In the week since his and Brian's Valentine Day celebration, Justin hadn't talked much to Xavier. Between class and work, Justin hardly had any time for Brian let alone his friends, the only difference being that Brian complained about the neglect and Xavier seemed to conspire with Justin to keep them from meeting by chance or design.

He'd asked Xavier to dance at his birthday party on impulse, a first small step towards mending the rift between them. Only it hadn't worked out that way. As they'd danced, he could see the hope in Xavier's eyes and it'd dismayed him. He'd only compounded the problem, and not done a damn thing as far as alleviating it. Of course, it was partly Xavier's fault because he persisted in seeing something that wasn't there. He didn't love Xavier, not like he loved Brian. He and Xavier were friends, he and Brian were committed to building a life together. As unbelievable as it would have seemed to him just one year ago, it had happened. And Xavier would just have to deal with it.

Only, whenever he saw Xavier, he was reminded of himself, pining for Brian during those long months before the bashing, when Brian refused to admit that he was anything more than a convenient fuck. Looking at Xavier, he could hear Brian say to him, "I'm not your partner, I'm not your lover, I'm not even your friend. You're not anything to me." Except that Xavier meant a great deal to him. Not even with Daphne had he formed such an instant bonding. Not even with Brian. He'd wanted Brian, desired him, but he hadn't understood him, that had come later, much later after more bumps and bruises than he cared to remember. But he and Xavier had clicked right away. They fit; even coming from vastly different backgrounds, they'd still found a way to talk to one another because their vocabularies had been the same. Not in terms of the words they'd used but in terms of the ideas behind the words. He supposed he might have been bitter, having met Xavier when he did, after he and Brian had realized that where they each belonged was with the other, but he wasn't. There was room in his life for both of them. Or could be, if Xavier would only accept the fact that Brian came first and that Brian's place was inviolate.

The sheet of paper glowed brightly in the confines of the studio. The day had departed taking with it the natural light and he'd been too busy thinking to notice until now. Flipping a switch, he lit the room once more and wondered where Bledsoe was. His studio mate was religious about putting in his time each and every night. By his watch Bledsoe was late. He stared at the paper much as he had all afternoon, nothing coming to him. There was no point in staying. Better to go home, spend some time with Brian.

Having packed his stuff, he made sure the door was locked and started to head for the stairs when he paused, aware of someone watching him. Knew it was Xavier. Didn't realy want to launch into a discussion right at this moment but it was the first time in days Xavier had even made a token gesture. So he turned around, met his friend's eyes. "Hey."

"Hey, J."

J. He called him J. Justin couldn't keep a smile from brightening his face. Xavier looked away, stepped back into the doorway of his studio. "Xavier, wait." Not caring that he hadn't been invited, Justin followed him, found Xavier sitting at a table in the room. "Xavier, please talk to me."

"And say what, J? What would make you happy? Make you smile again?" he asked although Justin knew him smiling like that had only hurt Xavier.

Instead of getting right into it, Justin replied, "You never said how your break was."

Xavier laughed, shook his head. "You are something else."

"I wanna know. Honest."

"I know," Xavier said softly. That was one of the things he loved about Justin, that he really, truly cared, that he'd listen to him talk about D.C. and ask questions and would be genuinely interested. "It was all right." Paused. "Made out like a bandit with the presents. My grandma really missed me," he said smiling.

"I still have your present." Justin watched his friend ponder that bit of information.

Eyes fixed on Justin, he said, "I still have yours."

That didn't surprise him, that Xavier had bought him something prior to the break, to their fallout. . . to their kiss. Which had occured here in this studio, him almost up against the door. He could still feel his friend's fingertips on his arm, still smell his cologne, something light that reminded him of citrus fruit. He'd instructed his friends not to give him anything for his birthday, sparing Xavier that trial but he'd always wondered if Xavier had gotten him something for Christmas. He should have known that he had. "We could have Christmas in February," Justin suggested.

Again Xavier laughed. "That's what I lo- -" He stopped. Scratched behind his ear. Said tightly, "I can't even say it."

"Xavier- -"

"It's better if I don't. Not even as a joke. Bri- -" Shit. He hadn't intended to say anything about Brian's visit.

"What about Brian?"

"He wouldn't like it." Please, let him be satisfied.

Justin shrugged. "Probably. But then again, there are a lot of things he doesn't like. And the world goes on." They shared a chuckle, both of them fully aware of the fact that Brian, on a good day, was a hand full. "So you wanna?" After a moment, Xavier nodded. "Cool. When?"


"'kay." Now was not the time to go any further with their reconcilliation. "Later."

"Later, J."

Pleased at these first steps they'd taken, Justin gave a little wave and left.

Justin gone, Xavier sat, completely drained of energy. It'd taken everything he had not to touch him. The dance they'd shared at the party had been okay because the music had been fast, they hadn't touched beyond Justin tapping his arm to ask him to dance in the first place. They'd parted after a while, once Justin had realized that Brian was no longer watching them. They'd both been aware of his scrutiny.

Looking up and seeing him enter his studio, Xavier had known why Brian was there. He'd only been surprised that it'd taken the man a week to finally come around. But once he had, he'd made it perfectly clear what he'd tolerate and what he wouldn't take at all. So what did that mean for him? He hadn't lied when he'd intimated that he couldn't stop loving Justin. It was beyond his control. But would he do as Brian had ordered and not push it? He was trying when everything in him screamed for him to go for it; when he'd seen the look in Justin's eyes and knew that his friend had feelings for him that had nothing to do with friendship and everything to do with intimate relations between lovers. If he pushed it, if he decided not to take no for an answer, he didn't think Justin would be able to resist him. But could he do it? He'd seen the joy in Justin's face when he'd spoken about him and Brian exchanging rings. Justin loved Brian. Was he right to try and come between them?

Xavier shook his head. He was afraid he was coming close to the point where, right or wrong, he wouldn't have a choice.

Brian was boiling water for pasta when Justin got home. Throwing down his bag and placing his sketchpad on the table, he perched on one of the bar stools and watched his lover cook supper. Granted, Justin had made the sauce from scratch yesterday but for Brian to actually cook at all was amazing.

Dumping the pasta in the pot, Brian went around to the other side of the counter to receive a kiss. "Guess what?" he asked afterwards.

"What?" He didn't really care as long as Brian stayed close to him, close enough for his natural scent to displace Xavier's cologne.

"Gotta go to Birmingham for a site tour of Hyperion Biotechnics. Wanna come?"

Fuck yeah, was what he wanted to say but he couldn't. "I've got school."

"It's only for two days."

"I missed a couple weeks last semester because of the trial and I can't afford to miss even a couple days this semester."

A little disappointed, Brian understood. "Your loss."

"When are you leaving?"


That soon? "They couldn't let you know before now?"

Brian slipped an arm across Justin's shoulders, pulled him closer. "Least we've got tonight."

"What time do you fly out?"


While the fusili cooked, Brian and his little boy worked towards storing up as many kisses as possible before the ad exec had to leave in the morning. By the time Brian pulled away to put on the sauce, both he and Justin were breathing heavily and looked a little wild-eyed. Justin held onto him for as long as he could, his fingers slipping from his sleeve only at the very last moment.

They dined by candlelight as they did every now and then when the mood struck them, the flames reflected in black china and clear goblets. Talked about their day- - Justin pointedly omitting any mention of Xavier- - and about their continuing quest to redecorate the loft, on which they didn't expend a great deal of thought or energy as the loft was quite fabulous as it was. All of the kids at the party had been suitably impressed by the apartment although a few wouldn't admit it, their eyes, nevertheless, betraying what they felt, what they were too cool to say verbally. They continued to plan for their trip, haggling over cities to visit in Italy, Brian wanting to spend a day in Milan that Justin thought could be better spent in Naples or Pompeii. Of course, Brian wanted to shop and Justin was more in favor of exploring the ruins of Pompeii or strolling through the palazzo in Naples. It was a discussion that would not end in a decision. Yet.

Working together to clean up the kitchen in record time, they were on their way to bed to fool around when the phone rang. "Is this fucking apartment bugged?" Brian grumbled. It always seemed as if someone called or dropped by whenever they wanted to fuck. Which wasn't true as they'd engaged in plenty of uninterrupted bouts of lovemaking. It was just that Brian hated to be interrupted ever when he had his mind on playing. "Yeah?" he asked, snatching the phone from the cradle.


Lindsay, he mouthed to Justin. Sighed. It was probably going to be a long conversation. "What?"

"I need a favor."

When didn't she? "I'm waiting."

"I need a babysitter."


"Saturday?" Although it was phrased as a question, he realized that it was, in actuality, a command.

"Whatever. For how long?"

"Until Sunday afternoon?"

"Fuck," he groaned. "All right." He couldn't very well refuse, Gus was his kid too.

"You sure?"

Justin was making signs at him. Telling him to be nice before he disappeared into the bedroom. "I assume you're bringing him over at the crack of fucking dawn."

"Afternoon." He could hear the humor in her voice. "So you and Justin can fuck the morning away. Thanks." She hung up.

Brian pretty much ran to the other room, hoping to catch Justin as he was undressing. Wasn't disappointed. Growled at the sight of the boy's pale buttocks as he bent over to slide off his pants. "Christ."

"You say something?" Justin asked, wiggling his butt slightly.

Not responding, Brian moved behind him and grabbed hold of his waist, held him in place as he rubbed against him.

Justin could feel Brian's cock through the thin material of his sweats. It was already stiffening, forcing its way in between his cheeks. That's it, he thought as he felt the cloth-covered member nudge him.

Ten minutes later, Brian having rimmed him thoroughly, having thrust his tongue up inside him until Justin screamed his name helplessly, he gripped the edge of the bed's platform while his man fucked his spit-soaked hole. Head cushioned by and bumping against the mattress, Justin moaned as Brian stretched him open, drubbing his insides with hard regularity. With a grunt, Brian filled him with cum, then quickly withdrew and pushed him down onto the bed. Turned him over, Justin's legs still entangled in his pants, and roughly sucked him off. Cries echoing throughout the apartment, Justin came, his fingers gripping the back of Brian's head. "I love you," he whispered, fighting for each breath. "I love you. . ."

Brian licked his lips clean of cum, loving the taste of his lover's spunk. Kissed his little boy's cock and belly. "I know."

The morning came too soon and Justin found himself, inexplicably, close to tears as he drove Brian to the airport. Because of heightened security, he didn't go inside but parked in the short-term parking lot and said his good-bye there in the Jeep.

Sensing that something was wrong, Brian held him tightly. Kissed him gently and often. "You okay?"

"Yeah." Justin sniffled and laughed. "Fuck. It's not like you're going to be gone long."

"I'll be back tomorrow night."

The teenager pulled away. "Go on. Before I make a complete fucking fool out of myself."

Brian pecked him again. "Too late." Opened the door and got his bag out of the back. "Love you," he said before closing the door.

"Be good," Justin replied. Waved as he walked away. Waiting until Brian had vanished across the street into the terminal, Justin started up the car and headed for the ticket booth. Tomorrow night seemed a lifetime away.

As he waited for his flight to begin boarding, having held his temper during the innumerable security checks and delays, Brian thought about Justin's last words. "Be good," the boy had said and he wondered if he'd meant it seriously or if it was a joke.

They began boarding the first class passengers and he got his ticket out, waited his turn. The gate clerk checked his ticket and wished him a pleasant flight. It would be except for the hour layover in Atlanta, but he'd get to Birmingham before ten in the morning and have the entire day to get a feel for the company's operations. Probably have dinner with Kenneth with or without other key members of the corporation. And on Friday he'd give them his preliminary impressions of the organization and his first thoughts on a marketing strategy. But he wouldn't be able to make a real pitch to them for weeks afterwards while he refined his ideas and worked with the rest of his team.

Be good. The words came to him again after he'd settled into his seat and refused any refreshments. Justin had gotten up and fixed him a breakfast fit for a king. He'd have to go out-of-town more often. Although, to be fair, Justin would probably get up and fix breakfast every morning except that they liked hanging with the guys at the diner.

He wondered what Justin had meant. Was Justin worried about him tricking during his trip? They hadn't discussed the possibility and he hadn't really thought about it. He hadn't been with anyone else since before the trial had begun. Hadn't wanted that to come out in the papers, that he'd been with some trick, not that anything could have tarnished his reputation any more than it had already been.

Did he miss it? Honestly, not really. Except for a tiny twinge that he felt sometime when he came across a totally hot guy, the kind of guy he would have done in a minute back in the old days. He'd seen a couple of guys like that in the past few weeks and, for an instant, he'd thought, Who would know? and he'd answered himself, You'd know. And if you knew, he'd know.

Settling down for the brief flight to Atlanta, Brian closed his eyes. Put the matter of tricking from his mind. He'd have to be on his toes today, would have to impress Kenneth and crew from the get go. No time for personal problems. Had to keep focused on work. . .

The flight attendant smiled as the man slept. When no one was looking, she slipped her phone number in his jacket pocket. You never knew when opportunity would knock again.

Checking the wrapping on the present for the tenth time that morning, Justin slipped it into his backpack and hoped Xavier would like it. Hoped he didn't have it already. Hoped that, like Brian had for his birthday, he'd found something truly special for his friend. And then it came to him: he didn't know when Xavier's birthday was, or Rennie's for that matter. He'd have to ask.

He got to school a little early to find a parking space. Good thing he'd registered the Jeep at the beginning of the semester, thinking maybe he'd get the opportunity to drive it to class every now and then. He and Brian hadn't discussed him getting a car of his own and with Brian footing the bill for practically everything except college, he'd decided it wouldn't really do to ask him to get him a car too. He'd just have to wait until he could afford it. Which would be a long time on his pay from the diner.

Thoughts full of cars, he almost ran into Trevor Janson, his sculpture prof. Justin didn't think he'd ever be good at sculpting of any kind but he enjoyed the class. Trevor was a great teacher, always there to encourage you but never bullshitting you about talent you didn't have; he offered an honest assessment of each student's work.

"In that big of a hurry to get to class?" Trevor asked. To get to his class.

"Sorry, Professor Janson." Shook his head. "Thinking about other things."

"Like Brian?"

Justin had felt kinda helpless when Brian had told him how Trevor had tried to cruise him at Babylon during the time they weren't speaking to one another. Not that anything had come of it but still. . . Anyway, now, the point was moot. Chagrined at being caught out, Justin replied, "Kind of."

"How is he?"

"Okay." Justin wondered what he was getting at since it was obvious he was getting at something.

Hesitating a bit first, Trevor spoke. "Do you think he'd pose for a piece? It wouldn't take too much of his time."

"Brian? A model?" Justin frowned, not seeing it. "Whose?"


His first inclination was to say no, that Brian wouldn't do it but he realized his reaction was based more on jealousy than sure knowledge of his partner's feelings in the matter. Get a grip, he told himself. What did he think would happen? That Trevor would seduce Brian while carving a statue of him? So he answered, "I don't know. You could ask him. He's out-of-town on business until tomorrow night. Why don't you call him? On Saturday. Afternoon," he added. Got out a sheet of paper and scribbed their number on it.


"I have to warn you, though," Justin said, "he won't even sit still for me. I have to sketch him in his sleep." And that's one opportunity you're never going to have.

There'd been a car and driver waiting for him at the airport to whisk him away to the complex on the edge of town. He was immediately impressed by the fragile steel and glass structure in the midst of perfectly manicured lawns. Instead of dominating its surroundings, the building harmonized with the grounds, complemented the landscaping. Nature and human engineering perfectly balanced.

He was met in the lobby not by some lower echelon flunky or secretary or administrative assistant, but by Harris himself. The man was as attractive as Brian had remembered from their second meeting in Pittsburgh when Kenneth had signed the contracts retaining the firm's services and providing Brian with a healthy bonus to boot.

Extending a hand, Harris welcomed him. "Brian. Good to see you again."

"Kenneth." They shook hands. "Impressive setup."

Pleased at the compliment, Kenneth grinned. "You haven't seen anything yet. Come on, I'll take you on the fifty cent tour."

From bottom to top, Kenneth guided Brian on a tour of the entire complex, making stops in R&D, the library, the mailroom, and two dozen other areas. Brian had gotten permission to take some photographs, as long as they weren't of anything sensitive, and he couldn't wait to download the pictures onto his workstation. By the time they got to Harris' office, Brian was impressed by both the man and his company. He seemed to know everyone and to know about every facet of the operation. It was if he'd done everything. That impression was confirmed as Kenneth explained to Brian that, "In the beginning, the mailroom was a corner of my office, Research and Development was the lab in the back, and the library was my desk computer; I was the Primary Researcher, librarian, secretary, and delivery boy." It was a little after one and they were just about to head to lunch in the commissary where Kenneth promised Brian a fantastic meal. "So? Any first impressions?"

"That all you really need is to give personal tours to potential clients. They'd be fools not to come on board," he said lightly, then in a more serious tone, "I was really struck by how balanced everything seemed. The technology's there, just not overwhelming. You never forget that what the company's about is people: the scientists, the secretaries, the managers, the clients. . ." He shook his head. "It's like applying Feng Shui on every level of the operation."

Kenneth smiled. "I knew I'd picked the right man." Stood and gestured to the door. "I don't know about you but I'm starving."

After class Justin, Xavier, and Rennie headed down the street to a nearby burger joint for lunch, Rennie bitching about the smell of dead animal flesh ruining her appetite although she scarfed down her fries without too much trouble Justin noticed.

He debated giving Xavier his present with Rennie around, weighing the pros and cons. The pro being that with her there they wouldn't get into any trouble. The con being that they wouldn't be alone and he kind of wanted to be alone when he gave Xavier his present. Maybe Xavier would make the first move and he wouldn't have to decide.

But lunch ended and Xavier hadn't said a word or given him any signal. So they'd wait.

The afternoon passed with all of them in their studios busy working on an oil painting project due Tuesday; and just as Justin was about to give up and go home for the day, Xavier appeared. "You doing anything for dinner?"

"Probably go home and make pasta or something."

"You mind some company?"

For an instant Justin nearly refused but he couldn't. Xavier was his friend. There was nothing wrong with the two of them having dinner together. They'd done it lots of times. "Rennie coming?"

"Nope. Feminist Art Club meeting. They're watching a bootleg Karen Finley video. Can't miss that for anything," he mocked. But, of course, he'd never say that to her face. She had absolutely no sense of humor when it came to feminist art.

So they piled into the Jeep and headed home, stopping at the deli first to pick up some Italian sausage. "It's Brian's favorite," Justin explained on the way there.

"I thought he was in Birmingham?"

"He'll be back tomorrow. We can have leftovers."

"Leftovers don't really seem to be his style," commented Xavier.

"He'll eat it if I fix it," Justin said proudly.

"You don't mind?"

"What? Leftovers?"

Xavier chose his words carefully. "Being the domestic one?"

And Justin laughed to let him know that he wasn't offended. Everybody assumed he was Brian's little woman. "We share chores. I cook cause I'm better at it. He cleans cause he's anal retentive. He hates messes. You should see him go after dust bunnies."

Xavier snickered. He couldn't imagine Brian cleaning. "I thought you had a cleaning lady?"

"She comes once a week, waxes the floors, makes sure the curtains are clean, does the laundry, that kind of stuff. But Brian won't let the place go in between visits. He freaks out if I don't use the hamper or if I get anything on the furniture."

"And everything's fucking white," said Xavier in disbelief. "Crazy."

"Yep," confirmed Justin. "He likes to take risks."

"Like being with you?"

Justin heard the challenge in Xavier's voice, chose to answer it. "That wasn't a risk, that was a sure thing."

Xavier watched Justin layer the ziti, tomato sauce, sausage and cheese in a casserole before popping it into the oven. He'd been a good little helper, crushing the garlic and dicing the green and red peppers. He hadn't asked if Brian usually did those things, didn't want to know. It felt strange and a little painful fixing dinner with Justin, knowing that he was sitting where Brian probably sat, doing the things Brian probably did, and knowing that, at the end of the evening, he was going home and not climbing into bed with Justin.

Sipping a glass of red wine, the only one he'd allow himself as he had to drive Xavier home later, Justin led his friend over to the livingroom. Cut on the television and turned to Cartoon Network. The Power Puff Girls were on.

Incredulously, Xavier asked, "And Brian watches this with you?"

"Not all the time. But every now and then he comes home and says he's in the mood to watch Buttercup kick some butt."

"She would be his favorite."

"He bought me this- -" and then he stopped, face red he was sure. Just thinking about the Power Puff Girls backpack in Brian's toy chest made him blush. The things they'd done with that ring toss set. . .


"Nothing." He covered his embarrassment by drinking some wine, then exclaimed, "Hey! I love this episode. It's where Buttercup falls in love with Ace from the Gangrene Gang."

"I've seen this one. Ace pretends to be nice so he and the Gangrene Gang can commit all these crimes. Totally perpetrating. I can't believe Buttercup fell for that tired act."

"She's only five. What does she know?" Justin asked in her defense. "The things I've done and I'm much older. . . You never know what you're capable of until you have to decide what to do."

Like me forcing you to admit that you do love me? Xavier asked himself. Then he put it out of his head for the moment, determined to enjoy his evening with Justin no matter what.

At four thirty Kenneth dismissed the meeting and walked Brian out to the lobby to wait for the car to take him to his hotel. The day had gone well for all involved. Brian felt good about his relationship with Kenneth and his staff, which would only help as he worked on crafting an ad campaign for them.

"Can I interest you in dinner?" Kenneth asked him.

"Love it."

Checking his watch, Harris suggested that Brian meet the driver out in front of the hotel at seven. "Give me time to go home and change and you a chance to unwind a little. You mind if we eat at my house? I've got a fabulous cook."

Brian shrugged. "It's your call."

Only as he rode to the hotel he wondered if he hadn't made a mistake. There was no doubt Kenneth was interested in him. He hadn't made any secret of it the first time they'd met and their subsequent meetings only convinced him of the man's continuing interest. Maybe they'd be better off going out to eat. But he was kind of tired and it'd be a lot more relaxing to eat at Kenneth's house than dealing with a restaurant. He hoped. Fuck it, he was a big boy, he knew how to say no and to keep on saying no until he was safely back in Pitts.

With an eye to remaining virtuous, he decided not to wear his "Fuck me" black shirt as Justin called it and settled on a plain grey sweater and a pair of black trousers. Still, he had to admit, he looked hot. Just not available. Kind of. Rubbing his ring on his chest, he buffed it to a high gloss. Thought about calling Justin but the teen would probably still be in the studio working and he hated disturbing him when he was concentrating. Justin had been hustling lately and he'd given him a hard time about it despite having sworn to do the opposite. Well, he resolved that when he got back home he'd stop complaining. Yeah, right. Okay, he'd do better. That was all he could promise. And it was all Justin had ever asked of him.

He couldn't help but be impressed as the driver pulled up to a beautiful home in an exclusive part of town. Japanese-inspired in style, the house, like the Hyperion building, was in perfect harmony with the landscaping. He wished he could have seen it in the daylight. Still, what he could see of it impressed him. He wouldn't mind having a place like that someday. Him and Justin. And Gus. And the kid Justin wanted to have with Daphne. Brian grinned. Jesus, a kid with Justin and Daphne's genes and propensity for talking. Poor Gus wouldn't be able to get a word in edgewise. Of course, Gus would probably be the strong, silent type. Like him. Justin called it being uncommunicative. He was probably right. Neither he nor Lindsay were comfortable dealing with their feelings, getting things out in the open. They'd both been getting better about it but sometimes they retreated into silence as the only way to keep their self-control. And it was funny, because they each encouraged the other to open up more while completely ignoring their own tendency to lock down on their emotions.

As he had at the complex, Kenneth met him at the door, leading him into the depths of the house. "There's a formal dining room but I figured we could probably make do with the sunroom out back."

Brian followed silently, bolstering his faltering resolve. Kenneth looked fabulous, radiating a quiet strength that was damned attractive. Without ever seeing his bank account, you knew he was a powerful man. And power was something of an aphrodisiac for Brian. He recognized that about himself and went on standby alert. This was going to be a long evening.

Fortunately, irregardless of whatever ulterior motives drove Kenneth, the man proved to be the perfect host. Attentive not smothering, proud of his home but not boisterous, and forceful in stating his opinions without ever being overbearing. Smart. Knowledgeable about business outside his own field, up on current events, well-versed in cultural matters, well-traveled and willing to indulge Brian's questions once Brian had explained that he and Justin were planning a trip to Europe in the late summer. "You'll love it," he told Brian. "No matter where you go. There's something about every city, every town that makes it worth visiting. You won't be disappointed."

Yet Brian detected a hint of disappointment in Kenneth's tone, as if he'd finally realized that Brian was part of a partnership. After that moment he seemed a little subdued. Taking that as his cue, Brian suggested that he go. "I should be getting back to the hotel."

Dark brown eyes fixed on Brian's face, Harris said, "You don't have to."

The invitation was on the table, no mistake about it. All he had to do was accept it. He'd caught enough glimpses of the man's package to know that he wouldn't be disappointed. But then there was Justin. . . Standing, Brian decided, "I think I do." But Kenneth stood too and moved closer to him. Took hold of his elbow. He felt like a teenager on a first date, not quite sure where anything went or how to react. All he knew was that his heart was racing and he was about two seconds away from turning and kissing the man. With effort, he started to object, "I- -"

"I know you're attracted to me."

He couldn't deny it. Couldn't speak to deny it, couldn't gather the wits to do so.

"And you know how I feel about you. What's one night?"

Taking a couple deep breaths, he cleared his head. "You're a client."


Brian laughed. "I've learned the hard way not to mix business and pleasure."

"That the only thing?"

He held up his hand, displaying his commitment band. "He's waiting at home for me." And just thinking about Justin sitting up in bed reading his Lucian Freud book made him feel stronger.

"A faithful man. Rare these days." Kenneth smiled. Moved away from him. "At least stay for dessert."

And give Harris another opportunity to wear him down? No. "I couldn't eat another bite."

Finally, Kenneth seemed to accept defeat. "All right. Wait here and I'll call the driver," he said and left to do so in private.

Brian closed his eyes. Shit. He couldn't wait to get home. Traveling was just too damn dangerous these days.

They'd gotten totally silly on the wine, Xavier not used to having it and Justin breaking his own quota and having a couple glasses. Before dinner was over they were laughing at everything: television, their own alcohol-induced jokes, the napkins. . . Risking the wrath of Brian, they'd eaten in front of the television, plates of pasta balanced precariously on their laps, goblets of wine between them on the coffee table. More than once their fingers had brushed as they both reached for another sip. Faces flushed from the wine, from the close proximity to one another, they doused their growing arousal with yet more Cabernet. Finally, dinner consumed, they stumbled to the kitchen with their plates and the empty wine glasses and realized they were more than a little unsteady on their feet.

Fuck, thought Justin. Why the fuck did I open that wine? Carefully, he avoided looking at Xavier.

His guest was in just as tight a spot. Xavier was well-aware of the fact that his resistence was low, lowered, in fact, by the wine, and he was praying for an opening, any opening, to take advantage of their mutual intoxication. And, at the same time, he wanted to walk out of the apartment having done the right thing, having resisted temptation once again.

Getting them out of the confining kitchen was the first order of business. Taking Xavier's plate and glass from him, Justin quickly loaded the dishwasher and grabbed two bottles of water from the fridge, grateful for the momentary blast of cold air. He waved the bottles in the air, indicated a return to the living room. But not the two armchairs by the TV, the sofa. As he sat down, it hit him. Idiot. Too late now to change without looking a little obvious. But Xavier seemed to have come to the same conclusion, that a little distance would be good, and he sat a ways away. Reached for the bottle of water and knocked back a good third of it. Justin watched the muscles in his throat move as he swallowed. A trickle of water ran down his chin, down his neck. Fuck. It was time for the presents. Exchange the presents and get Xavier the hell out of there. That was the plan.

He got up and grabbed his backpack. Returned to the sofa. Xavier's bag was at his end of the couch. Justin took out the gift he'd bought his friend and held it in his lap. Xavier did the same. Smiling awkwardly, he offered the package. Xavier took it, handed him a wrapped box, a strained smile on his face as well. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas," said Xavier. "Go on, open it."

"You too."

They both got busy removing the paper, Justin in his normal fastidious fashion, Xavier more like Brian, tearing the wrapping off in one or two motions.

"J. . ." Xavier seemed amazed by his gift.

He'd gotten him a book about Leonardo Drew, one of Xavier's favorite artists. "You like it?"

"I never thought. . ." He smiled ruefully. "I never thought about looking for a book about him. I figured who'd care about this young Black guy? This young Black artist?"

"You do." He paused. "One day there'll be books written about you. You'll see." He still hadn't finished opening his gift. He'd gotten the paper off but the present itself was inside a box. Slowly, he opened it. Dug through the tissue paper and found it. Before he even got it out, he knew what it was.

One of Xavier's pieces. Xavier had made this for him.

"It's my interpretation of Ogun. A Yoruba orisha. He's the god of creativity but he's also a warrior. A fighter." Xavier looked intently at Justin, waiting until the teen returned the gaze. "Like you."

The piece didn't resemble a person in the least bit but it gave the impression of great strength and beauty: dark metal shot through with golden wire, decorated with green and black beads, and mounted on a wooden base. As he had when Brian had given him his birthday present, Justin could feel the tears welling up inside him. To cover his response, he stood. "I should find a really special place for this." Unfortunately, he headed for the bedroom. Even more disasterously, Xavier followed him. He half-turned in the doorway, trapped in inaction.

Softly, Xavier spoke, "Tell me you don't want me and I'll go."

Justin's heart was beating so fast he didn't think he could speak and if he did speak, what would he say? Lie and tell Xavier he didn't feel anything for him, didn't want him so badly right now that he could barely form any kind of rational thought? Or tell him that, tell him the truth? He was damned either way. Holding his present in his hands, he cast about for an answer.

And there it was. Bright against the dark metal of the piece. His ring. The ring Brian had given him, the ring he'd taken in good faith, promising to be faithful forever. Feeling a tear roll down his cheek, he answered, "I want you to go."

But Xavier wouldn't accept that answer, not this time. He pulled Justin around. "I said tell me you don't want me and I'll go."

"Don't make me say- -"

"I want to hear you say it." Xavier's eyes flashed. "Say it!"

"I don't want you!" Justin shouted, pulling away.

For the space of a half-dozen heartbeats they stood staring at one another. Finally Xavier said, "I never thought you'd lie to me," and he walked away from Justin, grabbed his bag.

"Xavier- -"

He turned, tears blinding him, and jabbed a finger at Justin. "Fuck you."

The door slammed shut as Xavier fled the apartment. Justin sat down on the steps and gave over to the tears that had begun to fall. What had he done?

The phone rang. It'd be Brian, saying goodnight, being a good partner, being everything that he wanted him to be. So why wasn't it enough? Wiping his face, he got up, walked over to the computer desk in the other room. He stood over the phone, not picking it up. Waiting for the machine to come on.

"Hey, baby. Just got back from dinner. I guess you're in the studio. I'm beat so I'm going to bed. I'll see you tomorrow night. Six thirty, okay? I hope you get this before too late. You need to rest more. Later. Love you."

"I love you too," he whispered. Put the statue of Ogun on the desk and went to bed.

It hadn't been the homecoming he'd expected. Justin had seemed a little subdued but when he'd asked him why, the teenager had avoided the issue, kissing him and telling him he was glad that he was home. Except that he hadn't smiled as brightly, hadn't jumped in Brian's arms the way he'd thought about all during his flight back to Pittsburgh. He'd counted on it, on meeting Justin outside the terminal and having the teenager leap into his arms. As he pulled up the elevator door, he guessed it had been a little silly to imagine Justin doing that. But it would have been something if he had. It would have been perfect. He supposed he'd gotten used to things being relatively perfect between them. Newlywed delusion. Eventually, the honeymoon was over and you had to face real life again, with all of its imperfections.

Carrying his bag to the bedroom, he decided to unpack tomorrow. Right now all he wanted was to eat and to make love to his little boy and to curl up in his own bed, sleep in tomorrow. He put down his suit bag and took his briefcase back to the livingroom to set by the desk. Noticed something different. "What's this?"

Justin had taken out the pasta from the night before and was putting it in the oven. Without seeing what Brian was talking about he knew what he was referring to. "Xavier made it for me. For Christmas."

"It's amazing." He must really love you, he thought. He bought him Duraflame logs and books about artists and Xavier fuckin' made him art. Christ, he did not need this, not right now, not after Birmingham and feeling vulnerable. . . Chuckled a little. Maybe that was it. Maybe he was being melodramatic. Justin didn't expect him to be anything he wasn't. Only. . . Only it'd be a lot easier to accept if Justin hadn't been in a slight funk, if he hadn't gotten the impression that something more than a simple exchange of gifts had occured. How could he even begin to ask? And what if Justin told him more than he wanted to know? Fuck, fuck, fuck.

"You got a package," Justin told him as he came over from the kitchen, an express mail box in his hands. Handed it over. "From Tommy Pearce."

The Living Ken Doll. Cam's ex. What the fuck would he be sending him? He took the package, it looked like the kind of box you sent a video in. That didn't make any sense. He and Cam- - Shit. His hands shook. He knew what was in the box. Not tonight, not feeling the way he did, not now. Why the fuck did it have to come tonight?


He sat on the arm of the sofa. Swallowed, then swallowed again before speaking. "It's a video we made. With one of those old camcorders, back when people still called them video camera recorders. Big as hell, weighed a fuckin' ton." He snickered. "I'd forgotten all about it." Shook his head. "I would have thought he'd have ripped it to shreds."

Thinking that it was a precursor to the two videos he and Brian had made in the privacy of the loft, Justin asked, "A sex video?"

"No. We went to New York. For the weekend." Smiled softly. "It was one of the best times we ever had together." Slowly, he opened the package and, sure enough, it was a video. The video. Labeled, "NY Trip". No letter of explaination, no reason, no rationale. Tommy'd just dumped it in his lap, an unexpected gift.

"You gonna watch it?"

"I was there." He carried the video to the television, put it with the others underneath in the cabinet. As he headed back towards the kitchen Justin met him and guided him to the bedroom. "What about dinner?"

"Fuck it."

It was the first time they'd been apart for even a night since from before the trial and Justin was amazed at how much he'd missed Brian. And maybe part of it was the mess he'd created with Xavier but most of it was the man himself and how much he loved touching him and loved lying next to him. Naked, arms and legs entwined, they kissed for what seemed like forever. If he never had to move from this spot again, it'd be fine with him. Fuck the world outside their room, it didn't matter. Nothing mattered but this, but being in Brian's arms, feeling Brian's lips on his neck, his chest, his face, kissing Brian's neck, chest, and face. "I love you," he said over and over again as if he could imprint the words on Brian's skin so that they'd never forget.

Brian pulled back a little. "Baby?" He'd heard the desperation in Justin's voice and it worried him a little.

But Justin drew him in for another kiss. "I missed you."

"I missed you."

"Make love to me."

"I have been," he said and Justin smiled, remembering Brian saying that the first time they made love after he left the hospital.

Then he remembered what he'd told Brian, that he'd never leave him, even if he told him to and Brian had cried, overcome by Justin's love for him. By his devotion. "Don't let me go," he told Brian, face buried in his shoulder.

"I won't, baby," and that's when Brian knew that something had happened, something that had scared Justin bad, and he wanted to jump from the bed and go find Xavier and beat the shit out of him, and he wanted to stay in bed and hold Justin so tight that the teen wouldn't be able to leave, and he knew that he couldn't do either. He could only love him the best way he knew how.

Justin had fallen asleep in his arms and he'd been loathe to disturb him, letting him sink deeper and deeper into his dreams before sliding from beneath him. He made a bee line for the television, squatting to put in the videotape Tommy had sent him. Why would Cam have kept it all those years? Taking a seat, he watched a much younger version of himself laugh with his young lover, both of them so confident in love, in the strength of something so fragile. Cam laughing as he said, "This is Brian and Cam, on our way to New York City!" Yelled, "Whoo hoo!" Kissed Brian hard. They'd balanced the camera on the kitchen counter in the house Cam would soon be leaving, both of them having relocated to Pittsburgh, Cam and Frank having found a new house there.

A rough cut, then Cam driving while Brian held the camera. "We're on the Pennsylvania Turnpike which is the most boring piece of shit road there is."

Heard himself say, "Do something."

"Do what?" Cam had asked and Brian had told him, "Sing something."

So Cam had sung. "I'm worse at what I do best/ And for this gift I feel blessed/ Our little group has always been/ And always will until the end/ Hello, hello, hello, how low/ Hello, hello, hello, how low/ Hello, hello, hello, how low/ Hello, hello, hello/ With the lights out it's less dangerous/ Here we are now, entertain us/ I feel stupid and contagious/ Here we are now, entertain us/ A mulatto, an albino/ A mosquito, my libido/ Yeah. . ." nearly fucking wrecking the car with his head bobs, slapping the steering wheel, and Brian had loved him so much he could still see it in the way the camera lingered over Cam's hands or closed in on his incredible eyes. He closed his own for a moment and sobbed against his fist. Oh God. . .

Justin watched him through the blinds of the bedroom walls. Watched him rewatching his life. With his first love. Brian would always have that, a first love that wasn't him. He wouldn't. Brian was his first love. His only love. He thought of the piece of sculpture on the computer desk. Then put it out of his mind and turned over, away from the flickering shadows of the past.

Sitting in the dark, the light from the television illuminating his face, Brian wept and laughed silently as he and Cam tore through New York City.

And I forget
Just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard
It was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind

Before the elevator came to a halt, he could hear Gus calling for him. Maybe he wouldn't be the strong and silent type. "Hey, Sonny Boy," he said as the baby ran to him and he picked him up.

"Dada." The baby gave him a huge kiss, gripping his hair with both hands. Future flirt, big time. "Hey, Dada."

Linday kissed him as well. "You're a sweetheart. Mel and I need some Mommies-only time."

"You owe me," he told her as she lugged Gus' stuff into the apartment while he got the toddler's coat and shoes off.

"Where's Justin?"

"Where Pooh!" Gus reminded her.

"Studio. Working." Pause. "So he says." The baby broke free of him and took Beh on a wobbly tour of the loft.


He rubbed his eyes. "I'm just tired." God, he shouldn't have even brought it up but he needed to talk to someone. "It's been a rough couple days. I went to Birmingham and the CEO of the fuckin' corporation invites me for a sleepover and I don't mean the kind where you tell ghost stories all night; and then I come home, and there's a goddamn videotape from Cam waiting for me."

"Of what?"

"The trip to New York."

Her eyes widened with comprehension. She remembered that trip, how happy they had been planning it, how everything had seemed so perfect and she could imagine how much it'd hurt him to watch it again with Cam gone. "Bri. . . "

"And to top it all off," he was blinking rapidly now, "just to make sure I feel good and fucked, there's something going. . . " and he couldn't say it. Waited a moment. "There's something going on between Justin and Xavier."

"Brian. . . They're just friends."

He pointed to the sculpture on the desk. "Xavier made that for his friend for Christmas."

Despite herself, she was impressed. "It's beautiful." Still, she couldn't feed his paranoia knowing how apt he was to latch onto the worse case scenario and run with it. "But it doesn't- -"

"Something happened, Lindz. I'm not stupid. I could feel it." Feel it in the way we made love, in the way he held me, in desperation. "And I don't know what to do."

"You have to trust him, Brian."

"I do." He sniffled. "Why didn't you warn me?"

"About what?"

"That it would be so hard?"

Lindsay smiled softly. "Would you have listened?" He shook his head. "Justin loves you. That's all that matters."

"Yeah," he agreed, even though it wasn't, and he didn't believe for a minute that it was. He agreed because he had no other choice, because to admit out loud that he felt otherwise seemed like a betrayal to him.

"You'll be all right here with Gus?"

Brian located the baby on the floor beneath the chaise lounge, babbling to Beh. "We'll be fine."

Words, just words. How easily it seemed to him to use words to hide, to conceal, to lie. Even to yourself. Even if you didn't say them out loud. Right now he was pushing Gus around on his fire truck, Beh clutched in his hands, pretending he didn't know that Justin was with Xavier; pretending that everything was all right; pretending that he didn't want to curl up in bed, the baby in his arms, and cry, when it was all he wanted to do. Pretending to be strong for his son, who looked to his Dada to show him how to deal with the world, even if Gus didn't know it; pretending to be strong for himself, because once he gave in to the fear, to the pain, he didn't know what comfort he'd be able to find outside of a bottle, or a vial. Or a trick. A tear fell and he wiped it away without pausing. But Gus turned and looked up at him with those eyes that were identical to his own, except that Gus' were bright with wonder at the vastness of the world, at the limitless possibilities, and his own, he knew, were not. Reaching for his daddy, Gus said, "Dada. Hug," so he picked up baby and bear (cause a hug for Gus meant a hug for the both of them) and he hugged them, holding onto them, to this gift of light and love.

He'd left home in a hurry, barely pausing to tell Brian where he was going, not wanting to see the hurt look in his lover's eyes. Brian wasn't a fool. He knew something was wrong, he just didn't know what. But he suspected, of that Justin was certain. He suspected and was too afraid to confront the younger man about it. Justin was counting on that because he was, himself, afraid of facing the truth. Or a truth. That was the problem, there were too many truths; how to say which was the most important one? Which one had the most weight?

Now that he was at the Institute, he didn't know what to do. He needed to see Xavier, try to patch things up with him but he was afraid. Xavier was furious with him, disappointed in him. And he was. . . confused, angry. Incredibly angry that this had to happen now, when everything was perfect between him and Brian, when they'd finally figured things out and made a commitment to one another, now. . . What? he asked himself. Now what? He couldn't say. Not even to himself. But he would have to say it soon because he knew Xavier wouldn't accept anything less anymore than the elusive truth.

He didn't even knock, just pushed through the door to Xavier's studio. Found his friend bent over some drawings on the table. "Hey."

"Go away," Xavier said without looking around at him.

"Please. Xavier- -"

Still not looking. "Just go. I don't want this."

"I'm sorry."

He turned. Livid. "I don't want your fuckin' pity." So like Brian in that. "You don't want me, fine; you don't love me, fine; just stay the fuck away from me then. Because I do love you, I want you. . . and I can't keep doing this, J."

That Xavier could still call him J hurt more than anything. Made him feel ashamed because Xavier was strong enough to admit the truth, no matter how much it hurt. He paused for a moment. "You were right," he said softly, eyes lowered. "I did lie to you that night." Another pause while he summoned the strength to say it. "I do love you. I do want you." And he waited for the world to fall apart. And it didn't. He just felt as if he had.

"J. . ."

"But I can't have you." The words scraped his throat raw. "I can't leave him, Xavier. I love him too much." That was the truth that he held closest to his heart. "And I'm sorry." A tear crawled down his cheek. "I'm sorry because I should never have let this happen."

"How you gone stop it?" Xavier asked, gentler than Justin would have imagined possible.

"I couldn't. And I don't know what to do."

"It's okay."

"It's not okay." Xavier's reasonable tone of voice was driving him crazy when he felt so desperate. "What are we gonna do?"

And Xavier went to him and held his face in his hands. "We do nothing. I understand that you love him. And I can handle that. I don't want to hurt you, J. I just needed to know that you cared, that you felt something for me." He stroked Justin's cheek, tears wetting his fingers. "Now that I know, I can deal with not having you."

"How?" asked Justin because he didn't know, truthfully, how he was going to walk out of here.

"I'm from the projects: we used to wanting things we can't have." And he laughed, as did Justin, surprised that they could find anything funny in either situation. "I want you to be happy, J, that's all."

But it wasn't. "I want you to be happy too."

The catch. He studied Justin's eyes, so beautiful and blue, like a clear sky most days, cloudy now with grief and fear. "I will be," he said. "I promise." He had to do this for Justin, had to be strong despite the fact that his heart was breaking, that tears streaked his face as well; he had to make things right. "It just wasn't our time, you know?" So simple to say but inside, Why? Why give me what I want most in the world and put it just out of reach? "But we can be friends, right?"

Attempting a smile, Justin agreed. "Right." Blinked and a last tear rolled down his face. "Xavier?"


He cupped the back of Xavier's head and drew him closer. Kissed him without hesitation, without grief, just taking pleasure in the feel of the other teen's lips against his. And when Xavier tighten his arms around him, he molded himself against his friend's body and they kissed as they never had before and never would again. That was understood. As Xavier's lips brushed down his neck and across his throat, he sighed. It would be so easy to just. . . No. He parted from Xavier. Gave him a last lingering kiss upon the lips. "Thank you," he whispered and, turning, left the room.

Xavier watched him go. Picked up a hammer and held it so tight the tendons in his arm stood out. He held it until his heart had stopped pounding, until the veins in his forehead ceased drumming, and he could see again. Putting the hammer down, he wiped his face in his shirt. Turned once more to his sketch and stared at it, seeing nothing that was drawn on the paper, only the afterimage of a bright smile and blond hair slowly fading from sight.

The first thing he heard as he came through the door was Gus shouting, "Pooh!" but not in greeting, he and Brian were watching the video of their dive in the Caribbean.

"Who's that, Gus?" asked Brian, baby and Beh on his lap.


And Brian corrected him. "Justin. Say, 'Justin,' Gus."

"No!" Gus said firmly. That was his second favorite word, after Dada. "Pooh. Pooh, Dada."

Brian laughed. Strong, not so silent, and stubborn. God help all of them when Gus got older. Then he noticed Justin by the door. "Hey."

"Hey." Justin paused.


Going over to them, Justin took the toddler from his daddy, kissing Brian in passing. "What you doing?" he asked Gus.

He pointed to the screen. "Dada. Pooh."

"Yeah, that's Pooh and Dada," he said, giving up on trying to make Gus say Justin, "in the Bahamas."

Gus pointed again. "What dat?"

"Fish," Justin told him. The toddler stared at him. "Fish," Justin said slowly.


"Fish," Justin repeated, emphasizing the 'sh.'


Not wanting to but needing to, Brian asked, "Are we okay?"

Without looking away from the television, Justin replied, "Yeah, we're okay."

"You sure? Cause I don't want to find out six weeks from now that we're not."

"We're better than okay. We're fabulous," Justin announced. And they were. They would be. They deserved it.

Brian smirked. "Of course, we are. We're fuckin' fabulous." He slid to the floor and sat at Justin's feet, his arm draped over the teen's legs. Almost immediately Gus grabbed his hair. "Shit, Gus! That's attached to my scalp."

Gus let go, face screwed up to either yell or cry.

"Poor baby," cooed Justin stroking Brian's hair and Gus giggled. Brian hadn't scared him, just startled him. Gus in his arms, Brian at his feet, Justin took a deep breath and released it.

Together, they watched the bright fish swim lazily across the screen.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit," by K. Colbain and Nirvana, EMI Virgin Songs Inc., BMI, 1991.

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