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For to Ease Your Pain

Myrna

The plane hit a mammoth spot of turbulence and fell a couple of hundred feet in a mere second.

At least, that's what it felt like to me. I was the only one in first class who gasped and clawed their seat mate's arm, so maybe it wasn't all that dramatic. Brian didn't even open his eyes. The corners of mouth turned up in mild amusement, and he patted the hand holding onto him for dear life. "'S okay," he said softly, and I wanted to fucking melt into the seat and disappear. I know the blue-haired ladies behind us were trading condescending, "isn't-the-scared-boy-darling?" smiles.

Doesn't it seem like on TV when someone almost dies for one reason or another they come out of it totally dedicated to living life to the fullest? And they always go completely over the top--bungee jumping or ballooning or scuba diving. Well, I'm getting to be an expert on almost dying, and every time I come out of it, I'm afraid of everything. And not just for myself either, I'm afraid for everyone.

I had a brain tumor a few months ago (I still can't talk about it without feeling weird. It's the dumbest thing to have to say to people). Anyway, I had this brain tumor removed a few months ago, and afterwards, I went through this period where I was positive, I mean, totally positive, that Brian was going to get in a car accident on the way to work. I made him call me every morning when he got there, and I know he thought I was being an idiot, but, so what? I knew I was being an idiot, but I was still freaked out about it. Ethan says maybe I was just trying to control the things I could control in the face of a fucking multitude of shit that keeps happening beyond my control. That sounds pretty plausible. Personally, I'd label Brian the control freak between the two of us, but that's just me.

I slid my hand under the blanket that covered us both, and it was a testament to Brian's fatigue that he let me thread my fingers through his and hold tight. Maybe it was a testament to something else too, but it's a little early in the story to get all sappy.

The closer the plane got to Pittsburgh, the less it seemed like we'd ever been away. I woke up that morning so sure everything was going to be okay, that I was going to be okay, and now everything was starting to seem as horrible and fucked up and hopeless as it was when we left. I was starting to seem as horrible and fucked up and hopeless…

"Stop," Brian said, opening a single eye to stare at me. I sniffed and wiped my nose on my sleeve, and Brian heaved a sigh and opened his other eye. "Christ, you are such a fuckin' mess," he said, but his voice was soft and affectionate. Most people would have said, "God, I love you," but with Brian it comes out, "You're a fuckin' mess."

"What did you think," I asked, sounding like a cartoon character because my nose was so stuffed up, "You take me to Europe for a few days and suddenly I'm totally sane? I wish it was that easy."

"A few days?" Brian scoffed, motioning for a flight attendant to come over. "Try 10 days, dearie. And I threw in an ex-boyfriend to boot. My generosity knows no bounds." He looked up at the flight attendant, who had two more buttons undone on her shirt than she had a few minutes earlier. If Brian were bisexual, I swear he could fuck for 24 hours a day without interruption. I figure 10 minutes a person, that's 144 people a day which comes out to 52,560 people a year. I did the math once for Brian, and he wanted me to refigure because I hadn't accounted for threesomes or anything like that. Moreover, he didn't see why we had to introduce women to the mix for him to score those kind of numbers.

Brian asked the flight attendant for two bottles of Jim Beam. She eyed me warily, but Brian has this no-nonsense demeanor about him that makes people hesitant to question him about anything--like whether or not his travelling companion had an ID handy. "I should've made sure you were tanked before the flight like on the way over," Brian said, which was a total lie. Brian was worried that the change in air pressure on a plane might make me have a seizure, which the doctor assured me wasn't an issue, but Brian gets these ideas in his head sometimes, and there's no talking to him. He's totally sure he knows more than some surgeon who spent a million years in med school. The doctor said if I was overly concerned, I could take an anti-convulsant. I wasn't concerned at all, and I really didn't want to take anything.

See, I have this theory that medication is meant to just string you along so that you keep having to buy it. Maybe it alleviates some of your symptoms but at the same time makes you keep having them. Brian says I've watched way too many episodes of The X-Files. But I'd gone almost six months without a seizure at that point--the last three weeks of which had been without taking any drugs whatsoever, and I didn't want to jinx it.

But Brian was such a nervous nellie about it, I wound up taking the pills just to get him off my back. I try to be a little extra understanding when he freaks out about that kind of thing because…well, I guess just because he needs a little extra understanding about it.

But I have to say, he was amazing the whole time I was sick. I mean astoundingly, astonishingly, amazingly amazing!

Brian hates people to expect things from him, so he works hard to set the bar of expectation really, really low. Like, so low that when he doesn't disappoint someone, they're totally thrilled and surprised. Personally, I think it's a really sucky attitude, and I told him when we got back together that I expected things of him, good things, decent things, and if he didn't like it, tough. Okay, so maybe I'm paraphrasing a little.

Still, I asked him at the beginning of the brain tumor stuff if he was going to be there for me, and he said he would be. In fact, he was kind of mad that I even asked, but I had to. If I hadn't, I'd've spent every fucking day terrified that I wasn't going to see him again, so I just had to know one way or the other how it was going to be. I completely trusted that if he said he'd be there, he'd be there, so it wasn't really about trust, it was about whether or not I could count on him.

He said he'd be there for me, but it turns out that was the hugest, most understated understatement ever in the history of statements! Seriously, he was so amazing. He's the smartest, strongest, most remarkable person in the universe. There wasn't anything he couldn't have done during that time as far as I was concerned. He handled the doctors and the insurance and my mom and the crowd and, God, most importantly me! I needed a lot of handling, and not in any kind of good way, either. I was just, sort of, worthless through the whole thing. I felt like I was barely holding on. Shit, most of the time I felt like I was hardly even there. I think I checked out a lot of the time. Not Brian--he handled everything and everyone, and he never seemed scared or even all that worried, he just kept his eyes forward and marched us onward. So fucking amazing.

But even though he never seemed scared or worried, he was. And scared suggests a lack of control over something, somewhere, and Brian really, really hates not being in control. It confused me when I first met him and saw how much he drank and how many drugs he took, because it seemed out of character for someone who wanted to control every last thing about the universe he inhabited, but Brian's never as drunk or stoned as the people around him think he is. But there wasn't much he could control about my being sick, so he kind of went into hyper control overdrive once I was out of the hospital.

The whole tumor thing is still more a part of our lives, certainly more a part of my day-to-day life, than I want it to be. When I send messages to my arm and leg, it works maybe 95% of the time. That's amazing--it really is. After the surgery, it was like 15%. It's still getting better, but not enough so that I don't have to think about it all the time. And I still freak out when I can't remember stuff or have trouble explaining something. God, that's the absolute worst right there. It hardly ever happens anymore, but sometimes I can't explain exactly what I mean about something, or I don't understand what someone is saying to me--and what they're saying isn't complicated or confusing. Sometime it's just a pun or a play on words, but it won't exactly make sense to me.

When it's just physical symptoms--something with my hand or my leg--it's okay. I mean, it totally sucks, but it's not a terrifying kind of suck.

Before the surgery, I started hearing this annoying buzzing sound sometimes, and stuff didn't always make sense to me. One time, the surgeon asked me to explain what 'haste makes waste' means. I couldn't tell him. I mean, I could not figure out what that meant. I tried to stall for time, to think about it, but I couldn't come up with anything. I knew what waste meant, and I knew the word haste, but the phrase made no sense to me. It's one of the few times I saw Brian lose it.

God, I can still see the look on his face. He made this muffled, sick sound and covered his mouth with his hand and started pacing around the room. I knew I'd fucked up. I felt…rushed, like, if the doctor would just give me a fucking second, I could've figured it out, but then Brian started getting upset, and I felt like I was messing up even bigger, which made him more upset. He kept saying, "Shit, what is this? What the fuck is this? What the fuck is going on?" and he was getting louder, and nothing was making sense to me.

The doctor smiled at me and kind of shook his head, like we were sharing a joke at Brian's expense, then he calmly ushered Brian out of my room. I knew I'd messed up, but I couldn't quite figure out how, so I decided that all I could do was try not to mess up the same way again.

"I'm sorry," I said, when Brian came back in a few minutes later. "Maybe…maybe you could tell me what it means, and I'll write it down. I won't forget, okay?"

And that's when Brian started to cry.

And the earth shifted for me. Honest. I mean, the world truly became a different place to me.

It's not like he started bawling all over the place or something like that. He just bit his lip and a couple of tears slid down his cheeks, and he whispered, "Justin," and he said so much to me in the way he spoke my name, in the way he looked at me, in the way he laid his hands on me and bowed his head over them.

"I'm sorry," I whispered into the top of his hair. And I was--so fucking, fucking sorry for what I was putting him through, for what I was making him feel. I'd pestered him for so long to feel something for me and then look what happened. Look at what I was doing.

"Jesus, would you look at what you do to me," Brian groused, practically reading my mind. He swiped the tears off his face, then reached up and wiped mine. He didn't really sound mad or anything. He brushed his hand over my forehead, like he was pushing the hair out of the way, except that I didn't have hair anymore. He stared hard at me, and said, "You're gonna get better, you hear me? You're going to be fine, because I fucking say so, do you understand that?"

I nodded solemnly and he lifted his chin, the picture of defiance. "Then that's all you need to know. So they can fucking recite nursery rhymes to you from morning 'til night, but it's all shit, because all that matters is that you're going to be okay. I'm gonna fucking see to that."

It was sort of impossible to feel too defeated. Brian's I-Can-Do-Anything attitude is pretty contagious.

The doctors and nurses and specialists all warned me and Brian that recovery would take a long time and there might be setback and we had to be patient, but I didn't really believe them. I pretty much thought that the day I got out of the hospital, I'd go right back to the fucking fantastic way things were before I got sick.

And they were fucking fantastic! But I earned that fantasticness. I did. I worked for it, I pushed Brian for it, and we were finally getting to the point where it was almost easy for us. And looking at the road we took to get here, that's saying something totally major.

Brian knew things weren't going to be exactly like they were our first time out, but I don't think he anticipated quite how different they'd be. Or maybe it's how different I was. But I'd worked on myself in the time Brian and I were apart. I hated who I was at the end there with us. I really hated the person I'd become, and while we were apart, I thought a lot about who I wanted to be and how I wanted to be in the world. I don't know, maybe that sounds dumb or self-involved or something, but I want to consciously choose to be the person I am. I'm not trying to be all new age-y or anything like that. I totally understand that you're a product of your genes, your environment, your culture, your friends, all that shit. I get that. But then you take all of that into consideration, and you think about who it makes you and what it all means and then you decide who you're going to be because of it. Or maybe, in spite of it.

I grew up in a beautiful home. We had a big, professionally decorated house with a pool. It was in a fancy, upscale neighborhood. My mom and dad were this handsome, well-dressed, well-read country club couple, and their son and daughter were picture perfect offspring. You'd've thought life in our house was smooth sailing, but behind all the perfect smiles, it was a… tense place to grow up in.

My dad had a temper coupled with a mean streak. If things were shitty at work or on the golf course or anywhere else in his life, he'd keep up the façade of an amiable, go-with-the-flow kind of guy until he got home, and then he'd take it out on us. And if he had a drink or two or three, he was that much nastier. I used to get a stomach ache around five every evening, waiting for him to get home, waiting to see if he'd had a bad day or a good day, waiting to see if it was Mom or me who'd get the brunt of his anger after a bad day.

He never raised a hand to me--well, he slapped me once, but that was right before he disowned me. He never hit me while I was growing up, but he said things that hurt a million times more than that slap ever did. I can still see so clearly in my minds eye the look of disgust on his face when he'd yell at me about grades or doing chores or respecting him or whatever he'd decided to go off about. At some point, you'd think I'd just tell myself he's a fucking asshole and who cares what he thinks about anything, but I couldn't quite seem to get to that stage of indifference. So I'd sit there feeling so fucking demoralized and cut right open while he yelled about how ungrateful and selfish and spoiled and lazy I was, but I could never just write him off. What he thought, how he felt about me was still so God damned fucking important.

I think it made me closed off to people. To some degree, I only have superficial relationships with people, I don't let anyone in too deeply. Let's face it, you spend the night before listening to your father tell you what an embarrassment you are, you need to develop something of a shell so you can walk into school the next day and not feel like you deserve to be pounded on and laughed at and ridiculed.

And I think, too, that it sort of explains why meeting Brian changed every last fucking thing about me and my life. I know it's totally lame to fall so wildly for the first guy to fuck you. I know it doesn't make much sense, and it's easy to write it all off as my just being a stupid kid, but there's more to it than that.

The second Brian's lips touched mine, the second he grabbed me and pulled me to him and I felt his erection, I felt him wanting me, needing me, the second it happened I was the man I pretended to be, the man I wished I was, the man no one believed me to be. God, you have no idea how…how fucking powerful I felt! And then, later, I made Brian want me again. Made the two guys he was dancing with want me, want me more than they wanted him even, and then he remembered that he wanted me too, even after he'd already had me, even though he didn't do repeats, he had to repeat with me!

I felt invincible, I felt like all of the bullshit facades I put on were suddenly completely true, and every lie I'd ever told myself about myself was wiped clean away, because now those lies were truth. I didn't fucking care what anyone--any breeder--thought about me. I could have whatever I wanted, be whatever I wanted, and none of them could touch me or stop me or get in my way. If I'd known Michael better then and he'd been looking for a superhero, I'd've pointed to myself and said, "He's right here, baby," because that's just how I felt. I could do anything. Be anyone! Get anyone.

God, I was so proud of myself, so fucking full of myself. I know I was a total asshole to be around, but fuck it, people were fucking lucky to be around me at all! That's what I felt like. Poor Daphne. Why she put up with me, I can't imagine. Someone should've brought me down a peg or two, but I doubt that it was possible. Brian tried, I suppose, but to me, back then, he was so fucking full of shit, he might as well have had a huge neon sign around his neck that read SUCKER. I was so onto him and his fucked up ways it wasn't even funny. Except that it was. I thought it was hysterical that his best friend and all the others who'd been around him for years--for fucking years--were so snowed by him when it was so obvious to me who he really was.

The whole time leading up to the prom, I felt like Brian and I were a done deal--like our fates were already set and no matter how hard Brian tried to fight it, he was going down. When he almost left to take that job in New York, I'll admit it threw me for a minute, but I got over that pretty quickly. And even his refusing my invitation to the prom was no skin off my back. He was just postponing the inevitable as far as I was concerned. Brian and I were going to be together forever, and no matter how much he denied it, it was going to happen.

And then Chris Hobbes took a bat to my head, and everything changed yet again.

I was in a coma for several weeks, and the first couple of days I was awake, it was awful. I was so confused and scared and when people talked to me it sounded like they were underwater or I was underwater or, I don't know, something like that. They'd be talking to me right in my face and I had no fucking clue what they were saying to me, I just couldn't make out the words, and it really scared me. My mom was always there, but her presence was oppressive. She was trying to be strong, but she kept bursting into tears, and she kept putting her hands on me, and I wanted them off me so badly, I could hardly stand it, but she just kept touching me and I couldn't understand why I was there or what had happened.

Brian never came to see me while I was in the hospital. Oh, I'm sure he kept tabs on how I was doing, but he never came to be with me, to just…sit there with me while the minutes ticked by. God, the days lasted forever.

My dad never came to see me either. I could have died, and he never once came to see me in the hospital. All because I fuck guys. Shit, not even because I fuck them, it's because I want to fuck them. How messed up is that? I just don't understand how someone can turn love on and off like there was some valve someplace in your heart that let you feel something one minute and then absolutely nothing the next. Except if there was never any love there to begin with, maybe it's pretty fucking easy to turn it off.

The two of them not showing up, I guess it did something to the way I think about myself. I mean, how could it not? The two most important men ever in my life totally dumped me, catapulted me out of their lives. One guy, you tell yourself, 'hey, he's a dick, forget him.' Two guys…well, shit, the only common thread there is me. There had to be something in me that allowed both Brian and my father to steer clear the whole time I was in the hospital. I never even got a phone call or a generic get-well soon card. Nothing. That'd never happen to Michael or Lindsay or Daphne or Emmett or even Ted. Or Brian. The most important people in their lives would have been there for them, so it had to be something about me that kept Dad and Brian away, it had to be.

Sometimes it really pissed me off. Sometimes, I'd be in my physical therapy session, and I'd be so fucking determined to get better so I could track Brian Kinney down and give him the hugest fucking piece of my mind for being such a lame-ass tool about all of it. But then I got better and tracked Brian Kinney down, and I understood that his guilt about what had happened had messed him up. I tried to tell him it wasn't his fault, tried to show him I never for a minute blamed him for anything that had happened.

Then my mom stepped in and told Brian to stay away from me, and fuck him if he didn't take her up on it. I guess I can't be too pissed because if he had fought her on it, she wouldn't have been so quick to foist me off on him when I didn't bounce back as perfectly unscarred as she wanted.

Then again, maybe I would have had more faith in us if we'd moved in together of our own volition.

Still, there was a time when I thought it was our choice. My choice.

I used to wonder why Brian came after me the night he told me he wanted me to stay with him. What did he really want? Now, I just think he was really glad I was alive, and maybe he thought that after all the shit I'd been through maybe I deserved a little bit of him. And I think he liked having me around some of the time and felt some affection for me, but he wasn't looking for a boyfriend or a relationship or a life with me or anything. I don't think he thought much past, "Cock good. Me like cock."

And he never once, ever, led me to believe any differently, but I guess I thought he'd eventually find me indispensable for one reason or another. Yeah, eighteen going on eight, that was me. I told him I didn't want or expect him to change, but in my heart I knew he would change, because loving me would make him change. He would change effortlessly, without even knowing it was happening because my love was so powerful, so all-encompassing.

Yeah, I know. I don't suppose you'd believe I scored 1500 on my SAT's, would you?

It's so laughable now, but that's what I thought, even with the Brian Won't Ever Change Hallelujah Choir humming in the background, I was absolutely certain I was right. Because Brian came after me that night. It wasn't poor, pitiful Justin being dumped on his lap yet again, it was me standing there, ready to walk but being asked to stay. It was my choice this time. For once in my fucking life, the choice was up to me.

And I chose to stay.

And then, because I'm a fucking idiot, I also chose to lay down a bunch of bogus "rules," to try and somehow define our non-relationship relationship. No kissing, no repeats, no names. As if those small, essentially meaningless gestures could somehow force Brian to feel something for me.

Sometimes I wonder how it all would have played out if I'd just said, 'Yeah, okay, I want to come home to you too,' and left it at that. What would have happened? I guess it all would have eventually happened the same way. The rules really didn't mean anything and they didn't make any difference in anything.

I wanted to be everything Brian wanted or needed. I wanted to be the only one he thought about, the only one he dreamed of. The only one he touched. And no matter how many times I told myself that wouldn't happen, no matter how many different ways I tried to convince myself I didn't really feel that way, the bottom line is I wanted to be as important to Brian as he was to me. Well, that's not entirely accurate, because in hindsight, I think I was as important to him. I wanted to feel like I was as important to Brian as he was to me, and I never felt that way.

Somewhere along the line, I'd lost the ability to see through him, to see into him. Somewhere along the line he stopped being so amazingly transparent to me.

And the less able I was to read Brian and translate what he said and did into what he meant, the less I understood myself, the less I even fucking recognized myself.

The last couple of weeks with Brian the first time we were together were just awful. I was so unhappy, so fucking miserable, but I felt like I didn't have the right to say anything because I'd told Brian a hundred times I didn't want him to change, plus he was paying for everything, and I'd already gotten from him a million times more than he'd ever offered anybody. I used to ask myself over and over again why couldn't I be grateful for what I had. Why did I always want more? Why couldn't I be happy with what I had? My father used to tell me I was ungrateful, that nothing was ever enough for me, that I couldn't be satisfied so why bother.

Why couldn't I appreciate what I had with Brian? Why did I feel dirty and unwanted after those other men touched me while Brian thrived on it? Why did Ben and Michael want to be alone together while Brian never seemed to care?

That was the worst. Not when he was yelling at me or making fun of me or telling me I was pathetic--none of that mattered. What ate at me were all the times he just didn't care whether I was with him or not, whether I went out with him, whether I was home when he got home, where I'd been, how my day had gone. I hated that he could take or leave me.

How could living without me be as effortless for him, as fucking identical to him, as living with me? How was that possible when the only thing that mattered to me was him?

And I hated myself for being too…too weak to talk to him about it. The idea terrified me or something, and I just couldn't bring myself to tell Brian I wasn't happy. And it was like…the more unhappy I became, the weaker I became and the more worthless I felt.

It's kind of like…kind of like I got Brian because I was the opposite of who my father told me I was. And then, I escaped my dad, only to become the man he always told me I was and because of that I lost Brian. Because, see, in Brian's mind, the only kind of man who would want to be with him was the kind of man my father thought I was. And the way Brian treated me, I sort of became the man my father thought I was. That probably doesn't make any sense to anyone but me.

And I didn't exactly lose Brian that first time. I left him. Eventually. Finally.

I left him.

For Ethan.

Brian still has it all wrong. I've tried to explain it to him, but he's totally convinced that Ethan and I were just these babies playing house or something. I feel guilty sometimes, because he thinks Ethan and I were this flash in the pan, and I sort of think that if Ethan had never left town, we'd still be together, but that sounds like Brian is my second choice which is totally wrong. I mean, Brian is my only choice, always, but, I love Ethan. He's just, like…he's just the best person I've ever known. He's really good. Not good at stuff good, but good person good. Decent. Loving. Easy. We were only together a few months, so I guess people would say we just never got out of the honeymoon phase, but that wasn't it, I know it wasn't. We just fit so perfectly, it was the easiest thing in the world to be with him. And I needed someone who was easy right then.

I was just so…used up, like there just wasn't anything left of me. I couldn't really remember who I was, but I knew I wasn't the person I used to be anymore, but I couldn't even remember who I should try to be.

Ethan helped me remember who it was I wanted to be, and if not for the time we had together, I'm not sure how that would have ever happened.

The entire time I was with Ethan, it truly never occurred to me to look Brian up or anything, but I knew Brian and I weren't finished. I just couldn't think about it, couldn't deal with it, so I pushed it way way far back in my mind, and it just got to be habit to not think about him. That was made easier by the fact that I really didn't have to think about him.

Michael and I agreed to keep working on the comic book, but we, well, okay, Michael, set the ground rules early about our collaboration--we were co-workers, nothing more. Not friends, not anything. We'd meet twice a week, do the work, and part ways. The end. And everybody else--Ted, Emmett, Lindsay, Melanie--they were Brian's friends, Brian's crowd. It's not like I was chomping at the bit to hang out with a couple of lesbians in their 30's, and Ted and Emmett and I had never had much between us, so it's not like everyone was clamoring to keep in touch. I did drop by on Deb and Vic, and after Ethan left and I got my own place, I'd have them over for dinner sometimes. I always felt so grown up when they'd knock on the door and give me a bottle of wine or a loaf of Italian bread. It was like on TV when people come over for dinner. I loved that. The three of us talked about school and tv shows and dumb stuff that happened at the diner and things like that. It didn't even feel weird or anything. It didn't feel like there was this huge unspoken topic in the room that we were ignoring, it really didn't. Most of the time.

Sometimes, after Ethan left, I wanted to ask about Brian so badly I could taste it. I wanted to know if he ever asked about me, if he ever talked about me. Did he seem like he missed me? Even a little? How was his work? Had he gone on any vacations? Did he know I won the $2,000 sophomore class award at PIFA? Did he care yet? Would he ever? Had he ever?

I never said anything though. I couldn't. I wouldn't until I was strong enough to know my terms and be able to stand by them and fucking walk away with them if it came to that.

And I always knew there'd come a time when I could state my terms. The split between me and Brian had always felt temporary, but Ethan and I together didn't, which I can't really explain. While Ethan and I were together, I never even let myself think about Brian and me getting back together, and even after Ethan and I split up, I couldn't begin to imagine the circumstances under which it was going to happen, but I always knew that it would. I wonder if I was delusional or psychic? Probably delusional.

But I had to know, I mean really, really know what I wanted from Brian. What would I give, what could I take, how did I want to be? I had to have it figured out, and I had to be totally committed to it because I had to walk away--I had to--if Brian wasn't willing to meet me on it.

Because here's what I knew--being unmiserable without Brian was a whole lot better than being miserable with him.

Okay, so a gigantic DUH is roaring forth from the crowd, but that's kind of major for me. Because up until the second I left, I would have told you that being miserable with Brian was fine with me. I would have told you it was more than anyone else had ever had. And I would have told you it was enough.

It would have been enough.

But then, all of a sudden, it wasn't. And I know everyone thinks that's only because Ethan came to save me, and I guess a little bit he did, but more importantly, Ethan made me feel like I should be saved. That I was worth saving. That I mattered. It mattered that I was unhappy. It mattered that I felt like fucking unworthy shit all the time. I was worth some kind of effort. Just some. Just a little bit of effort. I was worth that!

Why didn't Brian think I was worth it?

Even though Ethan and I began our relationship surrounded by turmoil and drama queen theatrics, we ended up having a really sweet time together. Granted it was just a few months, but it was nice and loving and easy, and I really needed to know that it was possible for life and love to be that way. I needed to know it was possible for my life and my love to be that way.

Still, it seemed almost…inevitable when Ethan won a violin competition and left for a two-year world tour. I wasn't happy by any stretch of the imagination, and I felt kind of…cheated out of him a little, but the whole thing seemed destined in a way you just couldn't fight.

And this might sound bizarre, but we ended up closer than ever for his leaving. We just sort of dropped the "lover" part of us, but everything else between us just deepened. With e-mail and chat rooms, we "talked" almost every day. And I think I needed to know that too--that it was possible to love someone, to be in love with someone, and when that love changed into something else, it was possible to still love them.

After Ethan left, I went through sort of a, I don't know, a hermit phase I guess. I felt like I'd had the absolute best the world had to offer with first Brian, then Ethan, and every one else on the planet paled in comparison. Everyone seemed so…ordinary, so not worth the effort.

And I guess maybe it was there in the back of my mind that I had to get ready for things to pick up with Brian. It's not like I sat at my kitchen table with a pad of paper and a pencil and made these elaborate plans or anything, but I did spend time trying to figure out how I became the person I was at the end there with Brian. How had I become that weak, ineffectual little faggot who couldn't even speak up for himself? How had I come to that? And how was I going to keep from ever becoming that person again?

It's funny to me that the one thing I never gave any thought to was how Brian and I would manage to get back together. Shit, we hardly ever even saw each other, so it seems pretty dumb to me now that I spent so much time deciding how I wanted to handle the actual relationship with Brian but absolutely no time figuring out how I'd ever get back in the position to have a relationship with him. Again, the delusional/psychotic question comes to mind.

Turns out it was Brian who made the first move. I bet most people wouldn't believe that if I told them, but it's the truth.

I almost feel like I, sort of, manipulated him or something, but swear to God, I didn't. I started seeing this guy, Trevor, who was a friend of Michael's boyfriend, Ben. But Brian and I weren't anything to each other at that point. It had been months since I'd so much as nodded at him from across the room. And I'd hardly had any social life in the months since Ethan had gone.

I was pretty content going to class, working on the comic book and working part time in an art supply store near the gallery district. I don't know, maybe "content" isn't entirely accurate. If you look at it on a continuum, you can be miserable, unmiserable, content, or happy. I guess maybe I was unmiserable. Things were…fine. And fine is okay. Fine is better than miserable anyway.

That's where I was when I met Trevor. He came into the comic book store with Ben one night when Michael and I were finishing up some stuff. He was so fucking hot, I felt like my mouth was gaping open at him. He had really short hair, and he was going bald, but I kind of dig that yuppy, receding hairline thing. He had beautiful skin and eyes, and a smile that just blew me away. He was an architect, but instead of putting up soulless strip malls and cookie cutter houses, he was dedicated to preserving historically significant buildings.

Did I mention he was totally hot?

So he put the moves on me right away, and for once I wasn't overcome with total disinterest. I was way interested, and when he asked me out to dinner, I was totally up for it. And later, over dinner, when he asked me back to his hotel room, I was totally up for that too!

I liked Trevor, but it never went deeper than that. I used to drive myself crazy wondering why--was I consciously doing it, was it because I couldn't love anyone else after Brian and Ethan? It worried me because Trevor was this really great guy. Sort of, the perfect guy. He was everything anyone should want--gorgeous, talented, rich as sin and really decent. He cared about shit. He cared about people and causes and the whole world, not just his little corner of it. I should have been head over heels for him, but it just never happened for me.

The sex was good, occasionally great. That's pretty faint praise, I suppose, but it's just the truth. I really liked fucking around with Trev, but I never got off on it five days later, just remembering what we'd done. Everything about us was totally in the moment--the sex, the dates, the talks, the laughs. It was great fun, but I never for a second projected anything into the future.

And I can't really feel all that badly that Trevor did. I told him over and over again where my head was. I offered more than once to just let the whole thing go, but he thought I'd change my mind. I told him I'd felt the same way about Brian--and I told him where that got me. I didn't like the idea that I was making someone feel the same way I'd felt with Brian, and I'm not saying that Brian made me feel the way I did. It was my own fault for thinking he'd change because he loved me oh so fucking much.

Maybe the more noble thing would have been to call it off. I don't know--where does consideration for someone else's feelings slide over into making decisions for them?

Right after I started seeing Trevor, Brian became this overbearing presence in my life. All of a sudden he was popping up everywhere, and not just popping up, he started riding my ass, like he was some long lost daddy I'd been looking for. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on. Like I said, Trevor was fucking perfect--if a perspective rival was ever going to light a fire under Brian Kinney's ass, it'd be Trevor St. James. Maybe that's why I feel like I manipulated Brian. I mean, I knew what Brian was doing from the first second he read me the riot act for not showing up at Vic's birthday party (which I didn't even know about by the way, but that's a whole other story I won't even go into. I mean, Jesus! Michael was hiding invitations from me so I wouldn't, what, embarrass Brian with my presence when the crowd got together? How infuriating! Back then, I was determined not to let it infuriate me, because he just didn't get to do that to me. But I'm not even going to bring that up.).

I guess I could have told Brian right then that nothing serious was ever going to happen between me and Trevor, but I didn't say anything. At first, I was kind of pissed anyway. If Brian wanted to get back together, telling me I was an ungrateful shit wasn't really the way to go about it.

But if nothing else, Brian's behavior was my wake up call to have my shit together where he was concerned.

Of course, even though I'd been thinking about it forever, it was still a bit of a surprise when it finally happened. And naturally it happened at the worst possible time.

All right, so I'm exaggerating, but it was after the first totally public annihilation of my talent as an artist.

There are two major art shows at PIFA, one each semester. There's tons of other small showings and stuff, but the winter and spring shows are the ones that count. Local gallery owners and business owners always check out the talent, and it's a great way to make contacts for internships and things like that. The school tries to make it as real a simulation of "life as an artist" as they can, and if the pressure leading up to the show is any indication, they do a good job of it. Everyone in my visual arts school was running on fumes by the time the show opened, and I was especially nervous since this was my first exhibit since the Creighton award was given out. I'd been the sophomore class nominee for the award so there was more than a little curiosity about what made my art so great that I should get that nod. Hey, I welcomed that kind of curiosity. I spent the first few months at school being "that kid who got bashed", and I'd rather be known for something else, thank you very much.

And, okay, I'll cop to some arrogance about my art. My talent. I know I'm not a prodigy like Ethan, but I know I'm good. I think I'm good anyway, but not better than everybody else or anything. I'm just saying I don't think I totally suck.

Turns out, Sinclaire Bainbridge, one of the student reviewers, thought I sucked. And not just a little, either. He thought I sucked with the force and depth and breadth of a billion washed up artist-wannabes, and man, did he lay out in detail all the hundreds and thousands of ways my work sucked.

A group of us had gathered outside the Student Union first thing in the morning after the show opened, waiting for the student paper to be delivered so we could read the reviews. When it got there, one of the guys grabbed a copy and ripped it open and began to read it out loud. He stopped kind of short and shot me this look, and everybody knew what was coming wasn't going to be good. We were all a little surprised at just how bad it was. And then everybody got really mad on my behalf, but it's not like you can refute a negative review with facts. If the guy hated it, he hated it and it's not like you can reason him into not hating it.

So, I'm kind of humiliated in front of my peers, half of whom feel bad for me and the other half of whom probably got a kick out of it, and I felt like I spent the whole day on display. It's like everyone was holding their breath, waiting to see if I'd fall apart or go off on the guy or something.

I didn't know how in the hell to react, and it was one of those times I missed Brian. In front of everyone he would have acted like it wasn't anything, like he hardly even knew what I was talking about. But once we were home, alone, he would have vented with me, let me rant about it, then he would have said…well, something, anything, and it would have put everything in perspective for me.

And then he would have fucked me into oblivion.

Those days were long gone, though. If I'd run into Brian then, he would have gone off on me about something stupid, and I would have stomped away as aggravated as ever.

God, that was the longest day in history, but finally, I made it home and just crashed. I put on my oldest pair of sweats (stolen from Brian--sucker!), shoved one of Ethan's cd's in the cd player and fell face-down on the couch and just laid there, trying not to think.

I was pissed at how nasty the review was, but more than anything it scared the shit out of me. Bainbridge called my art soulless and that struck right into the heart of all my fears about computer-based art. Maybe it was impossible to imbue real feeling into a medium where your hands don't actually touch the finished product. Maybe human touch once removed sort of dampens down the emotional experience of the art.

Or maybe my point of view after the bashing and the trouble with my hand and the chaos of the last few years, maybe all of that makes me too different for my art to have any mass appeal or any mass understanding.

Or maybe I just fucking sucked.

I talk to people at school and the dire crisis in their life is running into someone they drunkenly sucked face with the night before. Why can't I have those kind of problems?

So I was moaning and groaning to myself on the couch when a knock sounded at the door. I thought about just lying there until my visitor went away, but I'm one of those people who can't let the phone ring or the door go unanswered, so I lugged myself up and opened the door and who the fuck is standing there but Brian Kinney.

It was like the universe wanted to see just how shitty one person's day could possibly be. There it was, the absolute worst day of my life, my future career obliterated before it ever even started, and Brian shows up to rub my nose in it. At least, that's what I thought at first. I mean, he brought a framed copy of the review and hung it on the wall! I couldn't believe it! I was like, well, fuck you too, Brian, you shithead, but then he kind of moseyed over to me in that slow, sexy way of his and starts throwing the names of artists at me--successful artists who were just skewered by the critics at one point or another in their careers.

I tried to point out that I hardly compared to Paul Russette or Alex Juarez, but Brian would have none of that. He even brought a bottle of really good champagne, and when he toasted me, he said, "Here's to churning out soulless drivel that makes stick figures seem imbued with life."

That was a direct quote from the review, the quote from the review that terrified me to think might be true. Brian said it so mockingly, in such a superior tone, that relief totally washed over me. I smiled at him and raised my glass and we toasted. Then Brian took it upon himself to dress me for the next day, promising that the curious masses would turn out to see art that would make someone write such a scathing review.

Of course he was right. God, what a great day that was! People just kept coming and coming and coming, and so many of them said amazing things to me about my work, and it's so…it's just this indescribable feeling to know you've made someone feel something or think something or, or wonder something. It gave me this total certainty that I was doing what I was meant to do and that's a great feeling.

It was also the day that I knew for sure Brian and I were going to try again. I knew before that that Brian was trying to come to a decision whether or not to make the effort, but that day was the day I knew he'd decided.

So, it starts with the fact that I was up for this prize called the Creighton Memorial Scholarship. "Scholarship" is sort of a misnomer because if you win, you only get $2,000. Winning the award gets you some prestige, a little bit of name recognition in the art world, that sort of thing. There are 20 nominees from the senior class, ten from the junior class and then the winners of the freshman and sophomore class prizes are also invited to submit work.

As the winner of the sophomore class prize, I submitted some work which was then judged by this panel of "experts" who awarded the prize. It turns out, Lindsay was one of the nine judges, and it also turns out she was one of the more…vocal voices arguing against awarding the prize to me.

I wouldn't even have known any of that, except that Trevor took it upon himself to look into it after he found out I hadn't won. So he did a little digging and came away with the idea that Lindsay's opinion had a lot to do with my not winning.

I mean, my basic response to the whole thing was "whatever." The people who love Brian love him kind of…ferociously and kind of selfishly too. Because so few people ever get close to him, those who do guard that closeness pretty voraciously. I think maybe…they view it sort of as a sign of self-worth or something, like they must be pretty special for Brian to have allowed them inside his inner sanctum. And when I'm feeling generous and not persecuted or anything, it's sort of sad to me because I think that's messed up.

Making Brian's love some kind of barometer of self-worth isn't right for anybody, and I'm speaking from personal experience here, not just pointing fingers. It puts too much of the wrong kind of pressure on Brian, and when it's all said and done, how you feel about yourself has to come from inside anyway or you're going to spend your whole life begging people to love you, and fuck that.

Brian's just a man. We joke about my idolizing him--it's still sort of a pattern I fall into if I'm not careful, but he has to be just a man to me, not some self-created myth. I want the man--because the man is infinitely more interesting and aggravating and amazing than any make-believe persona could ever be. And Brian needs to know it's him I want to be with, the real him, warts and all. I mean, everyone needs that. We all need to know that we're loved for who we really are--who wants to live in constant fear of being found out? I won't let Brian live that way with me, I won't let him. So even when he's pissed off that I'm not buying his shit, even then, he knows I'm in this with the real man he is and not that idiotic image he projects.

Kind of a rant there, but sometimes it makes me crazy when I think of this box Lindsay and Michael and everyone else paint Brian into. And yeah, Brian shares some of the blame but still, they should let Brian be who he is and not who they need him to be. And I get to say that because I'm his lover.

It's not like I ever had a chance at winning the Creighton. It's never gone to an underclassman--the winners of the class prizes are included as a kind of honor, not because they're really competitive or anything. To find out I was ever even close to being in the running to win was awesome to me.

And if you want to know the truth, I was kind of pissed at Trevor for sticking his nose into it. I mean, on one level it was flattering that he thought my stuff was so good I should have won, but if he'd just stayed out of it, then I'd've never known any different, and ignorance can be bliss. Then again, if Brian hadn't found out about it, who knows how long it would have taken him to get his ass in gear.

Brian found out about the Creighton at my art show, and he couldn't believe what Lindsay had done, but I hadn't been overly shocked.

I remember mostly just thinking it was a lame thing for her to do because Brian and I were hardly even passing acquaintances at that point. It's not like she'd've won any points with Brian if he found out about it. His reaction would've been something like, "Justin who?" So it all boiled down to Lindsay being petty and jealous and kind of spiteful, but I was never going to get the prize anyway, so, you know, whatever.

Anyway, Trevor was lying in wait for Lindsay that day, and when she came in to look at my stuff, he marched up to her to let her know we knew what she'd done.

I was pissed all over again at Trevor! What is it with everybody creating scenes at public gatherings? I mean really, is it a queer thing or what? 'Cause, you know, no matter how shitty my dad was at least when we were out in front of people he acted normal, which I guess is fucked up in its own way, but people are going to stop asking me to participate in anything if every time I show up I bring some stupid drama along with me!

So, Trevor and Lindsay were starring in this stupid soap opera, and I'm embarrassed because naturally they have to do it right in front of Brian. And besides, I really, really didn't want to see Brian not care that it happened. I know that's dumb given that I didn't care that it happened, but Brian not caring would have hurt me in a way that Lindsay doing it in the first place didn't. Even after all that time what rankled the most was Brian's just not giving a fuck.

I called Trevor off and left Lindsay to put whatever spin she wanted to on the story for Brian.

I can't say I was stunned when I walked home from the grocery store and found Brian standing outside my apartment building, but I was surprised when he owned up to why he was there. He couldn't believe what Lindsay had done and wanted to make sure I knew he hadn't had anything to do with it. I made a joke about Michael writing me out of the comic book and how maybe I was starting to get a persecution complex, and then I told him that when I was way more successful than all of them, I'd maybe be glad Brian had such ardent protectors around him. It's funny though, because he got all pissy when I said something about knowing he wouldn't go in for petty shit like that, and he copped this attitude like, oh, I thought I knew him so well. And I'm like, "So, wait, you're pissed that I don't think you're out there plotting some sort of diabolical revenge for my leaving you?"

Brian looked at me like I was the craziest person he'd ever met and then he went off on this tangent about how I didn't leave him, we imploded. And I'm like, whatever, which could have totally set him off, but by then he was already annoyed over something else--the way I was putting my groceries away of all things, so he let that go while he reorganized everything. How fucking anal do you have to be to organize your pantry by food group? I mean, shit, it doesn't take me ten years to figure out the difference between a box of cereal and a can of green beans. If they're next to each other in the cupboard, I can probably manage to pick out the one I need. But I figured, hey, knock yourself out.

It felt weirdly normal sitting on the kitchen counter and talking to Brian. I expected to feel self-conscious, like the weight of all my fuck-ups was pressing down on us, but it didn't feel like that at all. It just felt like sitting around the kitchen talking to Brian while he rearranged my pantry. I asked him to stay for dinner, but he couldn't, so I thanked him for making all the shit with the art show review seem okay.

I couldn't wait to tell Ethan about it--Sinclaire Bainbridge was in his class, so he'd know the scoop about the guy. I hadn't e-mailed Ethan the day before, and now I was glad to be able to tell the story from start to finish with a happy ending and everything. It had felt too raw the night before, but now it just seemed funny. Ethan would get a kick out of, I was sure.

"I guess I could have a quick bite," Brian said obviously changing his mind and bringing me out of the e-mail I was mentally composing. I watched him go through the cupboards looking for a plate, and bit back a knowing grin at the annoyed grimace on his face. I suppose my plates were 3.7574 inches too far to the left of the dishwasher. "If you're sure it won't bother your boyfriend," he added over his shoulder.

Because I'd been thinking about Ethan, I guess, it took me a second to figure out what Brian meant. He knew Ethan and I weren't together anymore, so I couldn't figure out why he thought it would bother Ethan for us to have dinner. Then I realized he was talking about Trevor. I sighed and shook my 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. We have a blast together, but nothing's going on below the surface of it."

The evening started going to shit right about there. Brian wanted to know what I'd told Trevor about us, and he just wouldn't believe that I hadn't made him out to be some evil villain in the whole thing. I kept telling him I'd been honest about what had happened, but he just wouldn't buy it. And I was like, fine. I wasn't about to fall all over myself trying to get Brian to believe me. I played it as cool as I could, trying not to let him push my buttons. Sometimes he'd do that, just to be a shit, just because he could, like pulling legs off a spider. I hated myself for falling for it when we were together, and I God damned wasn't going to let it happen any more.

But he wouldn't shut up about how I'm this huge fucking liar. No matter what I said, his answer was, "Well, yeah, but you're a liar." And he knew, he had to know how fucking much I hated myself for lying about me and Ethan. I should have been up front about everything, I know that. Shit, I knew it then, every second that I was lying I knew it was shitty and weak and fucking pathetic, and I hated it, and he so fucking knew that.

Finally, I just said, "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."

So then Brian's all pissed that I thought of him as a practice boyfriend or something.

Shit, honest to God, sometimes when I'm talking to him, I think maybe we were better off when we never talked about anything. How do you reason with someone who makes those kind of jumps in logic?

By that point, I was like, okay, fine, whatever you want the story to be that's what it is. I told Brian we'd tell everyone he got tired of my bullshit and kicked me out, but that just made him angry. Really fucking angry.

He backed me against the kitchen counter and said, "Maybe I just got sick and tired of what a fucking pussy faggot you are. Let's go with that!"

I wanted to spit in his face so fucking bad, to just shove his hateful words down his throat! I wasn't going to stand by and let him shit on me like that, not anymore.

"You've always underestimated me," I said to him. "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."

Brian scoffed at me, refusing to really hear what I was saying, but I'd kept so much inside me for so long, I wasn't about to stop. "I'll take my share of the blame," I said, when he still tried to act like I was painting myself as some helpless martyr in the relationship. "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."

That's when Brian decided he was through talking about all the shit, and he tried to fuck me into his way of thinking, but I knew he'd try that, and I was ready for him. "I'm not turning over for you," I told him. "You can't fuck me into submission anymore. 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."

He acted shocked, like he couldn't even believe that I would suggest something like that. He was so fucking condescending, so fucking sarcastic! "A big tough man like you?" he said snidely. "Perish the thought, Mr. Taylor. Perish the thought."

I opened the door for him and the last thing I said to him was, "I hope you wallow in it, Brian. Wallow in your impotence. I'm free of you."

I'd made a hit there, I could tell. His face was flushed and his eyes were angrier than I'd ever seen them, but even as I slammed the door and walked back to the couch on shaking legs, even though the next few days it felt like I was sleep walking through my life, even though every last thing seemed more fucking surreal than real, even then, I knew Brian would be back. I knew it with absolutely certainty because there was no way in hell I'd be free of him before he was God damned fucking free of me.

I was certain that was the start of it, but only the start of it. I was totally floored when, a week later, without a phone call, a drop-in or a single bit of contact, I found Brian loitering in front of my place yet again, and what does he say to me, but "If we're going to do this again, we've got a shitload of stuff to talk about, don't you think?"

I think my jaw scraped the pavement. Yeah, I knew we were going to try again. Yeah, I knew I wasn't fucking free of Brian Kinney. Yeah, I even knew he wasn't fucking free of me, but I thought we were light years away from "if we're going to do this again."

I sort of lit into him for going from 0 to a thousand in less than half a second, and I'm not sure what I was expecting--not total gut-wrenching honesty, that's for sure. But he took my chin in his hand and said, "Justin," and swear to God, he could have stopped right there because all I ever needed to hear from him he said to me in the way he spoke my name. But he went on. He said, "We both know you're the only chance I've got. We both know that. If not you, then no one."

But he didn't stop there, he said, "And I want there to be you."

He said that to me! "I want there to be you." God, my heart grew three sizes, like the Grinch's. I felt it swelling against my ribs. I want there to be you.

And I knew I wasn’t dreaming, knew I hadn't stepped into some parallel Star Trek universe because in the very next breath, he added. "I think. Maybe. Well, probably. I probably want that. Maybe."

And looking back, I don't think I could stand it if it had happened any other way. At least like that, I felt like I was on totally sure ground. I loved him so much that second, I wanted to scream it from the rooftop. Instead, I shook my head at him and laughed. "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," was Brian's answer.

Brian was such a fucking mystery to me as he stood there, looking totally vulnerable and impenetrable all at once; seeming open, yet somehow unapproachable, acting brave when he had to be, he fucking had to be as terrified as I was. But despite everything, despite every sign, every fucking piece of evidence to the contrary, there he stood, willing to try. Maybe.

I suppose another guy might have played it more coolly, might have resisted showing his hand so early in the game, but how I felt about Brian had never been something I hid, it had never been something I was afraid of showing the world. Brian may have come to me sooner than I thought he would, but my answer had been cast in stone long, long before he ever gave thought to our trying again. I answered him in a voice as strong and determined as I'd ever used before. "So let's talk."

In most stories, this is where the happily-ever-after part would start, but it wasn't like that at all.

I know Brian wanted me back some day, but when I was with Trevor he was afraid some day would be too late, and he had to step up his plans. I think he ended up stuck with me before he expected to or something. I mean, we talked and talked and talked about every fucking thing I could think of, but when we both jumped in and admitted that we were trying again, it got really hard before it got easy.

We really did talk about shit this time around. I thought we'd talked about everything we needed to. I just felt like we both had to know where we thought we were going, where we wanted to go, and I guess we did, but we talked in big picture terms, but the big picture is made by making tons and tons of small individual brush strokes. We didn't really talk about those brush strokes.

It was easy to tell Brian not to trick in my face, not to fuck me instead of deal with me. It was even easy to tell him I wanted to make a life with him and if he didn't want the same thing to just fucking tell me. Those were easy things to say to him.

But I guess we're all creatures of habit when it comes down to it, so I can't completely fault either one of us for so quickly falling back into some of our old patterns. And some of our old patterns were pretty rotten.

There's a saying about familiarity breeding contempt. Well, we kind of lived it there at the beginning.

There's this part of Brian that thinks he's not really worth caring about. It's like he doesn't respect himself enough to think he's worthy of someone. But that makes him think the person who actually loves him is ten million times more contemptuous than he, himself, is. So the long-term plan, then, would be to make Brian realize he's totally worth anything and everything and all that, but short-term was a whole other thing. Because in the short term, I was the one he was all contemptuous over.

He could just be so fucking nasty sometimes. He'd get in these pissed off moods and just the sight of me would make him that much angrier, that much more disgusted. He never woke up that way. You couldn't exactly call him a morning person, but he's not one of those guys who gets up on the wrong side of the bed. But some days, whatever happened, he'd come home from work and start picking at me.

I'd felt so fucking sure of everything when we laid out our expectations of each other, but the first time Brian came home and laid into me, it was such a powerful déjà vu back to the first time we lived together that I fell right back in the old pattern, which was to just…take it.

There was such a thin line to walk when he got that way--too confrontational, and I couldn't anticipate where the night would go. Not that I thought Brian would hit me or anything, but, he'd try harder and harder to score a direct emotional hit and that always left me bruised a lot longer than any physical blow. But then, if I cowered too obviously, that just made him all the more pissed and determined to see me bleed.

When we were together before, and Brian would go off like that, we pretty much just ignored it. Maybe I flounced around pouting a little the next day, and maybe Brian would be a little more considerate for a few hours, but that was it. The only difference this time around was that, the next morning, Brian was always waiting for me to say something or do something, and I kind of was too, but I couldn't think what.

I hadn't told Ethan about getting back with Brian, I think partly because it still felt so rocky. Sometimes I wished that I had, just so I'd have someone to bitch to, but Ethan would worry and probably offer advice I didn't want or really need, and I'd end up irritated, and I just wanted to avoid that if I could.

And then one day, I sat down on the square at school to eat lunch and kind of snorted to myself thinking maybe I should call my mom and get some pointers for dealing with a man like Brian, and, Jesus Christ, I just about shit my pants right there.

Swear to God, fucking swear to God, I never noticed the parallel before that. Never. Is that not totally fucked? Not a week went by my entire childhood where I didn't tell myself I'd never live the way we lived in that house, and what the fuck was I doing? What the fuck?

And on top of that, who the fuck was I? I'd promised myself I wasn't going to be some namby pamby milquetoast anymore! When Brian pissed me off, I was sure as hell going to let him know about it, and I wasn't about to just slink around while he ignored me!

Christ, I was never gonna get this stuff right.

And what good did the bolt of lightning do me anyway? What in the hell was I going to do about it now that I had such a clear picture? I sighed and indulged in a minute or two of self-pity. Emmett would talk to Ted if he were me. Michael would talk to Brian. Daphne…well, at one point she would have talked to me. Now it would be Carla, her roommate. Her best friend. Maybe someday it would be Ethan for me. Maybe. Or maybe Brian would always be a sort of forbidden topic we'd agree to steer clear of.

I heard a loud chorus of laughter and looked over to where a group of theater students were eating lunch.

Brian thought my mom's steady refrain of "find friends your own age," was some kind of reaction to him, but I'd heard that chorus my whole life. Maybe not the age part, but the part about having to find some friends was a constant nag. I've just never been a person who traveled in this huge crowd of people. Maybe some of that is because from a fairly young age I knew I was different. Some of it has to just be my nature. I'm just not a guy who needs a ton of friends.

When Brian and I were talking about maybe possibly some day maybe getting back together, he used to get suspicious that I was always home when he came around to talk. He thought I was somehow manipulating him, because if I wasn't manipulating him I would have been out doing something. Sometimes reason and Brian Kinney aren't even on the same planet.

"Maybe if you weren't here once in awhile when I showed up, I might believe that you weren't just fucking around with me!" He told me once.

I rolled my eyes at him and said, "Maybe I got tired of you complaining about all the friends I kept having come around."

He glared at me, completely missing the sarcasm and said. "What are you talking about? You never have anyone over."

"Oh, you're right, I don't," I said, acting like I was just now realizing that. "Hmmm, pattern or coincidence? You be the judge."

"Shut up," came his brilliant reply.

I put my text book aside and said, "Hey, let's have that talk about my finding kids my own age to play with. I enjoy that one, too."

Brian shoved the book back in my hand and went to set up his laptop at the kitchen table. "Shut up. You're a dark, brooding loner, I forgot for a minute."

"Ha! You're the Heathcliff around here, " I said with a laugh.

Brian tried to act like he didn't love being compared to a dark, brooding loner of a literary hero, but, please!

Back on the square at school, I smiled as another round of laughter burst forth from the group on the lawn and then ducked my head, ashamed at what I'm sure was a wistful look on my face. "Jesus, pity party over, asshole," I said to myself. "Make a plan and execute."

Now, if there's anything in the whole world Brian hates, it's the thought that someone is manipulating him, and I really don't want it to sound like that's what I was doing, because it wasn't about making him feel something or do something or say something--it wasn't about that at all.

I know I can't make him feel a certain way or think a certain way. He has to come to conclusions on his own. And what good would it do to make him do stuff anyway? If he doesn't want to change, if he doesn't want the things that I want, then we have to know about it now. Living any other way is a fucking lie and neither one of us wanted that.

But I couldn't just lay in wait for Brian to come home from work and just spring all of my new-found insight on him either. Brian thinks I want to have these Meaningful Discussions about everything, like on some very special episode of some dumb TV show, but that's not it. We just have to be clear on what we want. When I say we have to talk about stuff, I don't mean SHARING our FEELINGS or any of that crap, I mean laying on the line what it is we expect from each other--what's acceptable and what isn't--that's what it all boils down to.

But Brian hates it when I expect shit from him--at least when I expect decent shit.

In the end I just decided that the next time Brian came home looking to unload on me, I was going to put a stop to it, tell him it wasn't going to play out that way anymore.

And let the chips fucking fall.

Which is so totally easy to tell yourself when you're freshly fucked and sitting outside in the warm afternoon sun and you feel like the world is yours for the taking.

It's slightly more difficult when your lover stalks angrily into his home, grabs a bottle of Jim Beam, takes a slug then eyes you curiously for a minute before sneering, "And how were things in Playland today, Sonny Boy?"

My heart started thudding in my chest and the urge to just roll over and capitulate was really hard to resist. Suddenly waiting for morning to talk to Brian when he was more (or maybe it was less) himself seemed the smarter row to hoe.

Brian just stood there, staring at me, his one eyebrow lifted in that way of his that asked, "Well?"

I was rinsing vegetables for a salad at the sink, and I shut off the water and turned to face Brian. "We're not doing this," I said.

A sly smile curled the tips of Brian's mouth; he was obviously pleased to see me push back if only slightly. "Oh but we are, Sunshine. Look! We are."

I shook my head. "No."

The smile grew as Brian stepped closer to me, nonchalantly swinging the bottle of Beam as he considered me. "Is this where we have a review of the Justin Taylor Dialogue for a Healthy Relationship? I hope it is. I really hope it is."

I just shook my head at him again, turning with him as he paced in a circle around me, nodding his head as I was shaking mine. "How ever will I learn to conduct myself without your oh-so-valuable words of wisdom?"

"I'm sorry your day sucked, but it's not my fault. I'm not doing this."

"Aw, isn't that sweet? You're sorry. You wouldn't actually know what a fucked up day was like, but you're sorry about mine. That is so heartwarming. God, how did I survive those long cold months without your understanding bosom to call home?"

I wasn't going to get mad. I was going to be calm and reasonable, but he just made me so angry! His tone and the way he looked at me were so mocking, so fucking condescending, I just couldn't stand it! "I'm not your punching bag!" I yelled at him. "Do you hear me? I am not your fucking punching bag!"

"Fuck you!" Brian said, his own voice eerily quiet. "And while you're at it, can that dramatic shit. This is how it is, Sunshine, the real world, you little pansy. Deal with it."

"Fuck you! Look, you have a shitty day, you deal with it! I'm not asking you to come home and spill your guts to me. Walk in the door and tell me your day was fucked and you don't want to talk for the rest of the night! Go to the gym, go to Michael's, go to fucking Babylon, I don't give a shit! But you're not coming home and laying into me. Not anymore!"

"Christ, we can't even make it a couple of months before you're shoving your fucking little hetero-suburban fantasy life down my throat. I've caved enough to your whims, and I'm fucking through with it! Time to make another choice, Sonny Boy. You want me, or you want some fucking fantasy I'll never cough up for you?"

I stared at him for a second, and any trepidation I had evaporated and was replaced with total determination. "So you're saying my choices are to suck up your foul moods and be your pathetic little victim or leave. That's what I get to choose between?" Brian rolled his eyes at me but his look sharpened at my snort of laughter. "Shit, I really was a useless little fuck before wasn't I? You think I'm gonna deliberate over that choice? You think there's something in there for me to even consider?" I shook my head, as much at the memory of who I used to be as it was at Brian's idiocy. "Consider this," I said evenly. "Every night for as long as I can remember when I was growing up, we sat there and waited. Every fucking night as it got closer and closer to 6:30, we'd sit there and wait to see what kind of mood my father was in, 'cause you could tell the second he got out of the car whether we'd have a good night or a fucking bad one. And a fucking bad one meant tip toeing around waiting for him to blow. And it was never 'if' he was going to blow, it was always 'when.' I never knew what would set him off--Mom's dinner, a bill, a message from someone, a note from my teacher, my grades… just… me. And every fucking time I swore to myself I wasn't going to live in a house like that when I grew up. And I won't, Brian. I won't live like that ever again. And you can call me a pansy and a faggot and anything else you want, but I won't live like this."

"Is this where I tell you how sorry I am, and how I'll change because I love you oh so fucking much?"

I snorted derisively. "No thanks. Shit, that was worse than getting screamed at, the way he'd come down to breakfast in the morning so fucking contrite. I'll give you points for staying the course, anyway. No apologies for Brian Kinney, that's for sure."

"Fuck you!"

"I'm not playing games, Brian. I'm not trying to make you do anything. I'm just telling you, straight up, I'm not doing this. I'm just not. There's no ultimatum here. There's not even a fucking choice to make."

Brian snorted in derision. "Oh there's always choices to be made, Sonny Boy," he said, his tone vaguely threatening.

"Fine, then you make them, Brian. I don't want to live in the kind of house I grew up in. If anybody on the planet understands what I'm talking about it's you. And I don't care how shitty your day was or how pissed at me you think you are or how fucking lame you've decided I am, I don't believe for a minute you want that either."

"Fuck off," Brian said.

"Gladly," I answered. Maybe it sounds nasty, but I couldn't stand to look at him, so I left, and went outside. Even though I had my own apartment, I didn't want to get into the habit of storming home whenever Brian and I had a fight. It would be too easy for us to put up walls of indifference and just refuse to back down. But sitting around the loft sulking was totally out of the question. So I walked across the street to this park and sat down on one of the benches and wished I could get inside Brian's head. I was dying to know what he was thinking. Probably that it wasn't worth all the hassle. That I wasn't worth all the hassle. Except that I am. Well, we are, anyway. We just are.

About a half hour later, I was thinking maybe I should just give up and go back to my place. And the second I thought it, I rolled my eyes at myself. I'm so fucking full of shit. I wasn't going to give up. I wasn't even going to go back to my place. Brian and I were more or less living together at that point anyway. I was hanging on to my place more because of the thrill it gave me when Brian kept trying to get me to give it up than because I wanted my own space. I sighed and shook my head, thinking, 'Grow up, grow up, grow up.'

When my cell phone finally rang, I took a deep breath and answered.

Silence greeted my hello, but I just waited, wondering if Brian was looking out at me from one of the windows. I almost turned around to look up at our building, but that might have spooked him so I just sat there and waited.

Finally he said really softly, "You're right. I don't want you to live in that kind of house."

I made an effort not to heave a huge fucking sigh right there into the phone. "Then we won't," I said.

I know Brian thought that was some kind of simplistic, immature kid-thing to say, but it wasn't. Sometimes things seem so clear to me, and he just doesn't get it. We just have know what we want, how we want to be, how we want to live--we just have to know that, and then we do it. Live it. It's not brain surgery. And believe me, I know from brain surgery.

"Everything isn't as easy as you think it is," Brian said.

I smirked and said what he knew I would. "Yeah, well, it's not as hard as you think it is, either."

It was quiet for a beat, then Brian surprised me when he said, "No one thinks I can do this."

What the fuck? He was fucking everything up because everyone thought he'd fuck it up? Brilliant.

"And I know how desperately you care what other people think," I said sarcastically. "Brian, get real You do this all the time."

"Not very well," he scoffed.

"This is so typical," I said. "You come in with your total bullshit, and somehow it ends up with me saying, 'Oh Brian, you're so amazing, you're so fucking perfect! How can I stand it?' Forget it!"

Brian snickered. "You know me so well," he said, his tone sarcastic.

"Yeah, I do." My tone was anything but. "We can do this," I said softly. "So what if it's hard and we keep fucking up. So what. We can do it. We can do anything."

Brian sighed, and I could picture him shaking his head, a distant look in his eyes, afraid to believe me and terrified not to.

"We can," I repeated. "'Cause you're amazing, and you can do anything."

Another sigh, this one in such exaggerated defeat that it made me smile. "What in the fuck are we going to do if I become the man you think I am?" Brian asked, sounding aggravated with me.

I smiled and shrugged. "Most days you already are," I said softly.

"You're a fucking sap," he said, just as softly. It was quiet for a moment, and I could see him so vividly in my mind, his face soft and beautiful and vulnerable, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip as he settled into what he was feeling. "Come home," he whispered, so I did.

And after that, it just got easier. And maybe that sounds too simple or too pat, and I'm not saying it got perfect, just easier.

The first time we were together, it went to shit so fast, and no matter how hard I tried, I could never get to that one exact moment where it turned. But this time, I know it was right there that things started humming for us. Life, was just really amazing. That's a huge gift--to know with certainty that life can be fucking fantastic. A lot of people maybe don't know that, so maybe they think when things are shitty that they can never be any other way, and that's such a total shame!

I think Brian always assumed a kind of…inevitability to life. It's like he thought he was doomed to be this person he didn't want to be, and that's just…well it's just fucked if you ask me. I control my destiny, and damn it, Brian controls his, and I don't think he believed in that before and maybe, a little bit, now he does.

Anyway, Brian and I got into this groove that just worked for us. God, I was so fucking happy. It was like having just a little bit of E in your system twenty-four/seven. Life just hummed.

When I think back to that time, I almost always start kind of chuckling to myself. That's what I remember--laughing, all the fucking time.

We were really happy. Brian let himself be happy.

God, he's so beautiful. All the time, every fucking day, but there's nothing so breathtaking as Brian with his head back, laughing at full tilt. Swear to God, when I die, that'll be the fucking soundtrack in heaven.

So we're coasting through this amazing life. And even when my hand started acting up, I didn't worry about it too much. It was more irritating to me that Michael thought I was faking to get out of drawing the comic book. He's got an inferiority complex a mile wide. And he's so damned defensive about the comic book. Anyway, it was a hassle that I was having trouble with my hand again, especially when I was back to doing most of my stuff free-hand as opposed to using the computer, but I wasn't worried about it.

And even when I started getting these really nasty headaches, I chalked it up to overload at school or the paint fumes coming from the renovations on the apartment below us.

Jesus, even when I woke up in the emergency room after having a seizure at Michael's store, I still felt like, okay, that was shitty, but I can handle it, no biggie, no reason to panic. Mostly I was bummed because every time I had a seizure, we had to reset the clock. I couldn't get a driver's license until I was seizure-free for six months. And I wasn't happy about having to go through the same battery of tests I'd had the last time I had a seizure, but swear to God, I wasn't the least bit concerned that they'd find anything wrong with me. I mean, fuck, I was sitting there in the doctor's office with Brian, who took a day off work to sit there with me, and I still wasn't expecting some fucking insane line drive to smack me in the head right out of left field.

Ew. Okay, dumb analogy.

Maybe I'm just stupid and cocky, but I felt like Brian and I were…untouchable. I don't know where that arrogance comes from--you'd think I'd have it pretty much drummed out of me by now, but I just couldn't conceive of anything messing with us.

Then the doctor said 'brain tumor,' which pretty much brought an abrupt end to that way of thinking.

I don't know what to say about the next three months of my life. It's like when people ask me about the bashing, which thankfully doesn't happen very much any more. What should I say? What do they want from me when they ask that kind of question? Do they want to know what it felt like physically? Do they want to know the practical shit I had to deal with ? Do they want me to tell them where my head was the whole time? I mean, what do they fucking want to know when they ask me questions like that?

Everything about that fucking brain tumor was awful. I felt awful, I was scared all the time, worried at first that Brian would leave, then later that I was going to die, or worse, end up some fucking vegetable. My father still wouldn't have anything to do with me, so when the radiation wasn't making me feel like crap, there was always that to fall back on. School was suddenly this big huge question mark, and even if I made it back, I was now hopelessly behind the rest of my class. There was no way I'd graduate on time, and I suppose in the whole scheme of things that was pretty minor, but it felt like such a huge failure on my part.

Sometimes the radiation made me so sick I'd be throwing up wherever I was. I didn't even care if I was within range of the toilet bowl or a bed pan or anything, I'd just start hurling. I'd piss myself when I had a seizure, fucking cry like some little faggot when I couldn't get my leg or arm to work. I fell more than once on my way to the bathroom and couldn't get up. One time a nurse came in and found me, another time it was Brian. I wanted to die, just wanted it to fucking be over because it couldn't get any more terrible. Being sick like that is so humbling because you realize there's just so fucking much you have no control over. And you're at the mercy of people you don't even know and they have to do the most intimate things for you, and it's humiliating and emasculating and everything shitty you can think of.

But so what. So I had a craptastic few months. So fucking what. I got through it. We got through, me and Brian together, and it was shitty and neither one of us have pleasant memories of it, but we survived it, and that's what I'll take away from it. That I survived it. That we survived it.

And you know, there's this way to look at shit that happens to you. When I was in the hospital before the surgery, I was commiserating over the whole thing with Ben, who knows a thing or two about being in the hospital, and he agreed that it was pretty demoralizing, having nurses help with all my personal shit and stuff. "But there's also something admirable about the fact that one human being is willing to do those things for someone who's sick." Ben pointed out. "You can look at it from the perspective that it's terrible you have to go through this or that it's kind of amazing that so many people are trying to help you. The experience is more or less the same, but the way you look at it has a lot to do with how you weather that experience."

I thought that was really profound. Like, life-changingly profound. It really is all about how you look at something, it's all about how you choose to react to stuff. All of that glass-half-full, glass-half-empty bullshit is a choice. You get to pick how you're going to look at the world and how you deal with what happens to you in it. You sure as hell don't get to pick what happens to you, but your reaction to it is all up to you. That whole idea really struck a chord with me. Even on my shittiest day, I'd try to pick something out--anything--that I could look at and find hope or laughter or, God, just non-misery. Some days it was something so totally simple it sort of sounds ridiculous, like, someone would be wearing a scarf that had some amazing shade of blue in it, and I'd think of that color and imagine it on a canvas. I would picture myself in front of an easel, and I could smell the paint and almost see it on my hands and that made it a good day.

Most days it was Brian--a look in his eye, the slight curve of his lips, the sound of his laugh. There are millions of things Brian could say or do that would make an okay day out of an otherwise shitty one.

He always walked into my hospital room after work looking like he'd just stepped out of a catalogue--not a hair out of place, not looking tired or done in or bored or pissed. He always seemed vaguely interested in what I'd done that day, but his questions were always so detailed it seemed like he already knew what I'd done anyway. He'd grouse about his day or boast about a new account, order me to look over a storyboard or sometimes just sit down next to me and hold on for a second.

If Brian didn't stop by in the morning on his way to work, I was always ridiculously excited to see what he was wearing. Sometimes I'd go to bed trying to guess what he'd wear. It got to be kind of a game with us. Hey, give me a break--you sit in a hospital for five fucking weeks and see if you don't come up with a thousand lame ass ways to pass the time. It's as fucking boring as watching paint dry with the added bonus of feeling like shit all the time.

"I've got Magnum Communications tomorrow," Brian said one evening. "I'm going to wear the eggplant Armani with the mauve shirt and black tie I ordered from Isherwoods."

Around seven or eight, the nausea was at its worst. By then I was trying the Lamaze breathing one of the nurses showed me. Sometimes that helped level out the sick feeling for a little while "Mm mm," I said and made the mistake of shaking my head. I closed my eyes, and laid as still as I possibly could. "Wear the navy shirt and tie. We got 'em for Gus to give you on Father's Day, remember? It'll totally melt with the suit. Beautiful."

"I'm not ready for the apocalypse, Sunshine. And you giving me fashion advise is a sure sign."

"I'm not giving your fashion advise, I'm giving you color advise. I'm an expert there."

"Mm," said Brian at his most non-committal, but it was a totally done deal. I couldn't wait until the next day to see him wearing the shirt and tie I picked out. He says it's his lucky combo because he ended up signing Magnum to a two-year exclusive deal that meant a gazillion dollars to Vanguard and over those next two years it would put $75,000 in his pocket.

Only when he told me about it, he said, our pocket. Swear to God, that's what he said. It probably seems dumb to get excited about things like that, but I still do. Whenever Brian says "next time," I still get sort of a flutter in my stomach, because whatever we're doing, we're going to be doing it again. I love that.

I mostly remember the Magnum deal because right around the time he landed it, he decided it was time I told Ethan I was sick. I know how that sounds, but by that time, I wasn't really making many of my own decisions. I pretty much let Brian steer things.

Ethan and I were still e-mailing each other all the time, and I felt bad that I hadn't told him everything right from the start. It always freaked me out to tell people what was going on--from my mom to Daphne to Ethan. I felt like I was hurting them on purpose, and I always had this totally irrational fear that they'd be pissed at me over it.

Maybe it's another instance of trying to manage something in the midst of all the uncertainty, in the midst of all the unmanageableness. I couldn't control how sick I felt or how scared or any of that, but I could totally obsess over telling people about what was going on. I don't know. I didn't spend a hell of a lot of time making sense during all of this.

I remember I was throwing up pretty badly one night, but was totally freaked out because I owed Ethan an e-mail. I was being ridiculous because it wasn't like I could sit in front of a laptop or anything, but whenever Brian shoved a bed pan in my face, I'd go off about how I just needed to sit up and I needed the computer and Ethan would be mad if I didn't write. I'd made a fucking mess of myself and the bed, and an attendant was trying to get me out of bed so he could clean it up. I'd fallen the day before and had been resistant to getting out of bed all day, but by then, I wasn't really sure what the attendant was saying and everything was tinged with this kind of ominous, threatening feeling, and I just wanted everyone to leave me alone.

And then Brian just sort of swooped in and said, "We don't have time, okay? You've gotta decide what you're going to say to your Music Box Boy about all this shit."

"I do?" I said, like I'd forgotten an appointment or something.

"Yes," Brian answered impatiently. "God you are so fucking rank. Change your clothes."

I took off the hospital gown and put on a clean one while Brian was shoving me over to the couch. "What do I say?" I asked him.

"What do I care?" Brian answered. "Tell him you've got a boo boo in your brain and they've got to fix it."

"We're not seven," I said.

"Tell him about how I fuck you in the shower stall, and now they're researching the incredible restorative powers of my cum."

I wrinkled my nose at him. "Mm, small problem there. I sort of never mentioned the you and me thing either."

"I'm so hurt," Brian said with such a smarmy look on his face I almost hurled all over him on general principle.

"Don't you think it would be…neater, if I just waited 'til after everything, then tell him?"

"Weak," was all he said to that.

I made a pouty face at him, but he was more and more immune to that approach. I rolled my eyes at his fake hard-ass look. "What are you going to do when he insists on rushing back to my bedside, huh?" I asked.

Brian grinned at me, that slow, crooked grin that would arouse me up and out of the grave. He shrugged and lounged back in the couch. "Watch him eat his heart out, the little fucker," he said arrogantly.

And I remember laughing at that, right in the middle of my terrible day, just feeling totally tickled at Brian's words.

The hilarious thing is Ethan really did come to visit! And boy was Brian ever surprised at that bit of news!

I was too a little bit, but only because Ethan was eight billion miles away with a whole ocean between us. If he'd still been in Pittsburgh…well, I'm not sure what would have happened. Because I couldn't have not had Brian with me, but I know Ethan would have stood by me. Sometimes, it's better not to even go down some of those 'what if' roads.

Still, Brian gave this almost comical doubletake when I told him Ethan was coming home. At first, he thought I was messing with him. He'd gone out the night before and thought I was busting his chops because I was pissed. And I was like, "Hello? Who sent you out of here in the first place?"

And Brian was all, "Maybe you sent me out of here so you could be all pitiful this morning,"

And I was like, "Whatever. And Ethan is so coming, so there!"

So by the time Brian believed me, he was able to act like he didn't care. He probably didn't really think that much of it, but if it had been Trevor St. James, he'd've acted all pissy about it.

My crowing about Ethan's visit lasted about a day because when I started to think about it, I got a little nervous. "You have to be here when he comes, okay?" I said to Brian, and felt pretty stupid for having to ask, but not so stupid that I didn't ask. I kept imagining Ethan coming at one of those times when I wasn't really able to follow the conversation, and it killed me to think of him seeing me like that. "You have to be here in case I…jeez, start, foaming at the mouth or clucking like a chicken or something freakish like that."

Brian laughed at my examples. He had some seminar in Chicago that night so he'd stopped by at lunch on his way to the airport. He was going through a bunch of files while we talked. "You're fine," he said. "We'll make sure everything's okay. Load you up on anti-convulsants. Nothing's going to happen."

I shrugged at him. Shit, I hadn't even thought about that! "I already had a seizure in front of him," I said.

"You did?" That genuinely surprised Brian, and he's kind of funny when I surprise him about stuff. He thinks of himself as this all-knowing, all-seeing super power, at least where I'm concerned. Mostly I don't mind. He's totally not, of course, but I don't mind him thinking he is. It kind of makes him sleep easy at night, it makes him trust us somehow, and I'm all for that. "What happened?" he wanted to know.

I shrugged again. "I don't know. I had a migraine and was sick and then the next thing I know, I'm in this noisy cubicle in the Emergency Room and Ethan is calling my mom." I struggled to sit up in bed, remembering more of the story. "He told me later he called Michael to tell him I couldn't come to work, and before he could tell him why, Michael had a temper tantrum and hung up on him, so Ethan called him back and yelled at him that I was in the hospital! Michael felt so bad. He was so nice to me for the next couple of weeks--I bet he brought me four dozen lemon bars and two pans of Deb's lasagna." I laughed, remembering how Ethan and I gorged ourselves on the rare home-cooked treasures. We were so mad afterward that we hadn't frozen any of it! Especially when we were eating our 5000th serving of Ramen Pride noodles.

Brian grinned and shook his head at me. "Something tells me you milked that little escapade, didn't you Sonny Boy."

"There wouldn't have been anything to milk if Michael hadn't been so mean," I said self-righteously.

"You torment that poor man," Brian said. He snapped his briefcase shut then took out his palm pilot and started checking off stuff on his to do list.

I laughed suddenly. "I can't wait to tell him Ethan's coming. I'm gonna tell him I made you let me ask him to visit, and that I wanted him to stay at the loft and then we had a huge fight when you said no!"

"Leave Mikey alone," Brian said.

"He gets so enraged on your behalf that he spits, you ever notice that?"

"Why would you want to encourage that?"

"He'll feel so bad for yelling at me that I'll get ten gallons of ice cream."

Brian rolled his eyes at me, then frowned in thought. "When was all that drama anyway?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. Spring, I guess. I remember it was rainy and cold when I got out of the hospital. Maybe it was March or April."

"Fuck! Spring? Jesus, they could have diagnosed this a fucking lifetime ago! We oughta fucking sue somebody's ass!" He grabbed my cell phone off of the bedside table like he was going to call some lawyer or something to take the case.

I shook my head. "They ran all the same tests. MRI, cat scan, all that shit. Guess fate wanted to wait until it was your problem, huh?"

Brian snorted in amusement. "Lucky me," he said.

I shook my head and pulled him close for a kiss. "Uh uh, lucky me," I said.

Brian kind of hrmphed and rolled his eyes at my sappiness. He called up something on his palm, then started programming numbers into my cell. "I left my cell as star-one," he said, tossing the phone back on the table. "The hotel where I'm staying is star-five, the agency in Chicago is star-six and the convention center is star-seven. Call my cell first, but if the signal's fucked try the other numbers."

It was my turn to roll my eyes at him. "Duh, okay Brian," I said simple-mindedly, and hoped the expression on my face was suitably moronic. "Me try to remember."

Brian glared at me, so I crossed my eyes and stuck my tongue out at him. He looked thoughtful for a second. "Sometimes the fact that you're my shit just doesn't make up for everything I have to endure."

"Yeah, you suffer long and hard don't you, babe."

"Don't call me babe."

"Okay snookums."

"I've got to go," Brian said with a sigh that suggested I would never understand just how long and hard he suffered. "Michael's bringing you dinner tonight, so try to make nice, would you, or I'm gonna get an earful of whine."

"I'm always nice," I said with my most innocent smile.

I was just kidding about telling Michael that stuff with Ethan. Well, sort of. I mean, I do kind of torture him sometimes, and when I was in the hospital, I was bratty about guilting him into bringing me ice cream. But if Michael didn't go get it, Brian would have, and I knew he was burnt out a lot of the time, even if he always did manage to look totally hot. Besides, once I got Michael to my room, he was great about getting Brian out of the hospital for a few hours.

This isn't even fair for me to say, because I totally put everything on Brian, I know that. But he kind of drove me a little crazy sometimes. He was…well, intense puts a better spin on it, though the word that keeps coming to mind is overbearing.

"You go home with Michael," I'd always say when we knew he was stopping by. "Go to Woody's and play some pool or something."

Brian always sighed and put on a face of tragic heartbreak. "Trying to get rid of me again. One of these days I'm going to take offense."

One time, I tried to explain a little. I wrinkled my nose at him and said. "It weirds me out when you get all boyfriendy."

Brian chuffed and pushed himself up off the bed. "You are such a shit, what are you talking about?"

"You feel bad when I'm having a shitty day, and then you get all, 'my partner needs this,' and 'my partner wants that.' It's creepy."

"Pointing out when people are fucking lying down on the job is not, nor will it ever be, boyfriendy."

"Whatever. The point is you ride everybody's ass, and they all glare at me like I have some kind of control over you, and tomorrow morning when I'm getting a sponge bath, they'll punish me for it." It was always a little risky joking around with Brian like that because there was a chance he might take me seriously, in which case he'd probably march upstairs to the main administrator's office to demand some kind of restitution.

That night, though, he just threw me an irritated glance, then waltzed into the bathroom to make sure he still looked hot enough to go out.

It wasn't really that he got on the hospital staff so much, it was just that sometimes it felt like he was trying to will me better. And sometimes it was like…it was like the fact that I didn't feel well was a failure on his part. Then I'd try to act like I did feel okay, but when Brian saw through me, I felt like I was failing. I guess it sounds awful, but sometimes I needed Brian to go away for a little while. I needed to think of him blowing off some steam, needed to imagine him on the dance floor of Babylon, sweat streaming down his face, his shirt wet and sticking to his chest and arms…I needed to know he was still connected to that other life we'd led at some point.

I bet that surprises people. Well, it would if anyone knew. I think I'm getting more like Brian in that I just don't feel the need to broadcast every last fucking thing anymore. Still, people think they have me pegged as this needy, whiny little kid, and they'd be surprised that I didn't want Brian in my clutches every fucking second of the day. Plus I had kind of another ulterior motive as well.

Brian once told me that sex used to be the only way he ever communicated with anyone, that it was maybe a crutch for him. He used it to cope with shitty things, but I knew it'd be…weird for him to trick while I was sick. Well, maybe he wouldn't have felt all that weird about it, but people would have given him total shit for it, and it made me pissed to think about people giving him a hard time when he was…God, he was being everything to me. I thought that maybe if sometimes they heard me telling him to do it, then they'd just chalk it up to the freak show they thought we were anyway. So sometimes when Michael was around, I'd kind of give Brian his marching orders--I'd pick out some guy we both recognized from Babylon, and I'd tell Brian to have him for the night. And I knew the second anyone groused about Brian tricking when I was in the hospital, Michael would totally jump in there with the fact that I was the one telling him who to do.

I don't know, maybe I'm totally full of shit and it was just my way of trying to have some control over it. If I suggested the tricking then there was nothing for me to care about that he was tricking because I was the one telling him to do it. I don't know. It's still this thing, this issue between us. Well, not between us, really. It's still this thing in my head. There's this part of me that just can't understand why I'm not enough for Brian. He's so totally enough for me.

Most people don't get it--and, by most people, I mean Daphne and Ethan. They're the only two people I've ever talked about it with. Ethan thinks I'm selling out by not insisting on monogamy from Brian, but most of the time, I really am okay with things the way they are. It's hard to explain, but a lot of what was wrong the first time around wasn't just that Brian wasn't what I wanted him to be, it was that I couldn't be to him what I wanted to be. Well, now, I am. It sounds simplistic, but I know in my heart that everything I want to be to Brian, everything I need to be to him, I am. I don't lose sleep over what he might be doing with some trick because I know beyond any shadow of a doubt where I stand.

Which is not to say I wasn't all over him about his business trip to Chicago. I wouldn't ask him directly about who he was fucking--that was a total violation of the way we did things. But I asked him where he ate and what he did and who was he with and had I ever met them and would I ever meet them, and he was totally on to me, but that's a two-way street because he was so checking up on me it wasn't even funny.

"You can't even be away from me for a night without missing me soooo much," I taunted when he called for the 800th time.

"Don't flatter yourself Barfy Boy," he drawled.

"Forget it! I didn't tell you about the IV or the new drugs which means you were checking in with your minions before you called me."

I could hear the knock at his hotel door. "I've got to go," he said. "So could we end this ridiculous conversation?"

I heard the muffled sound of a bell boy and started laughing my ass off. "Room service?" I said incredulously. "You ordered in room service? You're such a loser!"

Brian sighed in total exasperation. "You tell yourself whatever helps get you through the long, lonely night."

"You're staying in tonight, aren't you?" I crowed into the phone, laughing with my head back on the pillow. "You are so fucking gone over me it's pathetic!"

"You're forcing me to tell you my "room service" is the 25 year old Italian Adonis I met in the lobby when I was checking in. I'm not eating anything from the five food groups tonight, I promise you that."

"You love me. You love me sooooo much!" I sang.

"Jesus, with any luck you'll fucking expire before I get home. Tell 'em to put your mother back in as next-of-kin 'cause I don't want anyone waking me up in the middle of the night." He put his hand over the mouthpiece and then totally shouted, "Yeah, uh, you can oil up over there, Antonio."

I started laughing again. "Oh my God, you did not just say that."

"Keep it up, Sunshine. Here's hoping your little fucker offers to take you away from all of this. Be sure to let him know I'll be happy to help pack up your shit."

"You'd never let me go," I said. "You'd track me down to the ends of the earth and drag me back kicking and screaming…"

"Like the fucking little girl you are," he said. "I'm hanging up now. Try not to obsess over me and Anthony."

"I won't. And it's Antonio, you loser."

"Antonio's the one on the left. Anthony's on the right."

"Oh God, you make me laugh so hard, I'm gonna puke."

"I'd feel bad except everything makes you puke. I've gotta go. When Karen offers sleep tonight I want you to say yes." The air in the room changed really fast. I didn't say anything and Brian sighed. "Justin," he said, in that warning tone that makes me want to throw something against the wall.

"I'm fine," I said sounding all prim and prissy, but I couldn't help it.

"It's one night. I'm not there. Just take it."

"I'm fine," I said again, only this time I sounded all bummed that he didn't think so, which is fitting because that's how I felt.

Brian sighed and I just know he was rolling his eyes at me. "I've got to make a speech tomorrow morning to five hundred of the lamest, most boring fuckers walking the planet. And then I have to answer a thousand of their boring fucking questions all the time acting as if I give a fuck. I'm not gonna be up all night wondering whether or not you're lying in a pool of your own piss because you got it in your head you had to skip off to the bathroom on your own."

"You just don't want me calling in the middle of your Antonio/Anthony extravaganza," I pouted.

"There isn't always just one reason for everything," he said in such an ultra-sincere tone that I was snickering again.

"You know, it's time to look inward when you start drugging your boyfriend just so you can mess around with a couple of greasy I-talians."

"Yeah, I'm a big fan of introspection. I'll get right on that. Take the fucking pills, Justin."

"Fine. I'll take the shit. But you have to sit here and make nice the whole time Ethan's here."

"But I wouldn't miss it," Brian assured me, still using that stupidly earnest voice.

"Whatever. I'm going to go puke for a week. Later."

"Buh bye now."

I don't remember joking around much after Brian got back from Chicago. It felt like it got really…serious after that. Ethan coming was a bright spot though.

It was the most amazing thing seeing him walk through the door, like he wasn't even real or something. I couldn't believe he was there. Couldn't believe he'd come all that way just for me.

He showed up earlier in the morning than I expected, and I was a little bummed because Brian was going to help me look not so sick for him.

Of course, when I'd first mentioned it to Brian, he got all pissed off. "You look fine," he'd snapped, and I just kind of gaped at him for a second.

"Fuck you," I said, and he slowly lifted a single eyebrow at me. "What next--you gonna tell me I'm shining with an inner beauty?"

"Excuse me for not finishing a thought," he said, trying to save himself. "You look fine…for someone with a brain tumor and four weeks of radiation under their belt. Better?"

"Whatever. I just don't want it to be harder for Ethan than it has to be."

Brian gaped at me for that sentiment. "Extend me that courtesy the next time you're projectile vomiting all over me, would you?"

I rolled my eyes at the familiar complaint. "Shut up. One spot on your pants, and you flip out."

"I'd pay good money for one spot on my pants. I oughta fuckin' bathe in tonic water for all the soaking I have to do."

"Could we have a moment here while I cry you a fucking river for all your suffering? 'Cause I'd really like to get that in today before lights out."

Brian smiled sweetly at me and said helpfully, "I could just kill you right now. Then your poor little fiddle player won't have to deal with the heartache of seeing his long lost love in such dire straits."

"I haven't been lost," I answered. This whole thing had started because I wanted Brian to bring me his black Armani scarf to cover my head. That's it. That's all I wanted. He said he didn't know where it was and since when was I self-conscious about the baldness and by the way I was fucked in the head if I thought he was going to buy make-up or something equally ridiculous to lessen the death-warmed-over motif I had going, and if the fragile little musical genius couldn't handle the real world what fucking problem was it of his?

I took a deep breath and said through gritted teeth, "Would you just fucking look for the scarf, Brian? God, I'm not asking for a kidney."

"Right, that's probably next week. Fine. But if you puke on or near it, I'll strangle you with it."

"If I puke on it, you'll be too busy crying like a fuckin' girl to do anything but dry your pretty little eyes."

"Not with that scarf," he said dryly. "Look, it's fucking stupid to bend over backward to act like this isn't a suck ass fuck-all shitty turn of events. Why don't you just…"

"Let's have quiet time," I suggested with a glare. "First one to talk loses."

"Please."

"Loser."

"Shut up."

"Loser again."

"Justin." He said it all warningly, but what the fuck was he going to do? He threatened to kill me so often, I almost didn't believe he'd follow through anymore.

"Ah ah! Triple loser!"

He stood up and moved toward the door. "I'm leaving," he said, like it was a threat, but he was driving me up a wall!

"Quadruple loser!" I said, throwing my arms over my head in the international sign of victory. "Ladies and gentlemen, we may have a record set here tonight!"

Brian gave me the finger as he left. "I'm gagging you with that scarf, you fucking twat!" he called as the door to my room swung shut.

"And a new world record has been set!" I shouted after him.

Okay, so that was kind of funny.

Anyway, Brian had left word with Ethan to come at 9:30, but he was 15 or 20 minutes early, and Brian wasn't there yet, so Ethan's first look at me was just me in all my glory. He looked kind of stricken, but he smiled at me and hugged me, and it was the nicest, most warmest feeling. I teased him about the scruffy beard he had going, and that's when Brian got there. I kind of went out of my way to show Brian I was okay because I knew he was not pleased to see Ethan already there.

Brian was pretty bitchy to Ethan, but he had to be or else Ethan wouldn't have been able to see me. To see me. It would have just been him and this… sickness and I didn't want it to be like that.

When I first went into the hospital, I spent most of my time trying to manage everyone's reaction to the news. Deb was a mess. She couldn't spend five minutes in front of me without bawling, my mom was hot and cold and I was always anxious about how she was holding up. Emmett was pretty bad the first few times he saw me, but he came around. Vic was amazing. Nothing phased him, he was calm and sure and steadfast. Michael was nervous and kept talking to me like I was retarded which was more annoying than anything else, and Brian was…Brian, of course. I just hated the way I was hurting everyone, making them worry and fuss over me the way they'd been after the bashing, and it felt like I'd never be independent or self-sufficient, and I just felt shitty about it all so I tried really hard to show them I was strong and determined to get better, and, just okay enough that they didn't have to worry about me.

But by the time Ethan came, I was too worn down to keep up much of a pretense. What you saw was what you got with me. Plus, I knew without a doubt that Brian had my back. When I quit trying so hard to maintain an image he picked up the slack.

Brian had no problem with the fact that people were worried about me. He was more than willing to share information he'd gathered from the doctors and the internet and God knows where else. He just drew the line at anyone going overboard in the pity department. It totally made him see red when anyone threatened to sort of cave into the despair of it all. He just couldn't stand it, and he never let it happen in front of me. I don't know if he thought it was contagious or what, but he just wouldn't let me consider anything other than a successful end to all the shit we were dealing with.

Which is just my long-winded way of explaining why Brian was shitty to Ethan. He could tell Ethan was a little rocky when he got there that morning, and I knew Brian wouldn't stand for some kind of emotional oh-my-God-isn't-this-awful kind of reaction. So he baited Ethan about his clothes and stuff like that, which Ethan could have cared less about. But then Brian kept kind of dismissing me and, I don't know, kind of bouncing off these one-liners like he didn't care what was happening, and I could tell Ethan was horrified, which I know delighted Brian to no end. Brian loves playing into his bad boy image, and the fact that it was Ethan thinking he was so terrible made him as giddy as a little kid.

Even so, I think he felt a little guilty about it, because later that night when I was puking all over the place, he kind of…dropped the party line, but just for a second. I was so fucking sick that night, puking so violently I thought I was going to choke to death. I'd've been flipping out if Brian wasn't there, which so wasn't fair to him, but he was the only one who stayed calm enough to keep me even remotely calm. It wouldn't let up enough to let me catch my breath, and I felt like I was suffocating.

And right in the middle of all that, Ethan ran in the room. He backed out right away--the Brian Kinney Death Stare will do that to a person--but Brian was so fucking pissed at himself, like he should have known Ethan would come back or he should have, I don't know, blockaded the floor or something.

Brian looked at me, like… God, it kills me to even remember it. He looked at me like he was fucking ripped wide open. His eyes were tortured. I grabbed his arm, afraid he'd bail on me. I grabbed him and said "I'm good, I'm fine, I'm fine." I know I sounded a little desperate, but I couldn't stand for him to look that way, to feel that way. I couldn't stand it!

"Jesus, this is such fucking shit!" Brian cried as he helped move me back to the center of the bed. I was so fucking sore but his hands were so gentle, even when he was upset, they were so calming to me, and when he let go, I sort of whimpered like a fucking kid and tried to grab him again. "You're all right, Sonny Boy. You're okay, now," Brian said, and it was the same tone of voice he used when he was being a sarcastic son of a bitch, but he was totally serious, and it pissed me off! "You're doing great, okay?" he said, sound so smarmy I would have thrown something at him if there was anything within reach. "Just a little bit further, just a little bit."

"You promised not to do that!" I said, and maybe I did sound a little accusatory, but I'm sorry, he was not allowed to all of a sudden be all…like, regular. No fucking way.

"You're a pain in the ass," Brian said. He bowed his head over me, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. Then he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders and said, "Damn it, Justin, this tie is fucking Versace, would you watch what you're doing?"

I almost started laughing out loud--what a put on. He sounded like he was rehearsing for a sixth grade play. "That's better," I said, smiling at him, and maybe it was a 'you're-my-hero' smile, but he ate it up.

He made a big production out of needing to go rinse out the puke on his tie, but I knew he was really getting Ethan out of the way.

I hate it that Ethan saw me like that. There was this awful feeling of loss. It's hard to explain, but I lost part of myself, I lost a way of projecting myself, and I know Ethan would never think less of me or ill of me or anything like that. Part of who I wanted to be was taken away from me when people saw me all helpless and sick like that. I don't know, I can't explain it, but it made me feel so torn apart. I kept having to give up more and more of who I was, and I just reached my limit sometimes. I wanted it to stop taking shit from me, but it was just fucking relentless and how do you fight that?

Brian marched back in my room muttering to himself and kind of slamming around. Finally he looked over at me with blazing eyes and said, "When they find that stupid idiot's body, remember I was with you all night, can you do that?"

I kind of hiccuped and laughed in the same breath, and the next thing I knew I was bawling all over the place. Shit, I hate it when I do that! But, I mean, if I knew it was going to happen I could make it not happen, but I never knew it was going to happen. One second, I think I'm holding it all together, and the next I'm a fucking mess!

Brian knew better than to say anything. It's not like there's something he could say to me, and I'd be all, "Oh okay, I'll stop crying like a fucking six year old now!" Brian just held onto me and let my little meltdown run its course. He slipped into bed with me and held me, and he felt ten feet tall to me.

"Justin?" He finally whispered my name into the nape of my neck, and I prayed so hard right that second that I'd hear that voice forever. He sounded hesitant, almost scared, and I pulled away to look into his eyes that were round and dark in their sincerity. He cocked his head to the side and smoothed one large hand over my head. The smile on his face was so gentle and pretty. He ducked his head and caught my eyes and said in that sweet voice he pretty much reserves for Gus, "I didn't really kill your little fucker, he'll be back in the morning."

And suddenly it seemed so obvious why Brian was always removing the heavy objects from around my bedside.

The next morning, Brian got there at the crack of dawn, grousing about how he had to pick up the slack for all the fucking morons who couldn't follow one little fucking piece of instruction. He brought the scarf and tied it around my head while he was complaining, then he manhandled me out of the hospital gown and into a soft sweatshirt. We went to the bathroom to check me out and it was amazing how just getting rid of the gown made me look more normal. It kind of helped me forget that Ethan had seen me the day before, and when he came back in my room, I was just happy to see him--and his violin!

I'd told him in an e-mail that I always listened to one of his CD's after radiation, so he wanted to play for me in the flesh!

When Ethan started playing, it was…it was amazing. It was like all of a sudden I wasn't ugly and bald and sick and dependent on everyone else in the universe for every last fucking thing. All the shit just sort of faded and there was just this beautiful sound all around me. It was the most amazing reprieve because believe me, you don't ever forget where you are or what you're doing there when you're in the hospital. Oh, it was so nice!


I probably looked like I was bursting at the seams. Brian was a little irritated. Half the time he acts like he barely remembers who I am, but he never forgets that he's the only one I'm supposed to be all crazy over.

I got a little emotional toward the end there. I couldn't believe Ethan had come all this way for me, and didn't want him to go, and on top of that another round of radiation meant another night choking to death on my own vomit. Ethan thought it was his music making me cry, and I didn't do a very good job of explaining otherwise. Brian took my mushiness as an excuse to hurry Ethan on his way.

We held onto each other for a good long time, and I just loved him so much for coming, for caring what happened to me. We hadn't had a chance to talk about anything significant--meaning Brian, of course, and Ethan told me he planned to get that whole story out of me the next time we saw each other, and it made me feel so good to hear him say that, to hear him talk about something we'd do in the future like there wasn't any question that I'd be around to do it. Brian finally kind of pushed Ethan toward the door, and I got that panicky feeling like maybe I was going to lose it.

"Ten minutes, Sonny Boy, then we're back in the saddle," Brian called from the door, reminding me that it was okay to be all woe-is-me for ten minutes, but only for ten minutes. We joked around about the cowboy reference, and that was enough to give me a little equilibrium.

I'm sure I was totally "Ethan Says-ie" for a few days after that, just kind of basking in the warmth of his having come so far to see me. Brian was pretty indulgent, for him anyway. I'm usually totally "Brian Says-ie," so it's only fair that he had to hear me go on and on about someone else for a change.

Ethan was a distant, if still pleasant, memory by the time the surgery rolled around.

I would've thought I'd try to leave Brian with some kind of deep, prophetic words as they were getting ready to roll me down the hall and dig shit out of my brain, but it wasn't like that. Mostly, I just couldn't stop obsessing over breakfast. I felt like I'd eaten nothing but fucking oatmeal for months! I couldn't wait 'til I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted, and I spent a hell of a lot of time dreaming of what I was going to have. First meal without a doubt was chocolate chip pancakes, bacon, sausage, hashbrowns, potatoes o'brien, toast with grape jelly, and all the coffee on the eastern seaboard! I wanted the whipped butter, but I'd only spread it on the bottom two pancakes. Then I'd drizzle the syrup around the circumference of the pancakes, but not directly on them because they'd get too soggy too fast that way, plus I like to dip the bacon and sausage in the syrup, but only every other bite or so. And one of the pieces of toast I wanted just a little bit burnt and the other just a little bit underdone, with the butter spread on them before toasting because then it soaks in all over rather than just having globs of it here and there.

Brian was amused by my attention to detail, but mostly I think he was relieved that I wasn't hanging on him and throwing teary-eyed I-Love-You's all over the place. Still, I wanted to say something meaningful. I wanted him to know something. I ended up telling him what my favorite memory of us was. I'm sure he thought it had something to do with his dick and my ass, but actually it didn't--it was just this goofy time when we were at the mall and somehow got roped into listening to one of those timeshare deals. Brian totally played the sales guy the whole time, acting like I was his sugar daddy or something, like I was the one who made all the decisions about money and stuff, and it took the sales guy forever to figure it out and then he kept getting more and more horrified as Brian made it more and more obvious that I was NOT his nephew or brother or anything like that. Jeez, it was so fucking funny. It was one of those days that was just perfect from start to finish, when Brian and I were both exactly who we were supposed to be.

It was a great memory to have in my head when they came to get me for the surgery. I'm not sure if it was real or if I imagined it, but I remember hearing Brian saying over and over again, "It's okay, it's okay, it's okay," and I remember hoping it would be.

It wasn't, though, not exactly. Not right away. The tumor was in the same area where the bashing had caused damage, and when they removed the tumor, there was some residual effects. Some impairment as the doctors so clinically called it. I was sort of back in the same place I'd been right after the bashing, meaning I had to retrain my right arm and leg to communicate with my brain.

And even though this time my leg was more affected than my arm, there was enough of a problem with my hand that I lost my place at PIFA. That was pretty devastating even though I knew it was going to happen. I mean, knew it without even the slightest bit of doubt the second Brian told me what was going on. The dean showed up in person to tell me and was really nice about it, apologetic and all that. There was nothing cold about the way he did it, and he promised me the chance to reapply when my hand was better. Even so, it felt like such a huge personal failure on my part. I know that's unreasonable, but that's how I felt as I watched the Dean leave my room.

It was one of those rare times when I was alone. Brian and the rest of the crowd were at work, Molly had something at school Mom had to go to, PT wasn't until later in the day, lunch was an hour away. I remember sitting there, my head bowed, willing away this rising tide of despair. My eyes were squeezed shut and I breathed in and out the same way I used to try to curb the nausea after radiation. I just kind of rode it out for a few minutes then kind of gave myself a lecture.

Okay, so this fucking sucks. Fucking fucking fucking fucking sucks. Sucks sucks sucks sucks sucks.

Well, so what. So it fucking sucks. Sometimes things fucking suck. It's not like I wouldn't graduate from college--some college. It's not like I wasn't going to end up with a kick ass job that I loved. It's not like I had to have a degree from PIFA to be an artist. It's not like I went through all the shit of the last few months only to give up now. So I wouldn't graduate from PIFA, so fucking what. I'd graduate from somewhere, and if I had anything to do with it, I'd graduate on time and with so many fucking job offers waiting for me, there'd be a bidding war over me. Piles and piles of money and perks would be thrown my way, and I'd be fine. Fuck fine. I'd be fantastic!

Which is not to say I didn't freak out a bit and try to force my physical therapist to totally cure me that evening. I'd been harassing him for what felt like hours to give me more to do because I was on a schedule, and I needed to be up and running ASAP!

Nester was the best--he reminds me of Brian the way he's so adept at reading people. I used to just think somehow it just ended up that he was absolutely and totally the perfect therapist for me. He was so tuned in to how I worked and what motivated me and what didn't that it just seemed like my great fortune that we'd been paired together. But I showed up early now and then when I was an outpatient, and it was like seeing a completely different guy watching him with another patient (or victim as we always called ourselves!).

Anyway, Nester had explained a hundred times why I couldn't rush the process, but I was feeling a little desperate that night and was practically crying about it when Brian came in from work. The traffic had been crappy, so I didn't think he was paying attention, even when I went off on a little bit of a pity party. But then he sat down next to me and held my hand and just silently waited for me to be able to say the words.

Of course, when I told him about school, he went off about it. For all his celebrated indifference, Brian can be a hot head sometimes. By the time he was ranting all over the place about it, I was feeling all, "Whatever." Okay, maybe not quite that blasé, but more like, hey, it's handled, let's move on.

I think part of it was that I felt like my…what, my 'happily-ever-after' was just around the corner, like any second now we'd be back to the way things were before I was diagnosed. Isn't that the way it's supposed to work? This huge fucking trial is put in front of us, and we survive it, get through it, fucking triumph over it. Don't we get some kind of fucking reward for that?

I once had this communication class where the professor told us there was this whole generation of people who were screwed up because their family was nothing like the Brady Bunch. All of the students in the class thought he had to be kidding--the Brady Bunch was practically a cartoon it was so unreal! I mean, they mowed their astro-turf back yard! How realistic is that? But after the surgery, I was kind of waiting for that made-for-TV movie moment when everything came together and I was wonderfully, magically all better right as the ending credits rolled.

But that moment always seemed just out of our reach.

There was a whole hodge podge of things going on. Brian was messed up coming down from all the drama of my being sick, and he tends to micromanage under the best of times anyway. I bet he's a total nightmare of a boss, the kind of guy that gives you something to do then stands behind you and says, "Are you done yet? Are you done yet? Are you done yet?" the entire time you're working.

He really worried about me, which I could totally appreciate, but Brian tried to curb his worry by controlling everything I did, and, like, hello! I'd just spent months in the hospital where they tell you when to piss and shit and eat and everything else. I was trying to get back into shape, and it's like Brian wanted me to sit around and eat bon bons all day or something.

I was determined to start school somewhere else as soon as possible, and Brian had the worst time coming to grips with that. He'd ricochet from being this sort of caring, if not overbearing, partner one minute, to this total asshole dick the next, and then all of a sudden, I'd feel bad that maybe he was scared about all the uncertainty, and I'd feel all sort of tender towards him until he was a total dick again and then I'd be all irritated and then he'd say something so totally sweet and…well, shit.

He didn't want me doing anything unless it was his idea. He practically had a coronary the first time I took a walk outside, and I was with Nester and had a hundred pounds of hardware strapped to me. It's not like anything could have happened, but Brian had to know where I was and what I was doing 24/7 or else he was freaked.

I totally understood. That was when I was so convinced he was going to get in a car accident. We probably should have bought some stock in cell phone companies, because between the two of us, we were a neurotic mess.

At least I had school as this major goal to work toward. I decided I'd go to Carnegie Mellon. The student loans would kill me, but it was an excellent school with a well known art history department, not to mention a top-notch computer graphics studio. Having that goal was so important because it helped stave off the depression and hopelessness and total terror that could be overwhelming a lot of the time. No matter how shitty therapy was any given day, no matter how impossible it seemed, the idea that I was going back to school got my ass up and moving day after day.

I think I kind of forgot Brian a little bit in my single-mindedness. I was so focused on getting better, getting back the life that had been stolen from me, that I didn't pay as close attention to what he was going through as I should have. I was the one that gave up so much control to Brian, so I should have realized what taking it back would do to him, but I didn't.

Which left Brian to communicate with me the most natural way he knew how.

I walked in the loft one night and found him fucking some tall, dark and handsome.

Shit, I was so pissed at him!

The only thing I asked of him, the only fucking thing besides being a decent boyfriend and not bitching at me when things were shitty, was that he not fuck guys in my face, and damn it all to hell not in my fucking bed! God, I was pissed! So fucking, fucking pissed! He's lucky I didn't set his precious fucking loft on fire! I sat on the couch all night just stewing. I wanted to throw every glass and plate and bowl and fucking everything at him. I wanted to rip that place to shreds, but I stamped down on the anger because some screaming fit wasn't going to do shit.

Instead, when he woke up the next morning, I was ready for him. Calm, but seething. And I told him if he didn't want to be with me to just fucking tell me, and maybe it'd break my precious little heart, but he was fucked if he thought I'd stand around and take that shit from him.

And right away, I realized what the issue was. In fact, at one point, he said, "It's starting already, using your little Carnegie Mellon mind to psychoanalyze dumb old pedestrian me."

God, I could just fucking kill him sometimes. How totally stupid is that? He single-handedly carries me through this life-threatening illness, and I'm sorry, but hardly a day goes by that I don't tell him how completely amazing he is, but I'm going to somehow grow beyond him if I go to Carnegie Mellon? What a total idiot!

And the absolute fucking stupid irony of it all is that he'd been flipping out all over the place, and I didn't even fucking get in!

Jesus.

I didn't exactly share that story with anyone because I'd get a whole shitload of "advice" about it, but, to be honest, it was a fuck up I could get past. I called him on it, and maybe he didn't do some overblown forgive-me scene, but he knew he'd fucked up, and he was going to try not to fuck up like that again.

And I guess part of it was finally realizing what a wreck Brian had been since I got sick. He deserved a small, small, really small bit of slack for that. He made everything look so effortless, made himself seem so together every fucking second of the day, that it was easy to think he wasn't that affected, but really it was evidence that he was totally affected by it.

I bet everybody thinks I'd be crowing over that, over how intense Brian's reaction was, but I wasn't.

Sometimes I think I'm stuck in people's heads as the kid I was 10 minutes after Brian picked my cherry. They think I'm still that clueless, selfish, stupid ass twink, which goes a long way to explaining why Brian can be so fucking stuck in the image of the man he was 15 years ago. Don't we get to change? Don't I get to grow up and move on and fucking learn from the idiotic mistakes I make along the way? I guess it's easier for people to just put you into some stupid box because then they never have to think about how they're going to deal with you. It's just fucking lazy if you ask me, and I'm never going to be that way. I'm going to keep paying attention and I'm going to let people be who they are, not who I maybe thought they were five hundred years ago.

I wasn't glad that Brian was messed up over me. I wasn't proud of the fact that he was damn near terrified if he didn't know where I was every second. I didn't like that he felt so out of control. I don't want him to be in pain, even if it was because me.

I don’t think that would have been true two years ago. I wanted Brian to…to feel something over me. Anything. And I don't think I cared whether he felt something good or bad. I'm not proud of that, and I really have changed. Brian played everything so fucking close to the vest back then. He could always take or leave me, and God did I want him to take me. I think I would have loved it back then if I knew he was hurting because of me.

I'm glad I'm not that shitty of a person anymore.

Anyway, with Brian, you have to be able to tell when he's acting out of fear and desperation and when he's just being a dick. That's not to say he gets a bye when he fucks up because he's afraid. I'm really not that much of a doormat anymore. I'll still call him on it, but it's just different.

I guess that sounds like I'm making excuses, and maybe I am. Maybe I still let him fuck with me more than I should. But for me, it's a question of intention with Brian. If he's trying to hurt me just because he feels like being a shit, there's not much to understand there. If he's hurting me because he just doesn't fucking know what else to do, then there's something for us to talk about.

In one of my civics class we talked about how the Supreme Court ruled that the definition of pornography is subject to each community's definition of decency. A justice said something like, 'I may not be able to give you an exact definition of pornography, but I know it when I see it.'

Well, Brian's behavior is kind of like that. I may not be able to explain to you why I can accept some of his shit and not others, I just know when I can let it go and when I can't.

And Brian felt really shitty that I didn't get into CM. He's still kind of cool to Ben, who's a professor there. It's not like Ben had anything to do with admissions, but he's guilty by association in Brian's eyes. Anyway, I'd applied to Pitt as a back-up, and let's face it, all you need is a pulse to get into Pitt, so that's where I started classes during Winter quarter.

The main thing about Pitt is that I hated it. Really. I mean, I really, really hated Pitt with every ounce of festering putrid hatred I could muster. I hated it with the venom and animosity a billion Sinclaire Bainbridges could never hope to amass.

I really hated it.

I didn't say anything at first for a hundred million different reasons. I'd built up going back to school in my mind as this huge proof that I was recovered, and saying I didn't like it felt like I was saying I wasn't better yet. And I'd also made such a stink about it with Brian. He kept thinking I wasn't ready and I wanted to prove to him that I was. And then part of me kept thinking I just needed to wait it out, that maybe I was still disappointed about not being back at the Institute, and maybe my opinion of Pitt was colored by that and if I just gave it a little time, I'd feel differently about the suck-ass shithole that it was.

I know now that part of it was that I just wasn't bouncing back after the surgery as quickly as I thought I would. My arm and leg were coming around okay, but I felt really shitty a lot of the time. I was taking several medications in the wake of the surgery, some of the meds made me feel like puking and some of it made me anxious and some of it made me tired. I could get 10 hours of sleep but still wake up the next morning barely able to get out of bed.

I was disillusioned with Pitt's art and graphics programs to the point where I wouldn't even consider taking any classes in either department. Maybe I would later when the disappointment about PIFA wasn't so…palpable. But that meant my days were filled with classes that held little interest to me--chemistry, calculus, literature, history of western civilization, politics 101. Yawn.

But most of it wasn't even Pitt per se. I can't point to a ton of stuff that was unique to the university and say that's why I hated it. It was just everything. I hated riding the bus to get there, I hated hanging around all day waiting for fifty minute classes I couldn't have cared less about, I hated all the people walking around like everything had to be done at a thousand miles an hour and then they'd look at me like I was some kind of freak because I wasn't clipping along at their pace, never mind that there was a missing chunk of my brain that controlled shit like that.

Maybe it was the after-effects of the tumor reawakening memories of the bashing or something, but sometimes I felt kind of… I don't know. Pitt was, well, it could have been St. James or any other public school anywhere. It's not that I thought some lunatic would raise a bat to me again, but I still felt kind of…exposed. I didn't want to get tight with someone, just to have them freak out when they learned I was gay. But it seemed stupid to turn to the guy next to me in chemistry class and say, "I'm queer, you got a problem with that?"

It's not that I'm scared of anybody, that's just stupid. It's not that. At PIFA, every third guy was gay or bi or so fucking politically correct that he'd fuck you just to show solidarity.

And then maybe some of it was me still waiting for that story-book ending. Still waiting for the happily-ever after.

I was supposed to be fine. I was supposed to be better than fine--I was supposed to be fantastic! That I didn't feel anything remotely close to fantastic when I should have, that kind of scared me. Well, not scared. I wasn't scared of anything. It concerned me.

Maybe I couldn't be happy. Maybe nothing would ever be enough for me. Maybe I was so spoiled and selfish that the second things didn't go exactly my way, I was down for the count or something.

Whatever. WhatEVER. I'm just saying there were a bunch of reasons why I didn't say anything.

And then, there was something going on with Brian. He was going through something at work, I figured that much out on my own, 'cause God knows he sure as hell wasn't talking to me.

It felt a little like he was…I don't know, punishing me, for telling him he couldn't take his pissed off moods out on me. It felt like he was saying, 'Fine, you don't want that part of me? Then you don't get any of me.' That's what it felt like. He started leaving for work really early in the mornings, and I was usually in bed by the time he came home. Sometimes I'd see him when he'd come in to change before going to Woody's or Babylon or one of the other bars. A lot of nights, I sat at the library and waited to go home until after I knew he'd be out for the night.

More than once there was a message from Michael telling Brian what a great time they'd had the night before, how great it was to finally spend some time together, and I felt that was sort of aimed at me too, and maybe that's fucked, but I'm just saying it felt that way, not that it really was that way.

The thing is, I guess I should have been bummed or mad or worried or something, but mostly I was just relieved. It was hard pretending school was good and I was good and life was fucking good when I hated school and I hated me and life pretty much sucked. Pretending otherwise was fucking exhausting and pointless and made me feel more fucked up than ever.

Brian and I had been passing acquaintances for some time when he surprised me by coming in around 7:00 one night. I'd only been home a half hour or so, but was already set up at my desk studying for a chemistry exam.

"Hey," I said, as he threw his briefcase at his desk with more than a little force and stalked to the bedroom, already unbuttoning his dress shirt. He spared me a glance as he walked by, but didn't say anything. "There's chicken and broccoli for dinner. Want some?" I asked.

"No," came his muffled reply from the bedroom.

That's about as much effort as I was willing to give, and I returned to my chemistry book with an inward sigh.

I stared at a periodic chart of the elements and wished I was reading about color and light and shading and artistic theory and anything but nickel and boron and hydrogen. Jesus, two and a half more years of this. It stretched out before me seeming endless and meaningless. Two and a half more year, then what? A job selling fucking widgets? Woo hoo!

Brian was taking a long time in the bathroom. Avoiding me, I figured. Assuming I'd want him to sit down and communicate with me. Yeah right. All I felt like communicating right then was 'go already!' Some great partner I was. Maybe I should have been pushing him to open up and tell me what was going on, but what the hell did I have to offer him if something was going wrong at work? Maybe I could tell him an amusing anecdote about helping someone pick out just the right watercolor paper, or I could tell him how someone came in looking for an X-Acto knife, and I SHOWED THEM WHERE IT WAS! How amazing could I be?!

I'm sure Brian would find my advice oh-so-helpful to him as the owner of an advertising agency. Jesus, no wonder he didn't want to tell me what was going on. Michael selling comic books to pimply-faced teenagers had more to offer Brian than I did.

I tried to concentrate on my reading, but I couldn't have cared less about it. How did everyone else do it--just sit there in class after class that held no interest to them? How did they make themselves study the material and learn it and take tests in it when it didn't have anything to do with anything they cared about? What the fuck was the degree going to give me that was worth wasting all of this time? Four years of my life would be gone and all I'd have was a piece of paper declaring me eligible for jobs I would no doubt hate. What was the fucking point?

I sighed and kind of set my shoulders. "Mini rant out of the way, asshole," I said to myself. "Back to work."

I was making flash cards of all the elements when Brian finally came out of the bathroom.

I wrote the symbol on one side of an index card, then on the back, I wrote the actual name and listed five or six attributes. It wasn't any more interesting than the reading, but at least my mind wouldn't wander while I did it.

For a long couple of minutes, Brian stood on the stairs that led down into the kitchen and just watched me. I could feel his eyes on me, but I'd been dismissed for the evening, and I was through being a glutton for punishment. He stepped down and walked past me to the refrigerator, and as he passed his hand trailed from one of my shoulders to the next, and swear to God, I just about melted into a puddle right there. That's all it took from him! Just a kind touch, and I was a fucking puddle.

I didn't look up from my cards, but I could tell Brian was heating up a plate of the chicken and broccoli. I'd stir fried it, and the smell of soy sauce, ginger and garlic filled the kitchen once again.

It was quiet while he ate, then rinsed his plate. He leaned against the counter and watched me some more, then softly asked, "What are you studying?"

I looked up into his round, beautiful eyes and thought there wasn't anything I wouldn't forgive him if he'd look at me that way for the rest of my life. Please, please look at me that way for the rest of my life!

I wrinkled my nose and said, "Chemistry."

He brightened and moved forward to slip the text book away from me. "Yeah? I liked that one," he said.

"I don't think I'll be joining any clubs," I said, and when he shot me a warning look, I stuck my tongue in my cheek and gave him a perfect Brian-Kinney-aren't-I-so-amusing look.

He snickered and shook his head at me. "What's all that?" he asked, pointing at the index cards.

"Flash cards," I said. "We have to memorize the periodic table. Which is pointless because it's not like there aren't fifty million reference books you could look it up in with a half second's notice."

"Want some help?"

"Oh God, yeah, that'd be great," I said, sliding the cards over to him.

He quizzed me for awhile, offering a million and one dirty ways of remembering what each symbol was and how it functioned.

It was maybe two hours later that he said, pretty much out of the blue, "Being a partner isn't what I thought it would be."

"How?" I asked, rooting around in the freezer for some ice cream. We'd had a pint in there the night before and now it was nowhere to be found. I swear to God, Brian sneaks it sometimes, as if the calories don't count if I don't see him consume them. He is so queer.

"It's all bullshit," he said.

"What did you think it was going to be?"

He thought about it for a second. "More of what I was already doing, I guess. Just shitloads more money doing it. Instead it's more of the same, plus a fucking boatload of bureaucratic shit, plus another fucking boatload of personnel shit that I don't give a flying fuck about. No wonder Marty sold out when he could. It's like, five percent of my time is spent on shit that actually affects the bottom line and 95 percent on bullshit that doesn't matter. Net income isn't going anywhere because I settle the burning question of who takes over front desk phone coverage during lunch hour. Christ, it's a fucking joke."

"Don't you and Vance split the responsibility for that stuff?"

Brian snorted at the question. "It wouldn't matter who was officially assigned the responsibility. They all know me, so they bring their shit to me."

I grinned at him. "If they know you, shouldn't they know you don't care about their shit?"

"The thing about people is, they all think you care about their shit. That's what makes them so fucking boring."

I laughed and shook my head at him. "I should probably write that down. I'll use it as my e-mail signature."

"Besides, Vance is dark and mysterious and eats babies. Has an accent. Ooooh, scary."

"Jeez, what kind of office is it when you're the warm cuddly one?"

"Tell me about it," Brian said glumly.

"Are you just unloading or are you thinking about doing something?"

One corner of Brian's mouth turned up in a slight smile. "I'm thinking about thinking about doing something," he said.

"Maybe," I clarified for him and he snickered. "Do you want to start your own agency? Isn't Vanguard sort of already part yours?"

"No way in hell I'd consider selling out right now," Brian said. "If I tried, Vance would lowball me so badly it'd be a joke."

"Could you buy him out?"

Brian shook his head. "Vanguard's his baby. He won't give it up. That's part of the hassle. It's his baby. Doesn’t matter than my name's on a partnership agreement, he still sees it as his agency. It's like I've moved into his place and he's just letting me use his shit out of the kindness of his heart. You know?"

"Not at all," I said earnestly. "What's that like?" I laughed at his smirk and dove for my index card before he could throw them at me. "Didn't you have to sign a million contracts? Isn't everything spelled out about how it's supposed to work?"

"Finances, ownership of property, all that shit, yeah. Attitude's another matter. Sometimes I tell myself to just suck it up 'cause I'll start my own agency eventually and be out of there, but then I start thinking fuck if I'm gonna bust my ass for Vanguard only to walk away and leave it all behind."

"So is it dicking around with Vance that's the problem or all the dumb bureaucratic stuff?"

Brian groaned, his head dramatically thrown back. "I want to exist in a vacuum!" he said.

I laughed, and straddled him, settling down on his lap with just a little bit of bump and grind. "Lots and lots of sucking in a vacuum," I said, shaking my head, insinuating that I wasn't too sure Brian was up to such a task. He snickered at me, but just sat back, relaxed, watching me with a pleased expression on his face. I thread my fingers together at the back of his neck and stared back. "So I guess you'll just suck up the shit for a little while longer. You know you'll have your own agency eventually. If nothing else, right now you're learning how not to run shit when it's all yours. That can be your takeaway."

"Christ, no more dinners with Professor Perfect. You're starting to sound like Mikey, reciting the parables of St. Ben."

I laughed. "You've already got a time limit set for how long you'll stay at Vanguard, I know you do," I said. "When you do it, it'll be great. Your own agency. I know it."

"You know it, huh? How's that?"

"Because you're amazing," I said, scolding him for making me repeat the obvious.

He grinned and shook his head, the smile fading slowly. "I'm nothing like the man you think I am," he said, a sour expression now on his face.

"Are too." I brilliantly replied. I leaned in and kissed him. He still looked unhappy, and I gave him a stern look and a little honesty to go with it. "I know exactly who you are, Brian. I'm still here because of it and in spite of it, alright?"

Brian laughed, and I could tell that made him feel a little better. He reached around and grabbed my ass, pulling me in closer. "How much longer are you going to be," he asked softly, motioning over my shoulder with his chin to the index cards on the table.

"Not long," I promised. I slid backwards oh-so-slowly off his lap and returned to the kitchen table to finish studying.

He putzed around the loft for a little while until I started clearing the table and stacking my books. He headed up the landing toward the bathroom, but paused on the stairs, watching me again.

"Justin."

"Yeah?" I looked up at him with a smile on my face.

"I needed to get here in my own time. My own way."

I nodded, and it never even occurred to me to act like I didn't know what he was talking about. Of course, I wasn't about to admit that it was my own fucked-upness that had kept me silent. Hey, sometimes things work out in your favor in spite of yourself. "So long as you get here," I said with a shrug. "That's all I want."

Brian's smile said 'bullSHIT that's all you want,' but he knew what I meant. He eyed me with great consideration for a moment, the smile fading into a more serious expression. "Come to bed."

It was as much of a 'pardon-my-shitty-attitude' as I was ever going to get from Brian, and, you know, really? It was all I needed. As long as I know where his head and his heart are, I don't care what shitload of bull he tries to blow up my ass. I'll take his sultry "come to bed," over a thousand pathetic '"forgive me's" any day. Any fucking day ever.

He made love to me that night, slowly and tenderly, so sweetly. God, so sweetly. Sometimes my heart just overflows for him, like, it's not big enough to feel everything that I feel for him. Sometimes he gets inside me, not just his cock, but him, just everything that he is, gets inside of me, and swear to God, I feel as whole as I will ever feel in my life. That's how we made love that night, and I was so sure I'd wake up the next morning hopeful and energized, but I didn't, not really.

It felt so good to wake up with Brian wrapped around me, to joke around with him and to mess around in the shower. I loved eating breakfast with him and planning a trip to Woody's after dinner. But after he kissed my cheek and left for the day, everything else seemed as bleak and impossible as ever, and that kind of flayed me.

I thought I'd get up that morning and everything would be back on track, like all the other times we talked something through.

I had to watch three busses go by before I could get on one. That was happening more and more often. I'd be sitting there, waiting, and then my bus would pull up and all of a sudden, I wouldn't be able to breathe, and I'd get this panicked idea that if I got on the bus, it'd…shit, I don't know, it'd kill me or something. Guess that chem exam was good for something because without that, I don't think I would have gone to school that day. And I knew that the first time I did that, the first time I let that last bus go by, it'd be this major thing. Then maybe there'd be no fixing how broken it all was.

It was only a week or two later when I had a day that encompassed everything that was going wrong, and my stoic act was blown out of the water.

I'd started leaving the house earlier and earlier to give me time to freak out over getting on the bus. I'd told Brian I had an early-morning study group, and I so fucking hated myself for that. Why the fuck did I have to lie about it?

So the day started shitty and just got shittier and shittier. I'd scheduled a meeting with my Chemistry professor because I'd received a 92 on the exam. Two of the questions were misleading, and I felt like my answers deserved at least partial credit. And I know it's ridiculous to sweat it, but the only grades in the class were the midterm and the final. The eight fucking thousand labs were just for our health I guess. So it mattered. Partial credit would bump my grade up to a 96, and I'd have felt more comfortable going into the final.

I'd decided that if I had to go to Pitt, I'd set a goal to graduate with a four-point GPA. There was no fucking way in hell I was going to blow that my first semester there, so I went to talk to the professor, but he wouldn't even consider changing my grade, even after he agreed that I had a point! Is that not total fucking bullshit? I mean, what the fuck? He says, 'Yeah, you're right, your answer is valid, but with a 92, I don’t think revisiting your score is merited.' That is so fucking unfair!

I was still fuming about it as I sat down to lunch, when who sits themselves down next to me but Stanley Logan.

Stan was one of the first people I'd met at Pitt. I was standing in line at a campus bookstore right at the start of the semester, and he was staring at me from across the room, one of those, I-think-I-know-him stares. I didn't recognize him, so I did the faint-smile-head-nod move and looked away, but he didn't let up, and damn if he didn't follow me out of the store.

"Hey, hey, wait up!" he called, jogging to catch up with me.

He was a big guy--tall, at least 50 pounds overweight, but everything else about him was pretty much non-descript--average face, average hair, average everything. "Hey, you're that guy!" he said. "That guy, who was bashed at his prom. You're at Pitt? You must have just transferred in, I would have known if you started right after the bashing. I followed your story. I'm Stan Logan. You're…Jason."

"Umm, Justin," I answered.

"Justin, okay, yeah. And you're enrolled at Pitt? Since when?"

"Umm, this is my first semester. I transferred in from, uh, the Pittsburgh Institute of Fine Arts."

"Right, right, I remember, now. So what happened? You flunk out?"

I'm the kind of person that when someone asks me something that's absolutely none of their business, I'm so flabbergasted at their audacity I end up answering them. God, I hate that about me! Brian would have said fuck you to Stanley Logan.

Not me, I was all, "Uh, well, no, huh uh." I touched my hand to the hat on my head. My hair hadn't started to grow back yet--not noticeably anyway.

Just a few days before, Brian and I were getting ready in the morning and he came up behind me in the bathroom.

"What is this?" he'd asked, running his hand over my head.

"What?" I asked, leaning into the mirror to see.

Brian had pulled me back and made this big show of moving in really close, eyeing the top of my head from one angle, then another. "Why, I do believe I spy some hairs on the boy's head. I think I'm getting choked up here."

I elbowed him in the stomach, and leaned in to the mirror again, feeling the top of my head and grinning like an idiot when I felt the soft fuzz. "Is it blond?" I asked.

Brian had lifted his eyebrow. "I'm still here, aren't I?"

"You're not going anywhere," I said confidently. "You love me. You so care about me."

He made a face at me, kind of smiling in spite of himself. "You're sooo onto me, aren't you?"

"You know it, babe. Your number is up."

Brian's witty reply was something along the lines of "Don’t call me babe."

Uneasily watching Stanley, I secured the hat on my head, not trusting that he wouldn't just reach up and grab it if he was so inclined. "I've been, um, sick," I said, foolishly thinking the guy would let it go at that.

"Sick? How?"

"Uh, I had a, uh, a brain tumor. It's effected my leg and hand. I can't draw well enough for now to continue at PIFA."

"Is that because of the bashing?" he asked, all horrified at the very idea, and I was pretty much stunned into silence at that.

Stanley had sort of lugged me along with him, and we ended up sitting at a little table at Cup of Joe, one of the coffee shops on campus.

"I'm the vice president of Pitt's Gay Lesbian Bi Transgender Association. We're the largest GLBT group on campus, the most vocal, the most active. Come to the next meeting. You'll speak about the bashing, of course, answer questions, join some committees. It'll be a great way to start your time here."

I knew there were gay organizations on campus, and I figured I'd check them out at some point, but ever since I was 17, it felt like I'd been defining myself solely by my sexuality. I was a GAY man. Not a man, not an artist, not a student, but a GAY man, and it gets exhausting and confining and boring. I had a feeling Stanley Logan wouldn't be receptive to that little piece of my mind, so I didn't say anything.

Stanley just kept talking. I was already getting the impression that he didn't really need anybody in the room with him to carry on a conversation. "So what was it like?" he asked, leaning in and whispering like we were intimate friends.

I had no idea what we were talking about now. "I'm sorry?"

"What was it like?" he repeated. "The bashing. What was that like?" He asked sort of demandingly, like I owed him a description of the experience.

"What was it like to get hit in the head with a baseball bat?" I clarified, and at least he looked marginally embarrassed at the insensitivity of the question. "I don't remember," I said curtly.

"Right, right," he said, nodding as he sat back in his chair. "Yeah, a head injury, that's understandable. Whatever happened to the judge that passed that indefensible decision? When is he up for reelection? We should target him for defeat, don't you think? Why wasn't there a bigger stink after that verdict? You had to have been outraged. Hadn't you organized something at your high school? I think I remember reading that in the paper. Can we count on seeing you this Thursday? What do you say, Jason?"

"Look, I know you're doing important stuff, but right now school is just about all I can handle."

"Don't you think we owe something to everyone who came before us? To the guys who actually marched at Stonewall? To everyone who ever floated a legal action or stood their ground when everyone would just as soon see them dead as alive? How can you deny the responsibility you have to them?"

God, he was relentless, and the more he pushed me, the more I resisted, but the more I resisted the more fucked up I felt. Why the hell was I running scared from Stanley Logan?

He called the loft once when Brian was there, and I was so fucking embarrassed after I stumbled through the conversation--hemming and hawing and mumbling a whole bunch of maybes and I-don't-knows. I totally picked a fight with Brian that night. I just felt so fucking shitty about myself and so mad at Brian for hearing me be such a fucking wimp that I just…went off on him. It wasn't on purpose--I mean, it's not like I hung up the phone and thought, hey, I'll fuck with Brian now. It's just, looking back now I understand what happened.

Of course, at the time, I felt like I was totally justified.

I hung up the phone and felt like I had to explain everything to Brian. He was working on a presentation for a local brewery and probably hadn't even realized I was on the phone, but all of a sudden I was going on and on about Stanley and his club and my class load and work schedule and how I couldn't just drop everything for some dumb club.

With an aggravated huff of breath, Brian shoved his chair back from his desk. "What the fuck are you talking about?" he asked.

"I'm just telling you who that guy is and why I can't join that group."

"And I give a shit why?"

My eyes narrowed. "Oh right, right, it doesn't have anything to do with you so you wouldn't. My mistake."

"Whoa, back up," Brian said. "I'm just sitting here trying to get some work done."

I rolled my eyes at him. "Wait, don't tell me. So that you can bring home your big, fat paycheck and pay for every fucking thing because I'm a lame ass freeloader, do I have that right?"

"Jesus, what is with you?"

"Nothing!" I yelled. "Jeez, I'm just trying to tell you why I'm not joining that GLBT group!"

"And I'm just trying to tell you I don't give a fuck…"

"Fuck you, you asshole!" I shouted.

Brian stood up, shaking his head as he picked up his jacket. "Forget this shit, I'm outta here."

"Fine, go!"

"I'm going."

"So go!"

"Asshole," Brian muttered as he slammed the door shut.

"Fucker!" I shouted after him.

He was only gone long enough to walk around the block a couple of times. Long enough for me to want to be swallowed up into a black hole. I'm such a fucking idiot sometimes!

Brian threw the door to the loft open and stood there in the doorway, legs spread, swear to God the soundtrack to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was playing in the background.

He glared at me before saying, "You fucking know I give a shit."

"I know," I said sheepishly. "I'm sorry."

He sighed and banged his head against the door a couple of times. "You are the most annoying fucking shit on the planet, you know that?"

"But I'm your shit," I said weakly, which I'm sure wasn’t much consolation at the moment.

"Lucky me," he said dryly. He gave me a look, which word for word translates to 'So tell me what the fuck the problem is.'

"The guy that called…he heads up this GBLT group at school and he keep pressing me to join because of the bashing and everything, but I don't want to be their poster boy!"

Brian gave me this, 'so-what-the-fuck's-the-problem' shrug and said, "Then don't be."

"I'm a total coward, aren't I? God, I'm so fucking weak…I hate…I don't want you to be ashamed of me."

"Not everyone has the selfless devotion to the community that I have," he said, rolling his eyes. "What the fuck gave you the idea I'd give a sh…Okay, fuck that. I'm not ashamed of you. That's not gonna happen, you know that."

"I know you don't care whether or not I join some fucking group on campus. Nobody cares whether I join the group. Shit, I don't even fucking care. It's why I won't do it that's so fucked up."

"You don't owe anybody anything," he said softly. "Except me your ass in the air. That's it."

I smirked at him, then turned away. "It's important to be a good citizen," I said imperiously.

Brian choked on stifled laughter and gave me a stern glare. "Are you reading Gus' preschool fliers again? I told you to ignore that dangerous propaganda."

We never really talked about it again, except for my complaining now and then about Stanley stalking me.

Naturally, I was less than thrilled when Stanley plopped himself down at my table that afternoon. It's not that his weekly rush was any more or less irritating than usual, but I'd spent the sub-zero morning freezing my ass off at the bus stop because I was such a fucking wuss, so I wasn't particularly interested in feeling even more like shit because I wouldn't join that stupid club.

I was sitting there with a full plate of food, listening to Stanley drone on about the speaker they'd hired for the next meeting, a former civil rights attorney who now consulted with major corporations about partnership benefits. I just couldn't sit there waiting for him to get to the part where I had to join, had to tell my story, had to play my part. I just couldn't sit there another minute, so I got up when he was in mid-sentence, and walked on auto pilot to a trash can where I dumped my lunch then kept right on walking out the door. I could hear Stanley calling me, but I kept walking like some kind of fucking robot. If I could have trusted my leg more, I probably would have started jogging just to make sure Stanley wasn't following me.

I ended up over by the diner, hoping that Deb was working. She was there, and she greeted me like I hadn't seen her in months, but it had only been a couple of days. It was so nice to walk into a room and have someone light up like that.

She asked about school and how I was feeling and whether Brian and I would be at dinner on Sunday, but mostly she just talked and talked and talked about…something. I don't know what. Everything. And I just had to sit there and nod and laugh and listen and it was just nice.

But then she cut a piece of pie and set it down in front of me, and then it wasn't nice anymore. I said no thank you, but talk about spitting into the ocean.

"Come on, honey, it's just a little piece of pie," Deb said. "You don't have to eat the whole thing, Sweetie. Just a bite, how about that? Just one bite. I had Arnold make a blueberry specially for you. Had to go to three different stores to find the blueberries. Just a few bites, Sunshine, for me."

She smiled at me so coaxingly, like it was so important to her, and then I was back to feeling like shit. Why couldn't I do these things? These simple, simple things--get on a fucking bus, join an important group which did important stuff, eat a fucking slice of pie to make Deb happy. Why couldn't I do these things?

Every time I had a check up, the doctor was on me about gaining weight, and I did try. But, God, everybody was picking on me about it! My mom and Deb and Lindsay and Mel, even Emmett and Michael were constantly shoving food in my face. "Come on, eat it! You're so skinny! It won't hurt you, have a bite, have another, have another!" Brian wasn't much better. He was always saying stuff about how I was too thin. "Clean your plate, it's like fucking a skeleton around here."

And it's so stupid but it would just make my blood boil. I felt like, fuck all of you! Nothing tastes like it's supposed to and I still feel like puking half the time so leave me the fuck alone! But I couldn't say anything, because then I'm some totally selfish dick and all they want is for me to be better. Look better.

There were days…just some days, not like every day or anything, but some days I'd skip lunch or tell Brian I'd already had dinner when I really hadn't. And I'd feel this sort of…smug sense of satisfaction, like I was getting away with something. And I know that's fucked in the head, but knowing you're crazy and doing something about it are two separate things.

So I couldn't eat the pie. I was even fucking hungry, and I couldn't eat that stupid fucking pie! And Deb smiled at me, that hurt, worried, let-down smile of hers and I felt like such a shit. All she wanted was for me to eat something, and I couldn't make myself do it even if it would make her happy.

By the time I got home, I was just…spent, so fucking running on empty.

Friday night was always the night we went out with the crowd--usually starting at Woody's where they all compared notes about what had happened during the week, then we moved on to Babylon to forget everything that had happened during the week.

I just couldn't do it that night. I couldn't face anybody. For once I couldn't even pretend I had shit under control. I just couldn't do it.

When Brian came in from work and saw I wasn't dressed to go out, he said, "Come on, Sunshine. Chop chop, let's get a move on."

I asked Brian if we couldn't stay in for the night, but he just laughed and said, "No thanks."

"Please, Brian? Please? Just stay for a little while. Until I fall asleep? Can't you do one fucking thing for me once? Please?" I could hear myself begging him and I hated it! I hated myself for begging him, but I couldn't shut up! I couldn't just stop! It was like getting Brian to stay in with me was the most important thing ever.

"Christ, get off me. What the fuck is your problem?"

It felt like he'd slapped across the face, and I quickly turned away, sort of stunned. My reaction was totally off the charts, I knew that even as I stood there feeling flayed. I kind of shook my head and took a breath and turned back around, talking at a point just over Brian's shoulder. "Shit, sorry. God, I'm just…fucked. Forget it, okay? Look you go, okay, I'm…tonight, I'll…you go."

I hurried into the bathroom because I was a blathering idiot. Damn. Brian was going to drop me off at a psyche ward one of these days and never look back!

I got in the shower and at one point, I half-turned, wanting only to put the shampoo back on the shelf, and I must have turned funny or something because my leg gave out and then I was on my knees in the shower and wasn't that the most appropriate fucking place in the universe for me to be?

I let go then, just totally let go. It was like, fine, world, you win. You fucking win! I wailed at the top of my lungs, just yelled as loudly as I could, then started fucking bawling like I'd never stop, and if the hot water tank were bigger, I'd probably still be in there. I just fucking melted down.

God, I wanted to be dead. I didn't want to kill myself, I just wanted to be dead, to not…be.

Eventually, because you can't live in a shower stall spewing freezing cold water all over you, I stepped out of the bathroom, wanting only to fall into bed and out of that fucking day.

"I didn't do anything wrong." Brian's voice startled me, and I looked out to the darkened living room. He was half in shadow, half in the blue light from the bedroom. His eyes were large and round as he eyed me, his anger simmering right at the surface.

"I know," I answered.

"Like hell, you know," Brian sneered. "You know you're on your fucking knees in the shower crying like some fucking faggot. I didn't do anything wrong!" He shouted that last bit, and I sighed inwardly, knowing I had to be really careful how we proceeded from that point.

Brian's such a fucking conundrum. He's got an ego the size of the Grand Canyon combined with a streak of self-loathing as long as the Nile. The two forces clash in him to make for a guy who thinks he can control the universe so he's therefore responsible for all the bad shit that happens in it. Add some whiskey to the mix, and we're looking at a potentially volatile situation.

"It's nothing you did," I started to say.

"Bullshit. Bullshit!" Brian yelled. "If you fucking want me to do something, you ask! You don't go fucking crying all over the place! Jesus Christ, how fucking pathetic can you be? You want me to do something, you fucking ask, God damn it!"

"I did," I said evenly. I guess the easy thing at that point would have been to just say he was right and I was being a self-pitying brat, but I couldn't do it. I just couldn't.

Look, he's allowed to say no to shit. Just because I ask him to do something, he doesn't have to say yes, but he's not fucking coming back around and saying I never opened my mouth, because that's not true. If he feels bad later that he didn't want to do what I wanted, that's not my problem. "I did say something, and you said no. That's fucking life. Christ, that's such a fucking piddly drop in the bucket that was my shitty day, it's hardly noticeable, okay? I had a fucking shitty day. Really, really shitty, and I lost if for a second. Everything's not always about you, Brian."

"Did you fall at school?" he asked, instantly apprehensive.

"No," I said, and laughed a little. "I sorta thought the day couldn't have been any worse than it was, but I guess it could have been after all."

It was quiet for a few beats, and I could see Brian sort of wrestling with what to do. He probably thought I was trying to make him do or think or feel or say something, and he didn't want to give in.

I just wanted to fucking go to bed.

"So what happened?" he finally asked.

"Nothing," I said. I didn't even have enough energy to stand up straight by that point. "We'll talk about it later." The bed was just inches from me, mocking me with its soft sheets and fluffy pillows. I wanted the day to be fucking over!

"Tell me!" Brian yelled.

"No," I said, working my way to pissed. "God! Shut up."

"If it wasn't about me, then you'd fucking tell me," Brian said with the reasoning (and demeanor) of a five-year-old.

I answered him the same way. "No, Brian, I wouldn't. Because if it's not about you, you wouldn't give a fuck. Therefore, my not telling you is proof that it's not about you."

At least that shut him up for a minute. I took my last dose of meds and got into bed, groaning when Brian flicked on the light I just turned off. "How could you have a shitty day that doesn't involve me?"

I turned to gape at him, and he sort of tried to pass it off like he was joking but he so wasn't. That was honestly what he thought. How could I have a bad day that wasn't all about him. "You are unbelievable," I said, shaking my head.

"Just fucking tell me."

"Would you get out of here already?" I said, shoving my head under my pillow.

"I would, but I don't want to make you cry again."

"I wasn't crying over you! Jesus!" I sat up and realized he was making fun of me. I glared at him. "You are the meanest man in America," I said, borrowing Gus' favorite insult.

"Damn right," Brian said, swaggering toward me. "But you love me anyway."

"Not so much really." I pulled the blanket up and over my head.

"Yes you do," he answered, shedding his clothes as he moved closer. "You sooo care about me."

"Go away."

"You love me sooo much." Brian slid into bed, snorting at the boxers and T-shirt I had on, a sure clue I was pissed at him. Amidst my pissy huffing and puffing, Brian made short work of the clothes, and then, amazingly, he pulled me tightly against his chest and just laid there.

I just assumed he'd try to fuck me out of my mood. Truth be told, up until he wrapped his arms around me, I wanted him to fuck me out of my mood. Oh God, I thought as Brian settled against me, please, please, please, please please. That's all that kept going through my brain, just the word please.

Maybe I cried a little bit more that night, but I doubt it. I mean, I'm not some little faggot who cries over shit.

I woke up to an empty loft, sunlight streaming through the front windows. Jeez, it was almost noon. I had one of those panicky moments when I wasn't quite sure what day it was and where I needed to be and what time I needed to be there. It was Saturday, so at least I wasn't missing school.

I hadn't heard Brian at all. Usually I get up and make coffee while he's showering, and even if I don't play the little wifey, I always wake up when he gets out of bed.

Memories of the night before suddenly came back to me and I groaned into my pillow. Jesus, I was such a fucking mess! Brian was probably totally disgusted by what a fucking loser basket case I was, probably couldn't wait to get up and out of the house and as far away from me as possible. Why couldn't I get it together? How totally lame could I be?

I figured Brian had already been to the gym and out for breakfast with the guys. Wonder what kind of Friday night he made up for them? I know he didn't tell them he spent the evening trying to keep his fucking basket case boyfriend from going off the deep end. By noon, he was either at the office or running errands. I tried to remember if we'd made any plans for the day, but I didn't think we had. Good thing, I guess. Probably the last thing Brian wanted to do was hang out with me.

Blah blah blah, I know. Aren't I oh-so-pathetic. With a sigh, I shuffled into the kitchen to make some coffee, but stopped short when I saw the piece of paper on the kitchen counter.

I'm always leaving little sketches in Brian's brief case--just quick little drawings done on scrap paper. I'll slip them in while he's finishing his breakfast or making that one last pass at the bathroom mirror. They're never elaborate or anything--just dumb stuff--our hands entwined, or his cock or my mouth on his cock or his cock in my ass. I'm sure he just smirks and tosses them in the garbage. Well, he probably rips them up and then throws them away. Anyway, it's just this thing I do.

So there, on the kitchen table, was a drawing Brian had made. There were two stick figures, one about three times taller than the other. I think the bulges all over that one were supposed to be muscles. The smaller figure was jumping up in the air, little hearts encircling him like bubbles. Obviously the little one was crazy about the big one. Brian's version of 'You so love me.' I snickered, wondering how far off the mark the drawing really was from the way Brian saw us--this big, buff dude with some little kid crazily in love with him. Fuck, how far off the mark was the drawing from reality?

Right on cue, my cell rang. I checked the display and it was Brian's cell. "Hey, Van Gogh," I said.

"Hey. You finally up, you slacker?"

"Yeah. God, I didn't even hear you leave. Where are you?"

"Office. Tell me about your shitty day."

I laughed. "I haven't had a day yet, much less a shitty one. I've walked from the bedroom to the kitchen, that's it."

"No, Einstein. Yesterday's shitty day. What happened."

I sat down at the table and fingered Brian's drawing. "Nothing happened. Some days are just harder than others."

"For a reason. What's the reason?"

"Just…everything."

"So, nothing happened because of everything?"

"Brian!" I couldn't help laughing.

"Details. Now. I have important matters to attend to."

"So attend to them. I'm working with Michael today, so I'll pick up something at Vinny's for dinner, okay?"

"Justin, I'm asking what the fuck happened yesterday. Throw me some fucking positive reinforcement and tell me."

Suddenly there was this giant lump in my throat, and when I took a big breath, it sounded all shaky. "I start talking, and I'll never shut up," I warned him.

"Hi, I'm Brian Kinney. Have we met?" Brian said, and I could picture the bratty look on his face. "Believe me, I know the risk I take by asking. Talk."

I took a deep breath and let loose.

"Okay, here goes. I don't have an early-morning study group. I leave at 6:30 because I have to watch a million buses go by before I can make myself get on one in time for my fucking nine o'clock class because I am a totally fucked up loser, okay? My fucking chemistry professor wouldn't even fucking think about reviewing my mid-term because a fucking 92 is fine and what in the hell is my problem and the goal of college isn't perfection it's education and thank you so fucking much for the cliches, really, I feel a whole fucking lot better! And I couldn't fucking eat lunch at the one lame-ass place I can even partially tolerate because Stanley Fucking Logan is still stalking me to join that GBLT group so I can be their pathetic gay bash poster boy, and I'm too much of a fucking lame-ass selfish fucking coward to even think about it right now, and I can't stand to see Deb or my mom because all they do is push food at me, they just keep shoving it at me and saying eat it, eat it, and all I want to do is scream, 'You eat it! You eat when every last fucking thing tastes like sawdust and you feel like you're gonna puke! You fucking eat all this food, and let every fucking bite remind you that you're so pathetic and fucked up it's fucking ridiculous! You eat it!" I was shouting by that point and when it was finally quiet, the silence kind of echoed, the way it does after you show yourself to be a raving lunatic.

"How many classes have you missed?" Brian asked, sounding only mildly curious, and I wondered irritatedly how much of his attention was focused on me and how much on the work in front of him. And then I was kind of pissed that I rip my guts open for him and all he cares about is whether or not I've skipped some classes?

I huffed all pissily and said, "Brian, it's not even about that, I haven't missed any classes, I'm just saying…"

Brian interrupted, still talking like he was only half-participating in the conversation. "The fag hag reporter who did that hack article about what happened. She still forwarding letters from the little princesses who want a piece of their hero?"

We were so far off the topic it was ridiculous. "Brian, she's not a…"

"What do you do?" Now he sounded one hundred percent present.

Okay, so I got what he was doing. I sighed, half in mocking defeat and half in just good-old fashioned defeat. "I write them back," I said. "For all the good it probably does. 'Keep your chin up, buckaroo. It'll work out!' Fat lot of good it does. I'm such a fuckin' fraud."

"I do that food thing too, don't I?"

I shrugged and felt a small smile tug at the corners of my mouth. "Yeah, but…I like the way you do it."

I knew Brian was smiling too. He'd enticed me to eat almost a whole can of whipped cream the other night by presenting himself a la mode. "Eat a little whipped cream, eat a little me," he'd said, insisting on an equal trade.

"Guess that was a pretty shitty day, then. I didn't help much, did I?"

"Yes you did," I said. "God, Brian, you're the only reason I didn't throw myself out the window."

"Those windows are custom built," Brian said warningly. "You don't just go jumping through one, you open it first."

I laughed softly. "Yeah, okay. I'll make a note of that." I sighed and shook my head at myself, smiling down at Brian's drawing. "I should be…fine," I said, but that wasn't quite what I meant. "All of this…this shit could have turned out really differently. I should be grateful. Jesus, I should be on my knees thanking God or fate or whatever. And… everything's so right with us. Whoever thought that would even happen? Isn't that all I've ever even wanted in my whole life? I mean, Jesus, I'm finally who I'm supposed to be and everything's still fucked up!"

"What do you mean, who you're supposed to be?"

"You know. Stuff with us is right so I'm who I'm supposed to be."

I could hear Brian's chuff of laughter. "Who would you be if you weren't with me?" he asked, and I could imagine the look of amusement on his face.

I shrugged as I said, "Someone else. God, think of it. If we never got together, I would have spent my whole life as someone who isn't even me."

"Can you be someone who isn't you?"

"Well you're always you but that doesn't mean you're the right you. You don't want to spend your life as the wrong you, do you?"

"You're a freak," Brian said, in a tone that suggested that wasn't such a bad thing.

"Yeah, well, I'm a freak who's totally fed up with this place. Let's run away from home."

Brian gasped in shock and tsk'd tsk'd at me. "Justin Taylor is invincible. He'd never run away from home."

"Brian Kinney has a really short memory," I said.

"Revisionist to be sure," he said, then asked in his softest, most hypnotic voice, "Where do you want to go?"

I sighed and closed my eyes wondering what spot on the globe was the exact furthest point possible from where I was right then. "Zimbabwe," I guessed.

Brian immediately dismissed the idea. "Mmm, too hot."

"Antarctica," I quickly replied.

"Too cold," he said, in a tone that suggested I knew as much.

"That just leaves Anywhere But Here."

"Oh, I've been there. It's nice this time of year," Brian said.

We were quiet for awhile, and I remembered those days in the hospital when Brian would come in from work and he'd just sit down next to me for awhile. We wouldn't say anything, not even to joke around. He'd just sit there next to me and hold my hand, and eventually, he'd tell me about his day and I'd tell him about mine. But sometimes we said everything that needed to be said in those silences.

"How do you always seem to know where you're going?" I asked finally.

Brian barked a loud, surprised cough of laughter. "I follow you," he said, sounding totally serious, but without seeing his face I couldn't tell exactly how much fun of me he was making.

I rolled my eyes. "Come on, I need to know. What do you do? How do you think about…fuck, about everything so you keep going where you need to go?"

Brian made a sound of exasperation or disbelief. "I don't think about anything, and I follow you," he said, over-enunciating the words like I hadn't understood them the first time through.

I sighed and groaned in a single breath. "I wasn't around for the first 30…"

"Ah ah ah," he quickly corrected.

"The first 29 years of your life. How'd you do it then?"

Brian chuckled. "Are you seriously considering putting yourself in a position to be living my life when you're 29?"

"I just want to quit floundering!" I said, sounding like a little kid having a temper tantrum. "I can't see anything anymore. Nothing makes sense. I can't…I can't fucking pick a direction. You always know where you're going."

Brian laughed again. "Just when I'm convinced they didn't dig out anything vital in there, you say something that makes me have to rethink that. I did introduce myself at the beginning of the call. You know who you're talking to, don't you?"

"You can't tell me you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing, that you don't know where you’re going. You can't tell me that."

"Yes I can," Brian answered. "But I won't because it doesn't happen to be true right now. Look, you've got time to figure out a new major. Fuck, to figure out if you want a new major. Is it that you don't know what you want to be, is that it?"

I sighed, and even I recognized how pathetic and self-pitying I sounded. "I have to temper what I want to be with what I can be."

"No you don't," Brian said crossly. "Because anything you want to be you can be."

That just irritated me. "Don't feed me advertising copy!" I snapped.

"Don't have nervous breakdowns without any warning. I can come up with better stuff if you give me a little lead time."

"I thought you were the go-to guy when the pressure was on," I said snottily.

"What the fuck do you want me to do?" Brian was starting to sound bored with the conversation.

"Fix me!" I yelled, amazed he didn't know what he was supposed to do. Jesus, could it be more obvious?

There was another one of those stunned silences from Brian, then, "I swear to God you are a fucking psycho," he said. "You flip out when I'm too controlling, now I'm supposed to fix you?"

"Well…I didn't think I was broken before, but I am now."

"You're not broken. Jesus Christ. You're just unhappy. It happens. It's not even you, it's the fucking circumstances."

"If I can't be happy now, there's no fuckin' hope for me ever! I mean, God, my brain's okay, my hand's better, my leg will be, we're totally where we're supposed to be. What more do I need? Why isn't this enough? It should be enough! I shouldn't need anything else! Why can't I ever be satisfied? What's wrong with me!"

"There's nothing wrong with you. Why do you assume it's you? Why can't something be wrong with the rest of the universe, huh?"

"My dad used to say that to me all the time. Nothing was ever enough. I always wanted more. There's something … it's me. I can't be satisfied with anything."

"Okay, if you're going quote that fucker to me, like what he ever thought about anything matters a fuck to anyone, then I'm hanging up. He doesn't know shit about shit, and he never did." I shrugged, which of course Brian couldn't see, but he must have suspected because he gave a pissy sigh. "Sometimes things are shitty for awhile. And you have to figure out a way to make them not so shitty. We just need to figure out a way for you to be where you want to be, that's all."

"We need to figure out why I'm such a fucking weak ass faggot is what we need to do."

"Do you remember your favorite day ever?" Brian asked in a bemused voice.

The non-sequiter stopped me short for a second, but I found myself suddenly smiling. "Yeah. That timeshare guy."

"I was messing with the guy's head because just like every other fucker around here, he thought I was running the show. Hate to break it to you, but unless we scar up that pretty boy face of yours, it's gonna be the story of your life. You look harmless."

"Weak," I volunteered.

"People think you're a pushover, but we both know that's a fuckin' joke. The outside may look soft and pretty, but you're fucking steel inside. You know that. You know it."

"You only think that 'cause I'm always hard when you're around."

Brian laughed loudly at that. "Look, you're like the rudder around here. You steer the boat. And I'm the sail that catches the breeze and..."

Jesus, I couldn't listen to another word of this shit. "Are you gonna sing 'Wind Beneath my Wings' now?" I interrupted to ask.

"Shut the fuck up," Brian said.

"Cumbuyah, my lord."

"Shut up," he repeated.

"Whatever. That metaphor is so messed up on so many levels it's ridiculous."

"Sorry, Princess. Some of us never had the luxury of yachting lessons at the club."

"It was one sailing lesson, and we were on vacation at Virginia Beach, and it was free from the hotel, and…"

"Whatever. The point is…Jesus, is there a point to all of this?"

"No," I said sullenly. "You're just throwing things out there until I find something I like and in the throes of amazed appreciation beg you to come home and fuck me."

"Yeah?" Brian asked, sounding surprised. "How'm I doing?"

"Pretty well," I said, sounding surprised, and we both laughed.

"How about this--can you hold on 'til Spring Break?" he asked, his voice casual. "We'll get the hell out of Dodge. Set sail for Anywhere But Here. How's that?"

Two weeks. I took a breath and did the math out loud. "Three 50 minute classes three days a week, two weeks means six classes, which translates out to five hours of class. I figure an hour and a half travel time each day, so over the course of six days that's another nine hours, then there's the…"

Brian interrupted my figuring with an impatient, "For God's sake, Rain Man, answer the question!"

"Who's Raymond?"

"You want to hurt me, don't you?" Brian said. Obviously, I'd missed another of his "cultural" references. "You enjoy it. It's a game for you."

"Fine, then, yes, I can hold on 'til Spring Break."

"Maybe duck out a few days early?"

"Mm hm."

"All right then--Anywhere But Here--here we come."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Now can we hang up? You sitting around talking on the phone, obviously you aren't planning my dinner or any of the other things the lord of the manor expects when he gets home from a long hard day."

"Brian?" I said softly.

"Hm?"

"I'm serious here. Really." I paused for a moment, then asked in a soft whisper, "Who's Raymond?"

The bastard hung up on me! The nerve of some people.

He called me back a second later and said, "Better?"

I was quiet for a second, the hush creating a warm kind of intimacy. "Yeah," I said. "Much."

"Okay then. Bye," Brian said. Then, before I hung up the phone, came a deep, cool whisper. "Justin."

God.

Do you think some half-hearted "I love you," muttered without any thought could ever come close to doing to me what hearing my name whispered like that can do? Do you think there's even a comparison?

Later that night after dinner, I went online to check my e-mail. Ethan was in Belgium for a month and had been taunting me with descriptions of all the pastries and chocolates he was eating. His e-mails always cheered me up no matter what was going on.

Hey, J, what's up? Sorry you've been feeling crappy lately. Why won't you just tell your doctor that the medications are messing you up? Maybe it's just the dosage or the mix or something. I get what you're saying about messing with stuff when you haven't had a seizure for so long, but if you feel like shit all the time, what's the point? I know, I know, SHUT UP ALREADY!

What's new in the Pitts?

Win and I are so sick of living out of a suitcase. I can't wait for July because we'll be eight to ten weeks in Austria. I think we'll be staying in efficiencies instead of hotels. I'd kill to boil a pot of water, I swear it! I can't believe myself--whoever thought I'd get tired of room service, teeny tiny soaps, laundry by command and free cable?

You know what I miss? You're going to totally kill me, but it's those AWFUL crème caramels that were in the vending machine on the third floor of the music building. They were ALWAYS stale, but here I am in the chocolate capital of the world, and I'm pining away for stale caramels stuck to a cardboard wrapper.

I tried to explain them to Win, and he called home and his mom had their cook (can you even believe I just typed that?) make these decadent caramel candies with real cream centers, and I just had to laugh my ass off, because, I'm like, "Uh, beautiful sentiment there, lover, but not even CLOSE to what I was talking about!" He's gonna shit when we come back home, and I take him out for a treat!

Oh, before I forget, I got an e-mail from Franny Drake the other day. She said she saw you at that little Italian restaurant on 5th. She called it Vinos, but I don't think that's right. She probably saw the sign advertising wine, and, well, you know Franny. She's the smartest idiot I think I've ever met. Anyway, she said you were with the most beautiful man she'd ever seen and who was he. Hope you're not mad, but I told her he was your step-father! She e-mailed back that he must have a great skin care regime because he didn't look that old. I told her she probably just didn't see him close up! HA!

I laughed my ass off through the whole e-mail, and it felt like forever since I'd laughed like that. I had to at least tell Brian the story about the candy.

"Where is the little fucker these days?" he asked.

"Belgium for another few weeks, then I'm not sure where after that." I went back to typing my reply, still chuckling to myself as I did. When I looked up, Brian was studying me, his head tilted to the side. "What?" I finally asked.

Brian said, "How does that sound as your Anywhere But Here?"

"How does what sound?"

"Belgium. You can pop in on the Music Box Boy. Pay him back for his selfless little visit when you were so tragically taken ill."

I gave Brian a look of total disbelief. "You're sending me to Belgium to visit Ethan?" I asked incredulously.

Brian looked at me like I was a spot on his Gucci slacks. "Yeah, that's right. I'm gonna stick you on a plane and send you off to your ex-Lover Boy. That sounds like something I'd do. But you have to promise to buy me a t-shirt that says 'I Sent My Partner To Europe, and I'm a Fucking Idiot.' Can you do that?"

I smirked at him, but he kept right on talking. "Christ. You can play with your little friend for a day or two, then we'll spend the rest of the time in Italy. Little art for you, a lot of clothes for me. And Italian men, those'll be for me too."

I shook my head in amazement at the man and said, "How come when I have you all figured out, you go and do something totally off the charts?"

Brian raised an eyebrow and said, "How come I'm always doing things totally off the charts, but you still think you have me all figured out?"

"How come you're so annoying?" I asked.

"How come your ass isn't riding my dick in gratitude??"

"Do you really want me to answer that question?"

"Do I?" he countered.

"God, you're so aggravating!"

"Then how come you love me so much?"

"Do I?"

Brian swooped in and picked me up out of the chair. "You'd better believe it," he said, tossing on me on the bed, then diving on top of me. He sat on me while he undressed, though I can't say that I was fighting him off all that hard.

Nope, you wouldn't categorize what I was doing as fighting at all. Though, come to think of it, I woke up the next morning with more than a few scratches down my back, but who needs details?

I tried not to have expectations over the next couple of weeks. Just because I'd told Brian how shitty it was at school and just because we were leaving town for a few days, and just because whatever, I couldn't expect all the shit to go away.

The only problem is I suck at managing my expectations! I start thinking about stuff and wanting stuff and hoping for stuff and all the effort I put in to not thinking about stuff and not wanting stuff and not hoping for stuff is for nothing!

I was really dragging through the days, feeling so damn sick all the time. I always felt like I had to puke, and I could hardly concentrate anymore. Sitting through class was torture to me, trying to follow what the professor was saying and not keel over or throw up.

One night, I crawled home from the bus stop and just stood there against the door trying to catch my breath. You'd've thought I'd just run a marathon or something. Brian was home from work already, which didn't seem exactly right to me, but I was too tired to even ask.

He looked up at me from the couch and grinned. "Did you run all the way home from the bus stop?" he asked.

"Huh?"

"Your face is beet red," he said, coming closer.

"Don't kiss me," I said, turning my face to the side. "I feel like shit." I let my backpack fall to the floor and contemplated the impossibly long trek from the door to the bed. Why the fuck was the bedroom so far from the front door? Who designed this stupid place anyway? "That's what I get travelling around with the great unwashed day after day."

Brian chuckled, but his mood abruptly changed when he ignored my warning and kissed my cheek. "Jesus Christ, you're burning up," he said. "Justin, fuck, if you didn't feel well, you shouldn't have gone to school."

"I had a test," I reminded him.

"It was a fucking 30 question quiz," Brian groused. He marched into the bathroom and came back with a thermometer that he shoved in my ear.

I sighed and rolled my eyes at him, but then the thermometer beeped, and Brian read the temperature and went kind of nuts.

"Shit," he muttered. "Get your clothes off. Now. Get your clothes off!"

I jerked out of his hold, and everything started getting more and more slow motiony. Moving and thinking were taking more and more effort. "Stop it!" I said. "I don't feel like it right now."

"This is a trigger," Brian said, and it felt like he was yelling at me. "We have to get your temperature down right now or you could have a seizure."

"No," I whined. "No, that's not fair, it's been months, that's not fair!"

I sort of knew that didn't make sense, but Brian was pushing at me and pulling at me, and I started to freak out.

"Stop it, Brian, stop it! I don't get… what are you doing?" I tried to push him off me, but he just kept manhandling me into the bathroom.

"We're just getting in the shower. That's no big deal. Hell, that's par for the course around here."

It starts getting hazy right about there. I remember standing in the shower with Brian, and it was so cold! And I wanted to get out, but we couldn't. He wouldn't let me, and I started to cry. I remember that. I remember crying and asking him why he was doing it. And I remember him hugging me so hard, holding me so tightly, and I remember him whispering in my ear, "I'm sorry." He whispered it over and over again. He kissed my forehead and my cheek, and he whispered, "I'm sorry" and "I'm here." And then I don't remember anything for a really long time.

I start remembering when I woke up, and Brian was sitting next to me, watching TV and sporting a two-day growth of beard, and you'll probably think I'm crazy, but he looked so fucking hot, I couldn't wait to draw him. I meant to say his name, but it came out, "Mmphn." His hand was resting on my chest, and he started a bit before turning toward me, and he looked so tired, I felt bad for lusting after him. "Hey," I said, and shit if that didn't take just about every ounce of energy I had. I was on some pretty good drugs because it felt like I was floating, hovering just over the bed, like I was hardly even there.

Brian smiled at me and brushed his hand over my forehead. "Hey."

I wondered a bit where I was and why I was there and what was going on, but only in a vague kind of way. I wasn't interested enough to ask. I looked around and knew I wasn't at home, but that's about all I could figure out. There were two IV lines in my arm, one taking blood out. That line was connected to some kind of machine, which held another line feeding the blood back into me. I'd never seen one of those before. "Hey, what's that?" I asked, watching the lights dancing on the display.

Brian looked at the machine and then back at me, and he smiled again and kept gently petting me. "Your fever's giving the doctors a run for their money. Putting a little pressure on your kidneys, so they got you started on some dialysis just to be on the safe side."

Not one bit of that made any sense to me, and I must have looked at Brian like he was crazy, because he kind of snickered and shook his head. "It's nothing," he said.

I nodded because at least I understood what that meant. I looked around again, wondering where my mom was, and I guess I'm a huge jerk, but I felt too lousy to deal with her. Worry and concern and upset are so oppressive sometimes.

"Just you for a little while," I whispered to Brian, and already I was heading back to sleep.

Brian bit his bottom lip and shrugged. "Why just a little while?" he asked with a faint smile, and I fell asleep feeling warm and safe.

I remember other bits and pieces--a nurse checking my temperature, my mom reading to me, Brian talking to someone on the phone about reprinting copy and studying the demos and checking the latest report for-God's-sake-do-I-have-to-tell-you-everything. At some point, a nurse was fitting an oxygen mask on my face, and I freaked out. I remember the sense of panic like nothing I'd ever felt before, like if she got that mask on me, she'd be killing me. I know that sounds crazy, but that's what it felt like. I tried to push her away, tried to sit up, to roll away, tried any fucking thing I could think of to protect myself, and I know I was making this awful, awful noise, and then I saw Brian and he looked down at me, and placed his hand on my forehead and smiled at me so gently, so beautifully, that I knew everything was okay. Imagine drowning in a churning ocean and one second… one infinitesimal second before you black out into certain death, you're effortlessly plucked from the sea into warm, dry, peaceful safety. The only thing he said to me was, "Justin." He leaned in close and whispered in my ear and said everything in the world I ever needed to hear just by saying my name. "Justin."

And then I slept or passed out or whatever. All I know is more oblivion followed, with occasional vague impressions of consciousness.

I remember Brian's loud, angry voice once, saying, "Don't you fucking cry in here! Not one fucking tear, do you hear me!" I didn't think I was crying, and I was pissed that he was yelling at me, especially when I think maybe I felt like crap, but then the moment was gone and one second later, Brian was snorting derisively and saying, "Well you don't know my kid, doctor, or you'd know how totally fucked your opinion is." At least this time, he wasn't yelling at me, but I felt a little nervous, like maybe I should be trying to smooth things over. Sometimes Brian goes a little out of his way to, sort of, ignore decorum or whatever. I don't know what the doctor was saying, but I do know they all pretty much hate to be told their opinions are fucked.

But I could never seem to muster of the energy necessary to open my eyes much less talk or run interference between Brian and…well, anybody. And then, one day, like it was totally nothing, I just opened my eyes and was awake.

I was alone with my mom, and that was upsetting. I always feel like I have to act stronger than I really am, or like I feel better than I really do with her. My mom tries hard to be there for me, but complete meltdown is always lurking right there under the surface, and I'm always so fucking anxious that it not happen. Plus, she'll never tell me what's going on. 'Don’t worry, honey. It's okay, sweetie. Everything's fine, honey.' That's all she'll ever say, and I'm always thinking, "Don't worry about what? What's okay? What's fine?" But I feel like if I push her, she'll break.

When she realized I was awake, her eyes widened in surprise and a huge smile broke out on her face. "Justin! Oh my God, Sweetie, you're awake! They didn't think you'd wake up until this afternoon!"

Her voice seemed extra loud to me, and I cringed as she came closer. "Mm," was all I could say.

She sort of lunged for the call button on the bed, and I couldn't help it, but I flinched away, thinking she was going to touch me, and then I felt awful because she looked so hurt. She smiled calmly and slowly reached for the call button and pressed it. "Everything's okay, Honey," she said, much more quietly,

I sighed and nodded and tried to smile at her. I really wanted to ask after Brian, but she'd say…something, or it'd be the way she'd say whatever, and I was kind of worried about what was going on, and I didn't want to get all mad about anything. And on top of that, I know she'd act hurt again. She wouldn't understand why I'd want Brian there instead of her. I'm not a kid anymore--at some point a guy doesn't want his Mommy taking care of him. "Mm," I said again, and I realized that even if I'd wanted to ask for Brian, I wasn't all that sure that I could.

But then the door swung open, and Brian barreled in, and I know my eyes were as wide as could be because Brian Kinney just doesn't barrel into a room. He strolls or struts or glides or swaggers, but believe me, he does not barrel.

He was smiling the hugest smile I'd ever seen, and I wondered what was going on to make him so happy. I couldn't help but smile back, thinking maybe he'd landed another huge account or won another trip somewhere. He approached the bed carefully, nice and slow. "Well, well, well, look who's back among the living," he said softly, ignoring the disapproving look my mom sent his way.

"Hey," I managed, feeling ridiculously proud that I'd managed a syllable with actual meaning. Okay, maybe it sounded more like I was exhaling a puff of air, but still.

Amazingly, Brian's smile got even bigger. "Hey," he said, and seemed just as proud of me as I was.

"Hey," I said again, just because I could, and Brian laughed and impulsively kissed my forehead.

"Attaboy, Tiger," he whispered in my ear, and I didn't get that at all, so I just said, "Hey," again because he seemed to think that was pretty cool. He chuckled and stepped back out of the way to make room for Dr. Rinaldi.

Rinaldi was smiling too, and it seemed weird to me that everybody was in such a happy mood. I wondered what was happening that was so great, but fuck if I didn't fall back asleep just as Rinaldi put his stethoscope to my chest.

Actually, that was okay, because when I woke up the next time, there was just Brian in the room, and the lights were down low, and something quiet was playing on the cd player, and I felt more like me, not so disconnected. "Whas'sup?" I said, and shit, did that hurt! It was like somebody scraped sandpaper down my throat.

Brian cocked an eyebrow and said, "Oh my God, it speaks." He stood up and moved closer to the bed, slipping an ice chip in my mouth and running another around my lips.

"Mmm," I said, my eyes closing in relief. "An' I's so careful," I said. My voice was still rasping, but at least it didn't feel like I'd swallowed a bucket of knives anymore.

Brian looked confused for a second then understanding dawned, and he laughed, looking surprised.

It was this joke we had. Right after the surgery to remove the tumor but before I was released, I got pneumonia. When I got better, the doctor was all serious about how I had to be careful because if I got sick again, I'd probably get pneumonia again, only it'd be a worse case. Anyway, when I was released, they gave me this ten page list of things I wasn't supposed to do, like, go hiking in caves or scale cliffs or take scuba diving lessons. Most of the instructions were totally ridiculous, and when I'd leave the house to go somewhere, Brian would always remind me not to accidentally climb a mountain or fall into any polluted rivers or anything. Sometimes I'd leave messages on his cell phone to call me right away because I had an opportunity to dive for pearls and I wasn't sure if it was on my list of forbidden activities.

Brian shook his head at me, and his face was all sweet and tender, but then he lifted that eyebrow again and said, "I swear to God I'm going to fucking kill you if you do this to me one more time."

I shrugged helplessly. "What'd I do," I said. "We're in the shower."

I don't suppose I was making much sense, but Brian understood I was telling him what I last remembered. He made a face that said he was less than amused. "Lot of good that did. When I called Rinaldi and told him your temperature was over a hundred and four, he said to get your ass to the emergency room ASAP."

"Don't remember," I whispered. "How long?"

Brian shrugged, like it wasn't a big deal, but the way he avoided looking at me told me a little more. "Awhile," he said, and I guess some people would maybe see that as Brian's version of 'don't worry, honey,' but even half out of it, I knew he just couldn't talk about it yet.

"'S'okay now." It was half question, half statement and Brian smiled slightly and nodded. I heaved a breath and shook my head against the oppressive wave of fatigue. God, I couldn't even stay awake for ten minutes at a stretch. "Shit," I mumbled, struggling to keep my eyes open. "Fallin' asleep."

"Go on," Brian said softly, and he smoothed his hand over my forehead. His hands are so big, so beautiful. I always tell him he's got an artist's hands. Mine aren't anything special to look at, but Brian's are amazing. And he can be so gentle with them, so loving, and I wondered in passing how I could have ever doubted anything about him given the way he touched me with those hands. "Quicker you go to sleep, the quicker you'll wake up. Everybody's missed seeing those blue eyes of yours."

"Everybody?" I asked, the bed feeling like it was swaying beneath me. I closed my eyes and blindly reached for Brian to steady me.

"Well, everybody who matters," he answered, and I fell back to sleep with a smile on my face.

Turns out it wasn't a virus I picked up at school, but a reaction to the shitload of drugs I was taking. My blood chemistry was totally messed up, and my body was attacking itself, thinking the drugs were some kind of illness it had to fight off.

Brian said because I can never do anything halfway, not to mention the fact that I have the weakest fucking constitution on the planet, it naturally segued into a nasty case of pneumonia.

It took me a long time to figure out how sick I'd been. No one ever sat down and said, "By the way, you were in critical condition in the ICU, and they thought your organs were gonna start failing and then you'd die!" Not even Michael's that much of a blabbermouth.

Instead, I had to sort of piece everything together by the way I felt and the way people treated me and the way people looked and the vague details about what happened while I was out of it. And then when I finally started to have an inkling that maybe it was pretty serious, I had to decide if I even really wanted to know all the details. Mostly I knew it'd been bad because of Brian.

Oh, you couldn't tell it to look at him. He was as beautiful and impeccably turned out as ever. No bags under the eyes for uber-stud Brian Kinney. No, it was more his demeanor than anything. I'm not saying he was acting like some lovelorn faggot over me. It's just…he was, like, really raw. It's hard to explain, maybe because it was a vibe more than anything. To some people maybe it looked like he was disinterested or impatient, maybe he seemed irritated and quick tempered, but really he was just barely holding it together. It's like he couldn't waste the time or resources required for social niceties when it was all he could do to keep from flying apart.

That was in front of people.

When it was just us, he was…it was like…he used up so much energy keeping everyone else from seeing how torn up he was that when we were alone, he barely had the strength to move. Mostly he just sat real close to the bed, his elbow up by my pillow, his other hand, caressing my face. It was almost like…like he was soaking me in or something. I know that's corny and totally NOT Brian, but that's what it felt like.

Even after I'd been lucid for a good few days, they hadn't removed the catheter or even raised the bed more than a couple of inches. I wasn't eating yet, and didn't have any interest in food anyway, believe it or not. I was still on dialysis, and that was sort of a far-distant concern, almost like this little nagging thought in the back of my mind, like when maybe you know you've forgotten to do something, but you don't have the faintest idea what.

Maybe it seems strange that I didn't pester the doctors and nurses and everyone for details, but at first, I just didn't care. It's kind of like I was floating--not really present, but not totally checked out either. I guess part of it was that I couldn't stay awake. I mean, I could be in mid-sentence and, poof, out I'd go. But even when I was awake, I didn't care about anything--didn't wonder about anything, unless Brian wasn't there, and then I only wondered when he'd be back. I wasn't even curious about where he was or what he was doing, and, shit, I'm always curious about where Brian is and what he's doing.

Beyond the most basic details I didn't even really care what was wrong with me. When we talked about it at first, it was like discussing the weather or something--it was good to know the gist of it, but there was nothing I could do about it, so why worry.

But then, without realizing it was happening, interest in what was going on started creeping back. It's like one day I just started wondering stuff to myself, but I didn't care enough yet to ask anyone anything, and then one day I cared enough to ask.

"What day is it?" I finally asked one evening.

"Tuesday," Brian said without looking up from his file. He was doing employee reviews which took him a hundred years. First, he'd write up the review he really, really wanted to give the person, then he'd cross out all the things that would make the person get up and walk out mid-review, then he'd write the review he'd actually end up giving. He groused a ton about it because he didn't go into advertising to deal with a fuckload of bureaucratic bullshit, and he shouldn't have to waste his time stroking the egos of a bunch of lazy-assed losers and shouldn't the fucking boatload of money he shoved down their throats be thanks enough for all of their hard work?

I tried to remember what day it was when I came home sick from school. Had I come from English Lit or Calculus? English Lit was over at two on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and I usually got home well before Brian unless I worked or hung out at the library, and I remembered that Brian was there that night when I got home. Calc was on Tuesday and Thursdays, finishing up around five. Still, I usually beat Brian home those nights as well. I finally gave up with a shrug. "So, how many days have I been here again?"

Brian slowly looked up from his work, a slight smile on his face. "Again?" he teased. "This is the first you've asked."

"Was it after English or Calc?"

Brian didn't get my question. He kind of shrugged and shook his head. "It was a Thursday," he said, his manner suggesting it didn't really matter. "Whichever you have on Thursdays."

"Five days?" I said. "Huh. Feels weird." Brian's smile kind of faltered, and he looked away for a second. "You said it was Tuesday," I reminded him a little defensively. I may have been a little out of it, but I could still count up five days.

He huffed a little in amusement, then met my eyes. "It's been almost three weeks," he said.

I made a face at him and rolled my eyes. "Yeah, right," I scoffed. Three weeks? No way. No fucking way was that possible, it just wasn't! I'd know that--I'd be able to feel it, and it didn't feel like three weeks had passed.

But Brian's uncharacteristically tender look was more proof than anything he could say. "Scout's honor," he said with a shrug.

"Huh," I said.

"Yeah, that about sums it up," Brian agreed.

I couldn't begin to deal with that bit of news so I just left it for the time being, another one of those nagging little buzzes floating in the back of my mind.

"How come nobody visits?" I asked.

Brian smirked at me. "Someone might think about sneezing and at the rate you're going, it'd kill you."

I smiled at him. "I'm glad they don't make you wear a mask," I said. Brian rolled his eyes and pretended that was a ridiculous thing to say. I sighed then. "That's a lot of work to miss."

Brian gave an amused cough of laughter. "Yeah. What have the people of Pittsburgh been doing about their art supply needs?"

Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. "No, I meant you," I said.

Brian quickly dropped his head, and gave a half-hearted shrug. "Not a problem," he said shortly. Obviously we wouldn't be talking about that anytime soon.

I reached for his hand. "Guess this is our vacation, huh?" I said, wrinkling my nose at him. God, we were about as successful at taking the vacations we planned as Brian was at throwing parties. Disastrous results all the way around.

"I don't think so," Brian said dismissively. "Some idiot is calling me every five minutes wondering where to put a comma or how to fucking open an envelope on their desk. Idiots, every last one of 'em. I've a good mind to take hiring out of Vance's hands because he finds bigger losers than Ryder ever did."

"Maybe you should put the reviews away for a few minutes," I suggested helpfully.

"I'm just saying if we ever actually blow this fucking town, I'm not taking calls."

"Forget it," I said. "They're gonna bury us here a hundred years from now with our suitcases packed and sitting by the front door. Airline tickets clutched dramatically in our cold, dead hands."

Brian snickered. "I'll leave instructions for Gus to cash the tickets in and throw a huge wake in our memory."

"God knows we'd never be foolish enough to buy non-refundables. Our graves will say, 'They FINALLY got out of Pittsburgh.'"

Brian laughed at that. "We're just waiting for Rinaldi's okay," he told me. "When he says the coast is clear, we're getting the hell out of town."

It seemed like the coast wouldn't be clear for a really long time.

When I could finally stay awake for more than a few minutes at a stretch, they started me on lung therapy which is totally disgusting. I had to breathe into this tube, and I ended up hacking and coughing up all this disgusting green phlegm to the point where I started puking, and then my puke was this vile, slimy green chunky shit. I probably shouldn't go into detail.

Brian decided that was a good time to head back to work, which was fine with me. Whenever I start hurling green chunky shit all over the place, I'd just as soon be on my own.

On top of that, I began to realize that they were having this big celebration every time I pissed, and then fuck if they weren't measuring it! Christ, at some point, I swear to God, you just don't have any fucking dignity left.

The most amazing thing was that throughout that whole stupid mess, I never had a seizure! HA! The whole time I was sick and in the hospital, I was completely off the meds and not a single seizure. Ha ha HA! That's a major takeaway.

I guess there was some concern that my kidneys may have been damaged by the medication and then the high fever when I was sick. One of my kidneys was weaker than the other one anyway, which I could have gone my whole life never even knowing except that when both of them started acting up it caused problems. Or had the potential to cause problems. Everyone was tripping over themselves to make sure I knew it was just a potential problem we were dealing with, not an actual problem, which was totally ridiculous because the fucking dialysis machine was still there and everybody in the hospital was all over my piss like it was more valuable than gold. Even Brian couldn't say hello before asking if I'd made pee-pee and if so how much and if not why not.

The first two times we stopped the dialysis, I got sick, but the third time was the charm. And after they were sure everything was working right in the kidney department, my doctor said I could finish recuperating at home.

Turns out the worst place in the world you can be when you're sick is the hospital.

It's funny--after the surgery for the tumor, Brian was really anxious for me to get out of the hospital. He thought it was keeping me from getting better. This time, he was all nervous about my coming home. He kept quizzing the doctor about whether it was the right thing to do, and I was like, "Brian! Shut the fuck up!"

The thing of it was, after I was off dialysis, there wasn't anything I needed to be in the hospital for. I was eating on my own, and I wasn't on an IV or needing physical therapy or anything like that.

Basically I was sleeping a hundred hours a day, which I could do just as well at home.

Before I was discharged I got a huge lecture from my doctor about everything--eating right, following the instructions for monitoring my blood chemistry, knowing my body and the signals it was sending. I expected Brian to make some snarky comment after the doctor said that, but he was just standing there, acting all… parental or something.

Rinaldi said I had to have been feeling sick for some time, and he wanted to know why I hadn't said anything, but the thing was, I just thought after the surgery, that's just the way it was going to be--I was going to feel shitty. Talking about it seemed stupid. It would have been like saying, "I'm going to wear socks today," or "Oh look, that grass is green."

And really, not to be a dick or anything, but it was the drugs he was giving me that practically killed me. How come everyone was talking to me like it was all my fault? I didn't say that part out loud, but, hello?

Rinaldi was sitting there with the clipboard that held my release papers, so I just nodded and yes sirred and promised absolute honesty about every last twinge and pang. I could tell he wasn't completely buying it, but Brian's total non-sarcasticness probably convinced him that I'd be kept on a short leash. God, that so pissed me off! It wasn't my fault I got sick, and both of them were acting like I was so irresponsible about it all!

We came home to very little fanfare. Brian drove me home and Mom met us at the loft. It felt like the world had grown three times bigger while I was in the hospital. Everything seemed huge--the front seat of the car, the couch, the kitchen sink. Even my mom and Brian seemed, I don't know, enormous. It made me feel out of place or something. We were all irritated and short-tempered with each other, and I was glad my mom left before Brian and I started sniping at each other for real. Jeez, I could just see us like a scene from Cops with Brian yelling at me and my mom yelling at Brian for yelling at me and me yelling at my mom for yelling at Brian for yelling at me and then Brian yelling at me for yelling at my mom for yelling at Brian for yelling at me.

Brian thought I needed a nurse to sit with me during the day while he was at work, and I was like, "No fucking way!" I'd had enough of people poking me and prodding me and fucking watching me. Maybe I still needed a little help getting around, but I'd be okay in my own home. It's not like I couldn't call my mom or Brian if I needed something. I wouldn't even talk about it, which was just as well because Brian was looking for something to be pissed about.

When he finally came to bed that night carefully spooned up behind me, he seemed so huge, and I'm not even making a dick joke! I rolled over to look at him, and he gave me an odd look. "What?" he asked. "Shit, did I hurt you?"

God, he looked so horrified I felt shitty for being irritated with him earlier.

"No, you're just…God, Brian, you're totally buff!"

He was looking at me like I was nuts again. He ducked his head and snorted. "Yeah, that's it, I've become amazingly buff in the last month."

I frowned at him, mad that he was acting like it was a ridiculous thing to say. "That's what you did last time," I said, sounding more defensive than I intended.

"Last time," Brian repeated, like that was just about the stupidest thing he'd ever heard.

I gaped at him, kind of pissed that the first time in forever that we actually got to lie down together in the same bed, he was picking a fight.

"Yes, last time. You kinda took everything out on the bowflex. Why the fuck are you acting like I'm crazy?"

"I don't know Justin, why do you think? You're laying there telling me I fucking hung out in the gym the last few weeks working on my pecs, like I haven't had any fucking thing better to do with my time? Is that what you think?"

"Yeah, that's exactly what I think," I said sarcastically. "In between trips to the beach and flights to the New York boutiques, you've been spending all your free time at the gym." I got up out of bed and grabbed my pillow. "I was gonna wait a few days before fighting about it," I said throwing myself on the couch. "But really, what's the point, we might as well have it out now."

Brian rolled his eyes then shook his head at me. "What the fuck are you doing?"

"Well right now, I'm really wishing I'd grabbed a blanket, but I'm too fucking tired to go over there and get it, so I'm just sitting here thinking you're a dick!"

"Get back in the bed."

"No!"

"What, like I can't make you get back in bed?"

"You'd better not try it," I warned.

"What're you gonna do, annoy me to death?"

"Shut up."

"Get back in the bed."

"Shut up!"

"Jesus Christ, you are Unfuckingbelievable. Get.back.in.the.bed."

"Shut.up!"

"You are such a fucking twat, Justin! Get in the fucking bed!"

"I'm a twat?!" I screeched, my voice ridiculously high-pitched in my disbelief. "You're the fuckin' freak, here! See if I ever say another nice thing about you ever again!"

"Nice? You think you're being fuckin' nice, to me?"

"Don't worry, it's not a mistake I'll make again, you shithead!"

"Jesus, you fight like you're ten years old," Brian scoffed.

"Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah," I maturely responded.

"Fine. Go to sleep on the couch. I'll just throw you back in the bed."

"Oh, and you think I won't fucking cut off your dick while you sleep?"

"Please," Brian snorted.

"Is that a request?" I asked as sweetly as I could. Brian just shook his head at me. "What, you think I asked for that knife set for Christmas all the better to cook your fucking dinners? Ha!"

Brian glared at me for a second, then started laughing his ass off at me. He's such a fucker! "You are such a fuckin' idiot," he said, once he could form words.

"I am not!"

"You'd fucking cut off your own cock before you'd do anything to mine," he said all proudly. "Christ, you're such a princess. Would you come to bed?"

"I'm a?…You're the one who fucking freaked…God! You're the idiot!"

It was hard to stay mad, though, because Brian was giggling like Molly and her friends at a slumber party. "Cut off my dick!" he muttered.

"Shut up!" I called.

Brian strolled over to the couch and pulled me up by the hand, dragging me back to the bedroom, and I fell asleep with him still snickering in my ear.

He woke me up the next morning after he was showered and dressed. "You leaving?" I asked. Well, that's what I was thinking. It came out more like, "Mphlshlvm?"

"Not yet. Got to feed and water you. It's like having a fucking newborn in the house."

I squinted at him. "More like a house plant," I said, trying to push him off me. "Shit, wait, wait!" I said, after he helped me sit up. The room was spinning out of control and I needed a second to get my bearings. I waited for Brian to give me shit about refusing the nurse, but I just needed a second.

Brian helped me go to the bathroom, and I was standing right outside the bathroom trying to make the impossible decision between laying back down and sitting in the kitchen for a few minutes when I heard the elevator stop on the floor.

Brian acted all interested in the non-exitent lint on his sleeve, then Michael rolled the door back and strolled in carrying a laptop and a huge armload of files. "Hey!" he called. "One babysitter reporting for duty!"

I turned to give Brian my Justin Taylor Death Stare, but it just made him smile at me. I didn't bother saying anything because he'd just say we agreed that I didn't need a nurse sitting with me all day.

Michael gave me that horribly gentle, tentative smile I'd seen every time he'd visited me in the hospital. It was the same wary way you approach a baby--like you're thinking, "Okay, okay, I'm coming closer, don’t freak out, don't start crying, don't hurl on me."

"Hey, Justin, how ya doin'?" he said, talking real slow and kind of soft, like I was a little kid. Or a certified moron.

I bit back a sarcastic reply and said, "Good, thanks." Well, the guy was forfeiting his whole day to baby-sit me, the least I could do was be pleasant. That didn't stop me from sticking my tongue out at Brian when Michael turned to set his folders down on the kitchen table.

Brian put on his smarmiest smile and with a tone to match said, "You boys play nice now." He came over to me and put his hands on my shoulders, schooling his face into a look of nauseating sincerity. "I'll probably be home early because I'm going to miss you so much!"

"Don't bother," I said, pushing him away.

"I want you to get some rest, make lots and lots of good pee pee, and maybe draw me a pretty picture to hang on the refrigerator, okay?"

I narrowed my eyes at him. "And yet the same mouth talking to me like I'm a little kid rims my ass without a moment's hesitation."

"Hello!" Michael called from the kitchen. "In the room here!"

Brian snickered and pushed me away. "Fuck you," he said affably.

"Come to think of it, you do that, too."

"But not at the same time," he said.

Then he did the weirdest thing--he hugged me good bye. I don't know why, but I was so embarrassed. I mean, I've practically gone down on Brian in front of Michael, and it never bothered me at all, but Michael sitting there watching Brian hug me was just kind of weird. And then Michael was watching with this look on his face that was so Deb Junior, like he was so proud to see it. I don't know, it was just weirdness all around.

Luckily, I'd been up for a world's record 30 minutes, so I had to go back to sleep where I wouldn't have to think about anything.

I was still sleeping this strange kind of sleep, where sometimes I'd almost be awake, but I wouldn't be able to move or open my eyes, so maybe I wasn't really awake at all. I don't think I ever understood before what "bone-numbing" really meant, but that's the kind of tired I was. I know I was awake at one point, because I could hear Michael talking on the phone.

"Well maybe if you quit calling every five minutes we could both get something done, you asshole," he said. Obviously he was talking to Brian. "I have not! I called twice. I'm not counting that time…or that time. Oh just forget it. That's bullshit, I didn't hold a mirror up to his mouth. First of all because the guy breathes like a freight train, so there really wasn't a question…So sue me--when you said he'd sleep all day, I didn't think you meant he'd sleep all day…No because I'm unplugging the phones and turning off the cell…Jesus Christ, Brian, I'm kidding, you idiot!… Well you're not funny either, but we all have to suffer the stupid things you say…Fine. FINE, Brian, I heard you. You want me to kiss the baby boy when he wakes up from his nap? Tell him daddy wuvs him?" He must have pulled the phone away from his ear because even half asleep, I could hear the sounds of someone shouting through the phone.

I faded out again and the next time I woke up it was because Michael was gently shaking my shoulder. "Hmm?" I muttered, squinting up at him, not at all sure who it was for a few seconds.

"Hey," he said apologetically. "Sorry. Brian said you had to go to the bathroom now."

"Oh," I said, and I wasn't sure if he was saying that Brian somehow knew I physically had to go or just that it was time I should go. It was all kind of fuzzy, so I just laid there and looked at Michael and waited for whatever happened next.

Apparently Michael was doing the same thing because he just sort of sat there looking at me until he said, "So, uh, I guess, you'll want to, uh, head on over to the bathroom there. Take care of business."

"It's business?" I said. That seemed really confusing to me.

"Well, no, not…you know, I guess some people would call it…Justin, are you with me here? Do you know what's going on?"

I looked around for a second before turning back to Michael. "Mmm, not totally," I admitted. "I need to be awake first."


"Yeah, okay. Well, how do we make that happen?"

It was hard to keep my eyes open. Every time I blinked, it was harder to lift my eyelids. I think I dozed back off for a little while. Anyway, the confusion kind of faded and I felt more awake, and I knew what was going on.

Michael helped me to stand and make the short little trip to the bathroom. "Thanks," I said as he dropped me off in front of the toilet.

"No problem," he said, then just gave me that 'thank you for shopping at the Big Q' smile and stood there, looking ill at ease.

I slowly looked over at him and said it again. "Thanks, Michael."

He looked totally bothered and shrugged helplessly at me, and I started shaking my head as soon as realization dawned. "Oh, no way. No fucking way. I can piss by myself."

"But you've gotta…in the measuring thing…and how…with the arm and the…it's not gonna reach…with the…"

"Shut up," I muttered, shoving the measuring thing at him.

So I had no choice but to pee while Michael held the plastic measuring cup. Jesus. I so wanted to kill Brian right then. Shit, Michael would never be able to look at me again without seeing some sick, helpless fuck who couldn't even pee by himself. I wanted to disappear. Shit.

Michael shook his head, and said very seriously, "Some day I'm gonna say somethin' about your dick at the totally wrong moment and Brian'll knock the shit out of me."

He sounded so dramatic and worried that I started to laugh. "Shut up," I said, shoving him a little, and easy as that, it didn't seem so terrible all of a sudden.

I waited while Michael washed his hands, then he helped me back to bed. "Sorry you got stuck doing this," I said.

Michael shrugged. "What? You'd do the same for me if Ben were sick. You'd go and hang out with him, keep him company." The 'and hold a bottle while he pissed,' was left unsaid.

I nodded and said, "Right," then thought about that for a second. "Wait, that analogy's not right. It would be Brian hanging out with Ben."

Michael gave me an incredulous look, then we both started laughing at what a ridiculous notion that was. "It would only ever be you," Michael said knowingly.

"I'd do it," I said, yawning, the irresistible pull of sleep washing over me. "Don't be mad if I hope I never have to, 'kay?"

Michael's cell rang and he groaned dramatically and made a big show of lugging himself over to answer it. "What, you fuckin' freak?" he said. "Shows how much you know--that is how I answer the phone when my mother calls." He laughed. "Fine. Yes. No way. Yes. Look, how about you try for ten minute intervals between calls. We'll build up from there… Yes, yes, I know. Fuck you very much, too, Mr. Kinney. DO call again, won't you?"

He was laughing as he hung up, shaking his head in exasperation, and I realized then that it had to be Michael there with me because he was the only one Brian could have here when he called five thousand times, the only one who was allowed to see his worry, his fear.

A really nice feeling of warmth washed over me, and I felt all tender toward Michael and kind of chuckled to myself because any minute he'd piss me off again, but right then, I was just really glad he'd been there for Brian.

I smiled at Michael as I nodded toward the phone. "He'll be okay in a few days," I said.

Michael gave me kind of an angry look. "Yeah, well, that's easy enough to tell yourself, isn't it?" he said, looking away from me.

"What?" I asked, straining to meet Michael's eyes. I reached for his arm. "Michael, what?"

He turned back to face me, looking ashamed. "Shit, Justin, nothing. God, I'm just a shit. Sorry."

"Don't do that!" I said, trying to sound forceful but it just came out whiny. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing," Michael said, and he was back to using that sweet, gentle voice that made me want to drive a stake through my head. Or maybe through his.

Squelching an annoyed sigh, I held my hand out to Michael and pulled him toward the bed. He sat down with a questioning look, and I shrugged at him and just sat there with him for a second. "I guess it was pretty awful," I said finally.

Michael nodded, and he seemed to wrestle with himself for a moment, probably unsure whether or not he should talk to me about it. "They didn't let you have visitors," he said. "We knew it was serious, but most of us didn't know how bad it was until we found out they wanted to code you NTBR--not to be resuscitated. If your heart stopped beating or you quit breathing, the doctor didn't want to fucking do anything about it."

"I didn't know that," I said, and fuck, did that feel weird! I can remember when I first got my driver's license. They asked me if I wanted to be an organ donor, so of course I said yes. But then saying I'd do it, having them make it official, all of a sudden it seemed like it was going to happen for sure. I drove home at about 10 miles an hour, acting totally paranoid. Hearnig they weren't going t try to recucitate me gave me that same creepy feeling.

"It was awful," Michael said. "Brian was…actually, at the hospital, he was amazing. So fucking cool and calm, like he faced this kind of shit every day."

"Well, he kinda does," I snidely threw in.

Michael just glared at me for interrupting his story. "He said no, that wasn't going to happen. Just, no. All politely and everything, like someone had asked if he wanted a refill on his coffee. Your mom was inconsolable. Ma was trying to help, but she was almost as torn up, and we were all kind of in shock, but Brian was calm as you please."

Michael paused, wondering whether he should tell me the rest. "I went to the loft that night to…I don't know, to sit with him, to be with him and he was…God, he was frantic. He was looking for some form he had to mail and he had to fucking mail it that day. I've never seen him panic like that. Fuckin' out of control." He stopped for a moment, remembering, then he glared at me again. "You really should organize your desk better," he said accusingly. "How do you get anything done in that mess?"

"I'll keep that in mind the next time I'm gonna have a near-death experience."

"No!" Michael said, poking my chest with his finger. "No fuckin' way, do you hear me? You've gotta cut this shit out!"

I grabbed Michael's finger, but for some reason didn't let go. "So what happened?"

"He found what he was looking for, and we had to drive it to the main post office downtown so it would be postmarked that day. It was 10:00 or 10:30 at night, and we were tearing through the streets like it was life or death. Shit, it was to him. Swear to God, he was totally convinced that if he just mailed his fucking letter, you'd be okay."

I flashed Michael a spooky look and said, "Maybe it worked! Maybe that's the only reason I'm still here!" I sang the theme to The Twilight Zone, and Michael made a face at me.

He was quiet for a few minutes then continued the story. "That trip to the post office was the most time he'd spent away from the hospital in days, and I asked him if we should call to check on you, but he wouldn't answer me. I was driving, 'cause, God, Brian was a fuckin' zombie, and I must have asked him five times if we should call but it was like talkin' to…nothing. We were over on Parsons, by the warehouses. And got stuck behind a train, and I was so bothered 'cause you're lookin' at 20 minutes just sitting there, and I had no clue what's goin' on with him and then he got out of the car! Thank God no one else was around, 'cause they would've committed the both of us--he got out of the car, and I'm a fucking wreck, thinkin' Jesus, is he gonna jump in front of the train or what, and he gets out and just…fuck, Justin, he just started screamin' at the top of his lungs. Just screamin' and screamin' and screaming. And it was so fuckin' eerie, 'cause you couldn't hear anything but the sound of the train, but he was bent over at the waist, you know, fuckin' screamin' his head off."

The old me, the one from before, I think he would have liked that story. I would have liked hearing how messed up Brian was. Now it just made me…God, it made me feel sick.

The responsibility we bear to each other is overwhelming. I don't think Brian and I are like regular people. I don't think we love each other like regular people do. Maybe I shouldn't say shit like that, but that's what I think.

Okay, I know I'm not the most experienced guy in the world, and Brian's more of a virgin than I am when it comes to being with someone--being with one someone. But I have Ethan to go by, and I see how other people are, and I just, sort of, know it's true. Ethan and I had regular, every-day kind of love. It was nice and steady and, God, unbelievably comforting, but it wasn't life and death. It wasn't all-consuming. We weren't something totally different and totally better for being with one another. Brian and I become something different for being together, we're so much more who we're supposed to be when we're together than when we're on our own.

And I think…well, I'm positive that it won't ever be like that if we're with other people. I don't think we ever could be with anyone else, not now. Too much has happened. I mean, shit, I keep practically dying, and I'm starting to think it's Brian's force of will that keeps me coming back. And I keep coming back, don't I? Sure I may be more and more fucked up every time, but I'm not checking out on him, so that's got to count for something.

"What happened?" I asked, and my voice sounded like I hadn't had anything to drink in years.

Michael shrugged helplessly. "The train blew through, so he stopped yellin' and got back in the car. He sat there, kind of shaking his head, you know, like he was having this whole conversation with himself, and I'm lettin' him, 'cause, let's face it, I'm pretty fuckin' terrified at that point anyway, and finally he turns to me and like it's not fuckin' crazy, he goes, 'I said please.' And I say, 'Okay!' And he just kept going, 'I said please, Mikey. I said please.' And then we drove to the hospital and waited for you to fucking wake up."

"God, I can't stand to think of him not having you there," I said, kind of breathlessly.

Michael shrugged again. "I guess I should have…expected something. Right after your surgery, he flipped out, but that was…I don't know…Brian raging at the universe. I mean, picture him, a bottle of Jim Beam in his hand, shouting at God for messing with you. That freaked me out a little, but this was…Christ. I can't stop thinkin' about the way he kept telling me that he said please. Like it was all about manners or something. One second he's fucking screaming his lungs out and the next…'I said please, Mikey.'" Michael sighed and shook his head and looked a little bit lost in the memory.

I squeezed his arm and said, "I'll totally take care of him, Michael, I promise." I just felt like I should say it. "I'm not gonna hurt him or…or anything. I'm going to take care of him, and…"

Michael looked at me like I was the craziest person he'd ever met. "What the fuck are you doing?" he said desperately. "Jesus Christ, you can't say shit like that to me! Brian would fucking kill me for hearing you say shit like that!"

I rolled my eyes. "So, if you let it slip, just start talking about my dick, and he'll forget all about it."

"You've got a mean streak, you know that?"

"Baby," I taunted.

"Jeez, and don't be callin' me Baby. Then you'll really make him mad!"

I snickered and threw a punch his way. "Well we both know they'll be no taking naps together, that's for sure."

Spending the day with Michael ended up being okay, kind of nice even. And I needed to know what was going on in Brian's head, and Michael gave me as good a picture as I'd ever get.

And I guess I still sort of needed some help. I was just so tired, and whenever I woke up, I was out of it, and fuck it all, but I needed help with the whole peeing thing.

Monday, Tuesday and Thursday it was my mom who came and stayed with me. Wednesday was Deb or Vic or both. Friday was Michael or sometimes Ben. One time it was Emmett and Ted which was kind of like having Laurel and Hardy look after you. Seriously, I had a stomach ache at the end of the day from laughing so hard.

Some days, well, the days when it wasn't my mom with me, sometimes I had to give myself a little talk about why I shouldn't feel all rotten about needing the help, and most days really I was, just, like a hundred percent grateful that I had all these people who were helping me and Brian. I mean, how amazing is it for them to give up entire days to sit around and watch me sleep, not to mention the whole peeing thing. Not just everybody's going to volunteer for that kind of duty.

It's weird because usually when you're sick, you're sick for a few days and then you're totally better, but this was…jeez, it was like I was only getting better by the tiniest little baby steps ever! Mostly I just slept and slept and slept.

Once in awhile I'd have a day where I felt awful--nauseous and dizzy and just shitty. I knew now that I had to say something, but Brian freaked out every fucking time, and I kind of wanted to be like, "Well, see, this is why I kept quiet before," but I didn't say it. I wouldn't. Whenever I felt lousy, I had to take all these blood tests and give urine samples to make sure it wasn't my kidneys messing up. Mostly they just thought it was reaction from all the drugs leaving my system, but they had to make sure every time.

I tried not to make a big deal of anything, I'd just get a test kit out and start pricking my finger and swabbing blood on these different cards. If they turned one color or another, it would tell the doctors stuff, so I'd set the cards down and wait however long the instructions said to wait.

And I could see Brian trying so hard to stay cool, but it was like talking him off a ledge every time it happened. He'd be fine at first, when he'd see the kit, but he'd just get more and more undone waiting to see if the card turned blue or yellow or whatever. By the time the twenty minute wait was up, he'd be this sweaty, pacing, muttering mess, and the fact that nothing serious was ever wrong didn't really matter at that point.

I could see him shutting down, shutting me out, and who could blame him?

God, I won't even think about what it would have felt like if it had been Brian in the hospital, I won't even let myself imagine it. And I don't really think the fact that it keeps happening over and over again is any help, either. I'm not sure it's something you become accustomed to. How easy it must seem to walk from the uncertainty. Right when he's maybe coming to understand that I won't dick him around this time, right when it seems possible that we can sort of do okay together, well, then he learns it doesn't matter how determined we are to do this, fate or God or whatever might have another idea entirely. So all of a sudden, there's all this shit happening that we have absolutely no control over. What's the point? Why put yourself out there when no matter what you do it could all be gone in a flash?

I figured what would really make Brian feel better would be if he could just totally unload on me about getting so sick, and then just be over it. I know he wanted to--his irritation at me was hovering just under the surface all the time, but what kind of a shitty guy screams at his lover for almost dying?

I figured what I had to do was coax Brian back to me, you know, sort of, calm him down, like you would a skittish colt or something. I don't think that's not being manipulative. I wasn't trying to make him do anything, not really. I just wanted him to be sure of me, to be sure of us.

No matter who was hanging with me, I asked them to make sure I was awake by 4:30 or so. That gave me time to wake up and move around some before Brian got home. I didn't always fix dinner, but I sort of supervised the menu, and I always sat down and ate dinner with him. Mostly I just talked to him--about work, about our friends, about the neighborhood and the weather and dumb stuff I saw on tv. Really it was all just dancing around the room saying, I'm still here, I'm still here, I'm still here.

It's not like I sat him down and said, "Okay, this is me, trying to help you get over all the fucking shit of the last few weeks," but it's not like it was some huge secret either.

So when Brian sat back and shook his head one night and said, "So, what's with this whole happy fucking homemaker thing you have going?" I just laughed at him.

"I'm just reminding you," I said with a shrug.

"Reminding me of what?"

I met his eyes and shrugged again. "Everything," I said.

And for a second, Brian looked kind of ashamed, like I'd just figured out something he didn't want me to know. He wouldn't look at me, and when he whispered, "Justin," in that unhappy whisper of his, I thought my heart would break.

But I didn't want some dumb, dramatic scene. I wanted Brian to remember that everything included a lot of not so tragic stuff.

I sighed with exaggerated sadness at having to be the one to break the tragic news to him, but I guess someone had to. "I know you think you're a mysterious, enigmatic riddle, but you're really not all that hard to figure out." I tried to break it gently. "But that doesn't make you any less infuriating," I finished helpfully. "Why, I bet if I went out right now, I could find 20 people who think you're the most aggravating man they've ever met."

"You're a shit," Brian said, getting up and grabbing a beer from the fridge. "And it's becoming less and less of a bonus that you're my shit."

"It's not my fault I'm so on to you," I pointed out. "You're the one who's transparent as glass."

"Shut up."

"It's okay," I soothed, sliding up to him and hugging him. I kissed him, then trailed kisses across his cheek, down his neck, unbuttoning his shirt and kissing his chest. "You're still my Heathcliff," I said between kisses. "My El Cid. My Don Quixote. My Porthos. My Aramis…"

"Christ, why couldn’t you have keeled over before you took a Lit class?" he grumbled as he unzipped his pants. "If you get one spot on these Dior pants, I'll kill you."

"My rugged hero," I sighed dramatically.

"I'm serious. I have a presentation next week, and I am not wearing that lame ass, last-year Prada."

"My big, strong, manly man."

"You suck," he said.

I tsked at him. "You're insulting me and I'm being totally sweet to you!"

"It wasn't an insult, it was an order. You. Suck."

"Ohhh, I get it. Well then sir, yes sir."

"That's more like it. Make it worth it to the lord and master to come home at the end of the day."

I tried to make most nights like that--just kind of quiet, where we goofed on each other about nothing, maybe fooled around a little.

I'd love to say it was my patience and soothing manner that fixed everything, but it was probably just Brian remembering that I was the one falling apart all over the place.

I'd been home from the hospital for a week or so when it finally occurred to me to ask about school. I think I was up to staying awake for a record hour or two by then, so I knew I wasn't heading back to class any time soon.

It was so weird the way it happened, because it was a quiet Sunday morning, and I was having pancakes and watching tv while Brian read the paper. Only half-interested, I said, "Hey, what happens with my classes at school?"

I didn't even turn away from the tv waiting for Brian to answer. He must have had some inkling that he wasn't dealing with a totally sane partner, because he put the paper down and came over to me, slipping the remote from my hand and clicking off the tv.

He gave me a bracing look and said, "Here's the thing. If you'd been a few weeks further into the semester, they would have passed you with your grades at the time you got sick. As it is, you'll have to repeat the classes."

I heard this click, in my head, and I just disconnected. I shot up off the couch and sort of ricocheted off the posts, and I know I was yelling. Brian was trying to calm me down, and I kept saying "I need a minute, I need a minute!"

I was fighting Brian off and somehow we ended up squeezed into a corner of the loft with me shouting at Brian that I needed a minute. I was crying, making no sense, but Brian just stuck with me, and somehow we ended up on the floor, Brian sitting with his back to the wall and me between his legs bawling into his chest.

"I just need a minute," I whispered one last time. Brian chuckled and patted my back. "God, I'm so fucked up," I moaned.

"Nice to finally have some company," Brian said, sounding as relaxed as if we were lying on a beach instead of crammed into a corner of the loft.

"I hate it there," I whispered, talking to him with my face buried in his neck. "I can't…Jesus, I can't start over, I can't go backwards, Brian, I can't! I can't do it over again! I know I'm fucked up, but I can't! You don't understand!"

Brian was holding me so tightly, I swear to God he was the only thing keeping me connected to the earth. "You can do anything," he said, his voice soft. God, it was fucking hypnotic. "Anything you fucking want. It's who you are."

I shuddered and whispered a gentle correction in his ear, which is the only thing that made his words remotely possible. "It's who you made me."

Brian winced and closed his eyes, as if hearing those words hurt him. Maybe it did. I said before it's overwhelming what we are to each other. "We'll think of something," he promised me. "Don't think about it right now, all right? It's fucking over. All of that shit is over, you understand? It's over."

And it struck me then, as I was flying apart into a million tiny pieces, that Brian and I really were perfect for one another. He's phenomenal in a crisis. Amazing. The loft could be totally in flames, caving in around us, and Brian would calmly take my hand and stroll us out of there like we were taking a walk in the park.

And you know, I trust it now that when we're really in trouble, Brian will do the right thing, the decent, amazingly right thing, and if that doesn't say who he really is behind all the bullshit, then nothing will. If that doesn't explain why I can except some of the more outrageous shit he pulls, then I'll never make anyone understand.

The everyday stuff, that's my department. I'm fucking phenomenal at plain old living. If Brian has time to think about what to do in any given situation, I never know what the hell he'll end up doing. He thinks too much and puts too much into what someone else might be thinking and then he goes around and around trying to make sure no one fucks him over and then he ends up making such ridiculous decisions you can't even believe it.

I mean, jeez, ask him what he wants for dinner, and it turns into this whole thing. He thinks I'm trying to make him say something or want something or be someone, and all I fucking want to know is what he wants to eat. So, now, I just cook something, and that's what he's having for dinner. Okay that's a dumb example because I sound all proud of my wifely duties or something. I'm just saying, I know what to do so that our day-to-day lives work for us.

Of course, the past year has offered a grand total of eight regular days, so Brian's been working a little overtime, but maybe some day, we'll actually have more regular days than fucking traumas, and I'll pay him back.

It was kind of funny there for a couple of weeks. I was all attentive to Brian, trying to make sure he was okay coming down from all the drama, and he was trying to keep me cheered up and not obsessing over what I was going to do next.

We both focused on getting Rinaldi to okay our trip. Ethan and Win had moved on to Luxembourg for a few weeks, and Ethan was happy to have us show up whenever we could.

Finally, I had two great weeks in a row, and Rinaldi gave his blessing. My mom was a bit of a wreck about it, but I just promised to e-mail every day and basically just whined and wheedled and pouted my way through all of her objections.

I was so fucking happy to be getting out of Pittsburgh, I could hardly stand it!

I was still in a bit of a recuperation mode, and I wasn't sure how well I'd do on the flight over so I asked Ethan to meet us in the lobby of the hotel. Turns out this was a good thing because Brian drugged me for the plane ride out, and when we finally touched down, I was hung over and out of it.

Plus I just sort of needed a little time to get my bearings. I was a little nervous about seeing Ethan, or rather about Ethan seeing me.

I'll just say it--I looked like a ghoul. I slept 80 hours a day and still had these nasty black circles under my eyes, and I was way too thin and kind of hunched over. I knew any heads I turned right then were probably people surprised I wasn't lying in a pine box.

I kept trying to pin Brian down about whether I looked worse when Ethan saw me in the hospital or now, but he always acted like I was asking the most idiotic question ever and he wouldn't answer.

Turns out I didn't really have anything to worry about. I was standing in the lobby of an opulent, 600 year old hotel when Ethan jogged in the door with a smile so huge, the room looked brighter. It felt like the thousand pounds resting on top of my heart were instantly scattered to the winds as he ran forward and scooped me up into the tightest bear hug I've ever felt. "Look at you!" he said, laughing and kind of shaking me a little. "Justin, look at you! You're beautiful! You look beautiful to me!" He ruffled my buzz cut, then ran his hand along my cheek, down my neck and across my shoulder. "Oh, Justin, just look at you!" he said, tears pooling in his eyes. "I'm so glad you're okay! I know you said you were, but, I needed to see you! I needed to touch you! You look fantastic! How was the flight! I can't believe you're here! Look at you! Just look at you!"

"Jesus, we've got it, he's pretty as a picture," Brian said, lazily sauntering up next to me and separating Ethan and I with the same nonchalance he uses when it's Emmett hugging on me.

But even with his sweet words, Ethan was sort of having a hard time looking at me. He kept meeting my eyes and smiling and reaching for me, then he'd drop his gaze for a minute. It's like it hurt him to look at me for too long.

Finally, after he lowered his head for the tenth time, Brian said, "This is going to be a long couple days if you spend the entire time staring at my partner's cock."

Ethan's eyes widened in shock, then disbelief, then denial. And right about then a little enlightenment. He had the grace not to look ashamed which I'm sure Brian appreciated. "You know everything isn't about sex," he huffed.

Brian laughed a little. "Yes it is." What could Ethan say to that?

Win joined us then. He was beautiful if you like that perfectly sculpted, text-book, model-like, hardly real kind of beauty. He was taller than Ethan and I, shorter than Brian. He had really broad shoulders and, of course, an amazing build. There wasn't an ounce of fat anywhere on him and his muscle definition was just perfect. He had short dark hair and blue eyes, and really pretty white skin. He complimented Ethan beautifully. I bet they turned heads everywhere, and not because people couldn't figure out what in the hell the two of them were doing together. In fact, it was just the opposite--one look and you knew and understood and probably approved. They looked like they belonged together, like there would never be a question as to why they were.

Naturally, Win was also funny and charming and totally nice and I was so glad when he had to leave for rehearsal that I could barely stand it. "Doesn't his halo poke you when you're sleeping?" I asked.

Ethan gave me a scolding look while Brian snickered and said, "I'd just be worried it'd get tangled up with Ethan's," he said. I think that's the first time I ever heard him say Ethan's name. He pronounced it all mockingly, of course. "Eeeeethan." Like that.

The four of us went out to dinner that night, and it was actually okay. Win really was a good guy and of course I was totally happy to spend time with Ethan. Brian was brattier than ever--cruising every last guy within a 50 mile radius, but that was just to pick on Ethan. Ethan gets so undone with Brian, and Brian feeds on that and acts brattier and brattier and brattier. And, too, I think Brian was sort of controlling the conversation that way, making sure it didn't become an episode of ER where it was all about how I'd been sick and stuff. If he was acting like an ass, Ethan could concentrate on that instead of other shit.

Actually, it was kind of fun to watch Brian operate, because it gave me an idea of how much of his charm was pure Brian Kinney and how much was dependent on being in the Pitts where the Brian Kinney mystique was such a big part of the equation. Nothing too shocking to report--Brian doesn't need the mystique to turn heads, drop jaws, awaken dicks… He's fucking amazing.

The next morning, Ethan and I had breakfast by ourselves at a café near the hotel, then browsed a couple of small, funky art galleries. I didn't really care about the art--oh, it was a nice backdrop, I guess, but mostly it was just really nice to talk to Ethan face to face, arm in arm.

Ethan helped me understand Brian and Michael a lot better because Ethan…well, he's kind of my Michael, does that make sense? Except Ethan and I had the foresight to actually seal the deal and have sex so we don't have any unspoken shit between us.

It felt great to be walking and talking with him. I think it'll always be like that with us--we'll be able to go months and months without seeing each other, then just pick up right where we left off. Not that we don't chat and e-mail all the time now, but it could still feel weird when we got together. It doesn't, though. It was as easy between us as ever--it's an ease I don't think Brian and I will ever have because we're both kind of overly complicated. Well, Brian more so than me, not that I'd say that to his face or anything.

I laid out everything for Ethan--what a disaster I'd been at Pitt, how directionless I was feeling. I felt like I couldn't even list options much less make some kind of decision about what to do next.

"I guess the first thing is maybe to decide if you want a career that involves art or do you want to be an artist."

I turned to look at him and smiled. "That's just what Brian said to me once."

Ethan's eyes grew comically round. "Really?" he said with exaggerated incredulity, as if amazed Brian could come up with such an idea.

I nudged his shoulder with my own, then chuckled. "Well, he was making a point about my lack of fashion sense, but he did say it."

Ethan laughed too and shook his head, the universal sign of I-just-don't-get-you-two. Believe me, I recognize the look from a thousand paces. "The thing is, if you want to be an artist, how badly do you need a degree from a school like Pitt? Shit, you don't even need a degree from the Institute. They can't teach passion. They can't teach empathy and… and insight and human connection. You're either born with that or it's passed you by."

I nodded slowly. "I think part of it is growing up with college being a sure thing. I mean, at St. James no one ever asked are you going to college, it was where are you going. I just…I can't fathom not having the degree. I keep thinking of someone asking me where I went to college and me saying I never finished. God, that's totally shallow."

Ethan shook his head. "I wouldn't say that. It's part of how you've always seen yourself. You can't just drop the idea like it's nothing."

"Yeah, but now I'm wondering if I really do think it's important to graduate or is it just what everyone else thinks…I feel fuckin' paralyzed."

"You never felt like that at the Institute, did you? I mean, you never thought about not finishing."

"God, never." I said.

"So go back. Reapply. Justin, you're so talented. You make people feel things with your art. That's amazing to me. I mean, music moves, it's got this freedom to go…everywhere--high and low and soft and fast and there's nothing static about it. But, colors on a canvas, I never thought they could haunt a person the way your stuff haunts me. I'll be walking to get some coffee and be totally lost in thought about one of your pieces. Days…like, weeks later, I'll remember what it felt like to stand in front a picture and experience it. That's not common or typical. I know it's not. It's you."

I sighed. "It's not like I haven't thought of that. Shit, dreamed of it. I just…I know it's fucking weak as shit, but I feel like if I didn't get in, the disappointment would kill me. I won't be able to get up from it." But how could he know? How could he or Brian understand when they'd never lost anything, never failed at anything

During the flight to Florence, I told Brian what Ethan and I had talked about, even what I'd been thinking about neither one of them ever failing.

Brian gave me one of those looks like I was nuts and said, "Have you ever seen Chariots of Fire?"

I shook my head. "No. I bet they're really pretty though."

Brian sighed then looked to heaven for patience. "So anyway, it's about these guys training for the Olympics after World War I. One of the guys is blown away when he loses a race. He just can't believe it. And he's sitting there in the stands, surveying the site of this annihilating defeat and he says, 'If I can't win, I won't run.' I'm that guy. I succeed at everything I do because I won't do anything I can't succeed at. But you…shit…you can do anything because you'll try anything."

I shook my head, feeling kind of helpless, not really believing Brian, but how hard do you argue over that kind of thing? I gave a half-hearted laugh and said, "I wish I was the person you think I am."

Brian chuckled too. "I'm the president of that club," he said in an intimate, dirty whisper. "Want to join, little boy?"

I sniffed and wiped my nose on my sleeve and Brian made another amused sound. "Probably some kind of initiation I have to go through." I said, acting all put out.

"Well, if anybody could join, what would be the point."

I laid my head on Brian's shoulder. "Elitist," I said.

"You know it," he said.

I sighed and shook my head as I thought about approaching PIFA for readmission. "The thing is, you don't get, like… unlimited chances."

"Yes you do."

"Brian, no you don't!" Okay, so I was totally whining, but sometimes, Brian's obstinance infuriates me! He gets these ideas in his head, and he just absolutely refuses to see reason.

Brian's eyes narrowed in his classic don't-fuck-with-me way. "You do," he said, chin lifted in defiance, and who knows if that defiance was aimed at me or God or whoever else might try to limit me.

Sometimes, Brian's obstinance amazes me.

And speaking of amazing--Florence.

Everyone seemed surprised that our destination was Florence. I guess they figured that if Brian was planning the trip, it would have to be Rome or Milan or someplace equally flashy. But he picked Florence for me. Okay, so it's not like there weren't plenty of stores and leather and shit to be found, but Brian chose Florence for the art. He chose it for me because he knew, somehow, that Florence was where I needed to go.

Florence was…transcendent. It was awesome and life-changing and amazing and…just everything. There are moments in my life where I'm just totally reborn--the night I met Brian, the night I left Brian, the time Brian cried in my hospital room. They're moments where I stop being who I was and become who I am, and there's such a line in the sand between the before and after. The trip to Florence was like that.

First of all, it was so liberating to walk around a place where not another living soul knew anything about me and Brian. I was a stranger to everyone and anyone and nothing that had ever happened to me was known by another soul. That was intoxicating.

And the art. Oh God, the art.

People probably think I should have been inspired by the work of some obscure artist no one but a fellow aficionado had ever heard of, but, I'm as fucking pedestrian as the next tourist. It was Michelangelo who embraced me and lured me out of the artistic funk I'd been in.

I felt like…like Michelangelo knew that one day I'd be standing there, drinking in his work. Me. Justin Taylor. He knew I'd stand there, feeling lost and a little hopeless, and he wanted me to find…comfort. And he wanted me to remember the euphoria of creating something beautiful because I know he felt that way. I know he did. He knew that 450 years in the future, I would stand before his works and be moved beyond words, beyond breath, by what I understood art to be.

Did you know that Michelangelo was only in his twenties when he sculpted David? Isn't that amazing? I was so blown away when I first caught site of him. It was so strange and wonderful to finally see in person something I'd seen pictured five million times.

I don't think I moved for a good fifteen minutes, and even then all I could do was shake my head at the wonder of him. And then…well, I'll just say it, I started to bawl.

I couldn't help it, he was so beautiful, so moving. And standing there and looking at him, my mind just took off. What had Michelangelo felt as he created the piece? And I could imagine the elation he must have felt at its completion! He must have felt like he could do anything--like he could have stepped off a fucking cliff and floated safely to the ground hundreds of feet below. I bet he felt like his hands were possessed by God, that he was simply some earthly vessel borrowed for a time so hundreds and hundreds of years later people would still be moved by his talent and passion, by the beauty he created and just…gave away to anyone with an eye to see it or a heart to feel it.

I wonder what it felt like when Michelangelo looked at one of his models, when he contemplated them, drew them or sculpted them. I think that to capture a human being's outer form so magnificently, he had to be able to understand people intrinsically. He had to be able to read their hearts and know them, really know them because anybody can record what someone looks like, but to record someone existing, God, how powerful, how amazing is that?

The pieces that moved me the most were his captives--Il Prigiones--prisoners of the marble. These were his unfinished works showing figures struggling to emerge from the unforgiving stone. They just broke my heart. How devastating for the artist to die knowing he was leaving his creations trapped for all eternity. How devastating for the creations to be trapped.

So there I sat in the Galleria dell'Accademia, crying like a little kid who'd dropped his ice cream cone in the sand.

"You're a fuckin' freak," Brian leaned over to whisper in my ear.

I know I was amusing him, but what could I do? I elbowed him back out of my way. "Don't curse in front of the art," I said and felt warmed by his throaty chuckle.

At Casa Buonarroti, we were staring at a clay sculpture of Hercules and Cacus--well, I was staring at it, Brian was roaming around in a circle waiting for me to move on to the next piece. "God," I whispered. "What does it feel like to create something so amazing?"

Brian shrugged as he made a slow tour. "I don't know, what?" he asked, only half paying attention.

"I don't know," I said vaguely, turning my head one way and then another, soaking in as much of it as I could.

As Brian passed once again behind me, he leaned in close and whispered in my ear, "Yes you do," and then kept up his calm, steady walk around the piece.

On our way back to the hotel, I had the taxi driver stop three or four blocks from the hotel, and I pulled Brian out of the car with me. He only grumbled a little. Brian had been amazingly indulgent of me the whole trip, and I was trying not to get used to it or take advantage of it, both of which were such a lost cause it was ridiculous.

I grabbed Brian's hand and led him through the narrow streets, cutting through a couple of alleys, foolishly trusting my sense of direction. I laughed out loud when I caught sight of the store front I'd remembered from the day before, but my heart fell as we got to the door. It was closed on Mondays.

"Rats," I said, pressing my nose to the window. Brian looked from the sign advertising art supplies back to me, a single eyebrow raised in question, and I sighed. "I wanted to draw something," I said with a shrug.

Brian nodded, but didn't ask why I hadn't brought any of my own sketch pads and pencils. "We can come back," he said.

As we walked back into the hotel room, Brian said, "You know how you're always saying I'm so amazing?"

"Not always," I said haughtily. Who knew where this conversation was going--I had to be careful what I'd agree to.

"And you know how I'm constantly doing things that are off the charts?"

"Well, constantly is kind of stretching it."

"Prepare to be amazed." He walked over to one of his suitcases and unzipped a pocket. He pulled something out of it then turned to me. In one hand was a sketchpad, in the other a brand new box of pencils.

"Oh my God, Brian, you're so fucking amazing!" I said, the words yanked out of me against my will.

Brian laughed as he tossed the stuff at me. "Hmm. Whatever will you draw?" he asked.

I believe the look I gave Brian conveyed to him that he had just uttered the stupidest question anyone had ever asked me. Ever.

Brian sighed and rolled his eyes, like all he ever did in his whole life was favors for me. He unzipped his pants and kicked them off, then tossed his shirt on the bed. "Where do you want me?" he asked in the most pathetic, long-suffering tone you've ever heard.

I placed him by a floor-to-ceiling window and as dusk fell and the moon rose, it cast a blue shadow over him.

And not that I was going to say anything to him, but his body was perfect. Sleek, muscular, powerful. Michelangelo would have wept over him, I know he would have.

So fucking beautiful.

"Think about something," I said after I'd been sketching for awhile.

"No," he replied in a slow drawl.

"Why not?"

"'Cause then you'll want to know what I'm thinking about."

"I can probably guess what you're thinking about," I said dryly. "How about this, look like you're thinking about something."

My favorite thing about drawing Brian is the slow simmer of arousal it stirs in him. It's like the most luxurious, exquisite kind of foreplay you can imagine. As I draw, his skin starts to flush, he begins breathing differently, his eyes grow soft and lidded, and as his cock fills. And I know that it's me doing this to him, and I feel so fucking alive--that's the only word that fits! I'm totally aware that I'm here, and I'm breathing, and I'm living on this earth, in this world, and it's just amazing.

When I finished drawing--and we finished fucking--Brian got up off the bed to take a look at his picture. "Fuck," he said breathlessly. "Jesus, I'm beautiful!"

I laughed and joined him, leaning back against him as I looked down at the drawing. "Yeah, you are," I said softly. I turned to him and said impetuously. "Let's go to that bar the waiter was telling you about. I want to be out there tonight!"

I already mentioned how indulgent Brian had been during the trip, and that night was no exception. As we got out of the taxi at the club, I said, "Okay, you have to try to find me at midnight and seduce me into coming home with you."

Brian snorted at that. "Your hair's a fucking beacon, Sonny Boy," he reminded me. "And you might as well have Sure Thing tattooed on your ass for how hard I have to work to seduce you."

"I'm becoming a lot more work these days," I said.

"No, you're really not," Brian said.

"Shoo."

The funny thing was, even as an emaciated 90 pound weakling, I had it going on as far as the Italian Queer Brigade was concerned! It was the blond-haired, blue-eyed thing--especially when almost everyone else had dark hair and eyes. By the time Brian found me, I was dancing in the middle of this circle of the most beautiful men you've ever seen.

He used the patented Brian-Kinney-fuck-off push as he made his way through my admirers, but he was laughing as he did it. "Had a busy night?" he asked, and I laughed with him. Those were the very first words he ever said to me.

I danced in a circle, my arms opened wide. "Isn't it beautiful here?" I called over the music, licking my lips in appreciation of the handsome men all around us. "Don't you just love the Italian landscape?"

Brian grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me out of the circle. "You're a menace!" he shouted.

"The one on the right is Antonio, the one on the left is Anthony!" I said mockingly.

Brian groaned and rolled his eyes. "You're coming with me, you little shit!" he called over the music, dragging me toward the door.

"That's your seduction attempt?" I said. "That's pathetic!"

Brian stopped and looked at me over his shoulder, that look of amused superiority. He lifted an eyebrow at me, and said, "Let's have quiet time. First one to talk loses."

I laughed my ass the whole way back to the hotel, at which point I did a whole lot of other things with my ass.

Ha!

I only felt bad one day, toward the end of the trip. I woke up around four in the morning feeling sick as shit, just nauseated and light-headed, like I'd had radiation that afternoon.

Brian heard me in the bathroom and when he walked in and saw the cards with the blood smears spread all over the counter, it took him a few minutes to get control of the devastated look on his face.

It turns out everything was okay, but I still felt shitty, so after I threw all the medical shit away, I said, really nonchalantly, "How about, maybe I'll stay in today?"

Brian looked hurt, like I was doing something to him, and I shrugged at him and said, "I'm just gonna sleep. I'll feel fine this afternoon." The pull to lie to him was so strong, the pull to shake off everything and tell him I felt okay, and we'd just go shopping just like we planned.

Maybe he saw that on my face because he kind of shook his head and pretended like I was just faking it to get out of shopping now that he'd been to every fucking museum within a 200 mile radius. He made me promise to eat something, I made him promise not to call me a hundred times because I just wanted to sleep until I felt better.

I spent the whole day sliding in and out of sleep, and it was dusk before I woke up and knew where I was and what was going on. Brian must have woken me up coming in with bags and bags and more bags. One of the bell hops came in behind him carrying even more bags.

When Brian's upset about stuff he goes shopping. It cracks me up when he falls into some queer stereotype, but I swear to God, when he's bummed or preoccupied or anything like that, he likes to go shopping. And it's the shopping he likes, not the actual buying of something. No way, he likes the browsing and the trying on and the sucking up from the store clerks. He likes acting like he's deciding between one thing and another, and then he likes the drama of refusing to make a decision and just taking them both.

Now granted, we were going to shop anyway, but I couldn't believe all the bags and boxes he brought in with him. It was ridiculous! I was going to make him go through his closet and give to Goodwill as many pairs of pants and shirts as he bought.

"Wake up you lazy shit," Brian called as he threw bags on the couch, then went out in the hall for a second load. I was already sitting up in bed, not that anyone on the planet was buying that hard ass act of his. "You eat?" he asked, looking around for the tray.

I shook my head and ignored his reaction--a mixture of equal parts irritation and concern. "We'll go to Bud's for dinner," I told him before he could lecture me about it. "I heard someone in the elevator yesterday say they make the best cheeseburgers in Europe."

"That wasn't necessarily a compliment," Brian said dryly. But it was enough to put him at ease. He looked me over and said, "Besides, you are not having a cheeseburger for dinner when I've forked over a small fortune to drag your ass all the way over here."

I rolled my eyes at him, and tried to look in some of the bags he brought in, but he kept slapping my hands out of the way.

"You're the ugly American," I pointed out, "Drinking lattes wherever we go. I can hardly show my face it's that embarrassing."

"I could be putzing around in Bermuda shorts, black socks and sandals and I'd still be beautiful," Brian said. He put his big hand on my chest and pushed me backwards until I was sitting down on the bed, the perfect spot for me to watch his fashion show.

"Not even you could pull that off," I said. "What'd you buy me?"

"Nothing," Brian answered and went back to arranging his purchases, and I realized we were ordering dinner from room service. It'd be three in the morning before he finished modeling everything for me, and believe me, he was going to model every last sock, handkerchief, shirt, and shoe. "If you're going to lay around in bed and waste a perfectly good vacation day, I'm not gonna reward you for it."

I pursed my lips and looked from Brian to the mess of clothes on the couch and wondered if I was going to have to watch him put on every last article of clothing before I got my stash. He was just evil enough to do it that way.

"I want a big basket of all those breads," I said. "With lots of butter and that chocolate stuff you can spread."

Brian lifted an eyebrow at me. "Your dialing finger works," he said. "God knows your mouth does. You call."

"But I want them to take out the oatmeal muffins, and they only do that when you tell them to." I smiled at him, looking especially beseeching. "Please?"

"I do have an authoritative way about me, don't I?" Brian said, strutting over to the phone and placing the order.

And right after that, the show began. Brian wears clothes so beautifully. I could have sat there for a hundred years watching him parade through wearing one suit and then another and still another.

He only got through half of his stuff before he started doling out shit for me.

"All right, I might have mentioned to the sales guy that my fragile flower of a lover couldn't be with me, and could he possibly suggest something for the feeble little cherub," he said.

"Show me!" I said.

There were four shirts, some silk boxers, socks and three pairs of slacks. I grabbed an amazing pair of black low-riders that felt as soft as pajamas.

I looked at the size and my stomach sank in disappointment. They were 28's, which would have been great if it was before the brain tumor, but now they'd be clown pants on me.

"Try them on," Brian suggested, hugging me from behind and whispering seductively in my ear. He could fucking tell me to jump off the roof of the Empire State Building in that voice and I'd probably consider it for a minute or two. I bared my neck to him and he gave a throaty chuckle and laid kisses on the skin I exposed. "Try them on."

I took them into the bathroom, which made him laugh at my sudden modesty, but I didn't want it to upset him that they were too big. Besides, I'd have to hear him drone on and on about how I was supposed to be regaining the weight blah blah blah blah.

I slipped them on and fuck me if they didn't fit like a fucking glove! Jeez, I almost started bawling. What the hell was with me these days?

I ran out of the bathroom and jumped on the bed. I threw my arms in the air, shouting, "Ta da!"

Brian's eyes ran up and down my form as I slowly turned for him. "Nice," he said as my ass came into view and I lifted a pointed eyebrow at such faint praise.

"Very nice," he dutifully amended. "All that pastry and pasta is paying off, huh?" He came closer and wrapped his arms around my waist, and we were in the rather unusual position of him looking up at me.

We just stood there for the longest time, looking at one another. "You're amazing," I whispered, and Brian didn't even bother to pretend like that was a dumb thing to say.

"You're easy to please," he whispered back.

"Did you just call me easy?" I asked.

Brian lifted his eyebrow at me. "Don't even think about it," he said. "I've got two more suits, two pairs of pants, and four dress shirts to go. And then there's my casual line." He slapped my ass, then swaggered back to continue his fashion show.

And I sat down on the bed and watched.

Brian was extra mellow that night and all the next day and the day after that. I started thinking that maybe I'd dodged a bullet or two because he'd handled my feeling shitty and running the tests and everything without hardly blinking.

I should've known better.

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of glasses clanking together. It sounded like some of them got knocked over, and I sat up in bed, thinking someone had broken into our room.

Leaning over, I turned on the bedside lamp. Brian was standing at the foot of the bed, bottle of whiskey in one hand, a glass tumbler in the other. The shadow of beard on his face, not to mention his messy bed-head made him look debauched.

"Do you have any idea how close you were to missing all of this?" His tone was belligerent, and it took all the willpower I had not to see if I could gauge how much of the whiskey he'd drunk.

I considered making a joke about almost missing the flight to Florence, but I doubt he would have appreciated my humor at that moment. "But we didn't," I said softly. "We're here, aren't we?"

He made a sour face at me and shook his head. "The first three days after the bashing, they didn't know if you'd make it," he said, like he was telling an unimportant little story. "They wouldn't tell us a fucking thing. Wouldn't commit to a fucking thing. It was all about covering their fucking stupid ass liability. Like I'm gonna sue them for, what? Emotional distress? Breach of promise? Jesus."

He gestured at me, the whiskey splashing out of his glass as he did. "The tumor was a shock," he admitted, "But we both knew something wasn't right. Can't say I expected it, but looking back, it didn't seem out of the blue."

He moseyed over to the window, smirking at our view of the park. "The pneumonia after the surgery, that was dicey, but not too serious. No ghouls hovering around waiting to unplug anything that time. That was really just a preview of coming attractions, wasn't it? This last time, though…didn't really see that one coming. You walk in, looking shittier than usual, and faster than you can fuck, you're flat on your back in a hospital bed. And, I'm thinkin' 'what the fuck, people? He's fine. He's gonna be fine,' because two fuckin' days ago he was on my last fuckin' nerve and no one can be that fucking annoying one minute and on his death bed the next."

I wasn't quite sure what we were talking about exactly, but I gamely tried to join in. "I should have said something," I said apologetically. "I should have told you or the doctor I was feeling crappy. That won't happen again, Brian, I know better now."

"You could have missed all of this, do you get that?" Brian asked angrily. "Do you get it even a little bit? All of this could have been lost! The museums, the churches, your fucking little idyllic strolls down cobble-stone streets. Do you have any idea how close you came to missing every last fucking minute of this? Do you have any fucking clue at all?"

Brian suddenly swung around and hurled his empty glass at the wall and shouting over the sound of it shattering, "I'm not gonna keep doing this! You have to stop it! Do you hear me? Are you fucking listening now, Sunshine? Do you hear me?"

I was torn between wanting to rip him a new one and laughing my ass off. Shit, sometimes he's like some fucking 1950's movie star, like he's Bette Davis queening all over the place. Shit, who throws glasses at their hotel room walls?

Part of me wanted to give Brian some flippant reply, but his anguish was so palpable, even if it did come out sounding mean.

"You're the one who says we get to decide what to take away from all this shit!" he said. "So what's the takeaway, Sunshine, hmm? What's your bright, shiny take on all this fucking shit, tell me that why don't you."

"I come back," I said. "That's your take away, Brian. Every time. No matter what. I come back. To you."

Brian rolled his eyes, his face a mask of disgust, but I just shrugged at him, like it wasn't my fault, it wasn't my doing. "I know you hate hearing shit like that, but it's true. I mean, Jesus, Brian, how else could I still be here, huh? How else?"

"I'm not doing this again, Justin, I swear to God, I'm not. You have no fucking idea what it's like, no fucking idea."

"Doh, really?" I said, incredulously. "And I've been having so fucking much fun up to this point! Jesus, Brian, I've been here the whole time. I know, okay?"

"You've been fucking unconscious most of the time!" Brian yelled.

"I'm not going anywhere so fucking deal with it. I'm not going anywhere. I'm the bad penny from hell, okay?"

He turned abruptly away from me and asked the question that had been nagging at him forever. "How can you fucking make me feel this shit and then die on me? I just…I don't get how you think you can do that."

If I'd learned absolutely nothing else through the insanity of the last year, at least I knew that there was nothing I could say to him, there were no words to ease the fears, shit, the fucking terrors he'd lived through.

I waited until he stood up a little straighter, until he squared his shoulders and took one deep breath and then another. "Brian?" I said really softly.

He shrugged his answer, but I stayed silent until he turned around and looked at me. I held my hand out to him and said, "Come to bed."

He didn't smile, but his face softened somehow. He set down the glass and bottle and shut off the light by my bed, then walked around and crawled into his side of the bed.

It was really sweet the way he slid up behind me like he had to be careful of me for some reason. He hugged me really hard, and if it had been just a regular night, I would have told him he was squashing me, but I didn't say anything.

"You're not a bad penny!" he said into my neck, sounding for all the world like a petulant three-year old, intent on getting the last word.

I buried my face in the pillow, so Brian wouldn't see the smile on my face.

You know what? Take all your I'd-die-for-you's, I-love-you's, I-live-for-you's. Take every last one of 'em, and I won't give a shit. Because I have Brian, who, when it's all said and done, doesn't think I'm a bad penny.

I loved him so much right then. God! I wanted to like, scream as loud as I could and hug him and dance around the room with him and fuck him within an inch of his life and feel him inside me forever.

I knew I had to remember that feeling, because I'd pay for his little scene over the next few days. Brian would be extra sarcastic, extra indifferent, extra Brianesque to cover for having tipped his hand so spectacularly. And I'd let it ride for a day or two before losing my temper and snapping at him to just fucking let it go already. And somehow that would satisfy him that he hadn't compromised too much of his bad ass self.

So by the time we boarded the plane to go home, things were back to as normal as they ever get with us.

Except that I still hadn't made a decision about what to do with the entire rest of my life. Except for that, things were great!

We got back on a Saturday, which gave us a day and a half to talk to everyone in the universe, deal with the jet lag and sort of reacclimate ourselves to dear old Pitts. Brian went back to work that Monday morning, while I loafed around at home. It wasn't until I was pouring myself a bowl of cereal that I realized this was the first time I'd been alone in forever. I tried to think back to the last time I'd been by myself and it stretched for weeks and weeks. And then, just for fun, I tried to think back to the last time I'd been alone and hadn't felt like puking from one end of the loft to the other. God, that was forever ago!

Hey, things were looking up.

Chuckling to myself, I took my bowl of cereal over to the couch and clicked on the tv. I had a whole day of goofing off on my agenda. Maybe I'd print some of our vacation pictures. Maybe I'd fiddle around with some artwork for Rage. Maybe I'd stay in my jammies and watch cartoons all day. Whatever I decided, I was going to do it all by my little old self.

Of course no sooner did that thought cross my mind than the buzzer sounded to indicate someone was downstairs. Rolling my eyes, I wondered whether it was Vic with a cake, Deb with Tupperware full of marinara, Mom with groceries or Lindsay just happening to stroll by with Gus. I know, I'm an ungrateful bastard. But shit! I wanted to watch SpongeBob and Johnny Bravo! Was that so wrong?

Surprisingly, it was none of them. "Yeah, I've got a delivery here for Justin Taylor."

"Okay, I'll be right down." The delivery was just a thin, FedEx envelope. I didn't recognize the return address--some suite in New York City. For some bizarre reason, it flashed through my mind that maybe my dad was taking legal action to formally disown me or something. I don't know why, but that's what I thought.

I felt kind of sick as I tore the packet open. Another envelope fell out, along with a letter typed on thick, official-looking stationary.

The return address was the Amateur Comic Book Association, and the letter totally floored me.

Dear Justin,

It is with great pleasure that we award you first place honors in the Comic Art category of the Annual ACBA Awards. We are also pleased to announce that you have received this year's Artist To Watch award.

Your award includes the enclosed $1,000 check, but most importantly, it guarantees that the comic book you created with Michael Novotny will be reviewed by several publishing houses, including Marvel, New Street and Butler Grove.

This year there were over 1,200 entries in our contest, so your winning is an accomplishment, indeed. That your submission was post marked at 10:55 PM on the last acceptable date of entry was especially appreciated by our judging panel.

We hope this marks the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with ACBA.

I read that letter a thousand times before I could pick myself up off the couch. At first, I have to admit that I was, like, "Oh my GOD, I entered a contest and I can't fucking remember doing it!" So, I sort of panicked for a few minutes, then I was like, "Oh for fuck's sake, get real."

This had Brian Kinney written all over it. And then I remembered Michael's story about Brian having to mail something, about his being convinced that if he just got his envelope in the mail, I'd be okay.

God, how much did I totally love him at that moment?

I called him right away. "Hey, guess what?" I said, when he answered.

"You're wearing your new butt plug?" was his first guess.

"No."

"You came so hard thinking of me in the shower you broke some of the tiles?"

"No."

He had to think for a second to come up with, "You want to cast my dick in bronze and wear it around your neck?"

"Uh, no."

"God, you don't want to wear it somewhere else, do you?"

"Can we start this conversation over again?"

"Okay," he said affably.

"Hey, I've got something to tell you but don’t guess what it is."

He snickered and said, "I am a very important businessman."

I lowered my voice and whispered into the phone. "I won a contest," I said. "An art contest. I won. I never thought I'd say that again."

"A contest?" Brian said, like he wasn't even sure what that word meant.

"Yeah. And the weird thing is, I don't even remember entering it."

"Well, huge chunks of your brain are missing."

"I keep forgetting that."

"Yeah, well, there you go. So you won, huh? What's the prize?"

As if he didn't know.

"A thousand bucks and some comic book guys will take a look at the issue."

"Comic book guys?" Brian repeated with exaggerated incredulity. "Like, real, live comic book guys? How totally rockin', dude!"

"You're a freak."

"Is that so?"

"Yep. But a freak I happen to think is totally amazing."

I felt the heat of his smile through the phone. Swear to God, it warmed my face.

"Lucky for me some people are damn easy to please."

"Nope, I'm the lucky one."

"So have you told Mikey yet?"

"I left a message for him at Ben's place. I wanted to tell my secret benefactor first. Oh and then I had to call you, too."

"So funny!" Brian said wryly.

When Brian got home from work--to his favorite meal in the universe, I might add, of baked orange roughy in a white wine sauce with garlic mashed potatoes, green beans and spinach salad, I was still floating on air. "What'd Mikey have to say?" Brian wanted to know. "He happy?"

"Oh my God, he was bouncing off the walls!" I said. It was really cool how thrilled Michael was for me, he was totally awesome about it.

"Word of advice," I added. "Don't call them comic book guys whatever you do. I was treated to a five hour history of who's who at Marvel comics." Brian laughed as I pushed him down onto a chair and stradled his lap. "This was the push I needed," I told him. "The sign from the universe or something. I'm gonna reapply to PIFA. I have an appointment with the Dean on Friday."

Brian smiled this beautiful, sort of, enigmatic smile. "Go get 'em, Tiger," he said softly.

God! He's so fucking amazing!

That Friday morning we showered together and ate breakfast together, and I know I was geeking out all over the place, but I just couldn't calm down. Brian stood there leaning against the kitchen counter, nursing a cup of coffee and shaking his head at me while I shoveled in huge mouthfuls of Cheerios and told him everything I was going to say to the Dean.

He picked his keys up off the counter while I put my dishes in the sink, and when I turned around, he tossed them to me. "How about…you drive," he said.

We were short of the six month window, but so fucking what! I cheered and tore down the stairs, not bothering to wait for the elevator.

I drove downtown, edging the volume of the stereo up more than once to drown out Brian's driving tips--he's the biggest fucking back seat driver in the universe. I pulled up to the no-stopping zone he pointed out and rolled my eyes at his explicit instructions that I was to return the car to the parking garage at lunchtime, and wait for him in the park across the street to return the keys.

I'd offered to just pick him up that evening, but he said he didn't trust me alone with the car for an entire day. He is so fucking full of shit. He just wanted to hear what happened with the Dean, that's all, and if it didn't go so hot, he knew I'd blow off telling him right away.

"Buh bye!" I yelled over his millionth reminder that the gear sometimes stuck when shifting from fourth to fifth.

He glared at me for a second before finally--finally--moving his skinny ass out of the car. He took a year and a half to stand up and grab his briefcase and close the door, and even then he leisurely leaned against the opened window and smiled.

"I think," he said, and then stopped and turned his head, studying the Jeep's rear tire for a second.

My heart beat picked up, and it was one of those times where he could have said just any fucking thing, from 'I think you should find another place to live,' to 'I think I'll go to the gym after work.'

He met my gaze and lifted his chin in characteristic defiance, as if daring me to contradict him before he even said anything. "I think you're amazing," he said.

The amusement that colored Brian's face told me I must have turned five shades of purple. I glared at him and said, "Are you trying to get off my shit list for something you've already done, or just building up points for the next time?"

Brian grinned, popped his tongue in his cheek and wrinkled his nose at me, turning me into a fucking puddle just looking at him! "Have a good day, Dear," he said, in that mocking falsetto of his. He backed away a few paces, then turned and sauntered into his building like he owned the whole fucking world. And if I walked into the dean's office the same exact way, who could fucking blame me?

The last time I met with the Dean it was all about getting him to approve a new art form, this time it was more about getting him to approve me. The funny thing is, he didn't spend much time on my portfolio. I showed him several pieces I'd done with the computer, some rough sketches and a landscape I'd done at Lindsay's, and then the rest of it was the work I'd done in Italy. As he looked at the picture of Brian in the hotel room in Florence, I told him about our trip and my reaction to the artwork there, and we spent the next hour just talking about, God, about everything! About how art has the power to teach and to force emotion and thought and action!

At one point, I totally apologized for being such a freak about it, but the Dean just laughed and told me this hilarious story about when he was an apprentice to a painter in London and thought he had all the answers to every art question ever posed. He'd ended up being this total blowhard at a reception and only later found out that the layman he was regaling with all his knowledge was actually one of the curators at the Guggenheim in New York! He was so embarrassed he almost threw his brushes and paints into the Thames!

I kept wondering when we'd get to the interview part of the interview, but the dean put everything back in my case and stood up, offering me his hand. "Well Justin, I'm delighted to have you back," he said.

"Back?" I said stupidly. "Like, back back?"

Dean Larson laughed. "All right, if you like. I'm delighted to have you back back."

Okay, so it was a lame ass joke, but I laughed like it was the most hilarious thing I'd ever heard.

I was back! God, what a fucking roundabout way to get right back to where I started, but God damn it, I was back!

I think I flew out of the dean's office. Brian was gonna flip out! God, I couldn't wait to tell him!

I figured I'd let him dangle until after lunch, tell him the dean had to talk to the admissions board or something and that I wouldn't hear for sure until later, then, right when I was getting ready to go, I'd drop the bombshell.

Yeah, right.

All plans to play it cool completely evaporated the second I caught site of Brian sauntering down the sidewalk. With a whoop, I blasted off the park bench and charged towards him. He grinned when he saw me and started laughing when I launched myself into his arms. I wrapped my arms around his neck and whooped again.

He spun me around, already joining in the celebration. "I'm in!" I said needlessly, like there was any question after that performance.

Brian laughed triumphantly and lifted me overhead again, and a faint chorus of "Let's Hear It for the Boy," drifted through my brain. "I told you!" he crowed. "Didn't I tell you? That'll teach you to listen to me, Sonny Boy! God, I knew it!"

"I start in two weeks," I said, and I knew I was grinning like an idiot, but a freight train heading straight for me couldn't have wiped that smile off my face. "I'm only three semesters behind, and Dean Larson said summer school would probably make a lot of that up!"

"Summer school? Damn. I was gonna have you teach me to sail at the yacht club this summer. You know with the wind in your sails…"

I rolled my eyes at him. "No, don't you remember? You're the one with the sails and the wind and shit? I'm the rudder."

"Oh, right, right. Strike that. Guess we'll just stick out the long hot summer here in the Pitts."

Brian made me promise to stop at McDonald's on the way home, and in return, we parked in an alley and fooled around in the Jeep.

I guess we could have gone out to dinner or to the clubs to celebrate, but I wanted to get my art supplies in order and see what I needed to buy and work on some more sketches. I know, how geeky could I get, but I was so fucking excited!

"Will you still love me if I end up making ceramic bowls and selling them at county fairs?" I called to Brian. I was washing dishes and had banished him out to the couch. He's got this fucking bug up his ass about the way I wash up, and he drives me crazy trying to get me to do it the way he wants it done.

"No," he answered. "It's white lit galleries, A-list clients, Dom Perignon or nothing, Baby."

"You'll look beautiful," I said with a smile.

Brian heaved a tragic sigh. "Of course, no one will recognize me with my clothes on. Wall after wall after wall will be covered with Brian Kinney Bathed in Light. Brian Kinney Pensive after Dark. Brian Kinney…"

"The ego that ate Pittsburgh," I finished with a bratty grin.

He glared at me as he got up and came closer to the kitchen. "How many more months until the dishes are spit polished?" he asked.

I smirked at him and thought about slowing down even further, but who would that really punish?

It's funny--I expected to spend a totally raucous night fucking 'til the plaster shook loose from the walls, but it played out really differently.

When the dishes were done, Brian came up behind me and reached around me to turn the water off. He dried my hands on a towel, then took my hand and led me up to the bedroom.

"How come you were always so sure?" I asked, speaking softly because for some reason, his demeanor demanded it.

Brian gave me one of his looks--part mischief, part humor, part nothing-but-sex. "It's a mystery," he said cryptically.

He walked slowly around me, his face schooled into a look of deep concentration, then he'd pick an article of clothing and remove it from me. A shoe, then my shirt, a sock, then another shoe, and always the pacing in between as he looked at me, studied me, and decided his next move. Finally I stood in front of him totally naked while, fully clothed, Brian continued to pore over me. God, it was so fucking erotic.

When he came close enough to touch me, he nuzzled against my cheek, then gently kissed me there as well. He pulled back and looked at me. Just looked at me. He started to kiss me again, and then he kind of paused. Sometimes Brian does this thing…he moves in to kiss me and then he hesitates, and catches my eye and just fucking looks right into me and everything just stops for a minute and all that exists are me and Brian.

A hundred years from now, when I'm nothing but a shriveled up heap of skin and bones, I may forget my name, I may forget who I am and where I am, but I'll never forget the way Brian looked at those moments.

He kissed me once, twice, then a third time, the intensity growing like the swell of a wave until he pulled back and stared at me some more. He leaned in, his mouth poised above mine and whispered, "Tell me."

Tears welled in my eyes, borne of tenderness and such soul-deep gratitude that I can't even begin to describe it. "I love you," I sighed.

Brian's eyes closed in sensual pleasure, as if my words were a cool breeze whispering across his skin on a hot day. "Tell me," he said again.

"I love you. So much. So much, Brian. You're all there is of me."

Brian undressed and took great care gently lying down next to me. "Tell me," he said.

"I love you. I love you, Brian."

"Tell me."

"I love you," I said.

And I thought of how desperately I used to want some sort of public display of Brian's feelings for me. I wanted everyone to know everything he'd ever said or done or intimated to me in private. I wanted to shove in all their smug faces the truth of what Brian felt for me.

Jesus, the very idea horrified me now.

This was only for me to know and to witness. To safeguard.

Later, when I was almost asleep, Brian started to pull out of me. "Not yet," I whispered.

"Mmm, messy, messy boy," he murmured into my ear.

I grinned. "Must be love," I said, already starting to float up and away.

Brian shifted slightly but stayed inside me. He kissed my ear and sighed, "Must be."

And I smiled to myself. I knew I wouldn't constantly have "happily" with Brian, but I'd always have "ever after."

And like the night before and every night to come, I fell asleep in the safest of places, in the most perfect state of grace, in the arms of the man who would challenge me, devastate me, amaze me and shelter me for the rest of my life.

Lucky me.

[The End]

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