In Shadow or In Light, Part Three

Monday, November 19th


The morning session had gone well, with the EMS technicians testifying, in their professional opinion, to Justin's condition after the attack. Although Brian had given similar testimony, it always sounded better coming from a disinterested third party. Both testified to the state of the victim and defendant and described Brian's demeanor as well. One of the paramedics told the jury in particularly descriptive terms how Brian had crouched over Justin, shielding him with his body, told them how the man had stood by in a daze as they attended to the teenager, tears streaming down his face, shaking with grief and fear.

After the paramedics, the two officers who'd arrived first at the parking garage took the stand, giving testimony regarding both the physical layout of the crime scene and the incident between Brian and Chris Hobbs in the hospital. As with the medics, their testimony was fairly damaging to the defense. Mason only put up a token resistance as he perfunctorily cross-examined them, asking each witness a couple of questions that might have been omitted.

Keisha felt uneasy. She didn't know what Mason had up his sleeves but she suspected something. Racking her brains, she couldn't come up with anything and again she asked Brian and Justin if they were keeping anything from her and again they denied it. Resolving to keep an eye on Mason, she decided to wait and see. If everything went smoothly, she expected to rest the prosecution's case this afternoon and Mason might actually begin presenting the defense's. She couldn't wait until Chris Hobbs took the stand. All through the proceedings he'd sat next to Mason keeping his face relatively emotionless. She intended to change that. Hobbs was hiding something and she intended to find out just what it was.

The noon recess called, Brian, Justin, Jen, and Deb sat in the witness waiting room alone, the other witnesses having left the building for lunch. Deb had brought sandwiches for all of them, and she passed them around, making sure to give Brian the one with no mayo.

None of the rest of the gang had come, busy with work and other obligations. Brian and Justin didn't begrudge them their absence. They hadn't really expected them to come everyday anyway and now that they were together, it didn't seem so important anymore.

"Do you think you'll have enough time once the trial is over to catch up with your classes?" Jen asked.

"I've been getting the notes from Rennie and Xavier and trying to go over them at night but. . . it's hard concentrating."

"What about your work? Your sketching and painting?"

"I haven't really done anything new for a while."

Brian heard the sad note in his voice. Even though they'd been getting out of court by five, neither one of them had felt much like working once they'd gotten home. The weekends they mostly spent catching up on sleep they'd missed during the week and just unwinding. And, of course, Justin had had to deal with him and his problems. One more thing to feel guilty about and he did. But he said nothing because to admit that he felt responsible would only make Justin feel worse. He resolved to make it up to the teenager once the trial was over, somehow. Finishing off his sandwich, he became aware of Justin's attention. Glanced up to find him smiling at him. "What?"


The two women left to find the restroom and to freshen up before court reconvened. The other witnesses hadn't returned yet. So Justin slid over onto Brian's lap and kissed him. "Hey," the teen said again.

"Hey." He eased Justin from his lap. "Keisha would kill us if someone got a picture of us making out in the courthouse."


"We'll be home by six; time enough then."

Justin sat in his seat and drank the last of his soda. "I can't wait until Wednesday night." The two men were going to take care of Gus while his mommies got ready to host Thanksgiving dinner at their house. "Except we'll have to wait until Gus goes to sleep to fool around."

"That all you think about? Fooling around?" teased Brian.

"I can't help it. You're just too hot."

"True," agreed Brian and Justin laughed, glad that his man was slowly returning.

After court reconvened, Detective Smits testified, corroborating Brian and Deb's testimony regarding Christian Hobbs' statement in the hospital. He also testified regarding the crime scene as he found it when he arrived in the parking garage. After Smits, the two crime lab technicians gave testimony regarding fingerprints and blood stains on the baseball bat, bloodstains on Brian's scarf, the amount of blood present at the crime scene, and Chris Hobbs' alcohol level at the time of the attack. A significant piece of evidence was revealed, that Christian Hobbs was not intoxicated when the attack occurred although he had been drinking.

The law enforcement witnesses dismissed, Keisha turned to the medical profession, calling the emergency room doctor and neurosurgeon who was consulted in Justin's case. Both Dr. Gates and Dr. Winchell testified that without immediate aid, Justin would most likely have died. "When Justin was struck, the arteries between the outer covering of the brain and the inside of the skull were broken, causing bleeding. Without medical attention to relieve the bleeding, hematoma can form, putting pressure on the brain and causing permanent brain damage or death," Dr. Winchell explained.

"What are hematoma, Doctor?"

"Blood clots."

"Had these blood clots formed in Justin's brain?"

"Justin was fortunate that we were able to treat him in a relatively short period of time after his injury occurred. We were able to administer drugs to relieve the pressure without having to perform surgery. But, yes, hematoma had formed."

"Without immediate medical attention, could Justin Taylor have died?"

"Yes. Mr. Taylor was unconscious when they brought him to the hospital and his score on the Glascow Coma Scale at that point was below nine putting him in the severe category."

"What is the Glascow Coma Scale and what does it indicate?"

"The Glascow Coma Scale is used to assess the severity of a traumatic brain injury. It's administered when the patient is admitted and repeated at a fifteen minute interval. When he was admitted, Mr. Taylor's score was three, the lowest score on the scale. Gradually, over the hours, as he regained consciousness, his score improved putting him in the moderate range, and eventually, within twenty-four hours, he'd scored a perfect fifteen. I don't believe we would have seen such rapid improvement except that Mr. Kinney was able to quickly call for help. Without immediate medical attention, Mr. Taylor would most certainly have either died or sustained severe and permanent brain injury."

"Dr. Winchell, could you demonstrate for the jury, how Mr. Taylor's brain was injured when he was struck?"

"I'd need my model."

"Your Honor, Dr. Winchell has a model of a brain which he'd like to use in order to demonstrate the type of injury Mr. Taylor sustained."

Kramer waited for an objection from Mason and when none was offered, allowed Keisha to introduce the model into the evidence. After showing it to Mason and establishing its foundation, she had it entered into the record by the Clerk. "Your Honor, I'd like Dr. Winchell to approach the jury so that they can see what he's doing."

"Go ahead."

After the physician came down from the witness stand, Keisha handed him the model and asked, "Dr. Winchell, could you describe the model and then demonstrate and explain what happened to Mr. Taylor's brain when he was struck in the parking garage?"

The model was a transparent skull with a pink-colored brain on the inside. The brain itself was connected to the skull by a series of filaments designed to simulate arteries. Holding the model in his hands, Dr. Winchell explained, "Well, Justin was struck in the forehead on the right side. When he was hit, his brain was jarred so that it impacted with the back of his skull first and then the front of his skull. We call this a coup-contra-coup injury." He struck the front of the skull and the brain hit the back of the skull and then the front. "The end result is that the brain is injured in two places rather than just one."

Although Justin had known about his injuries, seeing the recreation in front of his eyes made him feel a little woozy. Leaning against Brian, he shut his eyes and tried to breathe evenly.

After Keisha finished questioning Dr. Winchell, Mason stood and tried to introduce an element of doubt into the physician's testimony.

"Dr. Winchell, is it possible for a person to have been struck with the amount of force that Justin Taylor was struck and not sustain any permanent brain injury?"

"It's possible but not probable."

"But the probability exists?"

"A very low probability."

"Justin Taylor sustained relatively mild injuries, didn't he?"

"He was fortunate. Very fortunate."

With Dr. Winchell dismissed, the prosecution was able to rest its case. Due to the late hour, it was almost four forty-five, the judge dismissed court for the day, to reconvene at nine the next morning, at which time the defense would take the stage.

Tuesday, November 20th

Having had a taste of Mason's style from his cross-examinations, Keisha expected the man to put on a show. Additionally, she assumed it'd be a Christian Hobbs love feast from beginning to end, with all of the witnesses testifying as to what a fine, upstanding young man the defendant was. Unlike her method, which was to bring any potential problems to the surface up front and out in the open, she knew Mason would keep any bombshells under wraps for her to ferret out as best she could. Still, she didn't anticipate anyone bringing forth any new or damaging information as far as Justin or the attack was concerned. They were all basically character witnesses. She could expect Dixon and Perkins to insinuate that Justin had been as much of a troublemaker as Hobbs, if not more of one; could expect 1) Smithers to lionize Hobbs since he had been one of his star players, 2) Reverend Collier to tell the court how Hobbs attended church every week and was a good example for the younger kids, and 3) Matthew Lewis and Lisa Monroe to give a slightly different take on the fight in the locker room, the argument on Liberty Avenue, and the infamous dance at the prom.

True to her expectations, the witnesses did just that, none of them deviating from the script that Mason had most likely crafted from their sessions together. Instead of a direct examination it felt more like a performance. Keisha hoped that the jury could see the differences between how she had questioned her witnesses and this show the defense attorney was putting on for them. Despite Mason's attempts to turn the proceedings into "I Love Christian Hobbs", when it was time for the cross-examination, the Assistant District Attorney asked each of the witnesses some tough questions.

Of Matthew Lewis, she asked, "Are you and the defendant close friends?"

"He's my best friend."

"Did you talk with him about his run-ins with Justin Taylor?"


"Did you ever give him any advice concerning Justin?"


"What did you tell him?"

"I told him to stay away from Taylor cause he was trouble."

"And how was Mr. Taylor trouble, Mr. Lewis?"

"He was always stirring up trouble."

"Could you give us an example?"

The teen looked uncomfortable. "That Gay Straight Student Alliance. No one wanted that."

"But Mr. Taylor and Max Freiberg have testified that some students turned out for their first meeting."

"The freaks and geeks."

Keisha noted with satisfaction that some of the jurors looked a little unhappy with Lewis' characterization. "Were you in school the day Justin Taylor's locker was burned?"

"I was there."

"Did you witness Justin's reaction?"


"Can you describe his reaction?"

"He was pissed."

"How did you feel?"

Lewis shrugged. "Wasn't my locker."

Lisa Monroe, of course, had been dating Hobbs. She'd described her relationship as being more than casual but that they hadn't gotten to the going steady stage yet by the prom. Still, she hadn't been seeing anyone else but Hobbs. They made a handsome couple, Lisa and Christian and Keisha wondered how many of the jurors were comparing Lisa and Chris to Brian and Justin.

"Ms. Monroe, were you involved sexually with the defendant?" Keisha asked, noting that Mason had neglected to bring it up during his direct examination.


"Did Mr. Hobbs tell you about his sexual encounter with Justin Taylor?"


"When did you find out?"

"When Justin told everyone on Liberty Avenue." Her nose wrinkled up in distaste.

"How did that make you feel?"

"I didn't believe him."

"Why not?"

"Because Chris wasn't gay."

"Why did you think Justin would say something like that if it weren't true?"

"I thought he was just showing off for his boyfriend."

"For Mr. Kinney?"


"Did Mr. Kinney look impressed?"

She thought for a moment, replaying the incident in her mind. "No."

"Did the defendant offer any explanation as to why Justin would say they'd had sex?"

"He said that Justin had the hots for him."

"Did you believe him?"


"Why did you believe him?"

"Cause Justin was gay."

"Did you think every gay student at St. James wanted the defendant?"


"Did Justin give any indication that he wanted Hobbs, other than telling that story on Liberty Avenue?"

"No," she admitted.

During the lunch recess, Keisha and the guys sat in her office and had lunch together, ordering from Dingbats the way they had the first day of jury selection. "So," she said, "it's winding down."

"Not fast enough," commented Justin.

"Sick of it, huh?"

"I wanna go back to class, go back to my studio. I want to hang out with my friends."

She nodded. "It's a bitch, that's the truth." Finishing her sandwich, she asked him, "If it were over today, what would you do?"

Justin thought for a moment, then replied, "I'd go home, light some candles, have some champagne, and make love all night."

Rolling his eyes, Brian said, "That's all he thinks about. Sex. It's a wonder I'm not crippled by now."

"Oh, yeah," she agreed, "Mr. Thirty Tricks a Month, tired of sex."

Thankful for her intervention, Justin snorted with laughter. He was going to miss her when this was all over. Meeting her was one of the few good things to come out of the entire experience. Meeting her and the fact that he and Brian seemed closer than ever. Even though it'd been hard and would probably continue to be hard until the sentence was pronounced, he had no doubt that they would come out of it even better than before.

The afternoon session went about the same as the morning with Mason leading his witnesses through the Gospel According to Christian Hobbs. According to his teachers, coach, and pastor, Hobbs had been subjected to the unwholesome machinations of Justin Taylor. In fact, according to the staff at St. James Academy, the entire school had suffered at the hands of the outspoken teen. Single-handedly, Justin had undermined the moral fiber of the academy with his unwelcome activism. Aware that attacking them on the grounds that they had failed as educators and as role models would only get their backs up, Keisha, nevertheless, couldn't let them off the hook entirely. After all, these incidents occurred over the course of a year, primarily on school property or at school-sponsored events and yet no one had done anything, even when the problem was brought directly to their attention.

Trying to keep an incredulous tone out of her voice as she questioned him, Keisha quizzed Dixon on the homeroom episode. "Mr. Dixon, did you see Justin Taylor and Christian Hobbs pushing one another on the morning of Justin's suspension?"


"Why didn't you send both of them to the principal's office."

"I try to handle things on my own before resorting to that."

"What did you do?"

"I told them both to take their seats."

"Justin Taylor, Daphne Chanders, and Max Freiberg all testified that you singled Justin out saying that the next time he caused trouble, he'd have to talk to the principal. Do you remember making that statement?"

"I might have."

Kramer addressed Dixon. "You will answer the question yes or no, Mr. Dixon."

"Yes. I guess I did say it."

"Weren't they pushing each other?" Keisha asked.


"Did you observe any of the prior interactions that morning before they started pushing one another?"


"Then why did you assume Justin had caused the trouble?"

"I just did."

"Did Justin have a history of causing trouble at St. James?"

"He and Hobbs had had a fight in the locker room."

"Were you present at that fight?"


"Did you talk to any of the students who were present?"


"Did you talk to Coach Smithers about the incident?"

"He mentioned it in a meeting."

"What did Coach Smithers say in the meeting about the fight?"

"He said that Justin Taylor had started the fight." He added, "That he was flaunting himself."

In the gallery, the words stung Justin as they'd been the very ones his dad had used.

"Did he say how Justin flaunted himself?"


"How do you interpret the meaning of the statement, Mr. Dixon?"

"That Taylor was flaunting his homosexuality."

"Did you know by that time that Justin Taylor was, in fact, gay?"

"I assumed that he was."


"I'd heard about him arriving at school with that man, Brian Kinney, and what was painted on his Jeep."

"But you'd never heard Justin Taylor say that he was gay?"


"Did you ever observe Justin Taylor, prior to the fight in your homeroom, flaunting his homosexuality?"


"Could you tell us, Mr. Dixon, what kind of behavior you would consider to be indicative of flaunting one's homosexuality?"

Dixon looked uncomfortable. "I don't know, exactly."

"Can't you give us one example?"


"Yet, you were ready to assume that Justin Taylor had started the fight in homeroom because you'd heard a rumor about him flaunting his homosexuality?" Keisha waited for an answer.

Again, Dixon looked as if he would rather be anywhere but on the stand. He knew if he didn't answer the question, the judge would instruct him to. Finally, he replied, "Yes."

When Dr. Perkins, the principal, took the stand, she questioned him closely about his meeting with Jennifer Taylor and Justin and his refusal to allow a Gay Straight Student Alliance on campus.

"Were all of your students Episcopalian?"

"No. We have Muslim students and Catholic students and Hindu students."

"Would you have allowed a Catholic Student Association on campus?"

"Yes. We actually have one."

"But St. James is an Episcopalian-affiliated school, is it not?"


"Were all of your students heterosexual?"

"Obviously not."

"Was one of the reasons you gave Jennifer and Justin Taylor for your refusal to allow a Gay Straight Student Alliance that some of your parents might complain?"


"In light of September 11, have you had any parents call with concerns about the Muslim students attending St. James?"


"Do you have a Muslim student group on campus? A club or some other kind of association?"


"Have you asked them to suspend activities?"


The Reverend Collier she asked only a couple of questions as he'd practically canonized Chris Hobbs in his testimony.

"Reverend Collier, have you ever made mention of homosexuality in any of your sermons at your church?"

"In passing."

"What is your stance on homosexuality?"

"I believe that it is unnatural and strictly forbidden by the Bible." He looked smug and self-satisfied.

"And you said that in your sermons?"


"What would you do if you found out that one of your parishioners was homosexual?"

"I'd try to counsel him or her to renounce it."

"Did Christian Hobbs come to you with any concerns about homosexuality?"

Collier's face twisted in disgust, whether at the idea or the question, it was difficult to tell, perhaps both. "I'm not able to disclose that information."

At the defense table, Mason looked less than pleased.

If you don't like that, just wait until I finish with Mr. Hobbs himself, Keisha thought. He was going to come clean, one way or the other.

By the time Coach Smithers had testified, Keisha found herself unable to fathom how Justin had survived at that school. Having had to face hostility at every turn, having found understanding and compassion nowhere on campus, it was no wonder that he'd turned to Brian and the gang. It hadn't been just sex that he'd wanted from Brian, but a place, a sense of community, of belonging. That probably, more than anything else, had given him the strength to face the troubles at St. James.

Giving Smithers the once-over, she immediately pegged him as the kind of gung-ho, homophobic asshole that seemed to be drawn to high school coaching where homoerotic feelings were fostered and intensified and then suppressed as if they didn't exist. Why not admit it and deal with it? Instead, everyone walked around pretending as if they felt nothing, as if they were aware of nothing.

"Did you witness the fight between Justin Taylor and Christian Hobbs in the locker room?"

"No, I came after they'd been pulled apart."

"Yet, Mr. Dixon has testified that you told the other teachers in a meeting that Justin Taylor had flaunted himself. What evidence did you have?"

"I talked to some of the other students."

"And they told you that Justin had flaunted himself?"

"No, they said that Justin had instigated the fight."

"What did Justin do to start the fight?"

"Apparently he hit Christian Hobbs."

"Did the students tell you that the defendant had pushed Justin first?"


"Lane Jenkins testified that Christian Hobbs had started the fight. Did you talk to Lane Jenkins about the fight?"


"Which students did you talk to about the fight?"

"Christian Hobbs and Matthew Lewis."

"The defendant and his best friend. Anyone else?"


"You didn't talk to Justin Taylor?"

"I talked to him."

"And what did he tell you?"

"He said that Christian had started the fight. That Chris had threatened him."

"Threatened him how?"

"That Chris had told him he would kill him."

Waiting until the jury and the audience had quieted down, Keisha asked, "And what did you think about that?"

"I thought he was exaggerating. Or that Chris had said it in the heat of the moment, he didn't really mean it."

"Did you notify Justin Taylor's parents about the fight?"


"Did you notify Christian Hobbs' parents as well?"

"I told the office that he'd been involved in a fight with Taylor, I assume someone in admin called them."

"But you didn't call them personally?"


"But you called Justin Taylor's parents personally, isn't that right?"


By the time Keisha finished with Smithers it was four forty-two and Judge Kramer adjourned court. Justin and Brian left Keisha making notes at the prosecution table and called Willie to come and pick them up out back. They were familiar enough with the routine that they could time their arrival at the door to coincide perfectly with the cab's appearance. Ignoring the microphones and chants, the two climbed into the taxi and settled down as Willie pulled away from the curb and headed for home.

Inside the loft, the two shucked their court clothes and changed into their robes, not bothering to put on anything else. While Justin grilled a couple of turkey burgers, Brian made a salad and shook together a bottle of vinaigrette. It was time to get Deb to go shopping again for them. They were nearly out of everything, especially coffee, the one thing Brian couldn't do without. Other than his little boy.

Sitting together at the table, a single votive lit between them, they ate and talked about nothing, mostly about their almost non-existent plan to redecorate.

"Maybe we can go towards a more Oriental look. Japanese. Very minimalist," Justin said.

"It's already minimalist. What would be the point in changing from Italian to Japanese?"

"Different feel," Justin replied.

"You just like spending my money," teased Brian.

"Aren't you my sugar daddy?"

Ignoring the dig, Brian returned his thoughts to the suggestion. "I could replace the grass with bonsai trees. Maybe have a mini rock garden."

"You've already got a shoji screen." Between the bathroom and the rest of the apartment. "And Noguchi lamps."

"True." He finished his salad. "It might work. What about the sofa and chairs? And this?" The dining set. "And the chaise lounge? You wouldn't want to get rid of it, would you?" he asked, as both of them remembered the good times they'd had on it.

Justin grinned. "We could have fun on something else."

Just the mention of fun made Brian think about the trial. "God, I cannot wait until this is over and we can go out again."

"Getting bored with me?"

"You'll just have to think of some new ways to amuse me."

His mouth fell open. "Fuck you."

"That's a start," Brian retorted.

Leaving him at the table, Justin carried his stuff into the kitchen. Sensing that his little boy needed some coaxing, Brian followed him. The teen was at the sink, rinsing his plate in preparation for putting it in the dishwasher. Brian put his plate and glass inside the sink too and pressed up against Justin from behind.

"I'm not your maid," Justin said before picking up Brian's plate too and rinsing it.

Brian untied Justin's robe. "I prefer the term, 'house boy.' " He drew the robe back over Justin's shoulders but not completely off as the teenager wouldn't stop what he was doing. Brian reached around and took hold of his cock. Stroked it. Felt Justin tense up, then relax. Releasing him, the ad exec pumped a handful of the lotion he kept next to the sink and spread it on Justin's penis. The teen sighed, giving himself over to the older man's motions. Slowly, Brian fondled the boy until Justin began to stiffen in his hand. Turning around, Justin still in his arms, Brian leaned back against the sink and continued to stroke him. He whispered in Justin's ear, "Feel good?"


He pumped a second handful of lotion and rubbed it over Justin's chest and belly, his other hand still busy at the teenager's groin. Justin's head fell back against his shoulder. "I love it when my baby gets hard," he breathed. He could feel the tips of Justin's nipples beneath his palm, could feel the veins standing out along his shaft. Justin shivered and Brian tightened his grip causing the teen to gasp. Slipped his other hand between his legs and cupped his scrotum. "I bet you've been wanting to get off all day." Brushed his fingers over the tight skin.

He combed through Justin's pubes leaving them sticky with lotion, then used both hands to stroke his cock, the engorged, red organ streaked with pale cream. "I bet you wanna come right now, don't you?"

"Yes. . ." moaned Justin.

He ran his finger over the tip of Justin's dick and precum gushed forth to drip over his knuckles. Tightened his hold and increased his strokes.

"Oh," Justin whispered. "Oh. . ."

Giving him a hard tug, Brian licked his ear and bit it gently on the edge.

Justin jerked and cum splattered the chrome cabinet opposite them, ran down the shiny surface. Another stream followed the first and then a third and then the flow reduced to a trickle, running down Brian's hand.

Kissing Justin along his jaw, Brian let him go and washed his hands while Justin leaned against the counter, still trembling. Sugar daddy. Right. He had something better than money.

Wednesday, November 21st

Mason stood and paused and Keisha wondered what was going on. The only witness left was Chris Hobbs and she could feel the palpable interest of everyone in the courtroom. "Your Honor," the defense attorney began, "I'd like to call Kip Thomas to the stand."

Justin felt Brian's hand tighten around his. Oh God. . .

As expected, Keisha sprang from her seat. "Your Honor, this witness- -"

"Your Honor, I apologize for the late notice but I just learned of Mr. Thomas this morning."

This morning my ass, thought Keisha. "Your Honor, I protest this late addition."

Kramer gazed long and hard at Mason. "Mr. Mason, Ms. Thomas, could you both join me at the bench?" The two counsels approached the bench and waited for Kramer to speak. "Mr. Mason, who is this Kip Thomas?"

"Your Honor, Kip Thomas is a former employee of the firm where Mr. Kinney works. In fact, Mr. Thomas worked directly under Mr. Kinney."

"And what is the relevance of his testimony?"

"Mr. Thomas filed a sexual harassment suit against Mr. Kinney."

Keisha closed her eyes momentarily and vowed to kick their asses from here to Philadelphia. Could they have told her this? Still. . . "Your Honor, that's very interesting but I fail to see how it bears on this particular case."

"Mr. Mason, I'm afraid I concur with Ms. Thomas."

"Your Honor, Mr. Thomas dropped his suit due to intervention from Mr. Taylor. I believe knowledge of this intervention is vital to my client's defense as it illustrates first-hand Mr. Taylor's tenacity when it comes to getting what he wants and his lack of scruples in doing so."

Keisha watched as Kramer debated allowing the testimony. Finally, he made up his mind. She knew his decision before he spoke.

"I'll allow the witness' testimony."

"Your Honor, may I have a few moments to speak with Mr. Kinney and Mr. Taylor regarding this witness?"

"I'll call a brief fifteen-minute recess."

Returning to her table, Keisha's mind raced. What the fuck. . . ? As soon as Judge Kramer called the recess, she herded Brian and Justin into an empty holding room and closed the door. "Talk. Now."

Brian, looking as shame-faced as he could, began. "Kip Thomas worked for me. I fucked him twice and when I didn't put him up for this promotion he wanted, he sued me for sexual harassment."

"Jesus Christ, weren't you getting enough from Justin and the twenty-nine other guys you were fucking each month?"

"I didn't say it was smart. I just said that I did it."

Turning to Justin, she asked, "And what did you do?"

"I picked Kip up in a bar and he took me back to his place. Then I told him I was underage and that my dad would have him arrested if he found out. Kip started freaking out and I told him that I wouldn't tell my dad as long as he did something for me."

Keisha leaned back against a table. "Drop the suit. Shit." Shook her head. "Shit." Rubbed her forehead. Asked Brian, "Did you know about this?"

"Not at first. I didn't know why he'd dropped the suit."

Justin asked Keisha, "How bad is it?"


"Why?" Brian inquired. "So Justin lied to the asshole and got him to drop a suit that was total bullshit anyway. What's the big deal?"

"Reasonable doubt. After Kip Thomas testifies, the jury'll begin to doubt that Justin is as sweet and innocent and pure as he seems to be and Chris Hobbs can get up on that stand and say whatever he wants, about how Justin pushed him and taunted him and they just might believe it because of what Kip Thomas testified to, that Justin had deliberately trapped him. It won't matter that the charge against you was phony. That was never proved. The only thing they'll remember is that Justin forced Kip Thomas to do something he didn't want to do."

"Like I forced Chris Hobbs to have sex with me in the equipment shed," Justin said softly.

"That's bullshit," Brian pronounced.

"That's what they'll think."

Brian addressed the Assistant District Attorney. "Can't you do something?"

"Why didn't you tell me about Kip Thomas?"

"Because he didn't have anything to do with this case."

"I'm the one with the fuckin' law degree. I decide what has to do with this case. Understand?" He said nothing. "Anything else?" she asked as she had asked before.

"No," he replied in a much subdued voice.

"Now, I'm going to go back in there and try to do damage control and you two better sit behind me and act like butter wouldn't melt in your mouth. And you're going to write down everything you remember about what happened. You got me?"

Neither of them answered but they'd both understood.

Kip sat on the stand as if he were an angel of God come down to smote the wicked. He had no problem looking at Brian or the jury or Keisha or anyone else for that matter. That spoke of coaching. So much for Mason's assertions that he'd just been contacted by Thomas about testifying. They'd probably been working on this the entire trial. She had no doubt that Mason had come into the trial knowing that he'd pull this little stunt. Asshole.

"Mr. Thomas, describe your first meeting with Mr. Kinney."

"I'd asked to work with Mr. Kinney. I'd been at the firm for a couple months and everyone said that he was the best account exec in the firm so I asked Mr. Ryder if I could work with him. He was having a meeting with Bob and Brad about the Shumann Shoe account so I went in and introduced myself. He asked me what I thought about Bob and Brad's mock-up for the new ad and then he asked me what I would have done so I told him. He liked my idea and told us to work on a new mock-up."

"Did Mr. Kinney use your idea for the final ad?"

"Yes. He told me he'd put his name on anything that was good."

"Did Mr. Kinney have you work on any other accounts?"

"The Liberty Air account."

"And did he use any of your ideas on that ad campaign?"

"I wasn't employed by the firm by the time the ad campaign began."

"But did he use any of your ideas, that you can tell?"

Brian tensed. He hadn't used any of Kip's ideas. That campaign was his baby and his alone.

"No," replied Kip.

So he wouldn't lie about some things.

"Mr. Thomas, did you and Mr. Kinney have sexual relations?"


"While you were working for him?"


"How many times?"


"Could you describe those occasions?"

"Once was in his office. Just after I'd found out he was going to go with my ideas for the Schumann ad. Then he told me he wanted me to work on the Liberty Air campaign."

"Did Mr. Kinney approach you or did you approach him?"

"He approached me."

Brian ground his teeth and had to fight not to get up and call him a fucking liar. Continued to write down information for Keisha.

"Did he say anything to you?"

"He told me that if I slept with him, he'd watch out for me. Make sure I went places in the firm."

Justin felt Brian tense up and he laid a hand on his arm, willed him to remain calm, but he could tell it would only be a matter of time before Brian exploded.

"What about the second time you had sex?"

"It was at his loft. He asked me to come over to work with him on the Liberty Air campaign."

"Did you do any work on the campaign that night?"


"What prompted you to file the sexual harassment suit against Mr. Kinney."

"I wanted him to recommend me for a promotion and he wouldn't, and when I challenged him he threatened to have me fired."

"Bull fucking shit!" Brian yelled standing. "That's a goddamn lie and you know it!" The legal pad he'd been writing on fell to the floor and it looked as if he were going to storm the witness stand and choke Kip but Justin gripped his wrist and pulled him down.

Kramer struck the gavel. "Order. Mr. Kinney, if you can't control your outbursts, I'm going to cite you for contempt of court and have you forcibly removed. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Your Honor," he replied curtly.

"You may continue, Mr. Mason."

Raymond looked like the Cheshire cat, all teeth. "Mr. Thomas, did you know Brian Kinney was involved with Justin Taylor?"


"Describe your meeting with Justin Taylor."

"I was in Woody's and he came up to me and started hitting on me."


"He asked me if he'd seen me around and I told him I didn't think so. Then I left."

"Did he follow you?"


"And then what happened?"

"He followed me into the alley and he told me that he'd seen me with Brian in Babylon. He asked me if Brian was my type and I said no. Then I asked him if Brian was his type and he said no, that Brian had come onto him but he hadn't fallen for it because he knew the only thing Brian wanted was to use you and throw you away. Then I asked him who was his type and he kissed me and suggested that we go back to my place."

"Did you know that Mr. Taylor was seventeen?"


"When did you find out that he was seventeen?"

"When we got back to my place and were having sex."

"Why did he tell you then?"

"He told me we had to hurry because he had a curfew and then he told me that he was still in school, that he was only seventeen and that the last guy he'd been with, his father had had arrested."

"How did you feel when he told you that?"

"I was scared because I didn't want to be arrested. And it wasn't fair because he'd been in a bar where you were supposed to be 21 or older. How was I supposed to know he was seventeen?"

"Then what happened?"

"He said that he wouldn't tell his dad about me if I did something for him."

"What did he want you to do?"

"Drop the suit against Brian."

"Did he tell you that he and Mr. Kinney were involved at that point?"

"He told me that he and Brian were friends and that he didn't want me screwing him over."

"Were you aware that sixteen is the age of majority in Pennsylvania?"

"No. I thought he was underage."

"So you dropped the suit?"


"Despite the fact that you alleged that Mr. Kinney abused his position for sexual favors?"

"Yes. I didn't want to be arrested."

"Did you check out Mr. Taylor's story? To make sure that he was truly underage?"

"No. I assumed that he was. He looked really young."

"And you didn't think that perhaps this might have been a ploy of Mr. Kinney's to- -"

"Objection. Leading the witness, Your Honor."


"Did you have any further contact with either Mr. Kinney or Mr. Taylor?"


Looking eminently pleased with himself, Mason said, "No further questions, Your Honor."

Justin couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe that Kip Thomas had resurfaced to blow up in his face. Brian had warned him. Too late. He'd been right to have been angry with him when he found out. It had been a stupid thing to do and like his seduction of Chris Hobbs had done nothing but lead to bigger problems.

"Ms. Thomas?"

"Your Honor. . ." Keisha looked down at the notes she'd made, at the notes Brian and Justin had given her. "I'd like a few minutes to digest the witness' testimony and prepare my notes."

"That's reasonable given the late addition of this witness. Twenty minutes."

Accompanied by Brian and Justin, Keisha retreated to her office and tried to get a handle on the information she had gleaned in the past half hour. Wrote down some questions. The two men sat quietly and hoped she wouldn't start in on them again. They felt bad enough. If they had given Mason and Chris Hobbs an opening because of their stupidity. . . Finally, after ten minutes of silence, Keisha looked up from her notepad and fixed her gaze on them. "You two owe me big time."

"Whatever you want," Justin promised.

"No more secrets, that's what I want." She paused. "Is there anything else you want to tell me about you and Chris Hobbs or anything else?"

"No," he said. "Honest."

She looked at Brian. "You, I'm not going to ask. There's not enough time in the world to go over all the things I suspect you've done."

Angry at the situation and at himself, he said, "I didn't force him to have sex with me and I didn't promise him anything. It was just fucking."

"If there's anything you ought to learn from this trial, it's that there's no such thing," she told them.

10:10 a.m.

Keisha made a great show of consulting her notes, to remind the jury that she'd not had access to the witness and, in fact, hadn't known about the witness until this morning. "Mr. Thomas, you testified that you'd been at the firm for two months before you met Mr. Kinney. Was this your first professional job in advertising?"

"No. I'd worked for another firm previously."

"For how long?"

"A year."

"So you'd been in advertising for roughly a year when you met Mr. Kinney?"


"The promotion that you wanted, what did the position entail?"

"It was a supervisory position. I'd be overseeing a team."

"Had you ever supervised any other employees in either of your two positions?"


"Did Mr. Kinney give you a reason as to why he refused to recommend you for the job?"

"He said I wasn't ready."

"Did he say why he felt you weren't ready?"

"He said I needed more experience."

Rather than continuing with that episode, Keisha jumped to a later confrontation between Kip and Brian, one the defense had neglected to cover. "Mr. Thomas, after you filed your lawsuit, did Mr. Kinney attempt to meet with you in order to get you to drop the suit?"


"Did you visit Mr. Kinney in his office and offer to drop the suit?"

Kip hesitated. Looked at Mason, then back to her. It'd been a brief look but enough to signal to the jury and the spectators that perhaps Thomas was looking for instructions. It'd cast doubt on his testimony. Not a lot but maybe enough. "Yes."

"What did you suggest?"

"That I'd drop the suit if he reconsidered me for the promotion."

"And what did he tell you?"

"He said no."

"So, even faced with a harassment suit, Mr. Kinney refused your offer?"

"Yes, but- -"

"A simple yes or no will suffice, Mr. Thomas. No more questions, Your Honor." As she sat, she could sense Brian and Justin's confusion. She hadn't even addressed the whole Justin-Kip episode and she wouldn't. There was no point in denying that it had occurred. The best she could do was to introduce an element of doubt concerning the harassment suit itself. She suspected that Mason would bring it up on redirect but she'd just object on the grounds that he'd already covered that in his direct examination.

To her surprise, Mason elected not to ask anything on redirect. Perhaps, like her, he was anxious to get to the main event: Chris Hobbs' testimony.

Dismissed, Kip took a seat behind the defense counsel's table, careful not to meet Brian's eyes although he could feel the man's gaze on him, searing hot and penetrating.

Justin's stomach felt weird, like ten thousand butterflies were fluttering around inside. He hadn't been this nervous when he'd testified. Of course, he'd known what he was going to say pretty much. He had no idea what Chris Hobbs was going to say and that scared him.

"The Defense calls Christian Hobbs to the stand, Your Honor."

Watching the cocky bastard practically swagger to the witness stand and be sworn in, Brian prayed to whatever god would listen to a lapsed Catholic like him that the teenager would spontaneously combust or that his head would explode the moment he said the word 'truth' because he had no doubt in his mind that most of what would come out of his mouth would be anything but. Unfortunately, the gods must have been busy with other cases because the little asshole took the stand with no visible damage. I could change that, he thought. But he'd had his chance and hadn't so he guessed he could only sit and wait and see. Looking over at Justin, he took the boy's hand and held it tightly.

Like Keisha had done, Mason stood near the jury box in order to keep Hobbs focused on the fourteen men and women who would ultimately decide his fate. "Please state your full name."

"Christian Mark Hobbs."

"How old are you?"


"Where do you live?"

"With my parents."

"And what is your occupation, Mr. Hobbs?"

"I don't have an occupation."

"Do you attend college?"


And Justin saw Chris flash an angry look towards him. And Brian.

Keisha almost smiled. Mason was gonna ream Hobbs out come the recess. Looks like his coaching hadn't taken hold the way he thought it would. Four questions into the direct exam and Hobbs was already slipping the bit. It was definitely going to be interesting.

"Did you graduate high school?"

"I got my diploma."

Although he'd been disappointed that Brian hadn't attended his graduation, the one thing that had gone right that day was that Chris Hobbs hadn't come. Of course, Brian had had a good reason for not coming and it only made Justin love him all the more that the man had stayed away so that his dad could come. Justin wondered if Hobbs' parents had kept him away or if the school had dropped a not-so-subtle hint that he wasn't welcome at the ceremony.

After verifying that Hobbs had attended the St. James Academy, Mason asked, "Had you planned to attend college?"

"Yeah. I mean, yes."

"Did you apply to any schools?"


"Did you get into any schools?"

"Yes. I got an athletic scholarship to University of Pennsylvania." Again he cut his eyes towards the gallery.

Brian made himself sit still and not respond in any way. Keisha had told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to antagonize the witness while he was on the stand, that it would only make them look bad if he did. So, he kept his face expressionless. He hoped.

"What sport do you play, Mr. Hobbs?"


"You were on the football team at St. James, I presume?"


"Which position did you play?"

"Wide receiver."

"How many years did you play football at St. James?"

"All four."

"Besides football, did you have any other extra-curricular activities?"

"No. Football kept me pretty busy."

Not busy enough, thought Brian.

"Mr. Hobbs, you have been charged with assaulting one Justin Taylor. Did you know Mr. Taylor prior to the incident of April 20th?"


"How did you know him?"

"He was a student at St. James."

"Were you and Mr. Taylor friends?"


"Did you have classes together?"

"Yes. English and homeroom." Thought. "And calculus and physics."

"Mr. Hobbs, Mr. Taylor has testified that he watched the football team practice in order to make sketches. Did you ever see Mr. Taylor making sketches of the team while you practiced?"

"I saw him sometimes sitting on the wall by the practice field. He had a drawing pad with him."

"Did you ever ask him what he was doing?"

"No. Lots of kids hang around during practice."

"Let's talk about the incident in the equipment shed. Why did you get detention, Mr. Hobbs?"

"I was clowning around in class and Mr. Horner gave me detention. Said I had to clean up the sports equipment shed."

"Do you feel you deserved detention?"

"No. I didn't really do anything."

"But you went anyway?"


"What did you think when Justin Taylor showed up?"

"I thought he had come by just to make fun of me."

"Did he?"

"No. He said he came to help."

"Did you believe him?"

"Yeah. He picked up this box and started helping."

"Had you and Mr. Taylor ever been friendly towards one another before?"

"Not really."

"Mr. Hobbs, were you aware of the incident involving Mr. Kinney bringing Justin Taylor to school in his Jeep?"

"I'd heard about it."

"But you weren't in front of the school when it happened?"


"What had you heard?"

"Objection, Your Honor," said Keisha, standing briefly.


Mason nodded as if he were pondering the ruling. "At the time of the incident in the equipment shed, did you believe Justin Taylor was gay?"

"I thought he might be."


"He didn't play sports and he hung around with Daphne all the time. Drew pictures. That kind of stuff. And he was really good at English."

A few people in the audience chuckled at Hobbs' proof.

"Had Mr. Taylor made any overtures towards you prior to the incident in the sports equipment shed?"


"Had you ever called him queer or faggot prior to that incident?"


"Were you seeing anyone at the time?"

"Lisa Monroe."

"Anyone else?"

"No. Not at the time."

"How long did Justin help you clean the shed?"

"For about an hour and then we took a break."

"Mr. Hobbs, can you tell us in your own words what happened during the break you took?"

"We were just talking. About school and stuff. About people at school. Just hanging out." Chris saw them in his mind, sitting on the floor having shared a soda, Justin next to him, listening enrapt as he talked about Suzanne Shebly and Mary Frances Cudawindo. "He said that he thought Suzanne Shebly was a dyke and I told him that she wasn't, that she was a whore. He seemed like a regular guy."

"What do you mean by regular guy?"

"Straight. I mean, he didn't seemed freaked out by the fact that I was talking about these girls having sex and stuff. I thought maybe I had been wrong about him."

"Then what happened?"

Chris, to his credit, did glance at his parents out in the gallery before he answered. "I started telling him about Mary Frances Cudawindo and how she came over to my house one afternoon to interview me for the school papers. She wanted to know how it felt to be this big football star and stuff. So I told her. And then she started touching me. She unzipped my pants and stroked me."

"Stroked your penis?"


"And you told Justin this?"


"Then what happened?"

"I started stroking myself through my pants."

"Why did you do that in front of Justin?"

"I didn't think he'd care. A lot of guys do it. Doesn't mean anything."

"Did you want him to touch you?"


"Did you ask him to touch you?"


"Did you make any kind of motion towards him?"


"Mr. Hobbs, did Mr. Taylor touch you?"

Chris hesitated, as if the words were difficult for him to say. Keisha watched him cynically. Assuredly Mason had told him to play up that angle, that he'd been the innocent victim of Justin's uncontrollable lust. "Yes," he said finally. "He touched me."

"What did he do?"

"He unzipped my pants and then he took hold of my," eyes dropping, "penis and began to stroke me."

"Did you stop Mr. Taylor?"


"Did you tell him to stop?"


"Why not, Mr. Hobbs?"

"It all happened so fast. I didn't know what to do. He had his hand around my. . . penis and I just froze. I didn't know if he was going to hurt me or not."

Justin nearly shouted. Hurt him? Chris Hobbs all but begged him to keep going, the way he moaned and groaned and whimpered. If anything, he'd wanted more. That was the real problem, that was the real reason why Hobbs had turned on him, because he couldn't admit to himself that he'd wanted Justin.

"Did you encourage Mr. Taylor in any way?"

"No. I didn't want him touching me."

"Did you ejaculate, Mr. Hobbs?"

"Yes." Two red spots appeared on his cheeks. To have to admit in court that a fag had gotten him off. . .

"Did Mr. Taylor kiss you?"


"Did he touch any part of your body other than your penis?"


"Did you touch him?"


"Did you reciprocate his. . . services?"



"Did you enjoy having Mr. Taylor touch you?"

And Justin waited for his answer, because he had, even if he didn't want to admit it, Chris Hobbs had loved being jerked off by him.


"Do you feel that Mr. Taylor forced himself on you?"

Keisha stood. "Your Honor, objection. I cannot protest enough- -"

"You don't have to, Ms. Thomas," Judge Kramer said. "Mr. Mason, you will refrain from leading the witness and from offering opinions about the nature of the encounter. Ask your questions and move on."

"Yes, Your Honor."

Sitting once more, Keisha breathed easier. Kramer seemed to have come to the end of his patience with Mason and about time. The man was definitely pushing it.

"Did you tell anyone about the incident in the equipment shed?"


"Why not?"

"I was too ashamed."

"Why were you ashamed?"

"Because. . ." Hobbs hesitated and for the first time it seemed genuine. "Because I didn't stop him. Because I let him touch me and I didn't want him to. I should have stopped him. I should have told him no."

Even Keisha was affected by his words. He hadn't really wanted Justin to jerk him off. She believed that. But the reason why, that was the real question.

Mason was moving on. "Mr. Hobbs, on the occasion of your fight with Mr. Taylor in the locker room at St. James, did you approach Mr. Taylor or did he approach you?"

"I approached him."

"Did you say anything to him?"

"Yes. I asked him why he wasn't taking a shower."

"So this was after gym class?"


Mason brought up an issue that was sure to be on everyone's mind. "Why did you care?"

"I was just making a comment."

"But why?"

Hobbs shrugged. "Killing time."

"what else did you say to Mr. Taylor?"

"I told him we all knew how much he liked looking at other guys' dicks."

In the gallery, Justin trembled, wondering if anyone had ever noticed him looking at the other guys. He'd thought he'd been careful, not too obvious in his admiration. Maybe he hadn't been. Maybe it'd been obvious what he was doing. Watching them play around, easy in their nakedness, with their sexuality. The way Brian was. He never cared who saw him naked or what they thought about him or his body. He wasn't ashamed of his body or of his sexuality. Through him, with him, Justin had become more at ease as well.

"Mr. Hobbs, why'd you make that comment?"

Justin's stomach tightened.

Hobbs' eyes dropped and Keisha watched the jury to see how they reacted to that, if they thought he had something to hide or if he was merely upset at having to think about something unpleasant.

"I used to catch him looking at me."

Frozen in place, Justin felt as if all eyes were on him although everyone was looking at Chris.

"When we were naked. Like he wanted to touch us."

"Objection, Your Honor."

"Sustained. Please disregard the witness' last statement."

"How did it make you feel?" Mason asked as if he hadn't been interrupted.

"Dirty," replied Hobbs and Keisha was hard-pressed to disbelieve him. "Afraid."

Rolling his eyes, Brian nearly laughed. Afraid of what? Of getting another handjob and blowing your wad?

"Afraid of what?"

"That he'd try to be with me again."

Feeling Justin tense next to him, Brian eased his arm around the teen's waist. Justin's eyes met his and he reassured him with a smile. Fuck Hobbs, it said. I know you didn't want him. They both knew who Justin had wanted. He'd wanted Brian. "I want you," Justin had said and Brian had believed him. Knew, even then, that the teen's desires went deeper than a momentary lust. And it had frightened him. That someone could want him that much, love him that much so quickly. He'd felt a connection to Justin that had alarmed him. And so he'd pushed him away.

When Hobbs confessed his fears, Keisha had to keep herself from laughing out loud. Hobbs had been afraid all right. Afraid he'd liked Justin jacking him off a little too much. That's what had scared him, what still scared him probably. Brian had told her that he thought Hobbs was closeted and although she had yet to be presented with concrete proof, she trusted the ad exec's instincts. And waited and watched.

"What did Mr. Taylor say in response to your allegations?"

"Nothing. He just kept getting dressed."

"What did you do?"

"I asked him about his nipple ring."

"Again, Mr. Hobbs, why did you care what Mr. Taylor did?"

"I was just ragging him. People did it all the time, ragged each other about stuff. It didn't mean anything."

Except that it did, thought Justin, when you ragged me. It wasn't the same. Don't try to say it was the same.

"Did you ever rag your friends about sexual matters?"

"All the time," Hobbs replied. "We were just joking around."

"Did you or your friends ever call one another faggot? Or queer?"


"What did you mean by that?"

"It was just something we said. A joke. Like if a guy took a hit on the field and complained about it, we'd call him a faggot."

"Meaning what?"

"That he was acting like a girl."

"Did you or your friends ever fight over being called a faggot?"

Hobbs fidgeted in his seat. "Somebody might push someone else or something but we never really had real fights."

Here Keisha watched Mason carefully. Would he bring up the fact that on the surface this appeared to be what happened between Hobbs and Justin? And would he ask Hobbs why he'd gotten so upset then over harmless teasing? Why was he allowed to tease Justin but Justin was not allowed to tease him? If it was all a joke, just playing? And if Mason didn't bring it up, he had to know that she would.

"Who started the fight, Mr. Hobbs?"

Looking sheepish, Chris replied, "I did. I pushed him."

"Was it a friendly push like you would give a friend?"

To his credit, or Mason's coaching, Hobbs did'nt lie. "No. I pushed him hard."


"I was mad at him."

"Mr. Hobbs, if this was all in good fun, why did you get so angry with Mr. Taylor?"

"Because I thought he would tell. About what happened in the equipment shed."

"Why did you want to keep it a secret?"

"I didn't want people to think I was a f- - I was gay."

Almost said it, didn't you? thought Keisha. Faggot. I wondered how long Mason worked with you to get you not to say that word?

"Why not?"

"Because I wasn't. I'm not gay."

"Do you think there's something wrong with being gay?"

Keisha couldn't believe it. Mason was getting right to the heart of the matter. Which probably meant he'd crafted some pat answer for Hobbs to give.

"I don't think it's right, two guys being together like that. But I don't hate gay people."

Someone chortled behind her. Without turning she knew it was Brian. At least he wasn't shouting. Which was what she wanted to do. Of course that was the right answer to give because most people prided themselves on feeling the same way.

"Do you hate Justin Taylor?"

Hobbs hesitated just a second and Keisha wondered what that hesitation would cost him ultimately. "No."

"Mr. Hobbs, both Justin Taylor and Lane Jenkins testified that you said you'd kill Mr. Taylor. Do you recall saying that to him in the locker room?"


"Did you mean it?"

Of course he did, thought Justin. And he tried to make good on the threat.

"No, I didn't mean it."

"So why did you say it?"

"I was angry because he'd spat on me. He spat blood on me and I guess I just got really mad."

"Why did that make you so angry?"

"Cause it's not something you do. You don't go around spitting on people."

"But you can go around hitting people with baseball bats!" Justin yelled, standing up.

Jesus Christ, I knew it would only be a matter of time, Keisha thought. Here it comes.

"Mr. Taylor, sit down and please refrain from commenting on Mr. Hobbs' testimony. As I recall, he did you the courtesy of letting you speak uninterrupted."

Shit, moaned Keisha to herself and she turned and gave Justin a look. Brian pulled him back down and whispered something to him at which the teen nodded and closed his eyes.

At that point Kramer recessed court for a lunch break. For which Keisha was eternally grateful. They all needed a little air.

Brian noticed that Kip slipped out during the lunch break and assumed that he wouldn't return. Which was just as well. He'd probably have killed the little bastard if he'd come across him in the hallway. It'd be worth the prison time just to kick his ass going and coming. He hoped to God whoever had employed him saw the news footage from the trial and canned his stupid ass. Why the fuck had he risked his job just to come to court? It couldn't have been in the interest of justice. He'd known that his testimony would hurt Justin, but was it really only revenge that he was after? If so, Brian hoped he was satisfied. Keisha had minimized the damage from his testimony and the trial would go on. As before, Brian figured the only person Kip Thomas had really fucked was himself.

1:45 p.m.

After lunch Mason resumed his questioning of Chris Hobbs, focusing on their homeroom confrontation. "Mr. Hobbs, who started the fight you and Justin Taylor had in your homeroom class?"

"He did."

"Fuck that," Justin whispered loud enough for Brian to hear.

"He's testified that you pushed him first. Is that correct?"


"Then why do you say he started the fight?"

"Because I wasn't talking to him and he butted in."

"Butted in what?"

"I was kinda ragging on Max Freiberg and Taylor heard me and stuck his nose in it."

"Have you ever had a physical altercation with Mr. Freiberg?"

"You mean a fight?"



Why were you ragging on Mr. Freiberg?"

"I was trying to get to my seat and he was in the way and I kind of bumped him."

"Did you call Mr. Freiberg a faggot?"


"Did you believe Mr. Freiberg was gay?"


"Then why did you call him a faggot?"

"It was like calling somebody stupid or retard. It's just a word."

And Justin thought of all the harm that had come from words, when words inspired people to action. Misguided action.

"Did you say anything else to Mr. Freiberg?"

"I asked him if he wanted to suck my penis."


"I thought it'd get a laugh."

"Why, Mr. Hobbs?"

"Because Freiberg was a total troll. Nobody wanted to have sex with him."

"Did anyone in your class laugh?"


"Then what happened?"

"I was going to my seat when Taylor came in with Daphne. And Taylor got in my face about ragging Max. And he brought up the equipment shed again."

"What did Mr. Taylor say?"

"He said, 'Don't take it out on him,' and when I asked him what, he said, 'Your dick.' "

"Why did you believe he was referring to the equipment shed incident?"

"I just did. It was like he couldn't wait to tell everyone."


"Sustained. Disregard."

But little by little a picture was emerging, of Justin being the one who pushed things, who pushed at Hobbs regarding an incident he had instigated.

"Both Mr. Taylor and Ms. Chanders have testified that when Mr. Dixon called the roll and got to Justin Taylor's name, you said, 'Queer.' Mr. Dixon has testified that he did not hear you say that. Did you say, 'Queer?' "


"What did Mr. Taylor do?"

"He got really pissed off and was arguing with Mr. Dixon. He wanted me to apologize. Mr. Dixon told him if he said anything else, he'd send him to the principal's office and Taylor got up and took his bag and told Dixon he was going. He kept saying the word queer over and over again."

"Justin Taylor used the word queer to describe himself?"


"How many times do you remember him saying it?"

"Three times, I think."

"And how many times did you say it to describe him that morning?"


"Mr. Hobbs, do you remember the day Justin Taylor and Daphne Chanders handed out condoms to advertise their Gay Straight Student Alliance?"


"Did you speak to them while they were handing out the condoms?"

"Yes. I asked Taylor if he was starting a faggot club."

"Why did your approach Mr. Taylor regarding the club?"

Hobbs looked a little offended. "I couldn't believe they were letting him start a club like that at school."

"What was wrong with the club?"

"It was like starting a sex club on campus. I mean, they were handing out condoms in the hallway."

"What else did you say to Mr. Taylor?"

"I asked him if. . . if buttfucking," and he winced, "was an extra-curricular activity."

"And what did he say?"

"He said no, just handjobs."

"What did you do?"

"I grabbed him and pushed him against the wall and told him not to mention that again."

"Mention what?"

"Handjobs. He was talking about what happened in the equipment shed."


"Your Honor, we've established that Mr. Taylor gave Mr. Hobbs a handjob in the equipment shed, I don't think it would take a stretch of the imagination- -"

"Precisely, Mr. Mason, it would take a stretch of the imagination for Mr. Hobbs to claim to know what Mr. Taylor meant unless Mr. Taylor told him. Objection sustained."

"Did you believe that Mr. Taylor was referring to the incident in the equipment shed?"


Mason paused before taking up the next topic of questioning, the blow-up on Liberty Avenue. "Let's turn to the argument you had with Mr. Taylor on Liberty Avenue. Did you know that Liberty Avenue was considered the gay section of town?"


"Then why did you go?"

"My friends and I wanted to go out. We heard they had some good clubs and bars down there."

"Gay bars and clubs."

"They come to our clubs and bars. We don't tell them they can't go where they want to."

Yes, you do, Brian said to himself. Every time you call some poor kid a faggot or queer and harass him. Every time you bash someone, you're saying, 'We don't want you here. Stay the fuck away from us.'

"When did you see Mr. Taylor?"

"When he came and stood in front of me."

"Did you go down to Liberty Avenue looking for Justin Taylor?"

"No. It wasn't like I was following him."

"Did you say anything to Mr. Taylor when he came and stood in front of you?"

"I said hey."

"Then what happened?"

"He asked me what I was doing down there and I told him I had come to see the freaks like him."

"Why'd you call him a freak?"

"He wasn't a friend of mine."

"Could you define freak for the court?"

"Someone who doesn't fit in. Someone who's abnormal."

"Then what happened?"

"Taylor said that down there I was the freak and then I tried to go past him."

"Did he move?"

"No. And his boyfriend came over and got in my face."

"Mr. Kinney?"


"Did you know about Mr. Kinney?"

"I'd heard about him driving Justin to school that day with faggot painted on his Jeep."

"But you'd never met him?"


"What did you think of him when you saw him?"

"That he was kind of big. And older than us."

"Were you afraid of Mr. Kinney?"

"A little."


"Because it looked like he was going to hit me."



"Did he hit you?"


"What did Justin Taylor do?"

"He pushed his boyfriend back and then he told everybody how he'd given me a handjob in the equipment shed."

"How did that make you feel?"

"I was mad. And embarrassed."

"Why embarrassed?"

"Because I was with my girlfriend and my friends and I didn't want anyone to know about it cause I didn't want them to think I was gay."

"What did you tell your friends about what had happened?"

"I told them he was lying and that nothing had happened and he'd been lusting after me all year."

"Mr. Kinney and Mr. Taylor have testified that you told Justin he was fucked. What did you mean by that?"

"I meant we were out as far as getting along was concerned."

"What did you intend to do?"

"Nothing. I didn't want to have anything to do with him again."

But he hadn't left Justin alone. Justin was certain he and his goons had been responsible for setting his locker on fire even though the school never found any proof. And then, of course, there'd been the prom.

But before the prom another incident had occurred, minor in the big scheme of things, still it had to be addressed.

"The week of the prom," Mason began, "you had a run-in with Justin Taylor in the hallway at school, is that correct?"


"What happened?"

"I was walking down the hallway and I saw Taylor and I tried to stay away from him but he slowed down and when I caught up with him he made a motion with his hand."

Justin's eyes widened. He hadn't even known Hobbs was behind him. That was a total fuckin' lie. He could feel his blood pressure rising. Please, don't let me blow it, he prayed.

"What kind of motion, Mr. Hobbs?"

"He curved his fingers like this," Hobbs demonstrated, "and moved his hand up and down."

"That's a fuckin' lie!" Justin yelled. "I didn't do anything!" Brian stood and caught hold of Justin's arm before the teenager could move away from him. "He's lying," Justin explained as Brian tried to get him to sit down. It was only as Keisha cut her eyes at him an the judge began banging his gavel that Justin calmed down enough to sit. Tears welled up in his eyes and spilled over his cheeks as Brian whispered soothing nothings in his ear. "I didn't," he said softly.

"I know, baby."

Mason was asking another question. "Why did this disturb you, Mr. Hobbs?"

"Because I thought he was bringing up the handjob again."

Inside Keisha fumed. The way Mason tried, in a subtle manner, to shift the blame from Hobbs to Justin was distasteful. And she knew that for all the sympathy the jury had felt for Brian and Justin, they'd also begun to feel sorry for Hobbs. Especially in light of Kip Thomas' testimony which had cast Justin in a less than flattering light. Which of them, they'd be thinking, would have been able to keep it together under the circumstances? If someone was constantly rubbing your face in the way they'd taken advantage of you, how long would it be before you exploded, before you struck out? Yet, it was a fine line to walk, to convince the jury not only that Justin had pushed but also that Hobbs' responses hadn't been cumulative, hadn't built one upon the other but were, instead, independent, unplanned responses to Justin's repeated harassment. If there had been no parking garage bashing, she might have bought it. How would Mason do it?

Kramer called a short recess and Hobbs returned to the defense table. Justin wouldn't even look his way, he was so angry and even Brian's attempts to distract him fell short. He was livid. All of this shit was just empty drama.

Having given him a moment, Keisha went over to Justin and stood in front of him. "You okay?"

"Sorry," he replied. "I didn't mean to do that."

"It's hard, I know. Especially when people twist the facts in their favor. But that's what it's all about."

"He lied. I never did that. Never made any kind of motion to him. It's like it's a game to him," Justin said of Mason. "Doesn't he care about the truth?"

"Truth is relative," Brian answered. "My truth might not be your truth."

"Philosophy 101?" asked Keisha with a twinkle in her eye.

"Business Ethics junior year." He added, "Remember when we first met? You thought it was one thing and I thought it was something else and it was probably a little of both and something we hadn't even thought of back then. All true."

Maybe so, but it didn't change the way he'd felt back then and it didn't change the way he felt now.


Finally they had come to the portion of testimony most of the court had waited for all day, for the past two days.

"The night of the prom, were you drinking alcohol?"


"Where did you get it?"

"I had a flask and I filled it with some booze from my parents' liquor cabinet."

"Did you sneak it out?"

"No. My dad let me take it. Said I was old enough."

"When did you start drinking that night?"

"After dinner, when we got to the prom."

"What kind of liquor did you have?"

"Rum. We'd get Cokes from the bar and mix it with rum."

"Do you consider yourself a heavy drinker?"

"No. I usually have a couple beers or something at a party, that's all."

"Have you ever been drunk?"

"Once or twice."

"Are you a recreational drug user?"


"Never smoked pot or taken Ecstasy or some other kind of illegal substance?'

"No. Cause of football."

Keisha contained herself. Pure and virtuous unlike Justin who'd admitted to taking drugs that Brian had given him. He went to gay bars and drank with his twenty-nine-year-old boyfriend.

"How many rum and Cokes did you have at the prom?"

"Maybe three."

"How much rum in each?"

"Not a lot. A shot maybe."

"An ounce?"

"Maybe. I didn't measure it."

"Did you feel intoxicated?"


"Yet," Mason said, "the police report submitted by the prosecution states that although you were not legally intoxicated, your blood alcohol level was quite high. But you didn't notice any effects?"


She admired his style. To introduce an element of doubt about Hobbs' reasoning abilities regarding that night despite his client's insistence that he was sober. See, Mason was saying, my client was drunk and didn't even know it. So he might have acted without thinking as well.

"Prior to Mr. Kinney's arrival, did you see Mr. Taylor at the prom?"


"Did you speak to him?"


"Why not?"

"I was trying to enjoy myself. I didn't want to think about Taylor. I just wanted to dance with Lisa and make out and have a good time."

"Did you see Mr. Kinney arrive at the prom?"

Hobbs' eyes narrowed and Keisha wondered what he was thinking.

"I saw him."

"What did you feel seeing him?"

"I was shocked."


"Because Taylor had come with Daphne. And because this was a high school prom, not a gay disco."

"Did it make you angry too?"

"Maybe a little but I was too shocked to feel much of anything else."

"Did you see Mr. Kinney and Mr. Taylor dancing?"

"Yes." Tight.

"Can you describe what you saw and how it made you feel?"

"They were dancing really close together and smiling at one another, laughing. You could see them rubbing up against one another and then at the end, they kissed. In front of everybody."

"How did that make you feel?"



"I thought they were laughing at us. Laughing at the prom and making fun of us."

"Why did you feel that way?"

"Because of the way they just took over and everybody watched them. It was like it wasn't bad enough that Kinney came, they had to rub our noses in it too."

Brian remembered how happy Justin had looked, how beautiful; they hadn't thought about the other kids at all until they were walking back to the Jeep and even then it wasn't like they'd wanted to ruin it for everyone else, they'd just wanted their fair share, nothing more.

"Did you watch Kinney and Taylor leave the prom?"


"And you told Lisa Monroe you were going to the bathroom?"


"Did you?"


"Where did you go?"

"To my car."

"Had you intended to go to your car all along?"

"No. I was headed to the bathroom and I ended up in the parking garage."

"What were you planning to do?"

"To leave."

"Why didn't you go and get Lisa?"

"I just wanted to go right then."

"Why didn't you?"

"I saw them." He could see them in his mind. "Laughing. Singing." His head moved as if he were looking away. "I heard Taylor say, 'Did you see their faces?' "

"What did you do?"

"I went towards them."

"And you took your baseball bat?"


"So you opened your car and got out the bat?"

"I don't remember getting it out but I guess I did since I had it in my hands."

"Why did you have a baseball bat in your car, Mr. Hobbs?"

"I played baseball in the spring."

"You were on the school team?"

"No. I wasn't that good. I played with some guys I knew. Pick-up games and stuff."

"Prior to the prom, when was the last game you'd played?"

"The Saturday before the prom."

"Was your glove in the car as well?"


"Why did you approach Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kinney?"

"I wanted to talk to Justin, I guess."

"Why take the bat?"

"I don't know. Except that. . ."

"Except what?"

"I was kind of spooked by Justin's boyfriend."

"Spooked how?"

"He's a lot older than us. And bigger. Taller. I didn't know what he'd do."

"But you didn't go up to them both, did you, Mr. Hobbs?"

"No. I chickened out. I didn't want to face them both together. Especially since I was alone."

"But you had a baseball bat in your hands."

"I didn't really think about that."

"So you waited until Mr. Kinney had gotten into the Jeep to approach Mr. Taylor?"


"Did you call out to Mr. Taylor?"


"Why not?"

"I didn't really know what to do."

"So you followed him?"


"Then what happened?"

"I heard Justin's boyfriend call his name and I heard him running towards us. Justin turned around and I hit him."

"Why did you hit him, Christian?"

"I don't know. I just swung at him. I didn't. . . I wasn't thinking. I just- - reacted. I thought his boyfriend was gonna kill me."

"Objection, Your Honor."


Keisha sat, heart pounding, thankful that neither Brian nor Justin had responded to Hobbs. Glancing back at them, she could tell, they were damn near in shock.

"Did you swing at Mr. Taylor the way you would if you were trying to hit a home run?"

"No. It was more of a reflex. I just swung."

"And then what happened?"

"Justin fell down."

"Did you swing at him again?"

Softly, he said, "No. I just- - I just stood there looking at him." He had, mesmerized by the blood that began to run from Justin's head.

"What happened next?"

Hobbs shook himself as if coming out of a dream. "His boyfriend came and pushed me. I fell and then I got up and ran. He picked up the bat and came after me. He hit me in the leg and I fell again."

"Where did he hit you specifically in the leg?"

"My knee."

As Keisha had suspected, Mason went no further with that line of questioning. No one would have much sympathy for Hobbs because of his injury. His career as a football player was over but it'd been over really the moment he'd struck Justin.

"In the hospital, Mr. Hobbs, witnesses have testified that you said you hoped Justin Taylor died. Did you mean that?"

"No. I was upset."

"About what?"

"About everything. I was going to jail, my football career was over, college, everything. I was angry and I wasn't thinking."

"Do you wish you had killed Justin Taylor?"


"What do you wish, Christian?"

In a low voice that nevertheless carried throughout the entire courtroom, Hobbs replied, "That he had never come into that equipment shed."

Justin looked up at Chris, for the first time since he'd begun talking about what happened in the parking garage, and heard the sorrow in his voice. It was certainly what he'd wished every day since it happened.

Mason, with a somber look on his face, announced, "No more questions, Your Honor."

Keisha checked her watch. It was too late to begin a cross-examination. Fuck! Hobbs would have the entire four-day holiday to regroup.

Kramer recessed court for the day with everyone anticipating the cross come Monday. Keisha toyed with the idea of recalling Brian and Justin to the stand as rebuttal witnesses to address Kip Thomas' testimony but was leaning towards not doing so. She was confident that her cross had done the job and it really wasn't necessary to rehash the issue; plus, by drawing attention to it again, she might be doing more harm than good. Instead, she intended to spend some of the four-day holiday polishing her closing argument. If all went according to plan, she'd be giving it Monday afternoon. And then it'd be up to the jury to decide Hobbs' fate. Calmly, she packed her briefcase and glanced at her opponent. Although he looked just as cool on the outside, he had to know that, at best, his defense had been perfunctory and he had done little except offer a slow guilty plea from the beginning. Even though jurors had been known to defy logic and return unbelievable verdicts, she didn't anticipate this being one of those instances. Hobbs would be convicted. But she remained uncertain about the conviction itself, what he would be convicted of, felony one or two? She just didn't know. Personally, she wasn't convinced by Hobbs' performance but a jury, that was something different. They could be swayed by the flimsiest of explanations. And Mason had done a good job of prepping Hobbs.

As she turned to go upstairs to her office, she realized that Brian and Justin were still in the courtroom, still seated, Brian's arm around Justin's shoulder, the boy leaning against him. Even the defense had vacated the premises, eager to begin the four-day holiday. She saw the tears on Justin's face and caught Brian's eye. He shook his head almost imperceptibly. So she waited. After a few seconds, Justin wiped his eyes and looked up at her. "It's all my fault, isn't it?"

"Are you two competing for the Martyr of the Year Award? Go home. Eat some turkey. Have sex. Enjoy the holiday. Forget about the trial for a few days," she told them.

"Can you?" Justin asked.

"I've got a job to do but I'm going to my mom's house tomorrow for Turkey Day and I'm not going to think about the trial again until Saturday." She waited until they'd risen to leave. "What about you two? I really can't see His Big and Badness basting a turkey. Although I'd pay to."

"We're going to the Munchers."

At Keisha's raised eyebrow, Justin explained, "Lindsay and Mel are having Thanksgiving at their house. We're keeping Gus tonight." He checked his watch. "We gotta go." Justin quickened his steps, anxiety over the trial momentarily forgotten.

"What is it about you Kinney men?"

Brian smiled devilishly. "Irish charm."


He leaned over as if to kiss her, then paused and laughed. "I bet your heart was racing."

"Was not." She quickened her step as well. Damn, he was good.

Despite having picked up Gus and taken him home, Justin found himself unable to shake the events of the day. Listening to Chris Hobbs testify, watching Mason and his client twist everything that had happened between them into some kind of grotesque parody of the truth, had made him feel nauseous and the feeling still hadn't passed hours later. Brian, sensing that he needed some time alone, tried to keep Gus occupied but the baby was dead set on playing with Pooh and wouldn't satisfy himself with his Da da. Every time he managed to escape Brian's arms, he headed for the bedroom where Justin lay calling out to the teenager. Finally Justin got up and came into the living room and sat where Gus could see him and occasionally touch him or get Justin to respond to him in some fashion.

Brian could tell the teenager was exhausted and not in the mood to play. "I can take him over to Deb's." But Justin shook his head. "You hungry?" Again the head shake. "Tell me what to do."

"Nothing. There's nothing you can do unless you can go back in time and keep me from being such an idiot."

"If I could do that, don't you think I would have used it for myself? Fuck, like I wanted the whole world to find out about Kip." He laughed even though it was far from funny. "What the fuck was I thinking?"

"I think your dick was doing all the thinking at the time," Justin grumbled.

Not bothering to mention that Justin had slept with him too, he said, "He wasn't that hot. In fact, he wasn't hot at all."

"Then why'd you do it?"

"I don't know. Why the fuck do I do anything?" Gus brought Beh to him and Brian had to pretend to be the teddy bear and talk to Gus in his best bear voice, gravelly and scary. The baby screamed and ran to Justin, held onto his knees.

Justin thought about Brian's testimony, when he'd told the court how they met and what he'd been thinking at the time. "Did you really mean it when you said you thought I was beautiful and pure and innocent?"

"Not anymore," grinned Brian.

"You know what I mean," Justin said.

After a moment, Brian replied, "Yeah. I did."

When Gus finally released him, Justin went over and sat next to Brian and laid his head upon his shoulder.

Thursday, November 22nd

As he did whenever he stayed with Brian and Justin, Gus woke a little disconcerted, looking around for familiar objects and finding none. However, each time, just as he was about to cry, he would see his Da da, or sometimes Pooh, and he'd remember being with them even if he didn't remember being at the loft. Usually he'd reach out and tug on one of them until the grown-up awoke, most of the time Brian. Or, at least, it felt that way to him. And what a wonderful way to wake up, a tiny fist entwined in his hair, as it was invariably Brian's hair that the baby got hold of and pulled. Thanksgiving morning was no exception.

Brian woke with a start, the baby tugging on his hair. "Ow!" Grumbled, "God- -"

"Brian," warned Justin, having awakened with Brian's cry.

"It's not your fu- - it's not your hair." After he disengaged the baby's hand, Brian turned over to meet Gus' grinning face.

"Least it's not your- -"

"Don't give him any ideas," he said, looking across Gus' head.

Justin smirked. "It's giving me ideas." He leaned over and kissed first the man and then the baby.

Rolling onto his back, Brian lifted Gus in the air while the toddler giggled. "Well, he's awake now so our window of opportunity is gone for, at least, three hours."

"And then we have to go to Lindsay's for dinner."

Visions of sweetness and light darkened Brian's features. "Can't we just drop him off and go out for Thanksgiving?"

Throwing back the covers, Justin replied, "No." Tottered into the bathroom.

"Da da," said Gus.

"What?" asked Brian, lowering the baby for a kiss.

Gus reached for Brian's hair and laughed. "Da da."

"No." Brian cradled the baby in his arms and stood, carried him into the bathroom after Justin. Again Gus reached for his hair. "Stop it," he said and Gus laughed and reached again. "You're gonna get it," Brian threatened.

Justin looked around as they entered the room. "I'd believe him if I were you, Gus. He knows a lot about spanking." And he smiled remembering the last time Brian had spanked him. His buttocks tingled and he resolved to be very, very naughty sometime this upcoming weekend.

Toiletries complete, the three men prepared a small breakfast to tide them over until dinner. Gus was given a bowl of rice cereal with bananas and some formula which he ate with gusto, having inherited Justin's appetite apparently just by being around him. Justin fixed himself a couple of eggs over easy and a link of sausage while Brian downed two cups of coffee and toasted a bagel. They took breakfast at the table, Gus and Justin far too messy to trust to the livingroom although they both wanted to watch TV. As soon as they'd finished, Justin carried the baby to the sofa and turned on Nickelodeon, watching SpongeBob SquarePants while Brian cleaned up and made the bed. It was a small price to pay for a little peace and quiet.

The housework done, he turned to his wardrobe, trying to decide what to wear to dinner. He had a fabulous new pair of terra-cotta crocodile print pants from Armani Exchange and a tan sweater that would look fantastic with it, or he could wear his garnet Kenneth Cole sweater with his jeans, or his grey turtleneck and black stovepipe pants…

"So many outfits…"

Brian jumped.

"So little time." Justin grinned from the doorway.

"Do I have to put a bell around your neck?"

"Only if you think we'd have more fun that way."

Brian tipped his head upwards. "Where's the rugrat?" You couldn't leave him alone for a second. "I don't want to have to buy another DVD player. Or a new TV."

Looking back and craning his neck, Justin replied, "I can see him. He's still sitting on the rug. So what are you wearing?"

"I'll decide later." He crossed to Justin and took him in his arms, one eye on the baby, "First things first," and gave him a long, lingering, and proper kiss good morning.

"Mmm," whispered Justin, "morning kisses. You sure we can't. . . ?"

At that moment Gus got up and started towards the television. Brian released his lover and raced down the steps. "No!"

Whether he was talking to him or Gus, the teen didn't know but one thing was certain, there'd be no playtime for the adults this morning.

Four and a half hours later they showered and dressed, Gus included, wriggling as his Da da held him and Justin sponged him off, the water from the showerhead gently misting around them. The two men were in a much better mood, having made love while the baby took his eleven o'clock nap, and they laughed at Gus' attempts to free himself from his daddy's gentle grip.

Removing the outfit Lindz had packed for him from his carry-all bag, Brian groaned. "Fuck no, I am not dressing my kid in that."

Justin glanced at it, laughed. "I think it's cute."

It was a turkey outfit. A modified one but a turkey outfit nonetheless. A pair of brown corduroy overalls (the body) with a multicolored shirt- - one green sleeve, one yellow, blue body- - (the tail) and a red beanie (the coxcomb).

"There is nothing cute about this. He'll look like a fuckin' turkey elf."

"Language," Justin reminded him seeing how Gus' eyes, and presumably ears, were glued to his daddy.

Brian threw up his hands. "I give up. Her tastelessness wins. Why I even bother trying to set a fabulous fashion example for him when I'm up against the Goodwill Dyke is beyond me."

"She's artistic," Justin said in Lindsay's defense.

"She's tacky," Brian clarified. He began dressing Gus. "You should have seen the outfit she wore when she went shopping with me for my- -" He stopped abruptly, busied himself with pulling Gus' shirt over his head.

"Shopping for what?"

For my white scarf. Which they had taken from him at the police station for evidence. Which he had never wanted to see again. "Nothing," he mumbled.

Easing up behind Brian, Justin rubbed his bare back. Waited.

"For my birthday present," he answered, fastening the buckles on the baby's overalls. Seeing it again in court, the blood having turned a dark brown, he'd barely been able to keep from going after Hobbs. It had been bad. The baseball bat, the photos, they'd been bad enough but that scarf. . . God, when he'd held it, all he could remember was how helpless he had felt kneeling in the garage, holding Justin in his arms, the scarf pressed to his temple to staunch the flow of blood until the paramedics arrived. Seeing that scarf again had plunged him right back into the midst of that fear, flailing as it threatened to close over his head and drown him.

"You looked so beautiful," Justin began, breaking through his thoughts. "Daphne saw you first and she pointed and I turned and watched you walk in and I thought, He's the most beautiful person here- - and he's with me. I couldn't believe you were there. Even after we went out on the dance floor, I kept expecting Daphne to tug on my arm and tell me to wake up. It was like a dream. Like a fairy tale come true."

"How can you say after everything that happened?"

Justin held onto his arm and turned Brian around to face him. "Because of everything that has happened. You and me. Together."

"Pooh," said Gus and the teen laughed.

"You and me and Gus. Together." And Brian smiled then and kissed him softly and returned to dressing the baby, the dark shadows gone from his eyes.

Ask her what her favorite time of the year was and she'd say, without hesitation, fall. Although spring was supposed to be full of new beginnings, to her it was actually fall; she supposed it was because she was a teacher that she felt that way. Autumn meant a new school year, new faces, new ideas. Of course, now fall meant Gus too; even though, technically, he was born in late summer, she always thought of him as an autumnal child. Sprinkling the last of the dried leaves upon the table, she surveyed her handiwork. Perfect.

This would be their first real Thanksgiving as a family. Last year, although she and Mel had celebrated the holiday, Brian had steadfastly refused to come, preferring to remain home, alone. This year, not only was he attending but the whole gang was showing up as well and, even better, Brian was coming with Justin. Despite having wished for it, maybe even foreseen it, the reality of their being together never failed to amaze and please her. She smiled, imagining the two of them arriving with Gus, the baby giggling with Da da and Pooh. Nothing Justin or any of them did could convince the baby to call him anything but Pooh. She could hear Justin saying exasperatingly but amused too, "Justin. Say Justin, Gus." And Gus, on cue, would reply, "Pooh," just as stubborn as his daddy when it came to getting his way. Justin might as well give up. But he was persistent too. He had pursued Brian beyond all logic and good sense and won him, won his love and, most importantly, his respect. That's what most people failed to realize: that Brian respected Justin. If not as a complete equal, then as equal as the man would ever admit anyone was compared to him. He did have a high opinion of himself. Mostly deserved.

Mel touched the flowers of the cornucopia centerpiece as if to convince herself of their authenticity. "You're thinking about him, aren't you?"

Aware that saying the wrong thing had the potential of killing the day's mood before the festivities had even begun, Lindz trod carefully. "I was just thinking how far he's come. How far all of us have come."

She had to admit the veracity of that statement. "I suppose. He's only an asshole sixty percent of the time now."

"Mel. . ."

In mock defeat, Melanie raised her hands. "Okay, okay. Fifty percent. That's my final offer."

Taking Mel into her arms, Lindz said, "I accept, counselor."

The two women kissed for a moment wishing they'd made better use of their baby-free time this morning than just to cook.

Mel nuzzled Lindsay's neck. "You think Papa Bear could be persuaded to keep Baby Bear for one more night?"

"If you ask nicely."

She groaned. "Oh, well. . ."

As they drove over to the Munchers (God, he had to stop thinking of them as that. It was totally Brian's fault.), Justin sat in the back with Gus and couldn't believe how excited he was just to be going to dinner. But it wasn't just any old dinner, it was Thanksgiving dinner, the first- - well, second if you counted Gus' birthday party- - real formal, family gathering he'd gone to with Brian, that they'd gone to as a couple. Looking up front at his lover who seemed preoccupied with the holiday traffic, Justin thought, This is gonna be almost perfect. Almost because Rennie and Xavier had each gone home and Daphne was having dinner at her grandparents'.

Things had gotten back to normal between him and Xavier. Well, if not entirely normal, at least it seemed as if most of the weirdness was over. And the best part was Brian hadn't picked up on a thing. Which was beneficial to all involved. Justin couldn't begin to imagine what might have happened if Brian had begun to suspect- - Suspect what? he asked himself. Only, he knew the answer. Glancing down to find the baby's hazel eyes watching him, Justin put all thoughts of Xavier from his mind. "Hey, Gus. Hey. Hello, Gus."

"Pooh." Gus clapped his hands, pleased with himself.

"Justin. Say it, Gus. Justin. Ju-stin."


The teen gave up. For now. "Fine. Pooh."

Gus called to Brian. "Da da!"


"Hey!" He was just learning how to say that word and Brian looked forward to hearing it ad nauseum.


"Pooh. Pooh."

"I see him," he replied, looking up in the rearview mirror.

"So," Justin began, "this is gonna go okay, isn't it?"

"Why shouldn't it?"

The teen didn't bother to list all of the things that could potentially go wrong. "Well. . ."

"I'm not gonna fuck it up." He paused. "Unless she starts something."

To be fair, Brian and Mel had been getting along a lot better these days. Once they'd figured out where they all fit in one another's lives, things had gone smoother. Still, they were both type-A personalities: aggressive, antagonistic, assertive, and, each would say about the other, an asshole.

"After everything you put up with in court, a couple hours with Mel oughta be a breeze," joked Justin and immediately Brian's demeanor changed and the teen wanted to hit himself in the head for ever bringing it up.

"I suppose," Brian replied in a subdued voice. He turned down their street and pulled up in front of the house. Parked. None of the other guests had arrived yet. By the time he grabbed his camera and tripod and got around to Gus' side of the Jeep, Justin had already unbuckled the baby from his car seat and was lifting him up. Gus reached for his daddy and Brian, leaning the tripod against the car, took him and let him walk in front of him. The baby was still a little unsteady on his feet but he was getting better all the time. He'd actually made it to the television set before Brian had caught him that morning. Justin came behind them, carrying Beh and the Kate Hepburn brownies he'd made. As Brian knocked, he turned and kissed Justin, saying nothing, just kissed him and then looked back around as Mel opened the door.

"Hey," Gus said as he saw her.

"Hey, baby." She lifted him and carried him into the dining room where Lindsay still fussed about with the table. "Look who's here. . ."

Left on their own, Brian and Justin took off their jackets and hung them on the coat rack in the hall and went in search of holiday spirits.

Not long after, Mikey and Emmett arrived, Ted behind them, with Vic and Deb bringing up the rear. Jennifer and Molly had gone to Jen's parents for the holiday but Justin had talked to them for a long time on the telephone before they'd left for Connecticut.

As drafted co-hosts, Brian and Justin helped Lindsay and Mel bring out the remainder of the food as their guests nibbled on appetizers and cooed over the baby and how much he'd grown and how much he looked like Brian.

"Can you imagine Gus at, like, sixteen?" asked Em.

Deb chuckled. "Christ. Lindsay and Melanie had better start praying now that he's nothing like Brian was at sixteen. Jesus, talk about a handful."

"A handful of what?"

"Trouble," she replied and Michael agreed, nodding his head vigorously.

Vic laughed. "Maybe he'll be more like Lindsay or Melanie."

"What?" asked Ted. "Butch?"

From the dining room, Brian gave him the finger, then finished setting up his camera on the tripod. Lindsay wanted a picture of them all at the table. He wanted to hurl.

"Or," added Deb, "he could turn out just like Sunshine."

"A second Boy Wonder?" Michael said. "Sorry. One was enough."

"Hey!" Justin protested.

"That's okay," Brian crooned, "one is more than enough for me," and he kissed the teen slowly and deeply, ignoring the gagging sounds coming from Mel and Gus' leather bear as it hit him on the arm, thrown by someone in the living room.

"Okay everyone, " announced Lindsay, "I think we'd better eat. Brian looks hungry."

As they parted, Brian smiled and whispered, "What's for dessert?" and Justin mouthed, 'Me.'

They all found their places, each person's marked not by a card but by an acorn with an initial on it that Lindsay had painted. She and Mel took up positions at either end of the table with Brian next to Lindz, Gus next to Brian in his high chair, Michael next to Gus, and Emmett between Michael and Mel. On the other side, Ted sat next to Mel, then Vic, Debbie, and Justin across the table from Brian. The ad exec would have preferred that Gus sat next to his mommy but Lindsay had insisted that the baby be between him and Michael, her way of insuring that she didn't end up spending all of dinner feeding Gus and a not-so-subtle hint to Brian that daddies had duties too. But he didn't mind too much as it meant he and Justin were right across from each other and they could make kissy faces at one another and aggravate and annoy the rest of the diners.

"Before we eat, I think we should all go around the table and say what we're thankful for this year."

Brian sighed audibly and rolled his eyes. Jesus, save him from the lesbians.

"I'll go first," she volunteered. "I'm thankful for Gus and for Mel and that we're all together and we're all safe." She turned to Brian. They all did. And waited. Justin raised an eyebrow.

"I'm thankful Thanksgiving only comes once a year. Ow!"

Everyone else laughed. It didn't take a genius to realize Justin had kicked him beneath the table. But his remark did take the pressure off of them to come up with something saccharine and sweet as most of them had been through hard times this past year.

Brian said for the baby, "And Gus is thankful he has enough teeth to eat some turkey this year." Gus clapped as if he agreed.

"I'm thankful that I didn't move to Oregon because I would have really missed you guys," said Michael.

"Well," began Em, "I'm thankful I saw the light and decided not to become straight."

"And so are the straight people," said Brian.

"I'm thankful that Lindz and I are together and that we decided to have Gus and," Mel added, if not with enthusiasm, at least not with rancor, "that Brian agreed to be the father."

Silent for a moment, Ted said, at last, very quietly, "I'm thankful that I survived Blake. Twice. And that you guys didn't give up on me either time."

Vince smiled. "I'm thankful that you guys aren't sitting around in Deb's house telling horror stories about me," he said, referring to Jack Kinney's funeral. "And I'm especially thankful that I never took Brian and Michael bowling."

Everyone laughed again.

Deb looked around the table. "I'm thankful that I haven't lost any of my boys because I wouldn't know what to do without you. And I'm thankful that because of Brian, I've gotten to add Lindsay and Melanie and Gus to my family. Hell," she said, "we're like the gay Brady Bunch."

Finally, it was Justin's turn. The teen never took his eyes off Brian as he spoke. "I'm thankful that I'm still alive and that when I needed him, Brian was there for me. Every time that I needed him."

Smiling softly first to let Justin know he'd heard him and understood, Brian groused, "Are we going to eat some time today? The food's getting cold and Gus is getting grouchy."

"Like father like son," said Ted.

Lindsay beamed at her table full of friends and family. Then remembered the photograph she wanted. "The picture, Brian."

He set the timer and returned to the table. "All right, everybody say, 'Cheese.' "

"Brie!" they yelled and the flash went off.

Mel carved the turkey since she was, as Brian said, the person most familiar with sharp objects, her tongue being the absolute sharpest thing around. Besides, ever since Lindsay's radical feminist days when she advocated castration as punishment for date rape, he didn't trust her with knives.

For the next ten minutes they passed around serving dishes and gravy boats, baskets of rolls, and the wine bottles until everyone's plate and glass was filled and then they fell to eating as if they hadn't had a meal in weeks. Luckily Brian didn't have a huge appetite because he spent a large portion of dinner making sure Gus wasn't choking on turkey or trying to stuff a green pea up his nose or performing some other terribly cute and amusing but potentially lethal act.

From all around the table came the sound of laughter and love and they remained where they were for a couple of hours, only rising to refill the bread baskets or the gravy boat, to grab the third and fourth bottles of wine, and to peek at the last of the pies baking in the oven.

Taking a break from eating for a while to let their food settle before tackling dessert, they retired to the living room where Gus continued to entertain them with his antics until it was his afternoon nap time and Brian carried him upstairs. Rubbing his eyes and fighting the urge to yawn, Gus ultimately surrendered and curled up in his bed, his daddy remaining by his crib and humming him to sleep before returning below.

They waited until the baby had been put down for the night to tiptoe into the living room and cuddle together on the sofa. A Christmas Carol was on, not one of the newer versions but the old one with Alastair Sim. Brian thought it was still the best even though it didn't have fancy special effects. It had authenticity, he said.

Justin barely paid attention to the movie, content just to lie in Brian's arms and listen to his heart beat, feel his chest rise beneath his cheek. "This was a good day," he said finally after having fallen silent for some ten or fifteen minutes during which time Brian lost himself in the childhood and apprenticeship of Ebeneezer Scrooge.

"Yeah, it was," Brian agreed.

Thinking back to what had been said at dinner, Justin confessed, "I can't imagine what my life would have been like without you. I'd probably still be at home, my parents would probably still be together, and we'd all be miserable. Sitting at my grandmother's dining table having the world's toughest turkey."

Brian laughed. "Your alcoholic grandmother?"


"Well, if her cooking's anything like her hangover remedies, no wonder," he said, remembering the awful taste of that shit Justin had concocted for him after he and Mikey had gone out and had way too many shots of vodka. Another byproduct of his disastrous liaison with Kip. Fucking asshole. Determined not to let thoughts of Kip or anything else negative destroy the peace of their evening, Brian put it out of his mind and divided his attention between Justin and the film.



Justin sat up and waited until Brian had looked away from the television. "Can we have a Christmas tree?"

"A Christmas tree?"


"And what else?" Cause there had to be more. With Justin there was always something else.

"Maybe a wreath on the door, and some lights around the windows, and some candles."

"Lights around the windows and candles. . ." Brian sounded doubtful of the entire enterprise.

"Please." Justin stroked his arm playfully, aware of how his touch affected Brian. Even though the man would never admit it, he loved it when the teenager touched him. It soothed him. Justin could see the change in his face, in his posture, feel it in the way his muscles relaxed.

With a mock sigh of defeat, Brian said that he could. "As long as it's tasteful. No multicolored lights. White only. And it can't clash with the furniture."


"The tree," he clarified.

Justin smiled. "Okay."

As the teen settled back down, Brian wondered what kind of Faustian bargain he'd entered into with Justin. Truthfully, he sorta missed having a tree. He hadn't had one since he and Cam had split. He remembered going out with Cam and picking out a tree for his old place and decorating it with these ornaments they had bought together. After they broke up, he gave the ornaments away. Couldn't stand to have them around. And when he was a kid, his mom had always put up the tree and decorated it herself, not trusting him and Claire enough to help her. It was always something tasteful and color-coordinated and every year she had a theme. Even if they seemed to scrimp and struggle during the year, she always managed to find money to have a fabulous tree. Even if there were only four presents underneath. Even if Jack was invariably out Christmas Eve 'drinking with the boys' he said. Even if Brian and Claire were barely speaking to each other. Even if- - He rubbed his eyes and looked away from the television set. Christ. . .

"What's wrong?"

Of course, Justin had noticed. "The tree," he began, "do what you want with it. And the decorations. I don't care. As long as it's what you want."

"What we want. We can do it together."

Starting to say that he didn't want to, not wanting to relive those days with Cam, Brian swallowed the remark. It wasn't Justin's fault that he and Cam had done it first. Cam was in the past. This was now. Justin was the present and the future and together they'd make new memories to replace the old and painful ones. Kissing the boy on the head, Brian said softly, "All right. Together."

Friday, November 23rd

They'd taken Gus home that evening and returned to the loft to spend a little quiet time together when the phone rang. Michael. Brian could tell something was wrong by the way Mikey kept hesitating. Tired of trying to drag it out of him, Brian said, "Just tell me what the fuck is up."

"Jeff did the piece on you and Justin."

Instantly, he was angry. "I don't want to hear about it."

"You need to."


Afraid Brian would hang up, Michael said quickly, "He talked to Cam."

And Brian paused. He had been about to hang up the phone. Instead, now, he stood frozen in place. Made himself ask, "How did he find out about Cam?"

Silence. "I told him."

"Fuck you."

"Bri- -" The phone went dead. Brian had hung up. Michael held the phone a few seconds longer, then put it down. Grabbed his keys.

Justin watched as Brian sat in one of the bar stools and slammed his fist down on the counter. "Brian?"

"Fuckin' asshole told Jeff about Cam."

"But you testified about him."

"I never said his name. Not once."

Then Justin remembered. "Christ. So what did Jeff do?"

"He did his piece on us. And he talked to Cam. So who the fuck knows what's in that goddamn story?" He rubbed his forehead. "Fuckin' Mikey. Why couldn't he leave it alone? I didn't even think they were talking."

"Maybe it'll be okay."

Brian stared at nothing. "Cam was pretty upset when he left here on Saturday. There's no telling what he said."

Kneading Brian's shoulders which had become knotted and tight, Justin said, "Well, there's nothing we can do about it now."

Although he didn't want to, Brian could do nothing but agree. The best they could do was to wait and watch for the fallout. Resigning himself to the fact, Brian let himself be led back over to the couch where they'd been laying together. Ten minutes later Justin had almost succeeded in taking Brian's mind off of the latest fiasco. Almost. And then there was a knock at the door. They both knew who it would be.

Michael hesitated, not certain if he should go inside. Both Brian and Justin looked pissed. They had a right to be. Only, he'd really been trying to help them. Really. Since it seemed as if they were waiting for him to make the first move, he spoke. "I thought I was helping. I thought if people heard how it was with you and Cam, they'd understand why you did the things you did."

"Maybe I didn't give a fuck."

"You know that's not true."

Brian walked away. "Maybe I had accepted that. Maybe I just wanted to leave well-enough alone."

Following him, Michael tried to explain. "It's not a bad piece."

"That's not the point."

"Then what is the point? That I did something on my own without checking with you first? To get your permission?"

Turning, Brian replied, "You had no right. It's not your life, it's mine. And if I didn't want it plastered all over the six o'clock news, that was my right."

"He was going to do the story anyway, Brian," Michael said in his defense.

"But he didn't know about Cam. You gave him that."

"So you hate me now?" asked Michael in a soft voice, the one he always used whenever he'd done something wrong.

Brian wanted to shove Mikey and make him understand that it wasn't okay, that just because he'd come over and explained his side didn't make it okay. But what was the point? He'd forgive Mikey because he had to, because they were best friends and he couldn't imagine them not being best friends.

Justin decided to stay out of it. Sitting on the steps to the bedroom, he waited for Brian to make up with his friend and come to bed. That they would make up was a given.

"I don't hate you," Brian said, his voice just as soft. Then a thought came to him and his hands went cold. "What about the Coach?"

Michael shook his head. "I didn't tell him. I know he looked in the school records, to try and narrow it down but he ran out of time before the piece was due."

"Least something went right," Brian said.

"I'm sorry."

"I know." They embraced and then Brian pushed Michael. "Don't ever fuckin' do something like that again."

Michael laughed, held up his hands in mock surrender. "Okay. Okay."

"Now go home," Brian said, glancing over at Justin. "My baby's waiting for me." He smiled and Justin smiled back.

Sunday, November 25th

As he had the time Jack had visited him, Brian swore when he saw his mom at the door. "Jesus."

"Don't take the Lord's name in vain, Brian," she said automatically. Then regretted it. He hadn't been to Mass in years, except for his father's funeral, and didn't consider himself a practicing Catholic. Probably didn't even believe in God anymore. If he ever did. Besides, she wasn't here to chastise.

"Sorry," he replied, annoyed that she and Deb had this ability to make him feel thirteen just by scolding him. It was a mom thing he was sure. Lindsay could do it to a degree as well.

"Are we going to stand in the doorway and talk?" she asked and he let her in and closed the door behind her.

Nothing about her demeanor promised that this would be a painless encounter. Of course, they'd never had one in his entire life that he could remember, so why start now?

Justin rose from the sofa where he had been reading. "Hi, Mrs. Kinney."

Stiffly, she replied, "Hello. Justin."

About to say something snide, Brian swallowed the impulse. "You want anything?"

"I wanted to talk to you."

"I mean water or something."

She looked around the loft trying to reconcile the way it looked now- - with Justin's belongings sharing space with Brian's- - with the way it had looked the last time she'd been there, probably two years ago. "No," she replied at last. "I'm fine."

Justin had gathered his book and was preparing to go into the bedroom when Brian caught his eye. No, stay, the look said, so Justin put down the novel he'd been reading and sat.

"What do you want to talk about?" Brian asked.

She touched the back of her hair unconsciously. "I wanted to see how you were. How you were doing."

Tensing in preparation for some hurtful answer, he asked, "Why?"

"I've been following the trial. In the papers and on the news."

"I can't talk about that."

"I know. I just. . . I just wanted to know if you were all right."

"What do you think?"

"Brian- -"

"Claire sends me emails telling me she hates me but, at least, I know how she feels."

Justin started. He hadn't heard about that.

"But from you," Brian continued, "nothing. Not a call or anything."

"I'm here now."

He sneered. "Priest tell you to do it?"


Instead of taking umbrage as he'd expected, she seemed saddened. "I- -"

"You're still my son. Even if I don't approve of your lifestyle."

"It's not a lifestyle. It's a life. It's my life. And you didn't want to be part of it. Which was fine." Having stood near her as they talked, he now walked away, padding across the floor on bare feet. He stopped behind Justin on the sofa, the choice deliberate, wanting to see how she'd react when faced with the two of them, with the reality of their relationship. "You're telling me that's changed?"

Unable to look at him, she turned. "I just- - I saw that story on the news," Jeff's piece, "and I wanted to see how you were, that's all." As she started to go, he spoke.

"Still a coward. Still afraid to face anything. Go on. Go home and have another martini. Maybe one day you'll drink enough to forget you've got a faggot for a son."

Joanie winced. "Brian. . ."

But Brian had stalked out of the room, gone to the bathroom, and drawn the door shut.

His words seemed to root her to the spot. Unable to go she was painfully aware of Justin looking at her. Without turning, she asked, "What did your mother do? When she found out about you? About you being. . ."

"Gay?" He stood and went to the end of the sofa closest to her. Sat on the arm. "She took me to a psychiatrist. And then when she realized I wasn't going to change, she and my dad tried to forbid me to see Brian. And when I wouldn't stop, she put up with it until the attack, until she realized that we loved each other. She's not completely convinced that we're going to make it, but she tries."

Facing him, she asked, "Tries to what?"

"To understand."

Despite his maturity, she could only see someone's child before her. "You're too young for him."

"Too young to love him?"

"Too young to understand what that means."

"I'm the one who holds him when he's scared, and wipes his tears when he cries, and makes love to him when he needs to feel alive or loved or needed. I feed him when he's hungry, and I listen to him when he's going out of his mind because of all the bullshit people like you dump on him. And I won't let you hurt him. Not anymore. So if that's what you're here to do, you can go. Because he doesn't need you. He has his friends and a family that loves him. He's got us and he doesn't need you or Claire or anyone else who's only going to try to hurt him. If you can't love him, if you can't be there for him, or try to understand him, then just stay the fuck away from him." At her shocked look, he paused and tried to rein in his anger. "But if you want to be a part of his life, if you want to be his mother, his friend, then I'll do what I can to help you. Because even though he doesn't need you, he still loves you. Because you're his mother. But if you want him, you have to take me too, you have to take everything else about his life, whether you want to or not. I'm not going anywhere."

"We'll see how you feel in a year."

"A year, ten years, thirty years, it doesn't matter. He saved my life. He gave me my life and there's nothing I wouldn't do for him."

"Would you leave him? If that was the best thing for him?"

"No," he said confidently," because my leaving him could never be good for him. I'm good for him."

Joanie appeared to think over what he'd said and she looked at him, at this teenager who seemed so sure of himself and his place in the world, certain that his place was at Brian's side and she wondered what her life would have been like if she and Jack had been as committed to one another. Softly, she said, "I want to be a part of his life." She paused. "His and yours." Again she paused, the words coming hard. "I miss my son."

Brian looked up as Justin entered the bathroom. He had been sitting on the toilet seat, staring down at the tiled floor.

"We're having company for dinner."

Stretching out his arm, Brian took hold of Justin's hand and held it in his own.

Not quite comfortable with looking either of them directly in the eye, Joanie glanced at her son obliquely and asked, "Did he really. . ." she couldn't say it, "do those things to you?"

Instead of getting angry with her for doubting his word, he replied calmly, "Yes."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I didn't remember. I couldn't deal with it so I told myself a lie, that I had led him on, that I had wanted it." He looked away. "Maybe I did. But I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know anything."

Surprising both of them, Joanie laid her hand upon Brian's. "I'm sorry. I wish things had happened differently."

Brian smiled softly. "Me too. But it's okay. I survived." He looked up as Justin returned with a pot of coffee. "What's for dessert?"

And Justin blushed, which let Joanie know it was some private joke between the two of them and she didn't pry but she remembered Justin telling her that he made love to Brian when the older man needed to feel alive or loved or needed. Although she wasn't quite ready to think of Brian having sex with Justin, she liked the easy way they had with one another and in time she forgot that Justin was twelve years younger, forgot that he was younger at all. Out of nowhere she said, "I remember Cameron." Then realized maybe they didn't want to talk about Cam. But Brian nodded and Justin didn't seem to care so she continued with her thought. "I was so proud of you. Even if it was for. . . that kind of an ad." Two men, obviously naked, one of them holding a condom, preparing to have sex. How her face had burned.

"That ad helped a lot of people learn how to keep safe." Brian added, "I wish you'd said something then."

"Your father. . ." She looked down, then up again. "I'm sorry."

"I know," he said quietly. Unsure how long this new reconciliation would last, he was determined to give her the benefit of the doubt, to suspend disbelief until she either proved herself. . . or hurt him again.

After his mother had gone home, Brian cleaned up and joined Justin in their bedroom. Held him for a few moments, strong arms around his slim frame, finally parting with a sigh. "I love you."

" I have to keep my old man happy, don't I?" He rubbed against Brian provocatively. "Otherwise you won't be able to get it up for me."

"Haven't had any problems yet."

"And I plan on keeping it that way."

Monday, November 26th

9 a.m.

No matter how wonderful the holiday had been and how great it had been to have four days off from the trial, Monday came at last and they had to return to court. But, at least, their testimony was over, which made going to court a lot easier. And having spent Sunday evening with Joanie had lifted a weight from Brian, that he'd been carrying since the trial began. Justin could see the change come over him. After she'd gone home, Brian had cleared the table and started the dishwasher and then joined Justin in their bedroom, in their bed where they made love slowly until midnight had passed. "Thank you," Brian had whispered to him in the first hour of the new day. "Thank you."

Now they sat together behind Keisha in the first row of the galley with their friends and waited for her cross-examination of Chris Hobbs. Everyone, including Justin's dad, had turned out for what might be the last day of the trial. Oblivious to the reporters and the other spectators, they held hands, and every now and again, Brian would lift their hands and brush Justin's knuckles with his lips. He didn't care what anyone thought. Fuck 'em. And when Justin saw that evil grin on his face, he knew what Brian was thinking and he laughed quietly. He'd never change.

Getting right to the point, Keisha asked, "When did you plan to assault Justin Taylor?"

"I didn't plan it."

"When did you decide to assault Mr. Taylor?"

"I didn't really decide to do it. It just happened."

"Mr. Hobbs, you testified that after the incident on Liberty Avenue, you didn't want to have anything to do with him again. So why did you decide to talk to Justin in the parking garage?"

"I don't know."

"What were you going to say?"

"I didn't really think about it."

"But you said you wanted to talk to him. About the weather? Sports?"

Mason rose slightly. "Objection, Your Honor, counsel is badgering the witness."

"Your Honor, I'm just trying to get the witness to answer the question."

"Objection overruled. But watch it, Ms. Thomas."

"Yes, Your Honor." She focused her attention on Hobbs once more. "So, Mr. Hobbs, what did you want to talk to Justin about?"

"About the prom."

"About the decorations?"


"At the risk of badgering the witness, I'd ask that you please answer the question, Mr. Hobbs. What about the prom?"

"The fact that his boyfriend had come."

Although she'd heard Hobbs call Brian Justin's boyfriend before, she hadn't really thought about it. He said it with no hesitation. As if the concept were natural. Yet tinged with anger. Justin's boyfriend. Putting the thought aside for the moment, she asked, "How many times did you dance with your date at the prom?"

"Maybe four or five times."

"And how many times did Brian and Justin dance together?"


"And yet this one time disturbed you enough that you had to talk to Justin about it?"


"Were you bothered by Daphne and Justin dancing together?"


"So it was okay to be a biracial couple, just not a gay couple?"

"I didn't say that."

"Isn't Ms. Chanders black?"


"And Mr. Taylor is Caucasian, correct?"


"And their dancing didn't bother you?"


"But you were bothered by Brian and Justin dancing together, weren't you?"


"What was it about the word faggot that appealed to you?"

Hobbs waited for Mason to object but the defense attorney said nothing. Chris would have to tough this out alone. "It was just a word that we used."

"To describe gay students."

"No. Not just."

"Can you remember an instance when someone called you a faggot?"


"Can you remember an instance when you called one of your friends a faggot?"

"No, not really."

"Can you remember an instance when you called someone other than Max Freiberg and Justin Taylor a faggot?"

"No," Chris admitted.

"Not even Brian Kinney?" asked Keisha.

"No." Again he shifted his eyes.

What was that all about? "Why not, Mr. Hobbs?"

"We never got into it."

"So you only used the word faggot when you 'got into it' with people? Not as a friendly joke among buddies?"

"It was both."

"Yet, you can't remember any instances of the latter, can you?"


"Let's talk about you and Brian Kinney." She observed how Hobbs' eyes dropped just a little when she said Brian's name. That did it, she was definitely onto something. Something to do with Brian. But what? "Why didn't you get into it with Brian?"

"Because he was bigger than me."

"You only got into with guys smaller than you? Guys like Max and Justin?"

"No, but, he's bigger and older."

"When Brian got out of the Jeep and yelled at Justin, why didn't you run away?"

"I don't know."

"Instead you hit Justin, even though Brian was running towards you. Is that true?"


"Why didn't you run then?"

"I wasn't thinking."

He was starting to sweat. Time to turn up the heat. "Did you intend to hit Justin again?"


"Did you plan on hitting Brian?"


"Why not?" There was something there. Something he was trying to keep under wraps.

"I don't know."

"Weren't you afraid that he'd try to harm you for what you'd done to Justin?"

"I don't remember."

Now for the final push. "You had the bat in your hands, you could have struck him as well. Why didn't you, Mr. Hobbs? Why not bash his head in too?"

"Your Honor- -" began the defense attorney.

Keisha continued before Mason could formally object, she couldn't let this go, couldn't let Hobbs have a chance to shut down again. "You had the bat in your hands, he was there, you could have swung at him and finished them both off, both of your headaches at the same time."

"Your Honor- -"

"No, I couldn't."

She could hear the anguish in his voice. What did it mean?

Mason was going apeshit and Kramer was banging his gavel trying to regain control of the situation but she knew she was onto something if she could just get him to say it.

She moved closer to the stand but still far enough away for propriety's sake. "Why not, Mr. Hobbs? Why not beat the hell out of Brian Kinney too? Two men, two faggots put out of their misery, your troubles would be over- -"

"Because I couldn't!" Hobbs shouted.

"Why not, Mr. Hobbs?" Say it, damnit!

"Because I wanted him!"

Like an avalanche silence smothered all sound in the courtroom.

Her voice cut through the quiet. "And Justin was in your way, wasn't he?"

"Yes. I wanted him," Hobbs said again, eyes cast downwards.

Brian's head reeled. "No," he whispered and then the whisper grew louder, harder. "No!"

Judge Kramer turned to him. "Mr. Kinney, you will- -"

"No, goddamn it, no!"

Justin could hardly believe it, Christian Hobbs had been in love with Brian? Had wanted Brian? He laid a hand upon Brian's arm but the man shook it off, trembling with anger.

Keisha said gently, "What did you think it would accomplish? Your hurting Justin?"

"Nothing." Hobbs raised his head. "But I hated him." Mason didn't object, it was too late for that. "He had everything."

"Fuck you!" Brian shouted and he rose and started towards the gate separating the well of the court from the gallery. "Fuck you! It's not my fault! It can't all be my fault."

His friends reached for him, to keep him back, catching hold of his clothes as he moved past them, restraining him.

At a signal from Kramer, the two deputy sheriffs moved towards the gallery. "Mr. Kinney, you will take your seat and be quiet or I will have you forcibly removed from this courtroom. Do you understand?"

"It's not. . ." he said again then returned to his chair. And he shook. So furious that he wouldn't even look in Hobbs' direction, kept his eyes on the back of Keisha's chair.

Sure she was going to be reamed out by Kramer for causing the disruption and ignoring his attempts to rule on Mason's objections, Keisha waited for the judge's decision.

Looking as drained as Brian, Kramer called a fifteen-minute recess. Christian Hobbs was crying silently on the stand.

Brian struck the wall with the flat of his hand. He was like a leopard, muscles coiled to strike and Justin wasn't sure that he wouldn't hit him if he got too close. Everyone else maintained their distance. Instead of going to Brian, he sat at the table and spoke to him in a calm tone of voice.

"Brian. . . Are you okay?"

"Not my fault."

"I know it isn't." Justin noticed that neither he nor Brian doubted Christian Hobbs' claim. No one had.

Keisha entered the room. "Well, thanks for the entertainment."

"You had to keep pushing, didn't you?" Brian said angrily. "It wasn't enough to have an eyewitness, to have the weapon, to have a history of assaults, you had to have a confession. Well, congratulations. You got it. Now leave me the fuck alone."

Their friends were relieved to see Justin get up and move between the two of them. "She was just doing her job."

"Another headline. Another blurb on the news. Another reason for people to stare."

"I thought you were used to that," Justin teased but Brian didn't even crack a smile.

"Court reconvenes in ten minutes."

"I'm not going back," said Brian.

"Oh, yes, you are," Keisha stated. "And you're going to sit there and not say a word."

"The fuck I am. I'm done testifying. You don't need me anymore. Justin doesn't need me."

"I- -" began Justin.

"I can't go back in there," Brian said simply.

"Yes, you can," she reassured him. "You're stronger than this."

Brian looked away as he spoke. "I'm the reason we're here. I'm the reason Justin got hurt."

Taking over from Keisha, Deb said, "I bet you make the sun come up in the morning too and decide when it rains, huh? You're responsible for everything, aren't you? I had to pay $300 in income taxes last year so I guess that's your fault too."

"Don't patronize me."

"Then stop acting like a fuckin' idiot," she replied.

Justin caught Deb's eye and shook his head. Acknowledging his signal, she sighed dramatically and returned to her former spot.

"I don't want to hear it," Brian said.

"Then I won't say anything." Justin returned to his seat and folded his hands in his lap.

Aware that Justin was waiting for him to make a decision and wanting to do anything but return to that courtroom, Brian went to the door and opened it. At that Justin rose, prepared to go wherever he led.

Heads turned as they all returned to the courtroom and took their seats.

Chris Hobbs took his seat and Keisha went around to the other side of the prosecution's table. The defendant looked as if he'd just gone ten rounds with Ali and he had, when you combined Keisha's cross with the tense discussion he'd had with Mason during the break. Unfortunately for him, the only people in the courtroom who felt sorry for him were probably his parents- - and himself.

Keisha didn't pull any punches. "You testified that you wanted Brian. Do you mean sexually?"

"I don't know."

"Yes or no."


"How did Mr. Kinney make you feel?"


"Why angry?"

"Because he was with Justin."

"And you wanted Brian to be with you?"

Softly, "Yes."

"When did you first become aware of these feelings for Mr. Kinney?"

"I used to see him when he brought Justin to school."

"Was this prior to the incident on Liberty Avenue?"


"Yet you testified that you first saw Mr. Kinney during that incident. Isn't that correct?"


"So you'd seen Brian at St. James?"


"Did you fantasize about Brian?"


"You never dreamt of the two of you together?"


"Making love?"

"Objection, Your Honor, the defendant has already answered the question. Twice, in fact."

"Your Honor, I'm simply trying to obtain a clarification of Mr. Hobbs' statement that he wanted Mr. Kinney."

"Overruled. Witness may answer the question."

"No," said Hobbs.

"No, you never dreamt about the two of you making love?"

"Yes. I mean, no, I never did."

"Perhaps, Mr. Hobbs, you would explain what you meant by wanting him."

"I don't know."

"Did you want him to do something for you?"

"I don't know."

"Did you want him to say something to you?"

"I don't know."

"Yes or no, Mr. Hobbs."


"You said you wanted Brian to be with you. And do what, Mr. Hobbs?"

"I don't know."

"Play Monopoly?"

Titters from the court.


"To have sex with you?"

"N- - no."

"Mr. Hobbs, you're a healthy, eighteen-year-old man, no one would fault you for wanting to have sex with Mr. Kinney. He's good-looking, sexy, if you like that type- - and you said you wanted him. Yet, you want us to believe that it never occurred to you that this nebulous wanting of yours might have something to do with sex?"

"Stop it!" Chris Hobbs' mother shouted. "Stop it! Oh God. Oh God," she murmured as her husband enfolded her in his arms.

Chris clenched his jaw. Then before Keisha could ask another question he said, "I saw them. Kissing. Standing next to the Jeep. Not like they did on the dance floor. Different. But you could tell he loved Justin. Just by the way he kissed him. And I wanted. . . I wanted it to be me."

"Are you gay, Mr. Hobbs?"

"I don't know."

No one laughed.

"Have you ever been with a man other than Justin Taylor?"


"Have you ever approached another man sexually?"


"Do you think you'd like to be with another man sexually?"

"Maybe." He sniffled and everyone in the courtroom could see the tears flowing down his face.

"With Brian Kinney?"

"He wouldn't want to be with me. Not now."

"No more questions, Your Honor." Keisha returned to her seat and, suddenly, she did feel sorry for Chris Hobbs. Very sorry. Prison was no place to explore your sexuality.

Mason stood for the redirect. There was little he could do in light of Christian's confession but what he could do was try to clarify the main issue of contention between the prosecution and defense. "Mr. Hobbs, did you intend to cause serious bodily harm to Justin Taylor when you went after him in the parking garage at the prom?"


"No further questions, Your Honor."

"The witness is excused."

Hobbs left the stand, moving as an old man might.

"Does the defense have any further evidence to submit?"

"No, Your Honor. The defense rests."

"Does the prosecution wish to call any rebuttal witnesses?"

"No, Your Honor," replied Keisha. "The Prosecution rests."

"As it is nearly time for our normal lunch break, let's take an hour before the closing arguments," said Kramer.

None of them could eat, waiting for court to resume and for closing arguments to begin. Instead, they sat and watched Keisha have her lunch. Calmly, she devoured a chicken salad sandwich and flipped through her notes once, then put the legal pad away and talked with Brian and Justin about their trip abroad. Finally, Justin asked her, "Aren't you nervous?"

"About what?"

"This afternoon."

She drank the last of her bottled water. "Nope. You?"

"A little."

"Well, don't worry. All you have to do is sit there and look wholesome."

Justin grinned. "Is Brian going to be sitting next to me?"


"Sorry. It's not possible."

Brian pushed him from behind. "Asshole. Just for that, no nookie for you."

"For what? A whole two hours?" asked Ted.

"Please," said Emmett, "he'll be blowing him in the bathroom before Keisha's done with her closing argument."

Craig, who was seated next to Jennifer, looked slightly green about the gills. It was probably one thing, thought Justin, to know that your son was having sex with another man and something else again to have to hear about it. But he'd have to get used to it if he wanted to be a part of their lives.

As everyone returned to the courtroom, Brian and Justin hung back a little and kissed. It wasn't exactly nookie so it didn't count.

Without much ado, she began to speak, standing at ease in front of the jury box. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defendant, Christian Hobbs, is charged with aggravated assault. Although Judge Kramer will go over this with you again in his instructions, I'd like to talk a little about aggravated assault, as there are two issues before you. One, you must find the defendant guilty or not guilty of aggravated assault. And, two, if you find him guilty of aggravated assault, you must determine the grade of the assault, if it is a felony of the first degree or of the second degree. Two issues: guilty or not guilty and if guilty, is it a first degree felony or a second degree felony?

"A person is guilty of aggravated assault of the second degree if he attempts to cause or intentionally or knowingly causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon. There are other instances in which aggravated assault of the second degree can occur, mostly dealing with assaults against police officers, firefighters, parole officers, etc., but those don't concern us today. So knowingly causing bodily harm to another with a deadly weapon constitutes felony two aggravated assault. Now let's turn to the felony one grading.

"A person is guilty of felony one aggravated assault if he attempts or causes serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury intentionally, knowingly or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. Even employing the relatively neutral wording of the law, you can hear differences between the two degrees. Bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon versus serious bodily injury and manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. There are two issues for you to consider. First, did the injuries Justin Taylor sustain constitute serious bodily injury? Second, did Christian Hobbs' actions reveal an extreme indifference to the value of Justin Taylor's life?

"On the first issue, we had the testimony of the emergency room doctor and the neurosurgeon who consulted on Justin Taylor's case…" Keisha went on to recap succinctly each of the physicians' testimony, highlighting relevant facts. "Both Dr. Gates and Dr. Winchell testified that without immediate medical attention, Justin Taylor would most certainly have either died or sustained severe and permanent brain injury." Using the testimony of the first officers on the scene, the EMS workers, and the lab technicians, Keisha underscored the idea that Justin's condition after the attack constituted serious bodily injury. From there she moved on to issue number two.

"Now, to the second issue. Did Christian Hobbs' actions manifest an extreme indifference to the value of Justin Taylor's life? This is a thornier issue to tackle because it speaks to intention and motive. In the absence of a confession, we have to infer from the defendant's actions as to his intentions and motives. To that end, the people outlined a chronology of run-ins and altercations between the defendant and his victim, Justin Taylor, arguing that these incidents culminated in the attack in the parking garage on April 20th, by which time the defendant intended to cause serious bodily injury to Mr. Taylor. Why did Christian Hobbs single out Justin Taylor to harass? Because he was gay. And because Justin Taylor had initiated a sexual encounter with Christian Hobbs, an encounter which Mr. Hobbs has said that he did not want, but one which he did not break off or resist." In graphic terms, Keisha detailed the encounter in the equipment shed, making certain to emphasize Christian Hobbs' testimony, to emphasize his discomfort, his confusion, and his anger over what he saw as an unwanted advance. She also brought up Justin's relationship with Brian, implying that Justin's actions were a direct result of his sexual experimentation with the older man and, perhaps, influenced by Brian's subsequent rejection of him. It was a delicate balance to strike, bringing Justin's homosexuality to the forefront and acknowledging that he went after Hobbs, acknowledging that this encounter might have contributed to Christian's behavior, while making it clear that Justin was not culpable for his attack, that Hobbs' actions were entirely inexcusable.

After going over the encounter in detention, Keisha went through the series of altercations between the teenagers one by one, from the fight in the locker room to the week of the prom when Hobbs pushed Justin down in the hallway. Incident by incident she painted a picture of an angry young man, a violent young man who used hateful words and physical means to harass and torment his victim. "But words like cocksucker, faggot, queer, and cunt weren't enough for Mr. Hobbs. In each and every incident, Christian Hobbs resorted to physical violence as well. In not one of their encounters did Justin Taylor escape unscathed. In addition to being called offensive names, he was pushed, shoved, and struck, not once, but multiple times."

Although he'd witnessed all of the testimony, had been there when the incidents occurred, when Keisha brought it together like that, concentrated in a half hour's time span, Justin wondered how he'd ever survived. He supposed it was because they had been spaced out over months and that for weeks at a time he and Hobbs managed to stay out of each other's way. Not that the arguments and fights they'd had hadn't been enough, but he guessed it could have been worse. Until the final altercation. Involuntarily he reached up and touched the scar on his forehead.

She had come to the most important incident in the chronology: the prom. Taking a moment, and a sip of water, Keisha stationed herself once more in front of the jury box. She reminded them of the circumstances, of how Justin had asked Brian to the prom and Brian had refused. Told them how, miraculously, Brian had shown up at the prom like the hero in a movie. Described, using Brian and Justin and Daphne's words, their sole and solitary dance. "It was amazing," she said, as Daphne had said more than once. "They were amazing. Two lovers sharing a moment that would never again be repeated."

Leaving the prom itself, she followed the two men to the parking garage where they intended to part but for a while, having made plans to meet later. "As Brian watched Justin walk away in the side mirror, he finally admitted to himself that he loved the younger man. And then, he watched, horrified, as Christian Hobbs stalked his young lover." She vividly recalled for the jury the tense and anguish-filled moments between the time Brian spotted Christian Hobbs and the arrival of the paramedics. "Mr. Kinney got out of his Jeep and called to Justin, to warn him, but it was too late. Christian Hobbs had already made up his mind to strike Justin. He'd made up his mind to attack Justin the moment he left the prom. And why? Why now? Because Christian Hobbs was angry, angry that Justin had dared to dance with his lover at the prom. But other students were probably angry as well. We heard testimony from two defense witnesses who said that they were angry that Brian showed up at the prom. However, two things separated them from Christian Hobbs. One, they didn't have a history of altercations with Justin Taylor. And, two, they didn't harbor a secret desire for Justin Taylor's lover. Mr. Hobbs confessed, on this very witness stand, that he 'wanted' Brian Kinney. That he hated Justin Taylor because Justin had Brian. And because of that hatred, he struck Justin Taylor in the temple with a baseball bat, seriously injuring him, very nearly killing him. Did the defendant show any remorse for this crime? No. In the hospital, where both he and Justin Taylor were being treated, the defendant shouted, 'I hope he dies.'

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, on April 20th of this year, a serious crime was committed. We believe the People has shown beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant, Christian Hobbs, attacked Justin Taylor and caused serious bodily injury. We believe that we have shown that his actions manifested extreme indifference to the value of human life, to the value of Justin Taylor's life. As such, we ask that on the charge of aggravated assault of the first degree you return a verdict of guilty. Thank you."

Even if they'd held on to some shred of hope during the trial, even Hobbs' parents had to have felt less than confident once Keisha finished her closing arguments. She had logically, concisely, and without resorting to hyperbole or fanciful language, stated the facts of the case and put forth the prosecution's theory of the case.

Brian thought they'd been right on the money when they'd nicknamed her Mace. The defense attorney had his work cut out for him.

"We will now hear the defense's argument," Kramer informed the court.

"May it please the court and ladies and gentlemen of the jury, both the prosecution and I agree that something occurred on the night of April 20th. There is no doubt that Justin Taylor was injured with a baseball bat. There is no doubt that my client, Christian Hobbs, was in possession of said bat and that he did strike Mr. Taylor. However, that is where our agreement ends. Now, bear with me, but I'm going to repeat the definition of aggravated assault. A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. That's a first-degree felony offense. A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he attempts to cause or intentionally or knowingly causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon. That is a second-degree felony offense. It is the defense's position that the prosecution has not proven any of the conditions under which a felony one conviction could occur."

From where she sat, Keisha watched as Mason argued for a second-degree felony conviction. With the preponderance of evidence, it was the most he could do. If he could have, he would have certainly argued for the jury to find Hobbs innocent; however, under the circumstances, he'd do well to get them to agree to the lesser charge.

Like she had, Mason went through the chronology of events leading up to the prom only his interpretation was that Justin had pushed Chris, had taunted and teased him with the incident in detention. And yet, Mason maintained that the idea of revenge never entered into Hobbs' mind, that he was willing to let bygones be bygones if Justin hadn't persisted in pushing his agenda on the school, an unwanted agenda according to the faculty and administrators.

Even with Hobbs' confession of having wanted Brian, Mason insisted that the defendant had entered the parking garage with the intention of talking to Justin, of confronting him about inviting Brian to the prom. The baseball bat, he'd taken just in case Brian Kinney decided to interfere with their talk. Reiterating that it was fear of Brian Kinney which had led him to remove the bat from his car, Mason put forth the theory that Hobbs hadn't intended to strike Justin, that it was the sight of Brian running towards them that impelled him to swing at the other teen. Nothing more than a reflex, an unfortunate one but not premeditated, not intentional.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to look at the facts as presented. One, Justin Taylor did not sustain a serious bodily injury; and two, the prosecution has not proven that the defendant intended to cause any such injury. As such, it is your duty to return a verdict of not guilty of the charge of aggravated assault in the first-degree. Thank you."

Keisha watched as the man returned to his seat, refusing to admit defeat. As well he shouldn't. It wouldn't be over until the foreman stood and said, "We the jury. . ."

With a set of papers on the desk in front of him, Kramer looked over at the men and women who would decide the fate of Christian Hobbs. Many of the members looked scared, as if they were only now realizing what they were here for. "Members of the jury, we now approach the most critical moment in this case- - the moment when the case will be given to you for your judgment and verdict on the facts. Before I do so, I'll give you instructions regarding the laws that are applicable to this case. But first, I want to thank you for your patience, attentiveness and cooperation during this trial process. I, the prosecution, and the defense are aware of the enormous responsibility serving on the jury entails. Now, I want to explain to you the jury's role in this next phase of the trial. It is your duty to decide whether the counsel for the Commonwealth has proven her case by a preponderance of the evidence. You are the sole judges of the facts. More importantly, you are to discharge your duty and make your judgement in complete fairness and impartiality. Your decision must be based solely on the evidence or the lack of evidence. It may not be influenced by bias, prejudice or sympathy. I remind you that this is the duty that you swore to perform.

"My job includes two duties. My first duty is to make rulings on disputed issues of law. What rulings I have made during the trial should not concern you. My second duty is to instruct you on the law. That is, I must explain to you the rules of law that govern your deliberations, and I must tell you the questions you must answer in reaching your verdict. It is your duty to accept the law as I state it to you in these instructions and to apply the law to the facts as you decide them. I alone determine the law as you are to apply it to this case. If any attorney has stated a legal principle different from the ones I state, you are to disregard them. If you yourself have any concept of what the law should be or which law should apply, you are to disregard them. You must follow my instructions. Also, you should not single out any one instruction alone as stating the law, but you should consider my instructions as a whole when you retire to deliberate. You will be allowed to take your copy of the instructions with you into the jury room."

Kramer slipped on his reading glasses, consulted his papers, and began instructing the jury reminding them that the charge against the defendant was not evidence, that the defendant was presumed innocent, and that the burden of proof rested on the Commonwealth. Again he defined reasonable doubt. Again, he defined evidence, both direct and circumstantial and the role their applicability to the case. He addressed the idea of witness credibility and what part the character of the defendant and victim should play in their deliberations. Finally, he spoke to the charge itself.

"Christian Hobbs is accused of aggravated assault in the first-degree. A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another, or causes such injury intentionally, knowingly or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he attempts to cause or purposely or knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon."

Understanding that many people wouldn't understand the difference between bodily injury and serious bodily injury, he covered those as well. "Bodily injury means the impairment of someone's physical condition, or substantial pain. Serious bodily injury means bodily injury which creates a substantial risk of death; or causes serious, permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ. Aggravated assault involving serious bodily or an attempt to cause serious bodily injury to another is a first-degree felony. Aggravated assault involving bodily injury by use of a deadly weapon is a second-degree felony.

"To sustain the charge of aggravated assault in the first-degree, the Commonwealth must prove the following propositions: First: That Christian Hobbs caused or attempted to cause serious bodily injury; and Second: That Christian Hobbs either intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly caused serious bodily injury under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life. If you find from your consideration of all the evidence that each of these propositions has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, then you should find the defendant guilty of aggravated assault in the first-degree."

Keisha could see a few of the jurors had begun to zone by this point and she wished she could press a button and zap them through their chairs. They would be the very ones who'd have questions later on, questions that might have been avoided if they'd just paid attention.

"The crime of aggravated assault in the first-degree includes the lesser crime of aggravated assault in the second-degree. If (1) any or all of you are not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of aggravated assault in the first-degree; and (2) all of you are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the lesser crime of aggravated assault in the second-degree, you may find the defendant guilty of aggravated assault in the second-degree. In order for the defendant to be found guilty of the lesser crime of aggravated assault in the second-degree, the government must prove each of the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt: That Christian Hobbs attempted to cause or intentionally or knowingly caused bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon. If you find from your consideration of all the evidence that this proposition has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, then you should find the defendant guilty of aggravated assault in the second-degree.

" If, on the other hand, you find from your consideration of all of the evidence that none of these propositions has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, then you should find the defendant not guilty."

Fat chance thought Brian and his thoughts were shared by all of his friends and family.

"Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, you are about to go into the jury room and begin your deliberations. All of the exhibits that have been used in the trial will be given to you at the start of deliberations. If you want any of the testimony read, you may also request that. If you do ask for testimony, the reporter must search through the record and the lawyers must agree on what portions of testimony may be called for, and if they disagree I must resolve those disagreements. That can be a time-consuming process. So please try to be as specific as you possibly can in requesting portions of the testimony. Your requests for testimony- - in fact any communication with the Court- - should be made to me in writing, signed by your foreperson, and given to one of the Deputies. In any event, do not tell me or anyone else how the jury stands on any issue until after a verdict is reached.

"When you retire, you should elect a foreperson. The foreperson will preside over your deliberations and speak for you in open court when you return your verdict. Please be aware that this person has no greater voice than any other juror and has no authority over any other juror and any juror may be elected the foreperson. Any communications with the court should be made through this person."

The judge then went over the verdict form and explained that the form should be filled out and given to the Deputy once a verdict had been reached. He also cautioned them that the wording of the form should not influence their decision, that the form's wording should not be taken as an indication of how he wanted the jury to vote. "Before you answer any question, that question should be read aloud in the jury room and the evidence pertaining to that question discussed thoroughly. You must all agree to the answer you give to each question. Again, your answers must be unanimous. Your verdict must be the verdict of each person as well as of the entire jury. Please do not discuss any disagreements you might have with anyone outside of the jury room. After you have reached a verdict, your foreperson will fill in the form that has been given to you, sign and date it and advise the Deputy outside your door that you are ready to return to the courtroom."

Then he asked both counsel, "Are there any corrections or additions to the jury instructions?" They indicated that there were not. Addressing the jury once more, he read the verdict form before giving them his final instructions. "When you go into the jury room, you will have the following items with you: the verdict form which I have just read to you, your individual set of jury instructions, the exhibits from the trial, and a copy of the indictment."

His instructions completed, Kramer removed his reading glasses and asked the Clerk to reduce the jury from fourteen to twelve. Their names having been called, two jurors left the box with something akin to relief, grateful to be released from their duty. Then one of the deputy sheriffs was sworn in, his job: to keep the jurors in the jury room until a verdict was reached; and with that, court was recessed until the jury came to a decision.

6:30 p.m.

The jury had been deliberating for two hours now and they were beginning to fear that it would take much longer than any of them had anticipated. As Keisha had explained to them, the jury had a tough job in that they had to decide if Hobbs was guilty of felony one aggravated assault or felony two aggravated assault. The differences between those two would be a bone of contention between the jury members who believed he was guilty of something. Keisha still felt that the evidence had been strong enough to warrant a felony one conviction. "But juries are tricky things. Put twelve people in a room together and ask them to make a decision and you've pretty much increased each person's capacity for doing foolish exponentially."

"Which is why Congress can't get anything done," commented Ted.

Not wanting to remain in the courthouse, they'd all gone to the loft to wait for the verdict. Keisha told them there was no point in hanging around because even if the verdict came in soon, it'd take a while to summon all of the relevant parties back to court. Plus, time had to be allowed for the press to return. So they all went to the loft and tried to make small talk while Brian and Justin played hosts although no one wanted much of anything. It was too nerve-wracking. Even Keisha had seemed a little shaky. It was one of the worst times in a lawyer's professional life: waiting for the jury to deliberate. Surpassed only be the moment right before the verdict was read in open court. "You never know with juries," she'd said, declining their invitation to join them at the loft. "I'm going to go home and feed my dog."

"You have a dog?" Justin had asked.

"A German Shepherd. Hannibal."

Justin had looked shocked. "You named your dog after Hannibal Lecter?"

"Hannibal, the Carthaginian general. Fought the Romans?" She'd shaken her head. "Kids."

Now, Brian and Justin sat together on the steps to the bedroom ignoring their guests who were chatting in the living room, having helped themselves to the refrigerator's meager offerings.

"What if they say he's not guilty?" Justin studied Brian's face, searching for answers.

"We come home and we forget about him and we go on."

"I don't know if I can do that."

"Have to. Can't spend the rest of our fucking lives dealing with this. We've got things to do. Places to go."

Knowing that Brian was alluding to their trip, Justin smiled softly. "I want to go dancing at the Moulin Rouge."

"Ewan McGregor will not be there."

Justin laughed. "You're the one who likes him."

Brian conceded the fact. "He is pretty hot." Kissed him. "But not as hot as you."

Around seven Keisha called from the courthouse. "The verdict's in."

It was nearly eight o'clock when court resumed. The press waited like hunting dogs anxious to be let loose. Kramer took his seat. "Please be seated. The jury has informed that they have arrived at a verdict. Before I return the jury to receive the verdict I want to caution everyone here that there must be no audible or visible reaction to the verdict when it is read. When the jury returns, the verdict will be handed to me and I will read it. Now, any person violating this order that there be no reaction will be removed from the courtroom. I will address the jurors after reading the verdict. There will be some time required for this, and no one will leave the room until a recess or adjournment of the Court is announced. Bring in the jury." He waited until the bailiff had retrieved the jury members from the jury room and they'd been seated. "I've received a note indicating that you have reached a verdict. Is that correct?"

The foreperson, a middle-aged woman stood. "Yes, Your Honor."

"Will the defendant please rise and face his jury." Both Mason and Chris Hobbs stood. "Will the Clerk please receive the verdict."

The Clerk stood and said, "Would the foreperson please stand and read the verdict aloud."

She read the verdict. "Your honor, in the Commonwealth versus Christian Mark Hobbs, the Allegheny County Court, Case Number 9429521, the charge, Aggravated Assault in the First-Degree, the verdict and now to wit, on 26, November, 2002, we, the jurors, impaneled in the above-entitled case find the Defendant, Christian Mark Hobbs, guilty of Aggravated Assault in the First-Degree."

He hadn't heard the verdict, he'd felt it. Deep in the pit of his stomach, rising, exiting his body through the breath he took and released. Chris lowered his head slightly. It was over. It was finally over.

Even though she knew it wasn't over, Keisha was thrilled to hear the verdict. She hadn't been looking forward to hearing Brian bitch if the jury had found him guilty of the lesser charge or even not-guilty of any charge. But more than that, she didn't think she could have borne the look in Justin's eyes. He'd been through so much and even this victory was but a mean portion of what he should have received.

The Judge instructed the Clerk to record the verdict, and the Clerk said, "Hearken to your verdict as the Court has recorded it in the case of the Commonwealth versus Christian Mark Hobbs, Number 9429521, you find the Defendant guilty of aggravated assault in the first degree and so say you all?"

All of the jurors replied, "Yes, we do."

After the things that had happened, the verdict seemed slightly anti-climatic. Certainly it came as small comfort to Brian. Hearing the foreman read from the slip of paper, "We, the jurors, impaneled in the above-entitled case find the Defendant, Christian Mark Hobbs, guilty of Aggravated Assault in the First-Degree," gave him little satisfaction. But he had to be there for Justin and the teen's shoulders rose a bit when the verdict was read, a weight removed from them, one less burden to carry, so it hadn't all been in vain. Still, Brian found it hard to be happy.

He stood by Justin as he and Keisha addressed the press for the first and last time together in front of the courthouse, answering their questions with a grace the journalists lacked entirely.

"Justin, how do you feel about the verdict?"

Somberly, he answered, "I think it was the right one."

"Are you looking forward to the sentencing?"

Brian rolled his eyes. What a jerk. Did he think Justin ever wanted to see Chris Hobbs again? Even to see him get put away?

"Not really," Justin replied.

"What do you think the judge will give Hobbs?" someone asked.

"If I knew that," Keisha said, "I'd be the judge instead of Kramer."

The questions the reporters directed towards Brian, he acknowledged, gave a brief answer to, and then shut down again.

"Brian, what are you going to do now that the trial is over?"

"Go to Disney World," he said and most of the reporters laughed although his friends saw the look in his eyes: they were completely lacking humor.

Finally Keisha signaled the end of the Q&A session and escorted them back inside to wait for Michael to bring the car around.

"Well," she said, "you won't have to see me again until the sentencing. If you want to come."

Glancing first at Brian, Justin said, "I do."

She took his hand and shook it, then, on impulse, hugged him. "Good luck." Held out her hand to Brian. "To both of you."

Brian leaned over and kissed her. "Thanks. For everything."

With a little wave, she left them.



"You all right?"

"I just want to go home." He checked the street. "There's Mikey." Pushing through the crowd again, Brian hoped the next big thing would hurry up and come along as he was tired of having microphones shoved in his face and he didn't think he'd ever want his picture taken again. He was completely and utterly over it. Good thing I'm not a model, he thought, this would have ruined my career. Still might have, he told himself.

By the time Michael dropped them off in front of their building, both Brian and Justin were less than spry. The trial had drained them of energy, siphoning it off unawares, until all of a sudden they were running on fumes. As they wearily left the elevator, Justin said, "I wish we could go on vacation right now."

"School'll be out soon, won't it?" asked Brian, unlocking the door.

"Yeah. But you've still got to go to work."

He tossed his keys on the counter. "One of the many drawbacks to being an adult." Stretched his neck and shoulders. "These are the times when I wish we had a tub."

"Stiff?" asked Justin, looking for any excuse to touch Brian. He rubbed the man's shoulders and listened as Brian groaned.

"That feels good."

"I could give you a massage," Justin suggested.

"Too tired," replied Brian. "I just want to take a shower and pass out." Climbing the stairs to the bedroom he dropped to the mattress and kicked off his shoes, pausing for a good long time before continuing with his disrobing.

"You really are tired, aren't you?" asked Justin from the doorway. At Brian's signal, he came over and sat next to his lover. Helped him take off his jacket. Then, slowly, began unbuttoning his shirt. "You should call in sick tomorrow."

"Can't," Brian said, letting the teen undress him. "Too much to do. I'm three weeks behind, the Latham people rejected Bob and Brad's proposal, and I've got to come up with a new one before Christmas. And catch up on all the other accounts I manage. I'll probably have to go in early and leave late. Every day until the holidays."

As he pushed Brian back onto the bed and unbuttoned and unzipped his pants, Justin pointed out to him that he was only one man. "And despite evidence to the contrary, you're not Superman."

"That's not what you said this past weekend," Brian grinned. But that's all he could do. Fooling around was definitely not in their immediate future.

Having removed everything except for Brian's briefs, Justin held out his hand and pulled the older man up. Then threw back the covers and got him beneath them. "Forget the shower." He kissed Brian's forehead. " 'night."

" 'night, baby."

With a final backwards look, Justin left Brian to sleep in peace. Checked the fridge and found nothing that he wanted. He was tired but restless. Got out his sketch pad, opened it, and then closed it again. "Hey," he told himself. "Daphne." No one had probably called her about the verdict, so he dialed her number and got her machine. "Hey, Daph. The verdict is in. Guilty of felony one assault. Talk to you later. Bye." He really wished she'd been home. "Shit." He wondered if anyone had told Rennie and Xavier although they'd probably seen the news. So he dialed Xavier's cell."Hey."

"J. I heard, man. You satisfied?"

"I guess," he said. Shrugged.

"Probably still wound up."


"Look, I'm done in the studio. I could come over."

"Brian's sleeping."

"You wanna go out?"

"I'm kinda tired too." Thought about it. Maybe that's what he needed. To get out for a little bit. "Besides, the press is gonna be all over Liberty Avenue getting reaction shots and shit."

"Come here. We'll get pizza and hang."

Walking in front of the bedroom and peeking in, Brian fast asleep, Justin made up his mind. "I'll be there in twenty." Put down the phone and found a piece of paper. Wrote Brian a note in case he woke up.

Ten minutes later, as he was riding in the cab to the Institute, he felt a pang of guilt. He should have stayed home, stayed with Brian. But Brian was asleep, would probably sleep the night and then get up early and go into work. Brian wouldn't miss him. But he missed Brian. This was their victory and they were spending it apart. For an instant he almost told the driver to turn around but then he remembered the party at his mom's place tomorrow and maybe Brian would feel up to celebrating then. Crisis averted, he looked forward to hanging with Xavier for a while.

He'd heard him on the phone talking to Xavier, making plans, and he hadn't stirred. Now that Justin had gone, he sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes. Didn't understand why he hadn't wanted to be with Justin. Climbing out of bed, he poured himself a drink, carried it to the sofa, reminding himself that he'd have to wash out the glass and put it away or Justin would know that he'd gotten up and found him gone. No point in making him feel guilty although he probably felt guilty anyway.

Christ, he was tired. Down in his bones. That he'd found the energy to get up surprised him. Of course, having poured the drink, he hadn't taken a sip. Just sat it on the table in front of him and closed his eyes. Reached for the remote to turn on the television and paused. Did he really want to hear about the trial? What the hell, it was over. So he flicked on the set and turned to CNN. It was time for the news update. After talking about the war in Afghanistan for a few moments, the anchor said, "A guilty verdict was returned in the case of the People vs. Christian Hobbs. The defendant was found guilty of felony one assault. Sentencing will take place in three weeks." He turned it off. Old news. Looked over at the newspaper bin by the door. Instead of suspending their newspaper subscription during the trial, they'd just put a bin outside the door and the guy put the papers in there, so they wouldn't contaminate themselves with news about the trial. Now that it was over, he didn't know what they would do with the papers. Recycle them most likely as always. He had no desire to make a scrapbook of the stories, none of which were bound to be very flattering to him. Still, curiosity got the best of him and he carried his drink over to his desk and pulled the bin over to him. Took off the top and hesitated.

After a sip of his drink, he lifted three or four of the papers from the bin and looked at the front pages. 'Surprise Witness Stuns Prosecution.' "Shit," he grumbled remembering how dumbfounded he'd been when Mason had called Kip to the stand. Turned it over, then decided he'd look in the editorial section, see if anyone had written about them in there.

He wished he hadn't. 'At Best a Whore,' that's what the headline to one of the letters said. Despite a strong feeling that told him not to, he read the letter. "At best, a whore, at worst, a child molester, Brian Kinney has exposed the seedy underside of homosexual life. Here is the man the gay community would characterize as a victim? By his own admission, Mr. Kinney has owned up to having as many as thirty sexual partners in a month, has confessed to having seduced Justin Taylor, to having been seduced himself- - raped he called it- - at the tender age of fourteen, and to having sold sexual favors. Although none of this excuses the actions of the defendant, it does call into question the morals of a man and a community that would condone and even glorify such behavior. Who are the real victims here? We are, the decent citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, for having to tolerate such degradation in our midst, risking our children to the claws of such a monster."

Closing the paper, Brian returned it and the others to the bin, put the top back on, and pushed the container back to its former place. On autopilot, he carried his drink to the sink and poured it out. Rinsed the glass and put it in the dishwasher. Retreated to the bedroom and drew the covers up around his neck.

"So what did he do when they read the verdict?"

Justin paused with a slice of pizza in his hand, "He looked kind of scared. Like it was the first time he realized what was gonna happen to him. That he could go to prison."

"Good," said Rennie. "What an asshole. Did he really think he was going to get away with that?"

"People do. All the time," Xavier said.

Rennie picked at her salad. "He was fucked the moment Keisha was assigned the case. She's like the Terminator."

"Mace," said Justin. "Brian calls her Mace."

"Put your eyes out," laughed Xavier.

"From the movie," Justin explained. "Strange Days."

"Angela Bassett," added Rennie. "Total tough chick movie. I loved it. Angela Bassett protecting Ralph Fiennes. That's the way it really is. Like you protecting Brian." And then she had a happy moment thinking about her protecting Brian and him being so grateful he gave her a mercy fuck. Hey, she'd take it. "So how is His Big and Badness?" she asked, Justin having told them Keisha's name for Brian.

"Okay, I guess. Really tired. He went to bed as soon as we got home."

"And you didn't stay with him?"

"He was knocked out."

Xavier couldn't help himself, he just had to say, "I guess older guys get tired out faster than young ones."

And Justin fixed him with a look that managed to be both startled and disapproving at the same time. Did this mean that Xavier really saw himself as Brian's rival for his affections? Didn't matter. Brian had no rivals, no serious ones anyway. With the pizza almost gone, he decided that now was the time for him to go. Just in case Brian woke up during the night.

The last thing he would have ever expected to see when he got home was Brian, robe hastily tied, sitting in the middle of the living room floor with stacks of newspapers around him, cutting furiously yet with complete concentration.

"Brian? What's going on?"

The man held up a column he'd cut out. "Scrapbook," he explained.

"What?" Justin approached him carefully, unsure if he'd been drinking or if he'd taken something, not wanting to set him off. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm making a scrapbook," Brian explained carefully. He waved at the stories he'd already cut out of a dozen papers. "A permanent record. So I never forget." With that he returned to his cutting.

"Never forget what?"

"What I am," he said. "So I won't ever make the mistake of thinking that I'm just like everybody else." He laughed bitterly. "Whenever I start to think I can have a normal life, I can just open up my scrapbook. And it'll be right there in black and white."

Justin reached for him but drew back at the look Brian gave him. "Brian. . . Please."

"So I won't ever forget that I'm a monster." He searched among the pieces of paper. "There. There it is. That's what it says. I'm a monster." And he picked up the next newspaper and began searching through it.

Sitting on the couch at the opposite end from Brian, Justin began to talk to him. "They say that the view from the Eiffel Tower is the best in the world. You can see all of Paris from up there: Monmartre, the Latin Quarter, the Ile de la Cite, Saint Germaine, the Champs Elysses. . . And we're going to be there, in Paris. Just the two of us. No trial, no Chris Hobbs, no fuckin' Pittsburgh. Just us and Paris. I can't wait."

Hands trembling, Brian put down the scissors. Gathered the articles and letters he'd cut from the newspaper in his hands and wadded them up. But he couldn't let go. He sat on the floor with his hands balled up, scraps of paper in them.

Justin slid to the floor next to him and placed his hand over Brian's. Still Brian didn't let go. Cupping Brian's face in his hands, Justin kissed him, putting all of his love into the kiss and, gradually, Brian realized that he couldn't hold onto Justin and the newspaper articles. Letting them go, bits of paper raining upon the rug, he embraced his lover, trembling against the teen's shoulder, so weak that he couldn't have stood even if he wanted to, even if he had somewhere to go, even though he knew there wasn't any better, any safer place than right here.

Tuesday, November 27th

At first he wasn't sure that he could actually do it, walk into the building, take the elevator up to the twelfth floor, and go into his office to wait for Cynthia to show up with his appointment book. It'd been so long since he'd been in his office, he wondered if it was still there or if Ryder had given it to Darren Johnson or, Jesus, Bob or Brad. No fuckin' way, he told himself. Cynthia would have called him. She'd kept him up to date on what was going on at work so he'd known about the Latham account fiasco before Ryder called him to bitch about the mishandling of it. As if it were his fault that the trial had come when it did. He'd done all he could to steer Bob and Brad and Darren Johnson in the right direction before he left work, it wasn't his fault if they couldn't come up with something Latham would agree to finance.

No one was around yet which was good. Taking out the coffee and pastry he'd picked up on the way in, he powered up his computer wishing he'd had time to eat at home. Justin had offered to get up and cook but he'd refused, telling the teen to go back to sleep when all he really wanted was for Justin to sit with him and have breakfast and take the bitter taste of going back to work from his mouth. When all he wanted was to be in bed next to Justin. Putting those thoughts from his head, he went through his messages on the company listserv, deleting most of them as they were either time-sensitive or irrelevant to him. As expected, no one had mentioned the trial on the list, too high risk, but he was sure there'd been plenty private emails sent back and forth regarding his latest fiasco. Putting those thoughts from his head as well, he finished going through the plethora of messages in no time flat, saving only five from literally hundreds. Probably Cynthia had saved those as well, she had an eye for what he'd be interested in. He'd bet anything, she had them printed out and in a folder marked 'Listserv Messages' at her desk. Well, he'd have to wait until she got in and if she had, there'd be a little something extra for her this Christmas.

After checking his email, he went online and read The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as The London Times. God, he missed reading the papers. As expected, each of them had a story on the verdict yesterday but after last night, he was able to read them and move on to the next article. The one thing that episode had done was to inure him to the pain.

Having read the papers and finished his breakfast, Brian took out the Latham files that he'd had with him from the beginning. Although things might have changed since those initial meetings, he wanted to start from ground zero and work his way out. If there'd been any changes, Cynthia would have the updated information.

By the time he heard her opening the door, he'd reread all of the information he had and had made some changes to his original thoughts regarding the campaign.

"I didn't expect you back for a couple days," she said, approaching his desk with a smile.

"I told you I'd be back today." Raised an eyebrow. "Don't tell me you're slipping."

"I thought the idea of spending a couple free days with Justin might be too much to resist."

"Unfortunately, the thought of being unemployed and spending all of my free days with Justin was too frightening to contemplate." Paused dramatically. "So?"

He'd never change. Handing him a folder marked 'Listserv', she said, "These are the messages from the listserv that seemed worth saving. Not a lot, just some information about new tax laws (he'd saved that one), changes in the travel policy (ditto), office renovation plans for this floor (uh-huh), holiday leave (saved), and the restructuring of the North American Public Relations team (bingo)."

Taking the folder, he dropped it on his desk. "What else?"

She handed him a stack of files. "Latest info on the Latham account. Ryder wants to see you as soon as you've gone over them. He scheduled a meeting with the folks from Latham for Monday."

"Shit." The pile was at least six folders high and each was filled to the brim. And now she was telling him he had two days to come up with something to tell the Latham team. "Any other bombshells you want to drop on me?"

"The Liberty Air people have been in contact with Ryder."

His heart began to beat in triple time. If Liberty Air pulled out, he was fucked. Plain and simple. "What's the word?"

"He's keeping it totally top secret. No one's heard anything."

That could be either good or bad. Probably good since Ryder hadn't been waiting for him when he got to work and he hadn't made any panic calls to the loft. More than likely he'd had to reassure the folks from Liberty Air that the negative publicity from the trial wouldn't affect them. Even though whenever the firm was mentioned in an article, the writer invariably listed their high profile clients including Liberty Air. Still, it was over now.

"That all?"

Giving him a look, she asked, "Isn't that enough?"

"Call Ryder, tell him I'll meet him at 10:30, if that's good for him. And, Cynthia," she paused at the door, "thanks."

"Are you sure you're the real Brian Kinney?"

Smirking, he replied, "There's only one."

By ten thirty, he was wishing there was more than one. Jesus, what had Darren and the Bobsey Twins been doing? They'd had good ideas, they just hadn't followed through on them. Maybe it wasn't as hopeless as it seemed. He could probably rework some of their ideas and come up with something suitable for Latham. If not, it was going to be a long weekend. Plus, he had to leave at five sharp today to get ready for the party at Jen's. Although he wasn't really in the mood, he'd promised Justin that he'd go and pretend to have a good time.

Gathering his notes, Brian made his way down to Ryder's office and waited until Susan announced him. Gave him a few more seconds to think. He took a seat opposite Ryder's desk.

"I was surprised to see you here today."

"Everyone keeps saying that. The trial's over. Where else would I be?"

"I thought you might take a day or two off."

"I can. If that's what you want," baited Brian.

Ryder looked as if he'd swallowed poison. "I don't think we could afford it. The people at Latham are pissed, to say the least."

"Yeah, well, I can understand why." He gestured to the notes he'd made. "The Talented Threesome did their usual standout job."

"The Latham people came on board because of you."

"Well, like I said, the trial's over. I've been through the files. Darren and the Dynamic Duo actually had a couple of good ideas- -"

"No can do. Latham doesn't want anything to do with anything they've already seen."

"I could rework it so that they didn't know."

"They'd know. We need an entirely new concept. And we need it- - at least the bare bones of a plan- - by Monday."

If Ryder had expected Brian to freak out, he was disappointed. Thanks to Cynthia's heads up, he barely paused. "Fine."

"So you can have something by Monday?"

"I said I would." As tired as he was, he was anxious to get back to work, to put the trial behind him, get on with his life, if he ever could. This was just the challenge he needed. Although the time frame was cutting it close, still. . .

Turning to the trial, Ryder asked, "How are you?"

Brian made a gesture with his hand. "I'm- - alive. That's the best I can say."

Recanting his earlier statement, Marty said, "If you need the time off. . ."

Brian knew how much it cost him to offer. "No. Thanks. But I need to move on. I'll take a couple days after Christmas and New Year's. Once the Latham account is settled." He waited to see if Marty would say anything else and when he didn't, Brian rose and headed back to his office. There'd be no apologies, no further soul-searching. Marty had closed the matter and anything that had been said in haste before the trial began was forgotten. No longer pertinent. So his job was safe. As long as he performed. So he'd better perform.

He'd given Cynthia strict orders to check in on him at four forty-five to make sure he was getting his stuff together so that he'd get home in time to shower and change for Jen's party. At four forty-five on the dot she stuck her head in the door. "You're not packing up."

"In a minute."

She came in and stood over him. "No. Now. Justin will kill you if you're late."

"In a minute." He'd had a brainstorm about twenty minutes ago and was getting it down on paper before it passed. "I just. . . there." Laid down his pen. "Got it."

"So get going. Have a good time."

"You wanna come?" he asked. After all, she knew Justin and Michael.

"Got plans."

He opened his briefcase. "Going out?"

Smiling, she wiggled her hips as she crossed the floor. "If we don't come up with something better to do."

As he gathered his things, he thought about Joanie. He'd given Jen her number but he didn't expect her to show. The last time she'd attended a family gathering, she'd inadvertently seen him and Justin making out in the Munchers' guest room. Despite all their progress, he didn't think she was ready for a full immersion into his world just yet.

As soon as he crossed the threshold, he put down his briefcase and started loosening his tie. By the time he'd gotten to the bedroom, he had his shirt undone and was unbuttoning his pants. Justin was in the bathroom. He could hear the shower. Well, he'd just have some company.

Hearing Brian's bare feet on the tile, Justin had pushed open the door to the shower. The ad exec came in and closed it behind him. Found his arms full of teenager. They kissed as the water pelted them. Then Brian pulled away. "I need to shower."

Justin grabbed the soap. Began lathering him up. "Uh-huh."

Three minutes into the shower, Brian was sporting a hard-on that would not subside. Justin wasn't helping. Sliding his hand up and down the shaft as Brian tried to finish washing. Finally, he gave up and put himself in Justin's more than capable hands. The teen backed him up against the wall and knelt at his feet. Brian closed his eyes as Justin's lips touched the head of his cock. They'd both been wanting this all day long.

Having had an appetizer, Justin was willing to wait for the main course. Releasing his man, he washed his face while Brian soaped his genitals again. Soon they stumbled from the shower and went through the rest of their preparations.

He spread gel over his face and began shaving. "Did you go to class today?"

"Started to and then. . ." Shook his head. "I was exhausted. I did go in this afternoon to see my professors."

"What'd they say?"

"That if I wanted to take an incomplete for all my classes this semester, I'd have until the end of January to complete the work."

Brian drew the razor up over his chin. "So?"

"I think I'm going to have to do it. I can take all my exams and stuff but I haven't been working on anything since the trial started. I need time to do all of that." Justin rubbed his face. He didn't need to shave everyday, which was good. He hated it. Brian, on the other hand, usually shaved twice if he was going out. If he was staying in, he skipped it. He'd learned how aroused Justin got whenever he rubbed the stubble over his body.

"But you'll be starting new classes with new work while you're working on old assignments."

"I'm hoping I can get a lot done at Christmas. The school will be closed but I can bring my stuff here." Added, "Except for the painting."

"Do it. I won't be home most of the day. Just leave the windows open for an hour or so afterwards."

They finished getting ready and were out of the house by six thirty, plenty of time to pick up Rennie and Xavier and get to Jen's by seven.

Sitting out in the Jeep for a moment, the two lovers shared a gentle kiss while their two passengers looked the other way. They'd seen Craig's car in the driveway.

"You gonna be okay?" asked Justin.


"You look tired." Even Rennie had commented on it and she never thought Brian looked anything but perfect.

"I'll be fine. Long as we leave by ten, I can still get to bed by eleven and catch up on some sleep."

Justin bussed his cheek. "Promise. Come on, old man."

It'd taken him about five minutes to realize that Brian had disappeared. The last he'd seen of him, he was over in the corner talking to Lindsay and Melanie and then he just vanished. At first he thought he'd gone to the bathroom but five minutes later when he didn't show, Justin began to get worried. Without drawing attention to himself, he went in search of his missing lover. Checked the bathroom first just in case he had gone in there and then started with the bedrooms. Found him in his room, the one his mom kept for him in case something happened and he needed to come home. Brian was fast asleep. Curled up on the bed, snoring lightly. Without disturbing him, Justin shut the door and went back downstairs where everyone else was busy finishing off the food and wine. The party was still going strong and it was getting close to ten. He'd have to get Brian home soon.

"Where'd you run off to?" his mom asked.

"Look for Brian."

"Find him?"

"Yeah. He's in the guest room. Asleep."

"Everything okay?"

"He's just tired. Maybe it's time to call it a night."

"Probably," she agreed.

So he went back upstairs and shook Brian gently. "Wake up. Brian, wake up. We're going home."

Groggily, Brian asked, "Huh?"

"Get up. We're going home. You fell asleep."

"Shit. I was only gonna take a cat nap."

"You did. You were only out five minutes or so." He pulled on his arm. "Come on."

The two made their way back downstairs. Jen had apparently made some kind of announcement as everyone was getting their coats and hats and preparing to skeedaddle. After spending another five minutes or so saying goodbye, the guests departed, including Brian and Justin. Brian handed Justin the keys to the Jeep, not trusting himself to make it home. Nodded off in the passenger's seat while Justin drove, stopping by the Institute first to drop off his friends. By the time they got to the apartment building, Brian was asleep. Justin was loathe to wake him but he had to. Finally they made it upstairs, Justin half-carrying the man in and out of the elevator. Somehow Brian managed to strip before collapsing in bed. With a kiss on his forehead, Justin drew the covers over him and went around to his side. Undressed and crawled in next to him. Only he couldn't sleep.

It'd been a good night. Joanie had shown up and actually been pleasant. His dad and Brian hadn't gotten into it. Even Michael seemed to be standing by his word and accepting the fact that Brian and Justin as a couple were here to stay. And miracle of miracles, Brian and Melanie hadn't passed a cross word the entire evening. Everything had gone smoothly. They deserved it after that bitch of a trial. Keisha had come for a while which had been the best. She and Brian had playfully sparred for half a round just for old time's sake and Justin and she had danced. She was a way better dancer than Brian but Justin preferred dancing with his old man. His old man. That's what he called him and Brian didn't seem to mind. The same as Brian called him his little boy and he didn't mind. In fact, he loved it. Loved when Brian called him his little boy or baby. He wondered what Brian would call him when he was no longer a little boy, not that he was one now, but he was still close enough to being a child that it fit. What would happen when he hit his twenties? His thirties? He'd still be younger than Brian, so he supposed it wouldn't matter. To Brian, he might always be his little boy. And that would be fine with him.

Moving closer to his lover, Justin inhaled his aroma and sighed. Too bad Brian was dead tired. He'd just have to wait until tomorrow.

Tomorrow. He used to hate that word but now he loved it. Tomorrow meant another day with Brian. Another chance to do something interesting. To be better than he was today. To learn. To live.

Unable to help himself, he moved closer to Brian, slipped his arm over his lover's hip, his hand resting on the sleeping man's pelvis. Softly, he kissed Brian's back and settled down to take his rest. There was always tomorrow. Time enough for everything.

Friday, December 7th

Beef. As he approached the door, he could smell it and wondered what Justin had prepared for dinner. Should have been studying for his exams, Brian thought. But he was actually glad that the teen had cooked as takeout and delivery were starting to lose their appeal. Or maybe it was that he liked the idea of Justin cooking for them. Opening the door, he entered a land of sun and spices. The scent of hot chilies, oranges, ginger, and onion wafted through the air. Barely pausing to put down his stuff, he peeped in the oven to get the full effect. "What the fuck is that?" he asked the smiling young chef.

"Brisket. Mel gave me the recipe."

Cinnamon tickled his nose as he inhaled the tantalizing aroma. "Christ, that smells good."

Justin came up behind him and encircled his waist. "Tastes even better. Go get changed." He released the ad exec and Brian turned so they could kiss hello.

It was only then that he noticed anything else. Noticed that Justin had dressed for dinner. No jeans and a jersey, he wore a pair of grey slacks and a navy blue sweater. And the table was set: candles and cut flowers, wine and water glasses, the good linen napkins.

"What's the occasion?"

"It's Friday and I love you."

Good enough. With a second kiss, Brian released the teen and headed for the bedroom.

The first glass of red wine put roses in their cheeks. They danced languorously to a slow, romantic song. Touch me deep, pure and true,/ Gift to me forever/ Cause I'm kissing you, oh,/ I'm kissing you. . . By the end of the song, they were kissing with very few thoughts for dinner. The timer went off. Parting, they returned to the kitchen.

"Can I help?"

"Pour some more wine," Justin replied as he plated the brisket and garlic-flavored cous-cous. By the time Brian had returned his glass to its proper place, Justin was coming with their dinner.

From the first exquisite mouthful to the last, the meal was a triumph. Cooked perfectly and carved against the grain, the meat, accompanied by a sweet and savory sauce, seemed to melt on their tongues. As he finished, Brian sighed and wiped his mouth. "That was amazing."

"I'm glad you liked it." Justin was beaming.

"Loved it." Unspoken were the words, Love you. "What's for dessert?"

"Lemon meringue pie with a pecan crust." Justin rose, as did Brian, and they carried their plates into the kitchen. Brian rinsed the dishes while Justin served the chilled pie with dollops of mint-flavored whipped cream. The cool, light, tart pie was the perfect counterpoint to the slightly heavy meal.

"You think you'll do okay on your exams?"

"Yeah. I'm not really worried about them. It's the work I have to make up that kind of scares me."

"Don't let it. You're the best, remember?"

Justin shook his head. "Actually, I think Xavier is. He's really good."

"So are you." Brian's eyes twinkled. "And you're way cuter too."

"You're biased."

"Just a little."

The food put away and dishes loaded, they danced a while longer, drifting through the loft aimlessly, borne on the music's currents, twirling in a gentle eddy of sound. There came a sudden change in the music, like being buffeted upon the rapids, and then the calm returned and they laid down upon their bed and let the music wash over them. Where are you now?/ Where are you now?/ Cause I'm kissing you./ I'm kissing you, oh.

Wednesday, December 12th

Why did I ask him to move in here again? Brian asked himself as he listened to Justin dancing just outside the bedroom. Because you love him, came the answer. "Yeah," he whispered and put a pillow over his head. Justin had been studying all evening and he claimed the dancing helped him concentrate. All Brian knew was that it was driving him crazy. He'd put in an eleven hour day and all he wanted was to go to sleep and wake sometime the next millennium. Which he couldn't do because Justin was busy boogying to The Chemical Brothers on his Sony Discman. Most of the lights were off except for one over the desk but Justin preferred to dance on the hardwood floor in his bare feet where there was plenty of room. The empty space between the bedroom and the kitchen counter was perfect for dancing. So he danced. And Brian gritted his teeth and told himself Justin would get back to work soon enough and then he could fall blissfully asleep.

Saturday, December 15th

Exams over, classes over, most students had gone home already including Rennie but Xavier was still in Pittsburgh, wanting to finish up a piece before heading back to D.C. For that Justin was grateful. Brian had been really busy at work, trying to play catch up now that the trial was over and they hadn't been able to spend much time together outside of the weekends, since most nights Brian came home late and fell instantly asleep and left early before Justin had a chance to wipe the cobwebs from his eyes. And this morning, despite it being a Saturday, he'd gone into the office, determined to make some headway on a couple of accounts. So Justin had been left on his own. Which was probably just as well, as he needed to work on the ornaments for the tree. He'd decided to make some ornaments for the tree Brian had promised him they could have. He still couldn't believe Brian had agreed to decorating the loft for Christmas. Last year Brian hadn't put up a single decoration and Justin figured that was the way it usually was. But not this year. Smiling, he went in search of Xavier to see if he could help.

Found him welding some pieces on his latest sculpture. Watching from outside the door through the window, Justin observed him for at least five minutes. Could have done so for even longer. It fascinated him to watch Xavier work. Because of the heat, he usually wore a sleeveless tee while he welded with a pair of elbow-length rubber gloves in addition to a long rubber apron to protect most of his body. But that left about seven inches of bare flesh exposed, from his elbow to his shoulder, and it was on this stretch of skin that Justin generally concentrated, his eyes following the play of muscles as Xavier skillfully joined bits of metal to form something that had originated in the teen's mind and been painstakingly assembled over the weeks until it gradually assumed the form that Xavier had in mind.

When Xavier paused and pushed up his faceplate, Justin knocked and his friend waved him in. Smiled and removed the faceplate entirely, wiped his forehead. "Hey, J."

"You look busy."

Xavier rolled his shoulders lazily, the muscles in them flexing as he did. "Not really. Just playing around."

"Still leaving on Monday?"

"Yeah. Told my grandma I'd be there by the afternoon."

"I wish you were staying."

The other teen studied Justin's face for a moment, then smiled. "Me too."

Justin walked around the studio, looking at Xavier's piece from all angles. Giving himself a chance to get his bearings. Being around Xavier in the studio always made him feel a little out of breath, as if the air was purer, cleaner than the air he was used to breathing. "The sentencing is Tuesday."

"You said," Xavier reminded him.

"You must be sick of the trial by now."

"I didn't mean nothing by it."

"I know." Justin smiled and Xavier busied himself with putting away his torch and faceplate. Removed his apron.

Justin couldn't take his eyes away from Xavier as he divested himself of his protective gear. When the first glove came off, Justin looked away, sure that his friend would see the lust in his eyes. What the fuck was happening to him? He had Brian. Had everything he wanted. So why the fuck was he standing there lusting after Xavier, after his friend? Brian, Michael, Em, Ted, everybody had told him, you didn't do friends. Not if you wanted to stay friends. Besides which, he had Brian. Closing his eyes, he took a shallow breath.

"So you gonna speak at the sentencing?" asked Xavier.

"I think so. Keisha says it could make a big difference in the judge's ruling."

Checking out his latest piece of soldering, Xavier glanced Justin's way. "Know what you gone say?"

"Not really. Except that I don't think he should get away with what he did. I don't care what the reason."

"I guess you're still a little pissed that it was Brian he was into and not you."

A hot flash went all through Justin. "Fuck you." He turned to go and felt Xavier's hand on his arm.

"I'm sorry." Xavier released him, still feeling Justin's skin beneath his hand. If he could just. . . Just what? Just touch him once, kiss him once, make love to him once. But would it be enough? he asked himself.

Justin moved away from the door, sat on a stool. "He tried to kill me."

"And that's that. Cut and dry."

Aware of the sarcasm in Xavier's voice, Justin asked, "And you think it isn't?"

He paused. "I think people do things for all kinds of reasons and sometimes you don't think, you just react, and it's like you can't help it. That's all. Maybe he's sorry for what he did."

"And that's supposed to be good enough? That he's sorry?"

"Maybe he deserves a chance too."


"You got your chance. To be happy." Took a breath. "With Brian."

"I worked for that. It didn't just fall in my lap. He didn't want anything to do with me. It took me eight months to get him to admit that he loved me. Eight months. And I was almost fuckin' killed!"

Xavier held out his hands. "I know. J, I'm just saying. . ." After a moment he began again. "I knew this guy," he said and he almost stopped there, but he made himself continue. "He grew up with me in the projects. Name was Tony. Man, J, we grew up in a rough neighborhood. You can't imagine. Those anti-drug commercials they show, where there's some little kid having to walk past a drug dealer or to say no to some pusher, that's just a fantasy compared to the way it really is. People got nothing. And I don't mean they can't afford a second or third car or that they have to shop at the mall instead of fancy boutiques, I mean they got shit. Can't pay the bills on time, can't pay the bills at all. Barely got enough to eat. Kids got nothing to look forward to except more of the same.

"A place like that, different ain't good. It's better to blend in than to stand out. You stand out, you just asking for somebody to come along and knock the hell out of you. Me and Tony, we was different. Me cause I was into art and Tony cause he was a little sweet. You know, he wasn't exactly the most masculine guy in the projects. He wasn't no faggot, didn't swish around, but you could tell he wasn't into the kinds of things most of the boys were into. Including pussy. But, you know, he kept it on the down low, didn't throw it up in anybody's face, just went about his business trying to stay alive. Except places like where I grew up, you don't get a whole lot of chances to fuck up. And he fucked up big time." Xavier fell silent for so long Justin wondered if he should say something but then the teen spoke again. "He made his first mistake when he decided that he was in love. . . with me."

"Why was that a mistake?" Justin asked.

"Because I wasn't having none of it." Shook his head. "Fuck, me and Tony, we hook up, won't nothing but an invitation to be killed. So I brushed him off. But he kept coming back, coming back, and finally I just freaked."

"Did you want him?"

Xavier's face softened. "He really was beautiful, you know? Had good hair, these crazy grey-green eyes. I think his mama was Arabic or something. And he was smart too. Did real well in school. He could have gone to college, done something with his life. He would have been a good lawyer. Like Keisha." He smiled and then the smile faded. "But he fucked up."

"What happened?"

"He came to me, like you did Chris Hobbs. He came to me and he told me that he loved me and that he didn't want to live unless we were together and I just. . . I just lost it. Told him I didn't want him, didn't want no part of him. And all the while, I was wanting him so bad, I used to dream about him. But I wanted to get out of there in one piece, Justin. Wasn't no point in being stupid."

"Maybe you could have made it together."

"Maybe. But back then, I was too scared to even think about that. Man, the shit you put up with from Chris Hobbs, you multiply that by five and then think about it happening every day, not just sometimes, but all the time. Hell no, I wasn't about to start nothing with Tony. So when he came to me talking about love, I told him to get the fuck away from me and when he wouldn't, I kicked the shit out of him." At the end, his voice was so soft, Justin almost had to lean forward to hear him but he didn't want to, didn't want to move closer to Xavier once he realized what he'd said. He'd beaten someone, attacked Tony because the boy had wanted him.

"What happened then?"

"He left me alone. Decided to go straight. All the way, no dope. Joined a gang, started hanging with some serious players. Got some girl pregnant. We were sixteen, Justin. Sixteen-years-old and already his life was over. He was already dead, just waiting for his body to drop. And it did." Xavier's eyes filled with tears. "Him and some of his boys got mixed up in something they didn't know nothing about. Cops found them one morning, shot in the back of the head. Drugs probably. And there you go. All over." A tear ran down his cheek. "And he was so smart, Justin. A's and B's in school. Knew more about black writers than the professors down at Howard. He could have gone to Howard, been something. Done something with his life. But he didn't. Now there's this two-year-old kid with his eyes and hair running around the projects waiting for his bullet." Justin slipped off the stool and went to Xavier, embraced him. "I was so afraid, Justin."

"I know."

"And I killed him."

"No." Justin held his face in his hands. "No, you didn't."

"All he needed was a chance." Closed his eyes. "That's all either one of us needed." Laid his head upon Justin's shoulder. After a moment, Justin raised his friend's head and looked into Xavier's eyes, his beautiful dark brown eyes. "I love you, J."

Justin released him, tried to move away but the other teen caught hold of him and he felt Xavier's mouth on his, pressing hard, and he gasped, tried to catch his breath, and fell into a kiss so deep, so passionate that he could hardly stand. As he had imagined doing, he touched Xavier's hair, running his fingers down the tight cornrows to the nape of his neck. He could feel Xavier stiffening against his groin and, for an instant, he nearly grabbed him. But it didn't matter because Xavier touched him, slid his hand up under his shirt and brushed his nipple ring. Something inside him pulsed and he moaned into Xavier's mouth. Abruptly they parted, having scared themselves, parted and stood, chests heaving, trying to figure out what to do next. Justin's hands trembled, his entire body quivered. What am I. . . ? Reaching blindly behind him, he felt the wall, backed up until he was against it.

"J. . ." Xavier moved towards him but Justin shook his head.

"No. We can't."

"But, J. . ." He stopped and looked at Justin with such longing in his eyes that Justin had to close his to keep from seeing it. "Justin, I need you."

"So does he."

"I don't care about him!" shouted Xavier.

"I need him," said Justin. "I love him."

"And you don't feel nothing for me?"

"I never said that."

Taking that as a sign of hope, Xavier asked, "Do you love me?"

"You're my friend. . ."

"You didn't answer my question."

Justin forced himself to speak. "I love you like a friend. Because you are. One of the best friends I have."

"No!" Like a caged animal, Xavier paced. Suddenly stopped and fixed Justin with a stare. "And that's all?"

"That's all it can be, Xavier." Justin pushed off from the wall. "Please. Say it's enough."

But Xavier wouldn't. "You know it's not."

"It's all I can give you."

"That kiss meant something."

And Justin admitted that it did. "It meant that- - that there's an attraction. But I was attracted to Chris Hobbs too and look how that ended."

Anger shook Xavier. "Don't. Don't you dare compare us to what happened between the two of you."

"Xavier, there is no us. No you and me. Except as friends. I love Brian."

"You keep saying that. Who you trying to convince? Me or you?"

"Neither one of us. You know how I feel about him. You know what he means to me. I would never do anything to hurt him, never leave him. Never, Xavier." And he meant it. No matter how attracted he was to Xavier, he would never leave Brian for him.

"You know what I did after Tony got killed? Started fucking around with these guys I would pick up on the weekend. Hanging around these clubs that only existed on Friday night. Everything on the down low. Even slept with a girl or two, just to keep frontin'." He stared down at his hands. "I can't go back to that, Justin."

Only there was nothing he could say. "I'm sorry. But he's what I want."

As if he finally believed him, Xavier nodded. Grabbed his gloves from the table top. "I guess I should finish this up." Except he couldn't see for the tears that blinded him.

Wiping his eyes, Justin asked, "We're still friends, right?" Waited, then asked again, "Right?"

And Xavier slid on one of his gloves. "I need some time, Justin. This ain't easy."

"But you're leaving on Monday." Looked away. "I have a present for you. I thought you could come by the loft- -"


"Then I'll bring it here. Tomorrow. I'll come by- -"

"No," decided Xavier. "Keep it until I get back," he said softly.

Just as softly, Justin assented. "Okay." Paused before leaving. "I hope you have a good Christmas."

Xavier fixed his eyes on his gloves. "You too."

Chest tight, Justin left the building and hailed a cab. He had to see Brian now.

Having made little headway on the new Latham campaign, Brian closed the file and sighed. Saturday totally wasted. Should have been home having fun. Well, it wasn't too late to do just that. He grabbed his briefcase and packed his stuff, just in case inspiration hit him sometime between now and Monday, and was just about to call it a day when the door to his office opened. Thinking maybe Cynthia had come in for some reason, he was surprised to see Justin. Smiled. "Couldn't wait, huh?" And then he saw that Justin wasn't smiling, that he had this look of complete misery on his face. "What? What is it? Reporters? Have they been bothering you again?" he asked because a few had persisted in trying to get them to talk despite their repeated refusals. Justin came to him and fell into his arms, pressed his face against Brian's sweater. "Baby, what is it?"

But Justin only rubbed his cheek against the warm wool, unable to speak for a few moments. Then he said, "I went and saw Xavier."

Heart racing, Brian asked, "What happened?" He was aware of Xavier's feelings for Justin, but he wasn't quite sure how Justin felt about Xavier, outside of being friends. He wasn't sure if he wanted to know. Wasn't sure if he'd know what to do if- -

"He told me this story, about this guy he knew, this guy who was in love with him. . ." Justin shuddered. "It was just so sad," he said, reducing the entire episode to those five words, five inadequate words that only partially told the truth. He couldn't tell Brian all that had happened. Couldn't. It would only make things worse. If Brian knew- - Jesus. . . He'd probably go down there and beat the shit out of Xavier. Or try to. And it wasn't all Xavier's fault.

Brian brushed the tears away from Justin's cheeks and kissed his eyelids gently. "There. Better?" The teenager nodded. Despite not buying Justin's story entirely, Brian was willing to let it go if Justin was. Besides, it might have been one of the residual effects from the attack. The doctors had said that he'd probably experience some personality changes but they weren't specific so he never knew how to take any sudden change. This time he decided to see if he could take Justin's mind off of things. "Fuck, we're like a couple of weeping willows," he said referring to the spate of crying jags they'd had over recent weeks and Justin laughed. It was true. "How about we go dancing tonight? Put on some really sexy clothes and set the clubs on fire?"

That sounded like a fabulous idea, just the thing to forget about this afternoon. "Yeah," he replied.

"I've got this new shirt that I haven't worn- -"

"Which new shirt?" since Brian had about a half-dozen that he'd bought and never worn.

"The black one." Justin waited. "The sheer black one with the vertical stripes."

Justin remembered that shirt and didn't know if he wanted his man out there advertising the goods especially since he had no intention of letting anyone else sample any. "I still say it's a little slutty."

Laughing, Brian said, "Baby, it's a lotta slutty." Stuck his tongue in his cheek.


"Not on your life," he said, picking up his briefcase and coat and leading the way.

It wasn't the first time they'd gone out dancing since the trial ended but they hadn't been out so many times that the experience wasn't a little nerve-wracking, especially since more than a few people stared and whispered about them. Amazing. Even among the drugged-out and hopped-up, they were still a topic of conversation. Of course, it wasn't everyday that the King of Babylon was front-page news. In anything but the local gay rag.

Wanting to growl at the gossips, Brian concentrated on getting them a couple of beers and checking out the action on the dance floor. Not that he really cared. But it was always nice to be noticed, to flirt with some guy knowing that his baby was waiting for him, waiting to take him home and fuck until the early hours of the morning. Just thinking about it made him hard. He glimpsed Michael and Jeff out of the corner of his eye. Coming towards them. Justin was looking the other way, hadn't even seen them. So he nudged him. Pointed. Justin waved.

Jeff waved back as did Michael, although Michael had kind of a guilty look in his eyes. Which Brian didn't understand. So what if he was seeing Jeff? Big deal. He could fuck the Easter Bunny for all he cared. True, his first impulse after seeing Jeff's story for the first time- - after the trial- - was to punch him in the goddamn mouth, but he had calmed down. Realized that Jeff hadn't done that much harm. Probably had done them some good in the PR department. Not that much of anything could have helped him. At least as far as the breeders were concerned. Mikey said Jeff had a huge female following. Well, fuck it, all that was over now. And if not exactly over, he had begun to care less.

"Hey, guys," said Michael, giving them a slight smile.

Brian glanced at Jeff as he asked, "How's the pickings?"

Jeff smirked. "Slim. I think we got the best ones."


At that Michael's smile grew. It was going to be all right.

Justin sat his beer down next to Michael. "Watch this, okay?" Tugged on Brian's shirt. "Come on, old man, you promised me a dance."

Leaving his beer as well, Brian said, "I think I promised you more than that."

Smiling brightly, Justin replied, "When we get home, pops."

From the sidelines, Jeff and Michael watched as Justin and Brian made a space for themselves on the floor and then proceeded to turn the heat up a notch in the place. Brian didn't have to do much, just move a little, his beauty in motion more than enough for most people. It was Justin who did the real dancing, twisting his lithe body around his lover's taller one, seducing his man and everyone else with his gyrations, his pumping hips, and arching back. After a few minutes of this, they were joined by another couple, segueing into a seething quartet of hot bodies that enflamed the men around them.

One song turned into another and still they danced, Brian and Justin moving closer together, Brian scooting down a little so that he could look into his little boy's eyes as they moved to the music. The third song slowed things down a little tempo-wise but their pulse rates increased as they moved even closer together, Brian's arms around Justin's shoulders, the teen's arms around his lover's waist, groins touching, cocks straining against uncooperative clothing. Justin opened his mouth and waited for Brian to close the gap between them. They kissed, tongues dancing out of sight, bodies wanting more, more, everything. Sliding his hand up under Brian's shirt, feeling the hot skin of his side, fingers moving over his ribcage, Justin moaned and clenched the back of Brian's head in his free hand.

Brian drew apart a little. "You wanna go?"

And Justin, feeling his dick grow heavier, harder, nodded. "Now."

Taking the teenager's hand in his, Brian led him from the dance floor. Michael and Jeff had long abandoned their drinks, guessing that they wouldn't want warm beer anyway.

How they made it to the loft without tearing off one another's clothes, they didn't know, but they did stop in the stairwell and fall against the wall, kissing so hard that they were out of breath by the time they reached the door.

Pushing Brian down upon the sofa, Justin knelt astride him and tore open his shirt, fastening his lips around one broad nipple. Heard Brian groan as his teeth grazed the sensitive skin, and then he closed on the tip just hard enough to make the man shout. Licked the abused flesh and kissed it prettily. "There. Kiss and make it better," he whispered and Brian said, "Again." So he kissed it again.

All night they fell in and out of tangled heaps, making love over and over again until they were both sore and exhausted and utterly spent. Making their way from the sofa to the chaise lounge to the bed, they left a trail of clothes, sweat, and cum. Finally, they collapsed among the covers and slept like the dead for three hours, waking around six only to check the clock and close their eyes once more.

Getting up a little after nine, they lounged around in their robes having coffee and omelets that Justin whipped up despite Brian's protests to the contrary that bagels would be enough for him. In the end, he ate the entire three-egg omelet that Justin fixed for him, cream, cheese, butter and all. Patting his stomach, he made a mental note to run for a half hour on the treadmill before the day was out. Speaking of which, he wondered what the Boy Wonder had planned for the day. "You going by the Institute to see Xavier?" he asked, browsing through the newspaper. Now that the trial was over, he could get back to reading it, something he used to do religiously.

At that Justin froze. How would he explain to Brian that he wasn't? "No," he said simply hoping that, for once, Brian wouldn't be curious. No such luck.

"Why not? Don't you have a present for him? I thought he was leaving tomorrow morning?"

"He is. Xavier said to save it until he got back." He thought quickly. "I don't think he had money to buy me anything so he felt kind of bad."

Brian shrugged. "Whatever." Drained the last of his coffee and returned to the paper. "Tell him the next time he finishes a piece to let me know. I could take some pictures of it, show them to Liz Ryder-Kelly. She likes modern art. You never know."

Staring at Brian as if he'd grown a second head, Justin asked, "You'd do that for him?"

The man shrugged again. "It'd look good for me if she did buy something."

Smiling at the way Brian had downplayed his good deed, Justin made up his mind to do better in the future, despite whatever temptations were sent his way. Brian deserved the best and he'd get it. No matter what.

Tuesday, December 18th

And like most best laid plans, this one went awry as well. From the moment they'd arrived at the courthouse, Justin had begun to replay in his mind his encounter with Xavier. He barely heard the reporters even though they were shouting at the tops of their lungs. He had no idea how he'd gotten inside, other than the fact that Brian was still with him and he assumed the man had opened the door and walked with him to Keisha's office.

The Assistant District Attorney looked as natty as ever with her braids done up in a modified bun, two sticks thrust through it for support.

"Interesting," Brian commented.

"Just call me the ghetto geisha," she joked and both she and the ad exec laughed.

Justin guessed that why Brian liked her cause her sense of humor was just as harsh as his own. Plus, she was tough as shit. They didn't call her Mace for nothing. Behind her back, of course, although he bet she wouldn't mind if she knew. Would probably take it as a compliment. Grateful for a distraction, he allowed himself to be drawn into their conversation about the spring collection from Emporio Armani. Although he didn't say anything, he listened. And then Keisha changed topics.

"You don't have to speak at the sentencing, Justin. Not if you don't want to. Brian's not."

Looking at his lover, he was surprised. After everything that Mason had done to Brian, Justin would have thought that Brian would have jumped at the chance to put a nail in Hobbs' coffin. Of course, he'd just assumed that Brian would speak. "Why not?"

"Because you're the one he attacked. I think if anyone speaks, it should be you." Grinned ruefully. "Besides, I don't think I could keep my temper."

"Me either," agreed Keisha. "Last thing I need is for you to go ballistic. Again." She paused. "So what do you want to do, Justin?"

He thought about it and thought about it and although he didn't know what he'd say, he felt he had to say something. "I want to speak."

"Okay. The judge is only going to give you a few minutes, so make it brief."

"What do you think he'll do?" Brian asked.

"Truthfully? I don't know. Could go either way. Kramer could take the hard line and give him the maximum sentence or he could take into consideration it's a first offense, take into consideration Hobbs' background, his potential. . . I don't know."

"Potential for what? Further acts of aggression?"

"To become a productive member of society."

"Fuck that."

"You never know," she replied.

All the way down to the courtroom, Justin thought and thought and thought about what he would say and he went over a half a dozen scenarios in his head while Kramer conducted business and the defense called several people to speak in Chris Hobbs' behalf including his parents. It wasn't until Cynthia called him to the podium that he made a decision. I'm sorry, he said to Brian in his heart and he hoped that he wasn't making the biggest mistake of his life.

"I guess everyone expects me to say that I hope Chris gets as many years as you can give him, and I used to feel that way. But I don't anymore." Behind him, he could hear Keisha shifting in her seat. She was probably turning to warn Brian not to say anything. Justin went on. "Everyone deserves a chance. Over a year ago, I met Brian. I did some pretty stupid things and I could have been hurt. I could have been killed. But I wasn't. I was lucky. I was lucky that I met Brian instead of someone else, someone who might have raped me or abused me in some other way. Not everyone is as lucky as I was. Maybe if Chris had met someone like Brian, maybe things would have been different. I hate what he did to me but I don't hate him. I understand him. More now than I used to. And I'm sorry for what I did. I was wrong and I'm sorry. I think he needs help and I hope he gets it. If there's a chance for him to do something with his life, to make a difference, to fall in love, I don't know, I just- - I think it'd be a waste if nothing good came out of this. Thank you." As he turned towards the gallery, he saw for the first time Deb and his mom and dad and Lindz. He hadn't even noticed them when they'd come down from Keisha's office. Looking at them and not Brian, he made his way to his seat.

As Justin returned to the gallery, Brian rose and went to Keisha. "I want to say something," he told her and she caught Justin's eye over his shoulder.

"I don't think- -"

"I want to," he said again and she relented.

"Fine." Turned to Kramer. "Mr. Kinney would also like to make a statement, Your Honor."

After going to the podium and saying and spelling his name for the record, Brian began to speak. Although he'd had three weeks in which to recover from the trial, he still seemed tired. No one but Justin knew how quickly that exhaustion had fallen upon him, just in the minutes it'd taken Justin to say a few words. Now, weary and angry, Brian spoke to the court. "I didn't know what Justin would say and now that I've heard him. . ." He paused, unable to continue that train of thought. "Looking at Justin walk away from the Jeep the night of the prom was the first time I admitted to myself that I loved him. I know it doesn't seem like a lot to most people cause they fall in and out of love all the time. But I've only ever fallen in love with two people in my entire life and Justin is one of them. I was sitting in the Jeep looking at him in the side mirror and it hit me: I loved him. And then I saw Chris Hobbs and he hit Justin. I saw him hit Justin. I heard it. I'll never forget that sound for as long as I live. I'll never not remember it. Along with all of the good things about being in love, falling in love, I'll always remember seeing Justin get hurt. I thought he was dead. I thought he was dead and I'd have to live the rest of my life knowing that I wasn't fast enough to save him, that I was too slow, too old, too far away. Those were the worst moments of my life and I've been through some pretty terrible times.

"I don't know how to say that now it's all right. That Hobbs made a mistake and it's okay. I don't know how to do that." As he spoke his voice cracked occasionally but he didn't cry; dry-eyed, yet with eyes filled with pain, he gave his statement. "Justin has nightmares about something he can't even remember. He has nightmares about being hit but he doesn't remember being hit. I remember. And the memories to me are worse than any nightmare because they're always with me. I know that sending Hobbs to prison won't make the memories go away, I know that. But it's not right, that you should have to watch someone you love dying. Because he was. Even though he lived, he could have died. I could have held him in my arms and watched him die. I could have lost him the very moment I found him. Whether Hobbs intended to kill him or not, I thought I was going to lose him. And then he would have killed us both. And there'd be two less faggots in the world. Two less abominations."

And he stood there, lost in a pain so paralyzing that it was only when Keisha touched him on the arm that he moved, looking around in confusion. She knew, they all knew, that he'd been back in that parking garage, holding a bleeding Justin in his arms, weeping, terrified that he'd lost him.

In the end the judge sentenced Hobbs to three years in prison. It was the least amount of time he could have given him. The moment judgement was pronounced, Hobbs slumped and would have dropped to his seat if Mason hadn't been holding him by the arm. Behind them, his mother began to cry, his father holding her as he had all throughout the trial. They had no other children. Chris was their only child, their only hope. Watching Hobbs' parents hug him, feeling his mother's arms around him, Justin could see, in his mind, the paths their lives had taken, entwined for a while, now moving apart, his towards the light and Hobbs' into the shadows.

Justin imagined that the Arctic couldn't have been as quiet or as cold as the inside of the Jeep on the ride home. For once he didn't attempt to start a conversation. Brian was mad, had been mad from the moment he'd said his piece at the sentencing. When he'd returned to his seat, Brian had given him a look that had sent chills down his spine. And as they'd exited the courthouse, reporters yelling for a statement, Brian had said nothing, hadn't even tried to come between Justin and the journalists. It was then that Justin began to be afraid. The ride home had done nothing to assuage his fear. As the elevator reached their floor, Justin fought to contain his panic.

Once inside, Brian strode into the bedroom and removed his overcoat. Hung it up and proceeded to change his clothes. Justin waited until Brian was done and had gone into the bathroom before entering the bedroom and changing. He'd just finished pulling on his sweater when Brian came out of the bathroom and went into the kitchen without speaking to him. Knowing there was no point in putting it off any longer- - but afraid to say anything to the man when he was in this kind of a mood- - Justin stood near the sofa, unsure what to do.

Brian snatched a bottle of water from the fridge and drank down most of it. He was aware of Justin's scrutiny, aware that the teen was waiting for him to give some kind of sign as to what approach he should take. If he knew like Brian did, he wouldn't bother. The man didn't know if there was anything Justin could do or say to change the way he felt right now. Finally, he put down his water and asked, "Why? Why, Justin?"

He knew his answer wouldn't be good enough but it was the only one he had. "I had to."

And that made Brian even angrier. "No. You didn't. You chose to do that. You could have said nothing."

"Brian- -"

"I- -" He shook his head. "I don't understand, Justin. Why?" he asked again, the only question there was, the only question Justin probably could never give a satisfactory answer to.

"It was the right thing to do."

"For whom? For that asshole Chris Hobbs?"

"Yes." Incredible as that sounded.

Half-turning away, the anger like blood coursing through his veins, Brian growled, "You'll pardon me if I don't give a good goddamn."

Taking a step, Justin paused. "Brian. Brian, please."

"You betrayed me," he said, staring directly into the teen's worried eyes.


"You put him before me. You put that piece of shit before me."

He had to make him understand. "I kept thinking about what Xavier had said. About his friend. And I couldn't. . ."

"So you put both of them before me. Xavier and fuckin' Chris Hobbs."

"No, I didn't," he explained. "Brian- -"

"Yeah, you did. You went in there and practically handed that psychopath the keys to the fuckin' city. I just. . ." He shaded his eyes momentarily, fighting the tears. "I just don't understand. Everything that I went through. . . for nothing. Nothing." He walked into the livingroom and sat in the one of the armchairs, not looking at Justin, not trusting himself to do so.

Wanting to go to him but aware that to do so would only make things worse, Justin stayed put. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

"Well, you did. I was fuckin' humiliated. My whole life out there for everyone to see. There isn't a detail of my life that hasn't been talked about or written about or speculated on. Strangers know all about us, about our sex life, about what we do in bed, in our bed. They might as well be in there with us." He wiped his eyes, having given up trying to keep the tears from flowing. "I went through all that for you. Because I love you. Because you're the most important thing, the most important person in my life. Because there's nothing I wouldn't do for you." He covered his face momentarily, trembling as he spoke. "And you did this to me."

"Brian, please." Justin moved forward before pausing again. "Please, listen to me."

"From the moment we got together, I've never put anyone else before you. You've always been first. Before my family, my friends, my job, my child. You think that was easy?"

"I know it wasn't- -"

"I'm so angry with you right now. Just. . ." He looked away. "I don't want to talk about it anymore."

Terrified, Justin asked, "You want me to go?"

"This is your home too," he replied softly. "I can't tell you to go." Paused. "I don't want you to go." But before Justin could take that as a positive sign, he added, "I just don't want to talk to you right now."

Tears streaming down his face, Justin went to the chaise lounge and sat. God, things had gone so wrong. And why? Why had he done it? Brian was right. He'd put them before his own lover, before the man who was supposed to be more important than anyone or anything. Not wanting to give Brian any other reason to regret ever getting involved with him, Justin covered his mouth and cried silently.

He knew that Justin was over there crying and he didn't give a fuck. Right now he could choke him. He couldn't believe it. Even though he'd been there, listening to Justin speak in favor of leniency, he still couldn't believe it. But here they were, apart, a gulf between them so wide that he didn't think he could find a way across it. Didn't even know if he wanted to. Only, that wasn't true. Even now, as angry as he was with Justin, all he really wanted was a reason not to be angry with him, a reason to hold him, and that's what hurt the most, that he was willing to do almost anything. He stood and went over to the window, to see if the reporters had gone. Now that the sentencing was done, he hoped they'd go on to something else. But there they were, a few die-hards, hoping to get a last tidbit to feed their viewers. All of a sudden, he was seized by an irrational desire to open the window and scream. Instead of giving into the impulse, he suppressed it and found his book of Mapplethorpe flowers, sat with it on his lap hoping to lose himself in the impeccable compositions and gorgeous colors. After a while, he closed the book and lowered his head. Tears dropped on the glossy cover. How was he ever going to get past this?

He could hear Brian weeping and he raised from his seat, then sat back down. The last thing Brian wanted was to see him. If he were smart, he'd just leave. But he couldn't. He couldn't leave him. Even if Brian put him out, he'd just sit outside the door and wait for him to let him back in and if he didn't, he'd just sit there until the end. Wiping his face on his sleeve, he moved gingerly, removing his sketch pad from its place on the shelf below the drawing he'd done of Brian sleeping. They'd come full-circle, back to the days when he'd had to sneak glances at Brian, when they'd been together and yet apart. Risking a look at his estranged lover, he saw Brian's shoulders rise and fall and he longed to go to him and hold him. What had he done?

Having passed the day in silence, the two men retired within minutes of one another, Brian dropping off his clothes and sliding beneath the covers slowly, as if he were almost too weary to sleep. Joining him, Justin reached towards him and heard Brian say, "Don't." He withdrew his hand and turned away.

The next morning, they arose and tiptoed around one another while they performed their toiletries and fixed breakfast, Brian taking only a cup of coffee which he carried to his desk and nursed while he checked his email. Sitting along at the table, Justin tried not to give in to the despair he was beginning to feel. Finally, he spoke.

"Are we just going to go on like this? Not talking to each other?"

Brian paused with his finger hovering over the mouse, just about to delete some unwanted mail. "Why don't you call Xavier and talk to him? You and he seem to have quite a rapport."

"I said I was sorry!" Justin shouted. "How many more times do you want me to say it?"

"Until it makes a difference," he replied coldly.

Justin got up from the table and grabbed his dishes, carried them to the kitchen. Then found his coat and stormed from the apartment.

Brian closed down his email and sat at his computer, unwilling to move. He should have gone into the office, should have drowned himself in work but he'd taken the day off at the last minute, reckoning that he'd be unable to concentrate. And he was right. All he could think about was Justin and the mess they'd made of everything.

Not a single reporter in sight, he walked around the neighborhood, no destination in mind, just needing to get out of the apartment, to get away from Brian and his unforgiving anger. That Brian had a right to be angry, he didn't dispute. But what was the point? What was done was done. Chris Hobbs had been sentenced, there was no going back and changing anything and he didn't think that he would even if he had it all to do over again. He had done the right thing, no matter how Brian felt. There was a chance for Hobbs, if someone could get through to him. Everyone, even Chris Hobbs, deserved a chance at salvation. Still, he understood why Brian was so angry. Understood it and hoped that he'd be able to get through it to Brian eventually. Only, the real reason he'd done it was Xavier, and that he wasn't sure he could ever explain because he didn't want to think about it himself.

Returning home a couple hours later, he found the loft empty. Brian had probably gone to Michael for comfort, complaining about his twinky lover again. If Michael could get Brian to calm down and see reason then let him. Justin was tired of feeling guilty, tired of saying he was sorry. All he wanted was for them to get back to normal. But what exactly was normal? And how could they with this secret between them? Just thinking about Xavier intensified the guilt he felt. What the fuck was he going to do? He had no intention of taking things any further with his friend and yet they'd gone way beyond what he'd ever intended already. Still, he knew that wasn't entirely true. They'd gone further than he would have allowed himself to go. He wondered if this was what Brian had felt, being around Michael, knowing that his best friend wanted him. Had Brian ever wanted Michael as well? Had there ever been a moment when Brian had been tempted to return his friend's feelings, to give Mikey waht he wanted? Other than the Patrick Swayze episode, Brian claimed he and Michael had never had sex and Justin believed him. He wouldn't lie about that. Unlike him.

Curling up on the couch, Justin tried to keep his mind off of Xavier, off of their kiss, off of the feelings it had engendered. But he couldn't. He could still feel Xavier hard against him. Maybe it was just body stuff, maybe he should have had sex with Xavier and gotten it out of the way. Perhaps once they'd fucked, the need would go away and they'd go back to being friends. Only, Justin knew that it'd never be enough for Xaiver. One time would never satisfy the hunger the teen felt. And he wasn't sure if it'd be enough for him either. He felt love for Xavier, not the same love as he did for Brian, but love nonetheless and if they slept together, who knew what would happen. Maybe nothing. Maybe they'd hate each other and he'd lose a good friend. Or worse, maybe he'd lose Brian.

The phone rang. Thinking it was his mom, he answered, "Hey." There was silence on the other end. "Hello?" Nothing. And then he knew. It was Xavier. He held the phone a few seconds longer. Then spoke. "Say something." The line went dead. He replaced the receiver in its cradle and retrieved his sketch pad from its place next to the desk. He had a lot of work to make up for class and it wasn't getting done sitting around worrying about Xavier. Besides, he had other, more pressing concerns, such as what he was going to do about Brian.

Lindsay arrived home to find Mel glancing out the back door. Kissing her lover on the neck, she asked, "What are you looking at?"

"Brian and Gus. They've been out there for fifteen minutes."

She took a peek. "Doing what?"


Which was what they were doing. Brian pulling the baby and Beh around in his wagon, Gus giggling and holding onto his leather teddy bear.

"Did he say anything?" Lindz asked, letting the curtain fall.

"Just that he wanted to see his son." Mel opened the oven and checked dinner. "I guess he and Justin still aren't talking."

"How long 'til dinner?"

"Twenty minutes."

Lindsay opened the door. "Hey!" Brian stopped pulling. "I think it's time to come in." He nodded and picked up Gus and Beh in one hand, the wagon in the other. She closed the door behind them. Followed him to the living room where he removed Gus' scarf and hat and mittens, his coat and shoes. When he'd finished, the baby went in to Mel. Like Justin, he got really excited about meals. Brian took off his coat and gloves too. Waited for Lindsay to mention his problem with Justin. It didn't take long.

"You all right?"


"Maybe you should talk to him."

"Maybe you should stay out of it."

"You came here."

"To see Gus." He knew she didn't buy it. Hell, he didn't buy it. Finally he said, "Talk about what? We've talked it to death. He thinks what he did was right and I don't. How the fuck do we get past that?"

"You will."

"How? When every time I see him or think about him, I just- - I feel like I'm going to explode."

"He loves you more than his life."

"Then how did this happen?"

She glimpsed Mel in the doorway, talking with Gus. Remembered their problems, how insurmountable they'd seemed at the time. Until Brian had forced them to acknowledge that what was important was that they be together. If only she could do the same for him. But she had no answers. "He was trying to do the right thing."

"I know that!" Brian stood, paced the floor. "The right thing for Hobbs and for Xavier. But what about me? What about the person he supposedly loves? I'm just supposed to understand, to get over it?" Pausing, he looked at the wall, not seeing the painting hanging there. Said softly, "I can't get over it. Because it feels like. . . it feels like. . ." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Everyone thinks that it's so easy to just start over. Every time something happens, I just take it and keep on going. Nothing ever gets to me, nothing ever hurts me." She could see him struggle not to lose it. But his voice, when he spoke, was strained with the effort. "This. . . It hurts, Lindz. And I don't know what to do." She went to him and hugged him. "I don't know."

Holding him at arm's length, she looked into his eyes, his beautiful hazel eyes, eyes that Gus had inherited, that she never grew tired of looking into, and she asked him, "So it's over?"

"No," he said so quickly that she knew it was his worst fear, that they'd strayed so far apart that they couldn't go on together.

"Then you need to make peace with this and go on with your lives. Put it behind you." She recalled the anger she'd felt when she found out about Mel's infidelity and, at the time, she'd thought that she'd never forgive Melanie, but she did, because she needed Mel more than she wanted to hang onto the anger and resentment. "Otherwise, you're going to throw away something you can't ever replace."

Justin was home when he got back. Sitting by the window sketching in the dying afternoon sunlight. At first he intended to go into the bedroom without saying anything, but he changed his mind. "Hey," he said, putting down his camera. He'd gone to the park after leaving Mel and Lindsay's place and taken pictures of trees until he didn't think he could look at another one.

The teen eyed him. "Hey," he said softly in answer.

Unable to take it any further, Brian passed through to the bedroom and hung up his jacket. Sat on the bed trying to decide what to do. He couldn't believe they'd survived the trial only to fall apart now. It didn't seem fair. He heard Justin approaching. Waited.

Justin stood on the bottom step. "I think maybe I should go to my mom's, until. . . until. . ."

"Until what?" Brian asked.

"I don't know," replied Justin.

"You want to go?"

"No." He climbed to the top of the steps. "But I don't want to stay here with us like this." When it appeared that Brian had nothing to say, Justin headed for his drawers.


"For what?" he snapped. "I didn't do it to hurt you."

"I know."

"Then what's wrong?"

Brian turned towards him. "It still hurts."

Frustrated, Justin let his head hang, exhausted by their argument. "What do you want me to do?"

"There's nothing you can do," Brian admitted.

Justin looked over at him. "So we go on like this until you've decided that I've been punished enough?"

"This isn't about punishing you."

"Then what is it about?"

"It's about me trying to- -" He fell silent. Continued, using Lindsay's words. "Trying to find some kind of peace."

Justin watched his lover sitting on the bed, head bowed and shoulders slumped and he longed to touch him. Missed touching him. He opened the top drawer. "I can't live like this, Brian."

And despite his anger, despite the hurt, he didn't think he could make it without Justin. "Don't go," he said in a small voice, so tiny that wondered if he'd spoken at all.

"I don't want to."

"Then don't."

So Justin closed the drawer and sat on the opposite side of the bed from Brian. After a long moment in which he debated just leaving, taking nothing, and just going, Brian stood and came around to his side and sat next to him. He turned and his eyes met Brian's. Slowly, they came together and held on to one another. He could feel Brian's chest rise and fall, could hear him breathing. Burying his face in Brian's neck, he inhaled his scent, comforting, familiar. It seemed like years since they'd last touched. Kissing Brian's throat, he raised his face and waited for the man to make the next move.

Brian tightened his arms around Justin, the teen's slender but strong frame a support that he counted on, needed. He brushed his lips over Justin's, not quite ready to go any further but wanting to give his lover some assurance that he did still want him.

As Brian drew away, Justin forced himself to smile, just a little one, but a smile nonetheless. They would find their way back to one another. He believed that.

Thursday, December 20th

Cynthia stared at him as if she hadn't seen him for days when she'd just seen him on Monday. "What do I have?" he asked, taking a seat and lighting up a cigarette. So much for quitting. Again.

"Meeting with Ryder at one about the Latham account and someone named Kenneth Harris called and wanted to meet with you this morning."

He shrugged. "Don't know him. Sure it isn't a reporter?"

"He said to tell you that he was not a reporter. And that if you wanted to check him out, look him up in the Fortune 500."

"And did you?"

She handed him the printouts smiling. That's why he kept her around.


"And a thanks too? Wow."

Brian glanced up at her before turning his attention to the printout. Kenneth Harris, Founder and CEO of Hyperion Biotechnics. Ranked number 337 on the Fortune 500 and one of the fastest growing and most respected biotechnology firms in the country. "And he called the firm?"

Cynthia shook her head. "No. He called you. Direct."

"So Ryder doesn't know about this?"

"No." She waited. "You gonna tell him?"

"What time did Harris want to meet?"

"Sometime this morning, he said. He's in town for business and he's leaving this afternoon."

Brian laid the printouts on his desk. "Call him. If he wants, I'll go and meet him." After she had gone, he studied the information on Harris again. Why the hell would the CEO of a company like that call him? There had to be plenty of bigger firms he could have approached. Raising an eyebrow, Brian decided to put his curiosity on hold until he'd met the man. In the meanwhile, he had to get his shit together on the Latham account. But first, he needed coffee. Grabbing his cup, he made his way down to the break room, grinning when he remembered the last time he'd gone to get coffee. He didn't think he'd have any trouble this time.

Two hours later he pulled up in front of the Chesapeake Hotel and smiled. He and Justin had spent two very enjoyable nights in one of the suites on the twenty-ninth floor. Crossing the lobby, he caught an elevator that was just about to close its doors and punched 30. Harris had made it to the very top.

He was the only person left in the elevator as the doors opened on the thirtieth floor. Luckily Harris' room was near the elevator so he didn't have to walk around looking for it. Knocking, he waited for the man to let him in and tried to imagine what he looked like in his head. As the door opened, he realized his imagination had fallen far short of reality. He'd been expecting someone like Telson or Ryder, middle-aged and ordinary-looking. Harris was anything but.

In his early forties, tall, slender, honey blond hair, dark brown eyebrows and eyes. Brian wondered what color his pubes would be. Not that he'd get a chance to find out, but still, idle curiosity never hurt anyone.

"Come in," said Harris and he stepped aside to let his guest enter.

Brian walked past him and took the seat Harris offered him. Declined a drink and waited to see what the businessman wanted.

"I suppose you were surprised to hear that I'd called you, Mr. Kinney," the man said and Brian nodded. "After all, there are a lot of fine advertising firms in Birmingham." He had a slight accent but Brian guessed he'd probably moved to Birmingham from somewhere else as it wasn't a heavy Southern accent, just an emphasis on certain words and the cadence in his speech.

"I had wondered why you came to us. To me, specifically," he added.

"You do good work. Outstanding work," Harris amended. "Your firm represents this hotel and Liberty Air, correct?"


"Their new campaign's working. Just the image they needed to compete with the big boys."

Brian crossed his legs. "But you're already one of the big boys."

"True." Harris reached for a glass of mineral water. "Still, images grow stale. I'm looking for something new." Took a sip. "Someone new. Someone like you."

Flattered by the man's praise of his work, Brian still felt like he was missing a piece of vital information. "But why me?" He cocked his head. "You could have hired some high profile Madison Avenue firm. Why come to Pittsburgh at all?" Taking a chance, he added, "And even if you did decided to go with a firm in Pittsburgh, why us? Why me? You knew enough to assure Cynthia that you weren't a reporter, so you know about the trial. You know who I am."

Harris set down his water. "Yes, I do know who you are."

"Then why take a chance on me? On dealing with, at best, a whore and, at worst, a child molester?" The words hurt, they'd hurt at the time he'd read them in the papers and they still hurt. But he'd rather get everything out in the open. "I'm a public relations nightmare. Even I wouldn't take on my account."

"It'd be a mistake. A lot of people admire you."

Brian nearly laughed. "Admire me? For what?"

"For standing by your lover. Protecting him when he needed it. Going through all of that hell for him, with him when it would have been easier to have walked away. A lot of people in the gay community respect you for what you did."

He'd suspected Harris was gay when the man answered the door but he'd reserved judgement until presented with additional information. As usual, his gaydar was working fine.

"All we want," Brian said, "is to go back to our lives."

Spreading his hands, Harris said, "And that's what I'm offering you. A chance to do what you're good at: advertising. My company. You, personally."

Shrewdly, Brian asked, "And if I'd been a so-so advertiser? Would you still have given me your business?"

Harris laughed. "I didn't get to be on the Fortune 500 by being soft-hearted or -headed. I would have sent you a congratulatory card and a lovely bouquet of flowers."

Brian did laugh then. Uncrossed his legs and leaned forward with his hand out. "You've got yourself an advertising firm. That is, if my boss approves."

Shaking on it, Kenneth grinned. "I don't think it'll be a problem." He released Brian's hand and handed him a folder. "Advertising figures for last year. I think you'll like the budget."

Like the budget? Hell, with an account like that, he'd be able to drop a lot of the other companies he'd been assigned. Trying not to show his enthusiasm too much, Brian said, "When can I make a site visit?"

"As soon as possible after the new year. I'll have my assistant make the arrangements with your secretary." He stood. "Lunch?"

Brian got up as well. "Let me call Cynthia to tell her I'll be out for a while."

As Brian took out his cell phone Kenneth studied him. "Too bad you're devoted to him." Brian paused and Kenneth smiled ruefully. "Could have been fun." Brian pursed his lips and Harris inhaled. "Real fun."

Having hung around the loft all day sketching, not ready to go back to the diner yet, Justin wondered if things would ever get back to normal, if he and Brian would ever have what they used to have. He supposed it would take time.

The door opened. The first thing he saw was the bouquet of winter roses, creamy white, a dozen wrapped in shimmering gold-colored paper. The second was the bottle of champagne. And the third was Brian himself, his smile broad the way it hadn't been for weeks.

He stood and neared him. "What's going on?"

Brian leaned over and kissed him. "I love you."

Justin watched as Brian put down the flowers and the champagne and his briefcase. "What- -"

"Don't talk." He lifted Justin in his arms and kissed him again, harder this time, carrying him into the bedroom.

They couldn't undress fast enough. Justin didn't care what had brought about this change, just that it had come and they were going to make love. Even though it had only been a couple of days, it'd felt like a year. As Brian spread open his legs and kissed his inner thigh, Justin sighed and ran his hands through his lover's hair.

Afterwards, they got up and put the flowers in water and took out the flutes and sipped champagne.

"What about dinner?" Justin asked, aware of how silly he got when he drank on an empty stomach.

"It's on its way," Brian replied. Checked the clock. "Should be here any time now." Looked around for his robe. It was within reach. He set down his glass and kissed Justin again softly. He hadn't been able to kiss him enough to make up for the days they'd been apart.

"What happened?" Justin asked and Brian resigned himself to telling him. When he was done, Justin touched his face in wonder. "And that's all it took? For you to get a really big account?"

"No," Brian answered. "It wasn't the account. It was," he added quickly, "but that wasn't all of it."

"What was it, then?"

"That we survived what happened to us. We made it because we were together." He kissed him again aside the mouth. "We stood by one another and we didn't let anyone come between us." Brushing back Justin's bangs, he kissed his forehead, where he'd been struck. Looked into the teen's bright blue eyes. "Chris Hobbs and what happens to him, that's not important. We're what's important. Us." He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against Justin's. "I just forgot that for a while, that's all."

Justin rolled him over onto his back and straddled him. Gave him a deep, passionate kiss that went on until the buzzer signaled the arrival of dinner. Groaning, Brian slipped on his robe, pulled his wallet out of his jacket pocket, and padded to the door. When the delivery guy had gone again, Justin found his robe and joined Brian in the kitchen. "Can we go tomorrow and get the tree and stuff?"

"I- -"

"And presents," Justin said taking down the plates. "On Saturday. I haven't bought anything and Molly and Mom are going to my grandmother's house again so I have to give them their stuff on Sunday."

"O- -"

"What are you getting Gus?"

Exasperated at trying to speak and failing miserably, Brian grabbed Justin and kissed him, slipping his tongue inside the teen's mouth. He gnawed on his lips and when he released him, Justin was fairly out of breath. "Yes, we can go on Friday and get the tree and go shopping. I don't know what I'm getting Gus but I'm sure we'll find something on Saturday." He raked the noodles onto the two plates and poured the soup into bowls. "Let's eat."

Dinner consumed, they laid in bed and finished the bottle of champagne and then slowly began to make love again. Justin slipped his arm around Brian's waist and drew him over onto him, lifted the older man's leg and eased it across his hip so that Brian's penis lay against his own. Entwined like this they kissed for the longest time, gradually growing harder, moving against one another as their kisses got wilder, more insistent. Hand around Brian's dick, Justin began to fondle him as they continued to gnaw on one another's lips, Brian moaning inside his mouth as Justin increased the pressure of his strokes, tightening his fingers.

Brian lay on his back, Justin's hand still working at his groin, caressing him from root to tip. He was so hard, so hard and Justin's fingers were like magic, like torture, like feathers. Having broken off their kiss, the teen lowered his head and bussed the head of Brian's cock. The man gasped and sighed while Justin pleasured him, full lips sliding over engorged flesh, tongue flickering in creases and traveling lengthwise to cover the shaft before it disappeared into the warmth of Justin's mouth. He could feel the end of his cock brushing against the teen's throat, hard flesh against soft and he raised his hips, pushing deeper inside until Justin rose up, letting him slip free again. Eyes slitted, he could see Justin approaching his erection, saw his teeth a fraction of a second before the boy nipped him, but not enough time to stop the shout that erupted from his belly. In truth, the bite hadn't hurt, but the sensation made him dizzy. For the next minute or so his baby cat nibbled on his cock until his hole gaped open spilling precum over the head and down the shaft. Having fed, Justin drank, lapping the clear juice like the sweetest milk. Not wanting to come just yet, Brian lifted Justin free of his cock and drew him up on top of his chest. Kissed his sticky face tasting his own precum. Felt Justin's hard-on rubbing up against his belly. Now it was his turn to eat.

But he didn't go for his cock. Instead, he turned the teen over onto his stomach and parted his legs. Placed a pillow below him, raising his hips slightly. There was his goal. As always, the sight of the boy's cinnamon-colored bud quickened his pulse. Moving closer, he inhaled the teen's rich aroma and murmured his approval, smelling his cum among the folds. Unable to resist any longer, he extended his tongue and lapped the wrinkled orifice. Heard Justin moan. Encircled the opening with his lips and gave him that most intimate of kisses. Felt the edges of Justin's hole contract, then expand. Pressing his face in between his lover's cheeks, Brian begged for entrance, plying his anus with flickering touches, firm strokes, and playful nips until he'd convinced him to open up. Tongue buried in his ass, Brian probed him until Justin was wet and whimpering. Withdrew and licked his quivering hole. Bit his cheeks, covering the white skin with red love marks. Mine. Mine. Mine. Knelt over him and wet his finger. Thrust it inside, the warm lips clinging to his skin. Rotated his finger as he worked it in and out. Justin gave a cry and clamped down on the pillow beneath his head. His asshole tightened and Brian waited until he'd relaxed to pull out entirely. His baby was ready.

Amply lubricated, he brushed the head of his cock against Justin's hole, painting the wrinkles and folds with precum and KY. Justin raised his hips and pushed back, opening up around Brian, taking him inside with ease and they moved together, leisurely at first, then with greater urgency as they got closer to the breaking point. Head flung back, Brian squeezed his eyes shut and thrust harder, harder, gasping as his cock plowed his lover's lush hole. Meeting Brian's thrusts, Justin swayed his hips, milking Brian's cock with his muscles, squeezing, relaxing. Open, close. Stay. Don't. Don't. Stay. Please. . .

But Brian pulled out and shoved his cock between Justin's thighs and sprayed him with cum. As the first drop struck his skin, Justin cried out, his spunk joining Brian's on his belly and on the sheets and pillow below them.

Wet and sticky, they curled together and fell asleep.

Friday, December 21st

Not believing that he was actually shopping in the Big Q Mart, Brian hoped no one of consequence saw him and then he remembered that no one of consequence would be seen in the Big Q Mart and he felt a thousand times better. Of course, the smile on Justin's face might have had something to do with that as well. The teenager was positively glowing as they went from aisle to aisle filling their basket with inexpensive gold and white ornaments for the tree and loft, Justin having decided that those colors would compliment the apartment's color scheme. Brian thought the ornaments looked a little cheap but Justin assured him that it was better not to buy expensive stuff as Gus just might get hold of something and break it. Still, Brian thought they could have gone to Macy's or Nordie's, some place like that. God, he hated the Big Q Mart. Emmett was right, it was a dreary crap emporium. Speaking of which, they needed toilet paper.

Ornaments and lights and garlands and candles purchased, they went on their next errand, which was to get the tree itself. After driving by two perfectly good Christmas tree lots (in Brian's opinion) they finally came to one that met the Boy Wonder's secret standards. Brian teased him, asking him if he was looking for a Charlie Brown Christmas tree and Justin stuck out his tongue momentarily before pointing, "That's it."

It turned out to be a six and a half foot Blue Spruce. The seller and Brian wrestled it on top of the Jeep and tied it securely. Then Brian paid the guy and climbed inside next to Justin. "What's next?"

"Stop by the Institute. I've got the rest of the ornaments for the tree."

"Rest?" Brian asked incredulously. They had over a hundred assorted doodads for the tree already plus two kinds of garland and six packets of lights. For the tree.

"Martha says you're supposed to use forty ornaments for every vertical foot. Besides, these are special ornaments."

The twinkle in Justin's eye that hinted at the fun they would have convinced him. "Okay." He waited as the teen went inside his studio and returned with a bag which he put with the others in the back. "What else?"


"It's always food with you," Brian said. "Or fucking."

"You got a problem with that?" asked Justin.

"Ask me that this time next year when I'm broke and dickless."

Making a food pitstop at the Greek restaurant down the street, they took their dinner home and ate in the living room on the floor while Justin planned in his head what they needed to do first. Amused by his enthusiasm, Brian smirked and ate while trying not to laugh out loud. Justin already felt weird about being so domestic and the last thing he needed was for the teenager to feel like he was the 'little wife'. Truthfully, they both did the housework together, it was just that Justin was a much better cook so most of the time he cooked. Brian made the bed and kept the place up in between visits from the maid. In fact, he usually picked up behind Justin. But Justin was younger and still in school and only had a part-time job so he felt a little insecure about his status as viewed from the outside. Despite Brian's assurances that he didn't give a fuck what anybody thought.

In between forkfuls of souvlaki, Justin asked, "So what do you want for Christmas?"

Brian shrugged. He hadn't thought about it. "I don't want anything," he said finally.



Justin studied him as he ate and believed him. "Me neither."

That Brian did not believe. "Baby, I have everything I want. But if there's something you want, tell me."

Justin stuck by his decision. "I don't want anything either."

"It's okay if you do," tempted Brian.

"We're going away this summer. That's enough for me." He smiled, thinking of their trip. Brian had promised to buy the tickets with some of the bonus money he'd get from landing the Hyperion Biotechnics account, although 'landing it' was a bit of a stretch as all he'd done was go talk to the guy. Still, money was money and the account was going to generate a lot of revenue for the firm.

Brian didn't buy it. "Sure? Maybe some new art supplies or a new toy?" Arched an eyebrow.

Justin shook his head.

"Okay. But we gotta make a list of stuff for everybody else."

"You gonna get something for Claire and her kids?"

"I could just have her killed and put them all out of their misery."

Justin feigned being shocked. "Brian."

"Her fuckin' kids hate her." He remembered the email she'd sent him. "Bitch."

Not asking that he give the gifts to Claire in person, Justin suggested that he take them to his mother's house and leave them. "So what do you want to get your mom?"

He finished his spanakopita. "I'll think of something when I get to the store."

After dinner, they got the tree up in its stand in front of the window, moving the chairs out of the way first. "It's gonna look so beautiful from the street when it's all lit up," Justin said, envisioning it in his mind. He handed Brian the first strand of lights. They'd bought six in anticipation of having a six foot tree. "Wind it around the trunk and the branches."

"Yes, sir," Brian said, taking the strand and working from the way down, connecting the individual strands until he reached the bottom. Justin gave him the extension cord and he plugged it in. Immediately the tree glowed. "Wow," said Brian despite himself. It did look beautiful and they hadn't put any of the other stuff on it yet.

Next came the garland, which Justin helped with. He'd picked out both beaded and ribbon garlands in white and gold. Again Brian was impressed by how lovely the tree looked and it still wasn't finished.

Finally, they got out the ornaments and distributed them over the tree, taking care not to clump too many of one color together. Which was a little difficult since they were only using white and gold, but they did it. With the last of the store-bought ornaments on the tree, Brian admitted that it did look a little bare.

"Which is why I made these," Justin said and he took out the bag of ornaments he'd gotten from his studio. He held out the bag for Brian.

The man reached in and withdrew one. Immediately he began to laugh. "Condoms?"


Justin had spray-painted about a hundred packets of condoms gold or white and then hand-painted contrasting designs on them and threaded fancy curlicue hooks through the tops.

"How long did it take you to do this?"

"About three hours."

Shaking his head, Brian laughed again. It was perfect. So they hung the condom ornaments and finished the tree off with a gold star and a white and gold quilted skirt.

The main Christmas display finished, they turned to the rest of the loft. Justin had bought garlands of green branches and while Brian had put the lights on the tree, he'd tied them with white and gold ribbon and glued on tiny ornaments. That morning Justin had gotten the building super to bring in the ladder, so with him holding it steady, Brian looped them over the curtain rods. The windows done, they laid the remaining strands along the top of the storage chest that ran along the outside of the bedroom and on top of the book case. In among the garland, they arranged white votives, the candles varying in height. There were also votives and tiny sprigs of green with ribbons for the kitchen counter top and bathroom. Neglecting nothing, there was even a juniper wreath for the door with a gold bow on the top.

"That it?" Brian asked slumping down on the sofa, exhausted but pleased with the way the loft looked.

Justin surveyed their work. "I think so." He came over with a bag in his hand and dropped down, eased his legs over Brian's lap. "What do you think?"

"It looks. . . okay."

Nudging him with his foot, Justin asked, "Just okay?"

"Good. It looks good."

Another nudge. "Good?"

Brian smiled. "It looks beautiful."

Justin's eyes lit up. "Really?"


The teen reached inside the bag he'd brought and took out a sprig of mistletoe. Held it over his head. "Then here's our reward for a job well done." With a tired groan, Brian crawled over to him and they kissed as if they'd never kissed before.

Saturday, December 22nd

Shopping for Christmas gifts didn't go as smoothly and by lunchtime both of the men were ready to kill each other. And they'd only gotten a handful of gifts out of the long list of ones they needed to buy. Barely refraining from growling at one another, they sat in the restaurant and glowered at their menus. The problem was Brian had no idea what he wanted to get anyone and Justin was too full of ideas for the older man's taste. Or his patience. In fact, they were both running out of patience. Each of them hoped that the other would benefit from a hot meal. Not a good meal because, after all, they were eating in the mall. That was the other problem. Brian hated the mall, hated people who shopped in the mall, hated being in the mall, hated being near other people who were in the mall. By the time they'd finished eating, both of them knew they had to change plans.

"Look," Brian said, "I'll take half the list and you take half and we meet back here in two hours."

"And you have to stay here. In the mall," said Justin because he knew Brian, given the opportunity, he'd ditch the mall and hit the expensive boutiques instead.

"I'll stay in the fucking mall," he promised, speaking in a low, tight voice to avoid alarming the other shoppers.

Ignoring the tone, Justin said, "Two hours." He started to go but Brian caught him by the arm.

"And then we'll go home and fuck our brains out," he whispered.

"Who says I'd even want to go home with you and fuck you?"

"You do," replied Brian, sticking out his tongue. As Justin unconsciously moved closer, he snickered. "Later."

The teen shook his head and struck out on his own. "Later."

Having been Justin-less for a half hour, Brian wondered what in the fuck he'd been thinking. He'd only found one present and he missed Justin like crazy. Jesus, he thought, is this what it's going to be like? Resigning himself to eating some serious crow, he decided to go find the teenager after looking at some scarves in a little specialty shop he'd run across. Tasteful, pretty, the kind of thing his mother would like.

From outside the window Cam watched Brian go through the table of scarves, unable to take his eyes off his ex-lover's hands as they lifted first one and then another of the delicate pieces of cloth. Brian had the longest fingers, slender, beautiful and strong like the rest of him. He watched him until the impulse to go inside and talk to him nearly overcame him. But he wasn't ready to confront him again, not after the last disastrous attempt. Finally looking away, Cam continued on, carried along by the crowd.

Justin had seen Cam from a distance and, curious, had followed him until he he'd seen Brian inside the store. Moving out of sight of the window, he'd observed Cam's clandestine surveillance. He could tell that it was killing the man not to go inside the boutique and talk to Brian and, in that moment, he actually felt sorry for Cam. He'd lost Brian, thrown him away, and yet his heart wouldn't let him give up on the hope that one day he might win Brian back. Justin knew that if he and Brian were to break up, he'd never give up either; even if it took the rest of his life, he'd find some way to make Brian love him again.

Sunday, December 23rd

They dragged themselves out of bed around ten and showered and had two pots of coffee in preparation for visiting their parents. Brian had agreed to go with Justin to Jen's since the teen had assured him that Molly had bought something for him and wanted to give it to him personally. "I think she likes you," Justin teased. "What's this? Number three?" he asked, adding Molly to a group that already included Daphne and Rennie.

"They don't really want me," Brian explained. "I'm just safe. I'm unavailable, so I'm not a threat. I'm like the Prince in the fairy tales."

And Justin laughed remembering the story he'd told Gus about Prince Sunshine and Prince Charming/Alarming. Prince Charming/Alarming had been anything but safe. Neither was Brian. In fact, safe was the last thing in the world he'd call him. Beautiful, sexy, utterly beguiling, endlessly fascinating, but not safe. Never safe. He'd have your heart before you knew what had happened to you. Just ask Michael, Cam, Chris Hobbs. . . And him.

Their first stop was Joanie's house. She'd gone to early mass and had returned home to begin baking the pies and cakes for Tuesday's dinner. With the stove already on, she'd whipped up a batch of cinnamon rolls for which both the men were grateful as they'd only had coffee before leaving home and their stomachs were rumbling. "I can fix breakfast," she offered but they declined. Cinnamon rolls and coffee would be enough. As they ate, she asked, "Are you sure you can't come by on Tuesday?"

Brian grimaced. "I think it'd be best considering Claire and I aren't exactly speaking right now."

"But she's your sister."

"That's your fault. Not mine."

Raising an eyebrow in much the same way that Brian did, Joanie said, "Don't be a smartass."

Justin fought back a chortle. He supposed Brian hadn't gotten all of his fire from his dad.

"Look, I got her a present, you can give it to her. And it won't blow up in her face," he assured her, then grumbled, "Justin wouldn't let me get anything like that."

"Thank you, Justin," she said graciously, a huge improvement over their first dinner during which she spent most of her time looking anywhere but at him. But she had gradually come around, towards the end, even shaking his hand before she left. He didn't think they'd ever progress to kissing one another on the cheek. Then again, Brian didn't even kiss her. She just didn't seem to be the kissing type. She'd taken hold of Brian's arm that night and squeezed it slightly, then walked out into the hallway.

Before they left, she retrieved two packages from beneath a very tasteful tree decorated with lacy, frilly ornaments reminiscent of the Victorian Age. When Justin mentioned that, she beamed. "That's this year's theme: Victorian Christmas," and he smiled thinking about what Brian had said about her and her themes. Even though theirs wasn't as fancy, he thought somehow it was more beautiful. Their tree.

Again, as they left, she squeezed Brian's arm and the man did something unexpected: he kissed her on the cheek. The surprise she felt showed on her face. "Merry Christmas, Mom."

"Merry Christmas, Brian. And Justin. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Mrs. Kinney."

Brian said nothing as they buckled up and headed off to their next errand. But a faint smile hovered about his lips.

True to Justin's word, Molly did have a present for Brian. Actually, it was from Molly and Jen although Jen assured him that Molly had picked it out herself. Giving the little girl a peck on the cheek, Brian thanked her and promised he wouldn't open it until Christmas morning.

"I wish you were coming with us," Jen said to Justin. "Grandma asked for you at Thanksgiving."

Saying nothing, Brian got Molly to show him her room, feigning an interest in her collection of horse figurines. A collection to which he and Justin were contributing.

Downstairs Justin tried to explain to his mom why he couldn't go with her to Connecticut. "I belong here, with him."

"He has a family too."

"Me, Mom. I'm his family. And he's mine."

She relented. "I just- - I miss you. At the holidays."

He understood. "I'm here now," he smiled and told her how well her recipe for Kate Hepburn brownies had turned out at Thanksgiving.

"Well, you can thank Kate Hepburn, not me."

"Next time I see her, I will," he laughed.

As he and Brian drove home, the man looked at him out of the corner of his eye. "You should go. If you want to. It's no big deal."

Justin didn't believe a word of what he'd said. "It is to me. This is our first Christmas together. I can see my grandmother anytime." As Brian stopped at the traffic light, Justin reached in his pocket and held a sprig of mistletoe over his head. Laughing, Brian met him in a kiss.

Monday, December 24th - Christmas Eve

Although he'd wanted to get off early, as the afternoon wore on he found himself with more and more to do before he officially went on his Christmas holiday. Looking at the pile of work on his desk, he resigned himself to being there until the bitter end. A deep breath and he took out his cell and called Justin. "I'm not getting out of here until five, if then. I'll meet you at home. Later." Listened to Justin's goodbye and then hung up. Before he had a chance to delve back into the pile, there was a knock at the door. "Yeah," he called out, thinking it was strange that Ryder hadn't just knocked and come in as he usually did. And Cynthia never knocked unless he was in there with someone. He looked up as his visitor entered the room. Hesitated but a moment. "Get out."

Cam paused.

"I don't want to hear it. Just go."

"I can't do that."

Brian stood and walked towards him intending to show him the door but Cam had other ideas. Grabbing hold of the ad exec's arm, Cam kissed him hard, his hand gradually releasing Brian and sliding around his shoulders as the other man showed no desire to escape from him. They backed up against the door, mouths still crushed against one another. Oh, God. . ., thought Cam. I've got him. But then something changed. He felt the change in Brian, in the way he responded to the kiss. Or didn't respond. Brian returned none of the passion, the fervor. It felt as if Cam were kissing a mannequin. Breaking off contact, he stepped back. Brian's eyes were expressionless although his lips were pink, the contrast unsettling because Cam now knew the truth. The lips, the hands, the cock might tell the world's tallest tale but the eyes never lied. It had always been that way with Brian. Cam looked down. "I'm sorry."

Brian said nothing, just moved away from the door and waited.

"Bri. . ." he began, then stopped. Blinked rapidly. "I'm sorry I messed things up for us."

"You didn't," Brian replied in a kinder tone than Cam would have thought he'd use. "You were right. We weren't meant to be, Cam. We were just kids, we didn't know what the fuck we were doing."

"And you do now?" he asked.

"No," said Brian with a small smile. "I'm still winging it. But the one thing I do know is that me and Justin, we're good together. We're the best. And I can't imagine my life without him anymore. I know it won't be smooth always." He gave a little laugh. "It hasn't been so far. But he and I, we work at it. Really hard, Cam. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do, being with him. But it's the best thing I've ever done. I feel. . . like my life is just starting. I can't give that up." He reached out and touched Cam's face, stroked his lips. "You're still a great kisser."

Cam chuckled. "Not good enough, though," he admitted sadly. "I guess us being friends. . ."

"I don't have a problem with that. As long as that's what you mean. Nothing else."

Again Cam laughed. "Maybe not," he said, a look of chagrin on his face. Shook his head. "You're just too damn beautiful." He closed the distance between them, kissed Brian softly. "Bye, Bri."

And Brian returned the kiss. "Bye." Opened the door and closed it after the man had gone. Held the handle for a few seconds longer than was necessary, then returned to his desk.

Cynthia appeared. "What are you still doing here? Thought you were leaving early."

He picked up a file rather listlessly. Put it back on the pile. Looked up and grinned. "You're right. You wanna go have a drink with me?"

She arched an eyebrow. "What about Justin?"

"We'll go pick him up. Have a pre-Christmas cocktail."

As she turned to retrieve her things from her desk, she murmured, "I think some of us are already getting more cock and tail than we know what to do with."

"Never," he assured her. "No such thing as enough. And definitely no such thing as me not knowing what to do with it."

As they lay entwined on the couch watching the Christmas tree sparkle, Justin said, "I wish we had a fireplace."

"Don't I keep you warm enough?"

Justin ran his hand along Brian's bare flank, the heat from his skin like a thermal blanket. "It's romantic," he explained. "Making love on a bearskin rug in front of the fire."

"Your bare skin catching fire because you're too close to the flames."

Laughing, Justin asked, "Is this the voice of experience talking?"

Unwilling to admit anything, Brian replied, "Let's just say the fact that the loft didn't have a fireplace was a big selling point."

He settled down for a while and then spoke up again. "We didn't forget anyone did we?"


"You sure?"


Justin snuggled up to Brian's side again. "It's getting chilly."

The man reached up and drew the throw over them. "Better?"


Brian waited, sure Justin wasn't through. And he wasn't.

"I can't wait to see Gus open his presents tomorrow." They were due at Lindsay's place at seven to see Gus attack the Christmas tree. Brian had gotten him a little camera since the baby seemed fascinated by his and Justin had bought him a paint set for little people. Non-toxic and water-soluble, it came with special paper that could be wiped off and reused. Which would make Lindz and Mel happy. And Brian promised to take lots of pictures even though Mel would have the camcorder out as well. By the time Gus was five, they'd have so many pictures of him, they'd have to open a museum just to house them all. "What time is it?"

The older man craned his neck to look at the clock on the DVD player. "Eleven fifty-nine."

Justin sat up and waited until the clock changed to twelve, then kissed Brian deeply. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, baby." With a twinkle in his eye, he asked, "Where's my present?"

Panicked, Justin said, "I thought you- -" Understood. Smiled. Kissed his lover again and crawled off him, stood to the side of the sofa and held out his hand. "Come on."

Taking it, Brian followed the boy to their bedroom, lips curled in a smile as he watched the round buttocks precede him. Of its own accord, his hand reached out and pinched one. Justin jumped and laughed. Merry Christmas indeed.

Tuesday, December 25th - Christmas Day

If Gus had been hyper on his birthday, he was supersonic today, the twinkling lights, brightly-colored wrapping paper, and cheerful music sending him into toddler overdrive. Brian and Mel were hard-pressed to keep up with him as he demolished the pile of presents beneath the tree. They were all marked with his name as the women had wisely removed the ones for them before setting him loose. As expected, although his eyes lit up with every gift he uncovered, when he got to the one Brian had bought him, he carried the box to his daddy and demanded that Brian open it for him. The camera removed, the baby spent the next fifteen minutes following his Da da around snapping picture after picture of the tree, what was left of the presents, his mommies, Pooh, and Beh. Gus loved the fact that the camera made a real sound, squealing with delight every time it went click. Even Mel thought it was cute.

"You always find the perfect gift, don't you?" she asked, remembering how excited Michael had been at his birthday party when Captain Astro had appeared with a Captain Astro number 1 comic book. She and Lindz hadn't opened the presents Brian and Justin had gotten them but she was sure they'd be perfect.

Brian shrugged. "I'm an advertiser. It's my job to know what people want.

"And give it to them?"

He grinned. "If I'm in a good mood."

"So what'd you give Justin?"

Brian replied softly, "Nothing. He didn't want anything."

Thinking she'd caught him, she asked, "And what'd he give you?"

"Nothing. I didn't want anything."

Confused, she was interrupted before she could question him further by Gus who wanted her to take a picture with Beah.

On the way to meet the guys, Brian said to Justin, "Mel asked me what I'd gotten you for Christmas."

"And. . . ?"

"And I told her you didn't want anything."

Glancing over at him, Justin said, "That's what I said."

Brian checked the rearview mirror and made a lane change. "Just felt weird, that's all." Waited until the light changed and turned left. "You sure you didn't want something?"

The teen brushed Brian's bangs from his forehead, fingers lingering by his temple. "I have everything I want."

Turned out Mel wasn't the only one who found it hard to believe that the two men hadn't exchanged gifts. Both Michael and Ted thought it was a little strange that neither of them had gotten the other anything, a token of their affection, a joke gift, something.

"We're going to Europe in six months," Justin explained. "Besides that, I'm just glad that we're together. What could be better than that?"

"Exactly," agreed Em, the only one of the guys to understand. "What do gifts matter when you have true love?"

And then Ted started teasing them about true love, doing the Bishop from The Princess Bride who had a speech impediment. "Wuve, twue wuve."

Michael added his two cents. "Twue wuve aside, what could the Boy Wonder get Brian that he doesn't already have?"

Brian frowned. "You didn't get me a present, did you?" They hadn't exchanged gifts yet, waiting until this afternoon at Deb's.

"Yeah, I did," said Mikey.

"So, obviously, your logic is flawed," he pointed out.


Finally, Justin had had enough. "Could we drop it? I'm sure there are better things to talk about than what Brian and I did or didn't get each other for Christmas." There was silence around the table. Justin stared at Brian waiting for him to come up with something.

"Any bets for the Rose Bowl?"

The silence deepened.

Brian lifted one shoulder and grimaced.

Having agreed to meet at Deb's at two, the guys went their separate ways, Brian and Justin headed for home to hang out (read: fuck) until it was time to go. About five blocks from the loft, Brian pulled into a convenience store parking lot.

"Gas?" Justin checked the gauge, remembering that they'd stopped yesterday he thought. Maybe it was the day before. No, it was yesterday. The Jeep was full.

"No." He opened his door. "Come on. We're finding presents."

Amused and a little confused, Justin followed.

Once they were in the store, Brian explained. "We've got five minutes each to find something for one another. And it'd better be perfect."

Getting into it, Justin added, "And no peeking."

"No peeking."

For the next ten minutes they scoured the store until they'd both found something. Making their purchases while the other one looked the other way, they clasped their bags protectively and climbed into the Jeep.

In the loft, they retreated to separate corners and wrapped their gifts, then placed them beneath the tree. Taking a moment to look at their bounty in the midst of the rest of the presents, they each went to the tree and pretended to search for their present, feigning excitement when it was located. They carried them to the bedroom and sat on the bed, facing one another.

"You first," said Justin.

"No. Together."

"Together. One. Two. Three!" On three, they tore off the wrapping paper and laughed.

Brian had gotten Justin a Duraflame log, the kind people used in their fireplaces, and written on the card, "Save it, you'll be able to use it someday."

"Someday soon?" Justin asked hopefully.

"That depends on what we can find and what I can get for this place and how much we spend on Europe and if I get a raise next fiscal year. . ." His explanations were cut off as Justin gave him a huge kiss.

"I love you." He ran his fingers over the wrapper covering the log, dreaming of the day when they had their own house with a fireplace. Then, remembering that he wasn't the only one to have received a gift, asked, "Do you like yours?"

Brian smiled softly. Held his present in his hands. It was a mug with "#1 Daddy" on it and was filled with Hershey Kisses. Just a year ago he would have said that the sentiment was unearned, but this year, this year he really had become a good daddy. "It's the best, baby."

Sliding into Brian's arms, Justin said, "Cause you are." He grinned mischievously. "How about a kiss?" Brian reached into the cup but Justin stopped him. "Uh-uh." Kissed him on the lips. "Mmmm, much better."

The time for them to depart and go over to Deb's came way too soon- - especially since they had to shower and dress again after playing for an hour or so. As they sauntered up the walkway, Brian said, "I remember how I used to come over here on Christmas Day after going through this horrible holiday farce at my house and I couldn't believe how wonderful everything seemed. Even if they didn't have a lot, Mikey and Deb always had the best Christmases. I always wanted to have a Christmas like that." He kissed Justin gently. "Thanks, baby."

Vic threw open the door just as they parted. Called back over his shoulder, "Pour two glasses of wine quick, I think these two need cooling off." He ushered them in and gave each of them quick hugs. "Merry Christmas."

They returned the sentiment, waving to Mikey and the guys, and removed their coats, added their presents to the gifts under the tree. Now that Michael was no longer a kid, Deb waited until after dinner to open presents. It was the fellowship, not the finery she always said and it was true.

Leaving the stove, she caught both of the new arrivals in her arms and hugged them hard. "Merry Christmas. So," she said as she released them, "did you go by your mom's place?"

"Which mom?" Justin asked.

"I know Jen's gone out of town. I meant Joanie." She waited for Brian to reply. Justin left them and went over by the guys.

"I dropped by Sunday."

"You're not going by today?"

"Claire's gonna be there and I'd rather not see her. Lindz and Mel are taking Gus by to see her this evening I think."

"You two still doing okay?"

"Yeah," he assured her. "I think it might actually work out this time." He turned hearing Emmett laugh. Saw Justin grinning and knew that the teen had told them what they'd gotten one another for Christmas.

Having opened their presents at Deb and hung out watching The Grinch while scarfing down seconds and thirds on dessert, the two men returned home full as ticks. Groaning as he dropped two Alka-Seltzer into a glass of water, Brian said, "I'm glad we fooled around earlier cause all I want to do now is lie down and die." He sat on the bed gingerly and eased onto his back.

Justin laid down next to him and pushed up his shirt. Rubbed his belly. "Your tummy hurt?"


It was pooched out a bit, as was his own. Continuing to rub Brian's stomach, Justin closed his eyes. Then the phone rang. Brian muttered something about not getting it even if it was God himself so Justin crawled over him, got up, and answered it. "Hello? Yes." Frowned. "Yeah, I'll- - Okay."

Brian thought there was something odd about the teenager's voice but he figured he'd find out soon enough what it was.

"Okay," he said again. "Thanks." Put the phone down and just stood there, unable to move.

Without opening his eyes, Brian asked, "Who was it?"

"Tommy Pearce."

Brian sat up. "Who?"

Quietly, Justin replied, "The Living Ken Doll."

"What'd he- -" He felt a coldness in the pit of his stomach. Swung his legs around, off the bed. "Where is he?"

"Brian- -"

"Where is he?" He waited for the answer but he already knew the answer. "No." Shook his head. "Oh God." Swallowed. "How?"

"Car accident. Last night."

"I just saw him yesterday."

Justin didn't say anything about the fact that Brian had neglected to mention that to him. He hadn't exactly been truthful about Xavier, had he? "You okay?" Brian hadn't shed a tear but he looked as if he were fighting the urge.

"I just saw him," he repeated as if he couldn't believe that Cam was really gone. Sniffled. "I should call Mikey. He and Cam used to be close. Before. . . Before. . ." Brian lowered his head and felt the first of the tears fall. He sensed Justin moving towards him and wiped his face. "I'm okay."

"No, you're not," Justin pointed out. "It's all right if you aren't."

"I'm okay," Brian reiterated. "I'm okay." He picked up the phone and held it for a few moments, then dialed Michael.

Justin left the room. Went to put on some tea. It was all he could do. He heard Brian speaking, knew that he was telling Michael the news, and he began to cry. What if that had been him calling people instead of Tommy, calling Brian's friends to tell them Brian was dead? He didn't think he could do it, he'd just curl up in a corner of the bed and go to sleep and hope that he'd never wake up again. After a while, Brian appeared, all signs of grief gone from his face, except for the pain in his eyes, which he couldn't quite erase. Without saying a word, he took Justin into his arms and held him, trembling like a leaf in the autumn breeze.

Thursday, December 27th

The wind's blowing so fuckin' hard, and it's so cold, I can't feel my face. I guess that's a good thing. Can't imagine it looks any different from anyone else's. Except that I've cried away all the tears I had for Cam a long time ago. There's nothing left. There shouldn't be.

How long does it take to bury someone? I don't understand why it takes so long. Took forever to put my old man in the ground and there wasn't a single, solitary good thing to say about him. When I go, I want them to burn me down to nothing. I don't even want there to be ashes for someone to cry over. Just leave me in the fire 'til there's nothing left. Cause I don't want him sitting in a house somewhere cradling some fuckin' urn.

I wish Justin had come. But he didn't know Cam, not really, no point in making him stand out in the cold with me. No point in making him go through this for a stranger. For an ex-lover of mine. For the only ex-lover I ever had. . . Least I won't have to go through this for him.

Please, God, don't let me have to go through this for him.

Tommy wanted me to say something at the funeral but I said no. I couldn't stand in front of these people and talk about him. The life we had was ours, no one else's. And how could I make them understand what we were about? How could I tell them about us without telling them everything? And once I started talking, I don't know if I'd be able to stop. And some things, they don't want to hear. I know that. Some things, I don't want to tell. I can't tell.

Finally, it's over. All that's left is to throw a handful of dirt over the coffin, toss a flower on top of it, and go home. Say goodbye and go home. And try to forget that he was only thirty years old, that at one time he meant more to me than my own life, that no matter what I won't ever forget him, can't ever forget him.

I bought a red rose at the flower shop on the way to the funeral. Cam loved roses. Used to say they reminded him of me. Beautiful but prickly. I can't feel the thorns through my gloves. Maybe that's the way you deal with prickly things, with gloves on.

It's my turn. I can sense the people behind me waiting impatiently. Fuck 'em. Let 'em wait. Because I don't know what to say. I don't know what to say and there's no. . . time. And now the tears come when everyone's staring at me and I just- - What am I supposed to say? That I remember. . .

I remember the first time we had dinner at The Marketplace, you were wearing a grey sweater and it made your eyes look so dark, so mysterious, I spent the whole evening staring into them. I don't even remember what we had to eat, what we talked about, I just remember how much I loved your eyes.

I remember having the flu and you came over with the God awfullest, worst tasting chicken soup imaginable that you had made yourself and I was so sick and so glad to see you that I ate it all even though it made my stomach ache and then I had a stomach ache on top of everything else- - but you made it. That shitty chicken soup. For me.

For some reason I've taken off one of my gloves and I'm holding the rose in my bare hand and the thorns cut into my fingers and I'm bleeding but I don't feel a thing because it's so cold.

I remember. . .

Us stopping the car on a road trip to Philly, just pulling beside the road and fucking for ten minutes, until the urge had been satisfied, until we could drive on without thinking about our dicks for another hour or so.

Running in the pouring rain and stripping once we got inside. Hair dripping wet. Climbing into the shower and steaming up the bathroom. Making love until the hot water ran out.

I remember hanging up after you told me it was over, that there was no need to meet, that we were through. I remember going to bed and wondering if I'd ever be happy again. Wondering if I should just end it all and not doing it because I couldn't be sure that you wouldn't change your mind and come back.

Someone touches me on the shoulder and I feel like pushing them away but I don't. Justin would chew me out for starting a fight at a funeral. Anyway, it doesn't matter. Cam is gone. Whatever we had together is over. All that's left are memories and I can't live on memories. So I toss the rose on the coffin and whisper, "Bye, Cam," and leave.

When I get home Justin is waiting there, just like I'd hoped, just like I need. He asks me if I'm all right and I just hold him. He's so strong. Stronger than I've ever been. God, I love him. No matter what else I've done in my life, no matter how many times I've fucked up, I've done something right. I've done this right. I've done this right. . .

Monday, December 31st - New Year's Eve

Surveying the loft with satisfaction, Brian looked around to congratulate his little boy and saw that Justin was talking with the ice sculptor. He would be. The guy was good. Even though the party was starting late in the night, he hoped the ice sculpture would last until midnight without melting too much. It was beautiful. Michelangelo's David. It'd been a surprise for Justin. One for which the teenager had been instantly grateful. He'd kissed Brian right in front of the workmen, a huge smile on his face, so bright Brian had thrown an arm in front of his eyes in mock discomfort and teased, "Justin, with your smile so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"

As the men had laughed, Justin had replied, "Your sleigh and anything else you have in mind."

"Mmm, see me later. Around midnight."

"It's a date."

Now, with the last of the deliveries made, with all of the last-minute preparations and decorating done, the last of the workmen leaving, and the DJ setting up, Justin and Brian stood in the middle of the floor, amazed at how beautiful everything looked. Black and silver balloons hung all around the loft, as well as black and silver streamers. The color scheme was carried through to the vinyl tablecloths, the silver buckets placed around to hold the empty shells once guests were through with their oysters and shrimp, the party hats and favors that awaited on every flat surface in sight, the huge "Happy New Year 2002" banner draped across the window, and in the hosts' wardrobe. Justin was dazzling in a grey sweater shot through with silver threads that sparkled every time he moved and tight, black jeans that showed off his high, round behind to perfection. Brian held court in a black low-necked sweater that exposed his neck and shoulders paired with shiny, metallic grey slacks. "We're like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum," Brian complained.

"We're a couple," Justin explained.

"Ahhh, a couple," Brian repeated in fake awe.

And Justin pushed him lightly and then went over to rearrange some pillows on the sofa. Brian hoped the first guests arrived soon. He was anxious to get this party started and over with. Come two a.m., they were all leaving, no matter what. He had things to do. They hadn't invited many people, only fifty people, which meant probably seventy-five would actually show up including significant others and last-minute lovers. The invitations said the party lasted from 10 to 2 and that's what he meant. While Justin fluffed pillows, he made sure that there were plenty of condoms in the festive silver and black bowls he'd picked up at the party supply store. If people were going to fuck, they might as well do it responsibly. Plus, he didn't want to have to clean other people's cum stains from the furniture. Or the bed. Just once he regretted not having a regular bedroom with a door that could be locked. It was funny, before he and Justin hooked up, he could have cared less but now, now it felt strange having people fucking in their bed. Maybe he should put up a sign. Taking out Justin's sketch pad, Brian found a magic marker and wrote on a sheet, "Off-Limits". As he placed it on the bed, he wondered if anyone would pay any attention to it or if they'd just brush it out of the way and continue with their activities. Well, it was too late to think about it now. As is, they'd changed the linens, putting on old ones that they never used.

Around nine forty-five, Michael and Jeff, and Ted and Emmett arrived. And lo and behold, Ted and Emmett had dates. Ted was with some twinky in his twenties, slender, blond, dead ringer for Blake. Brian resolved not to mention that fact unless he wanted Justin to ream him out in front of the guests. Emmett had found some hunky top who looked as if he ate leather. Brian could imagine what their after-New Year's activities would include. He smiled. No one could guess what he had planned.

"What are you grinning about?" Michael asked, having left Jeff with the guys. They were studying the ice sculpture.


"Yeah, I bet." Looked around. "This is nice. I guess all the place needed was an artistic touch," he said, referring to Justin.

"Guess so."

Michael stared at him. "You feeling okay?"


"You look a little flushed."

"Must have been the Cosmopolitan I had."

Giving him the once-over again, Michael agreed, if not wholeheartedly. "Yeah. Must have been." At a signal from Jeff, he left Brian to spend a little quality time with the reporter before the other guests arrived.

By the time the next group of people knocked on the door, the DJ had cranked it up, filling the loft with a hot and throbbing beat guaranteed to get the blood pumping. Come a quarter after ten and the apartment was comfortably filled with dancing bodies. Brian walked around making sure the seafood stayed cool, that the shell buckets weren't full, that no one was puking in the corner, and that the bartender wasn't overwhelmed. The champagne had already begun to flow. He also had to keep an ear on the buzzer. Both he and Justin hovered near the door as often as possible to let in guests stealing kisses in between duties.

The DJ kept things moving and in no time it was 11:45. Brian cut on the TV and found the Dick Clark Rockin' New Year's Eve Party and turned the sound off. No one wanted to listen to 'NSync except for Justin. So they danced to The Chemical Brothers and The Crystal Method while Dick and crew went through the motions counting down the year. When 11:59 came, Justin and Brian found each other amongst the crowd and waited until Mayor Rudy pushed the button and the ball dropped. Telling one another "Happy New Year," they kissed while their guests did the same or yelled or blew on their noisemakers or tossed confetti in the air and the DJ played a dance remix of "Auld Lange Syne". But they could have been in the middle of a desert for all of the attention the two hosts paid their guests and the activities going on around them.

"I love you."

"I love you."

Heads together, they smiled and told themselves that two o'clock would come sooner than they'd think.

The party wound down after twelve thirty and it looked as if they might have everyone out not too soon after one, a whole hour early. Then a group of guys started stripping and it looked like they might have an orgy on their hands but Brian went over and whispered in someone's ear and the ringleader crooked his finger and the six left.

After that most of the guests began trickling out, finishing off champagne and shrimp cocktails before leaving. Just as they were the first to arrive, the guys were the last to go. Although they offered to stay and clean up, Brian assured them that he and the Boy Wonder would get up tomorrow and do it and that if they wanted to come over around noon, the help would be appreciated. It was with great relief that he paid the DJ and saw the man to his car, helping him with his equipment and waving goodbye as he drove away in a Saturn sports coupe. He returned upstairs stretching his neck to work the kinks out.

Found Justin emptying shells from the buckets into a huge trash bag. Wordlessly he went around and ferreted out any that had escaped the buckets. That's all they would do tonight. Least they wouldn't wake up to the smell of fish permeating the air.

Kicking balloons out of the way, Brian searched for the remote and turned off the television. Felt Justin come up behind him and slide his arms around his waist, lay his head on his back. "Tired?"

"Nope," mumbled the teen. He was hoping to spend the first of the year making love.

They wandered over to the window and stood looking out over the night, a full moon above, buildings lit up despite the late hour.

"Last year was good," Justin said, "but I hope this year is better."

"Me too." Brian looked down at his lover and took a deep breath. It was now or never. The moment had arrived and time had run out. Can I do this? Then Justin glanced up at him and smiled. "Close your eyes."


"Just do it." Justin closed his eyes. Trembling, Brian reached into his pocket. "Hold out your hand." The teen complied. Hesitating just a moment, Brian placed two objects on Justin's palm. "Open 'em." He held his breath.

Justin opened his eyes and could hardly breathe. He stared at his hand, at the items he held. Looked up at Brian. He was aware that his mouth was probably hanging open and yet he couldn't close it. Finally, he found his voice. "What is this?"

"What does it look like?"

Eyes back on his palm, Justin said softly, "They look like wedding rings."

Brian swallowed, nodded.

"For us?"

"Who else?"

On their own, his fingers closed over the bands and he could feel the smooth edges press into his flesh. Opened his fingers and looked at the rings again. They were platinum or white gold, Justin guessed, heavy with some kind of design running around the middle.

"Celtic knot," Brian explained.

"They're beautiful."

Brian's lips were so dry, he licked them, then asked, "So what do you think?"

Wanting to yell, 'Yes!' Justin made himself take a mental step back and asked, "Why now?"

He'd expected that. Hell, if he'd asked himself to accept a ring it's what he would have asked. Nothing but the truth would do. "Because I love you." But that wasn't all. "This past year was. . . incredible. And not in a good way. Not all of it. The things we went through. . . I'm amazed that we made it. But we did. We made it. If we could go through all of that shit and still be together, then maybe, maybe we should be. Always. I can't imagine being with anyone else. I don't want to be with anyone else. Me. Brian fuckin' Kinney. Settling down. But it's a new year and a new beginning and I want it to be with you." He chuckled a little. "It won't always be easy."

"Never has been," Justin said, laughing and sniffling at the same time.

"But that's us. And I want everyone to know. That we're together."

"You think someone might try to steal me away?"

"You're not going anywhere," Brian replied, full of confidence.

And Justin agreed. "No. I'm not." He wiped at his eyes. "You sure about this?"

"Yeah. I am." He raised an eyebrow. "You?"

A smile spread across his face. Rings. Him and Brian, committed to one another. He nodded. "Yeah."

Brian picked up one of the rings, looked inside. "Engraved. This one's yours."

Looking at the remaining ring, the one for Brian, Justin read, "Forever Faithful, Justin." The words filled him with a strength he wouldn't have believed was possible, just from words.

"Hold out your hand."

Justin extended his hand, fingers spread slightly. With little fanfare, Brian slipped the ring onto his finger yet Justin tingled all over. "Now you."

When Brian had held out his hand, Justin slid on the band and shivered. 'Forever Faithful.' That's what the ring said, that's what they had promised. Forever. He felt the warm metal against his face as Brian touched him, kissed him. They embraced and he never wanted to loosen his hold on the slender man in his arms. But they eventually parted and stood holding hands. "I love you." Noticed something different. "It's gone."

Brian knew what he was speaking about. The bracelet. He'd taken it off this evening as he dressed. "That was the past."

"Wait here."

Before he could ask, Justin had gone. When he returned, the teenager held a small box in his hand. Handed it to Brian. "What is it?"

"Open it."

Removing the top, Brian smiled. It was a sterling silver wrap cuff bracelet, plain, no decorations, opened at the ends so that it could slide on his wrist and be adjusted to fit as snugly or loosely as he wanted.

"I got it for you, for Christmas but then we decided not to exchange gifts, so I figured I'd save it for your birthday," Justin explained. He took it out of its box and placed it on Brian's wrist. Closed it and smiled.

The bed had remained undisturbed. Stripping it of the old linens, they remade it and drew back the covers.

There had been a moment, he had to admit to himself, when he hadn't been certain that Justin would accept the ring and all that went with it. After all, he was only eighteen and, at that age, it was a huge undertaking, to commit yourself to one person, forsaking all others. Christ, at any age it was a big deal. But he had known, standing in the jewelry store, looking at that ring, he'd known that he was ready for it. As expensive as the rings were, he'd paid extra to make sure they were engraved and resized by New Year's Eve. Had gone and picked them up during lunch. Back at the office he'd looked at the rings ten dozen times that afternoon, always with wonder in his eyes and a little trepidation. What if Justin said no? What if he chickened out at the last minute? But by the time he'd left work his resolve had been strengthened. He would go through with it. He'd offer Justin the ring and then wait and see what happened.

Justin had accepted the ring, had accepted him. Forever Faithful. That was his promise, his oath, and he meant to keep it until the end of his days.

Snuggling beneath the sheet, they lay together barely moving, content to kiss and cuddle, something Brian had gotten better about over the months they'd been together.

A ring. He could still hardly believe it, wouldn't have believed it except that the ring was on his finger, on the ring finger of his right hand, and he had to believe. Cupping Brian's face in his hands, he smiled at the contrast between the silver-colored metal and his lover's flushed skin, and then he laughed because he was happy. Happier than he'd ever been. Brian turned and kissed his palm.

They celebrated with their bodies the pledges they'd made by exchanging rings. Bathed in blue light, the two lovers entwined, wrapped arms and legs about one another, a kaleidoscope of motion, unhurried, as if they had all the time in the world. And they did. This was their night. Time had stopped just for them. The moon would hold the sun at bay, delay the arrival of the coming morning. The present was their only concern, the feel of a lover's smooth skin, silky hair, and warm breath their only reality.

Justin thought even if he were to forget who he was, forget his name, his purpose in life, still he would remember this, would remember the feel of Brian's body laying along side his own, on top of him, behind him; would remember the sensation of Brian's nipple brushing against his back, Brian's belly sliding over his hip as they shifted positions, his lips on his throat, hands easing between his thighs. His body would remember and welcome his lover home.

Brian could feel Justin's lips traveling over his body, sealing his promise with a kiss, each brush of the teen's lips upon his skin a vow to be kept forever. Forever, that's how long they would have to pleasure, to please one another. He felt like a blank canvas upon which the teenager had drawn the outline of a man, shaping him with his hands and lips, coaxing his features from his heart, and breathing life into him with his love. Justin kissed him again.

"I love you," the younger man said and Brian returned his kiss. And his words.

"I love you." He felt more naked than he'd ever been, more exposed now that the very last barrier had been overcome. Ring on his finger, he had laid bare his soul, all of his defenses disengaged. And yet he felt safer, more secure than he'd ever felt. Totally at peace.

Moaning, "Yes, yes," Justin laid his head back on the pillow as Brian filled him, all of his empty spaces disappearing. Sighing, he ran his hands up his man's lean torso, fingers stroking his wide nipples, moving along either side of his neck to his face, his lips, his cheeks and brow. "I love you," he confessed and even though he'd said it a thousand times before, this time the feeling that accompanied the words was like a blast of pure oxygen and he could barely catch his breath as if he'd been given too much of what he needed to survive.

The first streaks of dawn appeared in the sky, throwing uneven and unreliable beams of light into the loft. Having gotten up and taken care of 'necessities' as Joanie called it, the two partners returned to bed, intending to sleep the morning away, having spent the better part of the new year so far making love. Justin lay in Brian's arms, his back against the older man's chest, and looked at his ring. His ring. It shone even in the wan light. "I can't wait to show everybody," he whispered, not really aware that he'd spoken his thoughts aloud.

Eyes opening, Brian said, "I guess you probably wanted some kind of commitment ceremony," a little alarmed since he didn't think he was ready for that. Didn't think it was necessary really. The rings were proof enough. The words, the vows belonged to them.

"No," Justin replied and, echoing Brian's sentiments, added, "That's between you and me. No one else." Smiled. "I just can't wait until they see it though. My mom won't believe it. Deb won't believe it. Nobody will."

Brian kissed the top of his head. "Happy?" And Justin raised Brian's hand to his lips, his ring hand, and kissed his fingers. "Good. Now go to sleep." With that the man closed his eyes once more and Justin turned over on his chest, face against his bare skin. But he couldn't help taking another look at the ring, glowing in the darkened confines of their bedchamber, its twin on Brian's finger, and his smile spread like sunlight on the sea. "Close your eyes and stop smiling," Brian said, popping him lightly on the butt.

"How do you know I'm smiling?" Justin asked.

"I can feel it," Brian answered, and he smiled as well and then Justin began to laugh and so did he and their laughter filled the loft, clearing out the last of the shadows and bathing everything in a cool, silver light.

"A Thousand Years" music by Sting and Kipper, lyrics by Sting, EMI Music Publishing Ltd./Magnetic Publishing (PRS) from the album Brand New Day, A&M Records, 1999.

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