Thin Ice

Valerie

Timeline: Post Season Five. Contains spoilers through the end of the series for both QaF and BtVS. There's a joke in here someone made on a message board years ago; apologies to whoever that was.
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: None
Genre: Humour



The first reckless thing Justin did was going to the party in the first place.

The next reckless thing was when his roommate left, and Justin told him to go ahead; he wanted to stay, and would find his own way home. The third reckless thing was when he turned onto a side street, sure that it would lead to a larger road where he could more easily find a cab.

However, the stupidest thing he did all night – even stupider than walking down a dark, narrow road at three in the morning during a snowstorm – was when Tyson Beckford sat down beside him, put his hand on his knee and said hello, and Justin didn’t immediately usher him into the bathroom for a quick fuck.

He’d be kicking himself over that one for years.

Despite the time, Justin wasn't tired, and could've stayed at the party even later. But they were out of liquor and drugs, and everyone was starting to sober up and look around, blinking stupidly, as if just now realizing that people were less attractive once the narcotics drained from their systems.
When he heard the footsteps behind him, his first thought was that it was someone from the party trying to catch up. He imagined they had followed him looking for a bit of weed or a bit of sex, neither of which he could offer before he got back to his apartment.

He turned around, but didn’t recognize the figure coming toward him through the flurry of snow. It occurred to him that this person was walking too fast, with purpose, as if honing in on a target. But Justin wouldn't allow himself to be afraid. Maybe it was because he was getting used to the city, or maybe it was the six vodka-and-cranberry juices he'd had that evening, or maybe it was just his usual stupid recklessness.

Whenever he was angry, Justin's father used to say, "Don't push your luck, mister." Justin, who prided himself on being an insolent brat even as a toddler, decided that his father's use of "mister" as a term of respect signaled a switching of familial roles, so that Justin would reply, "Don't push your luck, Craig." This would only enrage him further, and he would warn Justin, "You're skating on thin ice!"

Justin wasn't sure what that one meant. He knew what ice was, and that people skated on it, and he had even been to the local rink a few times, but he wasn't sure how him sitting in the dining room refusing to finish his dinner was comparable to ice skating.

He was around nine or ten when he finally had enough of these expressions. One night when he was in trouble for riding his bike into the woods, his father shouted out the usual empty threats, and Justin challenged him to explain them. "What am I pushing?" he asked mockingly. "Where is this ice?"
His father stood over him, his eyes dark, and spoke in the softest voice Justin ever heard him use. "It means you're reckless, and you're brash, and you're stupid."

And somehow, that hurt more than the yelling.

As the stranger got closer Justin became certain that he didn’t know him. He was a tall, beefy guy, more fat than muscle, certainly not part of the black-clad artsy crowd he’d been with all evening. The man slowed as he approached, and his eyes raked over Justin’s body hungrily.

“No offense, but you’re not my type,” Justin said. “You’re cute and everything, but it’s been a long night, and I’m on my way home.”

He came to a stop just a few feet away from Justin. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said.

The man’s face changed, bending at his mouth and forehead to form an animal-like visage. Justin knew he should run, but he was frozen, simultaneously awed and terrified.

“Well,” Justin said weakly. “I take back the cute thing.”

The man lunged forward, and Justin was shocked into action. He started to run, but the man was on him in an instant, holding him by the shoulders and pushing him against the brick wall of the building beside them.

“Fuck!” Justin yelled. He tried to break free, but his attacker was impossibly strong. “Get the fuck off me!”

The creature growled in response, as he leaned forward and opened his mouth, revealing sharp, pointed teeth.

“Hey!” came a female voice from behind him.

Justin used the distraction to push forward as hard as he could. His attacker didn't seem to feel it, though he did reach up and grab Justin's right wrist. The pain shot through Justin so suddenly that he had to close his eyes.

When he opened them, he could see the third person: a young blond woman holding a backpack and tugging the zipper open nervously.

“Get lost,” the creature growled. “Or you’ll be next.”

“I have mace,” the woman responded, digging into her bag.

His twisted mouth widened into something resembling a smile, and the creature laughed, baring his teeth again as he turned back to Justin.
The woman’s hand closed around something and she let the bag drop to the ground, revealing a thick wooden handle with a spiked metal ball on one end. She swung it, and the spiked end connected with the large man's head, producing a loud crack.

He released Justin and doubled over. Too shocked to run, Justin just backed away, stunned when his attacker shook off what should’ve been a fatal blow.
He took a step toward the woman, and she swung the mace again, this time hitting him in square in the face. He fell to his knees. She turned the mace over, holding it in the center with the handle pointed down.

“The moral of this story?” she said. “Know your homonyms.” She swiftly drove the wooden handle through the man’s back, and he exploded into a shower of dust.

She brushed some of the dust off her designer jeans before turning to look at Justin. “Are you okay to get home?” she asked.

Justin opened his mouth, intending to say something about how he needed a cab, but instead shouted, “What the fuck was that?”

“Um...” She looked from the weapon in her hand to the spot on the ground where the snow was already beginning to cover the dust. “A trick of light and shadow?” She paused and pursed her lips together thoughtfully. “Or, um, maybe you imagined the whole thing.” She smiled hopefully, but quickly realized that Justin wasn’t buying her explanations.

She sighed, took a step forward, and waved her hand in a cheerful salute. “Hi, I’m Buffy, part of a vast network of slayers charged with keeping the world safe from evil. Vampires, monsters, demons – they’re all real. But I kill them, so –” She shrugged. “Yay. Monster all gone. You should probably go home and repress now.”

Justin went to massage his wrist, but touching it only irritated the damage, and he winced.

“Did he break something?” Buffy asked.

Justin shook his head. “A different kind of monster did this.”

She nodded sympathetically, then leaned down to put her mace back into her bag. “How about I walk you home?”

Justin followed her to the end of the narrow street, groaning audibly when he realized that it had, in fact, led to Houston Street, where the taxis were plentiful despite the bad weather. They walked for a few minutes in silence. Justin felt like he should say something to express his gratitude, but his internal monologue wouldn’t move past “what the fuck”.

“So...do you live in New York?”

“Nope,” Buffy said. “I'm from California, but now I live in Rome.”

Justin nodded. “I was in California for a little while last year, working on a movie.”

Buffy looked over at him. “Wait, let me guess. You're that child star who got arrested for buying crack, right?”

Justin shook his head. “I was just the artistic consultant, and the movie didn’t even get made.” He shrugged. “The world wasn’t ready for Rage.”

“Rage?” Buffy gasped. “Oh my god. You’re J.T.! My friend Andrew has all of your comics.”

“Really?”

“In plastic collector’s sleeves.”

As they reached Broadway the snow began to fall harder and colder, stinging their faces. Buffy suggested they go inside to wait until the wind died down, and she led Justin to the doorway of a small coffee shop. Like much Manhattan real estate, including Justin's place, it was barely more than a hallway. There was a long counter on one side, and two small tables on the other. It looked trendy, cozy, and above all, dark.

“It’s closed,” Justin said. “You know how to pick a lock?”

“Nope,” Buffy said, and she kicked in the door.

Even after he left his father's house, Justin kept skating on thin ice. He rented an apartment with a complete stranger in a new city. He went out to clubs alone and fucked men he didn't know. He acted like a dick at his own gallery openings and snubbed all the most important people in the art scene. He walked alone late at night and got attacked by vampires.

He told off a Hollywood film executive. He pointed a gun at someone. He slept around. He took drugs. He left home. He protested everything from his high school, to the mayor, to the father who told him he was reckless and stupid. He walked alone on the street one night, determined to find the man he loved but had yet to meet.

But it was never enough. He never got tired of questioning authority, protesting inequity, and taking stupid risks. It wasn't about adrenaline, or the thrill of getting caught, or any of those dumb reasons. It was about finding that beyond the danger, there wasn't any danger at all.

There was something he loved about jumping off a bridge, yet somehow knowing that he would be okay.

“Want to hear some Italian?"

Buffy was sitting across from Justin in the empty coffee shop, sipping a latte and looking wide awake despite the late hour. She continued without waiting for his response.

"So far I only know a few phrases. ‘Un altro espresso per favore.’ That means, ‘Another espresso please.’ And ‘Per favore dirigerme alle sue cose malvagie morte.’ ‘Please direct me to your evil dead things.’”

Justin smiled politely and stirred another packet of sugar into his cup.

"So tell me something about you," Buffy said. "What are you doing in New York? Oh wait, is this Gayopolis?"

Justin shook his head. "That's Pittsburgh. I'm just here working on my art career."

"And how's that going?"

"Really good, actually." Justin took a sip of his coffee. "What about you? Why did you come to New York?"

"Visiting a friend." She paused for a moment. "Friend might be the wrong word. Another slayer, Faith. I'm just stopping by on my way back from L.A."

"What was in L.A.?"

Buffy looked down, her face darkening for the first time since they'd met. "Nothing was in L.A." She took a deep breath and raised her eyes, forcing a smile. "I mean, I was looking for someone, but nothing was left."

"Who were you looking for?" Justin asked.

Buffy didn't seem to hear the question. She blinked, then leaned forward, her face suddenly serious. "Did you ever dance, and it got to the point where you didn't know where you were or who was around you? You danced like it was the only thing you had to do for the rest of your life. And while you were dancing, you felt like you'd never get old, and no one would die, and it would never be tomorrow. Like you were suspended in time."

Justin stared at her. "Constantly."

"That's how I was dancing," Buffy said. "The last time I saw them. And they were suspended in time." She looked down at her hands. "They were always immortal, but that was the first time they really lived forever." She looked up and smiled sadly. "Two men I loved. They died in a battle in L.A."

"I'm sorry," Justin said.

Buffy shrugged. "It's okay. Comes with the job."

"Sounds like a crappy job." Justin got up and walked around the counter to refill his coffee cup. "So what were these two like? If you don't mind me asking."

Buffy turned sideways in her chair so she could talk to him across the counter. "Do you have like, seven years?"

"Long story?"

"Epic."

"So start at the beginning," Justin said as he walked back to the table. He gestured to the falling snow outside the front window, so thick they could barely see past the sidewalk. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Okay." Buffy took a deep breath and put her hands on the table in front of her, as if preparing to give a presentation. "So, the first guy. Tall, dark hair, older, moody, amazing body, emotionally unavailable– "

Justin put one hand over Buffy's. "Was his name Brian Kinney?"

"Angel," she said.

"Did you meet him when you were in high school?"

Buffy nodded. "First big love."

"Did he completely break your heart?"

"Over and over again."

"Did he show up unexpectedly at your prom?"

Buffy's eyes widened.

Justin leaned forward. "And you're sure his name wasn't Brian Kinney?"

"This is weird," Buffy said. "I need another latte."

The first week he was in New York, Justin spoke to Brian on the phone every day. After a month, it was once a week. After six months, they stopped speaking. And after a year, it was just too late.

If asked, Justin would say that they were just growing apart naturally as their lives took them in different directions. But to himself he could admit that it was completely unnatural, and the problem wasn't opposing directions. The problem was their fear, and their pride. Neither of them wanted to say they loved the other one so desperately that they'd give up anything to have them back. And both of them secretly suspected that, if they did say this, the other one would reject him.

Justin wanted to fly back to Pittsburgh, barge into Brian's loft, throw his bag on the ground, and declare that he would be living there six months out of the year, and that Brian was obligated to spend at least two months in New York. A year ago he would've had no problem doing this. But now he couldn't say with absolute certainty whether Brian would throw him out or say 'I love you'.

"I'm sure he wouldn't throw you out," Buffy said.

"He would," Justin said. "He has before."

"Wait, let me guess." Buffy threw her arms up in an overly dramatic gesture. "I'm doing this for your own good!"

"You get that too?"

"Angel dumped me with that one a few times."

Justin leaned forward onto his hands. "It must be something about being young, blond –"

"Completely belligerent –"

"And hopelessly attractive." Justin held up his empty coffee cup in a toasting gesture.

"So tell me about the next guy," Buffy said, tapping her fingertips on the table restlessly. "And if he has bleached hair and a British accent I'm going to fall on the floor and die."

"Dark brown hair," Justin said. "Thick eyebrows. Pretentious, fake, and lining up his next conquest right under my nose."

"Scott Hope?"

"Ethan Gold."

Buffy frowned as she studied her empty coffee cup. "Nine letters in each name. I suspect they're the same person."

Justin reached across the table and pried Buffy's fingers off the cup. "You are not allowed to have any more caffeine."

Buffy easily relinquished the cup, and stood up to get a bottle of water from a cooler behind the counter. "You know what you are?"

"A heartbroken, reckless, antisocial art fag?"

Buffy sat back down in her chair. "Cookie dough."

"What?"

"You're living your life," Buffy said. "Figuring out who you are and where you want to be. You're not done. You're still baking."

"That's..." Justin nodded slowly. "The stupidest thing I've heard all day." He pointed at her. "And I spent an hour tonight talking to a woman who sculpts abstract penises."

"Fine. See if I appreciate your metaphors." Buffy stuck her tongue out.
Justin looked over his shoulder and noticed that the snow had stopped. "We better get going."

"Right." Buffy stood up. "Before the sun rises, the store opens, and we get all arrested."

Buffy and Justin paused outside the doorway of the coffee shop to look at the accumulated snow. There was about six inches on the ground, and rows of thin icicles were beginning to form on the awnings all along the storefronts. In the street, there was little traffic except for slow-moving plows and trucks dropping salt.

"So are you gonna do it?" Buffy asked.

Justin looked over at her. "Huh?"

"Fly back to Gayopolis." Buffy reached up and knocked down one of the icicles hanging over them, and it fell into the snow silently. "Barge into his loft. Throw your bag on the ground." She pulled down another icicle. "Declare stuff."

Justin looked back into the night, where the dark blue sky was warning them of light just below the horizon. "Probably not," he said softly.

Buffy stretched to retrieve one of the bigger icicles from the awning above them. "You only live once," she said. "Maybe twice. Three times at the most." She turned to face Justin. "And the people you love can be taken away in an instant. Just like that." She held the icicle up so that its end was pointing outward, like a stake. "Poof." She dropped the icicle, and it hit the edge of the door and shattered.

It didn't take them long to walk to Justin's apartment. They walked past darkened storefronts and unusually quiet buildings, passing only the occasional early riser shoveling the sidewalk. The front of Justin's building was deserted, and as they stood on the sidewalk Buffy dug a business card out of her bag. It was plain white with no name, just an international phone number.

"That's the Watcher's Council in England," Buffy explained. "You can reach me through them if you're ever in Europe and want to visit. Or if you run into any vampires, demons, zombies, giant snakes, killer robots, et cetera."

"Thanks," Justin said. "And thanks for, you know, saving my life."

"Last night," Buffy said, "I was in L.A., finding out that everyone I love there is dead." She smiled weakly. "Tonight was better. So thank you too."
Buffy turned to leave, but then turned back before she could take a step. "Guys in black robes with no eyes? Also very bad. Stay away from them. And if you have any friends who are into witchcraft, try to discourage that, unless they're under professional supervision."

Buffy turned away, and Justin moved to his door, only to hear her walking back.

"And if you should come across a portal, don't jump into it." Buffy turned, then turned back immediately. "Actually, jump into it, but don't let anyone resurrect you." She started to move again, then stopped. "Actually, the jury's still out on the portal thing. Maybe I could just like, drop you an e-mail when I get that resolved."

"Buffy?" Justin asked.

Buffy spun around again.

Justin took a step closer to her and lowered his voice. "Did you ever do something reckless and stupid, just because you had this irrational faith that you'd end up okay?"

"Yeah," Buffy said. "That's called courage."

After getting a few hours sleep, Justin wrote out some rent checks and left them with his roommate. He called an airline and got a ticket even though there was the threat of continuing weather-related delays. He called the gallery that was currently showing his paintings and told them, "I'll be back. If you're lucky."

Two days later Justin was knocking on a familiar door in Pittsburgh. And then it opened, and he looked even better than he did a year ago, better than he did when Justin was seventeen, better than Justin had ever sketched or imagined or dreamt. Suspended in time. Immortal.

There was something he loved about jumping off a bridge, yet somehow knowing that he would be okay.

Justin pushed past him and tossed his bag on the floor, where it slid into the center of the room. Brian stared at him, his face a mixture of confusion and shock, and for a moment Justin wasn't sure what to do next.

"What are you doing?" Brian said.

Skating on thin ice, Justin thought. He took a deep breath. "I'm living here for six months," he said. "And then you're coming to New York for a minimum of two months and a maximum of four months, and fuck your business."

Brian continued to stare.

Justin walked past him and into the kitchen, where he helped himself to a bottle of water. "I'm figuring out what I want out of life," he said as he cracked the top and took a sip. "And I'm not done. I'm still baking." He set the bottle down on the counter and advanced on Brian. "But that doesn't mean I have to be alone." He moved closer, until he could feel Brian's breath on his face.

"I'm cookie dough," Justin said with a brash smile. "Eat me."

Brian laughed, and in that second Justin kissed him, catching him off guard, so that they had to lean against the counter in a mess of panting and laughing.

"What does that mean?" Brian asked as Justin continued kissing along his jaw line and down his neck.

"What do you think it means?"

Brian lifted Justin's shirt off and started kissing down his chest. "It means you're crazy," he said between kisses. "And you're cocky. And you're a stupid twat."

And somehow, that was better than 'I love you'.

As they stumbled into the bedroom, Brian pulled Justin's head to his, bringing his mouth to Justin's ear. "Seven months," he whispered.

Justin smiled. "Don't push your luck, mister."

End