Just in Time



Frustrated, he haphazardly pushed the stack of files aside and drew his laptop closer, reaching out a hand to steady the file folders before they toppled over onto the floor. Cynthia would give him a ten-minute lecture if he a) disordered the precisely arranged documents within the files or b) made a mess of his immaculate new office. For some strange reason she believed it reflected badly on her. Whatever. Stealing a few minutes away from his work, he checked his email. He ignored the messages from potential tricks who persisted in contacting him although he had ceased prowling the online chatrooms and, instead, opened a message from JustINtime@pittserv.com. Smiling, he wondered what his little boy wanted. Usually when the teen was in the mood to play he used his Bountiful Bottom alias.

"Hey Pookie," the note began and Brian grimaced. Fuck. If anybody ever heard Justin call him that or, worse, ever realized how much he actually didn't mind being called Pookie, he'd never be able to live it down. Never. He read the rest.

"Wanna have dinner down at Mick's Cafe? I don't feel like cooking and, besides, I want to save my energy for celebrating. Pick me up at school around six thirty? Love you. Justin."

Celebrating? What were they-- Oh. Fuck. Checked the messages Cynthia had handed him as he'd returned from lunch, messages he'd ignored. One was from his doctor. The results of the last round of HIV testing he and Justin had undergone. Which meant they could go back to having sex sans condoms once again. They'd both been monogamous for the past five going on six months and this was their reward. At least, Justin hadn't been with anyone else.

It had been on his mind for the past few weeks, ever since he'd come back from LA. He'd thought of telling Justin more than once and had found that he couldn't. He'd conveniently forgotten that the wait would be over soon and that he was expected to be as thrilled about it as Justin. Now that the moment was upon them, he had no idea what to do. To refuse Justin would be tantamount to telling him the truth. To go through with it, a lie. And possibly worse. But he'd been careful, he was always careful. Except when he'd decided to go out in the first place and fuck around. Then he'd been oh so careless and so very, very stupid.

Still he had to answer Justin. Quickly he wrote, "Six thirty. I'll be there. Later." Sent it. Checked his watch. There was time.



Crossing his legs, Drew flipped the top on a new notepad which Brian noticed with a lift of his brow. "So you've missed some sessions since you got back from Europe."

"Busy."

"We had an agreement." That Brian would continue therapy, especially in light of his suicide attempt.

"Sorry."

Which was all Becker was going to get out of him at the moment. "This routine maintenance or an emergency?"

"Little of both, I guess."

"Patient's choice."

Brian wondered where to begin, wanting to get to the heart of the matter but needing to approach it a little more circumspectly. "I was promoted. Partner."

"Congratulations."

He acknowledged it with a nod. "I had to go to LA. For a conference. With Kenneth Harris."

Whom Drew remembered Brian mentioning in previous sessions. "He still hot for you?" As if that would ever change.

"Doc."

"Of course, he is. Go on."

"We did a presentation together and it was amazing. We went out to dinner, I made a lot of contacts, everything was going great. And then he made a play for me."

"What kind?"

"Kissed me. He wanted more than that though."

"What did you do?" Drew asked, certain he was about to hear about another of Brian's conquests.

"I told him no. Told him to go away."

So far so good. "That what you wanted?"

"I wanted... I wanted... I didn't want to hurt Justin."

"How would sleeping with Kenneth have hurt Justin?"

"Cause it would have been more than that."

Well, that was something. Brian admitting that someone had affected him. "You were tempted." The man said nothing. "Brian?"

"I shouldn't have been."

"But you were." He would liked to have met the man who had managed to snag more than Brian's passing interest. "There's no harm in that. And you said no." He watched as Brian's gaze slipped downwards. Of course, there was more. "Did he come back?"

"I wasn't there."

Jumping to no conclusions, Drew asked, "Where did you go?"

"Out." He stood, paused, then sat back down, knowing that Drew preferred him to sit during their sessions. "To the baths."

The therapist sighed inwardly. "Out tricking?"

"I couldnít stay there. Waiting for him to show up. I don't think I could have said no again."

That was something, that Brian had admitted that to himself. He still hadn't said what had happened at the baths but it didn't take a genius to figure that out. Why else would he be here? "So you went out to the baths. Then what?"

"Met three guys."

"Three?" Drew could barely keep the surprise and-- if he admitted to himself-- jealousy from his voice.

"Yeah."

"You've got to write this shit down." Incredible.

"In what? Another journal?"

Ashamed of his initial response, Drew clamped down on his personal interest and resumed his questioning, on a purely professional level. "Sorry. So did you tell Justin?"

"I have issues, Doc, but I'm not crazy."

"Then what's the problem?" He knew what the problem was, he wanted Brian to vocalize it.

"I lied to him."

And Brian, for all of his faults, had an honest streak that seemed to surprise even him on occasion. "He asked you if you'd slept with anyone on your trip?"

"I omitted to tell him everything that happened in LA." Which was damned near the same thing as telling a lie.

"Do you want to tell him?"

"I don't know."

"You want me to tell you what to do?"

"Yeah, I do." Brian rubbed the back of his neck. "But you won't."

"How's Justin doing?"

"Great."

"You two having any other problems?"

"Just that we're both busy and we can't seem to find a lot of time to be together."

"If you told him about LA, how do you think he'd react?"

"He'd freak out." That was putting it mildly. "He didn't want me to go in the first place because I missed Gus' birthday party. If he found out about... Jesus, he'd-- I donít know what he'd do." And that scared him, enough to bring him back to therapy.

"But he wouldn't thank you for it, would he?"

"No."

"Would it make you feel any better to tell him?"

"I-- No."

"Then why would you tell him?"

"It'd be the honest thing to do."

"So tell him and deal with the fallout."

"Are you saying I shouldn't?"

"I'm saying you need to weigh the consequences of your actions, then decide what's right for you."

"I shouldn't have gone out tricking."

"No, you shouldn't have." It amazed him to no end that Brian could be so astute and yet so foolish sometimes. As if he were two, three different people with different needs, different abilities and strengths. "You had about a thousand other options and you chose to go to the baths and then you chose to have casual sex with not one but three strangers. You want forgiveness, tell Justin and take the chance that he won't forgive you and that, maybe, you'll fuck up everything you've worked hard for. Or keep it from him and deal with the guilt. Because that's really why you're here. You think I'm going to tell you something to make you feel better. Well, I can't. There's nothing I can tell you that's going to make you sleep better at night except to say that what you did was wrong. Not morally. I could give a fuck about morals. It was wrong because you jeopardized your relationship with Justin. But it's not the worst thing anyone's ever done."

"Doc, it's not even the worst thing I've ever done."

"Then what's wrong?"

Where to begin? "Things... were supposed to be different. But they're not." He was aware of the inadequacy of his explanation.

"They are."

"Then maybe it's me that's the same."

"You know that's not true."

"I keep making the same mistakes. We went to Europe and we had the time of our lives. I thought I'd never want anyone else. All it took was one kiss." Granted, it was Kenneth. With anyone else, it wouldn't have mattered as much if at all.

"But you resisted."

"Him. And then I went out and screwed up everything."

"No, you didn't. You made an error in judgement."

"I want... "

"What, Brian?"

"I want to be able to trust myself."

"And you don't?"

"I thought... after Xavier, I thought nothing and no one could ever touch us again because we wouldn't let 'em." He studied his hands. "I really donít deserve him."

"Brian, donít do this. Let it go. And be happy. Be vigilant, be careful, but don't let this destroy you, destroy what you have."

"We were supposed to go back to... we've been tested and retested and we've been monogamous. That's what he believes. So what do I tell him?"

"You were careful, weren't you?"

"Always. I don't think I could stand it. If something happened to him because of me. I think I would... " He pushed the thought from his mind.

Sensing the danger, Drew tried to move them away from that topic. "Nothing's going to happen."

"You promise me that?"

"I can't."

"No." Brian gazed out of the window at the waning afternoon. "No one can."



"You donít like it."

Brian looked up. "What?"

"The restaurant," Justin replied. Brian hadn't said ten words since they'd arrived.

He gave it a once-over. Not the worst place they'd ever eaten, not the best either. A little noisy but that wasn't unusual. "It's fine."

"I should have picked someplace else," Justin insisted, sure that's what was bothering him.

"Baby, it's fine. Really."

"Then what is it?"

"What's what?" Stalling, which Justin knew.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing." He picked up a breadstick and snapped it in half. Offered Justin a piece. "Nothing's wrong." Justin shook his head so Brian dropped both halves back in the basket.

"You're so quiet."

"Eating."

The teen surveyed Brian's plate, it was still three quarters full despite his having had it before him for almost fifteen minutes. "You're not."

"Baby--"

"Don't 'Baby' me. And don't lie to me." They gazed at one another, neither one willing to back off. "Is it work?"

"No."

"Then it's us."

"No."

"Brian--" He hated it when Brian shut him out, it made him want to throw a Gus-sized temper tantrum.

"Okay, so it is work," he lied. "But there's nothing I can do, there's nothing you can do so..." So why talk about it?

"Why didn't you say?"

Because it's not the reason I can't talk to you. But he continued with the convenient lie. "Because things haven't exactly been easy since I got promoted."

Justin shrugged. "But we can deal with it. Most of it anyway."

God, he was so trusting. And all I'm doing is lying to him. "I know. And I promise I won't think about it anymore tonight." And he wouldn't. Least not in the way Justin meant. Work was a problem, because his job had brought him in contact with Kenneth and Kenneth had definitely proved to be a trial. One that he'd failed miserably. I should tell him.



He had believed, right up until the moment Justin touched him, that he could resist the temptation and tell the truth. But in that instant, as Justin unzipped his trousers and reached in to take hold of him, his resolve diminished until it was reduced to a niggling feeling that was quickly supplanted by the more urgent need to take Justin in his arms and carry him to the bed and make love to him. Just as he was sliding into Justin, he hesitated, but the teen cupped his cheek and urged him come deeper and he did with no other thought than to please the both of them.

With each thrust, Justin caught his breath until he must expel it, which he did in a low, drawn-out moan that skipped up and down Brian's spine so that he shivered and plunged the depth of Justin's quaking body. The teen grabbed his hair and pulled his head down to kiss, panting in his mouth as he drew closer to his orgasm. A spasm went through him and he cried out, the sound lost in Brian's throat. Hands still entwined in his lover's hair, still uttering small cries, Justin climaxed, his cum splattering their bellies. Releasing Brian's head, he lay quivering as the man continued to drive his cock into his hole. Eyes shut, spent, half out of his mind with pleasure, he could only manage the faintest of sounds, the simplest of encouragements, but they were enough and soon Brian shuddered and came as well.

After Justin had fallen asleep, Brian lay awake, guilt keeping him from his rest. He should have told Justin. That thought continued to plague him past midnight when he finally closed his eyes and slipped under.



It had begun with the rain, their meeting Sebastian, and had ended with them standing around his grave with a few other mourners, shocked by his sudden demise, grateful that they'd met him when they had.

That day, when they'd come upon his shop, had been the first day in months that they'd spent together, all day, doing nothing, just hanging out the way they had in Europe, exploring the neighborhood, letting their curiosity guide them. A bear of an ad campaign and guilt had kept Brian late at the office on more than one occasion. And even though he sensed Justin's growing impatience with it, he could not find the courage to tell him the truth.

So, instead, he'd wooed him with memories of Europe, trying vainly to recapture a moment that had gone, never to return. Even though they'd made love and seemed to have been magically transported back to their hotel room in Paris, he'd known that in the morning they'd find themselves in Pitts once more and with Pitts came the job and the lies and he'd lain awake long after Justin had fallen asleep.

After Sebastian's death, after receiving the package he'd sent them and the pictures, he'd vowed to do better by Justin, to keep his promise to him that theirs was the greatest fucking love story ever. But even the best intentions sometimes lead to despair and it was with great pain that he found himself sitting alone on a bench by the river. Lost.

Mikey found him and joined him. "Justin thinks you're at work."

"Yeah."

"But I knew you weren't cause I stopped by there."

"Obviously."

"So why are you lying to the Boy Wonder?"

Brian leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "Seems to be all I can do lately."

"What the fuck is going on with you?" He thought everything was fine between them. They'd returned from Europe happier than they'd ever been, the shadows gone from Brian's eyes. Now, they were back again.

"I went to the baths while I was out in LA."

"What?" Michael shook his head. "Brian... "

"It wasn't like that."

"Then how was it? You and Justin exchanged rings for Christ's sake. What the-- What are you doing?"

"Kenneth came after me. I didn't know what else to do." But weeks of telling himself now made that excuse sound feeble even to him.

"Than to hit the baths? What's that? The out of the frying pan and into the fire defense? Ever heard of going to the movies? Or the gym? Jesus fucking Christ, Brian, why can't you act like a normal human being?" He hadn't meant to be so harsh but Brian could make him angry like no one else. Maybe because he never knew someone with so much potential. For good or evil.

"Normal human beings don't fuck up?"

"They donít turn to fucking as the answer to all their problems!"

"I know I was wrong."

"Well, whoopee. Now what? You're lying to Justin and then what? What are you going to do when he decides to drop by the office one weekend when you're supposed to be working and you're not there? What are you going to tell him?" Did he never think about the consequences?

"I want to tell him about LA."

"You want to fuck up your relationship, that it?"

"No--"

"What else do you think is gonna happen? You tell him, you can kiss him good-bye. And I don't know if I'd blame him." Which wasn't true, he'd take Brian's part irregardless because they were best friends, right or wrong. It was just that sometimes he wished Brian would do right instead of wrong.

"So it's okay that he had a fucking affair with Xavier but I can't go out tricking once?"

"I didn't say that. But how many times are you planning to use the Xavier card? You're gonna run out of freebies and then what?"

"There won't be a next time."

"So you say."

"Goddamn right I say. Who else can?"

"Exactly. No one. And Justin's supposed to believe you why? Because you say so? Because you made some bullshit promise to him? Until the next business trip or the next time you're feeling stressed out? And he's supposed to just roll over and let it happen?"

"I thought you were supposed to be my friend."

"I am your friend, you fuckin idiot, and I'm telling you you're gonna fuck this up and you're never gonna have another chance to be happy." Because no matter what Justin had done to Brian in the past, Michael believed that Brian's best chance and probably only chance to be happy lay with the teenager.

"We can work it out."

"You tell him and it's over, Brian."

"So I lie to him?"

It amazed him to hear himself replying, "If you want to keep him you will."

"Mikey... It's eating me up inside."

"Tough shit."

He started to speak but he was unable to form the thought. A tear welled up in his eye.

"Brian? What is it?"

"He was what I always thought I'd wanted." Without explaining who, he knew Michael understood. "Strong, good-looking, rich, smart... Now I know how Justin must have felt, meeting Xavier. It crosses your mind. What if. What if things had been different? What if I wasn't with Justin? Then what?"

"But you are with Justin." He had the ring to prove it.

"So I left. Because I knew he was coming back and I didn't know if I could turn him down again."

"You could have gone walking in the park or--"

"I know. But I didn't. Cause that's not me. So I lie instead. I lie about LA and every time we make love I lie about having been monogamous."

"You two doing it raw?"

"Yeah."

"Fuck. You were careful--"

"Always."

"Still... " Mistakes happened, life was unpredictable.

"Always," he repeated even more firmly because he couldnít allow himself to even think about that, about the possibility that he was putting Justin's life in danger. By that slender thread, his sanity hung.

"I know that it's hard, lying to Justin but, Brian, if you tell him, you're gonna lose him."

But if I don't, I may lose myself.



The top of Justin's head was visible over the arm of the sofa and the television was on. At the sound of the door closing, he sat up and turned and smiled. "You're home early."

"Thought you'd be at the studio."

"Took the evening off."

So as not to alarm the teen, Brian kissed him as he usually did, then changed clothes and rejoined him.

"You wanna order in tonight?"

"Justin..." He sat at the other end of the couch, not looking at his partner. "We need to talk."

More bad news about work. How much more time can he spend at the office without moving in there? thought Justin. With effort, he said nothing. No matter what, he'd deal, it's what he'd promised and he'd keep his word.

Risking a glance at the teenager, Brian turned away again.

Justin began to feel scared. If it was just work, Brian would have said. It had to be something else, something worse but what? Why wouldn't he just say it?

He could tell Justin was getting anxious and that only made it harder to say the words. More than anything he wanted to take it all back, walk back out the door and come in again, no news to tell, just kiss his lover hello and go on with their lives. But that wasn't possible now. He was too far down the path. He'd chosen it, out of all the possible ways to take, and it was too late to go back and choose another. Twice he started to speak and couldn't.

He was trembling and he wanted to fill his ears with wax to keep from hearing whatever it was that Brian was going to tell him because he knew now, knew by the way Brian had hesitated, that it was going to be bad, whatever it was, and his stomach had knotted up and he wished he had the strength in his legs to run away but he didn't.

"I... I lied when I said nothing happened on the trip to LA."

No, not Kenneth. He couldn't find his voice. It had fled along with his hope.

"Kenneth made it clear that he wanted me but I said no. I turned him down."

For a split second he felt relieved but then he realized that there was more.

"But I was scared, Justin. Cause I knew he'd be back. He's not the kind of guy to give up. Not when he wants something."

Justin clenched the chair arm. Had Kenneth contacted Brian back in Pitts? Was that what this was all about?

"I couldnít stay in the room, not waiting for him to show up, not knowing... " and he stopped because Justin didn't want to hear that, didn't want to hear any of it. "So I went out."

And Justin froze.

"I went to the baths."

He found himself on his feet and he didn't know where he'd found the strength.

"Baby--"

He crossed to the door and opened it and walked out.




These things he did on automatic pilot: walked downstairs, hailed a cab, and gave the man an address. He wasn't even sure whose he'd given until they pulled into his mom's neighborhood. Paying the driver, he approached the front door and paused. Looked around in a daze. An hour ago he'd been in the loft, home, waiting for his partner and now he was standing outside his mom's townhouse, tears running down his face, shivering, wanting to sit down on the steps and cry until he was hoarse, until he didn't care how much his heart ached. Sniffling, he wiped his face on his sleeve and knocked. Waited, wondering what he'd say to Jennifer, how to explain his appearance, how to explain that once again he and Brian had failed.

Opening the door, Jenn took one look at him and pulled him in, hugging him tight.



It had been half an hour since Justin had left, time enough for him to have gotten to his mom's or Deb's or the Munchers'. Out of all the possible places he might have gone, the most likely was Jenn's so he dialed her first. Heard her answer.

"It's Brian. Is Justin there?"

"He doesn't want to talk to you."

"I just... I just wanted to know he was safe." He severed the connection before she could say something hurtful, her back up, wanting to protect her son. Although he deserved it, he didn't think he could face it, so he hung up before she had a chance to speak again. He hung up and sat on the floor by the sofa, laid his head upon the seat cushions and wept.



Although he refused the tea she'd brought, Jennifer sat it by him anyway, hoping he'd drink it before it got cold. He'd been shivering but she knew it wasn't from the slight chill in the air. "Wanna tell me what happened?" He shook his head. "Might help to talk about it."

"How did you know it was over? Between you and Dad?"

"I just did. We both knew. We'd known for a long time. It wasn't any one thing. It was an accumulation of problems. Honey, you and Brian are just starting out."

"We're not gonna make it," he said and he began to cry again, hiding his face, ashamed of his tears, and heart sore.

Sitting next to him, Jennifer slipped her arm about his shoulders. "It's not over yet."

But she didn't know and deep down inside he did, he knew that there was no point in going on because there'd only be another crisis and another and another. There'd always be something to forgive, some careless gesture, some thoughtless action on Brian's part, and he couldnít do it anymore. He was tired, so tired, and all he wanted to do was to sleep, undisturbed, for a hundred years.



It was a clear night and he had an unobstructed view of the moon. Low in the sky. Big, yellow autumn moon. He and Justin had gone walking one night in early September on Liberty Avenue. Just walked down the street, hand in hand, while trying to remember rhymes and bits of poetry about the moon. I see the moon and the moon sees me...

He cast a shadow in the moonlight, in the otherwise dark apartment. He'd shut off all the lights and stood before the window, staring up at the moon. He'd wanted to hide from himself in the dark. But the moon was so bright that as he turned from the window he caught a glimpse of his shadow, grotesque, furtive, scurrying to hide from prying eyes. He turned back to the window and drew the curtains, dampening some of the moon's light and, like a blind man in an unfamiliar place, made his way clumsily to bed.

But he could not sleep, afraid to dream of shadows.



A night's sleep had not been enough. Especially as he'd tossed and turned most of it, lying in an unfamiliar bed, missing Brian. It used to be that he'd have bad dreams and Brian would wake and hold him. Now Brian was the cause of those dreams.

At breakfast, Molly asked, "Where's Brian?"

"Home."

"Why'd you sleep here last night?"

"Molly, eat your breakfast," Jenn told her. "The bus'll be here soon."

"Are you and Brian getting a divorce?"

"Molly," Jenn said in a tone that left no doubt in the little girl's mind that her mother meant business. After she'd gulped down the last of her juice, she ran and grabbed her lunch and her bookbag and dashed from the house to meet her friends at the corner.

"What about you? You going to class today?"

"Mom..."

"I know you're an adult now but you're still my son. I don't want this to affect your life."

"How can it not affect my life? Mom, this is my life. Brian was my life." He lifted his cup of coffee and put it back down, untasted. "I need to go ho... to the loft to get some things. Can I borrow the car?"

"Won't Brian be there?"

"He'll be at work. Nothing's more important than that." Yet, having said that, perversely, he knew Brian would be there. Just to spite him, just to prove him wrong. But he'd already been proven wrong because he had believed, after their experiences with Xavier, that the last thing either of them would do would be to endanger their relationship.

Unaware of his mom watching him, Justin toyed with the ring on this finger.



From the moment he heard Justin's key in the door his heart began to race. He'd stayed home, postponed an important meeting because he'd known/prayed that Justin would return for his things. He had no doubt in his mind that Justin did not intend to stay but he hoped to have a chance to talk to him, to try and explain what had happened. Only it seemed like an impossible task because he wasn't quite sure if he knew what had occurred in LA except that he'd been a fool.

Making himself get up slowly and stand by the back of the sofa, he waited for Justin to enter the apartment.

Brian was there, he'd seen the Jeep outside and had walked as slowly as he could up the stairs, trying to strengthen his resolve. He'd get his things and go, no talking, no explanations, he'd just grab his stuff and leave because there was no point in talking. He couldnít trust Brian, that much was clear, and he was sick of being a fool, of believing lie after lie. And, yet, he wanted, more than anything, to be able to believe him. He wanted to come home. As angry as he was with Brian, all he wanted was one good reason to come back. And he was afraid, so very afraid that he'd see Brian and settle for less than the truth, that he would settle for whatever Brian decided to tell him and he knew that doing so would be wrong. And still. . .

Seeing him standing there by the sofa in his bare feet and jeans and a tank top... comfortable, the way they had been with each other once upon a time. All gone. They wore each other uneasily now.

Justin was wearing the same clothes he'd left in even though Brian knew there were clothes of his still at his mom's place. Maybe that meant. . . nothing. Just that it was easier to get up and put on the same thing than to go digging through boxes. He wanted to speak but he didn't know what to say, didn't know how much Justin would stay to hear, and he didn't want to drive him away. Even this impasse was better than having him leave again.

As Brian didn't seem to be making an effort to speak, Justin did. "I came to get some of my things," he said and any hope Brian had had was dashed.

"Justin-- "

"I don't want to talk about it. I just want to get some clothes and my school stuff. That's all."

"We can't not talk about it."

"The time for talking was when you were in LA fucking around."

"I wasn't--"

"It's too late! And I'm tired." He hadn't intended to go on but the words poured forth in a torrent of anger and pain and disappointment. "I'm tired of believing that things could be different. That you could be different. You made all these promises to me and they didn't meant anything."

"That's not--"

"All you ever did was lie to me. Every time you touched me, it was a lie, Brian. How could you... ? I believed you. I believed in you. But it didn't mean anything because all you care about is yourself. Lindsay, Michael, Deb, Mel, they all warned me but I wouldnít listen. I thought... I thought I could make a difference, I thought I could love you enough, give you enough... but I can't. Because it'll never be enough for you. You always want more. You want it all, everything, and you never leave me anything, you never give me anything, not one fucking thing. But I have to give and give and give and I can't do it anymore. I donít have anything else to give, Brian." He shook his head and started past Brian but the man stopped him.

"Listen to me."

"No!" Justin pulled away. "No more. Save it for somebody who gives a shit." He hadn't intended to say so much, to go so far but he couldn't stop himself and he hoped Brian would just back off before they went too far and there was no place else for them to go. But Brian, being Brian, couldn't let go.

"So what are you saying? That it's over?"

"Brian--"

He reached for Justin again and once more the teen moved out of reach. "Justin...?"

"Leave me alone."

"No." Brian moved closer. "Are you saying itís over?"

"You haven't left me a lot of options," he replied and he took a step backwards because, suddenly, he realized that they had come to the end of the path and they had to decide, he had to decide what to do. He looked away from Brian, then back at him and saw a tear run along side his nose and over his lips and he wanted... he wanted-- Justin turned aside and asked softly, "Why? Why did you do it? Why didn't you call me? Why didn't you... " and he walked away before Brian could answer because it didn't matter what Brian said. When the man didn't follow, Justin got out his carry-on bag that he'd taken to Europe and packed; gathered his books and supplies, and put everything by the door.

"I love you," Brian said in the quiet of the room.

And Justin paused in lifting his portfolio over his shoulder. "It's not enough." Putting his things down again, he went back to where Brian still stood. "I think," and he took a quick breath, "I think I should... " He twisted his ring. "I should give this back," and he started to pull it from his finger.

Brian saw the motion. "No. I won't take it."

"Brian--"

"I gave you that ring--"

"Then I'll leave it!" he threatened because the pain, fuck, the pain was too much.

"Then you do that," Brian replied. "But I'm not taking it back. And I'm not giving up on us. No matter what. I can't. Because I don't have anything else."

Justin raged. "Fuck you. Fuck you!" he yelled and snatched up his belongings and stormed from the loft, his bags banging against the metal door.

Closing it behind him, Brian slumped to the floor and drew up his knees and cradled his head against his folded arms.



Pride can stand a thousand trials
The strong will never fall
But watching stars without you
My soul cried. Heaving heart is full of pain
Oh, oh, the aching...
1

The sun shifted and the shadow of the column fell across him where he still sat upon the floor, unable to summon the strength or the will to get up. He continued to shake although the tears had long since stopped flowing. The pain had gone beyond tears, had become embedded in his bones, and the aching set his teeth on edge. He could barely breathe and he wished with all his heart that he could just fade away.



Touch me deep, pure and true
Gift to me forever...

He slipped the ring from his fingers and read the words etched on the inside, "Forever faithful, Brian," and he sobbed and let the metal band fall to the bed. Brian had slipped it on his finger less than a year ago. He had looked so handsome, like a prince out of a fairy tale. His very own Prince Charming.

Where are you now?
Where are you now?




On the tallboy sat a picture of them taken in Paris, on the streets of Montmartre, arms about one another, eyes only for each other, the briefest of moments captured on film.

Cause I'm, oh I'm kissing you
I'm kissing you, oh.




"Don't tell me," Rennie said when Justin trudged into the room, "you were so worn out from fucking that you couldn't make it to class yesterday."

"No," he said softly and took his seat.

Xavier looked over at him, scoping out the bags under his eyes and the redness. "Something wrong, J?" Then he noticed it: Justin wasn't wearing his commitment band. Xavier snagged Rennie's attention and nodded towards Justin's right hand. Her eyes widened but she said nothing. "J?"

"No. Nothing's wrong."

The other two teens let it go. There was no point bringing it up if he didn't want to talk about it.

But halfway through class Justin's hand began to shake and he put down his chalk and sat there staring down at his lap. Professor Martine came over and asked if he was all right and he told her he'd gotten a cramp in his hand but neither Xavier nor Rennie bought that excuse at all. Still, they bided their time.

The moment Justin tried to ditch them at lunch, they pounced.

"You lose your ring?" Xavier asked and Justin flinched.

"Leave it alone."

"And what if I don't?"

"Why the fuck should you care?" Justin asked angrily.

"Maybe cause you're my friend."

"Yeah," chimed in Rennie.

"It's none of your business."

Xavier brushed his arm. "Maybe not, but I'm making it my business. What's up with you and Brian?"

Justin moved out of reach. "Maybe nothing would be up if you hadn't come along."

"Whoa. What the fuck--"

"Leave me alone," and Justin pushed past both of his stunned friends.

"Where did that come from?" Rennie asked. "I thought you were cool again."

Xavier shrugged. "Guess not."

"Wonder what's going on with him and Brian?"

"Ain't good, no matter what it is. J never took off his ring. Never." Not even while they were making love. "Shit. So much for a quiet semester."

"And you thought it would be? The Boy Wonder and His Big and Badness? Those two are bigger drama queens than Erica Kane."

"Word," laughed Xavier. "Fuck. Guess I better go get in it."

"Brave or stupid," declared Rennie.

"Neither one. J's my friend. I can't leave him hanging like that."

Justin knew it was Xavier by the sound of his footsteps outside the door and he wished him away. He didn't want to talk about it, especially with Xavier. "Go away," he said as his friend entered the studio.

"Not until you tell me what's up."

"Then I'll go," and Justin started to leave but Xavier caught hold of his arm. "Let me go."

"No." Justin pulled but he couldn't escape Xavier's grip. "You gotta try harder than that, little boy."

"Don't call me that," Justin said and he shoved at Xavier and broke his hold.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"Everything!" yelled Justin. "Everything is fucked! But why should you care? You've got Trey and your fairy tale romance so why don't you leave me alone? Go plan your fucking three month anniversary or something."

"Your one year anniversary is coming up soon."

Justin cut his eyes at his friend and then he slumped on his stool and covered his face. Risking contact, Xavier put an arm around him. At first, Justin resisted and then he let Xavier hold him as he cried.

"It'll be okay, J. I promise."

"It'll never be. Never again. Never."

After he had cried for a while, Justin stood with his back to Xavier and wiped his face.

"So what happened?"

"Brian went to LA on business and went out tricking. At the baths." He laughed.

"What?"

"Maybe I should have picked you instead." Xavier didn't laugh. "But then you wouldn't have met the love of your life."

"Who said Trey was the love of my life? Maybe some of us aren't looking for that. Maybe the most we can ask for is to have someone for as long as we can, no promises about the future, just for right now."

"That how it is with you two?"

"That's all it can be with me one place and him in another. If it grows into something more, then it does. And if it doesn't, so be it. We had fun. We made each other happy for a while. It's all I can ask for."

Justin's face fell. "Sounds so easy. Nothing's ever easy with me and Brian. I wish... I wish I could walk away without feeling like I've left half my life behind with him. But I can't. But I can't keep going through crisis after crisis and dealing with problem after fucking problem. I need a rest, Xavier. I want..." He breathed through a sob. "I feel like I've been holding my breath for the past six months, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Scared all the time, trying to pretend that I wasn't, trying to be strong for him because it was my fault, because I was the one who fucked up, who drove him to it."

Confused, Xavier asked, "Drove him to what?" Justin shook his head. "J?"

"He tried to kill himself. Because of us. He was so close, Xavier. And I was so scared." Xavier embraced him again.

"You can't keep paying for that, J. You know?"

"I want my life back. And it just keeps slipping away, the harder I try to hold on. My hands are fucking raw and I'm tired. I'm just so tired."

They walked to a nearby park and sat beneath the trees, the bark against their backs.

"I know you're hurting, but he loves you, J, more than anything. You can just leave that behind?"

"I can't trust him. Now that he's been made partner, he'll be traveling a lot and I can't wonder every single time he goes out of town what he's doing, who he's with. I can't. He lied to me for weeks, didn't say a word. And he knew what it meant for us. I just don't..."

"It must have been hard for him. To trust you again after what happened." Justin looked up. "We lied to him. Even though you told him what was going on, we were wrong. We should have never been together, not while you and he were still together. And it had to hurt like hell for him to get over the shit we put him through. But he did. Because he loves you."

"So I hurt him, now it's okay for him to hurt me?"

"No. He shouldn't have done it and once he had, he should have told you right away or kept his fuckin mouth shut."

"Lie to me?"

"Would you have known if he hadn't told you?"

"No but--"

"And everything would have been fine. But he told you. He came clean and he admitted he'd made a mistake."

"So I oughta forgive him?"

"Fuck no, crucify his ass. You don't need him. You can find somebody else just like that." Snapped his fingers. "Someone who won't lie to you, who won't cheat on you, won't put you through all these changes, who'll be the perfect husband, and you can live happily ever after."

"I'm not asking for that."

"Then what are you asking for? Guarantees? They only come on bags of Cheetos. People don't come with guarantees. Or warning labels." Cause if they did, both Brian and Justin would have come with huge ones.

"He really hurt me, Xavier."

"I know, you know, and he knows. Now what?"

"Nana Rose tell you that?"

"Every fuckin day until I started to act like I had some sense. Until I got my ass out of bed and out of that apartment and remembered I had a life before I met you and I still had a life." And then I found Trey. "Wasn't gone do me no good to lie around crying about it, about how I had been done wrong. Like I hadn't done a thing. Like I was a victim."

Justin knew what it was like to be a victim, to feel locked inside a role that kept you from being who you were. He had refused to be one. And Brian had helped. "Last year the trial had just started."

"I remember." The beginning of their troubles. Which had begun with a kiss as well.

"I used to wake up from these nightmares. And Brian would always be there." He rubbed his hands together, acutely aware of his missing ring. "Maybe it's time I dealt with my own demons."



Without really intending to, he flipped on the intercom. "Yeah?"

"Dada, let in."

"Let me in," whispered Lindsay.

"Let me in," the baby repeated.

He was, to Brian's chagrin, talking better every day. And talking more. He buzzed them through and opened the door. Heard Gus in the elevator before they reached his floor. As soon as Lindz raised the door, he raced out and ran to his daddy.

"Dada!"

Brian caught him up. "Hey."

"Miss you."

"I missed you too," and they exchanged kisses.

"Wouldn't know it," Lindsay said, coming inside behind them. "You haven't been around all week."

"You know why."

"Dada, where Jusin?"

"He's not here."

"Jusin work?" Gus knew work as that was the reason why Mama was gone so much. Mommy had told him.

"Yeah." Brian put him down and took off his coat. Freed, Gus reached for the remote.

"Gus--" Lindz started but Brian said, "Justin showed him how." And, sure enough, Gus turned on the TV and handed Brian the remote so Brian could put it on channel 3 and cut the VCR on. Then he gave the remote back to Gus and watched as the toddler went to the cabinet and got out his tape, the one marked "Gus" in big red letters.

Lindsay looked on in amazement. "Justin?"

Brian nodded. Gus had put the tape in the VCR and pushed the play button. Sat in one of the chairs. "That way we could get a little 'us' time in." He looked away. "Not a problem anymore."

"I thought Justin might come around to see Gus but he hasn't. He misses him too."

"Guess you were right. To worry. Should have known I'd fuck it up somehow."

"Bri--"

"It's been almost a week and I think I'm going out of my mind."

She neared him, touched his arm gently. "Bri..."

He sniffled and attempted one of his shit eating grins but it fell apart at the corners. "I didn't mean to say that. I don't want you to worry."

"I am worried. Bri, have you talked to Drew?"

"Before I told Justin, yeah."

"Not since?" He shook his head. "Why not?"

"No point." He laughed, remembering an earlier conversation. "Unless he's got some magic beans."

"I don't like it, you being here alone."

"I'll be fine, Lindsay."

"I don't believe you."

"You shouldn't. I lie, you know."

Gus, apparently tired of watching his tape, brought Brian the remote and he cut off the VCR and the television, handed the control back to the toddler who put it in its usual place on the coffee table and ran back to his daddy and grabbed his leg, wanting to be picked up. "Dada. Where Pooh?" he asked again, as if Brian hadn't understood that Jusin and Pooh were the same person.

"He's not here," Brian explained once more.

"Where?" he asked and his lip began to tremble. He wanted Pooh.

"Gus," and Brian went to hand him to Lindsay but Gus wouldn't let him.

"No!" So Brian kept him and Gus said quite firmly, "Call Pooh."

"I can't."

"Call Pooh."

"Gus..." Already he could feel the tears. How could he explain it to Gus when he couldn't even explain it to himself? So he gave in. Justin would probably be in the studio now. Dialing his cell, he waited for the teen to answer.

"Hello?"

"Justin."

"What do you want?"

"Gus wanted to talk to you. Hold on." He handed the phone to the baby. "Here. Talk to Pooh."

"Jusin."

"Hey, Gus."

"Hey. Where you?"

"I'm at school. Remember? Remember when you came to see the pictures?"

"Yeah."

"That's where I am."

"Come home."

Justin paused. "I can't, Gus."

"Come later?" Later was what they told him when he couldn't do what he wanted now.

Justin said nothing.

Gus said softly, "Miss you."

"I miss you too."

"Come home." He was more insistent this time.

"I've got to go, okay? Okay? Say bye-bye."

"Bye-bye, Jusin."

"I love you."

"Luv you." Gus gave the phone to his daddy. "Pooh say bye-bye."

Brian held the phone for a moment before putting it down.

"Bri?"

He gave her Gus and walked away.

Picking up the baby's jacket, she got him back into it. "Say bye-bye to Dada, Gus."

"No!"

"Gus, we have to go."

"Stay."

"No, you can't. Not today."

"Dada!"

Brian said nothing. He couldn't. He could hardly breathe. Somehow Lindsay managed to convince Gus that he couldn't stay with his daddy. Brian didn't pay attention to how. He only surfaced from his thoughts long enough to say goodbye and to watch them leave. Yet, after they were gone, he was immediately overcome by the feeling of being alone. He could hear himself breathing in the empty room. Is this what you wanted? he asked himself. Aloud, he replied, "No." What he wanted was Justin, back in his life. Hearing his voice on the phone, he'd wanted to beg him to come back but he'd known that the teen wouldn't. Not yet. If ever.

Maybe it was time to call Drew.



Justin held his cell in his hand long after Gus had gone. He wanted to call Brian. He wanted to throw the phone away. He wanted to go home. He wanted never to go back.

Putting the phone into his bag, he grabbed his stuff and left the studio. He would get no further work done tonight.

Instead of going directly home, he took a detour on Liberty Avenue. Since school had started, he'd cut back on his hours at the diner and he hardly ever just walked down the street anymore, nowhere to go, just wandering. But he felt like it tonight. He guessed, as he passed the door and poked his head inside, having seen that Brian wasn't there, that he'd have to increase his hours again. Brian hadn't wanted him to fall behind on his work and had, subsequently, talked him into letting him pay for more and more of their living expenses, not that Justin had been contributing much to the household outside of groceries and buying his own art supplies and clothes. Eventually, he supposed, Brian would have begun paying for those things as well. Not that he would have minded, Brian seemed to feel it was his obligation to do so, his right, maybe, as the eldest of them, as the one with the career and the partnership and the money. But it had made Justin feel, sometimes, like a trophy wife, like all he contributed to their relationship was himself. Which Brian had told him on many occasions was enough. Now he knew that it hadn't been.

Moving down the street, hoping he wouldn't run into Deb or the guys out for a night on the town, Justin stopped in a record store. The new Beck CD had been out for a few months and he'd heard that it was supposed to be the best yet. He liked Beck, the way he could make any kind of music his own. He definitely had his own voice, his own vision, but he was willing to experiment. Just like him. Although he'd started out sketching on paper, he'd learned to like sculpture and painting and computer animation as well.

He picked up one version of the CD (there were four different covers) and flipped it over to read the track listings. A sales guy passed by. "Hope you're in a good mood."

"Why?"

"It's good but he was majorly bummed when he wrote it. Every song is about breaking up or being alone."

Probably not the wisest purchase he could make given his present circumstances but what the hell, nothing was going to cheer him up and he couldn't imagine a CD bringing him down any lower than he already was.

Successfully repelling a Molly attack when he got home, he barracaded himself in his room and put on his headphones.

"It's only lies I'm living
It's only tears that I'm crying
It's only you that I'm losing
Guess I'm doing fine"
2

Justin removed the headphones and cut off the CD player. Like ants, tears marched down his face.

Cracking his door, Molly peeped in. "Justin--"

"Get out!" he yelled and shut his eyes but the song stayed in his head.

He wanted to go home.



"Tell me about Kenneth."

"What about him?"

"What's he like?"

"He likes me," joked Brian.

"Touche."

"He's a biochemist. Believes in better living through chemistry."

"A man after your own heart," teased Drew who was well aware of Brian's frequent dalliances with drugs of all shapes and sizes.

"After my ass." He fidgeted in his chair. "Why are we talking about Kenneth?"

"He seems to be important to you."

"He's not."

"He's a client."

"So's Old Pitt but we don't talk about them."

"You don't have a personal relationship with them."

"I don't have one with Kenneth either."

"You're more than just acquaintances."

Brian picked at the crease in his slacks. "He said that he wanted to be friends."

"How do you feel about that?"

"We have a lot in common."

"You and Justin didn't."

"Not at first," he admitted.

"Does Kenneth excite you?" Brian avoided his eyes. "Brian, answer the question."

"How is this helping me get Justin back?"

"Is that what you want?"

"Why do you think I'm here? I don't have a vested interest in seeing you buy a new boat, if that's why you think I'm handing over my hard-earned money."

"Does Kenneth Harris excite you?"

"I don't want Kenneth. If I did, I'd be with him. And it'd probably be a hell of a lot easier."

"Then why don't you?"

"Because I love Justin. No matter how hard it is, he's the one I want."

"What do you think it's going to take? To get him back?"

"A fuckin' miracle." He went to the window. There was a pigeon on the ledge, balanced on a strip of concrete no more than an inch thick. "I wanted to fuck him," he confessed, with his back still to Drew.

"How did that make you feel?"

"Angry."

"Why?"

"Because it wasn't supposed to be like that. You put on the ring, you say the words, and you make a life together, and it's supposed to be easier than this."

"Why'd you think that?"

"I used to watch my old man leave the house and we all knew he was going out to fuck around. And I told myself that I'd never be like him. That I'd never settle down but if I did, I'd do it right, I wouldn't screw around and pretend to be something I wasn't. I wouldn't say the words and not mean what I said. But maybe I'm just like him. Maybe there's no difference."

"You think he ever thought about what he was doing?"

"I don't know." The pigeon flew away and Brian returned to his seat. "And it's too late to ask him."



She watched him climb the steps up from the garage and lean against the counter. He looked thin, thinner than usual. A little haggard. "Are you hungry?" He shook his head. Hair needed a trim. "I'm sorry about Justin." He'd called her and told her since she had planned to come over and have Justin show her a graphics program on his computer. She was thinking about getting one. Joanie Kinney, computer geek. For her new hobby/business.

"My fault," he said.

He hadn't spared her or himself the details, telling her about his mistake. At first she'd felt a little uncomfortable, knowing intimate details about his sex life but it was who he was and if she wanted to accept him, she'd have to accept all of him, including the fact that he slept with men, with men other than Justin. "Do you think he's coming back?"

"Why should he? There's nothing binding us together, no vows, no ceremony, no law, no license, nothing."

"He loves you," she said, taking out a head of lettuce and salad fixings from the fridge.

Brian pushed off from the counter and picked up an apple from the basket on the table. Tossed it a couple of times then held it. "Did Pop ever talk about... you know?"

"His outside interests?" She busied herself with the salad. "No."

"Do you think he felt guilty?"

"He was brought up in the Church. I'm sure, at first, he did. In time... it didn't bother him anymore."

"What about you?"

"I tried to tell myself that it wasn't about me. That it was about him and something missing from him. But, even so, I thought maybe if I were better, somehow I could fill that need, that ache, that emptiness inside him."

"I thought I could make a difference, I thought I could love you enough, give you enough... but I can't." Justin's words came back to him and he winced.

"Brian..." He looked up. "Let me fix you something to eat. You'll feel better."

So he sat at the table and waited for his mom to feed him.



Knocking once, Mikey slid open the door and came in to find the loft shrouded in semi-darkness. One lamp lit the livingroom and the blue neon light was on but they were barely enough to guide him to the bedroom where he hoped to find Brian. He was there, sitting in bed, smoking a joint. Michael could smell the sickly sweet odor.

"Hey."

His eyes barely registered his friend's presence. "Hey."

"You wanna go out? We were thinking- -"

"Not really."

Michael sat at his feet. "Might be good for you."

"Doubt it." Leaning over, he offered Mikey a hit, which he declined. "Suit yourself. I need it more."

"You don't need it at all."

"I'll be the judge of that." But he put it out in an ashtray and smiled. "You were right. You told me it would happen and it did."

He'd shifted gears but Michael understood the reference. "I'm sorry. You gonna be okay?"

"No." He made a fist of each hand to keep from reaching for the joint.

Sliding closer, Michael asked, "You still seeing Drew?"

"He told me the same thing you did. That I would lose Justin if I told him about LA." Brian paused and picked up the cigarette. Held it unlit. "But I had to, Mikey. Every time I touched him, I felt like I was lying to him. And I was." He put the joint back down again. A minor victory.

"Maybe he just needs time to think about it."

"About what? How I lied to him? How I broke our vows? How I disappointed him? Again." Miserable, Brian shut his eyes but instead of darkness, he saw Justin.

"He still loves you."

Remembering Justin's words to him, Brian said, "It's not enough."

"You donít believe that."

"He does. He wanted to give back his ring."

Not having known the extent of their problems, Michael began to worry. "And Dr. Drew didn't have any advice?"

"He said I should. . . He says I shouldn't give up. But I don't know what else to do."

"Have faith."

Brian smiled sadly. "Justin is the only person who's ever given me any hope."

"Then have faith in him."

"You didn't see his face." He could. It seemed always to be in sight. A look of profound weariness in his blue eyes.

"You don't think he's coming back, do you?"

"I don't know what I'll do if he doesn't. So I don't think about it." He picked up the doobie and lit it. "And this helps."

Michael watched him, unable to offer any other comfort.



The week seemed as long as an eon and by the end of it, Brian felt as if he was as inured as stone. Sluggish. Cold. Ossified by his grief. There seemed to be a layer of grey between him and the world. Everything and everyone seemed dim.



Apparently he hadn't heard so Ryder repeated his question. "Brian, do you think you could keep our clients entertained this weekend?"

"What?" He blinked, realized he'd been wandering.

The other partners looked at him worriedly. "Our clients. Could you take them around this weekend? Show them a good time?"

"No," he replied, shuddering inwardly. The last thing he wanted was to have to baby-sit clients. Not now, now when so much was wrong.

"Other plans?"

"Not in the mood," he said, hoping the matter would be closed but he knew that his answer hadn't met with their approval by the way their faces shut down.

Ryder spoke. "They're important clients."

"I can't."

"I know it's short notice but we all have to make sacrifices sometimes for the good of the firm."

Angrily, Brian asked, "How many more sacrifices am I supposed to make?" He stood, not caring if the meeting was over or not. He had to get away from them, had to be alone. Striding from the room, he hurried to his office and closed the door. Sat at his desk and bowed his head. The door opened. It would be Ryder, wanting to know what in the hell that had been about.

"It's business. I know that it's inconvenient but Justin will understand if you explain it to him."

"Justin's gone," he said softly.

"Gone?"

"He left me," he explained. "Thanks to my trip to LA."

Ryder didn't understand. "But that was over a month ago."

"There's no statute of limitations on fuck-ups," laughed Brian. Then he added, "It wasn't the conference. It was me."

"Brian. . . "

"I don't want to talk about it." He looked up. "And I don't want to entertain any clients."

Nodding, Marty acquiesced. "I'm sorry."

Brian waited until the door closed behind Ryder and then he buried his face in his hands.



Waiting at the end of the sidewalk, he waved as he saw her car turn the corner. He stepped to the side as she parked, then opened her door. They came together in a tight embrace. "I missed you," he said as he held her.

She parted from him. "What's going on? Why are you at your mom's place? And where's Brian?"

Jenn had taken Molly to the mall and the movies so they had the entire house to themselves for a couple of hours. Seated on the livingroom sofa, Justin told her what had happened. "Remember that conference Brian went to in LA?"

"Yeah?"

"He went to the baths, Daph. He went to the baths and fucked some stranger."

Daphne's eyes widened in disbelief. "No."

"Yeah." Justin wiped his eyes, even now it was hard to talk about. "And he lied to me about it. For over a month, he didn't say anything."

"So why'd he tell you?"

Justin lowered his eyes. "We went back to doing it raw and he felt guilty, I guess, that he hadn't kept his part of the bargain."

"How long have you been at your mom's?"

"Almost two weeks."

"You're not going back?" she asked, then noticed that he wasn't wearing his ring. Daphne reached for his hand, took it and held it. "Justin. . .?" He said nothing.



That night they met Xavier and Rennie at Rennie's room for pizza. Her other two suitemates had gone away for the weekend. "Well, it's official, they're a couple," she said. "And everything was going so great."

"What's the big deal?" Xavier asked. "So they're fucking? So what?"

"So what happens when they break up?" she asked and then bit her lip. Justin was staring at the floor. "Sorry, Boy Wonder."

He shrugged. "It happens. Maybe you ought to start looking for new roommates."

For a while no one said anything and then Daphne suggested that they go out and whoop it up. "Hit the clubs, do a little dancing."

"We can go to Babylon," Rennie suggested. At Xavier and Daphne's shocked looks, she said, "Maybe he won't be there."

"And if he is?" asked Xavier.

"We'll ignore him. It's a big place."

As Daphne was about to object for his sake, Justin spoke up. "Let's do it. Fuck him."



You could have walked from the door to the stage on the heads and shoulders of all the people in Babylon and never have seen the floor. With difficulty, the four coeds staked a claim to a bit of space on the upper level and danced together, exchanging partners until they'd all paired off at one time or the other with every other person in their group. The girls giggled as they did the bump and grind trying to outdo the guys who had gotten down and dirty just for the hell of it, Justin up against a wall with one leg thrown over Xavier's hip as they ground their groins together, not meaning anything by it, just playing, but quickly play turned to something else and they broke apart, flushed, Justin trembling. And then he saw him. Brian.

Standing next to the bar below looking lost, none of his former confidence or cockiness in evidence tonight. Still beautiful but looking wasted, not drugged out or drunk, but thin, dissipated. Although his eyes were on the dance floor Justin could tell that he was paying little if any attention to the men in front of him. His eyes seemed opaque. Then some twink approached him and said something to him. Brian moved away from the bar and the young man followed.

Justin turned to his friends who hadn't seen what he had. "Let's go."

"What's wrong?" asked Daphne.

For a long time he was silent, then he said, "Nothing." If Brian had forgotten him that quickly, then so be it. There was no reason he should be miserable. "Nothing's wrong. Wanna dance?"



But that night as he lay in bed he couldn't get the image of Brian with the twink out of his mind and he wanted to call him, wake him and demand that he explain himself. And then he opened the drawer of the nightstand by his bed and took out his ring. The band he no longer wore. He made to put it back on his finger and stopped. Nothing had changed. Putting it back in the drawer, he cut out the lamp and put on his headphones.

"Press my face up to the window
To see how warm it is inside
See the things that I've been missing
Missing all this time..."
3



The trick had followed him outside where he told him to get lost, not wanting any company, having left his friends in order to be alone. Now, he sat in the middle of his bed with his ring in his hand, wondering if he should put it aside. But he couldn't. Sliding it back on his finger, he pulled the sheet over him and shut his eyes against the soft neon light.



Xavier answered his cell. "Hello?" He half-expected it to be Justin but it wasn't. It was Daphne.

"We need to talk."

"About what?" he asked, rubbing his eyes. What time was it?

"What's the deal with you and Justin? I thought he said you had a boyfriend."

"I do."

"Then what was tonight about?"

"Us having fun."

"And that's all?"

"That's all."

"I don't want to see him hurt."

"Then talk to your boy, Brian."

Silence. "Maybe I will."



"Maybe you should mind your own business," Brian told her when she showed up at his place bright and early Sunday morning on her way out of town. Luckily for her he'd slipped on his robe before answering the door. He remembered her reaction the first time she'd seen his goods. The first time Justin had come to live with him.

"Donít you love him anymore?" she asked.

Angrily, he turned to her, "What do you think?"

She could see the pain in his eyes. "Then talk to him."

"And say what that I haven't already said?"

"Then say it again. Until he listens to you. If you want him back, you'll talk to him, make him understand." She punched him in the arm.

"Ow."

"It's your fault and you better get him back."

He rubbed his arm. "Princeton's made you mean."

"You have no idea." Then she smiled and got up on her tiptoes, and kissed him. "Call him."

After she had gone he sat staring at the phone. What more could he say to Justin except that he was sorry, that he'd made a mistake, and that he loved him? But Justin knew all that. She was wrong. It was up to Justin to decide where he wanted to be and with whom.

He had never felt more helpless, not even when he'd held Justin in his arms, bleeding in that parking garage a year and a half ago.



Another week had begun with no better prospects than the last. Work, which had once upon a short time ago, given him so much pleasure, ceased to satisfy him. He attended to his duties with a decided lack of enthusiasm however well he performed his tasks. Never having been one to laugh openly frequently, even his wry grins had become rare. He had become as grim as granite stone. Cynthia tried to nudge him out of his mood but even she conceded at last, certain that Justin was the only person who could return Brian to himself. And Justin had gone.



The intercom buzzed and he answered, expecting Cynthia to forward some call to him and he was shocked to hear her say, "Kenneth Harris is here."

Wanting to send him away, he couldn't. The other partners would hang him out to dry if he offended one of their biggest clients. "Yeah." And he waited.

Kenneth's appearance was a blow to his already fragile emotional state. He could barely meet the man's eyes as he walked through the door. But even a brief glimpse was enough to tell him that Harris hadn't changed, that he was still as desirable as ever, and that he still desired Brian. It would take but a word and Kenneth would give him anything he wanted. Except Justin.

"Brian. . ." He paused behind a chair. Brian looked haggard, tired. What had happened?

"What brings you to Pittsburgh?"

"I had business in New York. Thought I'd take you up on your offer and stop by. Have dinner maybe. With you and Justin," he added, just in case there was any confusion regarding his motives.

"Can't," Brian answered.

"I know it's short notice but--"

"Justin left me." He walked over to the window, stood with his back to Harris.

"I'm sorry. Was it--"

"I told him what happened. And he left." Brian touched the glass with his palm.

"It's my fault. I shouldn't have pushed."

Brian laughed bitterly. "No one forced me to go to the baths."

"If I hadn't come onto you, you wouldn't have gone."

"Believe me, there's enough blame to go around." He laid his forehead against the window, so tired. Closed his eyes. Heard Kenneth move, then felt his hand on his shoulder. He tensed, drew away.

"I didn't mean anything." The man regarded him warily and Kenneth regretted his hasty gesture. "I know that you love him."

"I... I think you should go."

Kenneth hesitated. "Brian..." This wasn't the time but when would be the right time? Never, he decided. Circumstances had conspired to bring him within reach of the one thing that he wanted, the one thing he'd never have: Brian. "I hope things work out for you." He swallowed. It had been hard to say that. He glanced at Brian, saw the skepticism in his eyes, and chuckled. "It's the truth. I want you to be happy. I think you'd be happy with me but..." The ad exec laughed. "I'm not stupid. I know when I'm not wanted."

And Brian was grateful for the lie. He made himself walk to where Kenneth now stood. Touched his arm lightly. "Maybe next time we could have dinner. Talk."

Risking it, Kenneth kissed him on the cheek. "I'll be back." With that he left.



Empty again. He closed the door of the loft and stood in the doorway. Having refused Kenneth's offer of dinner and company, he faced the prospect of another night alone. He looked around the apartment. Dark. Lonely. Justin's belongings scattered about, the things he hadn't taken with him. Brian placed a hand on the kitchen counter and took a deep breath. He should eat, he hadn't had anything all day except a couple cups of coffee and half a pastry that Cynthia had forced on him. There were probably Tupperware canisters in the freezer. He could find something. A bowl of soup, a plate of jambalaya- -

He jerked. Hearing Justin drop the bowl of salad on the floor, startled by his sudden appearance. Felt the man next to him. Hotlanta, his tee-shirt had said.

"It's always better the second day," Justin had said over dinner the next night, after he'd taken the boy back into his home, his life.

He'd served grilled polenta the first night Justin had spent with him after leaving the hospital. The first time they'd made love after the bashing. He remembered holding Justin's hand across the table, his heart racing, terrified because so much had changed between them. . .

Having changed clothes, he found that his appetite had grown and yet he was loathe to take anything out, to be faced with eating alone. He could have gone with Kenneth, could have, at least, shared one night with someone, anyone.

But he wanted Justin.

He wanted to sit at the counter watching the teen cook. Wanted to play footsies beneath the table as they ate. Make love after they'd cleaned up.

Taking out an unmarked container from the freezer, Brian didn't bother to open it to see what it was. He just popped it into the microwave and pressed the thaw button. Whatever it was, he'd eat it. Or not. He didn't really care.

It turned out to be white bean soup. Justin had gotten the recipe in Florence, from the owner of a tiny restaurant not far from their hotel. The Tuscan had sworn Justin to secrecy, never to reveal the recipe for fear that some other chef might usurp it.

They had occupied a corner table, lit by candlelight, sharing a plate of bruschetta drizzled with olive oil, spooning the delicious soup from their bowls until they struck bottom.

He raised his spoon to his lips and paused. His hand shook. Soup spilled over the edge of his silverware. He put the spoon down and shaded his eyes with his hand. Rubbed his forehead. Tears slipped down his face.

All of the meals they had ever taken together came back to haunt him. To remind him of his loneliness. He wrapped his arms about his waist and sat bowed over his plate. Salty tears dropped down into his soup.

Pushing away from the table, he went into the kitchen and opened the bottle of Beam. No glass needed. He'd drink it from the bottle, drink it all, until the pain went away. Turning it up to his lips, he stopped. So he'd drink himself into oblivion and then what? When the alcohol wore off, Justin would still be gone. And he'd only have another and another and another night alone to face. A lifetime of empty evenings.

He took the bottle to the sink and poured the liquor into the basin. As the clear liquid gurgled down the drain, he wept. When it was empty, he opened the trash can and threw it inside. Got another bottle from the counter, opened it, and drained it as well. Into the trash can. And another. Another. All the while crying, hoping to purge himself of his need, of his sorrow.

Hands shaking, he opened the Vodka and began to pour. Justin. . . He stopped. It would only take one drink, one sip to forget. "No," he whispered and he threw the bottle against the wall of the alcove. It burst against the brick, splattering the framed picture of himself that Justin had drawn. A piece of glass slid to a halt near the column by his feet. He picked it up, held it in his hand. It would be so easy and then the pain would be over.

"No," he breathed, squeezing the glass in his fist. The edges bit into his palm and he winced, dropping the shard. Blood pooled in his hand across his lifeline.



Drew took in the bandage around his hand. "What happened?"

"Cut it."

"Doing what?"

"Recycling. Throwing out some old bottles."

His voice was flat, devoid of emotion. His eyes were dull and Drew thought he'd never seen him look worse. "Have you seen Justin since our last session?"

"No."

"Talk to him?"

"No."

"You look a little tired. Been sleeping okay?"

"Not really."

"How are you otherwise?"

"Not so good," he said quietly.

Brian hadn't looked at him since coming into the room. "What do you mean by that?" The man said nothing. "Brian?"

"It's getting harder."

"What is?"

"Finding a reason to get up in the morning."

Fearful, Drew told him, "I want you to call me. If you can't find a reason. You understand? Call me." He nodded. "Brian?" He looked up finally. "How did you cut your hand?"

"I was throwing out some old bottles," he repeated.

"How bad is it?" Not the cut. Least not the one that had been bandaged.

"Not as bad as before." He swallowed. "Not yet."

"What do you want to do?"

"I don't know. I just feel. . . I miss him so much."

"I know."

"I know that I was wrong but. . . I thought. . . No matter what, we could work it out. We could fix it."

"Brian, I donít want you to lose hope but. . . Maybe we need to talk about what to do in case Justin doesn't come back."

"I don't think he is," Brian said softly.

"How does that make you feel?"

"Like I don't have any reason to go on." He shook his head. "I shouldn't have said that."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm gonna end up in the nuthouse."

"Should you be?"

"You're the shrink."

"I think you're stronger than that."

"I was. With Justin."

"I don't like the thought of you being alone."

"Fact of life."

"What about your friends? You could spend some time with them. With Lindsay. I'm sure your son would love that."

"Isn't that running away from the truth?"

"Which is?"

"That I am alone."

"You're not alone."

"It's my home. Even if he's not there. It's where I belong."

"You call me. Any time. And I'll come and we'll talk it out."

"Doc. . ."

"Yeah?"

"Thanks. It would have been harder, without you."

Drew cut off the tape recorder and sat deep in thought.



He'd never been completely comfortable in Drew's office which had nothing to do with Drew and everything to do with the psychiatrist his mom had taken him to when he'd first come out to her. He liked Drew. Trusted him. And he hadn't been surprised when the therapist had called him to schedule an appointment.

"So, how are you?" Drew asked.

"Fine."

"Better than I expected then."

"Not so good."

The truth. "You want to tell me about it?"

Knowing that Brian had told Drew the entire sorry tale and knowing that what Drew wanted was his take on things, Justin gave him the condensed version. "So I left," he said. "I'm tired of him lying to me. I can't trust him. I can't believe anything he says."

"Is that completely true?"

"Yes."

"Did he tell you he loved you?"

"Yes."

"And you don't believe him?"

"I do but- -" He rubbed at his eyes. "We met this man, he ran an antique shop. He died last month. He and his partner had been together since World War II."

"And they never argued?"

"He said they did but. . . How many times am I supposed to forgive him?"

"How much do you love him?"

"No! This isn't my fault!"

"I didn't say it was."

"I thought. . . I thought we would be together forever."

"Then you don't have any intention of going back?"

A tear rolled down Justin's cheek and he rubbed the finger his missing ring would have encircled. "I don't see how I can."

"Do you want to go back?"

"Yes!" He turned away.

"Then you can," Drew told him.

"How?"

"You have to believe in him again. You have to trust him. There's no going back without that."

Justin lowered his eyes. Then there was no going back and the ring would remain where it was, in a box in his drawer by the bed.



Mel screwed the back on her earring. "Thanks, baby, for doing this on such short notice but our regular sitter bailed and Bri--" She smiled awkwardly. "Thanks."

"I don't mind." He perched on the edge of the sofa with Gus drawing at his feet. The baby had been overjoyed to see him, had sung his name for a solid minute before settling down. It was the first time he'd seen him since splitting with Brian and he'd been just as thrilled to see the toddler. Over the past two weeks he hadn't let himself really acknowledge how much he'd missed him for fear of losing it but, now, with Gus playing below him, he felt as if he'd never be able to let him go, he loved the little boy so much.

"Honey!" Mel called. "You ready?" They were about five minutes away from being late for an executive dinner at the Gay and Lesbian Center.

"Coming!"

"We won't be long. Probably be back before Gus goes to sleep."

"Okay."

Lindsay bopped down the steps with her shoe in her hand. Stopped at the bottom to slip it on. "Ready."

Giving both boys kisses, the two women sped from the house.

The first thing on the agenda was dinner. Neither one of them had eaten. With the toddler in tow, dragging Beh behind him, Justin went to see what he could find.

"Okay, Gus, do you want a hot dog or a hamburger?"

"Burga," he replied.

"Burger it is." Like Brian, Gus was content to watch Justin cook, perched in his high chair with Beh, far from the stove and the dangers of splattering oil.

"How about some French Fries?"

Gus clapped. "Fries." He loved them, just like his daddy.

As he cooked, he became aware of Gus staring at him. Turned and faced a pair of beautiful hazel eyes, so like his daddy's.

"Jusin, where Dada?" Because Dada belonged where Jusin was.

"I don't know."

"Work?"

"Probably."

Justin had just finished cutting up Gus' burger and fries into bite-sized pieces when someone knocked at the door. He lifted Gus from his chair and went to investigate.

He'd expected to see Lindsay or Mel and when the door opened to reveal Justin, Brian wished he'd chosen another night to visit. His heart felt as if it'd been pierced through to his back.

"Dada!" shouted Gus. Dada and Pooh.

Picking him up, focusing his attention on the baby, Brian tried to figure out a way to leave gracefully. "Hey, Sonny Boy." They kissed and Gus giggled cause Brian hadn't shaved and his beard tickled.

Justin wanted to run his fingers over Brian's face. He remembered how his whiskers had felt, rubbing against his belly as they'd made love some mornings before Brian had had a chance to shave, and he had giggled like Gus before his laughter turned to sighs of pleasure. "We were about to eat."

"I'll go."

"No!" That was Gus. "Dada, eat."

"Gus--"

"There's enough," Justin told him. "Besides, I donít think Gus is gonna let you go."

The baby tugged on Brian's arm and pointed to the table. "Eat."

"Okay. I'll eat."

So they ate, the two men saying very little to one another, Gus babbling to them both, oblivious to any change between them. Once or twice Gus reached over to touch Brian's face, fascinated by the bristly hair. Justin had to look down at his plate, wishing he were touching Brian instead.

Brian stole a glimpse at him while the teen was unaware. Justin wasn't wearing his ring. Brian tightened his jaw, determined not to say anything about it, to get through dinner and go home and lick his wounds. Still, he couldn't remain completely silent. "You've lost weight," he said, as an excuse for having studied Justin.

The teenager looked up. Locked eyes with him. "So have you."

"Not much of a cook."

Justin looked away, remembering meals Brian had cooked for him. They'd been wonderful.

After dinner Gus made Brian come into the livingroom and look at his picture.

"That's very good," Brian told him. "What is it? Is it a horse?"

"No."

"A dog?"

"No." Gus giggled. Dada was being silly.

"A cat?"

"No. Dada." Gus pointed to the biggest blob on the page. "Dada."

Suddenly Brian understood. "That's me?"

"Yeah."

Brian pointed to a smaller blob. "Who's that?"

"Jusin."

He pointed to the smallest figure. "Who's that?"

"Me."

Dada, Jusin, and Gus. Their little family. Destroyed. By him. Brian gave Gus the paper and stood. It was time to go. He couldn't stay any longer. It was too hard. He shouldn't have to do this.

The door opened and in came Mel and Lindsay.

"Bri?" Lindsay asked.

"I'm gonna go," he replied.

"Dada, no."

Lifting the little boy, Brian bestowed a kiss upon him. "It's time for you to go to bed."

"Go with you."

"You can't. Not tonight."

"I want go."

"Not tonight. 'kay? 'kay?" Gus nodded sadly and kissed his daddy again. "Nite nite."

"Nite nite."

Justin took the baby as he reached for him and kissed him, was kissed in return. "Nite nite."

"Nite nite, Jusin."

With one last wave Gus allowed Mel to take him upstairs for his bath.

"Justin," said Lindsay, picking up her keys, "I'll take you home."

"I can do it," Brian offered.

"It's..." she began. "You sure?"

"Yeah. Night."

She walked them to the door. "Night. Justin, thanks again."

"Any time." He hung back for a moment watching Brian stride towards the Jeep.

"This okay with you?"

He paused. "Yeah. It's fine. Night."

Brian had the engine started by the time Justin opened the passenger door and got in. "You need to stop anywhere?"

"No. Thanks."

Why aren't you wearing your ring? he wanted to ask but he didn't. He said nothing the entire trip. Neither did Justin. They rode in silence, not eight inches apart, but they might as well have been on opposite ends of the earth. At last, Brian pulled up to Jenn's house.

"Thanks for the lift."

"No problem."

"Night."

Brian took a breath, then exhaled. "Night." He watched Justin walk up to the front door and push it open, disappear inside. At the last moment, before the door closed, Brian thought he saw Justin turn but he couldnít be sure because by then his vision was a tad blurry. He gripped the steering wheel and waited for the haziness to clear, then drove off.

The empty loft greeted him with a silence deeper than that which had accompanied him and Justin. He could have filled it with screams but he didn't.

Keeping his mind purposely blank, he dropped off his clothes and crawled into bed. Turned the light off and lay awake in the darkness.

Justin had taken off his ring.

He touched the band still around his finger. He'd taken his off once and since then had sworn never to do so again.

What did it mean that Justin had stopped wearing his?

Of course he knew what it meant. He just didn't want to say. Not even to himself.

It's over.

The thought drove him from bed. He couldn't lie there alone with that running around his skull. He sat on the sofa trying to keep his mind blank but he couldn't.

It's over.

Justin wasn't coming back. He had moved on. Brian tried to keep the image of Xavier and Justin from surfacing in his thoughts but he couldnít. What if it were true? What if Justin had gone to Xavier and they were together now? And did it really matter? For whatever reason, Justin obviously considered their partnership dissolved. He would never have taken off his commitment band otherwise.

So it was over. Justin had made his choice.

He had choices as well. He could pursue Justin in the hopes of persuading him to change his mind.

He could take off his own ring and call it quits as well. And go on, knowing they'd never be together again.

Or he could end it all. He was not afraid to die, it was living that scared him. Living without Justin.

There were still things that belonged to Justin in the loft. That they'd carried up in boxes, them and their friends. How would it feel to watch him carry them away?

He wouldnít have to face it if he wasn't there. It'd be simple. He could take a handful of sleeping pills and lie down alone. Never again have to feel lost or abandoned, confused, angry.

Never play with Gus again or hear him giggle as he stroked his daddy's beard. Never hear him shriek with mock fear when Brian pretended to be a gruff grizzly bear. Never feel his soft face against his skin when the toddler lay in his arms sleeping.

Brian ran a hand over his chin, covered his face.

He wanted to see Gus off on his first day of kindergarten, wanted to see him in school plays, and football games. He wanted the opportunity to be a better father than his old man had been. Even if it meant doing it alone. He'd imagined Justin doing those things with him.

Now, he'd have to let go of that dream, prepare himself for a very different future.



He found the letter waiting for him when he got home. Stuck in the box with the other stamped mail. But it hadn't come via the Post Office. There was no stamp. Just his name scrawled across the outside of a plain envelope. In Brian's hand. He took it inside and carried it to his room. Sat on the bed and opened it.

Justin,

Here are all the things I couldn't say to you. Not because I didnít want to but because we're not talking anymore. I miss talking to you, the way you always tried to listen, no matter what. Even if you didn't always understand what I was trying to say. I miss listening to you talk. About school, about art, about everything and anything, even if it sometimes seemed as if maybe I wasn't listening to you. I was. It made me feel alive, that you could get excited about just walking down a half-empty street in Paris or even Pittsburgh. It didn't matter. Because you could see the beauty in most things. Even in me. I've had hundreds of guys tell me that I'm beautiful but you were the only one who ever made me feel beautiful. Beautiful enough to be with you. You are the most beautiful person I know, that I've ever known. I know that I should have told you that more often and I didn't. There were so many things I didn't do. Not from a lack of love or of caring but because I'm careless. I should have told you every day how much I loved you, how much I needed you, wanted you. My only excuse is that I thought you knew. I thought you knew that you were the reason I lived. You saved my life. In more ways than one. I feel like I was only half-alive when I met you. You gave me back my life. I had given it away so long ago and you gave it back to me. I could never have been a good father to Gus without you. I would never have been able to be a son again to my mom if it hadn't been for you. You gave me my family and yours too. You gave me the world. You gave me London and Rome and Paris. And Pittsburgh. You gave me my home. You made it a home. But most of all, best of all, you gave me yourself. Even though I said I didn't want you at first, you knew that was a lie and you never let me forget how much I wanted you. You fought for us when I didn't seem to care. Even after everyone around you told you it was impossible, you never gave up. And when I thought I had lost you, when I didn't know if you'd live the night, you found the strength to come back to me. Not to leave me behind missing you. You gave me your love and your strength and I'm grateful to you. When I didn't want to go on, you were there to hold me, to tell me that no matter what, you were strong enough to face it. I'll never forget that.

I can't ask you to come back. I know that I've hurt you. I just wanted you to know that I love you, that I'm thankful for the time we had together, and that I'll always be there for you, whenever you need me, and I'll always love you. Always.

Brian.



It had been hard, listening to the other people on the floor talking about their holiday plans when he had none. Lindsay had asked him to come over on Thursday but he'd refused. He couldnít face them, face his friends and family having thrown away his life They would be understanding, pitying, and, worst, disappointed although they'd be careful not to show it. He had failed. As they had all expected. Sniffling, he stuffed his papers in his briefcase and shut it. He would work and the day would pass and he wouldn't notice the emptiness, the silence.

"You spending Thanksgiving with Gus or your mom?" asked Cynthia, coming in to check on him.

"No." Although Joanie had asked as well.

Debating whether or not to get into it, she decided to push forward. "You should. Holidays are for family."

"Not this year."

"Things could change."

He snickered bitterly. "I don't believe in the Easter Bunny either."

"Then come have Thanksgiving with me."

"You're going to your mom's," he reminded her. She went there every year.

"Not this year. I'm staying home and having dinner by myself. Come over and we can watch the parade and--"

"You're a worse liar than me." Smiled. "Thanks. But I really want to be alone."

She touched his arm. "No, you don't."

"Told you I'm a terrible liar."

"Boss--"

"Go on. Go home and pack. If you haven't already."

"It's done."

"Too damn efficient."

Cynthia kissed him on the cheek. "See ya Monday?"

"Have a good trip." He watched as she went to grab her purse and go. They were the last people left in the executive suite. Ryder had gone home at noon, he and Liz making the trip to his parents' home this year. They alternated holidays between their two sets of parents.

He looked around the office. This was what he'd worked so hard for. And he'd give it up in a minute if he could--

No. There was no point in thinking like that. Justin was gone. Life went on.



It was the day before Thanksgiving and he was alone. Last year he and Justin had picked up Gus after getting out of court, spent the evening watching old movies and laughing.

He curled up on the couch and tried to think of something else but he couldnít. All he could do was remember how happy they had been last year. Even though they'd been in the middle of Chris Hobbs' trial, they'd gone through it together. They'd made love on this very couch Thanksgiving morning while Gus had slept, had lain wrapped about one another, cooling down, catching their breath, listening for the sound of the baby waking up in case they'd been too loud. But he'd slept on and they'd enjoyed a peaceful half hour afterwards.

Now the loft was quiet. He reached for the remote on the coffee table to turn on the CD player but decided against it. He wasn't in the mood. Closing his eyes, he tried to empty his mind. There was no point in remembering how it had been because it would never be like that again. But he couldn't help remembering, wanting it to be that way once more. Although he'd promised himself that he wouldnít cry, he began to. Silently.

The phone rang. Lindsay probably, trying to get him to change his mind about coming over but he wouldn't. Why bring everybody else down?

He let the machine pick up. Expected to hear Lindz's voice and heard Gus' instead.

"Hey, Dada. Me home. Where you? Where Jusin? Dada? Dada?"

Brian stood to turn it off because this was worse than having to listen to Lindz.

"Dada, come here."

And whether he meant come to the phone or come to the house, Brian didn't know.

Gus waited. Then breathed heavily into the phone. "Dada... luv you. 'kay? Bye-bye." And the phone clicked.

Wiping away the tears, he stood in indecision for a moment, his chest swelling from the ache. He wanted to get out of his skin, wanted to be someone else, someone who hadn't fucked up his life and driven away the most important person in his life, the person who made it possible for him to be with everyone else. Without Justin, he didn't know if he could be Gus' dad or Joanie's son or anything at all. He wrapped his arms about his middle to confine the pain but he couldn't. And he couldn't stay in the loft, not alone, not with himself, not with these memories of Justin haunting him. He had to go.

It was cold out so he grabbed his coat first, then his keys, and put the matter of where he was going out of his mind. He'd figure that out when he got there.

He tore open the door and looked up.

There stood Justin. The teen spoke softly. "Where are you going?" But Brian couldn't answer. His throat had closed up and he was terrified that at any moment he'd start to bawl like Gus. So he shook his head. "Then why donít you stay home," Justin said. Brian couldn't meet his eyes. "With me."

Tears ran down his cheeks. Justin was here. As if afraid that it was only a dream, Brian hesitated to touch him, but Justin took him in his arms and held him, the both of them trembling. "I love you," the teen said and Brian sobbed. "I love you."

Oh I'll ride farther than I should
Harder than I could
Just to meet you there...

How could this love
Ever changing
Never change the way I feel
4



They lay together, just holding one another. Justin stroked his cheek. "Don't cry."

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

"I know. Me too."

Tightening his arms around the teen, Brian savored the feel of him, the smell of him. He was real and they were together again. "I love you," he said against Justin's skin.

It had been so long. Weeks since they'd made love and yet they were in no hurry, content for the moment just to lie together, hearts reconciling before their bodies remembered the pleasure to be found in one another. They desired safety first, surety, but in the end, all they had was faith. Faith in each other and in themselves, faith in their love. What more was there? What more did they need?

Justin's lips followed a trail from his breastbone to his jawbone to his lips and they kissed softly at first and then harder as hunger gripped them. Brian could taste Justin on his tongue as it slipped between his lips. He inhaled and filled his lungs with air from Justin's lungs, sharing breath as they shared kisses.

Solid beneath his fingers, beneath his belly and chest was Brian. Hard, warm to the touch and so beautiful. Justin kissed him and said breathlessly, "You're so beautiful," and Brian sighed and closed his eyes as the teen covered him with kisses as sweet, as heady and light as Chianti.

They entwined arms and legs about each other, limbs like grape vines climbing upon one another. Brian felt Justin wet against his thigh and eased the teen onto his back, crawled between his legs and licked the clear bead of precum from the moist tip. He longed to quench his thirst with Justin's cum. Lips sliding down the shaft, he filled his mouth, his throat. Greedily he sucked on Justin until the teen gasped and clenched his hair in his fists and began to thrust upwards, deeper inside Brian, the thick, slick head of his cock bumping the back of Brian's throat. "Ah! Ah!" Justin jerked and flooded Brian's gullet.

Sliding his lips back up Justin's meat, Brian drank his cum and lapped the last few drops as they dripped. He lay with his head upon the teen's belly, his hand still around his swollen cock.

Justin drew him up and kissed him, tasting his juices on his lips and his cock stirred again. Moaning, he spread his thighs and felt Brian's dick nudge his balls. He kissed his throat. "Fuck me," he whispered huskily.

The timbre of his voice sent shivers across Brian's skin. He reached between Justin's cheeks and sought his hole. Found it, warm, tight. He ran the pad of his finger around the edge and felt Justin tense up, then relax. They kissed as he toyed with his hole, massaging the knot of clenched muscles until it seemed to sigh and open around his fingertip. He eased inside and Justin exhaled into his mouth, then sucked on his lips as he was opened up even further by the finger sliding deeper into the close tunnel of his ass.

"Fuck me," he begged Brian. As good as his finger felt, his cock would feel better.

Justin's hole had spread to take two fingers and Brian plied him with a smooth, even motion, feeling Justin's cock stiffen as it was stroked from within each time his fingers brushed his prostate.

"Fuck... me," Justin gasped and he grabbed Brian's arm.

Unable to withdraw his fingers, Brian wiggled them around and Justin cried out. His dick dribbled precum down his belly and Brian's. His balls, hard and high, rubbed against Brian's pubes. He released Brian's arm and lay panting on the bed.

Removing his fingers, Brian thrust his cock up Justin instead.

He met Brian's thrusts, raising his hips, taking every inch of his lover inside him. "Oh," he moaned, so hot, so hard, so hungry for Brian's dick that he squeezed him and held him in place, savoring the fullness in his bowels.

Still deep inside Justin, Brian rocked his hips and light exploded behind his eyelids. The head of his cock rubbed against the walls of Justin's asshole and he bit back a scream. Then, as Justin relaxed his internal hold, he withdrew and plunged inside again, the teen's heels digging into the backs of his thighs, his hands on his shoulders, nails biting into his skin. "Baby..."

"Yes," Justin panted. Brian slid in and out of him rapidly and each thrust seemed to steal another lung full of air until he was gasping. "Ah!" He squeezed his eyes shut and grunted. Cum shot over his belly onto his chest, streaking his skin. "Brian," he whimpered and lay back, spent.

Brian entered him again and moaned. His breath was hot against Justin's neck as he came inside him, cock sliding through cum as he continued to pump against the teen's ass.



They lost count of the number of kisses they shared. Took leave of their senses and let their bodies have free rein. Resting only long enough to gather their strength, they made love through most of the night until their sheets were soaked with sweat and semen and their muscles were sore, stiff, strained from their exertions. They abandoned the bed and rested upon the sofa. Near sunrise, Justin climbed upon Brian's lap, buried his face in his hair and shouted as he came, spurting against Brian's belly, the man's cock spitting inside him.



The edge of the counter marked the place where they parted, Justin going into the kitchen to fix breakfast, Brian padding out to the hallway to collect the paper. Reaching for the folded bundle at his feet, he noticed something sticking out of it. A card. Addressed to Justin. Puzzled, he opened it and laughed.

From inside, Justin asked, "What?"

Brian tossed the paper on the counter and handed Justin the card.

" 'Dear Mr. Taylor, Welcome home. Thomas Bailey, Building Superintendent.' " Justin clapped a hand over his face which had reddened considerably. "He heard us."

"Heard you."

"Good grief."

Brian kissed him. "Mmm." Kissed him again.

"Stop. Before we get another note."

Brian licked along his jaw line. "I'm hoping for at least two or three more."

Laughing, Justin let him fling him over his shoulder and carry him back to bed.


Although it felt good to lie in Brian's arms, they had places to go. Or, rather, a place. Getting up and crawling over his lover's long, lean body, Justin stood next to the bed and held out his hand. Brian took it and he pulled him up. "Come on, Pookie, we gotta get ready."

"Don't call me Pookie," Brian grumbled.

"Don't be grouchy, Pookie. Okay?" Justin kissed Brian's shoulder. " 'kay?" They got in the shower and Justin washed his lover's back, the man completely relaxed beneath his hands. "Feel good?"

"Mmm."

"That's my Pookie." He ran his palms over Brian's taut buttocks and around his waist to his flat belly. Drew him closer. "I love you."

Brian turned in his arms and kissed him. "I love you too."

"Say it again."

"I love you."

The water washed them clean.



Although the gang kept things lively, they were all painfully aware that two of their number were absent. Gus, most of all, missed Dada and Jusin and it seemed to the adults that he was quieter than normal, sitting in his rocker, hugging Beh to his chest, and singing to himself, "Ta la la," a song that Justin had sung to him, or as close as he remembered. "Ta la la."

"Poor baby," said Deb. "Maybe you should call, see if he'll come."

"He won't," Mikey told her. "Once he makes up his mind- -"

There was a knock at the door. Gus sprang from his chair. "Dada!"

Lindsay ran after him to see who it was and hoped he wouldnít be too disappointed when it turned out not to be Brian. She pulled back the curtain. "Bri?"

"Dada!" shouted Gus, reaching for the doorknob. She opened it for him and the toddler jumped up as Brian leaned down. "Dada," he said, happy now that Brian was there.

"I thought you said," she began and then she realized he wasn't alone. "Justin?"

In the livingroom the others heard her with relief and joy.

Deb crossed herself. "Thank you," she whispered.

The two men came inside and joined the rest of their friends. Gus wouldn't let go of Brian's hand and pulled him towards the table and got a basket of leaves from it. "Look," he told his daddy. "Leefs."

"Leaves," Brian corrected him.

"Leeves." Gus tugged on his arm. "Come on."

"Where are we going?"

"More leeves."

Surrendering, Brian let him lead him outside.

Inside, Justin was left to satisfy their curiosity. "It was no good without him," he explained.

"Well," Em told him, "he was a wreck without you. I, for one, am glad you're back together. It wasn't pretty. But I always say, true love is like an Armani suit: it lasts forever."

"Thank you for those pithy words of wisdom, Obi Wannabe," Ted said, rolling his eyes.

"I saw that," Em warned.


Gus handed his daddy a leaf. "What color is that?" Brian asked.

"Red."

"Very good." Gus brought another one. "How about this one? What color is it?" Gus looked at it but he had no answer. "Orange," Brian told him and the toddler giggled. Orange was something to eat. Silly Dada.


Michael went to where Justin stood, getting a glass of punch. "I see you're wearing your ring." Brian had told him how Justin had taken it off.

"I never meant to hurt him."

"Neither did he."

"I know."

"Is it for good this time?"

Justin sensed an undercurrent of anger in Michael's question. "It's for good."

"Fine." He started to leave but Justin stopped him.

"I mean it," he said.

"Does he believe you?"

"I think so."

"Then that's all that matters."

Having witnessed the exchange, Debbie went to Justin after Michael had gone and hugged him. "It's okay, Sunshine. He'll come around. He loves Brian, that's all. We all do. And we all know that you're what's best for him. No matter what. Just do me a favor, huh?"

Justin squinted. "What?"

She popped him on the back of the head. "Don't ever fuckin' scare me like that again." Muttering, "Little asshole," as she walked away.

Vic laughed and Justin knew it really was all right. He'd been forgiven.


Seated around the table, she and Mel at either end, their guests arrayed about them, Gus in his high chair next to Brian, Lindsay opened their dinner by saying what she was thankful for this year. As expected, she was thankful for Gus and Mel and for having their friends with them for another Thanksgiving.

All eyes turned to Brian.

Last year he'd joked and everyone had laughed when Justin had kicked him beneath the table. This time he fixed his eyes on his partner seated across from him again and said in a quiet voice, "I'm thankful Justin's come back home. And I'm thankful for him."

No one spoke. They could see the tears in his eyes and they all looked away, except Justin, to give him the chance to wipe them away. Which he did. And then he said, "And Gus is thankful he's almost potty-trained. Isn't that right, Sonny Boy?" and the toddler nodded vigorously which lightened the mood and they all laughed knowing that was really something Brian was thankful for.

They went around the table, recounting their blessings until it came to Justin. He had studied his plate as the others had spoken and now he looked up, gazed right at Brian as he spoke. "I'm thankful that I didn't lose Brian and that he still loves me." A tear slid down his face. "Thank you."

Brian reached across the table and took his hand, held it for a moment then released it. When he did so, the light glinted off his ring.

Lindsay thumbed a tear from her own eye. "Well, let's eat."

"Amen," declared Emmett.


Having cleaned his plate, Gus watched the adults eat. When Brian asked if he wanted anything else, he shook his head and held out his arms. So Brian lifted him up and sat him on his lap, the little boy content to rest against his daddy's chest as he finished his meal.

"He's just like you," Deb said, shaking her head.

"He's like a weed," Mel told them. "If he inherits Justin's appetite, we're all in trouble," for the teen, despite the drama of the past few weeks, was busy tucking it away. They laughed as he looked up, cheeks bulging.

"Iím still growing," he explained in his defense.

"Don't talk with your mouth full," Brian scolded.

"Yes, Pookie."

Silence fell upon the gathering and then they all burst out laughing. All but Brian and Justin.

Oh fuck... the teen thought.

"Pookie?" Mel asked. "Fuck," she cackled.

"Mel," said Lindsay with a nod towards Gus who was looking around trying to figure out why everyone was making so much noise and why his daddy's face was red.

"Oh, my word," giggled Em. "Pookie and Pooh. Pee-Pee," and they roared.

"Shut the fuck up," growled Brian, then he shot an angry look at Justin. "You are so not getting any when we get home."

"Thatís the truth," said Mel. "Cause you're taking Mini Me with you tonight so Mommy and Mama can have a little 'us' time. Isn't that right, Mommy?"

Lindsay blushed and doused her embarrassment with a sip of wine.

Gus nudged Brian. "Dada."

"What?"

"I got pee-pee," he said and Brian stood and carried him from the room while the others laughed to bring down the roof.



With Gus settled in for the night, Brian and Justin retired to the livingroom where, despite Brian's earlier threats, they proceeded to make out, stopping just short of actually fucking, both of them still too sore from the previous night and this morning. Hard-ons rubbing provocatively together through unzipped pants, they gnawed on each other's lips.

His erection straining for release, Brian had just worked Justin's chinos down around his knees and was about to slip his cock between his thighs when he heard, "Dada."

Hoping the tot was too sleepy to really notice what was going on, Brian eased his dick back inside his trousers with some difficulty and got up, the front of his slacks tented. He knelt and blocked Justin from Gus' view, giving the teen time to pull his pants up. "What is it?"

"Come bed."

"You go back to bed and we'll be there later. Okay?"

"No. Come bed now."

"Gus--"

They went to bed. He and Justin separated by the sleeping toddler. Willing their erections to soften. Thwarted by a two-year-old.

Brian sighed. "We gotta get a new place."

Turning over onto his left side, Justin mumbled, "Uh-huh."

Following suit, Brian turned onto his right side and went to sleep, to dream of children's rooms and Gus resting soundly in his own bed.



Songs

1 "I'm Kissing You," Des'ree and Tim Atack, Sony/ATV Music Publishing UK Ltd./Westbury Music Ltd./Love Lane Music UK, 1996.

2 & 3 "Guess I'm Doing Fine," Beck Hansen, Cyanide Breathmint Music/BMG Songs, Inc. (ASCAP), 2002.

4 "Lonesome Tears," Beck Hansen, Cyanide Breathmint Music/BMG Songs, Inc. (ASCAP), 2002.



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