Even as he watched the door to his shop slowly swing shut, Michael still couldn't believe he'd actually done it-and without asking another fucking human being whether or not he should. Okay, so replacing Justin on the comic book hadn't been his idea-Justin had actually offered to step down-still, it was his decision whether or not to accept that offer, and he'd accepted it. Gladly.
Michael smiled and felt a momentary swell of triumph. 'Some golden boy you turned out to be,' he thought.
He could admit he'd been jealous of Justin when he first bounced into their lives-who wouldn't be, with his rich Mummy and Daddy, a cushy college life on the horizon, Ma and everyone else fawning over him, gushing at his pretty boy good looks and his oh-so-amazing bravery in coming out when still in high school. And the salt in the wound had always been Brian Fucking Kinney as the cherry on top of it all. Michael had felt drab by comparison-worse than drab, he'd felt invisible.
Now where was the Great Justin Taylor? Mummy and Daddy's divorce had dried up the coffers, college wasn't quite so simple and carefree, and these days there weren't too many slashes in the win column for poor little Justin. And here he was, plain old Michael Novotny, the one with the amazing boyfriend, the kick-ass comic book, his own store, the wide-open future. To think he'd been so fucking envious of Justin he could barely stand to look at him.
"Who's on top now, Boy Wonder?"
And in the next second, Michael felt awful for the uncharitable thoughts. He suddenly flashed on the idealistic boy who'd lured away Brian's tricks on Babylon's dance floor so long ago. If that kid had been asked to look a year into the future, what kind of a life would he have described? No way in hell he could have imagined a near-death bashing, losing the ability to draw, a failed "love" affair, which included countless sexual encounters-three-ways, four-ways, fucking in backrooms and baths, trying hopelessly, foolishly, heartbreakingly to keep up with the man he idolized. Michael wondered if that headstrong kid would have been so quick to shake his ass in Brian's face if he knew then how it was all going to end up.
Michael stood up and walked over to the door, looking up one end of the street and down the other, but of course, Justin was out of sight. For some stupid reason, it bothered him that he didn't know if Justin would do it all over again. Suddenly, he really wanted to know if good times with Brian (had there even been any?) had been worth all of the shit. Did surviving the bashing give him some kind of inner strength that made that whole mess redeemable in some way? He'd lost one way of being an artist, but had gained another--did that balance it all out? It felt really important, right then, for Justin to want to do it all over again.
"Who the fuck cares?" Michael irritably asked the empty store. Michael didn't know if he'd redo any number of decisions and choices he'd made along the way, but he was sure as hell happy where he'd ended up. It would be the same for Justin if it wasn't right now. Wouldn't it?
What the hell, Justin wasn't his problem. Although, figuring out what he'd tell Ma about Justin's bowing out definitely was. And Ben. And, maybe, Brian.
Ben and his mom would know right away it wasn't all Justin's idea, and they'd disapprove; Ma a lot more vocally and at a lot louder decibel. But Michael knew that Ben's quiet disappointment would prove more cutting.
Brian, Michael wasn't so sure about. He liked to think it wouldn't even register--why in the hell should Brian care who was drawing the comic book? Why should he care about Justin at all anymore? The problem was, Michael never knew where Brian was when it came to Justin.
It wasn't like they'd ever really talked about him anyway, about why Brian played house with him, about what in the hell the kid offered him that would have led him, even for a minute, to alter his code. Michael's complaints about the kid had always been met with silence or vague replies and a change of subject. After the bashing, Michael assumed it was plain old guilt that had Brian paying penance with admission into his loft and life, and what was there to say about that? Michael had known from the start, it wouldn't last long, so the reason it lasted at all was moot.
But since they'd never talked about the two of them together, the split was an off-limits topic as well.
Brian asked after Justin now and then, always mockingly, but he hardly listened to whatever Michael answered in reply, so maybe it wouldn't even come up.
Michael shook his head, clearing the thoughts from his head. The after-school crowd was headed his way, so he went back around to his computer, saved their latest edits and got ready to talk shop with his regulars.
The new guy chewed ice cubes all fucking day long. It was almost as unbearable as the way he cracked his knuckles and slurped his coffee, both of which were infinitely more tolerable than listening to him clear his throat every five seconds.
"'Hock it up already!' That's what I feel like screaming at him," Michael said to Ben over dinner one night. "I mean, God, it's infuriating! I swear, I'm gonna ask Ma to bake some Ritalin into the next batch of lemon bars."
"I think we've got a little Tell-Tale Heart action going on here," Ben said. He stopped, eyebrow lifted, to make sure Michael knew what he was talking about.
Michael sighed loudly and rolled his eyes in supreme irritation. "Yeah, I read Dickens in high school, okay? You don't have to explain every literary reference in the world to me."
"I know," Ben said, with a grin that told Michael he'd named the wrong author.
Michael scrunched up his nose at Ben and pointed a warning finger at him before he could say anything. "Don't tell me! Faulkner?"
"Close. Poe. Edgar Allen."
"I know his name."
"I know." Ben held both hands up in affable surrender.
"What were we talking about anyway?"
"Your guilt at forcing Justin to quit manifesting itself in the form of an acute awareness of all John's nasty and unbelievably annoying habits."
"Yeah, thanks for reminding me."
"Michael, you can't let guilt rule you or the choices you make, but sometimes it makes sense to look at why you're feeling it in the first place."
"Thank you Swami Bruckner."
"I'm just saying..."
Michael sighed and reached over to squeeze Ben's hand. "No, I know. And you're right. But...he...he could've fought a little harder. He was the one who offered to go. He didn't have to do that."
Ben nodded, but not necessarily in agreement. "From what I can tell, he's been
fighting really hard for a really long time for a lot of different things, and
my guess is he's tired."
"Fighting?" Michael scoffed at the idea. "He's been handed everything he's ever wanted on a fucking silver platter. What in the hell has he ever had to fight for?"
"Is that why you didn't want to work with him. Because everything's been too easy for him?"
The words stung, and Michael looked up, his eyes wide. "No, of course not."
"But you admit that the reason he's not there is because you don't want him there, not because he offered to step down."
Michael studied his fish for a minute before nodding. "Yeah, that's true." He violently stabbed a stalk of broccoli and shoved it in his mouth. "So, I'm a horrible person, all right? Is that what you want me to say?"
"It's not about what I want you to say. If you're going to rethink replacing Justin, maybe you need to come to an understanding about why you wanted him gone in the first place."
"Who said I'm rethinking anything? I'm just complaining about how fucking hyper John is. I'm not rethinking anything."
"Complaining about John is almost all you ever do, babe. I've met the guy, and he may be hard to take, but no human being on the planet is as annoying as you make him out to be. There's something else there."
Michael's silence conceded the point. The sound of silverware on plates seemed to echo around the kitchen until Michael softly said, "He left Brian."
"Who was so good to him."
And that right there was what made him reluctant to discuss it with Ben. Michael couldn't stand hearing Brian bad-mouthed; he just couldn't stand it. He replied crossly, his voice harsh. "He did the best he could, Ben."
"Bullshit." Ben's voice was just as unyielding. "He did the best he wanted to."
"You don't know him, you don't know what he..."
"I don't have to know him to see how he treated Justin."
"God, why are you all of a sudden so worried about how Justin was treated? He did his own fair share of fucking up..."
"Which all of you are punishing him for, aren't you? Brian's life hasn't changed a hell of a lot, but Justin's frozen out of everything."
"Why do you keep sticking up for him?"
"Does anybody ever stick up for Justin?"
"Are we really going to have an argument about him?"
"I don't want to argue. It doesn't matter if Justin was shitty to Brian or anybody else. I don't think he's ever been that shitty to you. And the bottom line is, your pushing him out of the comic book he helped you create is pretty shitty. Which, I'll lay odds, is what's driving you crazy right now."
"I'm not crazy," Michael mumbled, which made Ben laugh.
"Michael Novotny, you've got some of the most perfectly crafted Italian-Catholic guilt genes I've ever seen. We had three days of mea culpa when you left a carton of milk out on the counter."
"Well, yeah, but it was that organic shit that costs, like, five bucks!"
"And Justin is worth a lot more than that--certainly to your mom and to you, too. You liked working with him, Michael. You worked well together, really well, and you liked it."
"Yeah, I like a lot of things. But that doesn't mean I have to work with 'em."
Michael stood up and stomped over to the sink with his dishes. Well, that didn't make a hell of a lot of sense, but maybe it was time for Mr. Oh-So-Fucking-Reasonable to realize that not every fucking thing in the world made sense.
It was a couple of miserable weeks later before he had to deal with anyone else knowing about Justin not drawing the comic book--miserable because the new guy, on top of being the most annoying human on earth, just wasn't capturing the essence of Rage or the world he inhabited. Their editor, who had been none too pleased to find the original artist replaced without his approval, had even sent back several weeks worth of work which had never happened before.
And the worst part was, Michael couldn't complain to his friends because it would have necessitated going into the whole long explanation of Justin's absence, and Michael knew he didn't come out looking so great in that story.
They were having lunch at the diner one day--Michael, Emmett, Brian and Ted--and Ted was going on about some benefit he was chairing and how there was absolutely no spare cash for anything. "I thought I'd get Justin to design the logo and invitations and see if the copy place on the corner of Broad and 5th won't run 'em off for cost."
Michael and Emmett simultaneously found points of interest at other tables in the diner, prompting Ted to roll his eyes and bluster, "Oh for God's sake, we can't even say his name anymore?"
Brian shrugged, wide-eyed, as if having no idea what was going on. "So what is the news with our little Sunshine these days, anyway?" he asked Michael.
Michael studied the menu as if there might actually be something there he hadn't seen seven million times before and willed his heart to stop thumping so violently. "How would I know?" he said, trying for nonchalance that came out forced and unnatural.
"All you have to do is look his way, and he'll run at the mouth 'til you stuff something inside it." Brian looked at Emmett, expecting the obvious joke, but Michael answered too quickly.
"Yeah, well, I haven't seen him in a while, so I guess that explains it."
"I thought your deadlines ran every seven days."
"They do." Michael took a deep breath and just came out with it. "Justin's not, uh...he's not drawing the comic. I hired a new guy, John Scheck, he's drawing it." Michael could have sworn people three and four tables over laid down their silverware so they could listen in.
"He quit?" Brian shook his head, his face a picture of contempt. "Of course he quit, like I should be surprised."
Michael weakly protested, "He didn't exactly..."
"What a fucking little pansy-assed faggot. I should have known he'd flake out on you."
"It wasn't completely..."
Brian actually stood up and threw his napkin on the table. "I oughta go over there and rip him a new asshole, that irresponsible little fuck..."
"For God's sake, Brian, he didn't quit, all right! Jesus!"
Brian sat back down, an eyebrow quirking. "What do you mean he didn't quit? Someone else is drawing the comic, how could that happen if he didn't quit?"
"Look, I was pissed at him for screwing you over and quittin' on my mom and..."
"He didn't quit on her, Michael." They'd had this conversation before, and Brian was obviously annoyed at having to repeat it. "Part of the deal with the scholarship is working for the university."
"I know, I know. Whatever. I mean, his schedule was impossible-we had to get together whenever he had the time, and..."
"He's got 18 hours this semester, and he's working 30 hours a week!" Brian irritably interrupted. "That's like having two full-time jobs. He's not just sitting around..."
"I know, all right? I mean, I like, complained about it, and Ben was all, 'cut him some slack,' and it got me wonderin' what in the hell had him lookin' out for Justin all of a sudden, and I was...well, I was just sort of a dick to him. Kind of...all the time. And one day he asks me if I even want him working on the comic book at all. He wanted to know if he could find me another artist to draw it, would I prefer that. So I said...I said, yeah, I would."
Michael didn't surprise Brian too often-the price of being known far too well. When he did throw a curve ball Brian Kinney's way, it made him proud as hell. It didn't feel quite so great this time.
"Jeez, Mikey. Jeez."
"Well, hell, the rest of you are rid of him, why shouldn't I be too?"
Emmett had the grace to look ashamed at that. Brian was still staring at his turkey sandwich like it had suddenly sprouted feathers. Ted snorted into his tuna fish. "What, like I'm going to call him and invite him out for brunch? I don't think so."
"But you'll call him to do your fucking society bullshit freebie crap, is that it?" Brian snapped.
Ted and Emmett traded shocked looks and watched dumbfounded as Brian stormed out of the diner. Michael shrugged and got up to chase after him. He followed Brian around the side of the diner and stopped cold when Brian whirled around to face him. "Did you think I wanted you to do that? Jesus, how pathetic do you think I am that you have to can my fucking..."
"Maybe it doesn't have anything to do with you."
"What does it matter why?" Michael asked, frustration welling inside him. "I mean, it's not fair! You fuck around with him for a little while, and now I'm stuck working with him for the rest of my life? How in the hell does that happen?"
"You did not get into that comic book with him because he's my lover. Hell, I think we can even argue that it's in spite of that fact."
"Why are you so pissed? It's not like it's even any of your business."
"Fuck you, it is my business. I'm not just gonna sit by and let you or anyone else shit on him anymore. God, he's got to put up with enough crap from me without getting dumped on by everyone else."
"Wait a minute--you keep talking in the present tense. What is that all about?"
"You want a fucking grammar lesson right now? Why wouldn't I talk in the present tense?"
"No, the question is why would you?"
"Why do you think?"
"Hell if I know. Last I'd heard, he'd left you."
"He's a drama princess."
"He's a drama princess who left you for..."
Brian waved away Michael's words and contemptuously rolled his eyes. "Justin's never gonna leave me. Not for good. He will always, always be back. As long as I want him back. Let him back"
"You're fucking delusional, you know that?"
Brian took out his cell phone and threw it at Michael. "Dial my place," he ordered. Michael rolled his eyes and tossed the phone back to Brian who then firmly returned it to Michael's hands. "Go on, dial."
With a sigh, Michael dialed the number and felt his face grow hot when Justin's happy voice came over the line. "Hey, what's up?"
Brian snatched the phone away from Michael and barked into it, "Why the fuck didn't you tell me about the comic book?" He began pacing back and forth in the small alleyway. "Because, all right?...Because you should have that's why...No...No, that is not it...It is not...I do not. That is so fucked, I do not have to be some kind of hero..." Brian was quiet for awhile, and when he finally spoke again, his tone was remarkably calmer. "I'm not going to try to fix anything, okay?... But it was a relevant piece of information, and I thought we were all for relevancy this time out ... Fine...I said fine...I won't...I said I won't, all right? Jesus. Yeah, well, I hate you, too ...All right, then. Later."
Michael realized he'd been staring at Brian with his mouth wide open for the duration of the call. He snapped his mouth closed and slowly shook his head. "I don't get it. He was gone. Finally! Just like you wanted-Christ, like you've wanted for two fucking years!"
Brian stared at him for a beat, eyes blazing. Then they cooled, and he returned the phone to his pocket with customary grace. He brushed off some nonexistent lint and betrayed to Michael the seriousness of his reply by refusing to meet his eyes again. "Justin is exactly where I want him."
"Naked in your bed with his ass in the air?"
Brian spared him an angry look before stalking off toward his car. Michael ran after him, calling, "Wait! Damn it, wait! I didn't mean anything..."
He managed to grab onto Brian's jacket, but Brian jerked out of his hold and turned to glare at him. "Look, I will always love you, all right? Always. That is fucking non-negotiable. But I don't like you very much right now, so leave me the fuck alone."
"Oh, so you're going to punish me for hurting your little boy's feelings?"
"You don't even know what you did, do you? I mean, I'm kind of hoping you don't know, because if you do know and just don't care, then I don't even want to hear about it."
"Oh for God's sake, now who's the drama princess? It's a fucking amateur comic book. He didn't even want to do it at first. He was only there because he's the only guy I know who can draw a little."
"Bullshit! He was there because he's an artist!" Brian was shouting now, oblivious to where they were. "A fucking brilliant artist, and you had no right, God damn it, you had no right to take that away from him!"
Michael stumbled backwards, feeling an ill flush sweeping over his entire body. Suddenly he understood exactly what Brian thought he had done. "I wasn't...Jesus, Brian, I wasn't trying to take anything away from him. That isn't what I meant..."
"But it's what you did."
Brian snorted at that. "Don't apologize to me about it. You didn't do anything to me."
"Well you're the only one pissed about it. Justin didn't care all that much."
"Right, he didn't care so much that he didn't say a word about it for a whole fucking month."
"Okay, that makes absolutely no sense. If he cared, he would have said something. He would have gone crying to Daddy Brian to get you to fix it."
"Jesus, tell me you are not really this dense! He didn't say anything so I wouldn't be pissed at you."
"Oh right, I almost forgot for a millisecond that this is all about you."
"You know what? Forget it. You're right, it's none of my business. You know, it'll serve you right if he refuses to come back. In fact, I hope he does refuse."
"Well we'll never know, because I'm not asking him back."
"Good!" Brian shouted over his shoulder. "He doesn't need you or your pathetic comic book."
"I mean it, I'm not! I'm not asking him back!"
"I'm not! I mean it! I'm not asking him back!"
It was unbelievably annoying how happy Justin was to be asked back.
"'So rake me over the coals already!' that's what I feel like screaming at him," Michael said over dinner with Ben one night. "But he just laughs and says payback's a bitch and when I least expect it, expect it. How do you reason with that? I told you he kept drawing even after he left. Who does that? He's got, like 25 pages of stuff. Not all of it's useable, but still, 25 pages is a hell of a lot. Who does that? Alan, he's the editor, right? He hadn't even put through the paperwork for John, did I tell you that?"
Ben laughed and nodded and looked at Michael with such a sparkle in his eyes that Michael shook his head in confusion and said, "What? Why are you looking at me like that?"
Ben had shrugged and shaken his own head in reply. "No reason. Just glad everything's back to normal, that's all."
But it was a couple of weeks later when they were leaving Babylon that Michael realized nothing had actually gone back. They'd gone forward.
Ben had opted out of joining them in favor of a stack of blue books a mile high. Justin was cramming for finals, which had forced Michael out of bed at 7:30 that morning so they could work on the comic book for a few hours.
Brian had joked around about Michael finally being free of the old ball and chain for a night, but it was actually Brian who motioned for Michael to head out with him at a ridiculously early hour. As they walked out onto the sidewalk, Brian dialed home on his cell phone. "I'm on my way so kick out whoever's sucking your dick right now unless they're exceptionally hot, in which case tie 'em to the bed and wait for me...Sorry, I don't believe you. 'Cause not even you are that flexible...Yeah, right, yoga. Bullshit ... You can't even spell tantric, much less...hmm, well, I'll admit I'm interested if nothing else...Yeah, he's here. Seven? I'll tell him. I know, I hate you too. Later." Still grinning, Brian slipped the phone back in his pocket.
"Seven?" Michael groaned, not waiting for Brian to relay the message? "God, I can't wait for his break. We're going to be meeting at four in the morning at this rate. Which wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have to listen to him go on and on about how busy he is and how many hours he has to study and work and..."
"Mmm," was all Brian said.
"I'm not complaining," Michael assured him. "I'm just talkin'."
Brian nodded and was quiet for a moment. While they waited for the light to change so they could cross the street, he cleared his throat. "Hey, Mikey? Don't hurt him this time, okay?"
For a million dollars and a free trip to the moon, Michael couldn't have stopped the flabbergasted expression he threw at Brian, who at least had the good grace to look embarrassed. "Shut up, I know. But...I won't protect him from me."
Michael heard Ben's voice in his head saying, "Doesn't anyone ever stick up for Justin?" He was gonna shit when Michael told him Brian was apparently signing up for the job.
"Maybe he won't need protecting this time," Michael offered.
Brian smiled that condescending grin of his, but after he spoke, Michael got the impression that it might have been aimed as much at himself as Michael's pie-in-the-sky words. "I tried to talk him into pining away for me at home while I fuck anything I want whenever I want."
"No way, you did not!" Michael couldn't help but laugh. "Tempting offer. He go for it?"
"No, no he didn't." Brian feigned disbelief at the very idea.
"Soooo, what did you decide? Just more of the same?"
Brian glanced at Michael, then looked away. Michael sure as hell wasn't expecting an actual answer, so he was surprised when Brian cleared his throat and said, "I'm not gonna go out of my way to fuck with him." He shrugged, rather diffidently, and kicked at a pebble on the street.
Michael staggered backward in exaggerated disbelief. "Jesus! You sure you wanna start that big? I mean, come on. You just up and promise not to go out of your way to fuck with him? What's next? Matching rings? Walking down the aisle in identical white suits?"
"Shut up." Brian shoved him hard, but grabbed onto his wrist at the last minute and pulled him close again. He shook his head, still avoiding Michael's eyes. "You'd've thought I offered him the moon. Stupid little twat."
"Yeah, but he's your stupid little twat, isn't he?"
Brian sighed and stopped walking. He was still holding Michael's arm, and he pulled him close and pressed his forehead to Michael's. "For better or worse."
Brian delivered the line with his usual snide flair, but the utterly revealing look on his face made Michael's breath catch and prompted him to ask the twenty-five thousand dollar question that would nag at him forever. "Why?" The word was just a whisper.
Brian sucked in his lower lip and shook his head, offered another shrug. He answered with his head turned away, his voice a flat monotone. "Fuck if I know."
Michael bumped Brian's shoulder with his own and motioned for them to keep walking. "You're a real romantic, you know that?" Michael said. Brian snorted and shoved him again. "No, I'm serious. This advertising thing doesn't work out for you, I'm sure Harlequin would hire you in a minute."
Michael jogged up a few paces then turned around, trusting Brian to save him from any obstacles he might back into. "Shut up?" Michael echoed. "You want me to shut up, I'll shut up. I don't have to be told twice, no siree, you say shut up and I'll just..."
"Mikey," Brian spoke in a tone of long-suffering. "Shut up shutting up."
Laughing, Michael got into the jeep and fastened his seat belt. How many hundreds of times had he settled into that seat after a night out and thought, 'Maybe tonight it'll happen.' It was almost--almost--a relief to have that constant niggle of anticipation quashed. Tonight, without a doubt, Brian was going to drop him off at Ben's place, then drive home to his loft, where Justin was waiting for him.
Michael guessed there'd always be a little ache that he and Brian had never taken their relationship as far as it could have gone, but it wasn't an altogether unpleasant sensation. He could almost-almost-look upon those years of unrequited love with a kind of affection-affection for the feelings themselves and for the boy he'd been when he had them.
He thought of the smile on Brian's face tonight as he'd disconnected from the phone call with Justin and realized how possessive he'd always been of that look. Yes, he wanted Brian to be happy; he'd always wanted Brian to be happy, but for so long, he'd been absolutely convinced that he was the only one who could make him so. Hell, for years he had been the only one. How much of his animosity toward Justin could be explained in the panic he'd felt when he saw Brian smiling that smile for him?
Michael remembered that night at Babylon when Justin roped Brian in by enticing away his evening's entertainment. Brian had lifted Justin in his arms, smiling up at him with a joy that nearly cut Michael in two. He had watched them with overwhelming despair, thinking over and over again, 'No, no, no, no, no...'
Right then, at the very start of it, he'd known Justin was different. He'd just counted on Brian not knowing it or at least not acknowledging it. And for what? He guessed he'd just figured that if Brian screwed absolutely every other guy on the planet, he'd simply have to settle down with him at some late, late date in the far, far distant future. 'Yeah, there's a plan, Novotny.'
Tonight though, it was different. Michael had felt warmed by the smile on Brian's face; had felt a wash of tenderness for his friend's tentative happiness; had felt, surprisingly, protective of that happiness.
His face turned toward the passenger window, Michael smiled out at the night before energetically turning back to face Brian. "Hey, I've made a decision."
"Mikey, I've told you a hundred times as long as the lube is petroleum-based, it doesn't matter what flavor it is."
"Ha ha ha, very funny. Nope, I've decided that I'm going to give you a hand."
"Like, right here? Right now?" Brian took his hand off the steering wheel and leaned back in the seat to give Michael the necessary access.
Michael socked him on general principle and rolled his eyes at Brian's exaggerated reaction. "You know what I mean. I'm taking pity on you-I'm going to help you out."
"You're going to help me?"
Michael made a mental note to punish Brian for his over-the-top incredulity at the very idea.
"Yeah, I am. With this relationship thing. I mean, you've gotta admit I've got a lot more experience than you do with these kind of things. I'm offering my expertise to you, free of charge."
"Oh, shut up."
"Now, now, Galaxy Lad, you're not going to learn anything with that kind of attitude."
Brian let loose with a surprised guffaw and swerved his car toward the side of the road. "And you won't teach anything with a tree trunk up your ass."
Michael laughed at that. "I could make a really tasteless comment right now, but I think I'll refrain."
"Oh yeah, you know how much I value restraint."
"I've heard that about you."
They were both laughing as the jeep climbed up and over the rise at the top of the avenue. Michael's stomach dipped like they were racing down the hill of a giant roller coaster, and he caught his breath at the pleasure of just being there with Brian, without any of the baggage that had been collecting around them for so long. He looked over at his friend and felt again that swell of tenderness only Brian awakened in him, and realized with a profound sense of gratitude that the reality of his life, of their lives, was almost--almost--better than any fantasy he'd ever imagined.