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The Things I Cannot Change

Suz


Disclaimer - CowLip/Russell T Davies/Showtime own them, I don't.

A season one AU, definitely set before 107. Brian/Justin, angst baby. Oodles of thanks to my nel *smooch*.

Note: Though this will mostly be by me, sometimes as a necessity of the fic I'll be quoting directly from the show. Those moments - and sometimes entire scenes - belong expressly to CowLip, and I'm just borrowing them. Much like the characters ;D



Part 1

The first few months after Justin came out were so busy - Brian, school, avoiding Mom, praying Dad never found out - that he was almost completely self-absorbed.

When he realised exactly what was going on it didn't stop everything else from scaring the shit out of him. He still worried that Mom was going to turn her back on him, that Dad was going to freak, that Chris Hobbs was going to make his life a living hell - over one measly handjob. There was just something else for him to focus on.

Like the fact that everytime he spent the night at the loft, Brian was never sober.

It hadn't seemed weird at first. Brian always hung out at Woody's and Babylon after work and that was what you *did* at Woody's and Babylon - you drank and you danced and you fucked.

But the more Justin thought about it, the more he realised that none of Brian's friends drank anywhere near the same amount as he did, and there were some nights where Brian smelt like Justin's alcoholic Grandmother.

It had nothing to do with age.

Justin knew the dangers of alcoholism and excess drinking - they'd covered it in health class - but he didn't really know any specifics, so one Saturday morning when Brian was in the shower Justin snuck onto the internet.

Ten disturbing minutes later he slipped out of the loft, leaving behind a note thanking Brian for the fuck, figuring that Brian would probably get a kick out of it.

Justin seriously needed to talk. His first instinct was to call Daphne, but he really needed someone who knew Brian and knew him well. Michael was an immediate no-go. Not only did he hate Justin's guts, but he had Brian on such a high pedestal that he wouldn't be any use at all.

Debbie was rejected for almost the entirely opposite reason - she seemed determined to always think the worst about Brian - and Ted was...Ted. Justin wasn't entirely sure that Ted and Brian actually *were* friends, so that left only one person Justin could think of in the immediate vicinity of Liberty Avenue.

The twenty minute walk from Brian's loft proved good at clearing his head, and when Justin pushed his way through the door to Torso he didn't have to fake a smile at all.

Emmett saw him immediately. "Hi, sweetie!"

While not putting up with Brian's bullshit, at least Emmett didn't think he was the son of Satan. And he'd never once treated Justin like some silly school boy twink. "Hi, Emmett. How's work?"

Hoisting up the skin-tight top he'd been putting onto a hanger, Emmett lifted his eyebrows. "Skimpy."

Justin grinned. "What time do you get off? I need to talk about something when you get a minute. That is...if you don't mind." Emmett was still really more Brian's friend than his, but he seemed to love talking to anybody.

Justin had no idea what Emmett's work schedule was, but he lucked out. Emmett only worked until two on Saturdays, and promised to meet him outside the store when his shift finished.

Heading home - it definitely took longer without Brian around to give him a lift most of the way there - Justin spent the next few hours avoiding Mom's worried gaze and studying as much as possible to get it out of the way. Later he'd need to concentrate on something else.

Leaving home just after one, Justin rushed out the door with a "HangingoutwithDaphnowbye!" and caught the bus that'd take him towards Liberty Avenue.

He got there a few minutes early, but as advertised Emmett came sweeping out when he was done and - apparently judging Justin's mood nicely - suggested they go back to his place rather than the diner.

"Don't worry," Emmett said with a wink, "Michael's off with the darling doctor."

That was one less thing to worry about, at least.

Their place was nice, if cluttered, but there was colour everywhere and Justin loved it. Even most of the superhero stuff seemed kinda cool - not that he'd ever say that to Michael.

"So, honey," Emmett began, after passing Justin a drink and sitting next to him on the sofa, "spill."

Hesitating, Justin fumbled his glass of soda onto the small table. There was a difference between thinking there was something wrong and actually saying it out loud. "I..." He blew out a breath and just got on with it. "I think Brian has a problem."

"Well, that doesn't really narrow it down," Emmett teased, albeit kindly. "I think we all know that Brian has more than just *one* problem."

Grinning despite himself, Justin nodded. "Yeah, but this..." Losing his smile, he stared at his glass on the table. "Have you noticed how much he drinks?"

Emmett grew still. Justin wasn't even sure how he noticed because it wasn't like Emmett had been moving around, but there it was. He was almost frozen.

"Brian's always drunk a lot..." Emmett began.

"It's not just drinking a lot, Em," Justin interrupted, turning to face him. "I know, I *know* I'm the new guy, that you guys have known him years longer, that Michael's been his best friend since they were kids, that you think *I'm* just a kid, but...you don't see the same things I do. You don't go home with him almost every night. You don't see him *after* he's spent the night drinking."

Lifting his eyebrows, Emmett tilted his head to one side. "'Almost every night'?"

"Uh," Justin flushed, "yeah. Whether I hang out with you guys or not, I usually get invited to the loft later on." Which was probably because Brian didn't want them to know. "Don't mention that to anyone, okay?" If Brian found out he'd probably think he was gloating about it or something and that'd be that - no more time with Brian Kinney's cock.

"Despite my reputation, I *can* keep a secret," Emmett declared, pretending to zip up his lips. "You should hear some of the things I have over the years. I swear, Jerry Springer has *nothing* on me." Letting his hand fall away, he sighed and grew serious. "As for the drinking, I...I really didn't think it was that bad, sweetie. But if it is that serious, I'm not sure what we can do."

Emmett was right, of course. Brian was the last person who would ever ask for or accept help. One mention in the loft of leaflets or groups or meetings, and Justin would be out on his butt so fast he'd probably leave skin on the stairs. Like with every addiction - as it'd said on one of those websites - the person with the problem had to want to do something about it.

He spent the next few days trying to decide what to do and generally not getting anywhere, when the shit seriously hit the fan.

Mom told Dad. Dad beat the shit out of Brian. Justin moved into the loft.

Three little sentences and his entire world was turned upside-fucking-down.

It was a dream come true and his worst nightmare. He was living with Brian - just like he'd told Daphne he would some day - but his parents had disowned him. He slept next to the man he loved every single night but he got a much clearer picture of just how much Brian drank.

The sound of vomiting in the bathroom always made him shudder.

He didn't know what the fuck to do, and then one night after he'd got off the phone with Mom, a teary-sounding Lindsay called for Brian.

Brian listened quietly, stoically, before saying "I'll be right there," handing the phone to Justin and practically running out of the loft.

Justin spent the next few hours panicking. Lindsay could only have been that upset about Mel or Gus, and he kept conjuring up nightmare images of car crashes and babies who went to sleep and never woke up. Fuck, he wished Brian had taken him with him.

When Brian got home not long after 2am, Justin wasn't even remotely tired.

Bolting up from the sofa, he ran over to him. "Is everything okay? Is Gus all right? Did Mel-?"

"Everyone and everything's fine," Brian interrupted, shucking off his jacket and throwing it towards the sofa. "The kid got a little warm and the munchers had a shit-fit over it." He grinned, obviously tired. "They should know better than to think a little fever is enough to stop my son from playing with himself for long."

Relieved, Justin clutched at Brian's arm. "He's really going to be okay?"

Seeming to realise just how concerned Justin had been, Brian poked him in the side. "Worried about my kid, huh?"

"Of course I am," Justin pretended to squirm away, not-so-secretly loving it when Brian was playful.

Pulling away, Brian stepped towards the kitchen counter and picked up a bottle of beam. "Little shit, giving us a scare like that. Shit, I need a drink."

Going with his first impulse, Justin moved closer and covered the hand that was opening the bottle with his own. "Why don't you fuck me into the mattress instead?"

Turning his head, Brian eyed him. "I could do both."

"True," Justin nodded, "but my form of pain management is *way* more fun."

Justin tried not to hold his breath as Brian studied him for a while, and then eventually Brian placed the bottle back on the counter.

"Into the mattress," Brian said deeply, moving a hand around to cup Justin's ass, pulling their bodies together, "against the door. On the floor."

Justin would take the victories any way he could. Besides, it wasn't like it was a hardship.

*

Two days later and Brian was off to Mel and Linds' to visit Gus. Justin had somehow been invited even though Brian never actually said the words "You're welcome to come along" (Brian was good at that) and they sat on the sofa together, playing with Gus. It was stupidly domestic and Justin loved it.

He decided not to mention that part to Brian.

That was when Mel and Linds let it slip - they wanted Brian to sign over his parental rights.

"You can't!" Justin was horrified. "He's your son!"

Mel probably made very logical statements about why it was a good idea but all Justin could think was badbadbad wrongwrongwrong.

And for once, it seemed, Brian Kinney was actually agreeing with Melanie Marcus.

Justin didn't, couldn't let it drop. He'd just lost his own father - he wasn't about to let the same thing happen to Gus. He took every opportunity he could to mention it, point out what Gus would be missing out on. He knew he was being an annoying shit, but what the hell did that matter? Gus was more important.

Brian didn't agree. He left Justin to his homework and stormed out of the loft.

The door rumbled open at - Justin opened his eyes and squinted at the clock - 4:30? Sitting up, he stumbled to his feet and rubbed at his eyes. Brian had never left him overnight for so long before.

And Brian wasn't alone. But instead of a trick (thank God) it was Michael (not much better). Light in the loft was dim, but it was obvious that Michael was supporting Brian's body.

"Is he okay?" Justin asked, scampering down the steps to the wooden floor, helping Michael with the weight.

"Bad night," Michael grunted, pushing Brian up into the bedroom. "He crashed at my place for a while, but insisted on coming back..." He paused, and Justin wasn't sure if it was because they were trying to get Brian down onto the bed or because of something else. "...home."

Brian was down but, according to the groaning, apparently not out.

"Make sure you look after him," Michael said, voice subdued, and it was the first time Justin had every intention of doing what Michael said.

That was until Michael left and Brian managed to sit up and ordered Justin to bring him a bottle of beam.

"Fuck off," Justin snapped, because he'd tried to relax but he'd been worried all fucking night and hadn't slept at all. "If you want it, get it yourself."

Later than night, Justin discovered that there were things worse than being kicked out, or seeing your dad attack the man you love or worrying all night that Brian wasn't coming home - it was facing away from Brian, pretending to be asleep, trying not to listen as he threw up over himself and forcing yourself not to help because maybeGodplease *this* time would make him realise that he needed help.

It didn't happen. Brian just passed out, fell asleep, lost consciousness. It didn't fucking matter.

Wiping the tear tracks from his face, Justin turned to make sure Brian wasn't in danger of choking on his vomit, pushed the bottle of beam onto the floor and knew that he'd officially reached his limit.

That was it. He wasn't putting up with this anymore. Brian needed help, and if his friends were too cowardly or blind to do something about it, then it was simply up to him.

He'd make Brian want to give up drinking if it fucking killed him.

______°°°______

Subtle wasn't going to cut it. Justin had considered starting out by watering down the Jim Beam - maybe even silently removing entire bottles - when he realised he was planning how to react to anyone *other* than Brian Kinney.

Brian wasn't subtle or quiet or timid. He was a constant presence you were always aware of, and even if he wasn't in your fucking face at that particular moment, you sure as hell weren't going to forget about him.

Brian would never back down. Justin would have to be the same.

One early morning phone call later and Emmett was buzzing for entrance. Brian was still out cold. Justin knew from experience that nothing short of a nuclear bomb - or his multiple-time zone, hand-crafted, ridiculously expensive and unbelievably loud alarm clock - was going to wake him.

"Here I am," Emmett said when the door rolled open; his usual greeting somewhat subdued as he hoisted up the bag he was carrying. "And I brought the requested supplies."

"Thanks, Emmett," Justin managed a tired smile and even went so far as to kiss his cheek. "I really appreciate it."

Sniffing heavily, Emmett suddenly pulled him into a hug. "Oh honey, you are so good for him! Don't you *ever* believe anyone who tells you otherwise."

He never had.

"Help me get his clothes off?"

"Now there's an offer I can't refuse!" Pulling back, Emmett was obviously trying to keep it together. "Just let me put the food away and then we'll have ourselves a very special strip show, okay?"

A few minutes later they were up by the bed, carefully peeling off Brian's clothes. Emmett didn't say a word about the smell or the stains or how unbelievably gross it was; he just prattled on the entire time about the latest guy he'd fucked like they were sitting in a booth at the diner.

It was the only thing that kept the tears from pouring down Justin's face.

When that was done they both washed their hands and Justin ran a facecloth under the tap to clean off Brian's skin. Leaning over him, Justin sat on the edge of the bed and softly wiped the cloth over Brian's chin, neck, chest.

God, he was perfect. God, he was so fucked up.

"Sweetie?"

Startled, he left his hand on Brian's chest as he turned to look up at Emmett. "Yeah?"

"Do you have any likely suspects?"

Moving his hand away, Justin nodded and stood up. "Just the one. Which is kind of disappointing. You'd think a guy like Brian would be more prepared in the bedroom." It was a lame joke, but he meant it. God knew it would've been much more comfortable if they could use the bed.

Leading the way into the bathroom, Justin threw the facecloth into the sink before opening the door to the shower. "In here."

Spying the shower rail and recognising it for what it was, Emmett immediately began testing how much weight it could hold. Justin had tried that himself earlier and when the two of them tried to pull it off together and nothing happened, he was more convinced than ever that there was no way Brain would be able to accomplish that alone.

Thank God he was into spending ridiculous amounts of money on excellent workmanship.

Ensuring the shower was dry, they transferred a few pillows into the bathroom before beginning the not particularly enjoyable task of getting Brian into the shower stall.

Brian made more fuss at being moved around than Justin expected. He mumbled, groaned and generally expressed his displeasure, but thankfully didn't try to fight them. They had to move sideways to get all three of them through the shower door, but soon enough they got Brian there, lowering him down onto the pillows.

Thank God he had the world's largest shower stall, too.

Muttering, Brian clutched at one of the pillows. It would have been cute the way he murmured Justin's name if he hadn't said "Fuck off" right afterwards.

"Wow," Emmett drawled deliberately, "that's probably the most romantic thing he's ever said."

Thankful for the attempt at humour, Justin grinned before heading out to the bedroom. When he returned, he placed a blanket over Brian's naked body and opted to leave the sweat pants on the floor. Brian could put those on himself later if he wanted, or just stay naked.

It was Emmett's turn to disappear then, and when he came back Justin couldn't help but stare at what he was holding.

"I'll do my best to run interference with everyone else," Emmett said, "tell them he's not going to be around for a while. But that probably won't be good enough for some."

Justin knew who he meant. Michael. Maybe Debbie.

"Remember to lock the door and set the alarm after I go," Emmett continued before eyeing him carefully, "to make sure no one can just barge in. Unless you've changed your mind and want me to stay with-"

"No, no," Justin interrupted. "It's better that he doesn't know you were involved. He'll be pissed enough just at me. No point in putting you on his shit list, either."

"Honey, if this works," Emmett replied, utterly seriously, "I really won't give a shit."

Nodding tightly, Justin just wanted to get it the fuck over with and held out his hand.

"You know..." Emmett hesitated. "I...I know he likes you. Really likes you; more than the others suspect. But I don't know if this is something he'll ever be able to forgive."

It was a warning. Something they already knew but something Emmett was obviously making sure Justin *understood*.

He did. He knew Brian would probably never trust him again, would probably never even want to see him again.

But it didn't matter. There was only one thing that did.

"If this works," Justin mimicked, the back of his throat burning furiously, "*I* really won't give a shit."

Emmett simply gave him the handcuffs.

______°°°______

"What. The. FUCK?"

So, Brian was awake then.

After Emmett left, Justin had stripped the sheets from the bed and tried to get some much-needed sleep. When it'd become obvious that wasn't going to happen, he'd huffed to his feet and ended up printing off information from the internet, drinking too much coffee in the process.

He realised, belatedly, that the coffee had probably been a bad idea. He wanted to try and keep calm, and caffeine really didn't help with that.

Picking up the phone he tightened his hold on it, took a deep breath, and walked forcefully into the bathroom.

Brian was where they'd left him - propped up with his back against the wall, left hand raised above his head due to the handcuffs that were around his wrist and the shower rail. Only now he was reaching up with his right hand, trying to get himself free.

Noticing Justin's entrance, he lowered his free hand and stopped struggling - for now. "Sunshine," he said in a tone of voice that wasn't pleasant at *all*, "I'm sure you're about to tell me this is all part of some kinky sex game."

Justin didn't say anything.

"You've turned into a psychopath?"

Justin still didn't say anything.

"What, the fuck," Brian continued, enuniciating perfectly - a clear sign he was pissed, "am I doing here?"

Justin wanted to lick his lips, but didn't. "You need to call work," he replied, hating how dry his throat felt. "You need to call work and tell them you're not coming in today." Technically he was already late, even if it was only a little after ten.

It felt much later in the day.

"And why the fuck would I do that?"

"Because you're not going into work today," Justin answered simply.

Brian stared at him in obvious disbelief, and it was kind of weird seeing that much open emotion on his face. "You've locked me up in my *own fucking bathroom*, obviously intent on keeping me here for whatever fucked-up reason...and you're giving me a phone call?"

"What're you gonna do, Brian?" Justin forced an arrogant smile, but it felt more like a grimace. "Tell them that the silly blond twink you keep fucking is holding you hostage in your shower?" Pride goeth before a fall, and Brian was going to fall - hard. "In fact, you can use the phone anytime you want and call anyone you want - but if you tell someone to come over, I'm not going to take off those handcuffs. They'll have to get you out themselves, and you'll have to explain why you're even in them."

"And just why *am* I in them?"

Justin didn't look away. "You're an alcoholic, Brian, and you need help." Being careful of any sudden movements, Justin edged towards the shower and placed the phone just inside. "I have some things to do. I suggest you make some calls."

As soon as he entered the bedroom Justin shut his eyes, holding his right hand over his face. God, this was harder than he'd anticipated and they'd only just started. What the fuck was he doing? Who the hell did he think he was? He was seventeen years old and though he'd never liked being called a kid, right now that's exactly what he wanted to be.

Lowering his hand his breathed deeply, calming himself. There was no point in overreacting - he'd be no use to anyone. He just had to take this one step at a time and ignore the ball of emotion lodged at the back of his throat.

Brian's voice echoed quietly out of the bathroom - he didn't sound happy, but he was definitely telling his assistant (Cynthia, wasn't it?) that he was sick.

Good.

Exhaling one last time, Justin opened his eyes and made his way over to the computer. Picking up the documents he'd printed off he stared down at the contents. He was doing the right thing; he was definitely doing the right thing. Lifting his head, he moved to the counter in the kitchen and picked up one of the stools. Carefully carrying it across the loft - Brian would kill him if he scratched up the floor - he settled it down in the bathroom a few feet from the shower.

By now Brian was on the phone to Michael, telling him he was going to be out of town on business. No, he didn't know how long he was going to be gone (he shot an unmistakable glare at Justin) and he had to fucking go.

Justin hoisted himself up on the stool.

Brian pressed the button that ended the call, and let the hand holding the phone fall until it rested against his thigh. "Ignoring for the moment," Brian began deliberately, "your ridiculous assertion that I'm an alcoholic, your idea of help is to handcuff me to my shower?"

Justin shrugged, feigning nonchalance. "I know you, Brian. You're not about to go to AA meetings or talk to a counsellor. You don't have to listen to anything I say," even though he was planning on saying plenty, "but I figure going through withdrawal might give you the wake-up call you need." Shit, that was going to be hard to watch.

Brian rolled his eyes, trying to pull his left arm away from the wall and not getting very far. "I'm not a fucking alcoholic."

Forcing himself to smile, Justin shrugged. "Well if you don't start developing any withdrawal symptoms over the next few hours, then I guess you're right and I'm wrong and I'll give you the keys to the cuffs."

"I'm not a fucking alcoholic," Brian repeated, "and even if I was it's not your fucking place to do anything about it. You're not my mother."

"No," Justin replied, "I'm not." Of course, he didn't know anything about Brian's mom other than the fact that she didn't know he was gay. Before Brian'd left last night Justin had gotten the impression that Brian's dad might have been more of an asshole than even his own dad, but Brian's mom was a complete mystery.

Didn't mean he couldn't keep going with a bravado he didn't really feel. "But I love you anyway. So shut the fuck up." Lifting up the papers in his hands slightly, Justin began to read. "In the U.S., alcohol contributes to 100,000 deaths annually, making it the third leading cause of preventable mortality."

"You've gotta be kidding me," Brian muttered, staring at him.

Justin simply continued. "Excessive drinking over time has been associated with loss of brain cells, liver failure, irritated stomach lining and bleeding from stomach ulcers, high blood pressure - which can lead to strokes, certain types of cancer, nerve damage, heart failure, epilepsy-"

"You have *got* to be fucking kidding me."

"-vitamin deficiency, obesity, sexual problems, infertility," he glanced quickly at Brian, "muscle disease, skin problems and inflammation of the pancreas."

"I'm not just gonna sit here and listen to one of your after school specials!" Brian ranted. "Jesus Christ, if the alleged 'withdrawal' doesn't put me into a coma, God knows that will."

Lowering the papers, Justin looked at him. "Admit you're an alcoholic. Admit you're an alcoholic and I'll stop reading."

Shifting, Brian pulled his cuffed arm away from the wall again. "My arm's starting to fucking hurt."

Justin kept reading. "Although alcohol initially makes you feel relaxed, long term excessive use can ultimately increase anxiety and cause depression. It is also related to problems with sleeping, mood swings, violence and suicide. Approximately two-thirds of suicide attempts are thought to involve alcohol."

"Justin," Brian interrupted, "I know you care about me,"

"Of course, one of the most well known dangers of alcoholism is cirrhosis of the liver, a condition that can lead to jaundice, intense itching, gallstones-"

"And I know for whatever fucked up reason you think you're actually helping me..."

"-type 2 diabetes, liver cancer-"

"But are you OUT of your FUCKING MIND?!"

And there was the money shot.

Brian yanked his body forward, held back only by the handcuffs. "Let me out of here you fucker, or I swear to God I'll make you wish you'd never set foot in this building." He was leaning, stretching as far as he could, and even naked the sheer hatred was pretty terrifying.

Brian really was never going to want to see him again. Everything was completely *fucked*.

Trying to stop his voice from wobbling, Justin cleared his throat. "It is apparent that a wide variety of temporal problems stem from drinking alcohol, as just shown. The above cited dangers and sufferings for the drunk, however, are inconsequential and almost not even worth mentioning compared to the *greatest* danger in the entire universe - that of being thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, which is *forever*."

"Shit," Justin said, voice cracking as he wiped the tears from his face and blinked messily at the man who now hated him, "I meant to delete that one."

______°°°______

Brian had started sweating a while ago. He said it was nothing, that there was something wrong with the thermostat in the loft and as soon as Justin let him the fuck out of his shower he'd get it fixed.

Then his hands started shaking. Small tremors, and he'd accused Justin of slipping him something.

"Don't be ridiculous," Justin snapped. "They're a result of the alcohol coming out of your body, not me putting something in."

"My head fucking hurts," was Brian's reply, his free hand coming up to rub at his temples.

There was no choice but to wait it out. The one good thing - if anything really could be good at the moment - was that Brian was showing the symptoms of moderate withdrawal. It'd been fifteen hours since Michael had brought Brian back to the loft, so it'd been at least that long since Brian had had a drink - and there were no signs of DT's, seizures or stroke.

Fuck, he was in way over his head.

But the point, the fucking point was that although Brian was an alcoholic, he wasn't so chemically dependant that going cold turkey was going to kill him. Which was definitely a good thing.

Shit, was he ever going to stop feeling the urge to cry? What the fuck was wrong with him?

"Are you crying?" Brian demanded.

"No," Justin insisted, eyes burning as he stood up and off the stool. "I'll get you some more water." Outside the bathroom he took the opportunity to regroup. Running the taps in the kitchen, he cupped the water into his hands, threw it up over his face and just stood there for a few minutes, breathing.

Eventually he forced himself away from the sink, opening the fridge to pull out a bottle of water. He'd made the decision the first time he'd given Brian a drink that there was no way he was giving him a glass - he didn't think Brian would get *that* violent, but he also wasn't taking any chances.

The first time he'd brought him a bottle of water, Brian had managed to grab him and immediately started groping for different pockets. When Justin had calmly told him he didn't have the key to the cuffs anywhere on his body, Brian had pushed him away and told him to get the fuck away from him.

Tossing the cap of the bottle into the trash, Justin swallowed hard and forced himself back into the bathroom.

"I have a question," Brian began when he saw him, running a shaking hand over his head. "What do I do if I need to piss?"

Doing his best to look unaffected, Justin placed the water bottle just inside the shower. Brian didn't try and make a grab for him this time. "You're in a shower. I'd be happy to take the pillows and comforter away, and you can put the water on anytime you like."

"Not exactly hygienic."

"Better than nothing," Justin retorted, standing with his arms folded across his chest. It was obvious Brian was trying to bait him.

"And what if I have to take a dump?" Brian questioned, smirking up at him dangerously. "You into scat, Sunshine?"

Justin absently bit his lower lip. He really should've given this a hell of a lot more thought, but showing weakness right now was a bad idea. "You know, you'd probably be a lot more entertaining if you didn't look like an addict waiting desperately for his next fix."

The smirk faded. "I'm not an addict."

"Sure, Brian. That explains the headaches and the sweating and the shaking - *and* the nausea you've been trying to hide for the last few hours. You're not an addict at all."

And so it went on. Brian would bitch, yell, glare, and try not to roll around in pain. At one point he actually started vomiting and it freaked Justin out so much that he almost ran out of the room to get the keys to the handcuffs.

But he held his ground, biting the inside of his mouth as he quietly cleaned up the mess and tried to help in whatever way he could. He'd offer Brian something that'd ease the symptoms, Brian would tell him to fuck off and then sit against the wall of the shower, muttering as his eyelids flickered.

It was fucking scary.

At some point Brian passed out, fell asleep - whatever it was he lost consciousness in one way or another. After carefully checking his pulse, Justin was so guiltily grateful for the reprieve that he stumbled into the bedroom and cried himself to sleep.

It was Brian's voice that woke him up. The sound of talking in the bathroom jerked Justin out of sleep, and he blinked blearily for a few seconds before realising what was happening. Clambering out of bed, he yawned and rubbed a hand over his face, not really feeling refreshed but appreciating the chance to sleep anyway.

Brian's voice echoed into the bedroom again. Frowning, Justin walked into the bathroom to see that Brian was pretty much where he left him, still unconscious.

He was also talking in his sleep.

From what Justin could make out it didn't make much sense, but as Brian didn't seem to be stuck in a nightmare Justin left the room to get a quick bite to eat. One peanut butter and banana sandwich later and Justin was back by the shower, watching over Brian as he slept. He stayed that way for thirty, maybe forty minutes when Brian's head jerked to the left.

"No..." he murmured.

Justin couldn't tell if he was still asleep or not. "Brian?"

His head jerked again. "Don't..." His body moved suddenly, hand pulling harshly against the cuffs. "Let her go! Please! Just stop fucking hurting her!"

Horrified, Justin got into the shower as quickly as he could, grabbing Brian's shoulders and shaking him. "Brian!"

"Stop it! Just fucking stop it!"

"You're dreaming!" Justin screamed. "It's not real! Wake up!"

Brian's eyes snapped open and he jerked away, scrambling as far away from Justin as the handcuffs and the confines of the shower would let him. "Stay the fuck away from me," he ordered, scrunched up into a ball.

Holy shit. Brian was scared of *him*? Justin bit his bottom lip, trying not to spook him further. "I'm not going to hurt you, Brian. I'm here because I care about you."

"Yeah, care," Brian snorted as he shivered, looking around the shower as if expecting to see someone else, "handcuff me t-to my own shower. Make me do this. Not even Dad d-did this."

He was *not* about to start crying again like some little pussy, even if Brian really did think he was worse than his father. Instead he crept slowly towards him, kneeling on a pillow. "Brian? *Brian*." Grabbing Brian's face, Justin forced him to look at him until he had nowhere to go. "I have some Thiamin - vitamins. Em...a friend got them for me." Fuck. "I did some reading - they're supposed to help relieve withdrawal symptoms. Do you want them?"

Dark, dilated pupils stared back at him. "I'm not a f-fucking alcoholic. I'm not my parents. I'm n-not them."

Justin tried again, still holding on. "It'll *help*. Stop being so fucking proud and let me help you."

He waited for a few moments and Brian just looked back at him. When he didn't get a negative response, he fled from the shower and delved into the bag they'd left on the counter in the kitchen. Opening the bottle of tablets, Justin shrugged and took out two, slamming the bottle back on the counter and running into the bathroom.

Back in the shower again, Justin slowly settled himself down next to Brian. Brian, for his part, kept eyeing Justin warily.

"Look," Justin said, holding out the tablets, "I take one, you take one. I'm not trying to hurt you or poison you, okay? You can even pick which one I take."

Seeming to warm to the idea, Brian gestured to the tablet closer to him. Justin duly picked it up with his left hand and put it in his mouth. He'd taken enough pills that he could swallow it dry, and he made a point of showing his empty mouth to Brian afterwards.

Licking his lips, Brian cautiously reached out a shaky hand and picked up the tablet, awkwardly shoving it into his mouth.

Relieved, Justin moved closer, wrapping his arms the best he could around Brian's scrunched-up body. "You're not your parents," he whispered. "You're Brian fucking Kinney, and you can do anything."

Brian didn't resist. Brian didn't do anything except rock back and forth. "Hate you. Hate you," he muttered. "God, I fucking hate you."

Justin kept holding on, blinking back the tears.

______°°°______


Coming to on the floor of a shower was just about the worst way Justin had ever woken up. There was something under his legs - a pillow, his brain duly informed him - but his top half was lying on nothing but hard flooring. Shifting, he groaned at the aches and pains he was sure he wasn't supposed to be feeling at seventeen, and opened his eyes.

Brian was still in his corner, watching.

Suddenly feeling nervous, Justin carefully sat up - wincing as he did so - then shifted backwards until his back reached the side of the shower. Something told him Brian needed the room.

Physically, Justin wasn't sure if Brian looked better or worse. He wasn't scrunched up and the shakes seemed to have stopped, but his skin was definitely still clammy. As his gaze travelled over Brian's body it inevitably travelled up to the left arm and wrist. Shit. The skin on Brian's wrist was badly red and raw, but Brian didn't even try and keep it away from the metal - his arm just hung forward, limply. God knew how much it ached from being held up all the time.

Asking how he was feeling would be really dumb right now.

In fact, Justin couldn't think of anything that wasn't trite and stupid, and God knew Brian hated anything trite or stupid.

He needn't have worried. Brian knew exactly how to break the silence.

"Why the fuck did you do this?"

Drawing his knees up to his chest, Justin wrapped his hands around his shins. "I told you. You're an alcoholic." He stared down at his knees, absently thinking his clothes could probably do with a change and trying not to think about the man sitting across from him. "You need to accept that you have a problem-"

"And that," Brian interrupted, "gives you the right to chain me up like a fucking dog?"

Closing his eyes briefly, Justin opened them again as he lifted his head, forcing himself to meet Brian's monumentally pissed-off gaze. No backing down about that decision. Not ever. "Yes."

"Fine," Brian spoke deliberately - and he must have been feeling more like himself if he was talking more like himself, "I'm an alcoholic. I have a 'problem'. Now give me the fucking key."

Justin's teeth clenched together. "You don't mean it."

"And how would you know?" he asked smugly. "Oh. Oh, yeah, that's right," he pretended to think about. "You're Justin Taylor. You know everything. In fact, I don't know how I ever got anything done before you came along."

God, he was exhausted. "Stop it."

"My life was meaningless until *you* showed me how to make it worthwhile."

Brian was trying to bait him, he *knew* Brian was trying to bait him - it was a classic Kinney move - but he was so tired. "I said stop it," he breathed, hands moving up until the bottom of his palms were pressing against his closed eyes.

He was pretty sure right about now, that no one was ever meant to go through this. It didn't matter that he'd only just slept. He was so tired.

"You make life better all around, Sunshine. I mean, just look how you treat the man you claim to-"

Something happened.

"Stop it! Stop it, just fucking stop it!"

Brian didn't stop anything. "Give me the key."

No back-up. Alone.

Fucking stop it.

"Fine!" Pushing himself to his feet, Justin stormed out of the shower. "Drink yourself to death, see if I care!" He was done being an emotional punching bag. He'd more than made his fucking point; the rest was up to Brian.

It didn't take him long to get his things together. Brian had thrown a shit-fit right after Justin had moved in and made himself 'at home', and ever since then he'd made a point of keeping most of his stuff in one place. He didn't cry as he jammed the rest of his belongings into a rucksack, didn't cry as he emptied every bottle he could find down the sink; didn't cry as he left the print-outs about alcoholism next to Brian's bed.

He didn't cry even when he took his toothbrush out of the bathroom.

Eventually he slid open the loft door, placing the rucksack and a couple of drawing pads just outside. After one last search through the loft for anything he might have left behind, he picked up the key from the kitchen counter and walked into the bathroom.

Brian looked as exhausted as he felt, eyes closed with his head leaning back against the wall, and he knew Brian wasn't really the asshole he pretended to be and just for a brief second-

staystaystaystaystaystay

-but then he took a step towards the shower, and spoke. "I've left the Thiamin in the kitchen." Brian's eyes flicked open. "You should keep taking it." Silence. He wasn't really expecting anything. "And...this probably sounds like a really dumb idea considering that you hate me now, but if you ever don't want to be alone, or need someone to be with..." Still nothing. Fine. Justin made a point of looking directly at him. "I won't ever tell anyone about this."

At some point he left the key and walked out of the loft. Time had lost all meaning. He couldn't remember the last time he'd looked at a clock and knew only that it was early morning because of the light and the level of traffic around.

He couldn't think straight. He was terrified of leaving Brian alone, and equally terrified of staying with him. Brian would be craving alcohol even now and Justin could only hope that sheer exhaustion would keep him in the loft. At least he didn't have anything to drink there now.

There had to be some use of willpower. Brian had to, on some level, want to quit himself. And if it turned out he didn't...

When Justin saw the pay phone he didn't even think about it. His hands searched his pockets for change, and then he was dialling the cell phone number Emmett had given him.

Em answered on the first ring. "Hello? Justin?"

And he wasn't alone anymore.

______°°°______


Emmett had the tackiest bedspread he'd ever seen. Not that it mattered - the two of them were cuddled up together under it, and it could've had pictures of naked women plastered across both sides for all Justin cared.

It had come as no surprise whatsoever to discover that Emmett loved cuddling, and that was just what Justin needed. Well, not cuddling specifically - but comfort of some kind. He still didn't know what the fuck he'd done and what the fuck he was doing, but things didn't seem quite so bad when he was snuggled up beneath a tiger-print bedspread.

When he'd called asking for help, Emmett had told him not to move and immediately dialled a taxi service. When Justin reached the building that housed Emmett and Michael's apartment, Emmett had been standing outside, waiting. Paying the cab driver, he'd hustled Justin inside - whispering to keep quiet because Michael hadn't spent the night at David's.

Emmett had made it clear that the sofa was an option, but Justin had no qualms about sharing a bed so they quickly stripped down to their underwear and settled in. Emmett didn't ask questions at all. He talked for a few minutes about absolutely nothing but then lapsed into silence, his arm wrapped around Justin's waist.

Justin began to feel a little more human - or at least like his head wasn't about to explode anymore - and dozed for a while, but he couldn't really sleep. Images of Brian kept popping into his head - the first time they met, the first time they fucked; Brian standing up to Justin's dad.

Brian screaming for the key.

"Sweetie?" Emmett asked quietly, "do you know what your plans are today? I mean you're perfectly welcome to stay in bed all day if you want. Goodness knows you deserve to relax. I just need to start getting ready for work soon."

Justin tipped his head, looking for the clock. 7:03.

The bed was so warm and Em was so warm, and Justin would've loved to bury under the covers and sleep the entire day away.

But he couldn't seem to sleep at the moment. And he couldn't keep skipping school. Yesterday morning on the phone he'd managed to convince Mom to call in sick for him - she was so upset about everything Dad had done that he could get away with a lot right now - but maybe going to school today would be a good thing. Even if he was dead on his feet, at least he'd have something to focus on that wasn't Brian.

Brian.

Barely a day since Michael had brought Brian back to the loft, and it felt like Justin's entire life had shifted yet again. Strange how fast that happened.

"I might go to school," he mumbled. At least at school there was Daphne. "See Daphne."

"Now that sounds like an excellent plan," Emmett replied, and Justin couldn't help but smile slightly - Emmett's emotions were always so obvious, even if you weren't actually looking at him. "I say we get up, take showers, and grab that big gay world by the balls. What do you say?"

Someone knocked on the door to Em's room, then opened it slightly. "Em? Are you...?" Michael stopped, staring, hand still wrapped around the door handle as he took in what he was seeing.

He shouldn't, he really knew he shouldn't, but after what he'd been through Justin needed a little fun. Michael always made it so easy. "Hi, Michael," Justin greeted, his voice huskier than usual as he pulled the covers down further.

Michael's mouth dropped open. "Oh my God. Don't tell me you're fucking your way through everyone I know."

"Of course he isn't," Emmett insisted, slapping Justin lightly on the stomach. Pouting, Justin relaxed back against the bed. "Justin here just needed a little TLC - the no sex kind, thank you very much. He's been having a tough time lately, and since Brian's...um..."

"Away on business?" Michael offered.

"Exactly!" Em replied, clearly flying by the seat of his pants. "It fell to me, his wonderful Auntie Em, to provide some much needed words of encouragement."

"And some much needed nudity," Michael pointed out.

"Well, the boy *is* divine," came the reply, "you can hardly blame me."

Snorting, Michael began shuffling back out of the room. "Just make sure there's no funny business, that's all."

That statement made no sense, and when the door closed Justin turned towards Emmett. "I don't get it. He doesn't want me anywhere *near* Brian, but he's worried about us getting together. You'd think he'd be happy I was fucking someone who wasn't Brian."

Emmett grinned. "Ah, but he's also worried that Brian would hear about us fucking and get annoyed about it."

"You mean like jealous?"

He nodded. "I mean like jealous."

Justin smiled at the idea for a while - Brian Kinney being jealous, ha - before remembering the truth. Brian would never want to see him again. Sighing, he threw back the covers and sat up. If he was going to mope about Brian, he could at least accomplish something while he was moping. "Do you have an iron I can borrow? I just shoved my school uniform into the bag when I left Brian's." Justin couldn't remember the last time he'd used an iron, but if he went to school with wrinkled clothes he'd get pulled up by every teacher he came across.

"Even better than that," Emmett declared, hoping out of bed and pulling open his closet, pointing to the iron and ironing board propped up against the right side. "I can do you a two for one deal."

*

Having to rely on the buses, Justin barely made it to school on time and his mood didn't improve when he saw his mom parked near the front of the school.

"Justin!" she rushed along the sidewalk when she spotted him, looking very much like she was getting ready for a hug. The look he gave her stopped her cold. "I hope you're okay," she continued, straightening her handbag over her shoulder. "When you asked me to call in for you yesterday I was so worried but I didn't know what else to do. I called the loft but no one ever picked up."

Shit. He'd turned the ringer off and forgotten to tell Brian that before leaving.

Turning towards the steps, Justin started climbing. "Thanks. But it was a one off thing, it won't be happening again. You don't need to worry about my grades."

"Justin, please," she chased him up the steps, "if something's going on...if you need help..."

Help. He didn't know where he was going to live. His dad didn't want him. Brian didn't want him. He couldn't stay with Emmett indefinitely. He had half a mind to run off to LA and become famous.

But he needed to know what happened to Brian.

"Everything's fine, really, and if I ever need help I'll contact you." He was pretty sure he'd never lied so much in one sentence.

Without saying another word, he walked into St James' Academy.

*

Daphne, as usual, acted like she was hopped up on caffeine - which she probably was. At recess they sat at a table and she demanded to know why he'd been off and if he was okay. He'd shared everything with Daphne in the past and normally he would have shared this - he would have loved to have talked about it with someone - but he'd made a promise to Brian.

So he told her they'd had a major argument, but he couldn't share the details. That he seriously doubted they'd see each other again and that it wasn't Brian's fault. Wisely steering clear of calling Brian an asshole, Daph wrapped her arm around his shoulder.

"You know you can stay at my house any time you want."

"What about your parents?"

She nudged him with the side of her head. "Fuck my parents."

Justin blinked heavily, deliberately ignoring the sentimentality. "Eww, Daph!"

Laughing, she pulled a notepad out of her bag and started going through her notes for the classes he'd missed.

It didn't take long for her to get distracted.

"Oh my God, did I tell you who I saw Billy Houser with yesterday?"

*

Just like he'd thought Justin walk-slept his way through school - at least Chris hadn't bothered him - and when it finished he was more than a little lost. Emmett wasn't at Torso, his apartment, or answering his phone. Justin had been wary of going to Liberty Avenue in the first place in case he saw Brian, and now the only other place he could think of checking - the diner - was a hot bed of Brian activity. He didn't *think* Brian would be around at the moment but, being Brian, that'd probably be when he was most likely to turn up.

Bracing himself, Justin peered through the diner windows.

No Brian. No Michael. No Emmett, either, but at least he could ask Debbie.

Opening the door he stepped inside, ignoring much of his surroundings as he moved towards Debbie. She was standing behind the counter, pouring coffee for a customer.

"Deb?"

Glancing up, she pointed to an empty seat by the counter when she recognised him. "You. Sit."

Shit.

Nonetheless, Justin sat himself down on the stool, waiting while she filled a few more cups with coffee. When she was done she put the coffee pot back on the heating pad and stood opposite him, hands on her hips and chewing gum. "So, Sunshine, a little birdie tells me that you need a place to stay."

Emmett had obviously talked to her. "Uh...maybe." Debbie always made him feel like he was five years old.

Finally, she smiled. "Well, as it so happens, I have a spare room that needs filling and a bus boy I need to get rid of. Or was it the other way round?" She cackled once, snapping her gum.

That was...really convenient. "Seriously?"

She grinned, leaning in conspiratorily. "Completely and utterly. The latest kid to wait tables in this joint is so bad he can't tell his dick from his dildo." Snorting quietly, Justin lowered his head. It was a great offer, but Debbie was Michael's mom and Michael was Brian's...she grabbed his face, pulling it back up and studying him seriously. "Hey. Look, I don't know what happened between the two of you, but it's this or nothing. And you are worth more than nothing. Am I right?"

Yeah. Yeah, she was.

______°°°______


Emmett had made an appearance not long after that, apologising for being out of touch but, "I swear to God, this guy had the *biggest dick* I have ever seen! Well, you know, outside porn movies. And let me tell you - it was definitely the real deal. I'm going to need a cushion for the next month."

Justin could hardly blame him.

He honestly wouldn't have minded staying with Em forever at this point - if Em was just Em. Unfortunately he shared the apartment with Michael. And although Justin made fun of him, and although Michael wasn't really a bad guy - Justin had seen him around Debbie enough to know that he was a good son - Michael also hated Justin's guts. Which would probably start to get irritating.

So Justin moved into Debbie's that night. Vic welcomed him with open arms, Deb with copious amounts of pasta, and Michael - when he heard about it - with complaints and badly-veiled threats about not touching any of his stuff.

The opportunity was too good. "Didn't you move out, like, ten years ago?"

"That's not the point!" Michael huffed.

Justin just kept smirking.

And he wasn't really okay, he didn't feel *that* okay, but mocking Michael and hearing Deb laugh made it feel like any other day, and it was enough to pretend that he wasn't upset about anything. He could almost forget the reason he wasn't at Brian's anymore.

Debbie had already called Mom about the fact that he was staying with her, and Mom - predictably - was thrilled by the idea. In Mom's eyes, Debbie Novotny was undoubtedly a big step-up from his older, extremely crabby, promiscuous and definitely *male* lover.

One good thing about staying in Michael's old room were the memories he had of being there with Brian. So when he lay in bed that night, and there was no more talking and no one holding him and images of Brian shackled in the bathroom trying to peek in, he forced it all away and remembered being there with Brian instead.

Brian pretending he didn't want him.

Ever since that first night he'd always pretended he didn't want him, but Justin knew better and he'd proven it that night. His blow job had been a little sloppy - he still hadn't known much then - but Brian hadn't cared, and afterwards he'd pushed Justin down onto the bed he was lying on now and-

"Justin?"

Wiping at his eyes, Justin sat up. "Yeah?"

Vic stood in the doorway, the light from the hallway creeping around his body and into the room. "You okay, kiddo? Got everything you need?"

"Fine," Justin said, fiddling with the covers.

Pausing for a moment, Vic evidently made the decision to come inside and stepped into the room. When he reached the side of the bed he sat on the edge, regarding Justin for a while. "You know," Vic began, "I don't know what's going on lately - no one ever thinks to keep an old queen like me up to date with the latest gossip," he pretended to look offended, "but we all go through shit of one kind or another. If you ever need someone to talk to...well, let's face it, it's not like I have anything better to do."

Justin laughed, once, but quickly shook his head. "I'm fine," he repeated, but Vic just kept looking at him and Vic was like Em - he didn't ask questions, he just accepted. And Justin had been strong, he'd been so strong - he hadn't cried once all day - and he'd been fine, just fine, hadn't been fine at all and he'd been keeping it all in, scared shitless about Brian but unable to check on Brian and he couldn't believe what he'd done and he couldn't talk about it and Brian could probably have him arrested and he didn't know what the fuck he was supposed to be doing.

Vic just held him, not saying a word.

*

In retrospect, Justin felt really dumb for queening out the way he had. Crying - and probably snotting - all over Vic was the last thing he remembered before waking up that morning, and the image was more than a little humiliating.

At least he'd had a good night's sleep.

Making his way downstairs, he spotted Vic sitting at the kitchen table and immediately felt his face flush. There was no way to avoid him, however, so Justin stuck out his jaw and shuffled into the kitchen. "Mornin'."

Glancing up from the paper he was reading, glasses settled near the end of his nose, Vic smiled. "Morning, Sunshine. Deb had the early shift today, so I'm afraid those of us with a Y chromosome are left to fend for ourselves." Throwing his paper down onto the table, he stood up and drew his robe closer around his body. "Luckily for you, I used to be a gourmet chef. Take a seat, and I'll whip something up."

Grateful for the normal behaviour, Justin wasn't about to turn down the offer of a cooked breakfast. Sitting at the table he glanced at the paper - and then he was picking it up, turning the pages, scanning the articles.

Vic noticed after a few minutes, standing next to him with a spatula in his hand. "I didn't think you'd be very interested in reading the paper."

Justin wasn't offended, but then he wasn't paying much attention anyway. "I'm not really," he murmured, relieved when he reached the end and there was no mention of Brian's name.

It may have been stupid, but he had to check anyway.

Pleased as he could be, Justin closed the paper, folded it in half and put it back on the table.

Breakfast turned out to be delicious and he grunted in admiration at everything he ate. Vic laughed at the appreciation as Justin cut into another slice of bacon.

"It's kind of nice to cook again," Vic admitted. "I don't get the chance much around here. I love Sis, but she's territorial about her kitchen."

Justin found that easy to imagine, taking a bite out of his toast. "Why don't you get a job as a chef or something?"

Snorting from the other side of the table, Vic held out his arms as if to say, 'look at me'. "Who would hire me? I'm old, I have HIV - both things are death knells to a prospective career."

Shrugging, Justin swallowed a gulp of juice. "So start your own restaurant or something. If it was what I really wanted, I wouldn't let anything stop me."

Leaning his elbow on the table and his chin on the palm of his hand, Vic smirked. "Somehow I knew that already."

*

His first few shifts at the diner were an interesting experience. He spent most of his time keeping one eye on the door just waiting for Brian to turn up - which he never did. The thought of Brian strolling inside was playing havoc with his nerves and apparently bugging the shit out of Deb, because she pulled him aside one day.

"I don't know why you're so skittish about him," she glared, poking him in the chest, "but Michael told me he hasn't been around much. Apparently some business trip he went on drummed up a lot of business so he's been working overtime. Figures it'll stay that way for a while. Okay?"

Justin didn't know whether to be thankful for the reprieve or not, considering he knew for a fact that there'd been no business trip. "Okay."

After that, the job was okay. He hadn't particularly wanted to work - he'd never had a job before - but he needed his own source of money and he needed to pay Deb back for letting him stay at her place. She refused to take any money from him at all, of course, but he knew working at the diner was helping her out.

He felt comfortable in the diner. He could flirt with the customers (they really liked his ass), get good tips, and it didn't take him long to go from bus boy to waiter.

Of course, at the diner they were pretty much the same thing.

There was a constant fear that Brian would suddenly walk in, but after a while it dropped to an underlying buzz and Justin just tried to keep on top of the latest Brian gossip. That mostly consisted of insisting on serving any of the guys when they came in, and then eavesdropping on their conversation. Sometimes Mikey would be on the phone with Brian or Emmett would deliberately bring the subject up, and Justin would always hear the same things.

Working a lot. They barely saw him. Hadn't gone to Woody's or Babylon in ages.

Justin tried not to get his hopes up.

That lasted about five seconds.

______°°°______


Daphne loved coming to visit him at Deb's because - as she put it - they could do anything they liked and Deb didn't care. That wasn't entirely true, of course, but it was only after Daph said that that he realised just how good he had it at Debbie's. She'd informed him of the rules of the house the night he'd moved in, but he'd been too busy mooning over Brian to think about what they really meant.

He could fuck, drink, do drugs - there were just limits. No tricks after midnight. No stomach pumps required. Deb's ultimate credo was 'play safe' in sex and everything else. So yeah, she didn't mind if he got drunk or brought someone home - or both.

The only problem was he didn't feel like doing either of those. Part of him was worried that if he went out to Babylon to pick up a guy he'd see Brian there, and after everything that'd happened he just couldn't watch Brian drinking again, not when he could avoid being in that situation. And, quite honestly, at the moment he didn't want to fuck anyone else.

It sounded ridiculous, he knew, and one night he did bring someone home just to see what it was like. It wasn't bad at all, and he got off and it felt good, but...it wasn't Brian. So Justin said fuck you to theories about seventeen year-old gay boys wanting to fuck everything that moved, and decided he'd only fuck someone if he honestly wanted to.

Of course, he was still extremely familiar with his right hand.

A poke in the side brought him back to earth. Daphne.

"What are you thinking about?"

They were laying across the bed next to each other - Justin on his front, Daphne on her back - and he tipped his head towards her. "Sex."

Snorting, she rolled her eyes. "I knew it. It's true what they say about men. And you don't even have the decency to be thinking about me."

Grinning for a moment, he pushed himself up and crossed his forearms, resting them on the mattress. "Actually, I was thinking about *no* sex." His gaze moved away from her, looking down at his arms. "I haven't really done it since Brian...well there was kinda this one time, but that doesn't really count. I don't really want to, to be honest."

"That's good, Justin," she told him seriously, and the tone in her voice made him look back at her. "Sex is one of those things that you should only do if *you* really want to. At least," she grinned, "that's what Mom always says." She paused as if a thought had just crossed her mind, then her entire face formed a question mark. "I wonder how different gay sex feels from straight sex."

Justin really didn't want to know. He'd gotten the impression that Brian and Lindsay might have fucked in the past, but he wasn't even bothered about knowing what it was like. He was definitely a cock man.

"So," she continued, as if she hadn't just wandered off on a gay sex tangent, "are you going home today?"

Frowning, Justin cocked his head. "Why would I?"

"Well, I saw the balloons on the mailbox..."

As her voice trailed off, it hit him. Shit! "Oh, shit!" He pushed himself up and nearly toppled Daphne off the bed. "Molly's birthday!" He'd completely forgotten and had no idea what to get her. He had some money from working at the diner, but he didn't even know what Molly liked anymore.

"YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!"

The huge shriek from downstairs - that could only have come from Debbie - made Daphne sit up too, and then Justin was pulling open the door and running down the stairs. "What? What is it, what is it?"

Debbie was standing between the kitchen and the lounge, hugging Michael so tight it looked like he was about to pass out. Vic was sitting at the kitchen table, chuckling quietly.

Pulling away from Michael, Deb planted a kiss on his forehead before turning to face them, and the grin on her face was huge. Justin didn't think he'd ever seen her smile so much before, and that was saying something. "My Mikey's moving in with the man he loves!" she declared.

A little surprised, Justin moved closer to the kitchen. "David?"

"Of course David!" She sounded insulted, slapping him lightly on the arm, but then forgot all about it and turned back towards Michael. "Oh, honey." She leant forward, cupping his face in both hands.

"Ma..." Michael squirmed.

Sometimes Justin was seriously glad Debbie wasn't his mom.

"I always knew you were meant for a doctor."

"Chiropractor."

"Same thing," she was adamant. "But you know, I wouldn't care if he was a doctor or a trash collector, or if he shovelled shit in space - as long as you really loved him." Releasing his face, she lowered her arms and placed her hands on his shoulders. "I was always worried that you wouldn't let yourself get close to anyone, that you'd keep hoping for someone who...couldn't give you what you needed," there was no mistaking who she was talking about, and Michael's gaze moved over Debbie's shoulder to look at Justin. "I am so happy for you!" she finished, pulling him into another squeezing hug.

Justin cleared his throat, not really sure how he felt. "Congratulations, Michael."

"Yeah," Daph agreed, peering over Justin's shoulder. "Congratulations, Michael. That's great."

"Uh," Michael replied, still trapped, "thanks, uh...?"

"Daphne."

"Right, Daphne. Thanks, guys. Uh, Ma? You think you could let go some time this century?"

"Come on," Daph murmured, tugging on his sleeve, "let's go do the homework we were totally ignoring earlier, and then you can go visit Molly."

Justin couldn't think of any reason not to, and followed her up the stairs.

*

He wasn't surprised to see that Molly was having a party - she was a bit of a brat, really, and would've thrown a fit if she hadn't had one - and he jogged down the stairs towards the back yard, the portrait he'd drawn of her rolled up in his hand. It wasn't much but he hadn't known what else to get her, and maybe she'd appreciate it more as she got older.

Yeah, right.

Molly was sitting around the table with her friends, blowing out the candles on her cake. After the applause died down Mom saw him and stepped out towards him, smiling awkwardly. "Sweetheart! You came!" She leant in for a hug and this time he decided to go with it. Over the top as Debbie's reaction may have been earlier, seeing her with Michael had made him a little nostalgic.

"I couldn't miss Molly's birthday," he replied, pulling back and letting her guide him towards the table. His voice fell. "Where's Dad?"

"Inside," Mom replied quietly. "Watching the game. Kid's parties aren't exactly his thing."

Of course not. It'd be easy to say Craig Taylor wasn't much of a father to either of his kids, but before Justin'd come out things had been good. Really good. He'd taken so much for granted.

"Molly," Mom called, and Molly turned in her chair.

She saw him instantly and dived out of her seat. "Jus!"

"Happy Birthday, *Mollusk*," he greeted, taking the hug she gave him and lifting her up a little. He wondered sometimes how she was dealing with all this. If she knew why he was gone, or if she even really understood what gay was.

If she knew what a jackass her father was.

"Whatcha gonna give me?" she demanded, bratty as ever.

"Permission to live," he warned, putting her down on the ground and handing over the sketch. "Here."

Unrolling it, she studied the contents and looked back up at him, not seeming very impressed. Justin rolled his eyes.

"Justin, this is beautiful," Mom told him and then, ever the WASP, urged Molly to return to her seat before she could say anything bad before turning back towards him. "She's thrilled you came."

"Yeah?" Justin smirked. "How could you tell?"

They walked further away from the girls, giving them some privacy. Mom, being Mom, was convinced that he wasn't eating enough and asked if he was staying for dinner.

There was only one answer for that.

"Well...that depends if Dad wants to see me."

"Of course he wants to see you," Mom replied sincerely, "he's as upset about this as you are."

"Really?" Justin had some serious doubts.

"He wants you to come home. As you know I do."

The idea of Dad wanting him back home took him completely by surprise. Since Dad had told him to make a choice, Justin hadn't even considered coming back. He'd meant what he said in the alley - he was never coming home again. But now... "Well...I wanna come home too." And it surprised him how much he *did* want that; to be in his own room, to bitch at Molly when she took his stuff without permission, to see his parents be happy with each other again.

Despite the freedom he had at Deb's, it wasn't home.

But things changed. Everything changed. Nothing stayed the same.

"Oh, God, Justin. I'm so glad to hear you say that," Mom sounded so happy as she pulled him into another hug, and just that tone in her voice almost convinced him to actually try. Smiling, she let him go. "Let's go tell him."

Almost. "Wait. What about the rules?"

Her smile faltered, her posture becoming defensive. "Which rules?"

She knew which rules.

"That I can't go out, or see Brian. Or talk about my disgusting lifestyle." Yeah, that phrase was going to stay with him for a while.

"I don't..." Mom fumbled for words. "I don't think he meant it quite that way."

"What did he mean?"

"I think he just wants...everything to be...as it was."

"But it can't be the way it was," Justin argued. "I'm not the way I was."

"And I don't want you to be anything other than who you are," she insisted. "I just..." she paused, lips pursing together. "I have to consider the needs of this whole family. Not just your desires. You have to understand that."

Molly called for her, and then Mom just left him there. Justin couldn't believe it at first, blinking as he watched her move back towards the girls to start cutting the cake. Forcing his legs to move he turned away from them, making his way up the stairs that led out of the yard. They were pretty steep but he was long used to them and it didn't take long. Near the top he hesitated, swinging round to look at his family one last time.

His resolve hardened.

He wasn't hiding who he was. For anyone.

*

The journey back to Deb's gave him a lot of time to think. With all the worrying he'd been doing about Brian it'd taken his mind off all the crap happening with his family, and the visit with Mom and Molly had left him feeling pretty shitty about life in general. He seriously needed a distraction.

When he got back to Debbie's he picked up the phone and called Emmett's cell phone.

"Torso, how can I...shit, I mean Emmett Honeycutt speaking. Sorry, I'm so used to answering the work phone."

Just hearing him speak made Justin smile. "Hey, Em. You're at work?"

"Hey, there! I most certainly am. How's my ball of Sunshiny goodness doing today?" They'd been keeping in contact since the thing with Brian; the occasional phone call, dinner at the diner. Daph was great, but it was kind of nice having a guy friend.

"Not so good - I'm in the mood for a distraction, but don't think I'm up to Woody's or Babylon. Any suggestions?"

"Wellll," Emmett mulled, "we could go eat in a fabulous restaurant, or maybe go see a movie. *Or* you could come over and we'll pig out on pizza and watch the best of Jeff Stryker."

"Any of those sounds good." God, did they.

"Well, tell you what," he hmmphed as he paused - he was probably folding something, "seeing as I'm working a few extra hours today, why don't you come by Torso when I get off at five, and then we'll decide what we want to do."

Sounded just like what he needed. "Thanks, Em."

"No proble-oh, have to go, customerrr! Wow," his voice lowered, his mouth obviously moving closer to the phone as he whispered, "I cannot believe he's wearing *those* pants with *that* ass."

Laughing, Justin hung up the phone.

It wasn't all that long until five so Justin checked his appearance, let Vic know what was happening, and headed out of the house. He arrived at Liberty Avenue with about ten minutes to spare and window-shopped for a while before moving closer to Torso. He was eyeing the shirts in the window - he loved shirts with slogans - when someone bumped into him.

Although it wasn't his fault, Justin found himself turning and apologising anyway. "Sorry..." And then his gaze travelled up the body of the man now standing in front of him, familiar in absolutely every way.

His heart may have stopped beating.

"Not a problem, Sunshine."

Oh, shit.

"Brian."

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