Love is Not a Victory March

[or, Five Lessons from the Life of Justin Taylor]



Improv #9: dawn, fumbling, subliminal, circles, control

Summary: Justin doesn’t need to be saved; Brian doesn’t need to be forgiven. And you should never accept candy from strangers.
Pairing: B/J
Rating: R
Words: approx. 7,000 / Complete
Author’s Note: I was bolstered to participate this week after getting such supportive feedback last week. :) This week, I offer a bit more plot to balance any schmoop. This isn’t a song fic, but the title and some excerpts come from Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” [lyrics by Leonard Cohen] which to me encapsulates Brian and Justin so very well. -- I had the day off work and this is the only thing I did (who needs to do laundry?) It turned out to be much, much longer than I planned. I hope that is a good thing. You tell me. Feedback is greatly appreciated.
Warnings: None. Post Season 4, but NO spoilers. I am spoiler free. This is also unbeta'd, but I've read it through a few times and have hopefully caught any typos.

Love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah

When Justin looks back on it all later, he will shake his head in wonder at the things he did when he was young and beautiful and immortal.

He will look at pictures of himself and recognize all the possibilities – some of which he used, some of which he let pass him by – and remember why, at certain times, the smile plastered on his face didn’t reach his eyes. He will see that, for as smart and clever and cocky as he was, the greatest lessons he learned didn’t come in tidy textbooks, sanitized and censored for his protection. What he learned, in quiet bedrooms and smoky backrooms and at afternoon violin recitals, was much more lasting than any SAT vocabulary words [sycophant = ass-kisser].

And when he thinks about the year he went to California, a heavy weight will settle on his chest and he’ll remember every breath, every moment – every choice he made, uncertainly: how he had wished then, more than ever, that there were black and white answers, guaranteed to be correct, because a life of unquestioned absolutes is much easier than having to discover all the little truths for yourself.

But when he remembers, he will also be glad that he knows these truths.

This is what Justin has learned:

[i. you can get used to anything]

Justin comes home from California with a finished film and a golden tan and this vain idea that things will be waiting for him in Pittsburgh exactly as they were when he boarded that plane four months ago. He moves back in with Daphne, who’s obsessed with hearing all the celebrity gossip from Justin first-hand, and unpacks his things and puts them exactly as they were before he left: sketchpad on the coffee table, clothes hung neatly in the closet, photos of Brian hidden in a zippered pocket of his suitcase, tucked under the bed.

Justin thinks he can get used to this life again.

It’s a happy homecoming on Liberty Avenue. The overcast sky above contrasts Justin’s recent exposure to the glaring sunlight of Hollywood, but nothing could be brighter than Debbie’s smile when he comes into the Diner. After squeezing him nearly to death and force-feeding him a full tray of carbs, fat, and grease, she takes a five minute break and sits down to hear about his grand adventures on the Left Coast. (“Must be fucking nice out there. Fewer redneck fucking homophobic Republicans running the show?” she laughs and snaps her gum. Justin smiles and shrugs and remembers that politics is all about fucking; which side you’re on apparently depends on who you say you’re fucking, and why, and how often.)

The wait staff at the Diner has changed, but the eggs are still runny and the coffee tastes just the same and Justin is comforted by the tiny notes of familiarity.

But for as much as things look the same, under the surface, the world seems a little bit off. School seems a little less real now that he’s had actual experiences making his graphic fantasies into a film, and the people sitting next to him in class seem too young now. Daphne has a new boyfriend and she’s never around; Justin’s mom has a new boyfriend, and that’s just too strange for words. The old gang from the old days has moved on and apart to different adventures: new families, new separations, new jobs, and Justin feels a bit out of place calling Lindsay to see if he can visit Gus or asking Michael if he wants to work on the comic.

And every time Justin walks down Liberty Avenue, everything seems like a subliminal message telling him to call Brian: the lamppost where they met, a wall where he pinned up anti-Stockwell signs, a dark corner where they fucked. But he doesn’t call, because he can’t, because he doesn’t know what he would say. He ambivalently decides instead to wait for fate to intervene. As it turns out, he only has to wait a week.

Justin sees Brian for the first time at the Diner. He expects him to look different: taller, maybe, or older. He’s built up a mythical memory of Brian, but the man he sees sitting at the table reading the New York Times and nursing a cup of coffee is the same man he left standing in the loft four months ago, naked and pissed.

“Just get the fuck out.”
“I don’t want to leave it like this!”
“It’s been fun. Now go do what you have to do.”
“I love you, okay? That hasn’t changed.”
“Just. Fucking. Leave.”


And Brian looks up at Justin like he’s the waiter, or a stranger, or just a fucking trick that he turned and enjoyed and dismissed. Eyes distant, he calmly assesses Justin with a sweeping glance. “Yes?”

He’s not exactly the same, Justin decides. His hair is longer. It falls across his forehead and sweeps down beside his eyes, as if he might need to hide behind the thick locks. It’s a darker look, and Justin doesn’t like it. “How are you?” It’s a tedious question, but it fills the heavy silence.

Brian quirks an eyebrow and smirks. “Was there something you wanted? I’m kind of busy right now,” and as if to accentuate the point, he returns to reading the business section.

Justin feels his face heat and in that moment, he hates Brian: hates him for playing these games, for shoving Justin out of his life time after time, for refusing to grow up. And Justin wishes he could says this, wants to yell, “Yes, there’s something I want – to stop feeling like I’ve missed a step here, like I had it all and then lost it, that this thing between us that was infuriating and delicate and fucking beautiful is dead now, irreversibly ruined.”

But instead he hugs his arms to his chest, suddenly self-conscious, and murmurs, “I just thought we could catch up.”

Brian doesn’t look up. “You thought wrong,” he intones, and Justin thinks he sees a tremor in Brian’s lips, like he might say something else, but it’s gone before he can be sure.

“I’ll call you.”
“Just move on, Sunshine.”
“I’m not leaving YOU, Brian!”
... silence.

Justin had felt the hurt of the break before he left, but when it returns now, it’s a stabbing feeling in his chest. It’s being bashed in the head again; it’s every bad metaphor and poetic phrase recycled, and he stands there for a long moment just staring at Brian, waiting for the world to right itself.

As clearly as he remembered the words they had exchanged, Justin never really believed it was over between the two of them. They had separated before, most notably when Justin had honeymooned with Ethan. But even then, looking back, Justin isn’t sure he and Brian were ever really apart. They were dancing in circles, pretending to love other people or love being alone or love anything but each other and anything but love. Brian interfered and Justin pretended to be mad; Ethan fucked around and Justin pretended that he wasn’t expecting it, wasn’t already planning to come home to Brian, because it was the only thing he could ever do.

I think I missed you; I think we passed on the highway, speeding headlong in opposite directions, and then I saw you in my rearview mirror and I realized I was lost.

Begging is pathetic. Justin knows this, but doesn’t care.

“Please, Brian.”

And Brian just looks up over the paper and stares steadily in Justin’s eyes, as if there were something strange there that he was trying to decode. Justin waits, holds his breath, wonders if this is another game or if this is real, because he can never tell anymore. Brian finally tears his gaze away and stands up. “I have to go to work. Not all of us have the dividends from Hollywood movies to keep us afloat.” He stalks past Justin without a backward glance, and Justin stays frozen until he hears the tinny sound of the bells on the door when it swings softly shut.

“Fine,” Justin whispers, eyes fixed still on the abandoned newspaper, the half-empty cup of coffee, the spoon teetering dangerously at the edge of the table. This wasn’t what he expected, but he can accept it.

Justin knows that if he has to, he can get used to a life without Brian.

[ii. never accept candy from strangers]

Justin quickly settles into what seems like a Twilight Zone remake of his past: living at Daphne’s, going to school (albeit with his own money to pay the tuition bills), and working on the comic with Michael. The scenery’s the same and the faces are familiar, but after awhile, he decides that the familiarity he embraced in those first few days home is highly overrated. Somehow, now, Justin feels like it should all be grander, brighter, more meaningful. He’s been Assistant Art Director on a Hollywood film. He worked under an A-list director with an all-star cast. He fucked Connor James – more than once. He’s conquered a corner of the world, but Pittsburgh is still cold and gray and oblivious to Justin’s expanded understanding of the world. It’s a watered down de-caffeinated version of his previous life: less novelty, less adventure, no sugar added. No clubbing, no tricking.

No Brian.

At first, he thinks Brian might call or show up at Daphne’s or drop out of the sky. He thinks he sees Brian out of the corner of his eye while he’s crossing the parking lot at school or grocery shopping on Liberty Avenue. And it’s not that he expects Brian to be there or to be anything but the cold man he saw at the Diner. It’s just a silly thought that surfaces in his head sometimes, and then he shoves it down and tells himself that it’s not there, that he doesn’t need an asshole like Brian Kinney.

The days melt into weeks, and Justin knows he needs to snap out of this tired daze, this perpetual state of highway hypnosis that has him fumbling through each day without ever really living.

So when Emmett invites him to come to Babylon for a fundraiser, Justin only hesitates a beat before accepting. It’s been too long since he let himself disappear into the dark magic of the dance club, and – as Emmett hastens to point out – the event is benefiting the Marriage Initiative, which means they are unlikely to be graced (or cursed) by Brian’s presence. Justin doesn’t know why this makes his stomach twist, but he promises Emmett he’ll be there.

Babylon is alive and wild by the time Justin steps through the front door. It’s a carnival of flashing lights and glittering facades; confetti and flower petals tumble from the ceiling, catching the light and swirling around the catwalks like flurries in a snow globe. The music throbs under Justin’s feet and in his ears. The bass is so intense that he can feel it pulsing in his chest, pounding in his head and making him delirious on the sensations alone.

He sits with Emmett at the bar for awhile. They toss back drinks and laugh about the old days, and Emmett updates Justin on the latest gossip. Later, Emmett disappears with a tall blonde and Justin laughs and shakes his head, because it really is like old times, almost.

“Wanna dance?”

Justin turns to face the man who has intruded on his thoughts. Tall, dark, and handsome immediately comes to mind: the man’s shoulder-length black hair is slicked back, and he has a wicked grin that fits easily with his angled features. Justin smiles and nods, and they disappear hand-in-hand into the crush of bodies.

“I’m Josh,” the man yells into Justin’s ear over the music.

Justin pauses. An old rule - no names - creeps into his mind, but he shoves it aside. This isn’t then. “Justin,” he returns.

The man smiles and digs into his pocket, pulling out two white tablets. “Want a hit?”

“Sure,” Justin opens his mouth and lets his dance partner deposit the piece of goodness on his tongue. The song changes, and Justin presses himself against Josh to avoid being trampled by the crowd that is moving around them.

They dance and grind and Justin lets Josh kiss him, and then he tries to remember the last time anyone but Brian kissed him on the lips. The minutes tick by and Justin feels the tingling grip of the drug start to creep down his arms and legs and into his head, making him shake his head slightly and laugh. “Good shit,” he murmurs, but his voice sounds too low to his ears and he isn’t sure Josh can hear him over the buzz.

[Justin remembers when he was a little bit afraid of Babylon, even though he hid his hesitations behind a cloak of cockiness. It seems like such a long time ago, now.]

Justin and Josh dance until, suddenly, someone else is there. He’s taller than Josh with a mop of dark red hair, and he’s looking at Justin and smirking and asking Josh something. Josh is nodding, looking a bit bashful, but the other man just plants a greedy kiss on his lips and then turns to Justin. “You’re hot,” he offers.

“I know,” Justin says, but once again, his voice doesn’t seem to be working right. He wonders when Babylon installed a revolving floor; he’s spinning so fast that he can’t see Josh’s face clearly now. Somewhere, a little voice in his head that sounds a bit like Brian is telling him that that wasn’t just E he took, but he can’t remember why this is important.

Where’s Emmett? He remembers sitting at the bar with Emmett, and they’re supposed to meet up later …

He turns to look for his friend, but the spinning floor catches him off guard and suddenly he’s falling. His legs are numb – is it cold in here? – but strong hands catch him and lift him back up. He laughs, and Josh is holding him upright, and the red headed man is stroking Justin’s hair and asking him something, but it’s too loud and Justin can’t hear and Justin thinks he just needs to sit down.

Then, things get blurry.

This is Brian. Leave a message. [beep.]
Brian … it’s me. I just …
just wanted to tell you I got here all right
… and I miss you.
I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?
later …

Justin dreams in black and white. When the night terrors return, as they do on rare occasion, the shadowed faces and baseball bats are cast in grayscale. He blinks desperately, trying to clear the picture, to sharpen the memory and remember the exact shade of Chris Hobbes’s skin or the color of his own blood on the pavement, but the details elude him. The nights haunt him with shapes and shadows and the quiet, threatening absence of light.

It feels this way now.

Justin tries to turn his body toward the light that he know must be somewhere, but he can only feel the hands holding him in place. Strong, unforgiving fingers digs into his shoulders – face – arms – ass – they’re everywhere. There’re too many to belong to one man, but Justin can’t move his head to see them. They move him forward and a wave of nausea rushes from Justin’s stomach to his throat, suffocating him as surely as the hands.

Without warning, he feels his cheek forced against the wall. The rough concrete scrapes his skin and he whimpers, shutting his eyes against the darkness outside. There’s no color around him: just hidden faces and anonymous forms and dark, dark secrets – and no one to notice or care that Justin can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t speak.

Everything is spinning out of control; the wall shifts and sinks against his face, and Justin’s addled mind pleads desperately that it shouldn’t be like this.

He swallows the bile and gasps for air and belatedly realizes that the hands have jerked down his jeans and are there, probing and exploring in a way that makes Justin feel like a virgin all over again. Somewhere, distant to his ringing ears, he hears the music: “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” is playing and abruptly, Justin really can’t breathe.

The panic surges through him like fire and he twists his mouth open as widely as he can, choking and gasping, but the air won’t come in. He thinks he might be having an asthma attack (why the fuck did he stop carrying an inhaler?) and then, too late, he realizes that the hands had moved slyly from his shoulders to his neck and are fixed there, thumbs pressed hard against his windpipe, suffocating him.

Justin opens his eyes and sees only a dark red blanket of space and knows that he is going to die.

The thought ought to inspire more of a reaction, but the panic has melted into a sort of tired resignation, and Justin has only a bleary moment to wonder if there really is a hell for homos before he slides calmly into the waiting abyss.

[iii. it’s not lying if you can’t bear the truth]

When he opens his eyes sometime later, he’s surprised to find that Hell looks a lot like the backroom at Babylon and the Devil is the spitting image of Brian Kinney.

Brian. Justin blinks and coughs and stares bemusedly into Brian’s face, which is paler than it ought to be and lined with worry. “Bri ...?”

The lines relax somewhat and Brian exhales. “All right, Sunshine?” He's stroking Justin's scraped cheek with the pad of his thumb and tracing his jaw line as if to convince himself that Justin is really there.

"Mmhmm," Justin swallows the lump in his throat and tries to sit up. Someone is supporting his head and he looks up to see Emmett, tears streaming down his face. This scares Justin, despite the many examples he has of times when Emmett cried over TV commercials or sappy movies. These tears are real, and worried, and they drip onto Justin's face like hot wax.

"Drink this," Brian orders, pressing a glass of something cold and wet against Justin's parted lips. Justin swallows eagerly and feels some of the haze lift.

"What happened?" His voice is still wrong to him, and he coughs against whatever has built up in his throat.

"Mother fuckers were apparently demonstrating scarfing on you without the scarf," Brian darts his eyes around, but apparently Josh and the redhead are long gone. Justin wonders momentarily if Brian beat the shit out of them first. He kind of hopes he did.

"Couldn't do anything," Justin shrugs weakly.

"What the fuck did you take?" Brian presses his fingers against Justin's neck, presumably measuring his pulse, but the tenderness of the area makes Justin jerk back and cover his throat with shaking hands. "Fuck," Brian breathes.

"E," Justin feels himself flush, like he's a little kid who fell off his bicycle. Brian gives him a skeptical look and he lowers his eyes. "But ... not E," he finishes lamely.

There's a moment there where Brian looks frazzled: eyes wild, front teeth worrying his bottom lip, forehead shining with sweat, and Justin just wants to collapse into his arms and cry like the little pussy faggot that he thinks he is. But then the moment flickers and passes, and Brian's face hardens. "What the fuck were you doing taking shit from people you don't know?"

"Brian ..." Emmett says, tone warning.

"Do you know what they were going to do to you?" Brian is yelling now, face only inches from Justin's. "They were going to fuck you raw. If you didn't die from asphyxiation first! You fucking know better!"

After the bashing, everyone infantalized him: his mom, Debbie, the doctors, even Debbie. But not Brian. Never Brian.

Brian's words echo in Justin's head and battle with what he has heard before: just fucking leave and you're not my partner - not anymore and the silence, the silence during long Hollywood nights when Justin begged him to call and he never did.

and when he did answer the phone:
... what do you want?
To talk.
[unspoken: to hear your voice / to hear that you miss me]
I'm in the middle of something right now.
... something, or someone?
[muffled sounds, like Brian is covering the phone] That's really none of your fucking business, is it?
Fine. All right. I just thought ...
Say hello to your trick for me.
Will do.

And Justin can't listen to any of that anymore.

"You don't know a fucking thing, Brian!" he yells back, as strongly as his aching throat will let him. Brian looks startled, and this gives Justin the fire to go on: "You're a fine one to be giving advice on responsible drug use. Not to mention strangulation."

The remark hits home and Brian's face tightens. "They could have fucking killed you -- either with that," he motions to Justin's throat, "or with whatever god-awful diseases they were going to fuck into your ass."

"Maybe I liked what they were doing," Justin juts his chin forward. It's the closest thing to defiance he can muster while he's half-lying, half-sitting on the grimy cum stained floor of the backroom. "Maybe I wanted them to put their hands on my throat, to see what it was like to come like that."

Brian raises one eyebrow. "Wanted them to drug you and almost rape you?" and Justin knows he's not buying it, not for a minute, but he can't back down because he can't let Brian win this. He doesn't know what Brian's winning, but he will not be the victim here.

"I don't fucking need you to save me," Justin hisses. He shrugs off Emmett's reassuring grip and starts to stand up, ignoring the way the world tilts sharply to the left when he does so. Brian and Emmett stand with him, but Justin backs away from their attempts to help him.

Emmett presses his lips together and folds his arms. "Baby, why don't you just sit down for awhile -"

"I'll drive you home," Brian interrupts, pulling his keys out of the pocket of his jacket.

Justin snorts. "I'm not going anywhere with you."

"Stop being a fucking drama queen," Brian sighs, and Justin wants to hit him, wants him to stop being so goddamned there for him.

It's not that Justin doesn't want to go with Brian: it's that he knows it's a lie, that's it a temporary fix on a permanently fucked up situation. Brian will drive Justin to Daphne's, or maybe back to the loft, and they'll talk and Brian will be understanding and helpful and maybe they'll even fuck, but then tomorrow or next week or next month, it will all be over again. Brian will remember that he doesn't want to build any sort of stable future with Justin and Justin will remember that he doesn't want to live in limbo and they'll both be right back where they are now.

Justin's just too tired to go through that all again.

"You wanted me to fucking leave, Brian, so now you can leave me the fuck alone," Justin meets and keeps Brian's gaze. I mean it, he begs with his eyes. Don't make me have to leave you again, because I won't survive it this time.

Maybe Brian gets the message. He jangles his keys absently and finally nods. "Fine. Whatever the fuck you want," he sounds bored, sounds like this was all a great inconvenience for him anyway. "I just came to get some decent head. So if you'll excuse me, I'll leave you to your queening out." And with a smirk at Emmett, he turns and disappears down the hallway.

Justin glances at Emmett and almost immediately feels ashamed of himself, because Emmett looks like he's just found out there's no Easter Bunny. "I'll never understand you two," he murmurs, staring off at the direction in which Brian exited.

"I just ... can't right now," Justin says.

His head aches and his cheek is bleeding and he wishes Emmett would stop looking at him like that.

"Can't what?" Emmett retorts. "Can't go home to the man you love, because he's being himself? Because he's acting as predictably Brian-like as ever, because he's trying to protect himself? And now he fucking saves your life, forcibly pulls those two creeps off you --" Emmett shudders. "-- and tries to make it up to you, and you throw it in his face?"

"He blamed me!" Justin shoveled his hand through his hair. "Two seconds after I wake up, he's fucking blaming me for it all, like I'm some irresponsible kid who he has to look after. I don't need him to take care of me. I need him to --"

"To what?"

Justin pauses. "I need him to be my partner, all the time. My equal. Not my babysitter or my father or my part-time lover or my roommate. I need him to believe in us, so he won't give up when any little thing goes wrong." Justin starts to pace. The night is starting to wane and the backroom is clearing out; the music continues in the main dance hall, but it's muffled and just carries on with the a dull bass that mimics the pounding in Justin's head. "The second I mentioned Hollywood, he wanted to call off our entire relationship. He doesn't get that I could go to California, keep in touch, and come home, and that we could still be partners. But no, he fucking throws me onto the plane and then won't return my calls, and I come home and he acts like a complete asshole."

"Justin," Emmett slings his arm around Justin and halts his pacing. "Brian was a complete mess while you were gone. He missed you, even if he won't say it, and you know it." Justin chews on his thumbnail and tries to subdue the anxiety that is building in his chest. "You two keep playing these mindgames with each other, but it's fucked, honey. It's fucked because you both want the same thing, and you refuse to give in to each other."

Justin sniffs and looks up at Emmett. "I just want to be with him. But I can't keep coming and going."

"Then stop fighting him, and go to him, and stay with him, and quit waiting for some grand romantic gesture."

Justin knows this much: he meant to stop waiting for the romance a long time ago -- circa Ethan -- but sometimes, he forgets that Brian is allergic to roses.

"Yeah," Justin says, and Emmett seems to accept this as enough.

Justin takes a cab home and sits on his bed staring at Daphne's poster of Starry Night. He watches the poster until the stars blur and the sky melds with the city, and then he realizes the picture is made runny by his tears.

I never meant to cry over you.

He debates with himself about what he should do, chain smoking and watching the time slip away. 3:00 turns into 4:00 and then 5:00, and Justin glares at the red numbers on the digital clock as if they were betraying him.

Finally, at 5:43, he decides to stop being such a fucking drama queen and go home.

[iv. apologies aren’t bullshit if you mean them]

When Justin was seventeen, Brian's loft was like a palace: forbidden and impenetrable and darkly alluring. Even when he lived there, on and off over the subsequent two years, the place exuded mystery and attitude that Justin could never make his own. It was home, but it was greater than him.

Now as he stands there and knocks, the door seems a little bit smaller, a little less majestic. He notices the wear on the floor and the scratches on the wall and wonders why the imperfections make him suddenly feel so old.

Baby, I've been here before
I've seen this room and I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you

The dawn is breaking over the horizon, but Justin lurks in the shadows by the door for a full five minutes before he works up the nerve to knock. It's not that he's afraid; it's just that something in the pit of his stomach tells him that this moment has been building for months, maybe years, and he doesn't like the feeling that there's really no going back now.

He knocks.

[How many times has he knocked on this door only to be turned away? Turned away by a Brian who has been told by Jennifer to keep his distance; physically thrown out by a Brian with cancer ... He's left through this door more times than he's been welcomed.]

He knocks again, because it's almost six in the morning and there's no way Brian is awake.

[Justin should paint a picture of this door: heavy and solemn and solid. But he can't paint the sound it makes when it slides open or the way his heart can either soar or plummet when it slams shut, depending on which side he is standing. Visual art can't capture that.]

Justin raises his hand to knock for a third time when the door slides open, revealing a stark naked Brian who looks sorely hung-over.

Justin gawks for a moment, then clears his throat. "Hi."

And Brian blinks those beautiful bloodshot eyes and scrunches his face into something between a disbelieving sneer and an angry glare. "Do I even want to know what the fuck you're doing here at --" he glances over his shoulder at the clock, "-- six in the goddamn morning?"

"Can I come in?"

Brian just gives him an incredulous look and, possibly for lack of energy to do anything else, stands aside and lets Justin step through the door. The loft is messy -- something Justin has seen only a few times in his life -- but it smells exactly the same. Smoke and vanilla candles and fresh sex, and Justin breathes deeply to capture it all.

Brian crosses the room and flings himself on the couch, not bothering to tug on the jeans that are lying on the floor by the coffee table. He reaches out his arm lazily and snags a loose joint from the table, holds it under the flame of his cigarette lighter, and then just watches it burn. "So, did you find anyone else to try to kill you tonight?"

Justin stays near the door for a moment, unsure of where he's supposed to stand, much less what he's supposed to say. His hastily formulated plan only got him to Brian's door.

But it's now or never, and he doesn't believe in saying 'never' anymore.

He sheds his coat and walks toward Brian. "I came to apologize," No preamble, no bullshit. "For being a complete prick to you tonight."

Brian doesn't move his eyes from the slowly burning joint. The ash is collecting and looks dangerously close to falling on Brian's bare chest, but he doesn't seem to care. "Sorry's bullshit," he replies, but it sounds rehearsed, because they've had this conversation before. Because everything they do, they've done before: they are caught in this circle of fucking everything up, fucking with each other's heads and playing on the edge of the cliff.

Justin wonders what would happen if they went over that cliff. What would be at the bottom? Would it them, apart, living separate lives and remembering each other only when they come across a faded photograph? Or would it be them, living in a predictable state of domestic bliss, married in Massachusetts with two groom figures on the cake and a mortgage bill?

And which is the hell, and which is the ideal, and could they survive either?

Justin doesn't have an answer. All he has is this: "I'm sorry I hurt you."

This wakes Brian from his stupor, and he flings the joint at the table and turns to Justin. "I don't need your fucking apologies. You needed to go to Hollywood, so you went to fucking Hollywood. I went on. I lived. I did my thing, and you did yours, and now you're back and you just want to pick it up like nothing ever happened?"

"Brian, I --"

"Fuck that," Brian shakes his head and all but leaps from the couch. There's an energy in him that Justin has always found magnetic, and even when it's fury, it's there, crackling in the air. "You can't keep walking in and out of here." In and out on me, Justin hears. "I asked you to move in, and you replied by moving across the country. So, what, was I just supposed to wait here like a fucking lesbianic housewife, waiting for my prince to come home so my life can be fulfilling?" Brian's yelling and Justin has the sudden feeling that this isn't where the scene was supposed to go.

"But don't you get it?" Justin pleads. "We could have been together, in the way that mattered, even when I was out there. And you knew I was coming back."

"I didn't!" he shouts, and his voice cracks. "Fuck." He's embarrassed, or just too exhausted to keep going, and he turns his back on Justin and pinches the bridge of his nose. "I'm tired of waiting. I don't wait for anyone."

He's trying to sound detached, above all of this 'relationship' business, but all Justin hears is the hurt.

"I'm sorry," he whispers, and fuck it all, he's never meant anything as much as he means those words.

"You shouldn't have to be," Brian turns back around.

They stand there, only a few feet apart, each waiting for something from the other that never comes. And Justin thinks maybe that characterizes their relationship pretty damn well.

but remember when I moved in you
and the holy dove was moving, too
and every breath we drew was hallelujah

Finally, Brian breaks the silence. "Why did you come here, Justin?" He takes a step forward. "Did you come here so I would fuck you?"

Justin is suddenly very, very aware that Brian is naked. "No."

Brian smirks. "You had some romantic notion of how this would be? How we would fuck and make up and live together happily ever after?" Another step forward, and Justin fights the instinctual urge to step back.

"No," Justin breathes. The room is too warm, and Justin can feel the heat of Brian's body from where he stands.

And Brian smiles, and then he's yelling: "Do you want to be FUCKED?" One more step and he's almost touching Justin, and Justin can smell the Jim Bean on Brian's breath. "I'll fuck you so hard you won't sit down for a week, if that's what you want." And he grabs Justin's forearms and jerks him forward, and before Justin can speak or think, Brian's mouth is pressed against his.

It's not a kiss, though, Justin's mind is screaming. Brian is sucking his mouth desperately, thrusting his tongue against Justin's like he's fighting him in some epic battle. Justin makes a soft cry of protest and tries to turn his head, but Brian bites his lip hard enough to draw blood. The copper taste seeps onto their tongues and Justin fights harder against Brian, finally freeing himself from the tight grip when Brian comes up for air.

"Fuck you!" Justin yells, running his hand across his mouth and staring at the red trail that is left behind. "What the hell was that?"

"The fair beginning of a welcome home fuck," Brian spits back, wiping a trace of blood from his own lips. "Or a farewell fuck, if that's what you want."

They're both breathing heavily now, and Justin glares at Brian -- and at Brian's exposed hard-on. "I don't want you to fuck me. I want you to make love to me."

And Brian has the nerve to laugh. "That's the lamest line I've ever heard."

Justin glares at Brian and then does the only thing he can think to do, one of the two things he's most wanted to do to Brian since he got back to Pittsburgh. He swings his arm back, grits his teeth, and smacks Brian across the face.

Brian blinks, startled, for a second, and then shakes his head. "Pussy," he sneers, and he shoves Justin backward. Hard. He stumbles but regains his footing quickly and comes back at Brian, eyes flashing and arms swinging, and he has an uninvited flashback of his days in the Pink Posse.

Brian grasps Justin's wrist before the fist can connect with his face and wrestles him to the ground. "What the fuck," Brian pants, "are you trying to accomplish?"

Justin squirms, but Brian's body weight has him easily pinned to the hardwood floor. "I'm trying to show you," Justin fights to release his wrists, but Brian's grip is unrelenting, "how much I hate you sometimes."

Brian lets out a sound that's something like a laugh. "You don't hate me." He squeezes Justin's wrists. "You keep coming back for more."

"I don't want to come back anymore," Justin says, going limp in defeat.

Brian freezes. "The door's open, Sunshine."

"I mean," Justin sighs and licks at the blood that's collecting again on his lip. "I don't want to keep leaving and coming back. I don't want this to be on and off anymore. I just want to be here."

Brian looks intently into Justin's eyes, into his soul, maybe. "You can't own me, Justin. You're your own man, and so am I, and that's the way it should be." His voice is hoarse, from too much alcohol or smoke or yelling or fighting, Justin doesn't know.

"I don't want to own you. I want to love you," Justin says, voice shaking. "I want to be your partner."

Brian laughs. It's a hollow sound. "That hasn't worked so well for us."

"Because we keep doubting it," Justin whispers. Brian's face hovers over his, and he darts his face up and kisses Brian softly. "We don't have any faith in it. In us."

Brian looks down at Justin for a long moment, and Justin isn't sure if he's even seen him look so ... hesitant. Finally, the words come, quietly and haltingly: "I don't ... want you to leave anymore."

"I never left you," Justin says. "Not really. Not in the way that counts."

Brian just lets go of Justin's wrist and strokes his cheek, just as he did earlier that evening. "I know."

"I've never stopped loving you, never stopped wanting to be with you," Justin goes on.

"I know," Brian whispers, so softly that Justin only sees the words on his lips.

Justin runs his hand through Brian's hair. He kind of likes it longer, he decides. "But I don't know if that will be enough. I don't know if loving someone is enough."

"Well, there's the sex, too," Brian offers, but his eyes are solemn.

Justin nods. "Yeah, there's that."

Brian relaxes his body beside Justin's and lays his head on Justin's chest, all fighting and fucking set aside for the moment. "But we could give it a try," he says.

Justin smiles.

"Stay?" Brian asks.

It used to be that Justin would only hear what Brian was literally speaking: stay the night, stay on the floor, stay right here, right now. But when Brian asks, so plaintively now, Justin has to squeeze his eyes closed to keep the tears from escaping. "I'll stay," he promises. "I'm not going anywhere."

[v. love is not a victory march]

Maybe there’s a God above
but all I ever learned from love
is how to shoot at somebody who out drew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
it’s not somebody who’s seen the light
it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah …

When Justin looks back on it all later, he will wonder how he ever thought love was a destination.

He'll look at the photo album and remember how hard they had to fight -- with each other, with the world, with their own insecurities and imperfections -- to have that little slice of happiness that so many people take for granted. But maybe it was worth more, maybe it was stronger, because they had to fight so hard for every little thing.

At the time, it seems like an uphill climb, but Justin thinks maybe being with Brian was never about getting anywhere -- to a wedding chapel or a house in the country -- but just about being there, now, in every moment, together.

Life doesn't seem quite as mundane when Justin's with Brian. Pittsburgh seems a little sunnier, school becomes a bit more interesting, and the cuisine at the Diner doesn't taste quite as bad. A covert exchanged glance and a night out at Babylon can make the most boring day better, and having Gus over for dinner reminds Justin of why he thinks the world's still a pretty good place to be.

And when Brian falls asleep on the couch in front of Leno, Justin smiles secretly and knows that the domestic life isn't quite as painful for Brian as he had lamented it would be, and there's just something comforting about having someone else's toothbrush beside your own.

Justin knows many things: he knows that there will never be a wedding. He knows that there will never be a child besides Gus. He knows that Brian isn't afraid of getting old anymore, except for this insane idea he has that Justin might leave him for someone younger. He knows that for every fight they have and for every nasty word exchanged, there will be great make-up sex late into the night, and that makes it all worthwhile. He knows that Brian loves him, even if he never says the words.

And Justin knows that sometimes, despite what Brian may say, they aren’t together because they want to be. They’re together because they need to be.