He was all too aware that his friends were seated behind them about six rows back, far enough away that he couldn’t understand what they were saying but close enough that he knew they were talking about him and Justin. Why he had agreed to this farce, he had no idea. Actually, he knew exactly why he'd agreed to a movie night with the guys: Justin wanted to do it and he was rapidly coming to the understanding that there was very little Justin might ask of him that he wouldn't at least try to do. Justin wanted a Fourth of July pool party and he went out and bought steaks. Justin wanted to see Pirates of the Caribbean with their friends and he duly called up Mikey and relayed the invitation.
What Justin would ask of him next was anyone's guess. He supposed his friends thought him p-whipped (penis-whipped) and if he were being brutally honest with himself he would admit that he was. So what if he was? They were both happy, happier than they'd ever been in their lives and he, for one, was content to play the part of the besotted husband as long as he and Justin could take leisurely, naked swims in the pool; or hold hands while walking in the park; or French kiss in the movies.
They parted after the latest of such kisses for a breather and to take stock of the audience. Having gotten to the theatre obscenely early on Justin's advice—which turned out to be a Godsend—he and Justin had scoped out seats in the row of six seats that separated the middle section from the upper one. Each pair of seats was equidistant from the others making for a semi-private refuge among the great unwashed. The guys had wanted to appropriate the other seats in the row but Brian had given them the eye and they'd kept climbing, eventually occupying four seats in the very last row of the theatre. Justin hadn't argued, he had been too happy that Brian had agreed to coming out with them at all. Especially to do something as pedestrian as going to the movies. To see a Disney movie at that. But it starred Johnny Depp who was hot enough to get all of them out of their homes and into the theatre. Even if he was looking rather unhygienic.
Digging into the bucket of popcorn he'd bought, Justin fortified himself for another kiss. Despite being in public, they'd behaved as if they were in the privacy of their own bedroom. Then again, maybe not. At home they would have already progressed to undressing and he would have probably been on his back by now with Brian blowing him. That thought made him fidget in his seat. Maybe they should have gone to a porno flick. He giggled around a kernel of popcorn. In a few months he was sure there'd be a Butt Pirates of the Caribbean out on the porn circuit.
Brian raised a brow. "What are you laughing about?"
"Jeesh," he said, shaking his head, "and the movie hasn’t even started yet."
"Wish we could have brought Gus," said Justin, trying to deflect attention from himself.
"Well, the Munchers said it looked too intense for him. We'll see. If it isn't, we'll bring him later on."
"And he can wear his pirate hat that we got him in the Bahamas."
"Not in this lifetime," Brian snorted and he reached for the popcorn but Justin held it away.
"Say please," he teased and smiled as Brian kissed him softly.
Instead of going back to Liberty Avenue to have a drink at Woody's they decided to stop in a bar near the theatre. Snagged a table near the front and got the waitress' attention. Ordered a round of beers and talked about the movie.
"Was it just me," Emmett asked, "or was Johnny a little swishy?"
"Little?" said Ted. "That's like saying someone is a little pregnant."
"Preggers," Mikey corrected him.
At Justin's confused look, Em supplied the reference. "Heathers before Winona picked up her little shoplifting habit."
"I think Will and Jack Sparrow would have made a much better couple than him and the chick from Bend 'Em Like Beckham," Jeff opined.
"I'd like to be bent under Beckham," Emmett added with a raised brow.
"Definitely hot," Justin said in agreement. Brian nudged him and Justin assured him, "I didn't say he was hotter than you."
"Besides, I don't think Posh is letting go of him anytime soon," Michael said.
Justin took a sip of beer. "I could take him away from her." The guys laughed at his confidence.
"He's yours all right," Ted said as Brian shook his head.
"Outta my hands," Brian declared and stood looking for the bathrooms. Spotted them and strolled across the floor when a voice stopped him.
He turned towards the voice, thinking that he knew who it was, vaguely. Wasn't really sure but… Peered at a face that was rapidly coming into focus in his memory. "Brendan." His cousin. Shit. Of all the fucking luck.
"Never saw you here before." He was sitting in a booth in a group of four: him and another guy and two women, presumably their dates.
"Never been in here before."
"You here alone?"
Brendan laughed. "That's Brian for you, never used two words when one would do. Definitely not your typical Irishman." He gestured towards the table. "Have a drink with us."
"I was just heading for the john."
"When you come back then."
He jerked his head towards the front of the bar. "Got friends waiting."
"But I'm family, Brian. And we haven't seen each other since when? Uncle Jack's funeral."
"Yeah." It was driving him crazy to go through this farce. He and Brendan had never been close, never been more than distant relations who tolerated one another. Why the fuck did he suddenly want to play nice? He was so focused on figuring out Brendan's motives that he didn't realize Justin had come over. Touched his arm.
Brian half-turned. "Hey." Paused. "Justin, this is my cousin, Brendan. Brendan, Justin." As Justin removed his hand from Brian's arm, Brendan spotted the ring on his finger. And realized that Brian wore an identical one. Brian could see the thought run through his head, could see the exact moment that it dawned on him what that meant. "Justin's my partner," he said unnecessarily.
Brendan looked uneasy. In fact, everyone at the table looked uncomfortable as if they'd collectively committed a terrible social faux pas.
Brian was quiet for a moment, then said, "See you around."
Without looking up at him, Brendan replied, "Yeah."
He continued to the restroom, Justin trailing him.
Shook his head. "Forget it."
But the guys noticed something was wrong the moment they returned to the table. And they'd seen him talking to Brendan.
"Who was that?" asked Mikey.
"Your asshole cousin, Brendan?"
Em made a face. "So I guess you've been outed, huh?"
"I'm sure Jack Kinney is turning in his grave." Brian raised his glass
of lukewarm beer. "Cheers." Drank it down.
He'd gone out onto the pergola to smoke the moment they'd returned home. Aware of Justin hovering inside the house, wanting to find out if he was okay, knowing that he probably wasn't. Aware of the fact that he was letting Jack fuckin' Kinney and the Kinney clan get to him when he'd promised himself more than once that he wouldn’t anymore. He wouldn’t have cared except that he'd heard that note of disdain in Brendan's voice, the one Jack had perfected when it had come to him and hearing it he was fourteen again, being told that he was no good, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't not hear it. Couldn't feel that it wasn't true.
Cigarette smoke wove patterns in the air above his head.
They dissipated as Justin opened the French doors and stepped outside. "Bri…?"
He held out an arm and Justin came over and found his place. Brian offered him the last of the cigarette. "Jack loved Brendan. Held him up as a shining example of a fine, upstanding Irish lad. Brendan was an alter boy which meant I had to be an alter boy too. Brendan went to fuckin' Catholic school, so I had to go too—until they realized that I was never meant to be in Catholic school. Brendan dated good, Catholic girls, found the prettiest one to go steady with, got engaged, got married, started working at the plant right out of high school, and started popping out the next generation of Kinneys. Of course, that didn't stop him from being a ladies man, from making the rounds. Like tonight. That was not his wife. But that's okay because he provides for Cathy and the kids so why not let him have a little fun?" As he spoke, his jaw kept getting tighter and tighter until the words had to be pried from his mouth. "And it doesn't matter that you and I are married, that we have a family, that we have a home, that we've done everything they've said is important… that son of a bitch can still look down on us… because we're faggots."
"I could hear it in his voice. I could hear Jack." A fine shiver went through him and Justin moved even closer to him, cigarette discarded, arms around his waist. Brian laughed, a sound like a mouth full of brackish water, and said, "That's my gold medallion," referring to the movie they'd seen. Will Turner's father had given him a piece of pirate's gold. It was the only thing he'd had of his father's and it turned out to be the key to unlocking the curse of the Black Pearl. Only, in Brian's case, there was no magical medallion that would release him from the curse of the past. Only he could do that. Yet, no matter how many times he'd tried, had thought he'd succeeded, something would happen—like tonight—to remind him that he had not. That, in fact, he was still as inextricably bound to Jack Kinney as he'd always been.
In the middle of pouring a cup of coffee, Deb spotted a customer coming through the door and almost dropped the pot. "Sunshine. I think this one's for you," she said and Justin turned around.
Craig. Looking very ill at ease and out of place in a Brooks Brothers suit. Business drag, Brian called it. Usually he was the only person in Woody's in corporate garb. Spotting Justin, Craig made a bee line for him.
"Justin." Found an empty booth. Sequestered it and waited for his son to join him.
But Justin just stood by the side of the table. "I'm still on duty," he explained.
"Don't you get any breaks?" So Justin sat down after catching Deb's eye. "I called your mother and she said you still worked here afternoons."
He put down his order pad and pencil. "You could have called the house. Mom has our number," he said, emphasizing the "our". "And you have my cell phone number, don't you?" he asked, to let Craig off the hook when he saw how uncomfortable his father looked.
"I just wanted to see you. We haven't talked since…" Craig let the sentence trail off, unwilling to discuss the incident at the court house. "Well…"
"So what's up?"
"I got the bill for your tuition the other day."
Justin waited a moment before asking, "You want us to pay it?" meaning Brian since his salary wouldn't begin to cover it.
"Like I said, I wanted to see you." It was a source of pride to him that he paid for Justin's school and not Kinney. Even if it meant spending a sizeable chunk of his income.
"Well," Justin said after a moment, "you've seen me." He started to rise.
"Justin." Craig touched him on the arm but said nothing further.
"Dad, what exactly do you want?"
Deb must have heard the irritation in his voice because she got his attention and gave him a look she'd perfected over the years through her dealings with Mikey and Brian and the guys. It said, Behave.
For his part Craig was grateful for her intervention. These days it seemed as if he couldn't find the right thing to say to Justin. Everything set him off. Assuming what he hoped was a neutral mien and tone of voice, Craig said, "I just wanted to talk."
"Fine," replied Justin. "How about this weekend? You can come over to the house on Saturday and have dinner with us." Craig looked surprised by the offer and, in truth, Justin had surprised himself. However, he was sticking to his guns, testing his father's sincerity.
After a moment, Craig said, "Justin…"
"So much for wanting to talk to me." He left his father at the table and disappeared out back.
Under Deb's disapproving and disappointed glare, Craig crept away.
"I saw my dad today," Justin told Brian as they fixed diner.
"And your ass isn't barbecued. He's slipping."
"Believe me," Justin said softly, "it's singed."
Brian closed his hand over Justin's briefly. "Dead or alive, huh?" he said, referring to his own ongoing war with his father, one that hadn't abated even though Jack had been dead for almost two years now.
"Why do I even fucking care?" Justin asked miserably.
"Because you are who you are." Kissed him. Justin smiled and wrapped his arms around Brian's neck and raised his face for another kiss which Brian bestowed upon him posthaste. "My little boy," Brian continued. "My baby cat."
"Didn't do much scrapping today."
"Yeah, well, I didn't win too many rounds with Jack either, " Brian confessed. "I swear, sometimes I think Mikey was the lucky one, not having an old man at all."
But Justin disagreed. "Gus is the lucky one. He's got you for a dad."
They went back to preparing dinner, Justin stir frying the veggies Brian had chopped along with some thinly-sliced flank steak. The rice was steaming. Brian went to set the table and returned with Leo in his arms. Despite discouraging the cat's affection (not too strenuously), Leo loved Brian and purred contentedly whenever he was near the ad exec.
"So," asked Brian, "what are we getting Sonny Boy for his birthday?" It was coming up in less than two months.
"Well, he'll be three…" began Justin, knowing that Brian had been champing at the bit to buy him a baby Jeep for two years. Justin turned off the food and slipped the stir fry onto a platter. Brian carried the wine glasses out after putting Gus down.
"Yeah, but he's still too young for the Jeep. I swear, they must have changed the requirements cause this year the manufacturers say four and you know the Munchers. No way would they disagree with the manufacturers. Like they were fuckin' God or something," he mumbled.
Justin laughed under his breath. You'd think they were keeping Brian from buying a toy for himself. They sat down and loaded their plates.
"Well?" Brian asked impatiently. Justin still hadn't answered his question.
"How about one of those My First LeapPad books?"
Justin finished chewing. "They're these little computers and you buy special books that go with them and they teach kids stuff like ABCs and reading and they can play games. They've got all kinds, I think."
"Hmm. We'll have to check it out."
"Score big points with Lindz if you get some," Justin added, just to sweeten the pot. "Oh, and what about a karaoke machine? He loves to sing."
"Unfortunately, he doesn't sing on key most of the time," complained Brian when, in fact, he was as amused by Gus' singing as the rest of the little boys' parents. "Maybe those Wiggle guys will have a new CD out or something too."
While Brian worked on some last minute reports for a meeting early the next morning, Justin went for a swim. It was infinitely better in the pool when Brian was there too but he still enjoyed floating beneath the setting sun. He dreaded the weather turning.
As he drifted around the pool, eyes closed, he thought again about his run-in with Craig. Even though he knew the breakdown in communication had been Craig's fault, he couldn't help but feel that he was to blame somehow as well. Brian would say that was an example of the fucked-up kind of thinking parents induced in their kids. "They blow it and somehow it's your fault. That's bullshit." Yet knowing that and not falling into the trap were two very different things. Brian himself still fell prey to it. Witness his reaction to the Brendan episode. And it probably wouldn’t end there. Brian fully expected Joanie to call with a report on the family's outrage at not being told Jack's boy was a fairy and married at that. Why did it matter?
Justin bumped into a wall and reached back, anchoring himself. Came upright in the water and with his arms over the edge, floated in place. If only there were some way to convince his father to try, just a little, to meet them halfway. But Craig insisted on making unreasonable demands. He and Brian weren't going to break up if he had anything to do with it and certainly not because his father disapproved. They'd been through too much for that now. Not only loved each other but had become inseparable.
When his toes threatened to become prunes, he climbed out of the pool and headed for the house, drying off as he walked. Found Brian still at the dining table working. "You got much more to do?"
"Half hour or so."
"I'm going up." Kissed the top of Brian's head and was about to walk away when Brian caught hold of his arm.
Brian held him a little longer, then released him. Turned back to his papers.
As Justin left the family room, Leo uncurled himself from one of the armchairs by the fireplace and dropped to the floor, followed him up the stairs. Halfway to the top, Justin paused and went back down. Brian met him by the fountain.
"Didn't think so," he said and took him in his arms.
At the entrance to Craig's building, Brian paused, garnering a nasty
look from the guy who was walking behind him. Moving out of the way, Brian
wondered if he were doing the right thing. After a moment, he returned to
the car. This was Craig's decision. There could be no more deals, no more
Even though his schedule was tight that afternoon, he dropped by the
diner to see Justin, pulling him into an empty booth and kissing him for
three very long minutes, timed by the diner's denizens, many of whom had
received a few—but not nearly enough—of Brian's kisses at one point or
another. Usually when he'd been drunk or drugged or pissed at life but
never like this. Never loving, passionate, generous. A few left.
Tomorrow evening they'd have Gus so tonight they savored their privacy, having dinner out on the loggia off their bedroom. They brought the mosaic table and chair set upstairs and lit a couple of candles, poured some wine and had pasta in a light cream sauce.
Justin raised his glass. "To us."
The view off the loggia was spectacular, looking down as it did on the pristine backyard and the sparkling pool, but neither of them paid any attention to the yard or to the sky which was streaked with red as sunset approached. Somehow Justin's chair had moved closer to Brian's and dinner was forgotten as well as they kissed. Finally they left the remnants of their meal on the table and tumbled off to bed.
Gus stood behind the storm door and waved goodbye to Brian as he backed up the Jeep. He was going to work for a few hours that afternoon. Normally he wouldn't have if Gus were visiting but he really needed to score some big points with the other partners after the Hyperion debacle. Still, he hated seeing the sad expression on Gus' face as he moved further away from the kitchen door. He waved back at the toddler, then concentrated on driving. Justin would take care of Gus. Sure enough Justin appeared in the doorway just as Brian lost sight of the house.
Justin squatted and hugged Gus. "You want to paint?" Gus shook his head. "Want to ride around the block?" Again, no. "Want to—"
"I want Daddy," Gus said and buried his face in Justin's shirt.
"I know, Gus, he'll be back soon."
"I want go Daddy," he said softly, on the verge of crying Justin could tell.
"Daddy's already gone but he'll be back. I promise. Before you know it." He hugged the little boy again. "We can do something fun, how about that? How about we go see if Rusty is home?" Gus rubbed his face back and forth. No. "Rusty would be so glad to see you."
"No!" he yelled and pulled away from Justin. And began to cry. First a sniffle and then an all out assault on Justin's senses.
Knowing there was no point in trying to placate the toddler, Justin let him cry until the first jag was over and then he picked him up and carried him into the family room and sat him on the sofa. Gus leaned against him and continued to weep, albeit quietly. Finally the tears stopped and he started to get heavy-eyed. It was just the opening Justin needed and he sang him softly to sleep, Gus' small, dark head pillowed against his side.
When he was sure Gus was completely under, he laid him down and left him to rest. Leo had come to see what the fuss was about and spotting Gus on the sofa, joined him.
With thirty minutes at the most to himself, Justin went into his studio and worked on a new drawing. He was trying his hand at landscapes, using the backyard as a model and elaborating on it as he sketched, transforming it into a mini garden of Versailles. Of course, his knowledge of plant material was severely limited so he turned to his imagination, filling the yard with fanciful botanicals that had never existed. Losing himself in his work, he didn't notice when two small figures joined him almost an hour later and stood quietly watching him.
How long they'd been there, he didn't know, but when he finally became aware of them, he looked around to see Gus studying him and his drawing intently. "Did you have a good nap?" Gus nodded, still a little drowsy. Justin held open his arms and the toddler came to him for a hug, remained leaning against him. "Want a snack?"
As Gus sat at the table having an apple and some graham crackers and milk, Justin went back into the kitchen and called Brian at work.
"You coming home soon?"
"Gus was a little upset. Cried himself to sleep." He'd hated to say that but it was true. He could hear Brian weighing his options. Then:
"I'll be there in a half hour."
"No, but there's no point in staying any longer. I'd have to stay another six hours for it to make a difference."
Teasing him, Justin asked, "Is this one of the perks of being a partner?"
"No," replied Brian, "it's one of the curses of having Darren Johnson in my division. See ya."
"Bye." Now that Brian was coming home, Justin went out to see how Gus was doing. Lucky for Leo and the rug that he did. Gus was just about to pour some of his milk onto the floor for Leo to drink. He'd seen how Brian and Justin had given Leo milk when he was much smaller and apparently he was going to do the same. Except his milk was chocolate. "Gus?" He looked up, holding the cup in both hands. "What did we say about giving Leo people food?"
"But it's chocolate milk," Justin explained. "Cats only drink white milk."
Gus processed the information frowning, then put his cup back on the table and climbed into his chair and proceeded to finish eating his snack.
Justin shook his head and tried not to laugh. And they had this to look forward to at least two more times.
After Gus had finished eating his snack, they went out and picked a few herbs from the garden to kill some time and then decided to take a swim. In the pool, they worked on Gus' stroke, Justin trying to get the little boy to coordinate his kicking and arm movements. They'd tackle incorporating his breathing later on. Right now if he could float, kick, and move his arms, they'd be happy. No, ecstatic.
So with Justin standing next to him, his hands down below the water surface just in case he floundered, Gus practiced his floating and kept his head turned to the side to allow him to breathe. "Good, Gus, that's good. Okay, now kick." The little boy started to kick and to move forward. The movement startled him, as it always did, but he quickly recovered and floated around the pool wherever his legs took him. "You're doing great, Gus!"
"You're a good teacher."
Justin jumped and Gus lost his concentration, began to flail about. Quickly Justin went to him and pulled him up out of the water. Not that he would have gone under wearing his floating suit but they didn't want to encourage any panicking, wanted to nip it in the bud as soon as possible. With Gus safely seated on the edge, Justin turned to his guest. "Dad."
Craig took a seat at the table. Looked around. "Thought I'd take you up on your offer."
Wide-eyed, Gus took in every detail of Craig that he could. Then asked Justin, "Who dat?"
"That's my Dad."
"Yeah, that's my Daddy."
Gus got up and went over to Craig and patted him on the knee. Craig looked lost.
"He wants you to pick him up." Justin tossed Craig a towel.
Awkwardly, Craig dried Gus off, then placed the towel over his lap and picked the toddler up, immediately finding himself enveloped in a hug.
Justin laughed. Gus was very smart. He knew Brian's mom was called Nana and his mom was called Nana Jenn, so it only made sense that Craig would be Nana too. Justin rose and went to them. "Not Nana. Nana's for girls. For Mommies."
"Daddy," Gus decided since both Brian and Justin were Daddy and they were boys like him.
At this Craig looked decidedly uneasy.
"His name is Craig. How about you call him that? Can you say that? Craig?"
"Cr-aig," said Justin.
Justin clapped. "Good boy."
Gus looked up at Craig. "Daddy Craig."
Smiling, Justin added, "Granddaddy Craig."
Gus looked pleased. "Granddaddy Craig."
Despite himself, Craig smiled as well. Seems the littlest Kinney had won over another hapless victim with his charm.
Unfortunately, thought Justin, it's going to be another story when Brian gets home. He knew that he could depend on Brian to try and behave but he had no such confidence in his dad.
When Gus got down from his lap, Craig commented, "He's going to be tall."
"Brian and Lindsay both are." At three feet, Gus was at about half of what they could expect his adult height to be.
Gus tugged on Justin's arm. "Daddy?"
"When Daddy come home?"
"He's on his way."
"He calls you Daddy?"
"I am. He's got two mothers and two fathers."
"Lot of parents."
"Lot of love." When they got inside, Justin told Craig to make himself comfortable while they showered. "There's soda, wine, and beer in the fridge there," pointing to the beverage center at the bar.
"Mind if I look around?"
"Go ahead." Taking Gus by the hand, Justin led him upstairs.
Freed from proprieties, Craig wandered around the first floor giving free rein to his curiosity, his surprise, and, sometimes, outright shock. The house surpassed his wildest imaginings. Even driving up to it, he had felt conflicting emotions: pride that his son lived in such a fine neighborhood and dismay because he knew that it was Kinney's money and business that paid for everything. Justin was, in effect, Kinney's trophy wife. A point driven home even more clearly by Justin's taking a hyphenated name, proclaiming to the world his inferior status. That burned. He had raised Justin to be an achiever, to follow in his footsteps in the business world and to surpass him. Instead, Justin had had given up everything to run after Brian.
Who was, at that moment, driving up to the house. Curious as to whose car was in the yard, he called out as soon as he got inside the door. "Justin." When no one answered, he went looking and came face-to-face with Craig, who had been exploring the courtyard and had just come back inside. Brian inclined his head and Craig returned the gesture.
"Change your mind about dinner?" Brian asked.
Instead of answering the question, Craig said, "This is some house."
"Jennifer found it for us. My mom helped decorate."
Brian shrugged it off. "Justin loves it."
Refusing to believe that the matter was that simple, Craig asked sarcastically, "And what Justin wants, Justin gets?"
"It's why you're here," Brian replied and headed for the family room. After a moment, Craig followed.
Before things could get even more awkward, Justin and Gus returned from their shower, Gus out in front with Leo next to him. Calling out, "Granddaddy! Granddaddy, look." He went over to Craig, who had taken a seat near the fireplace, and said, "Look." Pointed to the cat. "Leo. Leo kit cat."
"His name is Leo?"
"Yeah. Kit cat."
"And he's a kitty cat?"
"Kit cat," Gus repeated and laughed.
"Kit cat," Craig said dutifully.
Gus found one of Leo's toys and tossed it to him and the kitten caught it and began batting it around to Gus' delight.
"I guess I don't get a hug or a hello or anything," said Brian, feigning sadness and disappointment. Gus ran over and held up his arms to be hugged. After he had gone, Justin sidled over for a kiss.
Brian noticed Craig had fixed his attention on Leo and Gus. "Hey."
"Wanna help me with dinner?"
Placing his lips near Justin's ear, he replied, "What's my other choice? Making nice with your dad?"
Justin turned his head and kissed him again. "Thank you."
Getting Craig's attention, Justin announced that he and Brian would be starting dinner. "Gus can keep you entertained for a while and the remote's over there if you want to watch a game or something."
In the kitchen, Brian asked, "What are we having?"
"There's steak. My dad likes steak."
"Real meat and potatoes kind of guy, huh?" Bent to take some baking potatoes out of the bin. "He and Jack would have gotten along famously," he said dryly.
He shook off the concern. "Ignore me."
"Can't." Justin touched his elbow. "If you want me to tell him to go…"
"It's your home too." Peeked into the other room. "Besides, Gus actually seems to like him. Go figure."
Justin gave a small smile. "He was really good when I was small. Taught me how to swim." Remembered his dad waiting for ten minutes for him to gather up the courage to get into the pool. "He was so patient."
"Maybe that's where you get it from then," Brian said although he didn't believe it.
They fell silent then, not saying much beyond what was necessary to prepare dinner. Gus ran in once to get his cup, Craig having decided to have a beer while he and Gus watched TV and Gus wanted some juice too so he could be like his Granddaddy.
As Brian watched him return to the family room, he frowned.
"I don't know if it's a good thing, Gus getting so attached to him."
"How long is he gonna be around? Today, tomorrow?"
"So we don't give him a chance at all because he might bail?"
Aware that Lindsay had said pretty much the same thing to him about Justin when they'd gotten together after Justin's bashing, Brian felt a bit hypocritical but he now understood where Lindsay's concern had come from. He never wanted anything or anyone to hurt Gus. He was too special, his spirit too precious to risk. "I'm saying, if Gus gets used to him and then he flakes, then what?"
"I don't know."
"Yeah, that's the problem."
Before their discussion could digress into an argument, Justin finished with the appetizers, a quick spinach dip with tortilla chips. He put everything on a platter and carried it in to the other room. He understood Brian's concerns but there was nothing he could tell him. The last thing he wanted was for Gus to get hurt and he knew that Craig had the potential to hurt him very badly. Surrounded by people who loved him, Gus had never known rejection, never known what it was to lose someone he cared about. Craig was an unknown variable. Justin had thought that after the trial, Craig had begun to come around to accepting he and Brian but the man had proven time and time again to be unreliable when it came to dealing with them. He'd refused to acknowledge their wedding, their commitment to one another. What made them believe that he'd accept Gus, that he'd be there for him when he'd disappointed his own son so many times? Suddenly Justin wanted to rush in and sweep Gus away, keep him safe, but it was too late. Whatever happened now, happened.
As angry as he felt himself becoming, Brian tried to keep a lid on it. He understood why Justin had taken a chance on Craig: how many times had he met his own father in some bar, trying to work through his feelings over a glass of bourbon or beer? And how many times had he failed to come to peace with the fact that Jack was never going to be the father he needed? How many times had he gone to Mikey and cried, or gone out and gotten hammered and fucked some stranger to try and assuage the anger, the disappointment?
Craig looked up as Brian came into the family room, radiating discontent like a cloud of nuclear dust. He'd been having a surprisingly good time with Gus. It'd been so long since Justin had been a child that he'd forgotten how much he'd enjoyed being with someone so young, so new to the world, open to experiences and he realized that maybe part of his anger at Justin came from the fact that Justin no longer needed him to make decisions for him, to advise him. Justin was his own man now. It was hard to let go. Hard to accept that instead of a father, Justin had a husband to turn to. Hard to accept that it was a husband and not a wife.
"Granddaddy." Gus tugged on Craig's leg. "My room."
"He wants you to go see his room," Justin interpreted.
Setting down his almost empty beer bottle on the coaster he'd found, Craig rose. "All right, let's go." Gus took hold of his hand and waited for Leo to join them before taking Craig upstairs to his pride and joy. Once they were there, he showed Craig his bed, and his race car table, and his mural, and his blue armchair where he and Leo sat to read his books. He showed Craig his bookcase full of books, saying, "Pooh" as he held up one of the books, his favorite; opened his toy trunk packed to the brim; and then took him to the window to show him his view of the backyard. "Pool," he said, pointing to it.
"Yes, that's the swimming pool."
"I swim," Gus announced proudly.
"I saw you. You were very good. A very good swimmer."
"Yeah," the toddler replied, a little overcome by the praise. Then he grabbed Craig's hand and took him on a tour of the bathroom and then into the guest room. This was new even for Gus. He'd been in there once but it was still largely an undiscovered country. Running his hand over the comforter, he said, "Pretty. Pretty bed."
"It is pretty."
"White," Gus told him, patting the comforter.
"Come on," Craig said, taking his hand, "let's go back downstairs."
As they went back to the front staircase, Craig glanced at the gym and at the door that led to Brian and Justin's suite. He was curious but cautious, unsure of what he'd find. Finally, curiosity got the best of him and he took a step towards the door. Gus followed, as did Leo. Pushing it open wider, Craig went inside.
It was as he'd expected: more rich, tasteful furnishings. He peeked into Brian's office, inhabited by his chaise lounge and nothing else. Walked through the suite, from the sitting area by the fireplace, to their closet, to the bathroom. In addition to the storage cabinet by the shower, there was another at the end of the room, next to a low counter top. It was open and he glanced inside. They obviously used it as a medicine cabinet. Aspirin, shaving cream, toothpaste. His eye fell upon a tube that he recognized. Lubricant. He turned away, cheeks flushed, embarrassed at having discovered this intimate clue to their private life.
On the verge of going to find Craig and Gus, Justin heard them coming, Gus babbling to his Granddaddy about something very important to an almost three-year-old. Brian was in the kitchen grilling the steaks and he joined him to toss the salad after settling Gus and Craig at the table he'd already set. Gus insisted upon sitting next to Craig which was good as that meant he and Brian could sit on the opposite side with Brian and Craig the farthest from one another. Maybe they'd actually get through this dinner with no blood loss.
Other than both Brian and Justin having to remind Gus to eat and not talk with his mouth full, the meal progressed smoothly, the adults talking about inconsequential things, sticking to harmless topics, and the evening drew to a close just as the toddler's bath time neared.
"Let's go, Gus," Brian told him.
"I want Granddaddy."
"You'll see him again," he said, aware that he was making promises Craig might not be able to keep. "It's time for your bath."
Before he left, Gus went to Craig and demanded a hug. "Nite nite, Granddaddy."
" 'night, Gus," Craig replied with a peck on the cheek. Handed him back to Brian.
Brian said nothing to Craig, just took Gus and went upstairs. Justin would say all that needed to be said. He trusted him.
Having loaded the dishwasher, Justin returned to Craig in the family room. His father was standing at the window, looking out at the backyard. He joined Justin on the sectional. "So what made you change your mind?"
"I'm not a monster, you know."
"I know that—"
"It's been a long time since we've talked."
"You had my number."
"And you had mine."
True enough. "It would have been easier to call you if I'd thought that you wanted to hear from me. If I had thought that you wanted to hear what I had to say."
"So tell me."
Justin paused. "I love my life, Dad, and I love Brian. I know you don't understand. I accept that. But you have to accept the fact that I do. That my place is with him. I have a family of my own, a home, my art."
"Are you happy, Justin?"
"Haven't you been listening to anything I've been saying?"
"You don’t feel like you've missed out on anything?"
"Like being a normal college student?"
"Living in a cramped dorm room and eating bad cafeteria food?"
Craig laughed then sobered. "And you don't mind, that people think…"
"That you're his…" He couldn't find the words.
"His partner? His spouse?"
"You live in this house that he pays for and you're twenty-years-old."
"So it looks… it doesn't look good."
"We're married, Dad. This is our home." Still it smarted because he'd done a lot of soul searching himself about his contributions to their household and he sometimes felt as if he didn't do enough despite Brian's protests to the contrary. All this, however, he would not tell Craig. "I love him. That's all he asks of me, all he wants."
Craig seemed to accept that or, at least, not to have any other arguments. There didn't seem to be anything else to say except, "I can't promise you anything."
"I don't want you to. What's the point in making promises you can't keep?" If he had learned nothing else from Brian, he'd absorbed that lesson well.
"We've been apart for so long," Craig admitted, revealing some of the pain he'd felt since he and Justin had become estranged.
Grateful for his father's admission, Justin confessed as well. "I've missed you, Dad."
He nodded, then rose. "Well, I've got to go."
Justin walked him to the door, then hugged him before he left. It was a start. Another start after so many others. He didn't know if this one would prove as false as the others but he was willing to take that chance again. There was little else he could do. He stood at the door as Craig backed out of the yard and wondered if his father would ever set foot in his house again. Locking the door and setting the alarms, he shut off the downstairs lights and climbed the stairs. Found Brian helping Gus with his SpongeBob pajamas. The little boy was good at putting them on, he just hadn't mastered buttons yet. Dressed for bed, Gus decided he wanted to sit in his armchair and read with Leo for a while. The cat jumped up beside him and Gus found his Pooh book and began to tell Leo the story of Pooh and Rabbit.
Justin noticed Gus' leather bear all alone on his bed. Said to Brian, "He used to tell that to Beh."
"Guess he doesn't need him as much as he used to."
Softly, he said, "Guess."
"But he still needs him to keep the bad dreams away."
He still has a place in Gus' life, that's what Brian was trying to tell him. Maybe he and his dad needed to find Craig's place in his life, same as Gus had done with Beh.
Justin stood on his tiptoes and kissed Brian's cheek. "I love you."
"Better. I just spent almost two hours being nice to your old man."
"Did I mention how grateful I was?"
He pulled Brian's head down and whispered in his ear. A grin appeared
on the older man's face, wide as a sickle moon.
Justin, naked, leaned over the railing of the pergola, wishing there was a little breeze, just enough to ruffle the curtains, but it was a hot, sticky night and they'd have to shut the French doors and rely on the air conditioning to cool them off. Already a bead of sweat ran down his spine. He heard a noise, felt Brian's bare skin against his. Lips kissing his neck, his shoulders, down his back. Brian dropped to his knees and kissed his cheeks, parted them and kissed in between them. Spreading his legs open even wider, Justin licked his lips as Brian licked his hole, tongue flickering over the edges, pressing against the center. He laid his head upon his arms and tried to breathe, to keep silent while Brian rimmed him. The neighbors had already heard them fucking before, no need to provide them with yet another opportunity. He would have told Brian to stop so they could go inside but it felt too good what he was doing with his tongue, his talented tongue, and Justin never wanted him to stop. Christ, he had his tongue inside him, curled the tip so that it caught on the upper rim of his hole, and Justin groaned and then clamped down on the sound.
Rising, Brian leaned over Justin and whispered, "I want to fuck you."
The nakedness of his need caused Justin to shiver. He could feel Brian's cock against his hip, the tip hot and wet. He went down on his knees and down on Brian's dick, sucking him until Brian's toes curled and he gripped Justin's hair in his fists.
Brian pulled him up, away from his cock, and bent him over the rail, positioned his dick, and pushed.
It stung but Justin gritted his teeth and waited for the pain to subside. Which it did. Soon he was panting and swinging his hips backwards to meet Brian's lunges, tightening his hole around Brian's cock.
"Yeah. Yeah, Baby…" Brian thrust into him hard, riding his ass with abandon.
Justin reached back and slapped Brian's hip, urging him on. Fuck me harder, harder.
His fingers pressed into Justin's flesh as he held him in place by his waist and shoulder and endeavored to bury his cock to the hilt in his hole. Deep inside his ass, Brian felt his meat throb and he shuddered and began humping him. He wanted to come. Had to come.
And Justin wanted him to. Wanted Brian to fill his ass with cream, wanted to feel it run out of his hole and down his legs.
They struggled for a few minutes more, Justin's mouth wide open, screaming silently as Brian reamed his ass. Finally he cried out, "Ah! Ah!" He was nearing his own climax. Sometimes it was like that, that he didn't even have to touch himself, that being fucked by Brian was enough, feeling his cock slam into his prostate was enough to bring him off. Brian's dick swelling to its full girth, it rammed Justin's prostate and the young man shouted. Cum surged from his cock and was flung onto the floor of the pergola by the force of Brian's thrusts.
Although they'd fixed up the guestroom ostensibly for Molly, she had yet to see it. Justin insisted that everything be perfect before they show it to her and to him something was still missing. He wasn't sure what it was but he felt that he'd know it when he saw it. Hence the reason why he and Brian had spent most of the day walking the streets of Pittsburgh, ducking into out of the way shops in search of that one perfect thing.
They'd exhausted the malls and after having failed to find anything in any of the antique stores they'd visited, they made their way back to Liberty Avenue for a late lunch/early supper and to take a half-hearted look in the establishments on the street. They didn't have any hope however, and it was with a listless eye that they stepped inside a very unimposing, windowless store.
"Sebastian's place was a lot better than this," Justin judged just from his initial look around.
"Well…?" Brian replied, implying that they'd be better off finding food than wasting anymore time in this place. He wanted to get away before the proprietor showed up, probably some flaming queen who'd try to sell them fool's gold.
"Guess it won't hurt to take a look," said Justin just as Brian knew he would.
And just as he knew the guy would be, Mary, Queen of Scots, showed up at last, resplendent in a pair of red plaid pants and a hot pink t-shirt. Emmett would have been jealous. "May I help you?" he said with a toss of his blond-maned head.
"We're just looking," Justin told him but the guy stepped towards him anyway and took his arm.
"Tell me what you're looking for," he said conspiratorially as if there were hidden treasures in the shop that they couldn't ferret out for themselves.
Really, to Brian's eye, it looked as if a rainbow had exploded in the place showering it with useless Technicolor junk. There was nothing in here that would fit in the guestroom and nothing that Molly would like unless there was a Rainbow Brite doll stuffed away somewhere.
Still, Justin played nice. "We're looking for something to go in our guestroom."
"What kind of something?"
Reasonable question. Except Justin only had a vague answer. "Something special."
"Well, you're in luck," said Queen Mary, "that's what this place is all about."
Brian had to keep from sneering. Please.
"It has to be something a little girl would like."
Mary arched a brow, "Oh?" imagining all kinds of scenarios.
"My little sister," Justin clarified.
"Oh," he said and smiled knowingly. "I know all about little girls."
Having been one yourself, quipped Brian silently.
"And I've got the perfect thing," he promised Justin and steered him in the direction of the rear of the store. Stopped at the counter. "Wait here," he said and disappeared into a backroom.
Brian caught Justin's eye. "Waste of time."
He was just about to respond when Mary reappeared with a tray on which was a china set. But not just any china set. It featured a beautiful pale green background and was decorated with delicate, hand-painted, pink wild roses. The pot was almost a foot tall, slender, with an ornate handle accented in gold. The four matching cups were about three inches tall and rimmed in gold as well.
Justin reached for one and Brian knew he was lost. In all fairness, the
set was quite beautiful. As his partner examined the cup in his hand,
Brian asked, "How much?"
Jenn and Molly had accepted their invitation to dinner. They tried to get together once a month to have dinner or hang out, part of Justin's vision of a new millennium extended family. Normally they managed to have Gus over at the same time as he loved Molly but tonight the Munchers had taken Gus to Mel's aunt's house for dinner so it was just the two men and the Taylor women and Daphne, who was endeavoring to spend as much time as possible with her best friend before she had to head back to Princeton.
As usual Molly made it her business to stick pretty close to Brian, helping him with the drinks and the hors d'oeuvres while Justin checked on dinner. Both he and Jennifer hid their grins as Brian coped with his little admirer. Daphne, however, understood how the little girl felt; after all, wasn't she the founding member of the Straight Girls for Brian Kinney Club? God, she still remembered the first time she'd really appreciated him, the day she'd come over to the loft and Justin had given her a tour. Brian had awakened and come out stark naked to find out what was going on. She remembered him kissing her before he left the apartment and calling her, "Darling." He'd been amazing. It made her blush to this day to think about her saying, "He's to die for." But he had been. Still was.
Finally, after they'd finished their appetizers, Brian stood and crooked his finger at Molly.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
Without any preamble he said, "To your room."
"Your room," Brian told her and they all went upstairs to the guestroom. Molly stood at the door for a moment, then reached for the handle and turned it slowly. Pushed it open.
Taking a step inside, Molly gazed around her in wonder. It was all so beautiful, from the two full-sized canopied beds to the pretty green chenille chair and ottoman. Best of all was the picture on the wall. "Did you draw that, Justin?"
"Yeah, I did."
"Glad you like it. What about the room? Do you like it too?"
She hugged him.
Brian went to the television armoire which was still waiting for a television but he thought there was something in there she'd like even more. He took out the china set and placed it on the chaise lounge.
Jennifer gasped. She had seen the room but she hadn't seen that. "Oh my…" Tapped Molly on the shoulder. "Look."
Turning, Molly's eyes widened. "What is it?"
"It's a chocolate set," Brian explained.
"It's beautiful," Daphne exclaimed.
"And it's very old," added Justin, "so you have to take good care of it, okay?"
Molly ran her fingers over the smooth, sloping sides of the chocolate
In the midst of going over the boards Brad had submitted for their new account, Brian didn't hear Ryder knock and was, subsequently, very surprised when Marty spoke.
"Shit!" he exclaimed. Laughed. "Yeah?"
"Sorry. I thought you heard me knock." Ryder took a seat across from Brian's desk. "It's about the annual partner's dinner party."
Very nearly groaning, Brian had to remind himself that he needed to cultivate their goodwill and refusing to come to the shindig would definitely do that. "When is it?"
"Fine. We'll be there."
"Actually, that's what I wanted to talk to you about."
Brian tensed. No fucking way would Ryder try to suggest that Justin not come. Not after having been at their wedding.
"It was supposed to be at my house but we've decided to have work done to the kitchen as well as the master suite. Did your mother tell you?"
"Didn't mention it."
"So we're not really able to have guests." Marty paused and Brian waited for him to finish his thought and then he realized what that thought was.
"Ah. Yeah. Guess you want to hold it at our place."
"Well, you do have the room."
Pursing his lips, Brian made a quick decision. "Sure. Why not? Justin's been itching for an excuse to use the dining room. Guess he'll get his wish."
"Thanks, Brian." Mission accomplished, Ryder returned to his own office
leaving Brian to wonder how they were going to put together a dinner party
for twelve in two weeks.
"You said we'd do it?" Justin asked, disbelief dripping from every syllable.
"Kinda had to."
Justin slouched on the sofa and exhaled. "Two weeks?"
"Did you call Derek and Hansel?" the guys at The Zoo, who had catered their wedding and housewarming.
"They said it was kinda tight but they'd see what they could do. And if they couldn't swing it, they had the name of another company they could recommend."
"It's just a dinner party."
"We planned a wedding. For thirty."
"But we had over a month."
"And we managed to buy a house and decorate it at the same time. And you were working and going to school. We can do this."
Justin looked peeved. "Of course, we can do it. I didn't say we couldn't."
Deciding it was to his advantage not to get in an argument, Brian dropped that topic of conversation.
"When are Derek and Hansel getting back to you?" Now that he'd reconciled himself to the fact that they were having the dinner party, Justin wanted to get down to details.
"What about the menu? Any ideas?"
"I don't know what the partners like."
"Can you at least find out what they don't like?"
"I'll have Cynthia call their secretaries. They'll know."
Abruptly, Justin got up and headed for the dining room. "We don't have any formal linens," he said over his shoulder as Brian was left perplexed. And wondering how much this dinner was going to cost him.
Having cut on the lights, Justin tried to take stock of the things they'd need. Luckily the company and Kenneth had supplied services for ten but they were having ten guests. He went back to the family room to find a pad of paper and a pencil. "We need to get two more place settings," he told Brian.
"Two place settings."
Back in the dining room, Justin wrote down "Place settings-2," on his pad of paper and "linens: tablecloth and 12 napkins/placemats." They also needed flowers for the centerpiece and maybe some candles. So those went down on the list as well. Thanks to their trip to Italy and Joanie, the room didn't look as bare as it might have. There were carnivale masks on the wall as well as the Venetian mirror they'd had shipped over, and a Murano glass vase on the table. Sebastian's gift of the sterling silver tea service graced the top of the credenza and the topiary cake slice had a place on one of the shelves of the plate displayer that still looked a little empty. Maybe he could find some inexpensive pieces to fill them in.
After the dining room, he took a walk through the livingroom and decided that it was perfect as is. Brian would be happy to hear that. He knew that the exec was probably sitting on the couch dreading how much he'd be expected to fork over for this event.
"So?" Brian asked when he returned.
"The place settings, some linens, flowers for the centerpiece, some candles, a candleholder, and maybe some display pieces for the credenza."
"Don't go crazy, okay?" Brian requested as he handed over a credit card.
Justin smooched him on the lips. " 'kay."
"But it has to look fabulous," teased Brian and Justin, as expected,
Over the next week Justin went out hunting for the items on his list, sometimes with Daphne or Joanie, other times alone or, when he could drag him along, Brian.
On one such expedition, Daphne turned to him in the middle of an antique shop and asked, "So what are you wearing?"
The question floored him. He'd been so focused on getting the house ready that he hadn't given any thought to himself. "Shit."
"Guess we're going shopping huh?"
"I don't know what to get," he confessed. "I mean, I don't know if its black tie or what."
"Probably not that formal. Why don’t you call Brian and find out?" she suggested quite reasonably.
Justin checked his watch. Brian would have come back from lunch by now, if he'd gone out at all.
"Brian Kinney's office, this is Cynthia speaking."
"Hi, Cynthia, is Brian in?"
"Justin, hey. Hold on, I'll put you through. This about the party?"
"Yeah," he sighed.
"You'll do great. The wedding was amazing."
"All right, here he is."
She put him through and he heard Brian pick up. "Hey."
"Hey. What's up?"
"Is this black tie or what?" When Brian didn't answer right away, he asked, "Brian?"
"I don't know," he confessed. "I'll check with Ryder."
"Is it vital that I do it now?"
Justin didn’t reply, decided to let his silence answer Brian's question.
Justin waited while Brian switched to a second line and dialed Marty. Making faces at Daphne, he took a second look at a compote dish that had caught his eye. Only he couldn’t think of a reason why they'd need a compote dish. Brian came back on the line.
"Jacket and tie, but not black tie."
"Like the division party that year."
"God," groaned Brian, "just when I'd forgotten about that. Thank you oh so much."
"See you later."
Daphne had picked up a crystal decanter. "So?"
"Dressy but not black tie. Thank God."
Putting the decanter down, she asked, "What about music?"
Justin frowned then took out his pad and pencil and wrote himself
"So DJ Twist said he'd make us a CD for the party," he told Brian, who was in the closet changing clothes.
"It's not a party. Trust me, there will be nothing to celebrate," Brian replied, coming in wearing a pair of skin-tight sweats cut off mid-thigh, a jockstrap, his socks and tennis shoes, and nothing else. The material molded itself to his body, emphasizing the perfect shape of his buttocks.
His ass might not have been as bountiful as Justin's but it was beautiful nevertheless and his partner appreciated the shorts. Sliding his arms around Brian's waist, Justin cupped his behind. "Mmm… nice. What's the occasion?"
"It's hot." He removed Justin's arms from around him. "And I'm going for a run."
"Not dressed like that, you aren't."
Justin went into the closet and found one of Brian's tank tops. Handed it to him.
"You've got to be kidding."
"You want me to put it on you?"
Grumbling, Brian slipped the top on. "When did you start acting like a husband?"
"The moment I said, 'I do.' " He smacked Brian on the butt. "Bye-bye."
As if planning the dinner party wasn't enough, Justin asked, "What about Gus' birthday party? What's our theme?"
Brian looked over at him in disbelief. They were lying in bed trying to summon either the energy to make love or the self-control to forget about it and get some much needed sleep. For Brian's part, sleep was winning. At least until Justin brought up Gus' birthday party. "O-kay. Think about it. What's his most favorite show in the entire universe?"
"Bingo," said Brian, clicking his tongue for added emphasis.
Justin's eyes lit up. "This is going to be so cool. We can build Bikini Bottom on the bottom of the pool and maybe get an inflatable SpongeBob and Patrick. A SpongeBob cake. Balloons and sand pails and maybe some sand—"
"No sand. Where the fuck would we put it and how would we get rid of it when we were done?"
"We could build a sandbox. Gus needs a sandbox."
"He's got one at the Munchers'."
"He should have one here."
Brian challenged him. "You gonna build it?"
Justin nudged him. "Shut. Up."
"And bossy too."
Giving him another nudge, Justin climbed over on top of Brian.
"I'll make sure you get it up," the young artist promised.
"That's not the problem. Keeping it up is."
"Trust me, that's not a problem," he assured Brian as he kissed down
his chest. Upon reaching his briefs, he yanked them down in the front and
kissed the head of Brian's cock. Pulled the briefs off and tossed them
aside, then straddled Brian's hips. Began to ease down his own briefs.
Brian growled and grabbed him, pulled him on top of him and kissed him
hungrily. Already he had begun to feel a stirring. Yeah…
Watching Brian put the new occasional table in place in the guest room, Joanie asked, "Has Molly seen this yet?"
"Thought we'd never get rid of her." Then he added, "We're planning on inviting her over here for Gus' birthday. Spend the weekend and hang out with him. According to Lindz, the baby books say he can have three kids his own age at his party but he's still not too good about playing with kids his own age so…"
"What about John and Peter?"
"Possibility." He wouldn't commit to it, not when it came to his family.
"They are his cousins, he should get to know them better."
"Like I got to know mine?" From the way she looked aside, he knew she'd gotten a call from Brendan's mother. "So what did she say?"
Hesitating, she said, "That Brendan saw you in some bar. With Justin."
"And?" There was more, there always was with the Kinneys.
"And that you introduced Justin as your partner."
There was more. Something hurtful, something she didn't want to say. "And?"
"And nothing," she replied and began to straighten the comforter on the bed even though it didn't need straightening.
"What difference does it make what she said?"
He snickered. "Fuck 'em, huh?"
"Well…" Joanie touched the back of her neck, a habit he'd inadvertently picked up from her, only he tended to scratch the nape of his neck whereas she was content with just a touch.
"You know," he said, "Brendan was there with one of his ladies. Cathy knows what he does, his mom knows what he does, everybody fuckin' knows, but that's okay. I was there with my husband, and he and his friends looked at us like we were something you'd scrape off the bottom of your shoe. And that was okay too."
"Not everyone's like that."
"So we should show up at the next Kinney family reunion?"
She laughed this time. Touched her neck. "Maybe… not yet."
He felt his jaw tighten, wished Justin were here to make it okay. "Maybe not ever," he said softly.
"Do you really care?" she asked, not convinced that he did. After all, Brian never cared two cents for any of the Kinneys. She couldn't imagine that he'd begun to after all these years.
"No," he answered. He didn't care what the Kinney clan thought of him
on the whole, he only cared what one member thought and that one was the
one person whose approval he could never gain, not now. Not with Jack
lying dead in his grave.
"Table looks great," said Justin, looking into the guestroom briefly before heading back downstairs to see to dinner.
He glanced back over his shoulder. "You okay?"
"Got anything for me to chop?"
Letting it go for a moment that Brian hadn't answered his question, Justin answered his. "Nope. Still got vegetables left from yesterday."
Nodding, he turned to go into the family room.
"Brian?" Justin left the kitchen and walked with him. They sat down together on the couch by the fireplace. "What's wrong?"
"Why won't you talk to me?"
"Because there's no point." Brian started to stand, then decided to remain seated. "There's nothing to talk about. Nothing that we haven't talked to death, that the Doc and I haven't talked to death—I'm sick of talking about it. I'm sick…" Covered his mouth briefly. "I'm sick of caring what a dead man thinks of me."
"He would be proud of you."
"He would be proud of the fact that his son was a partner in a firm, that he had this house, and lived in this neighborhood. That's not the same as being proud of me. His son was this… this image that I sold him. Same way that I sold cereal, and tampons, and fuckin' toilet paper."
"Except," argued Justin, "you're more than that. More than he ever knew. And that's his loss."
"Then why do I feel the way that I do?"
Justin almost laughed. Leave it to Brian to overlook the most obvious thing. Or maybe it was the most hurtful thing, the one thing he didn't want to have to think about. "Because you loved him."
He wanted to deny it except that Justin would know it was a lie. So he
said nothing, just reached for his lover's hand and held it.
Brian never thought he'd be happy to sit through a dinner party but, by the time Saturday arrived, he was aching to get it over with so he'd never have to hear another word about it. Or have to buy anything else for it. You'd think he'd financed a small ad campaign from the amount of money they'd spent on the evening. Everything had better go off without a hitch. Of course, he couldn't imagine that it would.
Already Justin had awakened with a list of things in his head to do before that evening. Instead of drafting him to help with the last minute cleaning, Brian had let him go off on his errands. Now he busied himself with cleaning the master bathroom—not that it needed much. Although the guests would use the bathroom downstairs, he didn't know if they'd want a tour of the house. Probably. Most people did. Granted, it was a very beautiful house and they were proud of it so they didn't really mind.
After he cleaned their bathroom and made sure their room was immaculate, he turned to Gus' room and did a perfunctory once-over as no one expected kids' rooms to be spotless. Or neat. Gus' was okay. His bathroom was fine, everything in its place, no mildew stains on the shower door.
Heading downstairs, Brian went over the guest bathroom by the kitchen,
scrubbing the floor and cleaning the mirror, the toilet. He laughed to
himself, remembering how much he'd hated housework as a kid. But once he'd
become a homeowner himself, his attitude had changed. He remembered
yelling at Justin the time he came home to the loft to find Justin's crap
all over the apartment and Justin dancing to Moby. Remembered saying,
"This isn't a hotel room and you're not on your Blonde Ambition
tour." Chuckled. God, in those days anything Justin did was liable to
set him off. How they'd survived to make to this day, he'd never know. He
guessed miracles did happen.
T-minus fifteen minutes and counting. The caterers had arrived. Hansel and Derek hadn't let them down, had found a way to squeeze them into their busy schedule and both Brian and Justin's mouths watered each time they caught scent of the buttery aroma coming from the kitchen. That is when Justin wasn't spritzing the flowers on the dining table or when Brian wasn't counting the bottles of wine to make sure they had enough. Finally, when they were both satisfied, they met in the reception hall and stood at a loss.
Brian glanced at the Turner prints on the wall. "We need some chairs out here," he said when he realized that they still had about ten minutes to wait.
"Maybe we could move the game table and chairs from the family room." They never used them. Their friends, when they came over, appropriated the sofa and chairs in the two main seating areas of the family room. The game table and chairs were closer to the gallery hallway entrance and were hardly sat in.
With ten minutes to spare, they moved the designated furniture out to the reception hall, placing one chair on the wall between the family room and the hallway and the other between the entrances to the dining room and living room. They put the table next to that chair as there was more room. "That's better," declared Brian and he promptly sat down in one.
Justin, feeling he needed a rest, sat in the other across the hall.
They looked at one another.
Hazel eyes met blue.
And Justin rose and went to Brian and sat on his lap.
"Much better," said the ad exec. "I was getting lonely."
"Can't have that." They kissed.
"A piece of cake?" Justin asked hopefully.
"Not exactly," Brian replied. "There are a couple of real hard-asses among the partners. But the only one you really have to impress is Searle. Get his approval and the rest can go to hell."
"He's the one to watch, huh?"
"See which way the wind blows," said Brian, remembering what Jeff had said about him. The doorbell rang interrupting a second kiss. Both took a deep breath. "Show time."
"You sure I look okay?" They'd both opted for dark suits with white shirts, nothing too fancy. The only differences in their outfits were the cuts of the suits and the fact that he wore a deep blue tie and Brian had chosen a charcoal grey one. "I feel like I'm playing dress-up."
"You look fine," Brian assured him. "More than fine." Kissed him. "How about we forget about this party and just play?"
"Don't tempt me," Justin answered and pulled away from him reluctantly. Paused with his hand on the doorknob. "Here goes." Opened the door. "Hi. Come on in."
And with those words the evening started. Luckily, being businessmen, the partners were notoriously anal about appointments, and had all arrived at the same time so there was no waiting about for dawdlers who had yet to show up.
With everyone inside and greetings exchanged, the men showed their guests to the livingroom. Brian had set up bar on a serving cart by the entrance to the room and in no time they all had drinks in their hands but none of the women were interested in sitting around in the livingroom sipping martinis and making polite conversation. They wanted a tour of the house, even Liz Ryder-Kelly who had attended the wedding and had seen the house, albeit in an unfinished stage. Brian suspected their husbands were just as eager to see what his salary and stock options had bought.
Always willing to show off the house, Justin assumed leadership of the twenty minute tour of the Kinney/Taylor-Kinney manse. As usual, the highlights were the art: the sketches he had done, Brian's photographs, Gus' painting, and the walls he and his friends had frescoed.
Examining Justin's sketch of Brian in bed, Searle raised a brow prompting Brian to wish that they'd changed out the drawing just for tonight. But then the white-haired partner said, "Excellent draftsmanship. Glad to see they still teach you something in art school."
His wife confided in Justin, "Ronald went to art school in New York. He's very good with a pencil. He did a number of drawings of me when I was young and pretty too," she confessed, with an eye towards Brian.
Cassidy's wife, who was in her mid-forties, spent the most time in front of Gus' painting. They'd gotten it mounted at the mall, Gus had picked out the frame himself: shiny, reticulated brass. "How old is your son?"
"Almost three," Brian told her. "His birthday's next month."
But Cassidy focused on Brian's photographs. "You do these?" he asked Brian.
"Maybe you should think about becoming a fashion photographer."
With a tilt of his head, Brian grinned. "Is this your way of telling me I'm no longer wanted as a partner?"
To his credit, Cassidy looked embarrassed but Ryder came to his rescue. "Trying to cut down on expenses—and keep you busy," he joked with a sly smile and Brian laughed.
Upstairs, of course, the frescoes held center stage.
"Joanie told me how beautiful they were but I had no idea," exclaimed Liz. "Would you be interested in a commission? We would pay."
"Ah… sure. Could you wait until school started though? It's a lot easier to do with Xavier and Rennie."
Jennings, who'd looked as if he'd eaten a persimmon during most of the tour, asked, "And just what year are you in school?"
"Junior." Ignoring the implied insult, Justin beamed. Only two more years left and he'd be a free man.
Once they were ensconced back in the livingroom, the waiters from The Zoo swooped down upon them and served appetizers. Drinks were refreshed and their guests began to chat in groups much as they did at any gathering. Jennings and Mason were over by themselves with their heads together. Their wives were not with them as the two women cared nothing for one another. Cassidy, instead, sat talking with his wife and Jenning's wife while Mrs. Mason joined a group comprised of Liz Ryder-Kelly and Mrs. Searle, who had questioned Justin very closely during their tour, evidencing a great interest in the house's furnishings. Searle and Ryder parked themselves near Brian and the serving cart and the three men talked business mostly although they had questions about the house as well. Justin contented himself with circulating and making sure everyone was comfortable until Liz called him over to her group and he spent the next fifteen minutes exchanging stories about Italy with Mrs. Mason who had gone on a European grand tour just out of college.
Finally, dinner was announced and they proceeded into the dining room and arranged themselves around the table as they wished, Brian and Justin on opposite ends.
Everything sparkled, from the elegant china and stemware on the table to the ornate chandelier above. The gold-colored, silk curtains shimmered in the lamplight and billowed slightly from the breeze coming through the opened window.
Brian raised his wine glass and was joined by the rest of the diners at the table. "Welcome," he said quite simply, and dinner commenced.
The steam rising from the hot rolls as they broke them open was like an aphrodisiac. Butter melted as soon as it was applied and for a while there was silence as they partook of the delicious bread.
By the time the soup course was over, even Jennings and Mason were laughing along with the rest of the folks and behaving as if they and their hosts were bosom buddies. Brian suspected it was the wine. Then again, lobster bisque did have a way of loosening people's tongues and putting them in a very good mood.
Which lasted all the way through dessert, another Derek and Hansel triumph: tiramisu served in individual footed trifle dishes. Brian had requested the dessert especially for Justin, a thank you note for agreeing to throw the party. He watched as a smile spread across his husband's lowered face.
They retired to the livingroom for after-dinner drinks, the evening drawing to a close, soothing jazz playing on the CD DJ Twist had compiled for the party. Leo, who had been upstairs, made an appearance, curling up on the chaise lounge and watching the proceedings with interest.
While they conversed, the waiters removed the last of the dishes from the dining room and cleaned up the kitchen, preparing to go now that the party was almost over.
It was nearly eleven o'clock when their guests rose to leave. Although the party had been a success, they were glad to see the partners and their wives to the door. Once the last person had gotten into their car, Brian and Justin, who had been waving goodbye from the wrought iron gate, returned to the house. The caterers had gone. Their guests had gone.
"Finally," Brian breathed, falling down onto the sectional, the warm leather giving in all the right places.
Justin joined him, pillowed his head on his husband's chest. "I feel like I was just in a beauty contest," his face ached from smiling so much.
"Well, you definitely deserve a crown. Searle was very impressed."
"I like him. And his wife. I bet she was beautiful when she was young."
"I bet she still thinks she's beautiful," Brian teased and Justin smiled.
"She is. She kind of reminds me of your mom."
Brian thought for a moment. "Kind of. The way Joanie might have been if… if things had been different."
"The way she is now," Justin clarified for him. "Alive… and confident."
With a kiss, Brian made a suggestion. "How about we lock the doors and go upstairs?"
Justin kissed him deeply and made a suggestion of his own. "How about we forget about the locks and stay down here?" He kissed Brian again and began taking off his jacket.
"What an excellent idea."
Everything had to be perfect. After all, it wasn't everyday that they celebrated their six month anniversary. Justin lit the candles. Six months deserved something special; so even though it was just the two of them, he set the table in the dining room with the good china and stemware. Fresh flowers in a vase; champagne chilling in a bucket on the buffet. Dinner was almost ready: the quiche only had a few more minutes in the oven and he'd already tossed the salad. The only thing missing was his husband.
Checking the quiche first, he sat at the island and waited for the sound of the Jeep roaring up the driveway. Thought about their wedding day six months ago. He'd been looking at the photos earlier today. How happy they'd been surrounded by their friends and family. It still amazed him, that Brian had agreed to the ceremony; more than agreed, had helped plan the day, even participated in the decorating. To Justin, that, just as much as anything else, had convinced him that he was doing the right thing. He'd had doubts that he hadn't shared with anyone; prior to the wedding, he'd feared that they were making a mistake, that the relationship they had would not hold up under the pressures of marriage. But he'd put aside those doubts and spoken his vows. Now, he knew that he'd been right. God knows there'd been days since the wedding when he thought that he would choke Brian but there had never been a moment when he'd thought they'd be better off apart. There had never been a moment when he'd doubted that they would be together always. Even Kenneth's best effort hadn't been enough to destroy what they had. Their relationship was stronger than it had ever been.
Six months. A soft smile lit Justin's face. Each day, as impossible as it seemed, he discovered another reason to love Brian. Sometimes it was something small: the way the sunlight glinted in his eyes or a certain way he had of holding his head when he was amused. Other times the reason loomed large: Brian consenting to throw a Fourth of July party, decorating the guest room for Molly, his agreeing to have Craig over for dinner. Despite their spats and arguments and disagreements, Justin knew in his heart that he'd found his soul mate, his partner for life. Those were more than mere words and he intended to keep the vows he'd made for as long as he lived.
He heard the Jeep come to a screeching halt outside. Heard a car door slam. Cutting off the quiche, Justin met Brian at the entrance to the kitchen. They kissed for a very long time, dinner put on hold while they celebrated.
"I love you."
Smiling broadly, Justin replied, "I love you too."
"Guess we're stuck with each other then."
"For life." Justin parted from him. "Hungry?"
"Go change and I'll put out the food."
Brian removed his jacket and draped it over a bar stool. Pooled his tie on top and opened the fridge. Took out the salad bowl and dressing. "Dining room?"
"Yeah," said Justin and he found the oven mitts and took the quiche out of the stove.
By the time they'd settled down at the table, Leo had come from upstairs to say hello to Brian and to investigate. Getting his ears scratched, he left them then in search of his own food.
Music played softly in the background, piano and violins, a woman's voice.
They raised their champagne glasses. "To us," Justin offered simply.
"To us." Brian took a sip, then pulled out the bottle to check the label. "Nice."
"You are such a label queen," joked Justin.
"Why else have them?" Brian asked, quite seriously.
"Eat your food."
He sampled the quiche. "You make this?"
"No labels." Justin giggled; he couldn't resist teasing Brian.
But Brian wouldn’t give in. "Yeah, there is. You. You're the label."
"What's it say?"
" 'Full of—' "
"It says," he began again, " 'Made by the best.' "
Blushing, Justin asked, "So what'd you do at work today?"
Brian laughed and shook his head. That was his Baby. "Six months, huh?"
"Doesn't seem that long."
And we make it up
"Guess." He still couldn't remember that night in Birmingham and he refused to let the shadows of that evening haunt this one. Clearing his head of any thoughts of Kenneth, he smiled brightly and Justin lowered his eyes momentarily before speaking.
"You're so beautiful."
"Just for you," Brian said softly.
Falling silent for a moment, Justin said, "I was just thinking…"
"Uh-huh." Justin smiled and it was Brian's turn to look away. They didn't call the young artist Sunshine for nothing. Brian remembered Justin smiling like that the day they were married and it had almost melted his heart. Had it been six months ago? It felt like just last week. "So you were just thinking what?"
"How nice it is to stay at home and celebrate."
"Good food… good wine…"
"…fresh flowers… candlelight…"
"…and the hottest sex ever."
Justin's stomach fluttered in anticipation. Brian was telling the absolute truth. And, of course, now the image of them making love had planted itself in his mind and he could hardly concentrate on dinner, wanting to throw down his napkin and race upstairs to moan and groan until the early hours of the morning. He could already feel Brian moving between his thighs and the heat rose up from his belly to color his cheeks.
A sliver of a smile on his raspberry lips, Brian sipped his champagne. Although his face wasn't flushed, he was feeling the heat as well, just thinking about Justin's legs wrapped around his waist. Espying a last bit of quiche on his plate, he devoured it and wiped his mouth. Justin was way ahead of him, standing to blow out the candles. They grabbed the dishes and glasses, silverware and quiche pan and ferried everything into the kitchen, dumped it into the sink, and made a valiant attempt to rinse each piece before they loaded it into the dishwasher but their bed beckoned and they were not able to resist its call.
They fell against the wall as they raced up the stairs, kissing hungrily, tearing off clothes, deciding in a rush that maybe they didn't need the bed after all, maybe the steps would do. Justin moaned as Brian unzipped him and pounced on his cock, sucking him until he was hard and wet. Pulling from between his lips, Justin turned around and held onto the rail with one hand while Brian rimmed him. Fingers pressed into either cheek, Brian opened him up and licked him, tongue digging, probing.
"Ah! Ah…" groaned Justin, growing dizzier with each lick. His legs trembled and he was glad of the railing, glad of Brian's strong grip.
When his lover's tongue finally withdrew, he shivered and would have gone to his knees except that Brian picked him up and carried him to their bedroom, laid him on their bed and laid him bare. Pushed up his shirt and kissed his nipples, ran his tongue along the center of his chest, the middle of his torso, down around his navel. Brian licked his cock head, caressed the swollen flesh with his tongue, drew it into his mouth, sucked him, teased him. Justin reached for Brian's head but Brian caught his hands and held them down along his sides while he continued to lap up Justin's precum as it bubbled from the tip of his cock. Repeatedly his tongue washed over and under, around the head. Justin raised his hips to force his dick inside Brian's mouth once again but the man jerked away, refusing. Only when Justin had settled down did he return to his catlike feasting.
He rubbed his face against Justin's cock, the stubble on his chin and cheeks driving his spouse wild. Rubbed his face over Justin's balls and listened to him cry out. Went back on his knees and grabbed Justin by the hips, raised his ass up, lowered his face between his cheeks and rubbed his hole with his stubble-covered chin.
Justin shuddered and gripped the comforter. His head lolled about on
the pillow and spittle ran down his chin. He wanted to be fucked and
fucked hard. He felt like a wild animal, wanting to be mounted, wanting
Brian to shove his dick right up the center of his ass. Unable to voice
his desires, he pushed Brian's head away from his hole and turned over on
his belly. Raised his ass in the air. Hoped Brian was watching. He could
feel his hole tightening and relaxing. Felt a tongue swipe it. Frustrated,
wanting Brian's cock and not his tongue, Justin moaned but he didn't have
long to wait as Brian was just as hungry. Soon they were joined, jostling
the bed. Words, even the simplest of words, escaped them. They
communicated in grunts, and groans, and sighs.
After the first wave of need had washed over them and receded, they were able to relax and enjoy the rest of their evening. Which included, of course, bringing out their wedding album and reminiscing about that day.
I'm freezing that
"Were you nervous?" Justin asked and Brian responded in the negative. "Not even a little bit?"
"I was," Justin confessed.
"No shit," teased Brian. Then he asked, "About what?"
"I wanted everything to be perfect."
He fidgeted for a moment, then replied, "I didn't want anyone to think that we couldn't do it. That we weren't as good as some straight couple."
"We were better."
Justin gazed at his favorite wedding picture: the two of them standing beneath the lighted swag over the French doors to his studio. "We looked fabulous."
"We were fabulous."
Knowing how much Brian hated answering questions like the one he was about to ask, Justin asked him anyway, "What was your favorite part?" He busied himself flipping through the album, unsure if Brian would respond.
A soft smile illuminated Brian's face. "When Rev. Ophelia introduced you as Justin Taylor-Kinney. That was better than anything."
"Why?" Justin wanted to know.
"Cause it meant the ceremony was over." Brian suffered being pushed by Justin, then slipped his arm around his spouse's shoulders. Kissed him. "Cause it meant you were really mine. And no one could take you away from me."
Turning, Justin laid his face against Brian's chest. "Just let them try."
How did it go so in our
"Daddy, what's dat?"
They were outside working in the herb garden. Justin looked where Gus pointed. "That's a caterpillar." It was red and brown and dappled with whitish spotting and had spines on its back.
"What's dat?" Sometimes grownups forgot that naming something didn't automatically explain it and Gus often had to ask his question a second time. He crouched down to watch the caterpillar make its slow progress across a stepping stone.
"It's an insect." Justin groped for words Gus would understand. "It's like a worm except that it becomes a butterfly."
"Butterfly?" Gus laughed. Shook his head. The things daddies said. "No." He knew what butterflies were and they did not look like worms.
"It eats a lot of food--like you--and then it goes to sleep for a long time and when it wakes up, it's a butterfly."
"It wakes up and it's a butterfly," Justin explained.
As if that explained anything. "How dat?" asked Gus.
"I'm not sure," Justin confessed. "Except that's what caterpillars are supposed to do. They get older and bigger and become butterflies."
"I'm a butterfly?"
Justin smiled and said, "No. You'll just get older and bigger; and one day you'll be a man like me and Daddy."
"Tall like Daddy."
"Yeah." Gus couldn't wait.
Having gone inside to escape the midday heat, Gus and Justin worked in his studio making fingerprint butterflies since Gus seemed so interested in them. Brian stuck his head in once to find out what they were doing, then announced that he was going out for a while and did Justin want anything.
He'd been on vacation for a few days now and Justin figured he was getting antsy. "You're not going to work are you?" He'd gone to class himself that morning but had hurried home to be with Gus.
"Well, I don't need anything." He was surprised Gus hadn't asked to go with Brian but so far he was content to paint butterflies while Leo watched from a safe distance as if he knew he was in danger of getting finger-painted and didn't want anything to mar his beautiful, golden coat.
Brian bussed Justin and slipped on his sunglasses.
"Later." Justin watched him stride out of the studio and across the
backyard. Watched the progress of his slender hips and long, long legs
Even after Brian returned home, he didn't say where he'd been or what he'd been doing. Letting him indulge in a bit of cloak and dagger play, Justin didn't ask.
That night before they put Gus down to sleep, Brian revealed the answer to the day's mystery: a book. A book called Very Hungry Caterpillar. Sitting in their bed, with his son in his arms and his spouse by his side, Brian read Gus the story of a caterpillar who becomes a butterfly. "In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf..." Gus turned the pages, putting his fingers in holes that went through the food the caterpillar ate each day. At the end of the book, the caterpillar emerged from his chrysalis a beautiful butterfly.
"The end," said Brian and handed the book to Gus to marvel over.
The little boy flipped back through the pages and pointed to the different foods the caterpillar had eaten and named them, showing them to Justin.
"That's amazing. I told you caterpillars became butterflies." Gus giggled. "Wasn't it nice of Daddy to get you this book?"
"Yeah." Gus hugged Brian. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. You ready to go to sleep?"
"You wanna go play with Leo?"
"Yeah." So off he went and Leo climbed down from the bed to run after him. They'd be at it for at least another half hour before the Sandman visited them both.
With Gus gone, Justin snuggled close to his husband. "That was really sweet."
"I'm a sweet guy."
"I'm glad you took some time off."
"Give the underachievers a chance to catch up," he joked. Then, even though he never thought he'd admit it, he did. "I was pretty burned out."
"Well," said Justin, stroking his bare arm, "you've got the whole rest of the week to relax."
"With Gus around?"
"Okay, so relax is a relative term."
"Actually," Brian confessed, "I'm glad he's here." Gus was approaching the age where they could begin to engage in conversations and he found that he enjoyed talking to him. Loved Gus' curiosity and sense of adventure. His generosity of spirit. Those were things he'd inherited from Lindsay, that Justin had helped shape. Brian prized those qualities in his friend and partner and valued them no less in his child. Not for the first time did he find himself looking forward to Gus' becoming an adult, imagining the kind of man he'd be. And he smiled, seeing in his mind a tall, slender, hazel-eyed young man with a beautiful smile, a young man who looked a lot like he had at that age but far more at peace with the world and with himself.
He could hardly wait to hear what he had to say.
All day the thought kept going through Brian's mind, He's a junior now, and each time it did, he smiled. He was as proud of Justin's achievements as if they were his own. In a way, they were because he had been there from the beginning, or from what he and Justin thought of as the beginning of Justin's life, the night his real life had begun: the night they'd met, the night Gus had been born.
Tonight was the opening reception for Pittsburgh IFA and Brian had already cleared his afternoon schedule so that he could get home in time to change and have an early dinner out before heading to the institute. Justin was understandably excited as this year marked the second half of his college career and his little friends had returned to town.
This past Sunday they'd come over to the house and all three had horsed around in the backyard like puppies, splashing in the pool and sunning themselves as they played catch up. Brian had put on his swimsuit and gone out for a while before returning to the safety of the house. The noise level and Rennie's leering looks had been more than he could stand for very long. He hoped they'd behave a little more civilly this evening.
His phone buzzed. Cynthia, reminding him that it was time to go. "Yeah?"
"Get a move on, Boss."
"Tell Justin I said congratulations."
"He's not graduating," Brian explained unnecessarily.
"It's a big deal, being a junior," she said before ringing off.
On the way home he made a couple of stops, at one shop picking up something he'd dropped off to be engraved a few days ago.
Arriving at the house, he saw that Justin's Cherokee was gone. Maybe he was out shopping for something to wear; he'd complained just this morning that he didn't have anything suitable. Brian had raised a brow, unable to imagine what Justin deemed unsuitable considering his wardrobe in general. Before Leo could appear to demand his attention, Brian dialed his spouse's cell.
"Where are you?"
"On my way home. I was at the mall."
Here came Leo. "Gotta go, the master of the manse has arrived demanding worship."
Despite not knowing how long Justin would take getting home, Brian decided to put off showering until he got there. Showering with Justin was always much more fun than doing it alone. In the meanwhile, he would pet Leo for a bit and pick out something to wear from his extensive wardrobe of casual yet elegant pieces. That is, after he put Justin's flowers in water.
Stargazer lilies, snapdragons, alstroemeria, and mums. Justin would love them, the stargazer lilies reminding him of their first night together after he'd been released from the hospital, the first time they'd made love. He set the flowers on the nightstand by Justin's side of the bed where the young college student would be sure to see them. Left a wrapped box next to the flowers.
Accompanied by Leo, who had seated himself comfortably on a bench, Brian was still in the closet when Justin arrived, having decided to rearrange some of his clothes. He heard Justin call to him as he entered their suite, started to answer, then decided not to, not right away, not until he'd come into the room proper. Not until he'd seen—
He'd seen them. Brian came out of the closet to find Justin holding the box in one hand and stroking the silky petals of the stargazer lilies.
"Brian… these are beautiful." It seemed a lifetime ago, that there had ever been a time when Brian wouldn't have been caught dead doing anything romantic.
He kissed the top of his lover's head. "Congratulations."
"You're a junior. It's a big deal, you know? Or so I've heard."
Justin laughed. Held up the wrapped box. "What's in here?"
"Kids," said Brian, shaking his head. "Why don't you open it up?"
Nimble fingers soon had the wrapping off and the box opened, the flap pulled back to reveal a 5x7 sterling silver, easel-backed picture frame with a photo of Justin inside that Brian had taken while he'd been working one afternoon in the loft. His face had been cast in shadows but you could see the outline of his body as he sketched. Beneath the photograph, the frame was engraved, "To Justin, my Michelangelo – Brian". Justin held the frame in his hands for a moment, then placed it on the nightstand by the flowers he'd received, turned, and embraced his husband.
Smiling, Brian whispered in his ear, "We'd better get moving if we want to be on time for this monstrosity."
Despite having plans for dinner, they spent way too much time in the shower playing around and had to speed dress and rush from the house with only minutes to make their reservations.
The wheels of the Jeep protested as Brian came to a screeching halt outside the restaurant. Justin figured Brian must have been owed a miracle by the Big Guy because he hadn't gotten a speeding ticket on what had been a fast and reckless ride from the house.
"Go," Brian commanded, and Justin jumped out to check on their reservations while Brian parked the car.
Lucky for them, the restaurant wasn't crowded so their spot was safe. Once Brian came in, they were shown to their table, a booth really, secluded and lit from above by a petite, votive chandelier. All throughout the room were other booths and tables at which were seated other same-sex couples. The restaurant was Liberty Avenue's newest addition, a place for more upscale dining and entertainment. There was no pulsing music, no backroom, no tweaked-out twinks looking for sugar daddies.
"Romantic," said Justin after the hostess had left and he reached for Brian's hand across the table. They fell into a comfortable silence.
Jazz music played in the background and it was only as the second verse of the song began that Justin recognized the artists, a husband and wife duo whose music they'd played at their wedding.
Carryin' on, with a wordless smile, is your eyes, aflame to me.
"I'm thinking about asking my Dad to come to Gus' birthday party," said Justin. "That okay with you?"
"Think he'd come?"
"That's not what I asked you." Justin had become wiser to the ways of Brian over the years.
"Well, he's already been through our house, so he knows where all the valuables are."
"Fine." He finished off his wine. "I just hope this doesn't blow up in our faces. Especially Gus'. He was spared having to have two assholes for grandfathers by virtue of death. Lindsay's dad won't acknowledge him at all. Which is fine. He can just stay the fuck away."
"Dad won't hurt Gus," Justin argued. "Not intentionally," he added.
"But Gus would be hurt just the same." He gave a little shake of his head. "That's life, I guess. Can't protect him from everything." Yet it continued to bother him.
Softly, Justin said, "I won't ask him if you think we shouldn't have him there. I don't want Gus hurt anymore than you do. He's what's important."
"I know how much you want this, want your dad to be part of whatever the fuck it is we're a part of," he said in an attempt to describe their family and thinking about the sheer number of folks involved with their lives and the myriad of roles they played. "So ask him. We'll deal with it when he comes." If he comes.
Changing subjects, Justin brought up the possibility of them having a guest. "Nana Rose is coming up for the 9/11 show and I thought maybe she could stay with us." Even though the show commemorated 9/11, it was actually held the week afterwards to give the students time to work on their pieces.
"We've got the room."
Justin frowned a little, completely surprised by Brian's reply. "Then you don't mind?"
"I like her. She'll keep you on your toes."
"Me on my toes?" He snorted.
"Oh, that's attractive."
Justin wrinkled his nose. "You know you love me anyway." When Brian didn't reply, Justin nudged him under the table with his foot. "Say it."
"Didn't think I had to," Brian explained.
"You don't," Justin said with a smile.
For a change, they actually arrived in time to hear all of the Dean's opening remarks at the reception. Something they both could have done without but they were relatively brief so the pain didn't last long. When he was finished, Brian and Justin went in search of Rennie and Xavier.
"So," Rennie asked when they found them, "is someone important supposed to be here tonight?"
"Why?" asked Justin.
"You're all dressed up."
"Kenneth Cole," he explained. Icy blue shirt with a variegated pintuck coatfront over a pair of jeans with a vertical stripe that ran down the front of his thighs.
"Your taste must be rubbing off on him, Brian," she said, very appreciative of the black sweater with a striped crew neck that he was wearing as it emphasized his long, lean torso.
"Rubbing up against him, you mean," said Xavier with a grin and both Justin and Brian laughed.
Leaving the children to talk, Brian wandered the exhibit of last year's work. Spotting the still life paintings Justin and his friends had done, he reminded himself to speak to Xavier and Rennie seriously about buying some of their pieces for the house. Justin planned on putting up a notice by the student studios about their offer of showing work in their home. Maybe they'd have some takers.
"On the prowl?"
Without turning, he knew that it was Trevor. Prowling around himself, looking for trouble. If he wasn't careful, he'd find it. Brian could smell the alcohol on his breath. Maybe Trevor had a problem with the booze. Rather than engaging in a pointless conversation, Brian opted out and walked away. Or he would have except that Trevor caught hold of his arm. Turning, Brian braced himself for a scene.
"You're very rude."
"I didn't think your question deserved an answer."
"And a great fuck. Believe me, I'm well aware of my virtues."
Arrogant sonofabitch, went through Trevor's mind. But he couldn't deny that Brian was a great fuck and he couldn't escape the fact that he was still as beautiful as sin and just as enticing.
When it didn't seem as if Trevor had anything else to say, Brian tried
to leave again. This time, the sculptor didn't stop him.
Justin and Xavier waited near the luggage carrels for Nana Rose to arrive. Her plane had landed a few minutes ago and she was due any moment. Xavier glanced over at Justin. "Thanks, J, for letting Nana stay with you guys. Really appreciate it."
"No problem. Brian actually likes her a lot."
"Well, don't tell him but she likes him too."
"I think he knows," Justin confided. Brian always knew what people thought of him, for good or bad. He was probably one of the most sensitive people Justin knew, definitely the most sensitive man he knew. It's why Brian had been such a hard-ass: to protect himself.
"Hey! There she is." Xavier jogged over to meet his grandmother and hugged her as if he hadn't left her a little over three weeks earlier. To him it felt like a lifetime apart.
"Hey, Baby Boy." Kissed him soundly on the cheek, then reached for Justin who had come over too. Kissed him as well. "Hey, Baby, how you been?"
"Fine. How was the flight?"
"Short, thank God. Now, how about you boys find my suitcase and let's roll up out of here. I am tired."
While Xavier went to grab her suitcase, Justin told her, "Brian's grilling steaks tonight for dinner. That okay with you?"
"Long as I get a big, thick, juicy one."
Xavier started to giggle and Justin did too, thinking of the double entendre implied by her words. Rose shook her head. Boys. Not that she hadn't thought about it too—one point two seconds after she'd spoken.
On the way home, they stopped and picked up Rennie and, with two of his friends present, Justin began to miss Daphne really badly. They'd definitely have to make another road trip up to Princeton this semester. And go to that restaurant Brian had raved about.
Once they reached the house, Brian went up to show Nana Rose the guestroom while Justin attended to their other guests. Placing her suitcase on the bed, Brian said, "This is it."
"I can't believe how much you all have done to the house. After I put away my clothes, you'll have to give me a tour."
"You look just as happy as you were on your wedding day. I'm glad."
Brian hide his embarrassment by needlessly messing around with the curtains.
Her clothes attended to, Nana Rose accompanied Brian on a tour of the parts of the house that hadn't been completed by the time of the wedding—which was basically most of the house. She oohed and ahhed at the mural in the master bath, having seen pictures that Xavier had brought home but pictures never really told the whole story. Brian promised her a turn in the sauna after she said she'd never been in one.
"You won't want to get out. Sometimes Justin has to come in and get me," he confessed.
"Bet you don't mind that at all."
He grinned. "Can't say that I do."
As impressed as she'd been by the bathroom and the sauna, her eyes widened when they went inside the dining and living rooms.
"Oh, my God," she whispered in awe. "I can't believe these are the same two rooms. Your mother is a miracle worker."
"Yeah, she got me and Justin to agree on that chandelier," he replied wryly.
"I feel like I'm on All My Children. This place is something else. It ought to be in House Beautiful or some magazine like that."
He frowned. "I don't think I'd want a bunch of strangers walking through our house and taking pictures." Then he thought for a moment. "But it'd be good for Joanie's business. Still…" he started, "why would they want to do a story about two gay men? Wouldn't be good for their wholesome image."
"Honey please, I read all those home magazines and they have lots of gay couples in them. Besides, look at all the people who watch that "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" show."
"I can't stand it," Brian said, his lips a hard line. He really hated the whole idea of it.
"Me neither," said Nana Rose. "Same people watch that show, they wouldn't lift a finger if that asshole Bush decided to send all the gay people in America to Antarctica or someplace."
Brian laughed and kissed Nana Rose much as he did Deb when she had especially pleased him. "You hungry?"
Pulse quickening, Nana Rose waved him away. "You are something else."
As it was still warm at night, they ate outside by the pool with the gas lamps on around the yard.
Nana Rose sat back in one of the chaise lounges after she'd finished eating a huge New York strip steak and sighed. "Now, this is the life."
"Don't get too used to it," Xavier warned her.
"Why not? You gone be a big artist one day."
"It's true," Justin told him.
"What? I'm gone be a big, fat artist?" joked Xavier.
"That you'll be successful," Rennie clarified for him. "We're all going to be ridiculously successful." She did not lack confidence.
Quietly, Brian said, "I believe it." And he'd put his money where his mouth was by offering to buy their still life paintings once they came down at school. He'd given all three—including Justin—a fair price for their work. Thinking about his purchase made him remember having sent Kenneth some photos of their art. "Did Kenneth Harris ever contact you two?"
"Nope," replied Rennie. "You?" Xavier shook his head.
Another broken promise. That actually surprised him, he'd thought better of Kenneth. Guess it had all been a ploy to get him into bed. Frowning a little in the waning light, he felt Justin's hand on his thigh. Looked over. Justin smiled and Brian returned it. Fuck Kenneth.
Nana Rose gazed up at the stars which were just shyly appearing. "Look
at that sky. Don't seem like the same sky as in DC."
Brian cleaned up as Xavier and Rennie got ready to go back to the Institute and Nana Rose said goodbye to them for the night. Justin, sensing that Xavier didn't really want to leave, offered him the use of the second bed in the guestroom. But Xavier declined. "Night, Nana. See you tomorrow," he said and he and Rennie followed Justin out to the car.
There was no use pretending he hadn't heard, still Brian thought it was best not to bring it up. Only Rose brought it up instead.
"Would you have minded?"
At first he started to say, 'No.' After all, why would he mind? And then he realized that he would have. "Maybe a little," he said.
"Why?" she asked, perching on a bar stool.
"Don't know." He turned on the dishwasher. Leaned back against it. "I shouldn't mind, shouldn't give a shit."
"It's never going to be completely healed, is it?"
Brian shrugged. "Maybe it would if… It's not Xavier." He shook his head. "Something happened… with Kenneth Harris."
"You want to say what?"
"I don't know." He raked his hair back from his face. Maybe it was time to get it cut. Seeing the confused look on her face, he explained, "I don't know what happened. I can't remember."
"You and Justin seem okay."
"We are. We've dealt with it and… we're okay. Hell, most of the time, I don't even think about him."
"Most of the time," she repeated. "But not all of the time. Not when Xavier's here to remind you of that mess."
As much as he hated to, he admitted it. "Yeah."
"Well," she said, getting down from her perch, "I'd better hit the bed. I'm bushed."
"If you need anything…"
"It'll wait until morning. I know how you and Justin like your private time."
The euphemism caused Brian to laugh. "I like that. Our 'private time'."
Rose quipped, "It's more cidity than saying you like to fuck."
Having dropped by the guestroom first to check on Nana Rose, Justin found Brian in their suite, already undressed for bed. He'd slipped on his sheer, black robe and was sitting on top of the comforter, head on a pillow, eyes closed. Justin wanted to grab a pad and pencil and sketch him, even more so he wanted to join him. As he neared the bed, Brian opened his eyes. Justin paused at the foot and looked at his husband, looked into his beautiful, hazel eyes that still had the power to amaze, to mesmerize even after all this time. Brian extended his arm and Justin came around and took his hand, let Brian pull him onto the bed and into an embrace. They kissed.
"I love you," Brian whispered and then neither said anything else for a
very long time.
Since all of Joanie's classes were on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, she had Thursday free, so she and Nana Rose spent the day together. She arrived early in the morning after Brian and Justin had left and the two women chatted over a leisurely breakfast before beginning their day of shopping.
"It's too bad Xavier's boyfriend couldn't come with you." Joanie remembered Trey from the wedding and had liked him very much.
"He's just starting graduate school so he absolutely couldn't make it," Rose explained. "It's hard on them, being so far apart but it's not as bad as being all the way cross country or something."
Joanie smiled. "Justin hates it when Brian's away on business."
Before she could stop herself, Rose had snorted. "I would too since—" and she cut herself off mid-sentence. "My God, I can't believe what I was about to say."
"It's nothing we haven't all thought, even them." She sipped her coffee. "I think we take them for granted, the way they are now, as if they've always been in love and together. But it's been a long, hard journey for the both of them. If you could have known Brian before, you'd be amazed at how much he's changed. How much we've all changed. And we forget that even now it's possible to make mistakes."
"Lord knows, I've made my share."
"We all have." Lowering her head momentarily, Joanie looked up and directly into Rose's eyes. "When I think about how I failed Brian… it makes me ashamed. But I'm trying to make it up to him. And to Justin."
To try and lighten the mood, Nana Rose said, "Well, child, this house definitely counts for a lot! I can't believe what you've done with it."
"They both helped, believe it not. Somehow Justin got Brian to get with the program."
Rose raised a brow. "Somehow? I know how."
"You didn't hear them…?" began Joanie, face already flushed around the edges.
"No," said Rose, waving her hand. "But you only have to see Brian's
face light up when Justin's around to know that he'd do anything for that
child, anything in the world."
It had become sort of a family ritual, all of the gang getting together to view the annual September 11th memorial show at the Institute. Due to the growing number of people who attended the show and the corresponding flatlined budget for providing refreshments, the Institute had decided to hold the reception later in the evening in hopes that most people would have eaten dinner before coming to the show. Justin's entourage got together at a new tapas bar that had opened on Liberty Avenue and swapped appetizers for an hour and a half before heading over to PIFA. While they were there, Nana Rose garnered some appreciative looks from a couple of women, one of whom managed to exchange a few words with her in hopes of snagging some private time alone.
"Poor thing," Nana Rose said after turning her down, "I sure hated to disappoint her but I just don't swing that way."
Gus was fascinated with her as well, especially her hair. They didn't think he remembered her from the wedding but no matter as he quickly took to her anyway, wanting to sit on her lap and finger her dreads, tugging on them gently and calling her, "Nana Wose."
Even Molly had been charmed by Nana Rose, who had told the little girl,
"Thank you for letting me use your room while I'm in town. It's very
"Despite the dire state of funding for the arts, despite the taint of government-sponsored censorship in the air, and ongoing hostilities in the Middle East, we must continue to question, to think, to challenge, and to create," charged the Dean to each of the young artists under his tutelage. "That is our duty as conscious beings, as artists, and as citizens," he said, his charge expanded to include the guests as well. "Today we come together in remembrance of the victims of September 11th and to share the fruits of our labor in this continued quest to define ourselves and our world. Please join with us as we commemorate our losses and celebrate our victories."
A reporter and photographer from a local magazine went around taking photos of the show and eliciting reactions as artists and guests meandered through the exhibition.
Rennie had taken as her inspiration, the dream of Nebuchadnezzar and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Her piece was entitled, "Lord of the Rigs" and it was a statue of a figure with George Dubuya's head and one leg comprised of an oil rig. It stretched over a map of the world, one leg in the United States and the other in Iraq; only the names of the countries had been marked out and instead of the US, it said Mordor, and Iraq had been renamed Gondor. Anyone familiar with the books or the films knew exactly how she viewed Bush's actions in Iraq. Brian whistled and gave her a kiss on the lips. He hated Dubuya with a passion, calling him that Fucking Bone-Headed Guy Bush. "Good work, Terror Girl," he told her and Rennie beamed.
Xavier's work was also overtly political in tone. He'd created a giant Jenga game of junk in which individual pieces were labeled with the names of various countries, the United States being the topmost one. One piece, Iraq, had been captured in the act of being pulled out and it was obvious that the entire tower of garbage was about to collapse. The sculpture was entitled, "Game Over." As with Rennie's piece, Xavier's evoked a sense of loss, of mistakes made, and opportunities wasted.
"I tell you," Nana Rose said, "I just don’t know what's going on with the world today," and Lindz drew Gus to her, holding him tight as if she could protect him from the lunacy around them.
This year, as he had for the last show, Justin had chosen to do a short animated film. Its title emerged from the darkness: "Kaddish".
As a band performed the first verse of a song, a young man with a mysterious glyph in his hands danced while the psychedelic background changed and he interacted with all manner of persons, each dancing with him and being enriched by the power he held in his hands and heart.
"Love, love is a verb "Teardrop on the fire
"Teardrop on the fire
Then the darkness descended and he was caught up in violent, swirls of black and red that threatened to overcome him.
"Nine night of matter "Teardrop on the fire
"Teardrop on the fire
As the last verses were sung, the young man emerged from the blackness and, although wearier than before, continued his dance in the rain, slipping and sliding, stumbling in puddles of water until another figure joined him and they danced together, growing stronger by the moment, the colors less bright than previously but gaining in intensity until they were swirling in a rainbow.
"Water is my eye "Teardrop on the fire "You're stumbling a little
"Teardrop on the fire
"You're stumbling a little
There's still hope, his piece said, even if nothing can ever be the
same again. Heartbroken, tired, and angry, if we try hard enough, we can
still find joy and love and purpose in our lives. Brian slipped his hand
in Justin's. He wouldn’t have expected anything less. Justin never gave
Seemed like they spent an awful lot of times in the toy store these days. Maybe Lindz and Mel were right and he was spoiling Gus but he could hardly wait to see the toddler's face this year at his birthday party. In addition to the LeapPad and the other educational toys they'd picked up, they'd snagged a Get Up 'N' Bounce Tigger who sang and danced when you squeezed his hand. At first Brian found it incredibly annoying and then he began to laugh, imagining Gus' reaction and the subsequent dance moves the little boy would incorporate into his routine.
The next day at work, Brian called Lindz to tell her about the LeapPad.
"It's perfect," she said. "How many books did you get?"
"Two. We figured we'd leave some for you."
"And what else?" she asked, knowing him all too well.
"And we got him this Tigger thing that sings and dances."
"Oh my God," she laughed, having seen it on television. She could just see Gus dancing along with Tigger. "And what else?"
"That's it." Actually, they had gotten Gus some more stuff but they planned on putting those things directly in his toy box, no grand openings. After all, what was the point in having money if you couldn't spoil your child just a little bit? Besides, Gus was a good kid, he deserved some pampering. They'd feared that he'd be upset by having two households and having to travel between parents but he'd adjusted well and was beginning to fuss less when he had to go back to the Munchers' place after spending the weekend with his daddies.
"You gonna pick him up tonight?"
"After I finish with Drew."
"See you then."
He hung up and thought about how much his life had changed since Gus
had been born. And since Justin had come into his life. On the same night.
As Justin had said, it had to have meant something. Maybe it had been good
luck, although he hadn't felt that way at the time. Maybe it had been God
finally making good on a huge-assed IOU.
Jennifer went through the pictures they'd taken on the Fourth of July and showed Justin the ones she wanted to take. "I can't believe Gus is going to be three next week."
"Brian and I met three years ago."
"Can't believe that either."
"Seems so long?"
"Doesn't seem long enough," she replied. "You two, it feels like you've been together forever."
He picked up a photo of the two of them that someone had taken while they were kissing. "That's our hope."
"I can't wait to celebrate your tenth anniversary."
"And twentieth, thirtieth…"
She laughed. "You'll probably have to bring me over from the retirement home for that one."
"Maybe we'll build a couple of mother-in-law suits over the garage."
Jennifer covered her mouth as she giggled. "I can just imagine Brian's reaction to that idea." Teased him. "Might put an end to those midnight dips in the pool."
"Naked, midnight dips in the pool," he added.
"Doing anything special for your anniversary?" she asked since he and Brian had gone away to the inn to celebrate it two years ago. Last year, Brian had been in California at a conference with Kenneth Harris. They all knew what had happened there and she could have kicked herself because she knew that Justin was thinking about it as well.
"Gus' party is enough."
To take his mind off of Kenneth, she turned the conversation to Molly. "Are you sure you don't mind Molly spending the weekend?"
"We fixed up the guestroom especially for her."
"It's so beautiful. She loves it."
"She better enjoy it while she can. If Lindsay has a little girl, that'll become her room."
"So they've decided to really do it?"
"Yep. Lindsay wants to wait until Gus is in school. If she gets pregnant late next year, the baby will be born in the summer and that'll give Gus just enough time to get used to having a brother or sister before he starts kindergarten."
Jennifer studied his face a moment before asking, "How do you feel about that?"
"Having another child?" She nodded. "It'll be a lot of work, having a newborn, but it's not like we'll be the primary caregivers. It'll be like raising Gus, only there'll be two kids instead of one. Maybe we won't make so many mistakes this time around. Maybe by the time Daphne and I have a kid, we'll be old pros."
"I don’t think you made that many mistakes the first time around. You're a good dad."
"Speaking of which, I invited Dad to Gus' party."
"And?" She'd been very pleased to hear that Craig had come to dinner at the house and that he and Gus had gotten along quite well.
"And he said he wouldn't make any promises."
To Jennifer's surprise, rather than seeming disappointed, Justin
Brian waltzed into Drew's office and took his customary seat, crossed his legs.
"You look like a contented man," the therapist said.
"No issues this week?"
"Nope." Brian smiled. After his last fiasco with Kenneth, he'd been seeing the Doc on Tuesdays and Fridays. This was the first week in a long time when he'd only seen him once. "Gus' birthday is next Monday so we're having a party tomorrow. What about you? Got any plans?"
"Going away for the weekend."
Raised brow. "Alone?"
"Thought we were here to talk about you?"
"Ah," said Brian, "not alone. Sweet. The Doc's got a beau."
"Well, that's what we're going to find out."
Brian chuckled. "If Justin and I could survive a month in Europe, you'll be able to deal with one weekend."
"But you and Justin were made for each other."
Brian laughed again.
"I can just see God in his baby factory with these two molds almost ready to go, hunting around, trying to find an ass perfect enough for Justin's."
Drew found it amusing too. "You seem… at peace with yourself. What's happened?"
Shrugged. "Guess I've finally decided to enjoy my life. I have everything I could possibly want, why not?" Even now, weeks after the 9/11 exhibition, the lesson of Justin's piece had remained with him.
Still Drew seemed a little skeptical. "Everything?"
He looked down at his hands, then back up again. Smiled. Sometimes he was annoyingly honest. "The things that I don't, they don't really matter."
Brian shook his head. "I don't want him."
"That the truth?"
"I don't," he insisted. "I care for him, a great deal. I guess… I might even love him. But I don't want him. I used to. I used to want him real bad but I don't anymore."
"Why not?" asked Drew, figuring that it had something to do with Brian's missing memories of that night in June.
"Because he can't make me happy. Only Justin can do that." He could see Justin's eyes that he loved so much smiling up at him. "You were right: we were made for each other."
Drew nodded. Hesitated before asking, "And your dad?"
"What about him?" He intended the question to sound casual but his body betrayed him and he tensed up right before speaking. He knew Drew had noticed. "I guess I still have to work on that."
"Luckily I'm free every week to talk."
"You're not exactly free, Doc," Brian reminded him.
"But I'm worth every cent."
His patient agreed.
Meeting him at the door with Gus by her side, Lindz asked, "Everything ready for the p-a-r-t-y?"
"What time should we come over to help decorate?"
She kissed Gus. "See you tomorrow."
As they walked to the car, Brian told Gus, "Guess who's staying with us this weekend? Molly."
"Molly!" Gus loved Molly and began to sing her name over and over again until Brian thought he'd have an aneurysm right in the middle of traffic.
"Okay, Gus, we all know her name. Don't wear it out." The toddler looked confused. "How about you sing the Molly song to Molly when we get home?"
Which excited him all over again. "Molly!"
Giving up, Brian resigned himself to listening to Gus sing all the way to the house.
Which he did. And once they got there, he grabbed his SpongeBob pull-along and Beh and dashed to the kitchen door hoping Molly was there. She was. Seated on one of the island stools watching Justin fix fried chicken for dinner. When she saw the little boy come in, she got down and hugged him.
"Molly!" He danced a little around her and tugged on her arm. "Camon," he said and she followed him upstairs to his room where he dropped his pull-along on the floor and Beh on the bed and went immediately to his race car table.
The children occupied for a while, Brian and Justin took advantage of the privacy to kiss hello.
"God, I'm glad we're not having any other three-year-olds at this party tomorrow," said Brian, just imagining what four Gus' would be like.
"Well, enjoy it while you can cause next year we're definitely going to have to invite some kids his age. And the year after that, there'll be a bunch of five-year-olds." A thought came to him. "Brian, what's gonna happen when all the other kids are in kindergarten and Gus isn't?"
"Why won't he be?"
"His birthday's too late. He won't be five until after September 1st." He removed the macaroni and cheese from the oven. The chicken was almost done.
"So they won't let him in. He'll be too young."
"Fuck that. His birthday's what? Four weeks later? They can't do that."
"Oh, yes, they can." It constantly amazed Justin how Brian could believe that rules didn't apply to him if he didn't want them to.
"Then we'll send him to private school." End of discussion.
Justin felt duty-bound to say, "Private school's not exactly the greatest." He ought to know, his time in private school had been hellish to say the least, particularly towards the end.
"Yeah, well, neither is Catholic school and neither is spending an extra year in preschool when he doesn't need it." He was already getting steamed and they didn't have to worry about the problem for a few years yet.
"What if Lindsay and Mel don't want him to go to private school?"
On this point, Brian felt confident. "They'll want to do what's best for him. And if that's private school, they'll go along with it. He's a smart kid and there's no point in punishing him because he was born four weeks after some arbitrary, fucking cut-off date."
Just then they heard Gus and Molly coming down the stairs, Gus telling her, "No running."
"Why not?" she asked. "Why can't you run down the stairs, Gus?"
"Boo-boo." He hadn't forgotten falling and hurting himself on the stairs in Daddy's other house.
"You hurt yourself?"
"Yeah. Daddy said no," he replied and came around the corner and saw Brian and ran to him. Hugged him around his legs. Brian picked him up and sat him on the counter.
"You ready to eat?"
Gus shouted, "Yeah!"
"Why am I not surprised?"
Justin removed the last piece of chicken from the pan and cut off the stove. "It's ready."
Taking Gus off the counter, Brian asked, "You want to help set the
table?" The little boy nodded and Brian handed him the forks. "Knock
For the first time in hours, they found themselves alone and enjoying the peace and quiet. Both Gus and Molly had gone to bed for what the two men hoped was for the night although sometimes Gus got up and came into their room, not often, but sometimes. Mostly it was when he'd had an accident in bed. Not very often but it still happened occasionally, usually after he'd had way too much to drink the evening beforehand.
"And why do we want another child?"
"Two other children," Justin reminded him.
"And why do we want more children?"
"Cause we haven't suffered enough?" ventured Justin.
Justin snuggled up to Brian. "I don't know, it was kind of nice, watching them play together." Molly had even read Gus his bedtime story. "You know, Gus'll probably be Molly's age by the time Daphne and I have a child."
"God," groaned Brian, "I'm gonna be too old for this shit pretty soon."
"You? Old? No way. Forever young, that's us."
Brian grumbled, "Forever tired, that'll be us."
Testing that assertion, Justin cupped Brian's crotch and stroked him. "I don't know, I seem to feel something."
Justin squeezed his cock through his jeans. "That's no hernia. That's cock. I should know. I'm an expert." He opened Brian's fly and reached inside.
"Mmm, I think I could use a little of your expertise."
Always glad to offer a helping hand, Justin jacked him off, tugging on his dick until Brian had to clamp down on the urge to shout. He came, splattering them both with his jizz, then watched as Justin unzipped his own jeans, pulled out his cock, and used Brian's cum to lube it. He stood and offered it to his husband.
Brian sucked him hard; the taste of his own spunk mixed with Justin's
precum had whet his appetite for some of his lover's cream. Justin grabbed
his head and held his face to his groin, then grunted deep in his belly
and ejaculated. Afterwards, he crawled onto the bed and they took turns
licking one another clean.
Used to getting up and pouring her own cereal on Saturday mornings, Molly didn't bother to wake Brian and Justin, just collected Gus and went downstairs and found the cereal and was in the process of pouring the milk when Justin appeared.
"Hey, Daddy," Gus said, Leo in the chair next to his.
Justin gave the little boy a big kiss. "Look at you. Did you help Molly?"
He nodded and Molly said, "Gus showed me where the bowls were."
"Such a big boy."
Gus pointed to the kitchen. "Boles."
"That's right, the bowls are in there."
"I got bole. Blue bole."
"You’ve got a blue bowl."
"He talks so much better now," Molly said in between spoonfuls of cereal.
"He's learning more and more everyday."
Gus raised his spoon to Justin's face. "Daddy, want some?"
"No, thank you. I'll eat in a minute. Okay?"
While Gus and Molly had their breakfast, Justin put on the coffee and wondered if he should bother making anything for Brian. When he'd gotten up, Brian had looked over his shoulder at him and nestled back down under the covers. Well, if he got up any time soon, he could make his own breakfast. Taking down a bowl and finding a spoon, Justin went to join the two kids at the table.
Both Molly and Gus had started on their second bowl of cereal when Brian finally made an appearance.
Giving everyone a kiss, he padded into the kitchen, got a cup of coffee, and plopped down at the table. Put his feet up in an empty chair.
"I see Sleeping Beauty has arisen," Justin said dryly and Molly giggled as Brian's hair was standing on end and he was wearing a pair of old sweats. Still, there was something quite lovely about him. Maybe it was the way he held his coffee cup, carelessly yet elegantly, long fingers curved around the bowl bypassing the handle altogether. He reminded Justin of some movie siren from the old days. All he was missing was a peignoir and a pair of fuzzy mules—but they would have hidden his beautiful feet. Justin reached over and shook one, any excuse to touch him. "You hungry?"
Raised his cup in a salute: it was enough. "So when do we pick it up?" Meaning the cake.
"Mmm. And the decorations?"
Justin motioned towards the basement.
They needn't have worried about Gus eavesdropping on their conversation as he was happily consuming his cereal and ignoring them.
But Molly was alert to what was going on. "When's the—"
Brian held up his finger cutting her off in mid-sentence. "It's a surprise," he mouthed, looking towards Gus.
"Oh," she replied just as quietly. And Gus ate on in ignorance.
Wondering if she had made a giant mistake, Joanie had gotten Brian to agree to invite John and Peter to Gus' party. Her charge today was to keep Gus occupied while his parents decorated the backyard and to pick up his cousins. Then she and the four kids were to have a light lunch before heading back to the house for the afternoon festivities. They'd been afraid that the weather would have begun to turn and would prevent them from getting in the pool but so far the sun had been cooperating and it was definitely hot enough to take a dip. Which would help keep the kids occupied especially since this year the guys weren't coming; it was to be a strict family affair, a kids and parents party, grandparents included. If Em and Mikey had been invited, they would have been more than capable of keeping the children entertained. But Brian and Justin were both tired of entertaining large groups and just the family alone would be more than enough people. Besides the guys could come over any time and party with them.
So while Brian and Justin and Lindz and Mel fought with inflatable toys, Joanie herded children into the mall to the food court where she foresaw a long lunch ahead of her. A long afternoon, period, since Gus was most put out by his cousins. In a way, she didn't blame him. First, John had teased him about his car seat. Ordinarily Gus didn't mind getting into the seat as he was used to it but John had taunted him and called him baby and made goo-goo sounds at him until Gus had seemed ready to clock him. He'd definitely inherited Brian's temper. Then Peter, who had taken the shotgun seat up front, had changed the radio station and cranked up the volume, scaring Gus half to death when the sounds of blaring rock blasted from the speakers instead of the soothing sounds of classical music. Molly hadn't been too impressed with the boys either. Which had also colored Gus' perceptions.
Joanie was beginning to regret her decision to include the boys and was hoping that the prospect of hamburgers and French fries would do wonders for Gus' disposition. As they entered the mall, Gus loosened his hand from hers and laughed.
He loved coming here. There was a place that had lots of toys, and one that had Pooh, and places to eat, and some places that had shiny things in it that Mama said he couldn't touch and he couldn't either cause they had glass on them, and a place that had lots of books, and one with videos, and there were lots of rooms with clothes in them. Sometimes he came with his mommies and Mama tried on clothes while he and Mommy sat and played and waited to clap when she came out. Mommy mostly got her clothes from other places. He came here too with his daddies. Daddy Justin liked a lot of the places here but Daddy only got clothes from one or two. He liked coming here with his daddies cause sometimes Daddy Justin would try on clothes and when he came out, Daddy would kiss him and the other men in the room would look at Daddy cause they wished he was kissing them too. That's cause Daddy was pretty. Daddy Justin was pretty too but Daddy was the prettiest daddy Gus had ever seen. He looked like the people on the books Gus saw in the food store. Just thinking about Daddy made him happy and he yelled, "Daddy!"
Joanie laughed. "Let's have some lunch and you can go see Daddy. Okay?"
"Okay." He swung his arms to and fro and marched in front of them. He could smell the food. Looking back at Nana, he pointed to a place with a long line. "I want French fries and burger."
But Molly frowned. Jennifer hardly ever let her have McDonald's food. "How about some pizza, Gus?" she asked him and the little boy thought about it and nodded.
Joanie turned to John and Peter. "What do you boys want to eat?"
"We'll have what the baby's having," said John and he nudged Gus with his hand.
Gus whipped around and struck John. "Stop!" he yelled and he drew back to hit him again when Joanie stopped him and distracted him with thoughts of food.
"Do you want pepperoni on your pizza or sausage, Gus?"
The ploy worked and he went over to look at the different slices of pizza with Molly while Joanie gave John a good talking to.
"If you don't stop teasing him, I'm taking you back home. Do you understand?"
"Do you understand?"
"He hit me really hard," John complained and Peter snickered.
"You let a baby beat you up."
"Peter, I can take you home too."
"We were just playing with him."
"Well," Joanie said, "play nice."
Peter grumbled, "Uncle Bri's never nice to us."
And Joanie, remembering his behavior at the house following Jack's funeral, begrudgingly had to agree. To herself. To them she said, "He's invited you to Gus' party, which was a very nice thing to do."
"For presents," explained John.
"Then where are they?" she asked since neither boy had come out of their house carrying anything.
"Mom's got them. She's taking them to their house."
Joanie smiled. "That was very nice of you. Now, behave."
Although she liked to think it was her lecture, in reality, it was probably the thought of what Brian would do to them if Gus told him about their teasing which finally persuaded John and Peter to lay off the little boy. Gus never threatened to tell his daddy but the thought had to be in the back of the bigger boys' minds—as well as what Brian would do to them as punishment. Brian had definitely inherited Jack's temper which was no good thing. But he was trying to change. Justin and Gus had done a great deal to encourage patience and understanding in him. As did Dr. Drew. And he was learning to control his temper, learning to channel his anger and frustration into other activities.
Like his photography. His photographs were quite beautiful, as artistic as anything she'd seen at Justin's school despite Brian's avowal that the camera did all the work. She had a copy of the picture he'd taken of Gus and Leo, the one that Gus was so fond of himself, and like them, she'd placed hers in a prominent position. It never failed to garner comment from her guests. Partly because Gus and Leo were adorable but also because it was an amazing photograph. She was very proud of Brian, of the strides he'd taken to become a better person, to be a good father to his son, to be a good son himself. And his devotion to Justin was nothing short of miraculous considering his former habits and the example his own father had set. That Brian could be a caring and faithful husband, that, in itself, made her very proud. Not for the first time did she wish that Jack had lived to see how happy they were. She knew that his father's approval had been very important to Brian, was still very important to him no matter how much he declared otherwise. But, more than anything, Brian had wanted Jack to be worthy of him. Maybe if Jack had lived he would have gradually become worthy of Brian's love. She liked to believe that she had become so.
Gus interrupted her thoughts by patting her on the hand. "Nana?"
He held up his pizza. "Pizza good."
"It's very good."
Happily he munched his food, pizza sauce smeared on his face. Molly wiped it away and Gus beamed at her.
"You're a very good helper," Joanie told her.
Smiling, Molly said, "That's what Brian says too." She liked helping Brian.
Peter, who recognized that look from the looks on girls' faces at school, began to taunt her. "She likes Uncle Brian, she likes Uncle Brian."
"Peter!" Joanie was about to launch into another lecture when John put in his two cents.
"She's stupid. He only likes boys."
"Duh," said Peter, "he's doing it with her brother."
"That is enough!" scolded Joanie. "I don't want to hear another word from either of you. One more peep and I'm taking you home. End of discussion."
Looking at the two boys with his eyes narrowed, Gus said scornfully, "Bad."
Even Molly gave them a dirty look. "You two are infantile," she
pronounced with a tone of derision in her voice. "Gus is way more grown up
and he's only three."
Back at the house, the grownups were faring only marginally better. Twice Lindz thought Brian and Justin were going to kill each other and she was only slightly fonder of Mel after her command performance. Who would have thought that blowing up a few inflatable toys and hanging blue streamers would have been such a chore?
Of course, the big problem was that there were too many leaders and not enough followers. The big problem was that for two years the women had been in charge of Gus' birthday party and now the men were. The big problem was that Brian was an advertiser and Justin was an artist which meant they both knew the 'right' way to do things. Finally, wisely, Brian abdicated and left Justin solely in charge. Being married for seven months had taught him something. He was still learning but there was hope.
"Good move," Lindsay told him when she got a chance.
"Yeah, well, I was hoping to get some tonight so I thought I'd play nice."
"You." She pushed him gently and went to help Mel with the streamers that hung from the edge of the pergola simulating water.
With Justin firmly in charge, the decorating job was quickly completed and they all took a much needed breather, sipping strawberry lemonade by the pool and waiting for the birthday boy to arrive. All that was left was to bring out the cake and light it. Joanie had called to say that they were just leaving the mall. Jennifer was on her way as well.
Justin had told the women about inviting his dad and Mel now asked, "Do you think your dad is going to show up?"
"Well, let's hope he doesn't catch you two making out like Joanie did," she said and she and Lindz laughed remembering the expression on Joanie's face when she'd come downstairs after witnessing the two of them going at it in the guest room.
"Let's hope she learned something, at least," quipped Brian, earning him a sharp look from Justin at which he quieted down and busied himself with his lemonade. He really wanted some tonight.
For the next fifteen minutes or so they just enjoyed the peace and quiet and, individually, wondered if today would be a success.
Finally they heard doors slam close and figured it was Joanie and the kids. She had instructions to bring them through the house to get the full effect of the backyard. The adults went into action, Justin bringing the cake outside and lighting it, the rest of them going inside and making sure no one went outside until everything was ready.
Having wanted to see his daddy all afternoon long, Gus ran to Brian and demanded a hug, which he was immediately given.
"You have fun at the mall?" Brian asked him and Gus started to answer when Justin came inside and gave Brian the sign that all was well. Hopefully the candles wouldn't blow out. "Come on, let's go outside and you can tell me all about it." Brian carried Gus to the French doors in the family room and opened it, putting the toddler down. Gus saw the blue streamers and pointed.
"Let's go see," Brian told him and together they went out on the pergola with the rest of the party guests behind them.
Gus ran ahead and pushed through the streamers and shouted, "SpongeBob!" Turned and told Brian, "SpongeBob, Daddy."
"I see it."
The entire patio area had been transformed into Bikini Bottom with a papier mache pineapple and rock and tiki god surrounding the pool, just the right size for little people. Justin and Xavier and Rennie had made them. And standing next to them were the inflatable denizens of the city under the sea: SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, Sandy, Mr. Krabs, Gary, and Plankton.
Gus ran from the pineapple, to the tiki god, to the rock touching all the blow-up toys and showing them to the rest of the folks at the party.
Lindsay caught Gus' attention and showed him the cake on the table. "Look, Gus, look." The cake was in the shape of SpongeBob and had three candles. Gus pointed to the cake and laughed.
"Happy Birthday, Gus," everyone said and the little boy wiggled he was so happy.
"Blow out your candles, Gus," Lindsay said and lifted him up.
Taking a big breath, he blew out all the candles as his guests applauded. Pleased, he clapped as well. "I blowed them out."
"Blew them out," Justin said.
"I blew them out," said Gus. "I blew them out." He often repeated new
things many times so he'd remember. "I blew them out."
"He's so retarded," Peter whispered to John but he didn't whisper softly enough and Joanie heard him and gave him the eye.
All of the kids wanted cake and ice cream even though that meant they wouldn't be able to get in the pool right away. The temptation was just too great.
Arriving just as the last person got cake, Jennifer gave the birthday boy a big kiss and then took a proffered slice. The only person who abstained was Brian who said that it was just too much sugar. He did have a little ice cream however, fed to him by his spouse.
Mel groaned and endeavored to ignore them.
Ice cream consumed, Brian went inside and brought out Gus' presents including the one Claire had brought over earlier. She hadn't stayed but she'd assured Brian and Justin that it wasn't them, it was just that she wasn't in the mood for a party.
Gus' cake was gone and he was ready to open his gifts. Actually, he was always in the mood to open presents. He loved the bright ribbons and bows. Loved the sound the paper made when you tore it off the present, when you crunched it.
Unlike normal when his favorite present was the one Brian got him, Gus
was instantly enamored of the gift Claire and the boys had given him: a
Tonka Mighty Backhoe. "Look," Gus said and showed everyone his present,
then immediately got in the sandbox Justin had built for him and began
trying to scoop up sand in the bucket. While Justin went over and showed
the little boy how to operate the scoop, Brian went inside and got Gus'
dump trunk and front loader. Within moments both John and Peter had gone
over and asked if they could play with the toys too. Gus, having forgotten
about their earlier teasing, let them play with him, although he made it
clear that he was the boss, directing them in loading dirt and moving it
to where he wanted. When he realized that Molly wasn't playing too, Gus
came over and got her and let her play with his new backhoe. The adults
all laughed, recognizing the signs of adoration.
The afternoon passed pleasantly enough, the kids eventually succumbing to the draw of the pool and changing into their swim clothes to go for a dip. Brian and Justin joined them for a while but they much preferred to swim alone so they got out and made plans for later. In with the children went SpongeBob and Patrick and all their inflatable friends so that the pool was full of color and laughter.
Maneuvering his floating ring to the steps of the pool, Gus got out and announced that he had to pee.
"You think you can go by yourself?" Mel asked him and he nodded so she let him go, she and Lindsay watching him as he opened the French door and went inside. "God, he's growing so fast."
"Be in school soon," said Lindsay.
"You really think we're ready for another one?"
"Be good for him."
"That's not what I asked." She could be a lot like Brian, which was probably part of her attractiveness to Lindsay.
"I think we're ready."
Mel motioned to Brian. "What about the asshole? You think he's ready to be a full-time dad? Two kids are going to take up more of his time than just one."
"I think he's ready too."
Anxiously waiting for Gus to return, his four parents pretended not to be concerned and both Jenn and Joanie tried not to laugh. And then the urge to laugh died.
Gus came through the blue streamers with Leo behind him. The cat froze just beyond the streamers, the noise from the pool scaring him a little.
Nudging Brian, Justin held his breath. The man stood and approached his son. Leo fled back behind the streamers and Gus seemed to shrink a little even before Brian got close to him.
He'd been counting to ten ever since he got up. Now, as he neared Gus, he felt a calm descend upon him. It was a miracle. "Gus, did you let Leo out?" Gus said nothing. "Gus?"
"Yeah," he answered in a tiny voice. Daddy had told him not to ever let Leo out but he'd wanted Leo to see the pool and the backyard and his new toys.
"I want you to take him back inside."
Gus turned and went to get Leo but the cat was frightened and wouldn't let Gus come near him.
Crouching on the ground, Brian called to Leo and Justin shushed everyone else. Softly, Brian called Leo's name and, eventually, the cat came to him. Brian petted him until Leo's heart stopped racing and then he picked him up and carried him back into the house.
Meanwhile, Gus had gone to Justin and stood by him, unsure of what Brian would say or do once he returned.
After a while, Brian came back out of the house and sat down on the double chaise next to Justin. Gus dawdled on the opposite side, then slowly approached Brian. Tugged on his shirt and when he had Brian's attention said, "I'm sorry."
"Why are you sorry?"
"I let Leo out."
"Are you going to do it again?"
"Are you sure?"
"Okay, then," and Gus climbed in his lap and sat with his head against Brian's chest.
Joanie watched Brian and his son and remembered how Jack would yell at Brian when he was a little boy and did something wrong. Remembered how at first Brian cowered and then, as he grew older, became more and more defiant. To see him with Gus, trying to be patient, to reassure and teach rather than belittle or berate made her heart ache for the child he'd been.
Sipping her lemonade, Mel watched Brian holding and talking to Gus and
she smiled. Maybe he really was ready to be a full-time dad.
The party ended sometime around seven, long after Brian had fired up the grill and fixed hot dogs and hamburgers and everyone had eaten their fill. Joanie had taken John and Peter home and Jennifer had gone home sans Molly who was spending one more night with Gus and the guys. Mel and Lindsay packed up most of Gus' gifts, leaving his dancing Tigger and his new backhoe as those were the ones he seemed most interested in. Then, giving him great big kisses, they went home to spend some quality time alone. Something Brian was very afraid he and Justin would get precious little of this weekend. Especially since Gus had roped Justin into telling him a story before he would even consider going to sleep. He'd played with Molly after his bath and now that it was almost nine, he was still fidgeting. Leaving it in Justin's hands, Brian went back downstairs and joined Molly on the couch. She was watching The Powerpuff Girls movie.
Upstairs, Justin had tucked Gus in and sat next to the bed scouring his brain for a suitable story. Leo had settled down at the foot and looked as if he had no intention of ever moving. "Okay," said Justin, "a story. Let's see." Gus waited expectantly. Suddenly Justin remembered telling Gus a story he'd made up when Brian had been sick. Gus had only been a baby but the story had kept him occupied for hours. Maybe it was time to revisit the land of Liberty. "Once upon a time there lived two kings: King Charming and his consort, King Sunshine. Consort means that they were married like Daddy and I are married. Okay?"
"Now King Charming and King Sunshine were the rulers of Libertyland which was this fabulous place where most everyone was happy. The kings lived in this beautiful palace with their little boy, Prince Gus."
Gus opened his mouth in surprise. The prince in the story had his name!
"Prince Gus was the best little boy in the whole world. He was six-years-old and very handsome and very smart and so very good. Even though he got into trouble sometimes, he was still a good little boy. And his daddies loved him very much, more than anything else in the world. Like Daddy and I love you," Justin assured him. Gus' eyes twinkled. "Now, Prince Gus had a pet, a cat, and his name was…"
"Leo!" Gus exclaimed.
"That's right. His name was Leo. Now, Leo wasn't an ordinary cat. Oh, no, he was a magic cat. He could walk just like people and he even wore a pair of boots," Gus laughed at this, "and… he could talk."
"That's right. Leo could talk. He and Gus used to play all the time and talk about all kinds of things: about where the sun went at night and how many stars were in the sky and why grass was green and why they couldn't have cake for breakfast."
Gus laughed again. Cake wasn't for breakfast. Although it might not be bad.
"One day, Gus and Leo came down to lunch after having played most of the morning and King Charming seemed very sad. 'What's wrong?' King Sunshine asked.
" 'I lost the necklace you gave me on our anniversary.' "
"You see, King Sunshine had given his husband a very special necklace. It was a plain gold chain with a gold filigreed heart hanging from it. Do you know what filigreed means?"
Gus shook his head.
"It means it was very fancy, like the frame you picked out for your picture of Leo. But, do you know why it was so special?"
"Because the heart was a locket. That means it opened up. And on the inside on one half was a picture of King Sunshine and on the other the words, 'My heart, my life' were engraved." He took of his ring and showed the inside to Gus. "Like this."
"Daddy give you."
"That's right, he did." Justin slipped the ring back on. He hardly ever took it off, wasn't afraid of losing it in the pool or the garden because of its snug fit but, sometimes, he removed it just to look at the engraving on the inside, just to read the words that were written there even though he knew what they said. "Anyway," said Justin, getting back to the story, "King Sunshine asked King Charming how he lost it and he said he didn't know.
" 'When did you notice it was gone?'
" 'About an hour ago.'
" 'Did you retrace your steps?'
" 'Yes. But I couldn't find it.'
"King Sunshine frowned. 'Someone may have picked it up. Hopefully they'll return it.'
" 'And if they don't?' asked King Charming.
" 'We'll think positively. And then we'll offer a reward.' With that they finished their lunch and afterwards the two kings went upstairs to spend some time alone as they were hosting a state party that night and wouldn't have a chance to be alone for the rest of the day."
Gus tugged on Justin's arm. "Daddy, they take a nap?" He used to nap after lunch, still did sometimes.
"Eventually," he replied. "Left on their own, Gus and Leo decided that they would look for King Charming's necklace. Not only would it make the king happy but it'd be an adventure and afternoons were made for adventures. So, the prince and his friend set out to explore the castle in search of King Charming's locket.
"They went to all of the places the king might have gone that day. Usually after breakfast he went to the council room to meet with his advisors so they started there. They looked under the long table that stretched almost the entire length of the room; looked in all of the seats although King Charming sat at the head of the table. They looked under the rugs and behind the curtains but they did not find the necklace.
"That room done, they headed for the audience chamber, looking very carefully along the route just in case King Charming had dropped the necklace on his way there. Nothing. Once in the audience chamber, they searched each and every nook and cranny and there were a lot because this was a huge room, large enough to hold five hundred people at least. After searching the room, Prince Gus climbed onto King Charming's throne. One day, his fathers had told him, he would be king and would rule Libertyland with his consort. King Sunshine's throne sat next to Charming's and was slightly smaller but just barely. Leo searched it while Gus tried to imagine holding audiences the way his fathers did. He could hear his chamberlain say, 'Yes, Your Majesty,' and see the people of the court bowing to him instead of his father. King Charming insisted that Gus attend audience at least once every two weeks. Even though he didn't understand much that went on, he did understand that being king was a very important job and that his father was a very good king.
"Since they hadn't found the necklace in the audience chamber, the two adventurers went back to the dining room and searched there with no luck. Then they decided to go out into the garden. Sometimes King Charming and King Sunshine went for walks in the garden and talked and sat on a bench and kissed. Leo and Gus had seen them once from the palace, had watched them laughing and smiling at one another. They were very happy together. Prince Gus knew that most people had a mother and a father and that his family was different because he had two fathers and two mothers."
"Where his mommies?"
"They lived in Libertyland too but not in the palace. They had their own house and sometimes Prince Gus and Leo went to visit them. He loved his mommies very much."
"Why he live with daddies?"
"Because he was the prince and he had lots to learn about being king."
"I live with you?"
"You do come and stay with us sometimes. Like this summer when you stayed for a whole week?"
"I stay all the time?"
"Would you like to live with me and Daddy all the time?"
"What about Mommy and Mama? They would miss you. Wouldn’t you miss them?"
"Yeah. I miss you."
"We miss you too when you're not here," Justin told the toddler and he hugged him tightly. He and Brian had talked about sharing custody of Gus with the Munchers and decided that it'd be a lot easier when he was in school full-time and his schedule meshed more with theirs. "So," he said, releasing the little boy, "Prince Gus and Leo searched the garden but they didn't find the necklace there either and it was getting later in the afternoon and they were a little hungry. Usually around this time of the day, they went down to the kitchen and got a snack from the cook. The cook was this beautiful lady who had thick, curly hair and always smiled and made the best food in the land. She was always happy to see Prince Gus.
" "Hello, Gus,' she said and waved at both he and his friend. 'Hello, Leo.'
" 'Can we please have some cookies?' asked Gus, as he was very polite even though he was the prince and could command people to do as he wished.
" 'I've just baked a batch of ginger cookies,' Cook told him and she gave the two friends several cookies and a glass of milk each. Wanting to eat the cookies right away, they sat down in the kitchen and had their snack there. As they ate, Leo noticed a little girl playing in the corner. She was a very little girl, only three, and she had in her hands a chain. A gold chain. And attached to it was…"
"Heart!" guessed Gus.
"That's right, a heart. A filigreed heart. It was King Charming's necklace. Leo nudged Gus and showed him the little girl. 'Look,' he said, 'she has the king's necklace.'
"Prince Gus didn't know what to do. He knew that the necklace belonged to the king but the little girl looked so happy playing with it and she was only a very little girl and it would seem like the end of the world if he took it from her. But King Charming had also been very sad to lose his necklace. So Gus told the cook about the necklace and showed her the little girl playing in the corner. The cook, being a wise lady, knew that the little girl was only temporarily fascinated by the necklace and that if given something else, she would probably latch onto it just as quickly. So she found the shiniest pot in the kitchen and a big, shiny spoon and carried it over to the little girl. As expected, her eyes grew large and she abandoned the necklace for the pot and spoon. Soon she was happily singing a song, accompanying herself with her new drum. Gus thanked the cook and rushed upstairs to the kings' bedchamber.
"He knocked and waited until he heard King Sunshine's voice telling him to enter. The kings were in their sitting room reading over some papers they had to discuss the next day in council. Without saying a word, Gus went over to King Charming and handed him the necklace. The king stared at it for a moment. 'Where did you find this?'
" 'A little girl had it in the kitchen,' he replied.
King Charming sat staring at the necklace, then opened it to reveal the engraving and the photograph of King Sunshine inside. After a moment, King Sunshine came over and took the necklace from his husband, closed the heart, and then placed the necklace over his head, settling it around his neck, the locket resting on his chest. He kissed the king and then kissed the prince as well.
" 'Thank you,' King Charming told his son.
" 'I know it's important to you,' Gus said.
" 'Yes, but not as important as you and Sunshine. The necklace was only lost but without you, I would be lost.'
"That night as they laid awake in bed listening to the sounds of the state dinner in progress below, Prince Gus and Leo talked about their adventures and the finding of the king's necklace and made plans to have an even bigger adventure tomorrow. The end." Justin smiled. "Did you like that story?"
"I love you."
"I love you, Daddy." They kissed and Justin made sure Gus was tucked in and was just about to turn on the nightlight when he realized they weren't alone. There, in the hallway, stood his father.
Craig carried a large box in his hands and looked rather sheepish. "Mind if I come in for a little while?" Justin shook his head and stepped aside.
"Granddaddy!" shouted Gus and he got up out of bed and bounced just like his brand new Tigger doll.
"Happy Birthday, Gus. I'm sorry I missed your party." He handed Gus his present.
Although he'd just worked very hard to get Gus settled down and ready to go to sleep, Justin didn't mind. He left them to visit and went in search of Brian.
Who was seated on the back staircase. Justin joined him. "So, he showed," he said.
"Thanks for letting him come up."
"He came bearing gifts, what could I do?"
Embracing him, Justin whispered, "Do you know how much I love you?"
"I think so," he replied. "But you better show me just in case."
Although she had planned to spend Sunday with Justin and Brian and Gus, Molly decided to go home with her dad. She hadn't stayed with him for a while and he offered so she took him up on it. As she gathered her belongings, Craig waited in the family room with Brian and Justin.
"So what'd you get him?" Justin asked.
"A Bob the Builder construction hat and some books." The guys laughed. "What?"
"He got a Tonka backhoe for his birthday," Justin replied.
Brian chuckled. "Maybe he'll be a construction worker instead of an architect."
"Mel won't thank us for that." Justin paused. "But the name fits."
"Your fault," said Brian. "You named him."
Craig looked confused. "Justin?"
"Lindsay wanted to name him Gus and Mel wanted to name him Abraham. I asked Justin what he thought and he picked Gus."
A look of recognition crossed Craig's face. "He had a teddy bear named Gus when he was little."
Although Mel and Lindsay knew that, Brian had never heard that story and he snickered. "Figures."
"Shut up," Justin told him and elbowed him gently in the ribs.
"I heard your story," Craig said after a moment. "You're a good father." He briefly lowered his head, then looked up again. "You have a good life here." Paused. "I envy you that." Stood when he heard Molly coming down the stairs. "Hold onto it."
Justin accompanied him to the car and hugged him. "I'm glad you came."
"Me too. He's something else."
"Him too." Debated whether he'd tell Justin or not and decided that he would. "He could have shut the door in my face," meaning Brian, "but he said that Gus needed a grandfather; that if I wanted the job, it was mine. He also said that if I hurt him, he'd kick my ass." Craig grimaced. "Believe me, I have no intention of letting that happen. Payback's a bitch," he admitted, referring to his ramming the Jeep with his car and later sucker-punching Brian outside of Woody's. No way would he give Brian the opportunity to repay him for those things.
"You got your cellphone?"
"Let me see." Justin took the phone from his dad and entered some information. "I put Gus' number in there. Give him a call every now and then. He loves talking on the phone."
"I bet." He had a feeling Gus loved talking period.
Justin added, "We're having Thanksgiving here this year. Think about it."
Craig ducked his head much the same way that Brian would when he didn't want to commit to something but also didn’t want to dismiss it out of hand. "Night."
Molly waved from the passenger side as they drove from the yard and
Justin waved back, standing in the driveway until they were gone. Then he
rushed back into the house. His husband was waiting.