just holding on, tethering us both to the present, to each other, promising a tomorrow that would be better because, Christ, better was the only direction it could go.

Those first few weeks he was home from the hospital, Justin ate when I said eat, and slept when I said sleep and breathed when I said breathe. I liked that. It was a groove that worked well for me, and I suppose a sane man would have recognized the temporary nature of such an arrangement, but, hey, maybe I was turning into an optimist in my old age. I could see us lasting for a good long time just that way, and I was fine with that--he only existed through me, because of me. I was all there was of him. Alpha and omega.

He wasn't in a hurry to see anyone, and he wasn't interested in leaving the loft, and while that certainly didn't bother me any, it was wildly out of character for him. There's no mystery about why--it's not like after the bashing when he was *afraid* to go out. This time out he simply didn't want to.

He'd dropped so much weight from the effects of radiation that he looked like an ex-prisoner of war. That, coupled with the baldness, the wheelchair, trouble using his hand, all made him ultra self-conscious, which I hated so fucking much, because that just wasn't him.

He's this puny little kid, but he walks into a place like he owns it--head high, expecting people to watch him and admire him and want him. Yeah, yeah, I hear the cat calls now, sounding suspiciously like Emmett Honeycutt, saying, "Like father, like son." But it comes from a different place for Justin. His expectations don't mask anything, they simply are what they are. Sometimes I can't fucking believe how strong he is, how centered. He's so damn sure of who he is, he doesn't have the time or inclination to care about how the rest of the world sees him.

But…he liked that the rest of the world saw him as beautiful. He didn't rely on it, but he liked it. He wasn't beautiful right then, and we both knew it, and it was just one more fucking shitty thing he had to live with.

Christ, I hated it, just hated it, and I never could find the perfect target to vent all of that anger. Wasn't it all really just the vagaries of fate?

I'd tried to be so fucking vigilant while he was in the hospital--I didn't want his being sick to leave a mark, you know? I didn't want it to change him, which is ridiculous, because you can't go through a life-threatening illness without it changing you. I'm not an idiot, you know. I just didn't want the illness taking things from us. I didn't want it taking any of who he was from me. But every time I turned around, it seemed to claim another part of him--his ability to draw, to move, to walk, for Christ's sake; his education, the future he wanted, the way he wanted the world to see him, just every fucking thing. How much did we have to give up before God or the fates or who-fucking-ever would leave us alone? And why did *we* have to give up anything, anyway? What had we ever done?

What had *he* ever done?

Yeah, I'll sit here and hold my breath waiting for that to be answered.

A week or so after Justin moved home, he had a seizure. It happened in the middle of the night, and we knew there was a good chance he'd have one or two during his recovery, but believe me, save the kid emptying his bladder every five seconds, there's precious little you can do to prepare for something like that.

I shot out of a dead sleep to find Justin flailing and choking next to me. The drilling from the nurses kicked in and I pushed away the fear and stepped through everything they'd taught me. I timed it, made sure his airway was clear and talked to him, telling him I was there. That's all I could say, refusing the "it's okay" bullshit mantra the nurses usually opted for.

It was over quickly, though "quickly" is a relative term when your kid looks like he's fucking suffocating, and your heart is threatening to rip through your chest. There wasn't much to do after it was over--there was no need to call for an ambulance or take him to the emergency room. They couldn't medicate him, and so long as there were no complications, there was no reason to race to the hospital.

Justin was barely conscious; the sleepy after-effects of a seizure more potent than any man-made sedative. He probably wouldn't even remember what had happened come morning. I coaxed him back to sleep, but knew better than to expect any further shut-eye for me. I got out of bed and rummaged around for the checklist we had to fill out and entered as much information as I could, then rummaged around for some Jim Beam and concentrated on *not* drinking as much as I could.

I roamed around the loft, finding myself at one point standing next to the bed and looking down at Justin. "Don't you even think about checking out on me, you little shit," I muttered darkly.

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

Justin awoke the next morning, his joints and muscles protesting like he'd run a marathon the day before. Even if he didn't remember having the seizure, he knew what that soreness meant, and he shot me a horrified look. "Shit," he muttered. "Damn it. What happened?" He knew the answer already, but needed my confirmation.

I shrugged, trying for nonchalance that was obviously forced. "Seizure," I said quietly.

"Christ, I’m sorry," he muttered, looking away from me.

Oh God, not that. I'd put up with this shit for the rest of my life, never fucking sleep through the night again so long as he wouldn't turn away from me like that. I could take anything but his shame, and I barked out, "Stop it!" before I could censure myself or at least phrase it more gently.

"You report it yet?" he asked, still not meeting my eyes.

I shook my head, but he wasn't looking at me to see it. "No," I finally said. "Not yet."

He quickly brought his eyes to mine, hope momentarily shining there. "I feel okay now," he said, as if that mattered. "They said it would probably happen, but it doesn't mean anything, right? We don't have to say anything, do we?"

For Justin the worst thing about a seizure was restarting the six-month window he had to clear before the doctor would allow for his drivers license to be reissued. He'd had four weeks under his belt already, but that was obliterated.

"Justin," I whispered, my tone admonishing and desperate all at once. Don't ask that of me. It's what I'd do, you know that. But don't ask it of me.

He sighed so tiredly, so sadly, and I knew he'd read my face too well. He shuddered and shook his head, and we both ignored the tear that slid down his cheek. "You're gonna be chauffeuring me around until I'm 90," he said with a shaky laugh.

It still amazes me the way the kid takes these fucking blows of disappointment and just immediately sort of acknowledges them and moves on. Christ, I would have been throwing shit, ripping stuff off walls, screaming at the top of my lungs and in the end, I would have been in the exact same position I was at the start. Justin just keeps his eyes facing front and moves on.

He told me once, not long after we'd met, that he was going to get a tattoo of an arrow pointing forward on his shoulder, so he'd always know what direction he was heading. I'd made some joke about him needing it if the way he read a map was any indication of his sense of direction, but now that I think about it, that's a totally fucking profound thought for a 17-year-old kid.

I knelt down in front of him, and we just stared at each other for awhile. I caressed his cheek and chin and shook my head at the ridiculousness of the universe. "Do you have any idea what you do to me?" I whispered, and maybe I was wallowing in the after-effects of the seizure as well, but what the hell.

Justin blushed. Can you believe that? All the crap we've been through and that kid still blushes at me. "Brian." Now he sounded like he was the one doing the scolding.

I smiled at him and leaned in, kissing the tip of his nose. "Let's go to the diner for breakfast," I said. "It's about time you collect on that dream breakfast, don't you think?" I can't tell you how many times Justin detailed for me the breakfast he was going to tear into when the doctors were no longer managing everything he ate--chocolate chip pancakes, bacon, sausage, hashbrowns, potatoes o'brien, toast with grape jelly, and all the coffee he could stomach. That morning seemed as good a time as any to make good on it. To move forward, God damn it.

He bit his bottom lip, and he really wanted to say no. He quickly brushed his hand over his head, still as bald as could be, but he had some stern, internal conversation, because it was only a beat later that he sat up and squared his shouldered. "Shit yeah, it's about time you let me out of this hell hole."

Deb's delight at seeing Justin wheeled into the diner was doubled as she took down the mammoth order. She played it pretty cool--for her--and Justin was moved by her effusive joy, even if he was going to have to scrub his face with a brillo pad to remove all of the lipstick.

Deb delivered his plates with a flourish, and he happily dug in, taking one bite of everything in front of him.

"Well, how is it?" I asked, when exaggerated sounds of pleasure weren't forthcoming.

He sat there staring at his food, unable to answer me. Finally, he brought his head up and met my eyes, and I thought he was having a panic attack or that another seizure was coming on. He looked absolutely stricken. He'd been less devastated the day we sat in the doctor's office and heard the words "brain tumor" for the first time.

"It doesn't taste right," he whispered and stared over at me with a horrified, I-see-dead-people vibe that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

I gave him an odd look as I picked up a fork and tried a bite of the pancakes. "We'll ask Deb to take it back," I said, though they tasted fine to me. "Probably a new guy in the kitchen."

"No, no, it's me!" he said, almost frantic. "They said it might happen, that things will taste different. It's me." His breath quickened further and tears pooled in his eyes. "Oh God, I'll have to eat oatmeal, I have to eat the oatmeal, Brian, I have to, I have to." He started to shake and I quickly moved from my side of the booth to his so I could hold him.

I know I give Justin a hard time about his drama princess ways, but you have to understand something here. When Justin was in the hospital undergoing radiation, he had to eat before the treatments so that there'd be something in his stomach to throw up. It had to be something that digested quickly so at least a little nutrition made it's way into his system, and oatmeal fit the bill. He'd never been a huge fan of the stuff, but by the end of the treatments, he hated it, fucking hated it with everything in him, or I guess I should say everything *not* in him. Shit, I hated it, too. Still do. Always will.

More mornings than I care to remember, I'd show up at the hospital, and Justin would be dutifully shoveling oatmeal down his throat, tears spilling down his cheeks knowing he was only going to lose it again in a few hours. Some afternoons he'd be puking nothing but bright yellow bile and he'd still be saying, "No more oatmeal, okay? I don't want anymore now, no more oatmeal, okay?"

He thought not being able to stomach the pancakes meant having to eat that shit because he was on a strict, 3,000-calorie-a-day diet at that point. Skipping a meal just wasn't an option, but I'd be God damned before he'd have to suck down another spoonful of oats on my watch.

I motioned Deb over and said, "Who's on the grill this morning?"

She gave me a confused look, but answered, "Arnold. Why?"

I grinned at her, fingering the menu in front of me. "Well, we're up for a little experiment this morning, that's all. We've gotta find the perfect breakfast food to fit our mood. So you tell Arnold to start at the top of the breakfast menu and keep it coming 'til we say otherwise." I winked at her and willed her with everything in me not to ask anything and please God, not to make some big fucking deal over it.

Deb tossed a quick look at Justin, but I drew her attention back to me by shoving the menu at her. Then she just laughed delightedly and said, "Okay, I get it. I'd feel bad if it wasn't that bastard Arnold in there. What a fucking prima donna, right Sunshine?" She marched back to the kitchen, calling, "Oh, Arnold!" in a happy, sing-song tone.

Justin swiped at the sweat on his upper lip and gave me a smile that was more grimace than anything else. Then he stared at the table and concentrated on not flying apart into a million pieces.

It only took us seven or eight plates to find one that would work. Strangely enough, it was the buckwheat pancakes that won out. Justin polished them off, then proudly grinned at me with undisguised delight. I'm surprised he didn't stand up, throw his arms over his head and shout, "Ta da!"

"Atta boy, Sunshine," I said, toasting him with a forkful of egg white omelet. I hadn't been able to eat a thing while he tried bite after bite. My breakfast may have been cold and congealed, but it tasted finer than any four-star shit I've had anywhere else.

Justin hugged himself as he watched me finish my meal. He leaned forward and smiled softly, saying in a low voice, "I love you." I rolled my eyes at him, but he spoke before I could cut him down. "Sometimes I have to say it," he reminded me, a very pointed look on that baby face of his.

"So sometimes I have to hear it," I finished the oft-quoted sentiment with exaggerated resignation that made his smile widen.

"Poor old put-upon Brian," he agreed.

"Hey, I'm not old!"

"Poor put-upon Brian," he amended, then gave me his brattiest grin. "Who I love more than anything in the whole world."

"Do you mind?" I groaned, copping a nauseated look. "I'm eating here."

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

Now, you'd think that the ever increasing signs of Justin's improvement would thrill me. It's a completely rational thought; certainly no one would fault you for assuming that. You'd be utterly wrong, of course.

Abandon all reason, ye who enter here.

I know Nester wanted to throttle me on more than one occasion. Some nights I'd come in to find Justin bursting with pride, eager to show me the latest development. And most of the time, I made the right sounds, said the right words. Most of the time.

But sometimes it felt like the celebration wasn't so much for his returning health as for the latest step he was taking away from me, and I just couldn't muster up the overjoyed reaction they all expected of me. Which makes it sound like my sin was one of indifference, and I don't think Justin suffered because I didn't react *enough.*

Justin had been home from the hospital less than a month--you got that? Less than a month--so, if you follow me that means less than four weeks prior his brain was fucking exposed to the open air while surgeons dug around and removed a tumor. I'm not putting a spin on anything here. I'm not trying to show how right I was and how wrong everyone else was, I'm just saying, the kid wasn't really a poster child for health and fitness at that point.

So I got home from work before seven, which was a fucking miracle in itself, but I walked in and the loft was empty. The panic hit instantaneously. It reminded me of those 3 a.m. calls Justin would make when he was still in the hospital after the surgery. Christ, I'd wake up in full blown terror mode, God damned convinced the hospital was calling to tell me he'd kicked it, and he'd be all fucking weepy because he couldn't remember when Michael's birthday was or the name of the kid who sat next to him in seventh grade science class.

"Justin, you are not fucking brain damaged," I would say through clenched teeth, while I fought with my sweat soaked sheets and vowed for the hundredth time to turn the God damned phone off before I went to sleep. Or to kill the little shit before I left the hospital for the night.

I finally had to beg the kid to please, for the love of God, *please* have his nervous breakdowns before midnight.

Walking into the abandoned loft, I was sure Justin had been rushed back to the hospital--hurting himself during a seizure, taking a bad fall while trying to walk. A dozen nasty scenarios--each one more dire than the last--spun in my brain while I searched wildly for a note or a clue or any fucking thing to tell me where the fuck Justin was.

I heard the elevator and frantically pulled the door of the loft open just as the lift swung open to reveal Nester and Justin. Justin was sitting in the wheelchair dripping with sweat, his skin so pale you could see the blood swimming through his veins. He was breathing hard and smiling so brightly he was practically giving off sparks. "Brian! You're home! Guess what? Guess? No, wait, don't bother, you'll never get it, never! I walked all the way to the corner and back! Do you hear that! Fucking walked, Brian! Okay, so, maybe hobbled, limped, skipped, leaned and swayed, but damn it, I did it! You hear that? I did it!"

And Nester, the fucking bastard to whom I regularly paid a God damned fortune so my kid was looked after, he fucking stood there beaming at Justin like this was the greatest news since sliced bread.

"What the fuck were you thinking, Nester? Jesus, what the fuck? I trust you! I fucking leave my kid in your hands every day 'cause I fucking trust you to take care of him, not march him down the street, Christ!"

Nester took a step back in surprise at my fierce reaction. "Brian, I'm in almost daily contact with Justin's doctors. Everything we do is with their understanding and approval. We all agreed it was time for Justin to…"

"Fuck their understanding and approval, you hear that? Fuck it! I'm the only one who matters here. Jesus Christ, fucking walking down the street? What are you thinking? He stands up for a few minutes and spends the next three hours shaking like some fucking geriatric case! Fucking approval? Jesus! From now on you call me and *I'll* let you know what's acceptable, is that clear?"

"I think you're overreacting," Nester said, using that excessively soothing tone reserved for the young, old or patently hysterical. "Why don't we…"

"No way, Nes, stop it," Justin said, maneuvering his chair so he sat between us. "Stop explaining. You're not sayin' anything to him about this. It's not his call."

"Shut up," I barked. "I'm not talking to you."

Nester pretended like we weren't reenacting a scene from some 1950's melodrama. "Why don't we sit down with Dr. Rinaldi tomorrow. I'm sure he can allay any concerns about…"

"Nester, I'm serious, stop it!" Though physically beyond his abilities at that point, Justin still gave the impression of a kid stomping his foot in frustration. "You don't have to appease him!"

"Think again, Sonny Boy!" I said. "We're not having this, let me tell you. I come home one more time and find the two of you out on the town, you'd better believe we're gonna rethink…"

Justin interrupted with a scoff and turned his chair, trying to take off the toes of my right foot as he did so, the little passive aggressive shit. "I'll see you tomorrow, Nes," he said loudly, ushering the man to the door with a pointed eye roll. He shook his head and shrugged, obviously blowing off my tirade. But when Nester looked back over his shoulder at me, Justin shoved him with a little more force through the front door. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said, emphasizing it was *he* who Nester would be dealing with. God, the guy probably couldn't wait to get home to tell his partner about the two loons he worked for.

Justin waited until the elevator began to rattle before saying, "This is becoming a really irritating pattern. Whenever I have a great day, you've gotta jump in with some weird ass, control-freak move. I mean, what the fuck, there's no way I'm asking your permission to walk around outside!"

Still fuming, I paced around by the door, willing the adrenaline rush to be over. "Jesus Christ, this is so fucking typical of you. First time out, I don't care enough to suit you, now, what? I care too much? There is just no fucking way to please you."

It's still amazing to me that a kid who two years prior swallowed almost all of my bullshit hook, line and sinker could now be so totally immune to it. Justin angrily pointed at me and said, "You are not going to turn this back on me. All I did was walk to the corner and back, and you act like I was out there offering ten dollar blow jobs or something."

Okay, maybe he had a small, almost insignificant point there. Besides, this wasn't about blaming someone for something, so I tried to explain. "Look, you push, you know? You push hard, and you've got that fucking…face, and all of a sudden you're conning Nester and the others into letting you do shit you're not ready to do."

"Bullshit! I *earned* that walk today! I earned it, fucking bled for it and sweat for it and worked my ass off for it!"

"It's too soon, that's all I meant! And Nester should fucking know better! Jesus, all he has to do is tell you no, not yet. That's all I'm asking. You're not ready yet, don't you get it? You're not ready!"

"No, you're not ready, Brian!" And couldn't we all have scripted that line from a thousand paces. "I'm sorry, okay? I know you've spent the last few months scared shitless, I know that, and I'm sorry. And I know you think if you just…just manage everything that we won't have to go through anything like this again, but, come on, that's not gonna work. All you're doing is driving yourself crazy!"

"Fuck you, Justin. You don't know shit about me."

"Oh yeah, right. You and Austin Powers. International men of mystery."

"Fuck you," I said, grabbing my coat and heading out the door. "I'm so all-fired predictable, I'll leave it to you to figure out where I'm going, Sunshine. Don't wait up."

I drove around aimlessly for a few minutes. I had a 7:30 meeting every Thursday morning with Vance, so there was no way I was going to go out and get shitfaced, and the last thing I was going to do that night was something as predictable as coming home wreaking of fuck. Let the little psychic obsess over what *that* fucking meant.

I ended up at Ben's place, and when I pounded on the door, Michael opened it, dressed in jammies. Christ, it wasn't even nine o'clock. He was holding a bowl of popcorn and hanging up his cell phone. "Hey!" he said happily, stepping back to let me in. He shut the door and followed me into the living room. "Justin says to stop and get orange juice and milk on your way home."

"Fucker!" I muttered, throwing my jacket on a chair.

Michael shook his head, his face a picture of confusion. "What'd I say?"

"Not you, Justin. Such a fucking little twat. Thinks he knows me so fucking well, so he calls you with a grocery order."

Michael followed me over to the couch, and spoke with a mouth full of popcorn. "Shit, the only way *I* can figure you out is to guess at the most opposite thing you'd possibly do and that's what you end up doing."

"Don't spit popcorn at me," I said, snatching the bowl away from him. "And by the way, that makes no fucking sense."

"You're right. I mean, if I can predict how you're going to act by predicting you'll do the opposite of what I'd ordinarily predict then you're still predictable."

"Fuck you," I said, pelting Mikey with rapid-fire kernels of corn.

"Hey, stop it! Stop!" Michael protested, trying to deflect the corn with a VCR tape. "We've got award winning cinema here, come on!"

I grabbed the tape from him and read the title and started to laugh. Next of Kin. Michael laughed too as he snatched it back. Still, Patrick Swayze and Liam Neeson. Some shirtless scenes and fucking killer abs. Not much to complain about. I shoved the movie in the VCR and settled down on the couch. Both of us started snickering when the credits began to roll.

"So is that the only reason you're pissed at him?" Michael asked, about 20 minutes into the film, and I use that term extremely loosely.

"Huh? Who?" I asked, sparing a glance over at him.

Michael rolled his eyes. "Patrick Swayze, you idiot, who do you think? Justin! Is that the only reason you're pissed, 'cause he thinks he knows you?"

"I'm not pissed at him," I said, though now I *was* irritated. "Is that what he told you? Fucking little drama princess."

Michael shook his head and shrugged. "He didn't say anything except that you were coming over and would I tell you about the juice and milk. I just figured you were coming over 'cause he pissed you off."

That stung a little. Maybe I had been blowing Mikey off a bit, but, given the fact that my kid was having a growth removed from his brain, you'd think he'd cut me a little slack. "Can't I drop in on my best friend in the whole world for no reason at all?" I asked with a grossly smarmy smile.

"I don't know, can you?" Michael asked mimicking my look and tone with practiced ease. "So tell me what he did already."

Mindful of Michael's hair-trigger defense mode where I'm concerned, I wanted to put him at ease. Yet somehow, I couldn't picture myself saying, "I freak out whenever Justin has a breakthrough in therapy because unless he's a paralyzed vegetable, I'm not comfortable with our future."

I snickered to myself, imagining the look on Michael's face if I did say such a thing. I wonder how he'd explain that away to the both of us.

"I'm driving him crazy," I finally said, muttering and with a mouth full of popcorn.

And yet, Michael still heard and understood me. He gave me a comically confused face and said, "What? You're driving him crazy?" Obviously the idea had never occurred to him, so I elaborated ever so slightly.

I shrugged. "I have a tendency to micromanage."

On second thought, maybe the idea had occurred to him. "You?" he asked, with exaggerated disbelief. "I'd never noticed."

"Shut up. I leave him to his own devices, and he does things like becoming one of Sapperstein's boys or…"

"Right. I hope you mentioned that. I bet he really appreciated the reminder."

"Fuck you. I'm just sayin' a precedent has been set here. I think I'm well within my rights to…to steer the boy, given the direction he heads when left to fend for himself."

"Steer. Oh man, that's a great word choice. I bet you're in advertising, aren't you? Of course, a dumb old regular joe like me would probably say 'smother' or maybe 'suffocate.'"

I carefully set the bowl of popcorn down before lasering Mikey with a steely-eyed glare. I lifted an eyebrow at him and said, "Great. Now I have to kill you!" I launched myself off the sofa and tackled Michael right out of his chair. He shouted with laughter and half-heartedly tried to beat me off, with little success.

I pinned him to the floor and scoffed at him. "Jeez, Mikey, you keep landing these beefy gym rats, and not one of 'em has taught you how to get out of a half-nelson."

"Well, yeah, but I don't want to get out of the half-nelson when they do it." He poked me in my ribs, right under my left arm, and I squealed like a girl and let him go.

"Damn you Zephyr! You know my secret weak spot!"

Michael tried to wrestle me over onto my back, but we were both laughing too hard. Not that he could have done it if we weren't laughing, mind you. I mean, come on. He finally gave up and rolled over onto his back. "Don't worry, Rage, I won't let our arch enemies in on the info."

"Or our allies either," I admonished. "Information like that in the wrong hands would be disastrous."

Michael snickered. "Right, because then JT could, like, control you or something." There was more than a little mocking in the man's tone, and for that, he would have to be punished.

"Great!" I said, groaning as I pushed myself up from the floor. "Now I have to kill you all over again!"

After I'd killed Mikey another three or four times, Ben came in, bringing with him the cold night air. He kissed Michael hello and they traded brief run-downs of their day. Ben reminded him of a date for dinner the next night with a fellow professor, and Michael mentioned that the bookstore called to let Ben know his order had arrived. Ben microwaved some foul smelling bowl of noodles and joined us on the couch. He asked after Justin and wanted to know how he was coming with his college applications. I told him Justin was fine, but it was much too early to worry about returning to school.

Michael, Mr. Maturity that he is, said, "{Cough} Suffocate {cough}."

Ben looked confused, but I think he was much more concerned about the movie we were watching than he was about anything else, and who can blame him? He finished his dinner and settled in next to Michael and the three of us ridiculed the rest of the film. It was a nice, cozy evening, but I felt…I don't know, kind of…sorry for them.

I don't mean this to be unkind. Let's face it, if I wanted to snark, I'd do it to both their faces, you know? I often do, as a matter of fact. But here's my point--they were just so fucking…ordinary. They cared for each other, loved each other even, but in such an ordinary way, as part of their ordinary lives with their…ordinary selves. I don't know, it just was never going to be me and Justin. Maybe we'll spend the next 50 years flipping out over shit, shouting at each other, storming out of doors, then swaggering back for more, but fucking ordinary will never apply. Justin was probably the one I should have felt sorry for, but that little fucker was no doubt gloating over having me all figured out so I wasn't sending any sympathy his way.

I dialed home on the cell, and Justin picked up on the second ring, knowing from the caller ID that it was me. His overly pleasant hello was unctuous in the extreme, and I rolled my eyes at his sarcasm.

"I'm picking up the juice with pulp," I said crossly. "I'm just giving you fair warning. I don't want you bitching all over the place in the morning. You want that no pulp shit, buy it yourself." I slammed the cover shut on the phone and strolled toward the door. I stopped and gave Mikey an energetic kiss good-bye, and then, because he was there and I could, I offered the same to Ben. What the hell, even ordinary people deserve something extraordinary to talk about from time to time, right? Of course I'm right.

I suppose it's no surprise to learn that a little self reflection only goes so far where I'm concerned. Sure, I could be okay with the knowledge that Justin actually left the loft periodically, but we're talking baby steps here. You can't expect me to jump right from accepting his walking to the end of the block and back to actually, you know, allowing him to live his life.

The shit really hit the fan over Justin's applying to Carnegie Mellon.

We hadn't talked about school after PIFA dropped him. We both knew he'd go back, but in my mind, it would be at least six months before we dealt with it. I hadn't given it much thought, but I guess I figured he'd get his hand back and return to PIFA.

We came home from dinner at Emmett's one night--he was auditioning caterers for some queer wedding he was orchestrating, and we'd had a buffet of everything from squid to escargot to rack of lamb. Emmett had packed up a doggie back for our resident piglet, and Justin hit the button on the answering machine on his way to the kitchen. He stopped when the message began to play.

"Justin, this is Anita Barton from the admissions office at Carnegie Mellon. I'm just confirming your interview on Monday at nine a.m. If you need directions, please give me a call, otherwise, we'll see you then."

"Shit," Justin muttered. "I didn't think they'd see me for another couple of weeks. I wanted the brace to be gone or at least optional." He was completely out of the wheelchair by then, but walking required a heavy-duty brace that would catch him from falling. The doctor likened his brain waves to a radio signal cutting in and out. We still couldn't rely a hundred percent on the idea that messages were flowing freely between his brain and the right side of his body, so we needed some safety measures to make sure. The brace was one big-ass, painful as shit safety measure.

I stood there completely flummoxed while Justin blithely continued to the kitchen to store his leftovers, oblivious to the brewing tension. I'd take care of that. "Why didn't you ask me first?"

My tone was belligerent, my word choice poor to say the least. Justin was instantly rankled. "Like, ask your *permission*? Is that what you mean?" he said, his tone icy.

That's exactly what I meant, and I stalked off to the kitchen, feeling completely self-righteous in my irritation. "Look around for fuck's sake. The money's not there, Justin, it's in the fucking ramps and equipment and shower stall. I need until at least summer session before I can pay tuition. It's a matter of financing--I'm not trying to keep you as my concubine!"

Throwing the money in his face was a low blow, and Justin tried to counter my lunacy with reason, which was aggravating in the extreme. "We've already discussed this. I have student loans. I needed the year my father couldn't claim me as a dependent so I could qualify. There's no go-go dancing, no waiting tables 20 hours a day, just a regular old loan, like 50 million other college students!"

"You're not 50 million other college students! What the fuck are you proving taking a loan at fucking 15 percent? That you can be as stupid and fucking *poor* as 50 million other idiots? I'm paying the tuition, just not right now."

"Why?"

"What? I just told you why. The fucking money's not there. I don't print it in the bathroom in my spare time. Jesus!"

Justin closed his eyes, struggling to hold on to his temper. "No, why do you have to pay my tuition?"

The question stumped me for a minute. "I paid before," was all I could come up with on the spur of the moment.

"Right. Before. When I couldn't get a student loan. I was in a bind, Brian. That's not the case now. I've got the loan, it's a done deal."

"It's not a done deal," I said, sounding every inch as petulant as I felt. "You don't need a student loan, I can afford your tuition, just not yet."

"Right. Isn't a loan a way to get money you don't have 'just yet?'"

"Why are you doing this?"

"Doing what?" Justin countered. "Going to college? Paying my own tuition? What am I doing that you don't understand?"

"I said I would pay it."

"Yeah, you did. And I said thank you, ad nauseum, and then I said no thank you."

"I take care of things, Justin. That's what I do. *I* take care of things!"

"But you don't have to take care of everything, do you?" The question was innocently asked, but I fucking went off on him.

"Who the fuck do you think has been taking care of everything around here for the last two months? And I mean *everything*! Who didn't sleep for three fucking days researching every God damned fucking thing that's ever been written about brain tumors? Who rode the nurse's ass until they'd medicate you enough for you to take a breath without puking all over the place? Who quizzed the doctors about alternative meds, who handled the insurance forms, who tracked down the best surgeon on the entire East Coast? Who fucking carried you to the bathroom when you were too God damned sick to make it there yourself and cried the God damn fucking tears you were too fucking obliterated to cry yourself? Who did all of that, huh? Tell me, who did that!"

Justin acted as if I wasn't screaming like some kind of fucking maniac. He looked up at me, eyes glowing with reverence and whispered, "You, Brian. You did all of that."

"Exactly. Everybody else is falling apart, so it's up to me to fucking take care of everything, and I did. And all of those fuckers who thought I'd bail can kiss my ass. I say I'm gonna do something, and I do it."

Justin thought he'd picked up on the crux of the matter and said, "God, of course. Everybody knows that. You're not backing out of anything, it's just…I can handle this on my own. Not because you're going back on your word, it's just…the circumstances have changed."

"Bullshit. You manage to drag yourself across the room on your gimp leg and all of a sudden the circumstances have changed? Bull fucking shit they've changed!"

"I want to pull my own weight when I can, where I can. This is something I can do. Something *I* can take care of. You get that, right? I mean, if anyone can understand that, you can, right?"

"I take care of things like this," I stubbornly repeated, unable to articulate why it mattered so fucking much, and how ridiculous was that? I'd spent the last few months cleaning him, holding him, nursing him, soothing him. I'd laid myself as bare to him as I could in those gestures, but still I couldn't simply say to him, I want to take care of you. *Let* me take care of you.

But somehow, Justin suddenly got it, suddenly understood all the things that wouldn't come out of my mouth. He shook his head at me. "Brian," he said, with such gentle affection I couldn't decide whether to be embarrassed or moved. "You spent a month scratching your crotch like a madman because you had to show me something you didn't have words for. I thought you learned a lesson there."

"Well, yeah. Don't shave your dick when a get well card will do."

He snickered and hugged me, even though I was stiff and uncompromising. He looked up at me, and I would have sworn to you at that moment that his eyes were glowing. "You're all there is of me," he whispered, the words so fucking seductive; he should know better than to say things like that to me. "You know that, Brian. You're all there is, and not because you pay for shit. Not because of what you do, it's who you are and what you are to me. You tell me how you feel in the way you look at me and touch me. You don't have to pay for shit for me to know. I hear you now, loud and clear."

The topic wasn't finished, but we shelved it. We didn't mention it again, save my asking him how the interview went and his answering with an even-keeled, "Fine. Good, I think."

And I thought I was okay with it until I got home early from work one Friday afternoon and picked up the mail. There was a letter for Justin from Carnegie Mellon, and the second I saw it, my gut began to simmer.

I stared at the letter and thought about what kind of life awaits you when Carnegie fucking Mellon is your *fallback* position.

The envelope wasn't very thick, but Justin was a transfer student who lived in town. There probably wasn't much information to pass on other than congratulations and welcome to your new life.

I stared at the letter some more and thought about Justin and the last three years and the next two years, and it suddenly seemed so ridiculous. What a fucking joke. There I was, playing house with a 20 year-old kid who every other fucking day was dying on me for one reason or another, who had no idea what life was really about, what life was fucking like. We'd negotiated ourselves into some fucking fairy tale, and for what? He didn't know what it was to get up in the morning and go to work and have to suck up a bunch of shit because the rent was coming due and the car payment had to be made and the insurance premiums had to be paid. He didn't even know what the fuck he'd be doing in five years--what he *could* be doing in five years. He was just going to flit around the fucking ivy covered halls of academia, pretending to have this… this life outside of classes and parties and the self-important study groups and what a fucking boatload of shit it all was. I'm just supposed to, what? Sit around in the background, acting the part of the proud papa when he runs home with his fucking report card? How fucked is that? Like I'm going to sit idly by and say nothing, do nothing, while he moves further and further beyond…where he is.

Fuck that, ladies and gentlemen. Just fuck that.

And right there, that second, my brain clicked off. I'm not saying I wasn't in control of myself or my actions. I'm not asking to be excused, I'm just saying, I stopped thinking and just acted.

What, so, like, all of a sudden I'm supposed to be perfect? I admit to learning a thing or two about my fucked up self and all of a sudden I'm going to be some poster boy for the Relationship Follies?

I changed my clothes slowly, methodically, maybe willing Justin to show up so we could shout at each other and be done with it.

Fifteen minutes later, Justin was still a no-show, so I left for Woody's. It was early, but it took me only a few minutes to find a suitable trick, which was somewhat surprising, because "suitable" had to mean over six feet tall, dark haired, gym-intensive physique, 25- to 30-years-old. In short, the anti-Justin.

We were in flagrante delicto when Justin walked in. I hadn't thought about it at the time, but what I was doing was made crueler by the fact that he'd been breezing into the loft for months without giving any thought to my being there with a trick.

The look of stunned disbelief on his face was absolutely comical. Christ, I almost held out my hand to him to say, "Hi, I'm Brian Kinney, have we met?"

He backed away, stumbling slightly in his shock, and if he'd fallen, I swear I would have laughed out loud. He caught himself on the back of the couch, and then limped around it and sat down. He fell down onto the cushions and sat there. All night. I mean, he just…sat there.

After the trick left, I fell asleep, and then I woke up and still Justin sat. I expected to feel that same sense of contempt I used to get when I'd fuck with him, and he'd just take it, but I wasn't feeling that way as I got up and showered and dressed. I wanted to strip the bed but the idea of doing it in front of Justin shamed me in a way that fucking some guy in front of him just didn't. I put the coffee on, poured myself some juice, took a couple of breaths, and finally walked around the couch and stood in front of him, ready to see how he was going to deal.

He didn't look like a guy who'd sat up all night brooding, nor did I see the devastated baby face of the boy I used to know. He looked…unyielding.

"You were supposed to just tell me," he said calmly. "We *talked* about this. I'm not that moronic 17 year-old anymore. I'll take no for an answer now. I'll take get out, and fuck off, and I'm done…I'll take all of those. You were going to tell me this stuff, not humiliate me."

"That's not what I was doing," I said, inwardly cursing how fucking weak I sounded; how quickly I capitulated.

Justin continued as if I hadn't spoken. "I swear to God, if you tell me to go, I'll go. And yeah, I'll play the hurt little faggot for awhile, but so what? You didn't have to do it like this."

"I'm not doing anything," I said, too desperately to maintain any semblance of control over the situation. "I'm not telling you anything. I'm just…fucking up."

"Well that's lame, Brian. God, I'm pissed at you! It's one thing if you want to fuck yourself up, but can't you do that on your own? Do you have to fuck me up too?"

I shrugged. "Maybe the only way to hurt me is to hurt you." Okay, so it was worth a shot. Let me tell you, that would have fucking *melted* the kid from a thousand paces before, so it's not as pathetic as you might think. Except that it totally was.

"Well why the fuck do you want to hurt either one of us? Jesus, what triggers these self-destructive sprees of yours--boredom? Spite? What?"

"Oh look, it's starting already, using your little Carnegie Mellon mind to psychoanalyze dumb old pedestrian me."

The envelope was no longer on the table, so he knew what I meant. In fact, his eyes widened and his whole demeanor radiated, "Aha!" which only aggravated me further. Like he suddenly knew I was fucking jealous of his pseudo ivy-league education or something. What fucking bullshit.

He snorted in amusement, a smirk turning the corners of his lips upward. He shook his head and muttered, "Unbelievable. Unfuckingbelievable." He painfully pushed himself upright, and now I felt even worse. That damn fucking brace had been on all night long. Shit! He was probably bleeding where it cut into the top of his hip joint. Fuck!

Justin wasn't really thinking about the pain at that point. "If CM had been your idea, we wouldn't be here right now. You can't even stand for me to have an independent thought anymore. That is so fucked!"

"That's not it, Justin. But shit, look at it from here. You're 20-years-old. I don't think it's outside of the realm of possibilities that what you want could change in the next few years. Excuse me if I don't want to be fucked over like some sweater you've outgrown."

"Okay, I'll look at it from there, but I need a little help here. You fucking some trick in my bed, how exactly does that keep me from outgrowing you?" He shook his head, continuing before I could answer. "What the hell do you want, Brian? You want some faggotty scene? You want me to storm out or fall apart? You want me to feel like shit, to wonder why I'm not enough? You want me to worry that maybe you're ending it, and you don't have the balls to tell me? I mean, help me out here. What the fuck do you want to happen now?"

The shame I felt left an ugly taste in my mouth, and the urge to give in to a Jack Kinney morning-after mea culpa performance was palpable. God damn it, I'm not going to turn into my father. I don’t want to be him, I don't want to be like him. If I fuck up, I fuck up, but I sure as hell won't be weepy-eyed and begging for forgiveness the next day, only to turn around and do it all over again. I don't want to be my father.

The words I heard in my mind came to me in Justin's quiet voice, not simplistic in his counsel, but steadfast. *Then don't be him.*

So what did I want to happen? Who the fuck knows. I shook my head at Justin and gave him that, because if nothing else, it was fucking honest. "I don't know," I said, my voice hoarse. I cleared my throat and said it again. "I don't know."

He nodded at that, at least accepting the veracity of it if nothing else. "Well why don't you think about it while you're changing the sheets," he said tiredly. "I'm going to take a shower."

I watched him limp up the stairs, the acceptance letter from CM shoved in his back pocket. Shit. It should have been a great day. We should have uncorked some champagne and celebrated his achievement. I should have been thrilled, fucking *thrilled* for him. Jesus, a month ago he was being dosed with radiation for fuck's sake. He could have died on the table, the tumor could have been malignant, the damage done could have been permanent. I should have shouted from the rooftop how proud I was of his recovery. And I was, I swear to you I was fucking over the moon about everything where that kid's concerned. I mean, Christ, you think I didn't *want* him to be healthy and whole and back at school and fucking taking the world by storm? I do want that. I expect it.

I just want to … manage it, as well. I want it on my terms at my speed when I'm ready and in the manner I choose.

Is that so wrong?

I guess we were supposed to sit down and have a good long talk about everything, but we didn't. What was there to say beyond the fact that I fucked up? I'm not having my head shrunk by some little twink every time I do something colossally stupid. None of us have that kind of time on our hands.

The least I could do was spend the next couple of days putting forth some effort to get back into Mr. Taylor's good graces, and I swear to God, I thought about it, I really did. Sometimes I'd even *think* what was about to come out of my mouth was something kind or encouraging, but then…it wasn't. Usually it was some sort of slam about how once he started CM the breakfast conversation would seem pedantic or the evening's lowbrow entertainment would pale against the cultured offerings of academia.

Justin would then say something like, "Do you want more milk before I put it away?" or "I picked up the dry cleaning if you want to wear that purple shirt tonight."

Which is not to say he was all forgive and forget. Siberia had nothing on the state of the Kinney bedroom.

I likened it to being in Time Out. Justin just needed to be pissed for a little while, then all would be well.

I took advantage of the cold spell to fuck a new trainer at the gym and sample the new It boy at Babylon. Justin did…whatever the hell he did when things cooled between us. Guess it's a good thing he hadn't started school yet or maybe we'd have had a little Ethan Redux around here. Well, that's probably unfair. Screwing up the same way over and over again was my forte. I trusted Justin to find new and inventive ways to fuck up.

Who knows how long it would have gone on if not for a little wake up call provided by none other than our far-off fiddle player.

The phone rang one afternoon when I was running on the treadmill. Justin was, as usual, at the lesbians'.

He and Lindsay were back to being the Bobbsey twins we all know and love, and I never have gotten the full deal on how that came about. Lindsay just showed up one day while I was at work, and by the time I got home the two were just totally the best friends ever. I imagine it had something to do with Lindsay apologizing profusely, groveling even more, then throwing in the use of her art studio when she was teaching.

I would have just let the phone ring that afternoon, but I was waiting for a call from the printers who were redoing a rush-job for me. I needed to pick it up in the morning and if it wasn't going to be ready they were to let me know, so I was sure who was calling when the phone rang.

Irritated not only to have my run interrupted, but that my print job was being delayed yet again, I answered with a less-than-charming, "What?"

"Hi, it's Ethan. Um, Gold," came a hesitant voice from across the pond.

I rolled my eyes, thinking, *Yeah, I know who the fuck you are, buddy.* "Mm hm?"

"Is Justin there?"

"No. You want to leave a message?" I'll be damned if I was going to give *him* a hint of trouble in hell.

"Shit. No. Well, yeah. I mean, tell him I called, I guess. I was just…I don’t know…worried I guess. He sounded so down in his last couple of e-mails about school and everything. I just wanted to say hey."

"I'll write that down," I said drolly, wondering why he waited until now to call. Everything was settled, *had* been settled for awhile. "It's no big deal anymore. He starts Carnegie Mellon in a few weeks."

"What? You got him in? That's great!" The fiddle player laughed happily, like I'd just made his day. "I told him not to worry! What did you do, make some huge donation to the football team or something? Do they even have a football team?"

"What are you talking about? Justin got in on his own."

Ethan laughed again, sounding slightly more cynical. "Yeah, right, if that's your story, that's your story! Tell him thanks for letting me know! He writes me, like, ready to jump off a cliff because he didn't get in, then I don't hear anything for three days. I knew all along you'd fix it somehow. That's great, though. One less thing to worry about, right? So how's the therapy going?"

Now, even on my best day I wasn't having any chummy coffee talk with the fiddler, but I was going to have engage in some intense self-flagellation over how fucking ass stupid I'd been, so I signed off with, "I'll have the boy call you."

He didn't get in? How the fuck could he not get in? His SAT's were off the chart, his grades from PIFA were impeccable. How in the hell could they refuse to admit him? You mean to tell me some other transfer student even came close to Justin's credentials? And he'd had a fucking face-to-face interview! You can't tell me someone else made a better impression than Justin. He was born for that kind of shit. Could it have been the brace? Could that have thrown off the admissions board? That's fucking discrimination, and they'll hear from me, God damn it.

I was working up to a very righteous indignation when I remembered all of the digs I'd thrown his way the last few days. Jesus fucking Christ, will I *ever* come close to getting this right? What a shit. You almost had to feel sorry for Justin, this whole long life ahead of him spent dealing with me. Shit fuck piss and damn it all to hell.

I could have waited for him to come home, but he fucking deserved my coming after him, so I did. I drove over to the lesbians' place and let myself in, walking up the stairs to the art studio.

He was molding clay into something on the pottery wheel, but he switched it off when I cleared my throat. His hands were covered in clay, and a lone streak of it marked his cheek. A wave of desire stole through me, which he read with irritating accuracy. Thank you for nothing, Patrick Swayze. Justin rolled his eyes and turned away from me. Okay, so there'd be no fucking around the pottery wheel, in case I was harboring any illusions along those lines.

"You told me the interview went fine."

He didn't seem surprised that I'd found out, didn't even ask me how I knew about it, he just turned to face me and made a wry face. "I thought it did. My idea of fine and the admissions committee must not be the same."

"I could…make some calls. Get Ben involved. You know, a well placed donation might…"

He defiantly lifted his chin to me and said, "It's already settled. I start Pitt next quarter. My student loan still applies and everything."

Now, I could tell you that I felt a groundswell of pride at my kid handling this whole debacle on his own, but we all know I'm completely full of shit, so why bother? Instead, I'll just admit to a quick rush of panic at the idea, and we'll continue on from there.

I took a step closer and said, "Good, that frees up some cash to buy you some decent clothes."

So, what exactly did you expect? I'm going to go down on one knee and tell the boy I'm sorry I wronged him? Beg his forgiveness? Have you been paying any attention? That's not how it works around here.

Not that my wit and charm were doing much for Justin at this point. He just gave me a sour look and said, "There's nothing for you to fix."

"I wouldn't say that, given the way you dress right now."

"Brian…" he whined. I was irritating him, but he knew what I knew, and I knew what he knew, and we all knew I fucked up, so why dwell on it?

"Justin…" I mimicked back to him.

And just when I thought I was home free, he looked me in the eye and said with startling clarity, "You have to deal with the fact that I don't need you every second of every minute of every day anymore."

"But you want me. Every second of every minute of every day."

"I'm not with you because of what you do for me. I don't need you, not the way you want me to need you. I love you. I fucking live for you, you know that. But I can't be some helpless little fuck just because you're afraid I'll outgrow you."

"Then just love me. It's enough. It is."

"I wish you could feel how sure I am about us. I'm not going to wake up one morning and decide you're *not* the most amazing, aggravating, confounding man on the planet. That's not going to happen. You have to believe that because the minute you start thinking you're only as good as the shit you can do for me, we start falling apart."

"Just love me," I whispered. "Just want me. That's all you have to do." Hanging around with Mikey for fifteen years has taught me something about the judicious use of puppy-dog eyes. I turned them on Justin and even though he heaved a huge sigh and rolled his eyes at me, we both knew how this was going to play out.

The exasperation on his face was almost comical. "You have to figure out what you want, all right? If you can't have me completely dependent on you, then what do you want from me? Do you even know?"

"I want to eat breakfast with you," I said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "And look at storyboards and discuss your projects. I want to fight at the grocery store and watch Shark Week with you. That's what I want. Swear to God, that's all I want."

Ha! That got the little fucker! His face flushed, and he shook his head at both of us, me for feeding him the lines and himself for buying into them. And he bought into them, too, no matter what he might try to tell you later.

He pursed his lips at me and said, "Even I'm starting to get a little bored with the drama."

I shrugged and made a face at him. "Yeah, well…"

He turned away and began washing up at the sink. "Any chance you'll quit flaking out on me any time soon?" he asked, looking at me over his shoulder.

I moved in behind him and helped him wash his hands. "I'm trying to be brave," I whispered into his ear.

"I know."

"I'm studying you. I want to be you when I grow up, remember?"

"I'll remind you of that next week when you wig out over something else."

"Next week, next month, next year. You'll have to remind me a lot. But…here's the thing--fifty years from now, I want to be standing here in front of you explaining why I fucked up yet again, okay?"

The CD player switched to a new disc, and Bette Midler came warbling out over the speakers, asking us if we wanted to dance. I glared at Justin in exaggerated horror. "Am I going to have to limit the amount of time you spend with Emmett?" I took him in my arms and tentatively moved to the music.

Justin smiled in spite of himself and let me dance him around the room, and I could tell in the way he fit himself securely into my embrace that I was forgiven, like I'll be forgiven a million times more in the future. Because Justin is fucking fearless, and I'm gonna be just like him some day.

The song mercifully ended, and I kissed Justin's forehead and stepped away. If he was done working in the studio, we should probably go grocery shopping, plus I needed to drop off some dry cleaning and Justin had been blathering on about needing film or blank dvd's for the recorder or something like that.

Justin's voice cut through the mental list I was making. "Brian?"

"Yeah?" I brushed my hand over his soft hair and smiled down at him, and I could tell from that sweet look on his face that he was going to say something ridiculous and breathtaking all at once.

He looked up at me, those blue eyes piercing right into me, warming me with their sincerity. He would always look like this to me--young and beautiful, God damned glowing if you want to know the truth. He lifted an inquisitive brow then gently brought his lips to my ear and whispered, "Do you, like, *have* to keep fucking up for the next 50 years?"

Yeah, I know. But he's *my* little shit.

And the rest of you can eat your fucking hearts out.

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