Mel had taken the baby and gone. In the end there had been nothing he could do, except to go down himself and get the baby seat and put it in her car. Stand on the curb watching her strap Gus in the back. He didn't realize that he was holding one of Gus' beanies until they had driven halfway down the street. He presented an incongruous picture: the baby's small, soft, woven hat in his hands, the well-oiled leathers he wore. Too late to flag Mel down, he figured he'd give the hat back to Lindz when she showed up to kick his ass sometime tomorrow. Or the next day. Right now, Justin was waiting.
Entering the security code for the door he dispensed with the elevator, taking the stairs slowly. Giving himself time to think. Time to calm down. He was still revved up from his fight with Melanie. Still pissed at that asshole from Babylon. Fuck! What the fuck had he been thinking? Why did he do these things? He paused in the dimly-lit stairwell, leaned against the wall. Lindz would say it was because he was selfish. Hell, that's what any of his friends would say. He turned the baby's hat in his hands. But his own kid? Letting your friends down was one thing, but not being there for your kid, well… Well, that was Jack Kinney all over again, wasn't it?
There was no point standing in the shadows like some kind of fuckin monster. He took the rest of the stairs at a trot and slipped inside the apartment, sliding the door close behind him. Justin was sitting on the sofa with his back to the door. Probably waiting for his punishment. And it wasn't his fault. Mel was right about that much. Although, he was only gone for- Fuck. He shouldn't have gone at all. That was the point. He knew that. And yet…
He took off his jacket and hung it up on the back of a chair. Stripped off his shirt too. The pants he left on although he did unzip and kick off his boots.
The sound of the heavy shoes striking the back of the sofa startled Justin. He glanced around and caught sight of Brian standing behind him wearing nothing except a pair of low-slung leather pants. It was hard for the teen to imagine a more indecent sight. Brian did an about-face and headed for the refrigerator and a bottle of water, Justin supposed. His eyes were fixed on the sight of Brian's back tapering to his narrow waist, the narrow waist becoming the slender hips and the pert behind, which was all covered by the skin-tight leather pants. They were cut so low, Justin could see Brian's spine disappear at the top of his ass. Tearing his eyes away, he turned back around and resumed staring down at his hands.
"You want anything?"
Surprised that Brian was speaking to him at all, Justin muttered, "No." He fully expected Brian to start berating him for being such a fuck-up. But no one had told him you had to test baby's milk on your arm first to see if it was too hot. And what was too hot? Nobody had ever told him what too hot was. As Brian rounded the edge of the sofa and stalked over to an armchair into which he draped his long, lean body, Justin thought, That's what too hot is.
Watching Justin squirm sort of took the sting out of Mel's dressing-down but not quite. It would take a lot more than that to take away the lingering, burning sensation where her words had landed like the strands of a cat-o-nine-tails whip. Just thinking about whips brought a smile to his face. Imagine one of Ted's business school friends being a bondage Master. He'd pay money to see that guy do Ted. Better yet, if he'd do him and tape it so they'd all have a copy. That'd be better than almost anything. Almost. Shifting in the chair, he sat up with his legs open and leaned forward. As he'd anticipated, Justin jerked. He'd been watching Brian hungrily, tracing the outline of his leather-clad legs from his ankles to his crotch. "I asked you if you wanted anything."
"You don't want me to go?" Justin asked, eyes wide. Brian's shifting moods never failed to catch him off-guard. Of course, he guessed that Brian hadn't been able to satisfy his urges at the Leather Ball which was why he was being so charming now. Brian was nothing if not charming. When he wanted to be. They'd fuck and maybe Brian would let him sleep over and then in the morning he'd drive him back to Deb's and things would go back to the way they were. Except that he was tired of things being the way they were. Tired of the meaningless fucking. Brian leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. Well, maybe he wasn't tired of the fucking, just the meaningless part.
"Do what you want," Brian mumbled.
That did it. Justin rose and grabbed his coat.
"Where are you going?"
He paused. "You didn't pay for me."
Brian sat up in the chair and fixed his hazel eyes on the teen. "What the fuck does that mean?"
"It means that I'm not on-call for you to fuck whenever you want," Justin replied. "I'm going home." He took a step towards the door and closed his fingers around the handle.
"You need a lift?"
Justin's face went hot. He jerked open the door.
He did. Despite wanting more than anything to just walk away and leave Brian alone.
In a couple of seconds Brian got up and padded over to where he stood. Leaned his naked shoulder against the door. Pushed it close. They stared at one another, neither one making the first move.
"Is that it?" Justin asked finally. Brian bent his head to kiss him but Justin pulled away. "No."
Brian huffed and pushed past Justin. "I'm not in the mood for games."
"Neither am I. In fact," Justin continued surprising himself, "I'm fucking sick of all the games you play."
He whirled around so quickly Justin took a step backwards involuntarily. "Me? I never play games."
"What about how you treated David? Coming onto him-"
"I told Mikey that was just a test."
"A game," Justin pronounced. "And the way you cock tease Michael all the time-"
Brian's face darkened and for a moment Justin was afraid that he had pushed too far and that Brian would explode. Instead of coming after him, he retreated. Stalked off to his bedroom.
Justin's heart was racing. So this was it. He pushed and Brian walked away leaving him with nothing. What did he think was going to happen? That Brian would suddenly admit that he cared for him? He had never even heard Brian say that he loved Gus and Gus was his son. The only person he had ever heard Brian say that he loved was Michael. And even then, he said it playfully. Although Justin suspected that when no one else was around, Brian's tone changed to something more serious, more believable. After all, Michael wasn't a fool. He wouldn't have hung around all those years waiting for Brian if Brian hadn't given him a damn good reason for doing so. At least Michael had the words. He had nothing. Sure, once, when the stars and planets had been in alignment, he had gotten Brian to admit that there were things about him that he loved, but that was a ways off yet from saying that he loved Justin. If he'd only admit that he needed him, that he depended on him for, for anything, that would be enough. For now. His thoughts were interrupted by Brian's return.
Still frowning, Brian stopped about three feet from Justin. Just stood there, studying Justin's face until the teen grew uncomfortable under the scrutiny.
Brian closed the space between them. And this time when he reached out to kiss Justin, the boy didn't pull away. Parting from him, Brian held his face and ran his thumbs over his cheekbones. He looked as if he wanted to say something but couldn't.
Again Justin asked, "What? What can't you tell me?"
Brian caught his bottom lip between his teeth, looked away. "I don't know what else you want from me."
But Justin wouldn't accept that. "Yes, you do. You know exactly what I want. You just won't give it to me."
"This is all there is, Justin," said Brian releasing him.
"No, this isn't. You love Michael."
"I've known him almost all of my life." He walked away, unwilling to continue the conversation.
"Then why aren't you with him?" Justin followed Brian, stood talking to his back.
"Because you don't do friends."
Justin grabbed Brian's arm and yanked him around. He did it so quickly that neither one of them had time to really absorb what he had done. "Then maybe you should change your rule. Because-" He paused, releasing Brian's arm, began again. "Because either you admit that you care for me and we keep fucking or you admit that you care for me and we stop fucking, but I-I won't keep doing this."
Still unsettled by Justin's rebellion, Brian hissed a question. "This what?"
"Being convenient," Justin replied. "And uncomplicated."
"There is nothing uncomplicated about you. Or being with you," Brian retorted. Stealing some breathing room, he searched for his cigarettes on the counter and lit one. Was careful to blow the smoke away from Justin.
"I can walk away and you would never see me again. And your life can go back to being the way it was."
Looking over at him, Brian almost said the one thing that would end it all right now, but he clamped his lips shut and didn't give into the impulse. Took another draw on his cigarette and stubbed it out. "I don't do ultimatums." That was the best he could do.
Justin felt the tears stinging the corners of his eyes but he refused to give them free reign. Instead, he forced himself to continue, to say what he had to, "I guess you'd better find someone else to be president of your fan club." When Brian didn't respond, Justin walked over to the door and opened it. At the last moment he looked back, saw Brian push away from the counter and climb the steps to his bedroom, undo the zipper on his pants. Unnoticed, Justin smiled sadly and left.
As the door closed, Brian paused in his undressing and sat down heavily
on the bed.
"He just let you go?" Daphne asked furrowing her brow.
"What did you expect him to do? Run after me and beg me to stay?" Justin dug around in the bottom of the carton for the last of his ice cream.
Daphne offered Justin a spoonful of hers, she still had half a carton left. No way would she eat an entire pint of ice cream. Especially this late at night. Justin had the metabolism of a horse. Guys always did. He accepted her gift with relish and grinned. That really was his best feature. Daphne wondered if he hadn't been gay, if they hadn't been best friends… But they had always been best friends and he had always been gay. Even when he hadn't known it. "So did you mean it?"
"Yeah." But he answered too quickly and they both knew it. He returned her ice cream. Licked the back of his spoon. "No." Lowered his head. "I waited outside his apartment building for ten minutes hoping he would come out." He dropped his spoon inside the ice cream carton. "I knew he wouldn't though."
Taking a last bit of ice cream, she popped on the top and set it on the night stand in Michael's old room. Even though they had grown up a decade apart in time, Michael's room reminded her of Justin's room. She supposed most teenagers' rooms were pretty much the same. Within variations. Whenever she had gone into Justin's room she had wondered if his parents were blind. How could they not have known he was gay? His room was like a shrine to the male body. No one was that interested in the human form for art's sake. Michael's room was more subdued, not as many posters. And the ones he had were mostly confined to a post-it board. There was a picture of Michael and Brian pinned to the board. Daphne leaned back against the headboard. "I can't believe how he treats you. And after you got him out of that mess with Kip."
"Daph!" Justin looked around as if he expected Debbie or Vic or Michael or Brian himself to be in the room with them. "That's a secret. You can't tell anybody."
"I'm just telling you," she replied. "And you told me, so like your secret's safe."
"Just don't tell Brian. You can't ever tell him."
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, yeah, I'll be sure not to mention it during one of our weekly heart-to-hearts." Justin glared at her. "It's not like I go out of my way to talk to him."
"You went to Woody's to find him that time," he pointed out to her.
"Only because you had run away," she said clarifying the situation for him.
Justin chuckled. "I still can't believe you hit him."
She ducked her head and grinned. "Me neither. Except that I had seen him naked and it's kind of hard to be afraid of someone when you've seen them naked."
But Justin disagreed. "That day when he came home and found me wearing his shirt and my shit all over the apartment, he yelled at me and I was afraid of him."
"Yeah, and you've seen him naked lots of times."
"And the time he was robbed and he told me to get out. I thought he was gonna hit me. Except that Michael was there and he would have stopped him."
Daphne thought about it. "I don't think he would hit you. He likes you. I can tell."
Joining her at the head of the bed, Justin sat next to her, their shoulders touching. "Yeah, but he doesn't love me."
"Give him time."
"How much time, Daph? It's been months." They both understood that sentiment. To teenagers months were like years. "I mean, I knew right away."
She cocked her head. "But he was your first. You know? And he's older. Can you imagine how many guys he's been with?"
Justin leaned closer and whispered, "Thousands."
Her mouth fell open. "No way."
He nodded. "Sometimes he does like twenty, thirty guys a month."
"Since he was fourteen?" she asked. Justin had told her the story of Brian's first sexual encounter and they both had agreed that Brian was like no one they had ever known.
"Well, he probably wasn't getting it as often until he went to college. And that was eleven years ago," explained Justin.
Daphne did a quick calculation. "OhmyGod, that's like two or three thousand guys," she announced in a hushed voice, stunned by the enormity of it all. Then she looked over at Justin, at the dismay on his face. "That's okay, though, because how many of them did he let live at his place?"
"None," replied Justin in a small voice.
"And how many did he take out to a fabulous restaurant for their eighteenth birthday?"
He smiled a little, recalling the faces of the other diners at the restaurant. Then the smile faded as he remembered how happy he had been afterwards, after Brian had taken him home and given him his presents. The sketch he had put up on the wall after securing Michael's permission. The necklace and charm he kept in a box in a secret place. It was too special to wear everyday, to risk losing or tarnishing. Like his memory of that night, he wanted it to remain intact and as is forever. "But that doesn't mean anything, Daph. Not to Brian. He does things like that one moment and the next minute he's in the back room at Babylon fucking some stranger. It's like he doesn't see anything wrong with it."
She took his hand and squeezed it. "You just have to be patient."
Exasperated, he exclaimed, "I've been patient!" Standing, he went over to the board and looked at the picture of Michael and Brian. How had Michael done it? Night after night seeing Brian go off with another meaningless trick? How had he kept from screaming? Every time he saw Brian with some other guy he wanted to die, because it hurt so badly. He tried to pretend that it didn't, tried to have some adventures of his own to make himself feel better. But no one even came close to making him feel what Brian did. Not even on a purely physical level. Brian was an incredible lover. He would have to be, to have been with that many guys. He knew a hundred, a thousand different ways to make you feel good. Except, all he really had to do was hold Justin.
"Maybe you should tell him about Kip. Maybe that would change his mind."
He turned, a panicked look on his face. "No. He would hate me."
"Why?" She was genuinely confused. "You saved him."
"He hates the idea of anyone or anything controlling him. If he found out that I was the one that got Kip to drop the suit, he'd freak. He'd think I did it just to have something on him, to try and force him to love me." Justin dropped to the bed, rubbed at his eyes. "I don't know what to do, Daph," he said softly.
Downstairs the phone rang. After a moment, Deb called up, "Justin! Telephone!"
Daphne met Justin's eyes. "Maybe it's him."
"Probably my mom." He hesitated.
She pushed him with her foot. "Go on."
He tickled the bottom of her foot and heard her dissolve into giggles as he left the room.
Deb was standing at the foot of the stairs holding the telephone. She had a strange look on her face. "It's Brian."
His heart started to race as he took the phone from Debbie and waited for her to go back upstairs. He sat in one of the kitchen chairs. "Hello?"
"Justin." Just hearing Brian's voice made him feel all tingly inside. "What do you know about Shrimp Etouffée?"
This was as close as Brian was ever going to get to apologizing, to making amends. It was up to him again to decide if it was enough. "I know how to make it," he replied, accepting Brian's terms. There had never really been any other choice.
"What about tomorrow evening?"
Even so, he figured he could tease Brian a little. "You need a caterer? Are you having a dinner party?" He could see Brian pressing his tongue into the side of his cheek.
"I'll give you money for the ingredients tomorrow at the diner." The connection died. Justin held the phone for a few moments longer. Shook his head.
Daphne found him leaning back against the kitchen counter, having hung up the phone. "So?"
"So, I guess I didn't really mean any of it," he said sadly. "I make this big scene and he lets me walk out without saying shit and then he calls and…" A tear slipped down his cheek. "I wish… I wish I could have told him to just fuck off."
She took a piece of paper towel and wiped his face. "Why didn't you?"
In the process of coming downstairs, Debbie paused as Justin replied,
"Because I love him." Dispirited, Deb returned upstairs. Another one of
her boys, lost to Brian Kinney.
True to his word Brian had given him money for the etouffée at the diner. He had even managed to joke about tying his balls up when Justin had almost inadvertently revealed to Debbie that he hadn't stayed home with Gus, that he had gone to the Leather Ball. It wasn't so much that he cared what Debbie thought, Justin knew, but more that Brian was not in the mood for another lecture about being irresponsible, having had a blistering one from Mel and anticipating the mother lode of lectures when Lindsay got back.
Juggling grocery bags, Justin buzzed the loft. Brian buzzed him through wordlessly. That was either good or bad. Trying not to think too hard about it, Justin busied himself with maneuvering the elevator while carrying three bags. The door to the loft was open but Brian was nowhere in sight. Putting down the groceries in the kitchen, Justin first closed the door and then went about looking for Brian. Found him in the bathroom, naked.
Brian looked over at him. If Justin didn't know better, he would have thought that Brian had been crying. "Hey."
"I brought the stuff."
He nodded once. "I need to take a shower," he said.
Instead of offering to help, Justin turned to go. "I'll get started on the etouffée."
He stopped. Waited for Brian to say whatever it was he was trying to say. When nothing more seemed forthcoming, Justin said, "Yeah. I know."
Twenty minutes later the shower was still going and Justin began to get worried. Having chopped the vegetables for the base, he was just about to start the roux when a voice in the back of his mind told him to go check on Brian. Half expecting him to be asleep standing up, Justin was startled to find Brian in the shower, scrubbing furiously with a louffa sponge at skin that already looked raw. He seemed to be in a trance, his eyelids lowered and mouth slightly open. Justin watched him for a few moments, then went over to the shower and opened the door. Brian didn't turn, didn't seem to have noticed that he was no longer alone. Justin, heedless of getting his clothes wet, reached in and touched him. At that he jerked, looked down and around. "Brian?" The older man looked at the sponge in his hand, at the bright pink skin of his arm as if he were in a daze.
Reaching around him, Justin cut off the water, took the sponge away from him, then grabbed a towel and wrapped it around Brian's body. He was like a child, unresisting, allowing Justin to ferry him from the shower and over to the toilet. He sat when Justin pressed down on his shoulders and allowed the teen to dry his hair. He shook all over, limbs trembling. "What's wrong?" Justin asked when he had removed most of the water from Brian's hair and skin. When Brian didn't answer, he found Brian's bathrobe and got him into it. Shepherded him to the bedroom and onto the bed. Justin sat next to him and brushed the hair back from his face. "Tell me what to do."
"Did he say, when he found out, did he say that he wished you were dead?" Brian asked, voice toneless, but eyes bright with pain.
The words made no sense to Justin. "Who, Brian?"
"Your father. When he found out you were gay, did he say that he wished you were dead?"
Justin remembered everything he father had said and done and to his credit, Craig had never uttered those words. He shook his head. "No." And then he remembered the talk Brian and Deb had had at her house about telling Brian's dad he was gay. "Did your dad say that to you?"
Brian moved away and crawled under the covers, still shivering.
Debating whether or not to push it, Justin decided to give him some space. "I'll make you some tea," he said. But Brian didn't respond. He hadn't expected an answer.
Returning to the kitchen, he put on the teapot and tried to decide what to do about dinner. If he started the etouffée, it would require that he stir the roux for about a half-hour without distractions. And Brian, in his current state, was a definite distraction. Besides, he doubted if Brian was in the mood for dinner; he had certainly lost his own appetite. So he put the chopped vegetables away in containers and tossed the shrimp into the freezer. Maybe tomorrow.
When the water was ready he made two cups of herbal tea and carried them into the bedroom. Brian was still curled on his side under the covers. But he wasn't asleep. His eyes were wide open. What he saw, Justin didn't know. He set one of the cups on the nightstand closest to Brian, put the second cup on the other side. Then he kicked off his shoes, took off his wet shirt, and climbed onto the bed. He made no attempt to touch Brian or to do anything but just sit there and sip his tea.
Finally, Brian sat up and lifted the cup of tea from the nightstand, blew on it, and took a tentative sip. His hands shook. Justin reached over and steadied the cup. Brian put it down. "Thanks."
Sensing an opening, Justin said, "He didn't mean it."
"Yeah. He did." He smiled softly. "That's one thing about Jack Kinney: he says exactly what he means and exactly what he wants." Chuckled. "Remind you of anyone?"
"He said that it should be me who's dying and not him." He plucked at the duvet. "They use it, you know? AIDS. It's the ultimate fucking weapon. Gets you right in the belly every time. No matter how careful you are, there's always the fear that maybe you didn't do something once, and that's all it takes." He very gently touched the still-reddened skin of his forearm. "I don't even know…" he began.
"How many men I've been with." He didn't look at Justin as he spoke. "I could feel them. Touching me. There isn't an inch of my body that hasn't been touched by someone at some time or another. It felt like my skin was crawling." Hence the frantic scrubbing. He leaned back against the pillows. "Christ. I was standing there, looking at him, listening to him say… those things to me. And I thought, There's your future." He lifted the cup to his lips and took another draught, held the cup in his hands feeding off the warmth. "I looked into his face and I saw myself." He laughed bitterly. "You work your whole life not to be something and then you look up ahead and there it is, staring back at you, waiting for you to catch up." Shook his head. "Substitute designer drugs for cheap whiskey, men for women, and what do you have? Me." His hand trembled a little when he put down the cup, but it was his eyes that worried Justin. His eyes were so dark, so troubled. "I stood there looking at him and I thought, That's gonna be you someday. Dying. Only it won't be cancer, it'll be AIDS. And Gus'll be standing where you are, hating you for all the things you never did, for all the promises you made and never had any intention of keeping. "
"Gus'll never hate you. You're a good father."
But he shook his head. "No. I'm not. I'm a fantastic advertiser. I'm a great fuck." He paused. "But I'm not a good father. Melanie was right. I'm not any kind of father at all." He knuckled his eyes, where moisture had begun to gather. "Which I don't understand," he said sarcastically. His lip trembled. "Cause look at the sterling, fucking example Jack Kinney set."
Justin started to touch him, then changed his mind. "You're not like him. I know you make mistakes. Everybody does. But, at least, you try."
With wonder in his eyes, Brian gazed at Justin. "How can you still love me?" he asked in a whisper. "After everything I've done to you? Why do you still care?"
And then Justin did touch him, cupped his chin in his hand, his fingertips resting lightly on his face. "Because you do." He brushed his fingers over Brian's lips. "Even if you don't always say it."
Brian closed his eyes and a tear slipped from beneath the lid. It ran down his face and wet Justin's fingers. Raising his hand, he closed it around Justin's, and kissed his palm.
For the first time since they had begun having sex, Justin felt that they were actually making love, and not only fucking. The way Brian looked into his eyes as they moved against one another, seeing him and not just another body. Doing things he knew Justin liked, even if they weren't as artful as some of his other techniques. Kissing him for the longest time, holding Justin tight against his body.
That night as they lay together, Brian didn't work loose of Justin's
embrace the way he usually did. Instead, he clung to him as if he were the
last life preserver in an endless, empty ocean.