Revised 3/30/05

The bracelet around his wrist slid up and then back down his arm as he pulled on a tank top. He'd lost a little weight during the weeks Justin had been gone and the slender cuff was slightly looser than before. He pinched the sides to tighten it more securely and paused. Stretched out his arm to admire the sterling silver bracelet and the platinum ring he wore. Both acquired last year around this time. That it had only been a year since he and Justin had exchanged rings continually astounded him. So much had happened in those twelve short months. If it weren't for the fact that he'd been through it, lived it, he would have thought it impossible to squeeze so much living into so little time. Time, then, had to be flexible, malleable and, above all, expandable to encompass so much. Sometimes he looked back and it seemed as if the days, the months were bloated with living. Back then, he knew, he'd despaired of having so much time, yet another hour, another week to fill with misery, uncertainty, depression. At other moments he had felt as if he'd run out of time, that if only he could have but one more minute, then another, and another, it would be all that he could ever wish for. Rarely did need match supply.

Lately he'd begun to feel that time again was slipping through his fingers faster than he would have liked. The closing of the year had come bringing with it thoughts of the year that had passed, thoughts full of regrets and recriminations; hopes deferred, if not abandoned; needs unfulfilled; opportunities lost; and he longed to be able to set everything right before the end of 2002 so that nothing was left to sully their new beginning. With the new year came an anniversary but also a chance to begin again, begin anew and rectify past mistakes, to set out with better intentions, with stronger commitments to one another.

It was in that contemplative mood that Justin found him when he returned home. Sitting by the window watching the snow fall softly, steadily, blanketing the world in an absolution it had not, perhaps, earned.

Kissing him aside the mouth, Justin asked, "You all right?"


"Home early."

"Took the afternoon off," Brian explained.

Justin draped his jacket on a nearby chair and stood beside his lover, hand on his shoulder. "Should have called me. I told Debbie I'd pick up an afternoon shift at the diner."

"It was spur of the moment," said Brian and he shrugged. "I didn't have anything pressing to do at the office so I said fuck it, I'm going home."

Always urging Brian not to work so hard, Justin applauded the notion. "Well, I'm glad. You need to rest. Take care of yourself."

"Thought that was your job."

The teen slipped onto his lap and kissed him sweetly. "I've got to go in, like, fifteen minutes."

"Take the Jeep," murmured Brian.

"Okay, thirty minutes."

Brian slid an arm beneath Justin's legs and another around his waist, and lifted him. "More than enough time."

Only, now that Justin had gone, he was faced with the task of filling the rest of his day. At home since Justin had the car. Would have been a great time to do a little Christmas shopping, the holiday only twelve days away. But again, Justin had the Jeep so he was stuck in the loft unless he took a cab to the mall but he hated the fucking mall. His other choice was to hit some of his favorite shops and boutiques but walking around out in the open didn't really appeal to him in this weather. Despite having grown up in Pittsburgh and dealing with snow all of his life, he much preferred the indoors. A true hothouse flower. Better suited to hopping in the hot tub than hitting the slopes.

In the midst of his deliberations he glanced at his computer. Online shopping. He could just go on the web and get it done. At least some of it.

Two hours later he'd made a considerable dint in his list without having to move except to get another cup of coffee. "Sweet," he whispered as he prepared to check his email and call it a day. Logging onto his email he cursed. He hated the freakin ads that proliferated the page, taking over every inch of free space. Every time he logged on he was either confronted with dating opportunities he didn't want; harangued by another ad to see a movie he had no interest in seeing; or promised that he could lose twenty pounds in three weeks; or clear up his skin; or--

He took a second look. Or buy a car.

The phone rang.

Reaching around the monitor, he picked up while clicking on the ad. "Yeah."

"Bri. Cynthia said you'd gone home but I didn't believe it." Lindsay.

"Miracles do happen."

"Listen. You up to playing Papa Bear tonight?"

He bit back his first angry retort--that her sitter must have bailed on her--because he wanted to see Gus. But he couldn't stay completely silent. "For how long?"

"You got plans?"

"No, I just want to know how long I get to keep him this time," he said a little sharper than he'd intended and he immediately knew that he'd taken the wrong tone; he could feel her confusion through the connection.


"Forget it."

"No. What's wrong?"

He hadn't intended to get into it, not yet, not until he and Justin had discussed a plan of action because, God knows, he wasn't known for his rational thinking, not outside of business matters, at least not a great deal of the time. He needed Justin to point out the fallacies in his argument, to offer clear-sighted, level-headed advice. That is, if Justin could be reasonable when it came to Gus, which Brian doubted very much. It was a sticky situation and he wished he'd kept his fuckin' mouth closed.


Like Justin, Lindsay could be a Pitt bull when it came to getting him to talk. He didn't expect her to give up. "I didn't mean to say that," he told her lamely, hoping that, for once, the planets would be aligned and she would let it go at that.


"No, you didn't mean to say it right then but obviously you meant what you said. I think we need to talk about this."

"Fine." Let her run with it until they were both sorry.

"From what you've said, I take it you feel that you don't get enough time with Gus."

That was true. "I don't feel that I do."

"That was your decision."

"I know."

"Are you saying you've changed your mind?"



"Okay. I have. I've changed my mind." Because he loved that little boy more than he ever thought he would.

"So what are you suggesting?"

"I don't know, Lindz. It's obvious that Gus can't live with me and Justin, least not right now. We don't have the room, our schedules are fucked… but… I want to spend more time with Gus. I think it'd be good for him."

"I've never said otherwise."

"I know." Then softly. "Maybe he could spend one or two weekends a month with us."

"You'd be willing to give up your weekends?"

"I'm not the same person I used to be, Lindz."

"I know."

"We hardly go out clubbing anymore. Fuck, we're like a couple of old married queers."

"And Justin agrees?"

"He loves Gus."

She paused. "All right. Two weekends a month Gus spends with you and Justin."

"What about Mel?" He doubted she'd agree so easily.

"I'll talk to Mel. She loves Gus. She only wants what's best for him. We all do. So," that matter to rest, her original question remained, "what about tonight? You up for babysitting?"

His original question remained as well. "For how long?"

"Bring him back Sunday evening?"

"Okay. But Justin's got the Jeep at the diner."

"How late is he working?"

"Afternoon shift. Gets off at seven." Since school was officially over, he was picking up some extra shifts when he wasn't in the studio.

"Have him swing by on his way home?"

"Done." He paused, thinking he should say something else. "Thanks, Lindz."

"Gus loves you. And Justin. I would never keep him from you. And he needs his Daddy. Which, by the way, is what he's calling you now. He's talking better every day."

Often on the receiving end of the toddler's endless patter, Brian said, "Yeah, I know."

The door opened and Brian was confronted with the sound of Gus yelling, "Daddy!" and the smell of dinner which Justin had picked up and was now bringing inside. Catching the toddler in his arms, Brian lifted him and Beh up for a kiss and rubbed noses, that being Gus' most recent addition to his repertoire of affectionate behaviors. Kisses given, Brian stood the baby on the sofa, put Beh aside, removed Gus' SpongeBob SquarePants backpack with all of his stuff inside, then his coat, his hat, his gloves, and his shoes. Giving Gus the backpack and Beh, Brian gathered up his discarded clothes and together they carried everything into the bedroom. When they returned, Justin had already begun setting the table and putting out the food. Brian got Gus' booster seat from beside the refrigerator and placed it in a chair and lifted the tot into it.


"Hmm?" He reached for the container of mashed potatoes on the counter.


Brian smiled and waited until Justin came close to him and, with Gus' eyes on their every move, he kissed the teen. "There. Okay?"

"I'll say," breathed Justin.

And Gus nodded, pleased.

"So what did you do all afternoon?" Justin glanced at Gus who was smearing mashed potatoes on his face. "Gus." He wiped his cheeks clean.

Brian gave the toddler the eye and said quite sternly, "If you don't want to eat, I'll take your plate away and you can leave the table. Are you done eating?" Gus shook his head. "Then eat your food and stop playing with it." Obediently, Gus began to spoon the rest of his potatoes into his mouth.

Justin mouthed, "You're good," and then said aloud, "So what'd you do?"

"Some online shopping."

"Christmas shopping?"

"No, Saint Patrick's Day."


Gus giggled, snorting, and Brian and Justin ignored him. Lindsay said that it was the only way to discourage him from picking up bad words but Brian figured it was a lost cause since one half of his parenting quartet habitually used profanity of the paint-peeling variety.

"What'd you buy?"

"Stuff on the list," referring to their prodigious list of Christmas gifts.

"Get anything for you know who?"

"Some of it."

You know who had just finished eating his last chicken nugget and noisily drank the remainder of his milk. "Finised," he announced.

"Hold on," Brian told him and he wiped Gus' face and hands with the damp napkin Justin had used before. Then he lifted the toddler from his chair and let him go. Gus scurried to the bedroom and came back with Beh and his book. Took them both to the chaise lounge and climbed up onto it to read to Beh.

"Dat Pooh and Wabbit. At Wabbit house. And Pooh is hungry. Pooh has a red shirt. See? See Pooh shirt? Wabbit is naked," and Gus snickered.

Brian and Justin laughed quietly and Brian stole a kiss. "I talked to Lindz."

"About what?"

"Having him more often."

Justin tensed. Sometimes Brian's negotiating skills left something to be desired. "And…?"

"And she said we could have him two weekends out of the month."

"No shit."


Justin gave him another kiss. "You're amazing."

"That's what I keep telling you."

Proud of him, Justin added, "You did good."

"So what's my reward?" Always studying the angles.

Justin grinned and crooked his finger. When Brian had come closer, he whispered, "On Sunday, after we take Mini-Me home, I'm gonna," and he confided the rest in his ear.

The man's brow rose and he asked, "Really?"

"Most definitely."

While Brian cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher, Justin kept Gus occupied, putting on a CD and dancing with the toddler. "Come on, Gus, dance with me," and Justin shook his hips and snapped his fingers while The Counting Crows sang about being up all night. He'd loved that song so much, hearing it for the first time in London, that he'd immediately gone out when they'd gotten home and bought the album

Giggling, Gus tried to emulate Justin but his hip-shaking and finger-popping looked a little jerky compared to Justin's sinuous motions.

"Well," Justin called to Brian, "now we know he's yours. He even dances like you," and he waited for the 'Fuck you' that was surely coming.

Instead Brian picked up Gus and they danced together before Justin joined them. "That's okay," Brian told Justin, "you still adore us."

"Love you," said Justin with a kiss for both his men.

Brian checked Justin's watch. "Getting late." Then to Gus, "You sleepy?"




Brian pointed to Beh, still lying on the chaise lounge. "I think Beh is sleepy."

"Beh seepy."

"You sure you're not a little sleepy?" asked Justin and Gus shook his head. "Guess he's a party animal like you."

"Let's go to Babylon then," Brian suggested.


"Don't worry. Mama Bear confiscated his fake ID so he couldn’t get in anyway."

Before Justin could reply, someone knocked and he went to see who it was. "Behave yourself," he warned just as he opened the door to find Joanie standing there. "Hi, Mrs. Kinney." He didn’t feel right calling her Joanie although Brian did sometimes.

"Hello, Ju—"


"Keep your pants on," Brian told him, then put him down so Gus could run over to his grandmother.

"Hey, Nana."

"Gus," exclaimed Joanie, "look at you, look at how big you're getting." She kissed him and squeezed him tight, it'd been almost three weeks since she'd seen him last. "I've missed you."

"Miss you, Nana. Luv you."

"I love you too. What were you doing before Nana came?"

And Gus began to dance for her and he was so like Brian when he was a little boy that she laughed until tears wet her eyes.

After they'd settled in the livingroom, Joanie with Gus on her lap, Brian asked, "What are you doing out prowling around? Hot date?"

She blushed. "Brian…"

"You got a boyfriend hidden somewhere that you're not telling me about?" and Justin pinched him. "Ouch!"

"No, I do not," she replied. "I wanted to talk to you about your sister."


"Don’t take the Lord's name in vain."

"It's in vain all right cause it won't get me out of dealing with whatever crap Claire's gotten into. How much?"

"How much what?"

Justin rose and reached for Gus. "I think Gus is ready for his bath, aren't you Gus?" The baby looked confused. "You're ready. Come on," and he hurried from the room.

"Coward," grumbled Brian as he passed him. Turning again to Joanie, he asked, "How much is this gonna cost me?"

"I'm thinking about letting Claire move into the house with me."

"Chr— What the fuck!"

"Brian Kinney!"

"You just got rid of one baby and now you're gonna take on three more?"

"I did not get rid of your father." Despite what her sister believed.

"You got lucky."

"You will not speak disrespectfully of your father." There were proprieties to uphold.

"So why do Claire and her demon spawn need to move in with you?"

"It would be cheaper than trying to maintain two households."

"She need money?"

"She's still working."

"Do you?"

There was money, but very little. Enough, if she was frugal and didn't acquire a taste for needless luxuries. "I'll get by."

"But only if Claire moves in with you." He stood, paced. "What if I helped you out?"

"You've got responsibilities."

And a taste for living extravagently. He could scale back. "What if I helped you out?"

"I love Claire and the boys."

"What about your new career? How are you going to focus on your business if you're dealing with Claire and her bullshit all the time?"

Ignoring his language, she asked, "What business? I don't have any clients."

"You will. Just wait. It takes time."

"Well, until I do I might as well spend time with my family."

"You know, it's okay to be scared of starting something new."

"I'm not scared."

"And I know that it's easier to do what you've always done but I don't want you to sell yourself short." He had given almost the same speech to Justin and things had worked out.

"I'm not."

"You tell Claire she could move in yet?"

"Not yet."

Thank God for small favors. "Why don't you wait? Give it until the new year? Think about it some more. Who knows? Your business might take off before then. Holidays are coming up. Lots of parties and shit."


Brian looked towards the bathroom where Gus was supposed to be occupied.

"I think I should go," Joanie said, taking the opportunity afforded her by the interruption.


"I'll think about what you said." He walked her to the door and she said before leaving, "Tell Justin and Gus goodnight."

Justin looked up as he came into the bathroom. He had his sleeves rolled up and his arms plunged into a basin of soapy water. Some had spilled over onto the cabinet. Gus was standing on the commode completely naked.

"Where are your clothes?" asked Brian and Gus giggled.

"Me naked."

"I can see that."

"He says he doesn't want to put on any clothes."

"No clothes."

"Well, it's warm in here." Brian put him down onto the floor and smacked his bare bottom lightly. "There you go, Nature Boy." Gus ran off to the other room to find Beh and tell him he was naked.

"So?" Justin asked, cleaning up the mess Gus and he had made.

"So Claire, that fuckin' moocher, wants to move in with my mom. Which means Joanie goes right back to being a goddamn housewife. Fuckin' cunt. She knows this is important and she just wants to fuck it up."

Well aware of Brian's feelings about his sibling, Justin had long ago given up trying to get Brian to change his attitude towards her. "Maybe she thinks your mom is lonely."

"What she thinks is that she's getting a free babysitter, a free cook, and a free maid."

Finishing up, Justin dumped Gus' dirty clothes in the hamper and carried his rejected pajamas and trainers to the bedroom.

Brian peeked out and saw Gus dancing with Beh and grinned. If Lindsay could only see that… Quietly, he got his camera from the closet, attached the flash, and snapped about half a dozen pictures before Gus saw him and came running. "Aren't you sleepy yet?" Brian asked and Gus shook his head and followed Brian back into the bedroom where Justin was undressing.

"Jusin naked!"

The teen shook his hips and Gus copied him although his package was nowhere near as impressive or mobile.

Brian put away the camera, the temptation almost more than he could resist but he had plenty of pictures of Justin naked. Still…

Slipping a hand beneath Brian's tank top, Justin suggested that he get naked too. "Let's see what you've got," he purred and Brian complied and dropped off his clothes so that they were all gloriously naked. Brian stood Gus up on the bed and watched as the toddler hopped around on slender legs, laughing, until he got dizzy and sat down hard on the bed, his little chest heaving. He fell backwards and lay there exhausted.


"No," he replied breathlessly.

"Well," announced Brian, "my balls are getting cold," and he took out his pajama bottoms and slipped them on, something he never did unless Gus was visiting as he and Justin slept in the buff.

Justin followed suit saying, "My butt's kinda chilly."

"Got to protect that," Brian said and he pulled Justin into his arms and kissed him. Whispered, "You think he'll fall for it?" They waited and watched as Gus fought clothes and sleep, raising and lowering his legs and reaching for his toes over and over again, each time a little less energetically until Brian was certain that sleep was winning. Lindz had told Justin that Gus hadn't had a nighttime accident in a week, so Brian decided to forgo the diaper. He slipped on Gus' trainers and his Pooh shirt with little resistance from the tot. By the time Justin pulled back the covers, Gus was done for. Brian lay him down and put Beh within reach and Justin raised the sheet and spread over him. Kissing him softly, they tiptoed silently from the room.

Settled on the sofa, Justin asked, "Did you hate going to bed that much when you were little?"

"I guess. I don't remember. But when you're his age, everything is new and you can't see enough, can't do enough."

"Kinda like us in Europe." He snuggled closer, slung leg across hip, absorbing Brian's heat. "Listen, since we've got Gus this weekend, can we get the tree and put it up?"

"Why not?" He stroked Justin's hip and thigh, his hand sliding around to cup a warm cheek. They kissed tenderly. "How long has it been?"

"This afternoon."

"That long?"

Justin caught Brian's lip between his own and kissed him deeply. "What about Gus?"

"He'll sleep," said Brian, hoping it was true because he really wanted Justin and he didn't think he could wait any longer. Waiting was not something he did well. Apparently Justin believed him because he felt the teen's hand snake between his thighs and cup him and then slip inside the waistband of his pajamas.

As usual Gus was the first to wake, wandering through a state of partial awareness until his eyes finally opened and he knew where he was and with whom. He rolled over and came face-to-face with his daddy's back. Tentatively, curiously, he reached out and touched Brian. Daddy's skin was soft. He liked touching him. Using his finger, he scribbled on his daddy's back the way he would on paper with the crayons his Mommy had given him. Brian stirred and Gus stopped, then started once more. Again Brian moved and the skin on his back seemed to ripple. Gus looked on fascinated and unable to resist a third, furtive touch.

He was dreaming of butterflies and one had settled on his back; he wriggled his shoulders to try and get rid of it, to urge it to fly away and bother someone else but it wouldn't. And then he heard giggling and knew that he wasn't asleep and he wasn't dreaming, and that Gus was the butterfly crawling over his skin. He turned over and faced the tot. "Why aren't you asleep?"

"Got pee, Daddy," said Gus and it seemed to surprise him that he did. He hadn't thought of it until he said it.

Brian threw back the covers. "Come on." Good thing too. He had to go as well.

When they returned from the bathroom, Justin was awake. Gus ran and climbed onto the bed, crawled across it and jumped on him. "Jusin!"

"Hey, Gus." Kiss. "Are you hungry?"


"Really hungry?"


"Really really hungry?"

"Yeah!" yelled Gus and he bounced on top of Justin causing the teen to groan.

"Hey, young man," warned Brian, "be careful. He's got to last for at least another fifty, sixty years."

Releasing Justin, Gus ran across the bed and leapt for his daddy. Brian caught him with an, "Oomph!" and swung him up in the air.

"Daddy!" he screamed with glee and Brian bought him close and kissed him soundly, then lay him down and stretched across the bed to kiss his other little boy. Just as he pulled away, Gus straddled his back.

"Not the—" began Brian and Gus grabbed his hair. "Ow!" Gus let go and held onto his neck instead. Brian began to roll from side to side trying to dislodge Gus but the toddler held on.

"Ride em, cowboy!" Justin shouted in encouragement as Brian really began to buck and Gus had to tighten his grip which was hard as he was squealing at the same time. At last he fell off, hardly able to catch his breath before Brian started tickling him. He dissolved into bubbling laughter, kicking until he grew weaker and weaker and could hardly summon the strength to laugh. At last, Brian took pity on him and stopped. He also took advantage of Gus' momentary stillness to kiss Justin again.

"I love you, Pookie."

"Love you too."

"Breakfast requests?"

"Mmm… not in front of the minor."

"Pookee," said Gus who was stirring again. Couldn't keep him down for long. Definitely like father like son.

"Oh no," Brian warned. "No way. That's Daddy to you."



Gus giggled. "Daddy Pookee."

Justin made a trip to the bathroom and met them in the kitchen. Brian sat Mini-Me on the counter as he and Justin went through the cabinets and refrigerator.

"How about scones and sausage and eggs?"

"You can make scones?" Brian asked.

"Your mom showed me."


"I don't remember. I went over to help her with her designs and we started talking about you and when you were a little boy and she told me that you loved scones."

"I do." He smiled, remembering his mom's hot lemon and poppy seed scones, butter melting in the middle.

Seeing the look on his face, Justin decided. "Scones it is. You might have to give Gus a banana or something until breakfast is ready."

"You want me to help?"

"Keep him entertained."

Brian lifted Gus from the counter and plopped him on his booster seat. "Sit." As soon as he turned his back, Gus started to get down but Brian was wise to him and whipped around quickly. "Stay, I said, or else."


Brian raised a brow and Gus sat back in his chair. That taken care of, he cut up a banana in a bowl and poured Gus a glass of juice, carried both to the table and kissed his son on the head.

Gus looked up. Touched his daddy's face. "Luv you, Daddy."

"I love you too. Now eat your food and then you can call Mommy and Mama."

"No go home," said Gus around a mouthful of banana.

"Not today. Tomorrow. Okay?"

"Okay." He slurped his juice. "Daddy?"

"What?" Brian took the cup of coffee Justin brought him, black and sweet the way he liked it. "Thanks, Baby."

"Go ride in Jeep?"

"If you're good."

"I good."

"Brian," scolded Justin, "don't tease him."

"Who's teasing?"

Justin said from the kitchen, "Gus is always good. Aren't you, Gus?"


Although Justin's scones weren't as good as Joanie's, they were still quite tasty. After breakfast they showered and dressed and Brian girded himself for a day of shopping and screeching and begging—on the parts of both his little boys. That being the case, he put on his Miu-Mius which were built for lots of walking and quick getaways.

Justin gave him the once-over: he was wearing an olive green sweater that molded itself to his pecs, his best-fitting jeans, and his tan quarter-length wool overcoat. "You look nice."



"Because I have expensive clothes, a great body, and fabulous taste."

"Show off."

"Uh-huh. Gus is looking pretty snazzy too."

He was. Brian had taken him shopping and bought him a very stylish navy blue winter coat and half a dozen expensive designer sweaters that put him at the very top of the best-dressed list at his pre-school. Today he had on a green, yellow, and blue sweater that was da bomb.

Feeling generous, Brian added, "You don't look half bad yourself. For an Old Navy poster boy."

Unlike the other two, Justin only had on his old blue sweater and an equally old pair of jeans but the sweater brought out the color of his eyes and Brian loved his eyes.

So, scarves, hats (in Justin and Gus' cases) and gloves on, the three intrepid adventurers set off for the mall and many excruciating hours (in Brian's case) of trying to play nice with irritating people.

"What's the theme for this year?" Brian asked as he released Gus from the car seat and mentally prepared himself for the coming ordeal.

"I thought it might be fun to do novelty ornaments. You know, toys and stuff, Peanuts and the PowerPuff Girls—"

"Papuff gurls," said Gus. He liked them.


"SpongeBob!" He really liked SpongeBob. Daddy liked him too. "SpongeBob, SpongeBob, Spoonge Bob, Sponge Booob…" Gus said to himself over and over again as if he were practicing his diction, putting the stress on different syllables, stretching some out and shortening others.

Oh Christ, Brian groaned inwardly. And to Justin said, "Ixnay on the Ongespay Obbay." Gus got hyped up enough just from getting up in the morning, no need to send his little brain into overdrive with the prospect of stores full of brightly-colored crap. Which was where they were headed and what they would find.

"O-kay," agreed Justin, grinning.

"You'll want some again," Brian threatened.

"And you'll give it up," said Justin, his grin wider than ever.

The two men thought Gus would explode when they went into the Big Q to look for ornaments. It was a freak show, the masses on display in all their greedy glory. Brian scanned the store for any sign of Michael, he thought he had to work today. Probably working every day until the holidays were over. The dreary crap emporium was out to make every dime it could. He spotted Michael talking to one of his employees and waved. His best friend waved back and made a sign that meant 'later'.

Wanting to keep Gus away from the toys, they were thwarted by the placement of the Christmas decorations—their aisles abutted the toy aisles. But, as soon as Gus started to make a dash for it, Brian caught him and knelt down to talk to him. "Hey. No running. Now, first we're going to look at ornaments for the tree and then we'll look at the toys, but only for a few minutes and when I say it's time to go, we're going? Okay?"


"No. After we're finished here."

Gus looked at Justin and tugged on his hand, appealing to him. "Jusin…"

"You heard what Daddy said. We'll see the toys after we're done here. Okay? Be a good boy for Daddy and me?" Sadly, Gus nodded.

To make sure Gus behaved, Brian put him up in the cart. But soon Gus was fixated on the shiny Christmas balls and forgot all about the toys. For the moment.

Michael finished with his sales clerk and found them going through the store's selection of tree skirts. Even though they had the one they used last year, Justin wasn't sure if it'd go with this year's theme. "Hey, Guys."

"You do that on purpose, don’t you?" Brian asked.

"Do what? All I did was say, 'Hey, Guys.' "

"Put the Christmas stuff near the toys."

"Well, duh," said Michael. "I'm in the business of selling. My goal is to sell as much of this crap," and he said it softly, "as possible."

"Well, I'm just trying to get out of here without spending all of my money. See anything?" he asked Justin.


Brian sighed. That meant a more expensive store and a more expensive tree skirt. God, he was glad Christmas only came once a year.

"So, look, I'm having lunch at the diner around two if you wanna come." He had to get back to work. There was crap still to be sold.

"Yeah. Later, Mikey."

At the end of an hour, they had a number of items on Justin's tree trimming list but there was much more to go. Someplace else. So Brian kept his promise and took Gus over to the toy section while Justin checked out. That way when it was time to go, there'd be nothing to keep them in the store a moment longer.

His cell beeped as Gus stood looking at some apple red trucks. Justin was done. "Okay, Gus, we gotta go."

"No. Stay."

"We need to go. Justin is waiting. So come on." He reached for Gus' hand but the toddler snatched it away. "I'm counting to three and then we're going."



"Daddy, see."


Gus pointed to the truck. "See truck?"


Gus' lip began to tremble and Brian sighed. Here it comes. First the sniffles, then the full-fledged hissy fit. Before Gus could launch into it though, Brian threatened, "Do you want me to take you back home? Back to Mommy and Mama and tell them what a baby you were? Justin and I were going to keep you until tomorrow but if you want to be a baby, I'll have to take you home. There's only room in the loft for big boys."

Gus sniffled and nodded.

"You want to go home?"

"No." Softly.

"Are you a big boy?"


"Then let's go." Gus took hold of his hand and walked towards the front of the store, only looking back at the toy section once or twice and Brian made a mental note to add a red truck to the list of presents for his son.

Justin had loaded the Jeep by the time they arrived. He took Gus from Brian and buckled him in his car seat. "Everything go okay?"

"Almost had some waterworks but Gus is a big boy, aren't you, Gus?" He nodded and picked up Beh and held him close. Brian leaned over and whispered to Justin, "He wants a red truck. Put it on the list."

"It's half a page long as is. Plus, you got him Hanukkah presents too."

"Yeah, but," Brian said, starting up the car, "that's over."

"You're gonna spoil him."

"Once a year."

"And on his birthday and every other week. It's too much."

Brian rolled his eyes and pulled out of the lot. "The mall?"

"The mall." Which meant he had probably lost this round but you could never tell with Brian, how much he absorbed and what he'd do.

He sighed. "Can I please stop and get some coffee first? And maybe have a smoke?"

"Coffee. No cigarettes."

"But I've been good." He had cut back. A pack lasted him a whole week now.

Justin laid a hand on his thigh and squeezed. "For me," he said and Brian resigned himself to coffee only and hoped he'd catch a whiff of someone else's cigarette along the way.

Chaos. People yelling, children screaming, everyone running, rushing, bright colors swirling together. It was like a horror movie set in an amusement park. The mall. Enough to make you barf, thought Brian and he clutched Gus even tighter to him as if he could save him from being swept up in the madness. He was aware of the irony, that marketers and advertisers like himself had helped in the creation of an annual buying frenzy that had all but warped the holidays and their traditions out of true.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

He, himself, was a consumer par excellence, the only difference being that he didn't buy the hype. He admired clever campaigns, envied certain ads, and filed ideas away in his brain for his next project but he didn't believe in any of it, he knew when he was being manipulated and, consequently, based few of his decisions on advertising claims. He judged each thing according to its worth, as he saw fit. Even so, he did admire effective presentations, simplicity sometimes being the best.

Wandering through store after store with Justin, in search of ornaments and decorations for the loft, Brian was struck by the paucity of imagination employed in displaying items. Things that needed no more than a case to be displayed to their best advantage were nestled in among so many other extraneous holiday bric-a-brac that you were turned off or, sometimes, you missed the item altogether. Joanie would never have done that.

He felt a pang of guilt. He'd promised her that he'd shop around her portfolio and so far he'd done a piss poor job of it, too busy with his own work to drum up business for her. She could have done wonders with these displays. Just the few she'd done in the loft had been heads and shoulders above anything he'd seen today. He vowed to do better. That is if she didn't let Claire and her monstrous brood move in. If she did, she'd be too busy baking scones for her grandsons to concentrate on her career. Maybe that would make her happy, he said to himself. Who are you to judge?

Who indeed? Why did he need her to succeed so badly? He didn't know, only that he did. The same way he needed Justin to be successful at what he did. And he would be. After the 9/11 show at PIFA, Jeff had interviewed Justin and Xavier and some of the other kids at the Institute and Justin had gotten some very favorable comments from his instructors. In time, Justin would achieve all that he desired. Which made him feel proud and a little sad. He could foresee a day when Justin would be the one traveling to exhibitions of his own work, maybe spending two or three months in some artists' colony or guest lecturing at a university halfway across the country, across the world.

Gus stirred and he put him down. Even Gus would one day go out on his own. And he'd have to let him. But he wouldn't be alone because he knew that no matter how far they roamed, they'd each return to him or he would go to them and see new places—and old—through their eyes.

The toddler had picked up an ornament shaped like a teddy bear and held it up. "Beh," he told Brian.

"That's right."

Gus carried it to Justin and placed it in the shopping bag that he carried and Brian laughed silently. He had no doubts whatsoever about Gus' ability to take care of himself and to get what he wanted out of the world.

Finally, after hunting through countless stores, Justin declared them done with the trimming for the tree and the decorations for the apartment. Now all that was left was lunch and the tree.

Saving the tree for after lunch, they drove over to the diner and found a booth. Deb waved from the back and within minutes Michael arrived.

"So you get everything?" Michael asked Justin.

"There's nothing left in any store," Brian answered. "We got it all."

Deb set three glasses of water on the table and a plastic cup with a lid and a straw for Gus. "Hey, baby."

"Hey, Debee," he said before gulping down half the water.

"What'd you do? Cut his rations?"

Sheepishly, Brian admitted that they'd been so busy shopping that he hadn't thought of getting Gus anything to drink and Gus hadn't called his attention to it.

"He's still a baby, for Pete's sake, he won't always know," she said and popped Brian on the back of the head. "Now, what do you want to eat, Gus?"

"French fries."

"What else?"


Michael shook his head. "He's talking better every time I see him."

"And all the time. Definitely inherited that from Lindsay."


"Justin?" Deb next asked.

"I'll have a cheeseburger too and a chocolate shake."

"No fries?"

"I'll share with Gus. He won't eat all of his."


"Turkey meatloaf."

"And a turkey sandwich for Mr. Wonderful. Hold the mayo."


She waited.

"I think I'll have a tuna fish sandwich."

She stared at him. "Are you serious?"

"And hungry. So hop to it."

"Asshole." And she hit him on the arm before calling in their order.

"Jeff coming over to Deb's for Christmas dinner?" Brian asked. "Although he'd need body armor. Or good health insurance."

"Maybe," replied Michael.

Justin's ears perked up. "Problems?"

"I think we've run our course."


Brian studied Michael for a moment. "Any hot new prospect?"

"Actually, there's this guy down at the Big Q…"

"Yeah?" said Brian.

"Who totally has no fucking idea I exist," finished Michael.

"Come on," Brian said, "a stud like you?"

"Yeah right. Next thing you know you'll be telling me how I can have any guy I want."

Brian held his eyes. "You can."

Alarmed, Justin fixed his gaze on Brian and saw, for the first time, that Brian was aware of how Michael felt about him and was telling Michael, for the first time, that it wasn't to be. He wondered if Michael understood.

Mikey smiled. "You're right. I can. And I really want Jeff."

"Then keep him."

"I think," Michael admitted, "that he's losing interest. We don't have a lot in common." He paused. "Kind of like me and David."

"Yeah, except Jeff isn't as big of an asshole," Brian commented.

"Amen," added Deb, refilling their water glasses and Gus' cup.


"Well, he was. I never liked him."

Justin burst out laughing. "You had their china pattern all picked out. I used to hear her and Vic talking about it."

"Big mouth." And a pop on the head for him too.

Gus giggled and Brian tickled him which made him giggle harder. "What are you laughing about?"

"Daddy!" Gus cried and tried to keep Brian from tickling him. Finally Brian stopped and Gus watched him and then started to tickle him. Brian laughed and ineffectually fought off the two-year-old's attack.

"All right, you two," said Justin. "Behave."

Gus stopped and then reached for Brian but Justin had given him just enough time to recover and he caught Gus' hands and then lifted him onto his lap and kissed him.

"Luv you."

"I love you too."

"Pee-pee," said Gus and he grabbed at his crotch. Brian leapt from the table and rushed Gus to the bathroom.

Justin chuckled. "Hope he gets there in time cause we didn't bring any extra clothes."

Left alone at the table with Justin, Michael said softly, "I know that it would have never happened for us." Justin said nothing. "If it was going to happen, it would have happened by now. I'm glad he's with you. It's where he belongs."

"Maybe things will work out between you and Jeff."


Brian returned with Gus and sat down with a sigh.

"Make it in time?" asked Justin.

"Just barely. That's it. No more tickling."

"Least not after almost two glasses of water and the last time he went to the bathroom was this morning."

"Daddy?" asked Gus, patting his leg to get his attention.


"Cheeburga. I want cheeburga."

"Hey, Deb!" Brian called.


"Gus wants his cheeseburger."

"Tell him to keep his trainers on. It's coming right up. What is it with you Kinney men?" she grumbled. "Always rushing me."

He felt like he was in the middle of A Charlie Brown Christmas. He and Justin and Gus were walking among the Christmas trees on the lot debating the various good and bad points of each tree. He knew, from experience, that Justin wouldn't chose just any tree, it had to be the perfect tree. Even if they had to hit every lot in the greater Pittsburgh area and this was only the first lot. He had no hope that the perfect tree would be found here. Maybe by the third…

"Hey!" Justin exclaimed. "What about this one?"

It was a Virginia Pine, nice shape, good-looking branches, no gaping holes, and it smelled like the woods on a crisp winter day. "Looks good to me."

"What do you say, Gus? Is this a good tree?"

"Good tree."

Justin beamed. "That settles it. This is the one."

Having gotten the tree tied down to the roof of the Jeep, Brian asked, "Home?"

"Mm hmm. I just need to call your mom."


"She's coming over to help. That way you can keep Gus occupied." He flipped open his cell and called her. "Hi, Mrs. Kinney, it's Justin. Fine. We're done shopping if you want to come over. Okay. Bye." Closed it. "She'll meet us there."

Just the thought of Joanie and Justin flying around the loft decorating for the holidays made Brian want to run away. Suddenly he had a bright idea. "What if you and Joanie do your thing and I take Gus to the movies? That way we'll both be out of your hair."

At first Justin was inclined to argue, wanting Brian to participate in the decorating in some way and then he remembered decorating for his birthday with Brian there in the loft and, sure, he'd been sick but still… he'd been a huge pain in the ass. "Sounds like a plan."

The Santa Clause 2 wasn't the worst film he'd ever seen but he never wanted to see it again. Gus, on the other hand, loved it. Gus, it had to be said, loved anything in Technicolor and with lots of noise and the film fit the bill perfectly. Brian would have rather seen The Two Towers but he and Justin had a date to go see it during his vacation after Christmas and he thought Gus was too young for Harry Potter, besides which, he had no interest in seeing it.

Having refrained from buying popcorn or any other junk food, Brian was ready to eat. He called Justin on the cell as he negotiated traffic. "Hey, it's over. You done there?"


"You want me to pick up something for dinner?"


"Joanie staying?"

"Hold on." Asked, "Are you staying for dinner?"

"No, thank you, I promised Claire I'd stop by."


"I heard. The c—" He cut it off remembering Gus was in the back and that he heard everything and forgot nothing. "Be there soon. Later."


Brian checked the mirror and saw that Gus was slumped over in his seat. He hadn't had a nap all day. Let him sleep until they got home then. So that he wouldn't have to get out and leave Gus in the car alone for very long, Brian called ahead to the restaurant they got take-out from and put in their order, hoping it'd be ready by the time he got there.

Stepping inside the loft with Gus still asleep and cradled against his shoulder, Brian thought he'd made a mistake and gone to someone else's apartment. Even though he'd been with Justin when he'd bought all of the decorations, he'd never imagined that any of that stuff could change the look of the loft that much. He'd been wrong.

To go along with the bright colors of the ornaments, Justin had abandoned the white lights for azure ones, and white candles for votives of all hues and shades. Even the wreath on the door, which last year had been green spruce with a tasteful blue ribbon tied at the bottom, had been replaced by a circle of vibrant holly berries. Broad velvet ribbons of rich sapphire edged in gold draped the tops of the curtains and hung in graceful loops from the counter tops. Ruby red poinsettias lined the top of one of the built in cabinets around the outside of their bedroom; slender scarlet tapers nestled in greenery graced the other.

The tree was magnificent. Rising in front of the trio of windows in the livingroom, it seemed to be encircled in rainbows. Around the base was a quilted skirt decorated with stuffed toys. On top was the angel Justin had bought in Italy, a cherub with amethyst wings holding a star in the palm of his hand.

Justin glided over to him and said softly, "You like it?"

"It's amazing. I can't wait until Gus sees it."

Lips touching briefly, Justin took the food from Brian while he carried the sleeping toddler to the bedroom and pulled off his sweater and laid him down.

They ate dinner waiting for Gus to wake up and put in the copy of A Christmas Carol that Justin had found for Brian, the one with Alistair Sims. They'd just gotten to the part where Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Past when they heard the patter of little feet and saw Gus running across the bedroom floor.

"Gus, stop running," Brian told him and the little boy ignored him and ran down the steps. And slipped and fell. Luckily he fell backwards and onto his butt, bumping his arm against the edge of the steps as he struggled to catch himself.

Up in an instant, Brian lifted him just as Gus began to cry. "Let me see," he told him and examined his arm. Justin came over.

"Is he all right?"

"The skin's not broken. I think he's okay." But Gus was crying hard, face pressed into Brian's neck and Brian wasn't sure if they shouldn't take him to the Emergency Room.

"We can wait a little while, wait until he stops crying and if it still bothers him, then we can take him."

So they carried him into the livingroom and Brian held him until he calmed down and sat sniffling on his daddy's lap.

Brian wiped his face and kissed him. "You okay? Does your arm hurt?" Gus held out his arm and Brian kissed it. "Better?" Gus nodded and lay against Brian's chest.

In a half hour the spot where he'd struck his arm was bruised but Gus seemed to have forgotten all about it and his movements didn't seem impeded so they decided to give it until the morning and if he complained, then they'd take him to see a doctor.

Watching him sleep again, Brian tried not to worry but he could imagine what Mel and Lindsay would say when they saw Gus' arm. They'd freak. Justin came up behind him and slipped an arm around his waist. "He'll be fine. Kids fall all the time."

But Brian said nothing, just kept watching Gus sleep until Justin gave up and left him to cut off the lights and to get ready for bed.

The bruise looked worse in the morning but Gus seemed fine. When Brian asked him if it hurt, he shook his head and wanted to play Horsey. Only his horse wasn't up to it. Worrying about Lindz's reaction when she saw. He could hear her yelling at him still, "Don't tell me you'll be there for him and then you're not!"

"Brian…?" He turned. "You should eat." Brian had said that he wasn't hungry, that all he wanted was coffee, and he sat on the sofa brooding. Sliding his hand down Brian's shoulder, Justin waited.

"I'm not hungry, Baby."

"For me."

"I don't want anything." But he took hold of Justin's hand momentarily and squeezed it to let him know that he heard, that he understood, that he appreciated the concern.

The mood of the day was subdued, with Justin and Gus trying to jar Brian from his mood and failing time and time again. Gus was entranced with the decorations, as Brian had predicted, and he played by the tree, telling Beh the names of the ornaments that he recognized and pointing the bear that he'd picked out just for Beh. Justin sketched when it became obvious that Brian was not going to be good company at all. Watching his lover seated at his computer going over the household finances, Justin began to draw him, trying to capture the highlights in his hair revealed by the rays of light streaming through the window. When Brian looked up, Justin found himself caught in his hazel eyes. Brian glanced away and returned to his calculations.

Finally, around five, Brian called Lindz to see if they were home.

As usual, Gus resisted packing his things to return to the house but, in the end, he followed Brian's instructions and helped put everything into his backpack.

Sitting in the Jeep outside of Mel and Lindsay's Brian wanted nothing so much as to turn back time and catch Gus before he slipped down the steps. But he couldn't. There was nothing he could do except to deal with the problem at hand. Helping Gus out of the car seat, Brian held his hand as they walked to the house. Justin rang the doorbell.

Lindz peeked out of the window and opened the door. "Hey!"


She picked him up and kissed him loudly. Mel arrived and took him from her and kissed him as well.

"Come on, big boy, let Mama take off your coat." She did so and Brian and Justin felt like they had butterflies in their stomachs.

"Are you two gonna stand there or come in and sit down?" asked Lindsay so they went inside.

"Hey, what happened to Gus' arm?" Mel asked, showing Lindsay the bruise.


"He fell down the steps from the bedroom and bumped his arm. He said—"

"Does it hurt, baby?" she asked Gus and the toddler shook his head and tried to get away from them, to go play. They released him and he grabbed Beh and went in search of his ride-on fire truck.

"How the fuck did he fall down the stairs?" Mel asked.

"He was running and he fell," Brian replied tightly. Justin moved closer to him, hoping to head off an ugly confrontation.

"And where were you?"

"Sitting on the couch."

"Why weren't you watching him?"

"He was asleep. He woke up, and ran down the steps."

"Brian told him to stop running but he wouldn't listen—"

"He's two," she said. "You should have had him with you," she told Brian, "but I guess you were too busy fucking to watch your son."

"That's not—" began Justin.

Brian turned to Lindsay. "We were watching a goddamn movie and he was asleep. What did you want me to do?"

"He could have really hurt himself."

"He didn't. Kids fall all the time. Hell, I bet he's even fallen here."

"Not like that."

Taking a deep breath, Brian nodded.

Mel glared at him. "I think we need to rethink this weekend thing."

"What?" He shot a look at Lindsay. "Lindz…?"

"I think Mel is right."

Justin felt Brian tense up and he reached for his arm, held him, felt him trembling in anger and helplessness.

"You promised, Lindsay."

"And you promised to take care of him."

"I expected this from her. I never thought you'd turn on me."

"This is about Gus."

His throat tightened and he pulled away from Justin and left the house.

The teen stared at the two women in disbelief. How could they have done that to Brian? Following Brian's example, he pushed through the door and headed to the Jeep where his lover waited for him. Saying nothing, Brian started the engine and pulled out of the yard.

So he'd fucked up again and it might have cost him his son. Brian stood at the window ignoring the chill in the air. He'd left the bed in the middle of the night, not wanting to wake Justin with his tossing and turning. He had no idea what to do, how to fix things, and already he could feel an empty place in his heart where Gus used to be. "No," he whispered. He wouldn't give up. He couldn't. He just didn't know what to do.

Justin came up behind him and draped his robe about his shoulders. "You'll catch cold."

"You should be in bed," Brian said, sliding his arms into the robe.

"So should you. You've got work tomorrow."

"I'll be there in a little while."

"I'll wait. I don't have to be anywhere in the morning."

Brian fell silent, then said, "I can't lose him."

"You won't. Give them some time to calm down and I'm sure they'll realize that they were being unfair."

"And if they don't? Then what? What the fuck am I supposed to do if they say no? I don't have any rights to him, no legal ones. All I am is the sperm donor."

"Don't say that."

"It's true."

"We'll talk to them and they'll see. I promise." He drew Brian's head down and kissed him. "I promise. Okay?" Another kiss. "Okay?" He kissed him again, suddenly hungry for him, and unbelted his robe and dropped it, pushed Brian's back down over his shoulders. The man lifted him and he wrapped his legs around him as they kissed.

Brian stood him on the bed and he dropped to his knees, Brian's lips brushing over his belly and chest and finally his lips. Justin pulled Brian down onto him, then rolled him onto his back and straddled him, kissing his perfect mouth, the smooth column of his neck, his broad nipples. Brian uttered a small cry as Justin bit down on one, then kissed it. The teen moved back up and kissed him fiercely, gnawing on his lips until they swelled and grew tender. "I love you," Justin whispered and sealed his vow with another kiss. He was so hard, wanted Brian so much he ached.

Turning, Justin held Brian's cock by the base and fed on him, sucking the luscious head until it turned a rosy red. His lips slid down the shaft and back up again, tongue swirling as he bobbed over Brian's groin. Tasting precum in his saliva, the teen let Brian slip from his lips. He drew the man's legs up and open, raising his hips from the bed, and buried his face between his cheeks.

He could feel Justin hard and wet against his belly, could feel his own cock tremble as it brushed against his lover's. And Justin's tongue… it curled against his hole, causing him to shiver and cry out. He covered his face with his hand and inhaled as Justin's tongue entered him. "Oh, God… Oh, God…"

Raising up, Justin shifted positions and knelt between Brian's legs. Placed them over his shoulders and, with one hand on his cock and the other spreading Brian's cheeks, he pushed inside him, passing through the tight opening with a pinch and then moving deeper, and deeper still until he pressed up against him, buried to the hilt. "Brian." He turned his head and kissed his calf, ran his hand down the inside of his thighs.

His eyes were shut and still he could see Justin in his mind, beautiful and golden, so bright that he banished any and all shadows. He could feel Justin moving between his thighs, sliding in and out of him, each thrust, each withdrawal sending currents of pleasure barreling throughout his body. Sweat caused his legs to slip from the teen's shoulders and Justin changed positions, lay almost supine upon him, still thrusting, kissing his throat, his chest, his chin, his lips. He laid his hands upon Justin's buttocks and urged him on, their sweaty bodies straining against one another, hearts beating so fast that he thought they'd expire. His cock throbbed with each thrust as Justin's body slid against his, his balls hard against the teen's abdomen. "I—I… I. Oh. I love you," he murmured. "I love you." He jerked and came, cum mixing with sweat.

Justin, caught in the spasm, shouted and began to ejaculate. He pumped Brian hard, then slumped to his chest. His hand trailed his lover's ribs and came to rest on his thigh.

Despite Justin's assurances, Brian spent the day anxious and unable to concentrate on much of anything. Early in the morning he'd called Drew to try and set up an appointment. Luckily Becker had a cancellation and was able to fit Brian into a one o'clock slot.

"What's up?"

Brian told him succinctly what had happened and when he finished, he added, quite unnecessarily, "I don't know what to do."

"Which is why you're here."

"It kind of freaked me out, at first, having a kid. The night he was born, I almost lost it. All I could think was this meant I was officially old. On the decline. And then Lindsay had to go out of town and she wanted me to keep him and I fucked it up cause… cause I did and while she was reaming me out, my dad came over to bring me this picture of him and me when I was a baby and it hit me, that Gus was my immortality, same as my old man's. Gus was this part of me that would go on living and maybe he would have kids and they would have a part of me inside them. I could see that in my dad's eyes when he looked at Gus." Brian had taken that picture of himself and his dad to the cemetery after his suicide attempt along with his award for the HIV awareness campaign and the videotape of his trip to NYC with Cam. He'd hoped to dispel all of the negative feelings associated with them. Most days he felt that he'd succeeded. He was no longer haunted by his dad and Cam. Not that he still didn't have problems galore. Hence his visit to Drew.

"What does Justin say about the situation?"

"He says I should give them a few days to calm down and then talk to them again, that they'll see reason. But what if they don't?"

"You would still be able to see Gus."

"Supervised visits."

"Have you thought of taking legal action?"

"I have no legal rights. I signed them over to Mel."

"Still, most courts respect the rights of the biological parents, regardless."

Brian chuckled ruefully. "Doc, they'd take one look at the four of us: two dykes and two queers, and they'd send Gus as far away from us as possible." He shook his head, suddenly serious. "I couldn't do that to him. Or to Lindsay. It would kill her. I couldn't hurt her like that."

"Then I would suggest you take Justin's advice: wait until they calm down and talk it out. If you like, I could even facilitate."

Blinking rapidly, he took a deep breath and released it. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost him."

Drew moved to the edge of his seat, in reach of Brian and took hold of his knee. "You won't."

"I'm so tired of fighting," he confessed.

"Fighting Lindsay?"

"Everything. It's always so hard. Nothing's ever easy. I thought things were settled between me and Justin and they weren't, I thought things were settled with Lindsay and they're not." He looked away, a tear rolling down his cheek.

"It'll be all right. You'll see. You won't lose your son."

"I can't."

"You won't."

He sniffled and wiped his face and laughed abruptly.


"All I seem to do is come here and fuckin' cry."

"Maybe you feel safe here."

"Maybe it's your cologne," joked Brian and Drew shook his knee hard and released him.

"Crocodile tears."

They'd agreed to meet at this café not far from the Institute to exchange gifts and to have one last meal together before Xavier and Rennie headed their separate ways for the holidays. Daphne would have come but she and her latest boyfriend had decided to spend a few days together until Christmas which they both had to spend with their respective families. He missed her, they'd only talked on the phone for so much of the semester that he felt like he hadn't seen her in ages. Well, she'd be back after Christmas and they'd get to hang out for a few days before he and Brian took off for the inn to celebrate their first anniversary. Meanwhile, he still had Xavier and Rennie.

"Well Marsha and Cindy—can you fuckin' believe that?" Rennie asked. "Anyway they've decided to move out into an apartment so I've got the suite to myself until they shift someone else into it. Maybe I'll get lucky and I'll only have one other roommate."

Xavier snorted. "Don't count on it. I wish I could afford to live off-campus. My roommates are driving me crazy."

Justin said, "Why don't you two live together? Must be plenty of cheap places near the Institute."

"My scholarship won't cover it," Xavier explained.

"My parents would freak," added Rennie.

"Tell them he's gay."

She cut her eyes at him. "Like that would help."

"So it's on-campus hell for us," said Xavier. "You're lucky."

Rennie sighed, "Yeah," and the two guys knew she wasn't just talking about the apartment, she was talking about his having Brian.

"How is His Big and Badness?" Xavier found that it was easier to talk about Brian if he kept it light.


They'd sensed his hesitation. "Trouble in paradise again?" asked Rennie.

"Gus." He paused. "Lindsay told us we could have him two weekends out of the month and when we had him Sunday he got hurt and—"

"Is he okay?" Rennie had fallen for the little boy.

"He's fine. Just bumped his arm. But Lindsay and Melanie went off the deep end and now they say they're not going to let us keep him anymore."

"Fuck," said Xavier. "I bet Brian's about to lose it."

"He loves Gus. I don't know what he'd do if they tried to keep Gus away from him."

"They'd let him see Gus, wouldn’t they?" Rennie asked, not believing they'd be so unforgiving.

"Yeah, but they wouldn't let us keep him anymore. We'd go back to the same old shit: an hour here and there and it's not fair. Gus loves Brian."

"Loves you too," Xavier added. He'd seen the little boy with both of them back before things had gotten completely fucked and knew how much the baby loved his Pooh.

"I was the one who talked Brian into giving up his rights to Gus. He won't admit it but I know I helped change his mind. I feel like such an idiot because now he doesn’t have any legal grounds to contest what they're doing."

"He say anything to you?" He still felt protective of Justin although he knew that of all of them, Justin could take care of himself the best.

"No. He won't. He won't blame me, he'll only blame himself. He won't even blame them and it's their fault. He takes all of this shit on his shoulders and…"

"Hey, J, it'll work out. You'll see."

Justin frowned. "I just want him to be happy."

Xavier knew what he was thinking. That they had caused Brian much unhappiness. Still, in the end, Justin had returned to Brian and they were together. "He is. He's with you."

Rennie looked from Xavier to Justin. Even though things were over between them and they'd both moved on, at odd moments she felt the love between them that could never be erased, not entirely. "Xavier's right. And you'll see. Mel and Lindsay won't be able to keep Gus from Brian. He'll drive them crazy calling for him."

Justin laughed. "That's true."

She checked her watch. "Okay, boys, let's get a move on. I've got to pack. My flight leaves at like midnight tonight."

Justin placed his gifts beneath the tree unopened, wanting to save them for Christmas Day. He really needed to go out and buy something for Brian but he didn't know what to get him. Plus, their anniversary was five days after Christmas and he needed to find something for that too. He wondered what Brian was getting him. Of course, anything Brian bought him would be fine but what he really wanted was a car. Brian had hinted that he was thinking about buying him one since he was tired of sharing the Jeep but so far nothing had come of their sparse discussions. Too much had been going on for them to really concentrate on anything. Like the house. When were they going to go looking? Brian said once the new year started he'd have more time but Justin despaired of him ever having time enough.

Time. It was the one thing they couldn’t get more of and the one thing they needed more than anything else. Except for one another. Justin opened his sketch pad to the drawing he'd done of Brian Sunday afternoon. He could see him seated at his computer, a crease between his brows, worried about what Lindz and Mel would say, and rightly so it'd turned out. Justin traced the line of his jaw, feeling Brian's face beneath his finger. In the beginning he'd been fearless in his love for Brian; and then he learned to be wary of his feelings, suspect; and now, now he knew that love was something precious that had to be nurtured and protected, but he was secure in his love for him.

Glancing at the time, he put away the sketch and turned his thoughts to dinner. Only his mind kept returning to Gus and his absence. The loft felt empty without him, without his laughter, the sound of him running across the floor, of him calling to Brian, him singing to Beh, his "Jusin!"

Aware that he might be making a huge mistake, Justin grabbed his backpack and ran to catch the bus.

Lindsay opened the door to find him standing on the porch. Pausing, she moved aside and let him in. "Gus is asleep."

"I figured," he said. "Can we talk?"

She led him to the livingroom and offered him a seat. "Mel's still at work."

"So's Brian." He didn't know where to begin.

"I know what you're going to say."

"Maybe. But I have to say it anyway. I understand your being concerned about Gus. But you have to know that Brian would give his life for him. He'd never let anything happen to Gus. It was an accident, Lindsay. We're always careful."


"You're punishing us because we're not omnipotent."

"No. This isn't about punishing anyone."

"But you are. You're punishing us and you're punishing Gus."

"You'll understand when you have a child of your own."

And that hurt the most, so much that he almost left then but he stayed, for Brian. For Brian and Gus. "I know that Gus isn't mine. But I love him too."

"Justin… I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."

"Brian loves Gus more than anyone in this world."

"No. There's someone he loves more."

He smiled softly. "Maybe. But Gus is a part of him. One of the best parts of him. Don't take that away."

"He can still see Gus."

"But only when you're there. So you're telling Brian that you don't trust him. He…" Justin paused, then began again. "He blames himself for everything. His mistakes, mine, yours. Anything goes wrong, it's his fault and he can't keep doing that, Lindsay. It's killing him." Unable to stop it, a tear ran down his cheek. "Please. I know that you're only trying to protect Gus but…" He sniffled. "I have to protect Brian. Give us another chance."

That he was here without Brian told her that Brian knew nothing about this attempt to sway her opinion. She could imagine what Brian would say when he found out, if it backfired. That Justin was willing to take that risk…

Suddenly they heard a rattling upstairs. Gus had awakened and was standing at the security gate at the top of the stairs, shaking it to get Lindsay's attention. "Mommy!"

"I'm coming." She walked up. "Guess who's come to see you?" she asked him as she opened the gate and carried him downstairs.

Justin waited at the bottom.


The teen took him from Lindsay and kissed him. "Hey."

Gus kissed him and rubbed his nose. "Where Daddy?"

"He's at work."

"Go see Daddy."

"Not today," Justin replied. "I…"

Lindsay rubbed Gus' back. Made a quick decision. "This weekend. You can see Daddy this weekend. Okay?"


Quietly, to Justin she said, "Let me talk to Mel."

Justin nodded. "Thanks, Lindsay."

The loft was empty when he got home although there were signs that Justin had been there. His sketchpad was on the sofa and there were presents under the tree, gifts that hadn't been there when he left that morning. A cookbook lay opened on the counter. Curious, he went to change and to wait for Justin to return from wherever he had gone.

Having put on an old pair of sweats, he decided to hit the treadmill for a little while. He'd skipped the gym today, not in the mood for it but he felt restless. Running always made him feel better, burning off the excess energy and putting him in a trance-like state where he didn't think about anything but the next stride, the next quarter mile.

Justin pushed open the door and saw him running on the treadmill, his slender body racing towards an unknown point. Closing it gently, he stood with his back against the cool metal and watched Brian run. Followed a bead of perspiration that emerged from beneath his hair, trickled down between his shoulders, and disappeared into the waistband of his sweats.

After a few minutes he became aware of another presence in the loft. Cutting off the treadmill, he stopped running and turned around. "Hey."

Justin pushed off from the door. "Hey."

"Where'd you go?"


Brian raised a brow and smirked. "Looking for my Christmas present?" After all Christmas was next week.

"Yeah," Justin replied, crossing the floor to where he stood. Despite the glistening sweat on Brian's body, Justin embraced him.

Teasing, Brian asked, "Was that it?"

"Shut up." He released him and pulled off his coat, tossed it on the sofa and went into the kitchen. Started flipping through the cookbook he'd left open.

Figuring he'd get no more from the teen, Brian headed for the bathroom to shower. He'd find out eventually.

They turned on the Christmas tree lights, lit the votives and tapers placed around the apartment, turned off the other lamps, and had dinner by candlelight. Held hands across the table and talked about this restaurant they'd gone to in Paris which, in turn, led them to talk about other restaurants they'd visited and meals they'd had on their trip to Europe which, in turn, led them to talk about the trip in general and their favorite parts and moments they'd thought they'd forgotten but which they never really would have forgotten, even if they lived to be a thousand.

After putting everything away and loading the dishwasher, they curled up on the sofa and watched the lights flicker on the tree. Sipping hot chocolate spiked with rum. Brian had his in the #1 Dad mug Justin had given him for Christmas last year. Tried not to think about Gus and how much he was missing him.

"The stuff I ordered online should get here in a couple of days," he said. "Otherwise, the tree's gonna look pretty bare."

"I don't care. It's still beautiful."

"So what are you getting me for Christmas?"

"I haven't decided yet." Truth was, he had no idea what he was going to give Brian. Decided to try the direct approach. "What do you want?"

"Mmm… N—"

"And don’t say nothing. I mean it. What do you want for Christmas?"

Brian studied his mug. Justin drew closer to him and held him tighter. If Lindsay kept her word, Brian would get his wish.

Raising the blind to let in extra light, Justin sat back down at this easel and resumed working on the sketch he'd begun. Although he could have worked at home, he liked coming to the studio, especially now that Bledsoe had gone home for the holidays. He liked having a place he could call his own where he could work without distractions. Brian had promised that their new place would have room for a studio and he couldn't wait to set it up. Maybe in a sunroom, with huge windows and a glass roof to bathe the entire space in natural light. He smiled, thinking of it, then turned once more to his work.

It was a drawing of Brian and Gus, the two of them asleep on the sofa, Gus snuggled up in his daddy's arms. Justin had found them that way once, the toddler's copy of Winnie-the-Pooh forgotten on Brian's thigh, both having succumbed to the need for an afternoon nap. He'd tiptoed to the bedroom and gotten his camera and taken a couple of pictures, hoping they wouldn't stir. They hadn't, too tightly ensnared in their individual dreams. Or perhaps they shared a dream.

Laying down his pencil, he studied the photograph. They were so beautiful, his two men as he thought of them, and he was lucky to have them in his life, to share his life, sharing their lives with him. He imagined them on their tenth anniversary, Gus a big boy of eleven, him twenty-eight-years old, almost the age Brian had been when they'd met. Brian would be forty, embarking on yet another stage in his life. God, if his fortieth birthday was anything like his thirtieth, watch out world. Justin grinned. Brian could be such a Drama Queen. He tried to imagine Brian at forty: streaks of grey in his hair, maybe a few pounds heavier, a pair of silver spectacles perched on his nose, still strong, still sexy as hell. That would never change.

A knock jolted him out of his reverie. He put down the photo he was holding and called out, "Come in," expecting to see one his professors. Never in a million years would he have guessed Kenneth Harris was at the door.

Harris glanced around as he came inside the studio. He knew that Justin had been caught off guard and wanted to give the young man time to recover and regroup. This wasn't a sneak attack. He just wanted to talk to Justin. "I suppose you're surprised to see me here."

Justin gave a chuckle. "Looking for Brian?"

"No. Looking for you. I dropped by the loft and no one was home so I figured you'd be here."

"What can I do for you?" He was unused to having anything to do with Kenneth outside of their connection to Brian and after the stunt Kenneth had pulled in LA and its affect on their relationship, he wasn't quite certain how he felt about the man.

Kenneth gestured at the drawing of Gus and Brian. "You're very talented."


"But, then again, you know that. Or you wouldn't be here."

"I suppose."

:"You could go far."

"I hope." What was this? Career Counseling 101?

"Have the world at your feet. If you work hard, take advantage of opportunities."

"Such as?"

"Won't always be easy. Balancing a private life with work."

"Never is." Was that Harris' game? To intimidate him into giving up Brian because it'd be hard to have both a professional and private life? That was a pretty lame strategy.

"Artists' lives are sometimes difficult."

"So are some artists," Justin hinted.

Harris figured he'd better get to the point before Justin lost patience with him. "Brian sent me a portfolio of your friends' work. Thought I'd be interested."

"I remember."

"Well, I am. But he didn't send me any of yours. That was a mistake."

"So you're here to do what?" No fucking way. "Offer me some kind of Faustian bargain? My work for Brian? Even exchange?"

Kenneth laughed. "No. I came to see Brian while you two were separated and he made it clear that he still loved you and that he'd do anything to get you back. And he did. I'm happy for him."


"Brian and I are business associates. I'd like to be his friend if I could."

Still an angle. "And you think buying my art will get you on his good side?"

"No, I think buying your art would be a good investment." He studied the portrait of Brian and Gus. "That's a perfect likeness."

Justin watched a gleam appear in Harris' eyes. "What were you interested in?" Kenneth glanced at him, a smile playing about his lips as if he suspected Justin of being facetious or coy. Justin laughed. "I feel a little like a pimp."

"It's art."

"You want me to draw you a picture of Brian?"

"A series. Whatever poses you want. Clothed or nude, I don't care. It's up to you."

Again Justin laughed. "For your office or home?"

"Does it matter? You've got the real thing. Why begrudge me a picture or two?"

"Can I tell him?"

"I hope so. I hope you'll come and help hang them. Pick out the best places for them."

"You're serious."

"You're a gifted artist with a beautiful model. Titian, Picasso, Bacon, they all had their muses, their models, and they made wonderful art together."

"He may refuse."

"Maybe. If so, then forget it. Only if he agrees."

"How many?"

"Six. I'll make it very worth your time and effort I assure you."

"All right. You've got yourself a deal." He held out his hand.

Before he took it, Kenneth said again, "Only if Brian agrees."

They shook hands. "He'll agree."

"You did what?" Brian asked as they set the table for dinner. Mikey and Jeff were coming over and were due any minute.

"I said I'd do six drawings of you."

Kenneth hadn't had time to stay over, needing to be back in Birmingham that evening but he'd left Justin his card to contact him once he and Brian had discussed the proposal.

"I feel… a little weird about this," admitted Brian.

"It's my first commission," Justin explained. "Please."

"What if he jacks off looking at em?"

"I'm sure he jacks off thinking about you as is."



"You said it."

Justin placed the last napkin on the table. "Look, I don't care what he does with the drawings. As long as he pays me for them."

"What's my cut?" He filled the water glasses.

"Your cut?"

"Yeah. I'm the model, right?"

"Standard sitting fee." Justin placed the wine bottle on the table. A Merlot. "And immortality. One day your dick might be famous."

"It already is."

"As a work of art."


Shaking his head, Justin said, "You're so vain."

Brian smiled. "One of my finer points."

"So," Brian said over dinner, "Justin got a commission to draw naked pictures of me."

The artist promptly started to choke on his asparagus. "They don't have to be nude drawings," he explained indignantly.

"Who commissioned them?" asked Jeff.

"Kenneth Harris." Brian beamed.

"The same Kenneth Harris who tried to break you up?" asked Michael.


Jeff grinned. "And you don't mind drawing pictures of your lover for a guy who has the hots for him?"

"His money's green," replied Justin. "What the patron does with my art is of no concern to me."

"What if he uses the drawings to cast some kind of voodoo spell on Brian?" joked Michael. "To make Brian want him?"

"I'll tie him down at night," replied Justin.

"Kinky," added Brian. "So have you decided how you're going to draw me?"

"No. But I'll be sure to get your good side."

"He has a good side?" teased Jeff. "I thought he was all bad."

"He can be good when he wants to be, isn't that right, Pookie?"

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

Michael made a face across the table. "I think it suits you. Pookie."

"And what was Keith's nickname for you?" Brian threatened.


"Who's Keith?" Jeff wanted to know.

"Nobody," Michael answered.

"Michael's first real boyfriend. Keith the Cunt," Brian told him.

Shaking his head, Michael confessed, "I have never been so glad to get rid of a boyfriend. I would have chewed off my own leg to get away from him."

This being the first time he'd heard of him, Jeff was curious. "What was wrong with him?"

"He was such a jerk. Except that in the beginning he acted like he was all saintly and shit, like he was the perfect guy, and then he totally changed."

"Revealed his inner cunt," Brian said.

Jeff grinned. "So what was his nickname for Michael?"

"He called him…"

"Don't," begged Michael.

"Ah," said Brian, "let him have a couple of secrets."

Kissing him, Justin told them, "Didn't I say he had a good side? That's my Pookie."

While Justin showed Jeff some of the results of his experiments with computer graphics, Michael helped Brian clean up.

"Isn't this kind of weird?"


"Us doing couples stuff. Never in a million fucking years would I have imagined you married with a kid."

"What can I say? Guess I didn't run fast enough. He caught me."

"You let him. I know how much you love him."

Brian smiled and scraped out another plate. "He'll do. For another fifty, sixty years."

"One day you two will be granddads."

"Shut the fuck up."

"You know you're gonna love it. Grandpa Brian, terror of the neighborhood."

"Pinching all the teenaged boys." They laughed at that image because they knew it'd be true.

"So I bet Gus is really excited about Christmas."

"I guess."

He seemed a little subdued. "Something wrong?"

"He fell while he was here and bruised his arm and the Munchers freaked out and said that we couldn't keep him on the weekends anymore."

"That's not fair."

"Fuck fairness. They can do whatever they want and there's not a damn thing I can do about it."

"They wouldn’t even have Gus if it weren't for you. Did you tell them that?"

"They know that, Mikey."

"So? What are you gonna do?"

He shrugged. "Wait. See if they come around. Not much else I can do." He started the dishwasher. "Look, I need you to do me a favor."


"I'll tell you later," he said as Justin and Jeff returned from the livingroom.

"Listen, I gotta go," said Jeff. "Guys, thanks for dinner." To Michael, "You coming with me?"

"Yeah." He grabbed his coat. "Later."

Brian and Justin walked them to the door. Waved as they clumped down the stairs. Brian cut off the main lights while Justin saw to the tree and the candles. They met at the bedroom entrance. Kissed on the steps.

"So they looked pretty happy," Justin said.

"Yeah. Maybe Mikey's worrying for nothing."

Justin wrinkled his nose. "It's weird, us being the role models for someone else."

"Role models?" Brian snorted. "I don't think so."

"We're committed, we've got a family, and we're about to go looking for a new house."

Brian paused taking off his clothes. "Guess we are. Huh."

Sliding up behind him, Justin embraced him. "So how does it feel?"

"I don't know. You tell me."

Justin stroked Brian's hip and chest. "Feels pretty good."

At the rap on the doorframe, Harlan looked up to see Brian Kinney standing there with a black portfolio under his arm. "Going door-to-door now?" he joked. "You know we can't afford you." Actually, Brian had done some ad work for them a while back at a drastically reduced rate. Harlan never did figure out why because everybody knew that Brian Kinney didn't believe in community service because he didn't believe in belonging to any community. Still, he'd done the ad for Woody's at a slashed rate and it'd been a damn good one too. Bastard was talented. And successful. Which was why Harlan couldn't understand why he was in his office.

"Actually," Brian said, "this isn't my work." He gestured to a chair.


"I've discovered this talented new designer. Thought you might use her to, ah, decorate the bar for the annual New Year's Eve Party."

"Her, huh? Well, least I know it's not of your cast-offs."

"I'm a married man, Harlan." Flashed his ring. "Ball and chain and everything."

Harlan laughed. "You're not suffering. I've seen the goods."

"Look but don't touch," warned Brian.

"Me? Put the moves on Brian Kinney's little boy? Outta my league."

Brian opened Joanie's portfolio. "These aren't."

As he flipped through the photos, Harlan made sounds of appreciation. Then, "The infamous loft. How come I never got an invite?"

Leaning back in his chair, Brian flashed his famous shit eatin' grin. "Harlan… So little time, so many men."

Again Harlan laughed. Charming bastard at that too. There was a time he would have done or given almost anything to fuck Brian but Brian didn't do old and at forty Harlan was definitely in the old category in Brian's mind. Even though he'd been younger when they first met, he had still been off Brian's radar as far as the younger man had been concerned. "So, these are good. Who is she? Some dyke?"

"My mom."

Harlan's eyes widened. Shit.

"I do have one, believe it or not."

Once he got over the initial shock, Harlan got back to the proposition at hand. "And she'd be willing to do the job?"

"Depends on what kind of deal you can offer her."

Harlan spread his hands over the portfolio. "She's not in your league but she's good." Closed it. "Send her around. We'll talk details."

As he rose, Brian held out his hand. "Harlan, you're a sweetheart."

"About the loft?" Harlan asked.

"It'll be on the market soon," he told him. "Maybe I can arrange a private showing," he teased.

And Harlan chuckled as he left because he was quite certain that, most unnecessarily, there would probably be two hosts at the private showing. But Justin had no worries. If ever he had seen a happily married man, he'd just shaken hands with him.

In an instant his apron was folded and placed in the back and he'd snagged his coat from the rack. Brian had pulled up out front and was waiting. Justin waved to Deb. "Later."

"Tell Brian I said hi," she called as he pushed through the door.

He pulled the door closed and leaned in for a kiss. "Hey."

"Hey." Brian shifted gears and took off, snow flying from beneath the Jeep's tires. "What are we doing tonight?"

"I dunno." He had visions of a gloomy evening at home, missing Gus.

"Wanna go out?"

Justin brightened. "Dinner and dancing. The whole nine yards."

"Works for me. Got a new red sweater I've been dying to wear." Since Gus wasn't coming over this weekend there was no point in saying home. Might as well paint the town red and get totally buzzed like the old days. So much for sober parenthood. They were a couple of carefree guys with time to kill.

They started stripping as soon as they hit the livingroom, shedding their work clothes and heading for the shower. Justin, having stood on his feet for an eight hour shift, was beat. He leaned against Brian and let the water rejuvenate him while his lover soaped him languorously. Turning in Brian's arms, the teen lay his head upon his chest as the man lathered his hair, his long, slender fingers gently massaging Justin's scalp, rubbing the nape of his neck, kneading his shoulders, tenderly working out each kink until the younger man was completely relaxed.

"That feels good," he whispered, giving Brian a tiny kiss above his heart.

"You sure you're up to going out?"

"Maybe I'll take a little nap first."

Brian turned off the water and opened the door. "Come on."

They dried off and climbed naked into the bed, and shut their eyes.

"What?" Brian muttered as he woke. "Shit." Someone was at the door. What time was it?

"What time is it?" Justin asked, waking.

"I don’t know." He snatched his robe from the foot of the bed and went to see who it was, shaking his head to clear it of cobwebs and the tendrils of a dream. Ten steps behind him was Justin, shrugging on his robe as well. He pulled open the door. "Yeah."


Brian lifted Gus and hugged him. "Hey, Sonny Boy." Raised a brow at Mel and Lindz who stood carrying Beh, his red fire engine, and his SpongeBob backpack. "What's going on?"

At a look from Lindz, Mel explained. "It's your weekend to have him." She raised the backpack. "Can we come in? I feel a little stupid carrying this thing."

He moved to the side and kissed Gus again. The toddler rubbed noses with him, then looked around at Justin and reached for him.


Taking him, Justin gave him a big kiss. "I am so glad to see you."

"See you," giggled Gus.

Brian shut the door and then joined the women in the livingroom. They were perched on the edge of the sofa.

Lindsay began. "We owe you an apology. We completely overreacted and I'm sorry. We're both sorry." She turned to Mel.

"Yeah. Sorry. I know that both of you love Gus and it was wrong of us to punish you for something you had no control over." She paused and added, "Especially since we wouldn’t even have Gus if it weren't for you."

"Just," said Lindsay, "try to be careful. You have to watch him every minute."

"I know," said Brian.

"And we'll try to be less protective of him. I know he's a little boy and that little boys are rough so," she shrugged, "we'll just have to get used to it."

"I would never let anything happen to him," Brian promised. "You know that."

"I know. And I trust you," she added. "You're a good father." She swept her eyes over Justin holding the baby. "You both are."

The teen smiled and blushed. It was the first time anyone had even acknowledged out loud just how important he was to Gus' life. He knew that Brian thought of him as a partner and a co-parent but to hear Lindsay say it validated it somehow. "Thanks, Lindsay."

Mel stood and ruffled his hair. "I guess you're the one who's been teaching him to dance."

Justin laughed and put Gus down. "Show us your moves, Gus. Dance for us." He sang, "I been up all night, I might sleep all day…" and Gus began to bop and twist in imitation of Justin and to wriggle his hips in a very suggestive manner for a two-year-old.

Lindsay covered her mouth and laughed. "Oh my word…"

Mel frowned. "Christ. I do not want our son growing up to be a go-go boy in Babylon. We'll be scandalized."

As if he understood, Gus ran to Brian and hid his face, giggling, and Brian raised him up and kissed him again. "I love you." He lived for scandals.

"I luv you, Daddy."

After the Mommies left, the boys ordered pizza and watched Wimzie's House until the delivery guy arrived. Justin got an old blanket from the linen closet and spread it on the floor and they dined in front of the television while Gus tried to explain to Brian what the puppets were doing.

When dinner was over, they cleaned up and played cars, Justin pushing Gus on his fire engine while the toddler took pictures with his play camera. Brian posed for them around the loft: draped himself over the chaise lounge a la Lana Turner and pretended to cook like Emeril in the kitchen, he danced with Justin and played peek-a-boo beneath the covers, all to Gus' great amusement.

Just before the baby was ready for bed, Brian carried him to the window and they watched the snow fall.

"Snowfakes," said Gus.


"Daddy, where snow?"

Which Brian understood to mean, "Where did snow come from?" He pointed to the sky. "It comes from the clouds. Like rain. Remember rain?" Gus nodded. "Rain comes from the clouds and so does snow."

Look up my darling
Way up high
At the clouds above you

Gus patted Brian's arm. "Go clouds, Daddy."

Brian smiled. "One day we will. We'll go up in an big airplane and see the clouds. Okay?"

" 'kay." And then he fell silent, satisfied, and watched the snow fall, his head cradled on Brian's chest, cause if Daddy said they would go see the clouds, they would.

My heart's a window darling
If you look inside
You'll see how I think of you

That night, once Gus was safely tucked away in bed, Brian and Justin sat on the floor with their backs against the sofa and talked.

"I wonder what happened to make them change their minds," Brian said.

And Justin never told him what he'd done. All he said was, "They calmed down and they saw reason. And I bet Gus drove them crazy begging to see you every five minutes."

"Probably," agreed Brian, chuckling. "He's not shy about getting his needs met."

"Wonder who he got that from?"

Brian glanced at the clock. A year ago they would have been at Babylon dancing the night away. He laughed. "It's official. We're an old married couple."

Justin snuggled closer. "Yeah," he agreed, satisfaction in his voice.

Sun streamed in through the window, tickling Gus' nose. He woke and yawned and patted Justin's back. "Jusin." He got to his feet unsteadily and pushed down on Justin's arm. "Jusin."

The teen woke and turned over. "Hey."

"I got go pee."

Justin rose and carried him into the bathroom and put him up on his foot stool. Gus peed with great relief and flushed the commode. "Finised."

"Good boy." Justin wiped his hands. "Still sleepy?" Gus shook his head. "You hungry?"


"How about some juice and a bowl of cereal? That okay?"

" 'kay." Gus followed Justin to the kitchen and waited patiently as the young man prepared his breakfast.

Justin sat with Gus while the toddler ate, checking every so often to see if the coffee had finished dripping. Maybe the smell of it would wake Brian. If not, that was fine too. He probably needed the sleep. Gus was busy munching a mouthful of Raisin Bran. "That good?"

"Good." He picked out a piece of banana and ate it and smiled. Offered Justin one. "Here."

Justin took it and ate it. "Thank you." He kissed the toddler. "I love you. You know that?"

"I luv you."



"You do?"

"Yeah." Gus giggled. Silly Pooh. Of course he loved him. He gave Justin another piece of banana.

Joanie peered through the curtains and watched Brian, Justin, and Gus play in the snow, throwing snowballs at one another and laughing. The baby was surprisingly steady on his feet, bending to pick up a handful of snow and to throw it without losing his balance. He was a little too impatient to actually form a ball first, preferring to throw it as soon as he had the snow in hand which meant he sometimes got a face of the white stuff if the wind was blowing against him. But he didn't care. He laughed and ran and played with his two daddies until all three were exhausted.

During an apparent rest break, Joanie stepped to the front door and called to them. "I've got cookies and hot chocolate. Who wants some cookies?"

"You want some cookies, Gus?" asked Brian.

"Yeah!" he said, jumping.

Justin laughed. "Gus, how does a frog jump?"

And Gus jumped forward and jumped forward again. "Ribbit, ribbit." He dropped to his knees, too tired to jump any further, and Brian picked him up.

"I think our little frog needs refueling. How about some flies?

"No!" Gus shouted. "Cookies."

"That's right," said Joanie, holding the door open. "Nana made cookies for her boys." She waited for Justin to come inside. "All of them."

Gus' chocolate wasn't really hot, more like lukewarm, but he enjoyed it nonetheless, dunking his cookies in his mug like Justin and being extra careful to hold his cup in both hands when he drank the way his Daddy showed him. After he finished he left the table and wandered around the livingroom until he came to the couch. Crawling onto it, he laid down and closed his eyes. In a few minutes he was asleep.

Brian checked on him and drew an afghan over the sleeping toddler. "He'll be wide awake the rest of the day now. And I was hoping to catch a nap myself this afternoon."

"You still can," Justin told him. "I'll watch Gus. Youth has its advantages," he teased.

"Don’t worry," Brian reminded him, "you'll be twenty in another month and then we'll see."

"See how I'm still younger and faster than you?"

Joanie laughed. "Be glad that he is. A two-year-old takes a lot of work. Especially one like Gus. He's a little Energizer Bunny."

"Was Brian like that at his age?"

"Exactly like that. Into everything. One day he got into the kitchen cabinets before his father and I woke up and started banging on the pots and pans. I thought Jack would have a heart attack." She grinned. "And there was Brian, wondering what all the fuss was about."

Brian nudged Justin. "I bet your mom has some stories she could tell about you."

"Don't worry. We've got to go by there today. I'm sure she'll tell you all of them. And drag out the pictures. But," he added, "Molly was ten times worse than I was."

"Uh-huh. Molly? She's a sweetheart."

Justin cackled. "That's cause she loves you."

"So do you."

Softly he smiled. "That I do."

Brian popped a cookie in his mouth and chewed. "So, Mom—"

"Don’t talk with your mouth full."

"He's had plenty of practice," Justin told her, grinning.

"So, Mom," Brian said once he'd finished eating, "you think you can do something with Woody's?"

She'd gone around to see Harlan on her own. Brian had told her it'd be better that way, look more professional. She'd been a little nervous about going to a gay bar by herself but then she just imagined that all of the people there were just like Brian and Justin and their friends and she'd relaxed and been able to hold a meeting with Harlan. "Well, he doesn't want to spend a lot of money but I think we can figure something out."

"The fee's okay?"

"Oh, yes. I'm just thrilled to be working."

Brian groaned. "You didn't tell him that?"

"I told him I could fit him into my schedule," she smiled.

Brian laughed. "Good for you. Never sell yourself cheap."

"Yeah," said Justin. "Always hold out for the Armani."

Leaning over to give him a kiss, Brian said, "Good boy. You deserve an A+."

Gus was still asleep when they left Joanie's and he slept all the way to the grocery store and then he woke up just as Justin was about to leave the Jeep. "I want go," he said sleepily.

"You don't want to stay in the car with Daddy?" Brian asked.

"No. Go with Jusin. You go, Daddy."

Brian sighed. "There goes my twenty winks."

Dreading the noise, Brian and Justin were pleasantly surprised when Gus behaved like a perfect angel, sitting in the basket and naming foods as they passed the displays. "Apple, orange. Grape. Tato."

Brian lifted a bunch of celery. "What's this?"

"Brian." Justin bumped him. "How would he know what that is?"

"Celry," said Gus.

"That's my boy. Genius," bragged Brian.

Gus pointed to the next vegetable. "Carrot."

"Good for you," Brian told him.


A dark-haired man watched them. He said to his companion, "That's Brian Kinney. Used to be the hottest stud on Liberty Avenue. Now he's got a kid and he's in a relationship. Check out the rings."

Justin and Brian overhead him. Brian pretended not to have, but the teenager wandered near the two men and said sotto voce, "He's still the hottest stud on Liberty Avenue or any avenue, street, or road you can find. He can work all day, read his son a bedtime story, and still find the energy to fuck me 'til the sun comes up cause he's a real man. You should find yourself one. He's taken." Leaving them open-mouthed, he rejoined his family and the three continued down the aisle.

"Hey, Mom," Justin said as he hugged Jennifer.

"How long has it been?" She released him and touched Brian's arm. "Hello, Brian."

"Merry Christmas."

"And look at this little angel." She stroked Gus' cheek. "Hi. Do you remember me?"

"Don't you remember Justin's mom, Gus? Remember Jennifer? Justin's mom?"

"Yeah." He looked at Brian. "Nana?"

Brian nodded. "Nana Jenn."

Gus reached for Jennifer and she took him and hugged him. "Oh, you are an angel, aren't you?" And he kissed her and laughed.

"He's just trying to get more cookies," Brian warned.

"Cookies, Nana Jen."

Jennifer kissed him. "I think I can find a cookie for Gus." She carried him into the kitchen leaving Brian and Justin in the livingroom.

"That was really sweet of you," Justin told Brian.


"Telling Gus she was his Nana."

"She is. He's got at least two grandmothers who claim him. And two mommies and two daddies."

Justin embraced him. "Just when I think I can't love you anymore, you do something like this… and I realize that I've got a whole other reason for loving you even more."

Molly ran in, having come from her friend's house and seen the Jeep in the yard. She paused shyly on the threshold of the livingroom. "Hi, Brian. Hi, Justin. Gus!" And she ran forward, shyness forgotten, and hugged the baby. "Hi, Gus. Can you say hi?"


"Say Hi, Molly."

"Hi, Mollee."

Justin leaned into Brian. "I think you've been replaced."

"Well, he is younger and faster."

"I like you just the way you are."

"Old and slow?" joked Brian.

"I meant what I said in the store." He squeezed Brian's knee. "And I plan on holding you to it tonight."

"What about Mini-Me?"

"We'll tire him out and put him to bed and then we can play."

"It's a date."

Seeing that they were through with their private exchange, Jennifer said, "Justin, honey, your grandmother has been asking for you. She really wants to see you."

"I really want to see her too."

"Molly and I are driving up on Monday."

"Mom…" He didn't even look at Brian. "I can't." Why can't she understand?

Brian raised his head from looking down at Gus and Molly. "Maybe we can all drive up next year. Gus can meet his great grandmother."

Jenn looked surprised. "Do you mean that?"

"Yeah. Maybe for Thanksgiving. Mel and Lindz could probably be persuaded to let him out of their sight for a day or two."

"That, that would be wonderful."

"Of course," Brian added, "there's a price."

Jennifer looked puzzled. "Yes?"

"Our house. We need an agent. I hear you're good."

With a flash of Justin's confidence, she replied, "I'm the best."

Brian smiled. "Then we came to the right place."

Justin reached for Brian's hand and held it, saying nothing. Another reason to love you even more…

"Okay, Gus," said Justin, "let's do your colors." He put five colored blocks in front of the toddler and pointed to the first one. "What color is that?"


"Good. And this one?"


"And this one?"


"What about this one?" It was another red one.


"And one more."


"Good boy. You got all of them right. You deserve a big hug." Gus stood and Justin hugged him. "You are so smart. Did you know that?"


"And handsome. Did you know that?"

Gus giggled. "Yeah." He wriggled in Justin's arms, tickled by all the attention and praise.

"And sweet. And good. And very very special. Did you know you were all those things?"

"Yeah!" laughed Gus. He rubbed his face against Justin's and hugged the teen's neck even tighter. "Daddy Jusin."

"You want Daddy?"

"No," said Gus. "Daddy Jusin."

Justin began to understand and he thought his heart would expand beyond the limit of his chest. He pointed to himself. "Who am I, Gus?"

"Daddy Jusin."

He pointed to the room where Brian napped. "Who's that?"

"Daddy. Daddy seeping."

"That's right. Daddy's sleeping." He embraced the toddler again and felt a tear slip from beneath his eyelid. Gus touched it in wonder.

"Daddy Jusin…" he said and he kissed him. "Luv you."

"I love you too."

When Brian woke he found Justin and Gus still going strong, watching SpongeBob and giggling at the antics of the loveable yellow cartoon sponge.

Justin, copying SpongeBob, said, "I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready," and Gus tried to sing it too.

"I readee, I readee, I readee." He laughed and buried his face in Justin's side. "I readee." He looked around when he heard Brian's footsteps and ran to him. "Daddy!" Bounced up and down.


"Pick me." So Brian picked him up. "Daddy."


"I hungry."

"Didn't you and Justin eat yet?"


"Then we'd better eat. What can we eat? I think we can eat you," he said and he gummed Gus' arm while the toddler squealed and fought him off.

"No, Daddy, no eat me.

"But you taste so good. You taste like cookies."

"No. Not cookies."

"Like carrots."



"Yeah! Hamburga!"

Justin got up. "How about a turkey burger? I don't want you eating too much red meat."

"Burga?" Gus asked.

"Good burga," Justin told him.

"Daddy Jusin burga," Gus informed Brian in case he hadn't heard.

"Justin is making a burger?"

"Daddy Jusin," Gus explained and Justin paused to see if Brian would get it.

"Daddy Justin?" Brian asked the baby.

"Yeah. Daddy Jusin."

As Justin had done, Brian pointed to himself. "Who's this?"


He pointed to Justin. "Who's that?"

"Daddy Jusin."

Brian smiled and squeezed Gus. "That's right. That's Daddy Justin. And he's going to fix hamburgers. You want some cheese?"

"Cheese. Cheeburga."

Neither of them had believed that Gus would hold out for as long as he did but it was around ten thirty before he finally succumbed to the sandman and allowed his daddies to put him to bed, Beh by his side. By that time, he'd worn the two of them out. Leaving him to sleep, they collapsed on the sofa and just took a breather.

"About that fucking you all night?"


"How about I just talk dirty to you and we call it quits?"

Justin crawled over on top of him and straddled his hips. Kissed him deeply, breaking contact only to grab a bite of air. The second time he released Brian, the man shut his eyes and licked his lips.

"Well, maybe I could manage a couple of hours."

He loved undressing for Brian. Feeling his man's eyes on him as he stripped. Although the goal was to remove each barrier to the feel of skin against skin, the act itself was very erotic as well. Sometimes Brian undressed him himself, taking great pleasure in divesting him of each item of clothing, kissing every inch of revealed skin until he had peeled him clean and he lay pale and golden before him. Other times Brian preferred to watch, to follow his movements with his eyes, imagining the moment when all of his baby would be uncovered and he could fill his hand, his arms with naked boy.

Having dropped off his briefs, Justin climbed back onto Brian's lap and kissed him again. Brian cupped his buttocks, the soft down covering the teen's luscious cheeks tickling the palms of his hands. "You're so beautiful," he whispered to his young partner. "You make me so happy."

Justin fumbled with the buttons on Brian's jeans. Opened all four of them and reached inside. "Mmm…"

Brian drew his head down and they kissed for a while, desiring, needing no other communication. Then Brian said softly, "I want to make love to you…"


"All… night… long…" He tumbled Justin over onto his back and spread his thighs. Lowered his head and kissed his cock. Justin moaned and ran his fingers through Brian's hair as the man devoured him, ravenous for the taste of his meat, gorging himself on the swollen head and the stiff shaft. When he pulled away after many minutes of feasting, his lips and cheeks were shiny with spit and precum. Justin's balls were high and firm. He hissed as Brian turned his attention to them next, filling his mouth with the teen's sac, sucking deliciously on the plump delicacies until his lover began to pant and pushed at his head.

"I don't want to come yet," Justin whimpered. He shivered and took a deep breath as Brian released him.

The man stood and shucked his sweater. His nipples were raspberry nubs on his chest. He pushed his jeans down revealing a thatch of brown hair and his swollen cock. It hung heavy between his thighs, not yet erect but obviously affected by his labors. He straddled Justin's head, one knee on the arm of the chair, his cock swinging over the teen's face.

Raising his head, Justin took tiny licks at the organ above him, each time his tongue covering a little bit more territory, a new area, until the entire head was moist with his saliva. Bracing himself by holding onto Brian's leg and the back of the sofa, Justin enclosed the tip in his mouth and sucked softly. His tongue fluttered over the bulbous head and Brian moaned and eased a little more of his cock inside. Soon he was pumping his hips and gently fucking Justin's face. Justin let go of his cock and caught his balls between his lips. Gobbled them up and was loathe to let go except that he hungered for Brian's dick as well and was soon stuffing his face once more.

Brian withdrew and shuddered. His cock swayed before him, red and hard. A teardrop of precum formed at the tip and dropped onto Justin's face. The teen licked around his mouth and swiped his skin clean.

"More," he begged.

Brian had every intention of giving him more, giving him all of it. Grabbing hold of Justin's arm, he turned the teen onto his belly and knelt over him. Parted his cheeks and fed him his cock head.

"Yes," Justin sighed and arched his back. "Yes." Brian sank into him and nudged his prostate. He groaned into the pillow and pushed back with his hips. Brian slid home and paused.

Hands gripping the chair arm on either side of Justin's head, one foot on the sofa, the other braced against the floor, he fucked Justin long and lovingly, slowing his strokes down, withdrawing to the tip and filling him to the root. His hips swayed in an easy rhythm for a long while, sliding through the tight ring of muscle that relaxed more and more with each thrust. He took his cue from Justin, increasing the frequency and force of his lunges as the teen's cries grew in intensity and his body bucked beneath Brian's.

"Fuck me," he begged. "Fuck me. Please." And he moaned, his voice sending shivers up Brian's spine.

He kissed the back of Justin's neck. "I love you. I love your ass. I love it."

Justin squeezed his hole and milked Brian's dick as the man continued to pound him. "Oh. Oh. Brian. Brian…" He bit down on the pillow and jerked. His cock brushed against the cushion below him. He could feel sweat running down between his cheeks and over his balls. Brian slapped against him, his pubes wet and ticklish. "Brian. Yes, yes. Brian. Bri—" he moaned and he shut his eyes and exhaled as his cum spilled upon the seat of the couch.

Brian gave him two more hard thrusts and grunted. Fuck, it felt good to come, to feel his cock sliding through his own spunk and Justin's warm hole. He jerked against him and sighed and withdrew and rubbed his cock between Justin's cheeks. His cock had opened once more and cum dribbled down the crack of the teen's ass. He lowered his head onto Justin's shoulder. "Oh, Baby. Baby… Baby…"

After they'd recovered, they listened to see if Gus had awakened but the tot slept on. Cleaning up both themselves and the sofa, they lay upon it, curled together. Brian stroked Justin's cheek with his thumb.

"What time is it?" Justin asked.

Brian peered at the clock. "Eleven fifteen."

"Mm… Plenty of time left," and Brian chuckled softly and resolved to get as much rest as he could while he could. It was going to be a long night.

Waking on the couch in a sitting position, he was aware of Justin lying against him on one side with his leg thrown across his lip, and Gus snuggled up to his torso on the other. He had managed to pull the throw over him and Justin before they had fallen asleep. Gus had dug in deep beneath his arm and was fast asleep too. He had no idea when the toddler had awakened and come looking for them but it had to have been early in the morning as they'd been awake making love sometime around four. He blinked a couple of times and squinted at the clock. Seven. He wondered if Gus had come looking for him to take him to the potty and he felt a twinge of guilt that the baby hadn't been able to wake them, they'd been exhausted when they finally settled down to sleep. Looking at the little boy his eyes met a pair of hazel ones to match his own. "Hey. You got to go pee-pee?" Gus shook his head. "You already go?" Gus nodded and Brian couldn't believe it. He'd probably wet the bed. "Show me," he said and he lifted Gus to the floor. Justin stirred but laid down on the couch as Brian left him, still sleeping.

The baby led his daddy to the bathroom and there at the foot of the commode was his step stool. He climbed up on it and back down and reached for the handle to mime flushing the toilet.

"I go, Daddy," he explained sleepily and Brian raised him up and kissed him.

"Such a big boy. Went potty all by yourself." Luckily they'd left a light on in the bathroom so the toddler had been able to find his way in the semi-dark apartment. And they'd left the toilet lid up. "I'm proud of you. You wanna go back to sleep?" Gus nodded, so Brian went and roused Justin and they tottered to the bedroom to sleep a while longer.

In celebration of Gus' major achievement, Justin fixed waffles for breakfast with strawberry preserves and butter that filled every nook and cranny. Gus munched on his waffle joyously, his face smeared with preserves and his hands greasy with butter. He smiled and drank his milk and asked for more. In addition to the waffles, there was bacon which he crunched happily until the last morsel was devoured.

Brian smelled under his arms. "Shower."

"We must reek."

"Luckily he's used to diapers."

Gus shook his head. "No diapers. Big boy."

Giving him a kiss, Brian agreed. "You are a big boy. Come on, let's take a bath."

The baby played at their feet, rubbing himself with the tiny piece of soap that Brian had given him. It was specially formulated for young skin and Brian had paid a goodly sum for it. "Only the best for my boy." While Brian held him, Justin washed his hair and Gus squealed and squirmed like an otter.

Drying him thoroughly, Brian let him run into the bedroom naked and climb up on the bed. He grabbed Beh and began dancing with him, doing his Naked Dance as Justin called it.

The teen urged him on. "Do the Naked Dance, Gus. Go, Gus, go, Gus. You can do it. You can do it," and Gus put on a show. "Shake it, baby."

"Look, Daddy."

"I'm looking," Justin told him and Brian smiled from where he stood. God, I love him, he thought. Don't ever take him away, he prayed and Justin turned and flashed him a bright one and the world could have vanished for all he cared. He had his baby and everything was perfect.

Finally dressing, they headed for the mall. Lindsay had said that she'd been promising to take Gus to see Santa Claus and hadn't gotten around to doing it so Brian had volunteered to do it. He didn't really believe Gus was quite ready for the Big Guy but he thought they'd give it a shot and see what happened. More than likely Gus would be petrified and would refuse to talk to St. Nick and would want his Daddy to take him away but he knew who Santa Claus was, he saw him on TV, so maybe he'd be prepared. They'd find out soon enough.

They'd finished their Christmas shopping and the online presents had arrived so they didn't have to stop in any of the stores. Both Justin and Brian had had quite a time keeping Gus from under the tree. Fortunately, he was easily distracted by the ornaments themselves; unfortunately, that meant they were constantly finding them around the loft where he'd taken them off the tree and left them lying on the lounge or the sofa or in the bed. Last night, in the throes of passion, Brian had felt something digging into his ass. Later he'd found out it was a Buttercup ornament, green eyes blazing.

Although they'd gotten to the mall not long after it had opened, there was still a line at Santa's workshop. Resigning himself to the wait and the fuss, Brian tried to focus on happier thoughts: him and Justin making love last night, him and Justin making love in Paris, him and Justin fucking in the Jeep…

"Stop it," Justin warned.


"I know what you're thinking. Everyone here is gonna know what you're thinking."

"They're all thinking it anyway. I'm gorgeous, you're gorgeous, do the math."

"We're about to see Santa. He'll want to know if you've been naughty or nice."

"When I'm nice, I'm good but when I'm naughty, I'm even better."

"Thank you, Mae West."

Gus tugged on Brian's leg. "Daddy."

"What is it?"

"Who dat?"

"That's Santa Claus. Remember from the movie?"

Gus studied the huge man warily. It was one thing to see him on the big TV but another to see him in person. He was so big.

Brian whispered to Justin, "I think he's a little scared."

Justin crouched down. "Gus, remember when SpongeBob dressed up like Santa Claus? Remember that?"

Gus giggled. "Yeah." He liked SpongeBob. And SpongeBob was small.

"Doesn't Santa look funny too?"

Gus gave Kris Kringle the once-over again. "Yeah," he replied at last. "Santa funny." He laughed and hid his face.

"Great. Now he's gonna laugh at Santa Claus and he's gonna get a lump of coal in his stocking," said Brian.

"Don’t you listen to him, Gus. You've been a good boy this year."

"Daddy, who dat?"

Justin looked. "An elf. They help Santa make toys."

"The Big Q had better ones," Brian muttered.


"Nothing, dear," he sang in a falsetto voice while visions of well-hung elves danced in his head.

The woman in front of them turned and Brian and Justin tensed, ready for a scene, but she smiled and asked, "Is that your little boy?"

Shyly, Justin said, "Yes."

She smiled at Brian. "He looks just like you." She waved at Gus. "Hi."

"Hey," he said and looked around to see the little girl with her. She was five or six and he was captivated by her red hat. He wiggled his fingers at her. "Hey."

"Look at the baby, Mommy," the little girl said.

"Isn't he cute?" The little girl nodded and waved back at Gus.

When it was Gus' turn to sit on Santa's lap, he let the elf lift him without any fuss and promptly grabbed Santa's beard the way he grabbed Brian's hair. Both of them moved to stop him but it was too late. He yanked it down and let go, surprised by its movement. It snapped back into place and Gus squealed with delight and reached for it again but St. Nick headed him off and caught his hands.

"So, what's your name, little boy?"

Gus looked at Brian.

"Tell him your name."


"Hello, Gus. Do you know who I am?"

"San' Claws."

"That's right, Santa Claus. Have you been a good boy this year?"

"Yeah," he replied. Daddy Jusin had said so.

"What can Santa Claus bring you for Christmas?"

Again he looked to Brian.

"What do you want for Christmas? Do you want a toy?"


"What kind of toy?" asked Santa.

"Truck," said Gus. "Red truck."

"You want a red truck," repeated St. Nick.

"Red truck."

"Well, since you've been such a good boy this year, Santa will see what he can do. Okay?" Gus nodded. Santa took a candy cane from his elf and handed it to Gus. "Here you go." The elf lifted him down. "Bye-bye, Gus. Ho ho ho."

Gus wiggled his fingers. "Bye-bye, San' Claws. Bye-bye." He went to his daddies and raised the cane. "See?"

"Look what Santa gave you," Justin said. "Can I have some?" Gus handed it to him but Justin only unwrapped it and handed it back. "There you go."

Gus offered it to Brian.

"No, thank you. It's all yours." So Gus put it in his mouth and sucked happily. Brian caught Justin's eye. "I am so not going there."

Justin grinned at him and tugged on his arm. "Come on."

"You didn't take any pictures?" Lindsay asked when they'd taken Gus home.

"We figured he'd be scared enough. We'll get some next time," said Brian.

Mel bounced Gus on her knee. "But he did okay?"

"He had Santa eating out of his hand," answered Justin.

Brian stood. "We gotta go." They'd had dinner with the girls and Gus and it was getting late. He had a couple hours of work to do that evening in preparation for a partners' meeting the next day, the last meeting before the holidays. Gus reached for him and he took him in his arms and kissed him. "Bye, Sonny Boy."

"Bye-bye, Daddy."

Justin kissed him too. "Bye-bye, Gus."

"Bye-bye, Daddy."

Lindz and Mel stared. Lindsay asked, "Did he just…? Oh, my God…" She turned to Mel. "Did you hear that?"

Shaking her head, Mel said, "Two WASPs, a Jew, and an Irishman, and all queer. God, they're gonna love us on Family Day."

When Justin dropped by on Monday to stow a wrapped present for Brian at their house, he asked Lindsay how she felt about Gus calling him daddy.

"I think it's wonderful that Gus has so many people who love him."

"He called my mom Nana Jenn."

Lindz laughed. "He's got Brian's charm all right." She eyed the package leaning against the wall. "Gonna tell me what it is?"

"A surprise. But I wanted you guys to see it too."

"Okay," she said, accepting the evasion. "And what about this commission from Kenneth Harris?" She sipped her tea. "Seems a little strange, don't you think?"

"Brian's beautiful. He's the best model I could have. Why not do a series of portraits?"

"But for Kenneth Harris? The man who'd replace you in a heartbeat if Brian gave him a chance?"

"But Brian's not going to give him a chance. Our anniversary is in a week. We've been together for over two years. And even though we've had problems—"

"I'll say."

"We're still together. That's how it's gonna be. Forever. So let Kenneth have his drawings. I've got everything I want."

Lindsay eyed him over the rim of her cup. "You're a very wise young man."

"Hard lessons," he admitted. "And a lot of mistakes. But I love him. That's all that matters."

With the rest of the day free, he decided to go home and do some sketching there instead of the studio since the Institute had finally shut down for the holidays. The mail had come and he grabbed it on his way up. Flipped through it and stopped in the middle of a flight of stairs.

The envelope was addressed to him and came from SCI Pittsburgh. A Pennsylvania Correctional facility. A prison.

Chris Hobbs.

Chris Hobbs had written him from prison.

Justin leaned against the wall for a moment, shaking, then continued upstairs. He put the letter on the couner and left it there. Went and locked the door. It made him feel safer because suddenly he felt very afraid. It was an unreasonable fear, he knew that, but he was scared nonetheless. Chris Hobbs was in prison and there was no possibility of parole for a while. He was safe from him. So he'd believed. But there was a letter on the counter top that said otherwise.

Why would he have written him?

Studying the letter from across the room, Justin made up his mind in an instant. Tore open the envelope and opened the folded sheet of paper inside.


Even though I know I'm the last person you'd ever want to see, I think we should talk. There are some things I want to say to you that I can't write in a letter. You probably think this is some kind of a trick but it's not. I know it's hard to believe but I've changed, Justin, and I need to see you. It won't take long, just a few minutes, that's all I'm asking for. Please.


He placed the letter back in its envelope and stuffed it in his backpack. He didn't want Brian finding it by accident. He didn't want to think about the letter. But he had no choice.

"Fuckin' Hobbs," he muttered angrily. "Fuck you." He kicked his backpack. "Fuck you!" Sat on the sofa and cradled his head which had suddenly begun to ache around his right eye. Tension headache. He'd had them a lot after the attack. Even after he'd been given the green flag by his doctors, the headaches would come without warning, blinding him. Brian would massage his temples and place cold clothes on his forehead, talk to him in a low, comforting voice until the pain went away. He wished he was here now.

Glaring at the backpack and the letter hidden inside, he winced. "What do you want?"

It was crazy. If Chris hadn't attacked him, Brian might not have confessed his love for him and they might not have gotten together at all. They might have continued to exist in some kind of twilight zone where Brian was unable or unwilling to admit how much he loved Justin, needed him. The attack had changed all that, had forced him to make a choice. Fear had driven him to give Justin what he'd always wanted: a commitment from Brian and a public declaration of his love.

But with the love came heartache as well. That horrific trial and the hell they went through during it, the loss of their privacy, the revelation of some of Brian's darkest secrets. They'd argued over Justin's plea for leniency at Hobbs' sentencing and he'd thought that he'd lost Brian. He'd spoken because of Xavier, because of the growing feelings between them, because of the confusion he felt over those feelings. They'd kissed in Xavier's studio, setting off a chain of events that would leave Brian devastated, suicidal.

Justin trembled remembering that morning. It still frightened him and he didn't like to think about it. The wild look in Brian's eyes, the confusion and loss, the anguish. Maybe it was too much to lay all of that at the feet of Chris Hobbs but he did.

Gradually the pain in his head subsided and he got up and took a bottle of water from the refrigerator. Looked around the loft as he drank. He was lucky, he knew that. He could have died when Chris Hobbs attacked him. If Brian hadn't been there, he would have. He would have died and never lived to hear Brian tell him that he loved him. Never lived to hear Gus call him Daddy.

He tried not to hate. But sometimes he failed.

"I can't," he whispered. "I can't do it. Don't ask me to do it," he said to no one and no one replied.

Outside, the snow began to fall silently.

Brian studied the top of Justin's head for a few moments before saying, "You're mighty quiet tonight."

The teen shrugged. "Figured I'd give you a break."

"I like it when you babble."

Justin looked up momentarily and made a face. Then returned to gazing at his plate.

"Okay, I know I'm not the world's greatest cook but even I can fix pasta and heat up a ready made sauce. And you made the sauce."

"It's not the food."

He reached over and lifted Justin's head by the chin. "Then what is it?"

"Nothing." Justin got up and carried his plate to the kitchen. Dumped his food in the garbage disposal and ran it.

"Nothing," said Brian, throwing down his napkin and joining him. His plate was clean so all he did was put it in the dishwasher. He watched as Justin went back for their empty wine glasses and waited until he'd finished loading everything before taking the teenager's arm and leading him over to the sofa. "Sit." Justin sat. "So?"

"Brian, really, it's nothing."

Folding his arms, Brian asked, "Did you really want to go see your grandmother this year?"

"No." Justin shook his head. "Really, I'd rather be here with you and Gus and our friends. My grandmother'll live. She'll outlive us all." Especially imbibing her foul concoctions for every disorder known under the sun. The woman was probably invincible. "I'll see her next year sometime."

"Then what's causing the clouds, Sunshine?" teased Brian.

He couldn’t tell Brian about Chris but he could tell him part of the truth. "I miss Daphne."

"She'll be back after Christmas, won't she?"

"Yeah. I just wish I could see her now, that's all. It's been so long."

As if he was finally convinced that this was the reason Justin had been sorta blue, Brian plopped down next to his partner and hugged him. "I kinda miss her bopping up and down too." He laid his head against Justin's conspiratorially and whispered, "Don't tell anybody I said that though. Wouldn't want the other Female Fans to get jealous."

"Too late," Justin told him. "I think the others know she's your favorite."

Despite the sound of Christmas music piped in over the company's PA system and the cheer and bonhomie brought on by several cups of spiked Egg Nog, Brian felt vaguely uneasy all day and didn't know why. It was Christmas Eve and when he left this evening it'd be for a two-week vacation, sitting at home with Justin, maybe going out house hunting, playing with Gus. Plus, they were going to the inn to celebrate their anniversary. Ordinarily he'd be looking forward to it, would have been unable to keep from smiling all day, but not today. Worse, he was haunted by the feeling that he was forgetting something he should remember. But he couldn't figure out what it was. He'd distributed his gifts to the partners and Cynthia, he'd signed the Christmas bonuses for the people on his team; he and Justin had finished their shopping last week, and Mikey was bringing Justin's present over in the morning before they left home to go to Mel and Lindsay's. He'd carried his mom's gifts and stuff for Claire and her brood to Joanie's place yesterday. So what was he forgetting?

Cynthia saw him frowning to himself at his desk. "Something wrong?"

Shook his head. "Damn if I know."

"Maybe you're worried because everything is going perfectly," she suggested.

"Yeah," he replied distractedly.

"Well," she said, coming closer and leaning over him, "I'm going." She kissed him on the cheek and added, "Merry Christmas, Boss."

"See you next year."

"And Happy Anniversary."

"Thanks. Good trip." He watched her leave and hoped she'd like his gift. He'd splurged and bought her a silver bracelet set with lapis lazuli. Well, there was nothing left except to pack his briefcase and go home. Justin was meeting him there and they were going out to dinner. Unrolling his sleeve, he glanced at the sterling silver bracelet he'd gotten for Christmas last year. Or, rather, it had been a commitment gift from Justin to replace the cowry shell bracelet Cam had given him. They'd been starting out anew and putting—

He stopped and closed his eyes. Cam. Cam had died in a car accident on Christmas Eve last year. That's what he'd been trying to remember. "Oh, God," he whispered and covered his face. Unbidden, images of him and Cam assaulted him: He and Cam dancing together at the club, he and Cam walking down a street in Soho, he and Cam in bed exchanging cowry shell bracelets. Brian wrapped his arms around his middle, eyes on his desktop. As he watched, a tear fell onto the smooth surface. He wiped his face and sniffled. Unrolled his sleeves and buttoned his cuffs. Put on his jacket and packed his briefcase. Cam was dead. That was the sum of it. And he'd gone on, had put Cam and that part of his life behind him.

Only, in the elevator, his resolve weakened and he slumped against the wall, suddenly exhausted. Someone got on and he straightened up and turned to the side, avoiding their eyes. There was enough gossip floating around about him without crying in elevators in front of witnesses.

Justin was toweling off when he got home. "Hey," he said, drying his hair. "Where are we going?"

Shedding his shoes and suit, Brian pecked him on the lips. "Cynthia got reservations at The Cove."

"Sweet." The Cove was a well-kept secret among the foodies of Pittsburgh. Tucked away in an unassuming building along side rare bookshops and vintage clothing stores, it was a flight walk up to the small restaurant that only seated thirty people. Rarely was it full to capacity because it wasn't well-known among the populace, but rarely was it less than half full because its patrons were loyal.

Brian plodded to the bathroom satisfied that he'd passed the first test. He'd been able to keep any thoughts of Cam from showing on his face or coloring his demeanor. Justin would have picked up on any hint of trouble if his control had been less than perfect. But he'd clamped down on those feelings and he'd put them away until another time, until he had the leisure to dissect them. It was funny how most people had assumed that he'd behaved the way he had because he'd been thoughtless or unaffected by anything when, in reality, the reason he'd behaved so badly was because he'd thought too much, had felt too much, and hadn't been able to deal with things and so he'd put up barriers to protect himself. Justin and Gus had crashed those barriers and thrown the doors wide open, exposing him. And, at the same time, protecting him better than he ever could have guarded himself.

He sighed—No more Cam, not tonight—and stepped into the shower.

Returning home around ten, they made love and lay down to dream of Christmas morning but Brian woke up around two and couldn't get back to sleep.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

He left the bed and sat on the chaise lounge looking longingly at the space on the countertop where his liquor used to sit. When Justin had returned home, he'd asked Brian about the missing bottles and had gotten the entire story in detail. Justin had hugged him and told him how proud he was of him for turning away from booze as the answer to his problems. Of course, on nights like this, when he couldn’t sleep, he really wished he'd kept some of them. They'd bought a bottle of rum but he'd never been a huge rum drinker. He preferred his bourbon and had refused to buy any. So he'd do without.

There was a doobie in his wooden box where he kept his stash but Justin would smell that if he lit it up and they were both trying to cut back. So his choices were limited: sit up or go back to bed. If he went back to bed he'd only toss and turn but if he remained out here much longer there was the chance that Justin would wake, missing him, and then he'd have to explain why he was up. And he didn't want to get into it, not tonight. He supposed he could always pop a sleeping pill but he needed to be alert Christmas morning and the pills would definitely hinder his performance. So he was back to his two choices.

He heard Justin stir. Fuck. Quickly he tiptoed into the bathroom and flushed the toilet. Came back to the bedroom and got into bed. Justin mumbled something and reached for him. Began to snore softly.

Lying there awake, he replayed a scene in his mind: him in bed, a man's arm across his waist, a dark head on his shoulder. And through the doorway of the bedroom, a tree decked out in multi-colored lights and ornaments, their Rainbow Christmas tree to celebrate their first Christmas on their own in the world. They'd gone out together and gotten it, bought all the ornaments and hung them together, taking sips of Jim Beam to refresh themselves. By the time they'd finished, they'd been more than a little tipsy. A few presents lay beneath its branches, gifts to one another that they'd open when they managed to drag themselves from bed. Last night they'd gone to a Christmas party and danced way past midnight. Stumbled home and whispered Merry Christmas to one another as they'd fumbled with zippers and buttons. And he'd clenched Cam to him and confessed his love and fallen asleep in his arms.

A tear slid down his face and he wiped it away, careful not to stir too much, afraid of waking sleeping memories.

He was dancing in the parking garage the night of the prom. Not with Brian, but with Xavier. They kissed and he walked away from him, smiling, off to find Daphne and to see her home; and then he heard Xavier's voice calling to him. "Justin!" He turned and everything went black.

Justin opened his eyes and sat up in bed. Sweat beaded on his brow. He looked down at Brian, still sleeping. Checked the clock. A little after three. Lying back down, he stared at the ceiling. He could feel the warmth of Brian's body next to his. Could hear him breathing.

He had dreamt about the attack.

And Xavier.

Slipping from bed, he got the letter Chris Hobbs had sent him from prison.

Even though I know I'm the last person you'd ever want to see, I think we should talk.

About what? What could Chris Hobbs possibly say to him? I'm sorry I bashed you in the head? I'm sorry I tried to kill you? I'm sorry I didn't kill you?

He glanced into the bedroom to make sure Brian was still asleep. Didn't want him to wake and catch him reading the letter. The letter he hadn't told him about. Why? Why didn't you tell him about it? He knew the answer to that one. Because Brian would have hopped in the Jeep and driven to the prison and beaten the crap out of Hobbs.

So what are you going to do?

Putting the letter back into his backpack, he returned to bed. But not to sleep. It was harder to put Xavier aside.

He knew that Xavier still loved him, despite having Trey, despite everything that they'd been through. And he loved him. But the intensity had waned and as he looked back on their brief affair he realized that the love he'd felt for Xavier had always been something other than what he felt for Brian. Even in the midst of it, even when he'd been with Xavier, he'd known that it wouldn't last, that they were making a mistake. Now he knew that what he had felt for Xavier was the deep and abiding love of one friend for another. It was the sex that had screwed things up.

So why was he dreaming about him?

Blue eyes looked down into his hazel ones and he let a smile touch the corners of his mouth. "Morning."

"Merry Christmas," Justin corrected him with a kiss.

"Merry Christmas," he said when he could speak again.

Justin eased a leg across him and pressed against him, letting Brian feel his arousal.

"That my present?" asked Brian and Justin wrinkled his nose.

"No. It's at Mel and Lindsay's."

"Yours too. I didn't want you going under the tree and shaking it, trying to find out what it was." Justin ground his pelvis into Brian's hip. "So if this isn't my present, what is it?"

"Stocking stuffer."

Laughing wickedly, Brian was just about to suggest something else Justin could stuff with it when the phone rang.

"Shit," cursed the teen. "Let it ring."

"It's Lindsay." He picked it up. "Yeah?"

"Your son is asking for you and his other daddy."

"Daddy!" yelled Gus in the background.

"Okay," he groaned. "We'll be there in half an hour. Tell him to keep his trainers on." He hung up and kissed Justin. "We gotta go."

Justin rolled over onto his back and peeked at his hard-on. "What a waste."

Throwing back the covers, Brian gave his baby's cock a quick swipe of his tongue. "Save it for tonight."

Brian slipped on his sunglasses at the foot of the stairs and threw Justin the keys to the car. "You drive."

"I've got my keys."

"No, you don't."

"Yeah, I do," he argued.

Brian pushed through the door. "No, you don't."

Catching hold of the door, Justin said, "Yeah, I—" He stopped in his tracks. Looked at the keys in his hand. At the 2000 Jeep Cherokee parked by the entrance to the building. Dark blue with a grey interior. A huge red bow was draped over the steering wheel. He turned to Brian. "Is this…?"

"Merry Christmas. And Happy Anniversary."

Justin turned to look at the Jeep once more then leapt into Brian's arms. "Thank you. I can't believe it!"

Kissing him soundly, Brian pushed him away. "Go on, open it." Justin started for the passenger's side. "Other side. Kids."

Grinning like an idiot, Justin skipped around to the driver's side, pausing to look at the license plate. JSTNTME. "Just in time," he said. His email handle. He laughed and opened the driver's door. Got inside and placed his hands on the steering wheel for the first time. This was his car. His. He checked out the stereo. CD player and an AM/FM radio. Sweet. There was a tap on the window of the passenger's side.

"Hello? It's cold out here."

Justin unlocked the door for Brian. "Sorry."

"How about some heat?"

The teen removed the bow and tossed it in the back. Started the car. The engine purred to life. Smiling, he switched on the heat. "It's perfect. Thank you," he said again and Brian kissed him once more.

"You're welcome."

"Wait until I tell Daphne. Wait until Xavier and Rennie see it."

"So, listen," Brian told him, "you're responsible for gas and paying the insurance on this behemoth. Deal?"

"Deal." He beamed and bounced in his seat. "Wait until my mom sees it. And Deb and the guys."

"The guys have already seen it. Mikey and them brought it over this morning."

"Oh." He leaned back in the seat and imagined tooling around town in the Jeep.

"Happy?" Brian asked unnecessarily.

Justin nodded, too full to speak.

"Then let's get this show on the road. I've got a present waiting for me, not to mention I'm hungry as shit and could really use a cup of coffee." They were having breakfast with the Munchers and they'd spend the afternoon at Deb's.

As he pulled away from the curb, Justin worried that his gift wouldn't be enough. How could you compete with a car? Brian had bought him a fucking car! I should have saved my money and gotten him something really special, he told himself. Unconsciously, he frowned.

"What?" Brian asked, seeing the expression on his face.

"Nothing." He smiled. "I love it. And I love you."

Brian smirked. "You better."

Mel was standing in the doorway with Gus, waiting for Brian and Justin, when they drove up. "Well, fuck me."

"What?" asked Lindsay, coming over, not bothering to remind Melanie about her language in front of Gus.

"Look at that."

Lindsay gasped. "Oh fuck. Brian bought Justin a car?"

"Jeep Cherokee. Son of a bitch. I better have a damn good present under that tree."

The two men got out of the car, Justin's smile bright enough to melt snow.

Pushing open the door, Mel said, "Look at you."

"Isn't it beautiful?" Justin asked. He bent and picked up Gus. "Hey."

"Hey, Daddy." He kissed Justin then patted his shoulder to get Justin to give him to Brian. The transfer made, he kissed Brian too. "Hey, Daddy."

"Hey, Sonny Boy."

"Where Jeep?"

"At home. See Justin's car?"

"Daddy car?"

"Yeah. Daddy's car is a Jeep too."

"No," said Gus. It was different.

Brian didn't argue with him. There was no point in trying to explain. He'd understand when he was older.

"All right," said Lindsay, rubbing her hands together. "Let's open some presents."

Following them into the livingroom, Brian smelled coffee. He put Gus down and disappeared into the kitchen. Returned a moment later with a steaming cup and sighed as he took his first sip. "Oh, yeah. Now we can open presents."

As usual Gus' haul was pretty impressive. He got books, clothes, games, a new ride-on toy, some bath-time stuff for the tub, and a xylophone which he played happily for a few minutes before heading back beneath the tree. There were stuffed animals and the vintage teddy bear Brian and Justin had gotten him in London and, finally, a present with a tag that said it was from Santa Claus.

"Let's see what Santa Claus brought you," Lindsay told him and he opened the present to find a shiny new red truck inside.

His eyes and mouth opened wide and for a moment he could only stare at it. Then he shouted, "Truck!" and showed it to Brian.

"I see. Santa got you a red truck."

Gus rolled the truck on the floor, his other toys forgotten for the moment, while the adults began to clear away some of the paper and mess. Mel examined again the beautiful purple glass stemware Brian and Justin had gotten her and Lindsay in Venice and said for the second time, "These are exquisite. Thanks, guys."

"Hey!" exclaimed Lindsay. "There's one more present back there. For Brian." She got it from where it leaned against the wall. "I think it's from Justin." Brian took it and held it. "Well? Open it."

He tore off the plain brown wrapping to find deep burnt orange paper beneath, tied with a magenta ribbon. Justin had learned about presentation. Smiling, Brian removed that paper as well.

Mel gasped. "Wow…"

It was the sketch of Brian and Gus sleeping, behind glass and framed. Justin had finished it and shaded it with colored pencils, putting roses in their cheeks and auburn highlights in their chestnut hair.

"It's amazing," said Lindsay. "I think this is your best work yet."

Justin waited for Brian to speak and when he didn't, asked timidly, "Do you like it?"

Catching Justin's eyes, Brian answered softly, "I love it, Baby. You did this?" Justin nodded, bashful now that everyone's attention was focused on him and his work. "Baby, this is the best."

"It's not a car but…"

"The car only cost money. But this… you did this. You made it. There's a thousand Jeeps like that one but there's only one of these." He kissed the teen tenderly. "Thank you."

"Merry Christmas."

Gus came and looked at it. "Dat you, Daddy," he said, pointing to Brian in the picture. "Dat me."

"That is you."


"So where are you going to hang it?" asked Mel.

"In my office," he said, envisioning the spot, so that everyone would see how talented his partner was. "It's perfect."

It was noon before they left the Munchers and drove over to Deb's house. Ted's car and Jeff's car were in the driveway. Justin parked the Cherokee on the street and they rushed down the sidewalk.

Vic met them at the door and hugged them both. "I heard someone got a new car."

"Isn't it sweet?" Justin asked.

"It's a beauty."

Brian peeped in the house and said, "Come see what Justin gave me for Christmas." The guys and Deb stood shivering around the car while Brian got out the picture.

"Oh, Sunshine," exclaimed Deb. "It's beautiful."

Jeff clapped Brian on the shoulder. "That's going to be worth a lot someday."

"It already is," he said and Justin breathed easier. Brian really liked it. He'd done well.

"Way to go, Baby," said Emmett and Ted beamed.

"Ah… taxable assets. I love it."

Mikey hung back and walked with Brian to the house. "That really is something else."

"I'm really lucky, you know?" Brian said. "When I think about how my life used to be, how it might have been… It scares me, Mikey."

"You deserve to be happy." He and Brian kissed. "Come on. Uncle Vic decanted that bottle of red wine you bought him in Italy. Smells great."

"Taste even better."

Jeff paused in the middle of his story and chuckled. The others were waiting to hear the rest. It was obvious why he'd become a reporter. He had a gift for words and storytelling. "So I get there, and this guy comes down the stairs like Norma Desmond and he says, 'I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.' " They laughed. "And he's bare-assed to the world. Nutty as a fruitcake. The station manager wouldn't even let me air the footage we shot. Too afraid of getting sued by the family."

"You did the interview?" asked Michael.

"Hell, yeah. No way was I gonna pass up that opportunity. They're one of the most prominent families in Pittsburgh, old old moldy money, and a looney toons was heading their corporation. Besides, he was hung like a fuckin' stallion."

"You know," said Emmett, with his eyes wide open a la Norma, "I love Glenn Close and I worship Patti LaPone but no one does Norma Desmond like Gloria Swanson."

"Remember in Soapdish when they put Sally Field in a turban and she said, 'what I feel like is Gloria fucking Swanson?' " asked Ted. "And then they put Elizabeth Shue in a yellow one and she said, 'I look like goddamn Tweety Bird!' "

They all laughed except Justin who nudged Brian and asked, "Who's Norma Desmond?"

Vic pointed to the door. "Get out. Turn in your fag card and get out of our house," he deadpanned.

Justin looked confused, then blushed as he realized Vic was kidding. The guys teased him all throughout dinner.

"Brian, obviously you've been neglecting his queer education," declared Emmett.

"Well, I'll just have to send him around to you for Gay 101."

"I consider it an obligation." He leaned over and said to Justin, "Please tell me you know who Ann Miller is."

Justin raised an eyebrow and grimaced. "Sorry."

"Judy Garland?" asked Michael.

"I've seen The Wizard of Oz sixteen times," Justin informed him, slightly annoyed.

"Jayne Mansfield," suggested Vic.


"Maria Callas," said Ted.

He shook his head.

Deb added, "Dorothy Lamour."

Justin just looked at her blankly. "I know who Madonna is and Brittany Spears. And Cher," he said, hopeful that would be enough. She was old.

Em almost swooned. "There's no time to lose. Quick, someone put in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and we'll start from there."

"Ah, youth," sighed Brian but he kissed Justin and smiled. The teen knew more than enough about how to keep him happy and that was plenty.

With the keys to the Cherokee on the bedside table and the portrait of Brian and Gus safely propped against the wall by the chaise lounge, the two lovers struggled on the bed. Justin lay on his back with Brian impaled above him, his knees spread on either side of Justin's hips, supporting himself on his hands, leaning back over Justin's shins, raising and lowering his ass onto the teen's cock. Head thrown back, he moaned and grunted as he fucked himself on the turgid shaft. His own cock bounced before him, precum flung across his thigh and Justin's belly. Sitting upright, he rose and fell, rose and fell… Justin's dick felt like a derrick, drilling for oil inside his hole. He sank down and encircled his cock with his hand. Stroked himself until his cock hole opened and cum surged forth to drop from the head.

"Ahh…" he gasped and squeezed just at the base. Another stream of cum flowed from the tip to splatter Justin's abdomen. He released his cock and leaned forward, driving his hips backwards, sliding up and down Justin's erection. "Oh! Oh. Oh…" He tightened his hole and wiggled his hips, lights going off behind his eyelids.

"Brian!" shouted Justin and he grabbed hold of Brian's hipbones and held him still, stabbing upwards. His cock head caught on the lip of Brian's hole and he cried out.

Brian reached back and took hold of his shaft and held him in place as he eased back onto Justin's dick. "Ah…" His hole clenched Justin. He sat upright again and lowered himself all the way down, savoring the fullness in his ass. He ran his hands across his chest, down his abdomen. He tugged on his cock again and groaned. Released his meat and rose up off of Justin. He lay on his belly and spread his thighs. Justin crawled between them and mounted him, his slick cock sliding into place. "Yes!" hissed Brian and he raised his hips. "Fuck me. Fuck my ass."

Justin rocked above him, plowing him open. "I'm gonna fuck you…" he promised.


" 'til you scream."

Brian clenched his teeth and Justin jabbed his ass.


He buried his face in the pillow and moaned around a mouthful of cotton.

Justin pounded him, barely sliding out before ramming his cock home again. "Do it. You know you want to. Scream my name."

"Uhn!" grunted Brian and he thrashed below the teen.

"Say it." He thrust hard into Brian and began pumping him furiously. "Say it!"






"That's it. That's it," he grunted as he fucked Brian. His cock swelled again and he sighed, coming inside his lover. Pulling out almost to the tip, he continued to spurt. He sank his dick back inside Brian all the way and lay full length upon him. He held the man and whispered, "I love you."

Brian's asshole throbbed. Justin had fucked him like he'd never done before. Even though he had come earlier, Brian's cock was hard again. He uttered a cry as Justin withdrew. Not sure what the teen would do next to him, he waited. Felt Justin shift on the bed. Felt fingers slide down between his cheeks, brush over his hole. He hissed and jerked as the pad of Justin's finger pressed against the swollen edges. And then he felt the warmth of Justin's breath on his skin. The tip of Justin's tongue touched him and he moaned. It played around the perimeter and then slipped inside his hole.

Justin lapped cum from Brian's ass and chewed on the stretched out ring of muscle while his lover's body twitched with pleasure. He raised up and turned Brian over and began to blow him, sucking his erection, tightening his lips around the engorged head, trailing his tongue along the shaft. Lapping at his hairless balls. Justin played in the slit of his cock, flicking his tongue over the tip, probing his piss hole. "Oh! No! No, I— I!" Justin sucked hard, his lips forming a seal around Brian's hard-on, his fingers jacking him firmly, sliding up and down the length of him, stroking him until the man cried out and shuddered. His head lolled on the pillow and his entire body stiffened.

Cum flooded Justin's mouth. He continued to suck until the flow stopped and then he lapped Brian's cock clean of spunk. "So good," he purred, kissing the cum-streaked head. "Tastes so good…"

By the time he dragged himself from bed, Justin had already showered, dressed, and fixed breakfast. Brian did a perfunctory wash-up and brushed his teeth and sat down to eat with him. "You're up early."

"Places to go."

"Give a man a set of wheels and you'll never see him again."

Justin laughed and buttered his toast. "You'll see me again. I just have to run a few errands."

"Hitting the sales?"

"No. Just errands."

Throwing up his hands, Brian surrendered. "Fine. I plan on lazing around all day. Surf the porn sites, maybe watch a little TV…"

"Expand your horizons…" teased Justin.

"I think I got my horizons expanded plenty last night," replied Brian and Justin blushed all the way to the tips of his ears.

"It's a good thing the super's gone away for the holidays or there would have been another note in the newspaper."

"Count on it."

When Justin was ready to go, Brian asked him again, "Still won't tell me what you're up to?"

"Nothing." Justin kissed him on the forehead and grabbed his keys. "Honestly."

"Okay. Later."


With Justin gone, Brian finished off the pot of coffee and read the paper from front to back in peace and quiet. Usually he had to trade parts with Justin and negotiate for the sections they both liked to read. After he finished the paper, he cleared away the breakfast stuff and took a long, hot shower. Went through his skin treatment and deep conditioned his hair. Gave himself a pedicure and trimmed and buffed his fingernails. Pulled out a few things that needed to be dry cleaned from the closet.

Deciding to skip shaving for the day, he dressed in a comfortable pair of old jeans and a plain white tee-shirt that he knocked around in whenever he had nothing to do and nowhere to go.

He checked his email and goofed off online for a half hour before shutting the computer down and plopping on the couch to listen to some music. The Crystal Method came on and he closed his eyes. Maybe he'd take a little nap…

The sound of the door sliding close woke him. He sat up just as Justin came towards him carrying a bouquet of flowers. "Who are those for?"

Justin hesitated, then answered, "They're for Cam."

So Justin had remembered too. "Why?"

"I thought maybe you'd want to go visit him."

Brian rubbed his eyes and waited for Justin to join him on the sofa. "How? How can you be so generous?"

"Because I have you." He touched Brian's face, seeing the pain in his eyes. "It's okay to love him. I understand. I know that he'll always be special to you."

"The way Xavier is to you?" asked Brian, afraid of what Justin might say.

"No." No matter how many dreams he had, he knew the truth. "Xavier and I… we never should have been anything but friends. That's what we started out being and it's what we were meant to be. And we're still friends. I haven't lost him. But you and Cam, you were meant to be lovers. Maybe not forever, but it was meant to be. I don’t begrudge you that. And I know that it hurts that he's gone."

Brian half-turned away. "Justin…"

The teen made Brian look at him. He held his trembling lover and kissed him softly. "It'll be good for you. Instead of brooding about it, go talk to him."

Brian looked at the flowers Justin had bought. Pale yellow roses nestled in baby's breath.

He knelt and placed the flowers on Cam's grave. Remained squatted for a moment, his hand on the tombstone. He hadn't been here since he'd come to cry after finding out that Justin had slept with Xavier. Even when he and Justin had made their offerings to the past, they'd done it at his dad's grave, not Cam's because he hadn't felt that he'd have the strength to face him. Even dead Cam still exerted a hold on him. Was it just that Cam had been his first love? Was that all that it was? He didn't believe that it was but he didn't know why either, why Cam continued to affect him so.

He stood and jammed his hands down into his coat pockets. "It's still hard to believe you're gone," he said, squinting against the sun. He'd forgotten his sunglasses. "It's so strange, not being able to see you. Even when we were apart, even though it'd been years, I never stopped thinking that maybe someday you'd show up and we'd talk, that maybe some day we'd be able to laugh about the past. We had some good times." He looked around at the monuments around him.

"I destroyed the video of our trip to New York. It hurt too much to watch it. Besides… I remembered everything." He sniffled. "Justin says that we were meant to be lovers, you and me. Maybe he's right. Maybe no matter what we had done, we would have ended up together. But we weren't ready for love, for a commitment. You were right about that. But I think that if I hadn't been with you, I would never have been able to love Justin and I do belong with him. I feel it in my bones, Cam. I would do anything for him, I would give my life for him, in an instant, because a world without him… there'd be nothing left. No beauty, no joy, no nothing. I think you made that possible. I think loving you helped me to be ready to love him." He blinked and tears rolled down his face. "I know it doesn't make any sense but I just feel it. I wish we could have been friends. I wish we could have gotten together on our twentieth college reunion and laughed about all the times Frank tried to score with Kirsten." He paused. "I miss you." He chuckled and scuffed the snow with the toe of his boot. "I hope there are plenty of hot guys where you are." He laughed. "I don't mean hot like in hell… I mean… You know what I mean." Softly he said, "I love you. Later."

Justin saw him trudging back to the car and could have jumped for joy. Brian was smiling and the shadows were gone from his eyes. They embraced and Brian kissed him. "Thank you."

Stealing another kiss, Justin said, "I gotta take care of my Pookie, don't I?"

And Brian kissed him a third time. "You do. You take real good care of him."

Justin followed Joanie and carried the box of supplies from the party store out to his car.

"Thanks for helping me," she told him as they buckled up.

"No problem. Gives me a chance to show off the Jeep."

She smiled; he really loved his new car. "It's quite nice."

He backed up and pulled out of the parking lot. "Actually, maybe you can help me."


"I don’t know what to get Brian for our anniversary."

"Oh. Well…" she paused. "Brian does have a lot of nice things."

"Exactly. He has everything. I thought maybe there was something that he'd always wanted, maybe when he was a kid."

Joanie's expression changed and a pained look came on her face. "I think, more than anything, he wanted his father's love. And mine," she admitted.

"I didn't…"

"It's not your fault. It was ours." She glanced out of the window, then back down at her hands where were knotted in the handles of her purse.

"Things are different now. You're closer. He knows that you love him," Justin told her.

Joanie's face brightened a little. "I’m glad," she said. "Because I do."

"So," he was telling Daphne, "I have to find Brian something really special for our anniversary." They were in the Cherokee headed for the mall.

"What'd he get you?"

"Daph?" Justin indicated the Jeep. "This. Remember?"

"Oh, yeah. Well, what does he like?"

"Lots of stuff." He sighed. "But he has everything. If he wants something, he just goes out and gets it."

"There must be something he wants that he doesn’t have. Think."

Justin thought and thought and thought. He frowned and scratched his ear. "I can't think of anything."

"Ask Michael and the guys."

"I did. They couldn't think of anything either. And I asked his mom. Zippo." He groaned. "Daph, I gotta find him something and our anniversary is four days away."

"You're going to the inn for a few days, maybe that's enough. Look, Brian loves you, not some stupid present. I bet he doesn’t even expect anything. And you gave him that great drawing for Christmas. Maybe that's enough."

But Justin didn't feel that it was. Only he didn't know what would be enough for Brian.

By Monday he was in a panic. They were driving up to the inn tomorrow and he still hadn't found anything to give to Brian for their anniversary. If he didn't find something today he'd have to give up. He was rapidly running out of time.

Throwing down their bags, Brian called Lindsay to let her know they'd arrived safely and for her to set the phone tree in motion. She'd call Joanie and Joanie would call Jenn and Jenn would call Deb and so on and so on and so on. Brian cut the ringer off both the cabin's phone and his cell phone. Justin had left his at home. For the next three nights they wanted no interruptions.

They dressed for dinner in their tuxes and waited for one of the inn's staff to bring their meals. Soft music played on the CD player. Justin had brought the CD, a compilation that he'd made himself of some of his favorite music.

"Nothing so bright, nothing so smooth,/ nothing so pure/ As my baby…" crooned Rufus Wainwright and Brian had to agree. Seated across from him, Justin looked beautiful, his blond hair bright as gold, blue eyes like the sky.

All of my life days into night, all I did dream/ Was my baby…"

Justin smiled beneath Brian's scrutiny and reached for his hand.

"Your heart's racing," said Brian, with his finger on Justin's pulse. "Nervous?" Justin shook his head but he didn't speak, didn't want Brian to hear the quiver in his voice. "Wanna dance?"

They moved around the floor while Rufus sang of his baby and as the music died down they found themselves lost in a kiss so deep that the world seemed dim and far away. Brian grabbed the ice bucket with the champagne chilling in it and set it upon the bedside table. Held out his hand and Justin came to him. "I love you."

Justin trembled as Brian undressed him. It was as if they were about to make love for the first time. Burying his face in Brian's shirt, he took a deep breath and inhaled the man's scent and was dizzy. He embraced Brian and felt his partner's arms close around him, hold him tenderly, desire forgotten, only concerned for his baby.

"You okay?"

"Yeah," he murmured, his voice muffled by silk.

Brian cupped his face and lifted it for a kiss. "Look at you," he whispered. "You're so beautiful."

Justin kissed the hands that held his face and closed his eyes. Heard Brian say again, "I love you." Felt him slide his shirt from his shoulders and felt his lips touch his skin, kissing his throat, his breastbone. His fingers brushed through locks of Brian's hair. Brian unbuttoned his trousers and unzipped them, eased them over his hips, slipped his hands down inside his briefs and palmed his buttocks. Justin moved against him and sighed. "Tell me," Brian said and Justin replied, "Love me."

Brian knelt and removed the last of his clothes, held onto his thigh as he stepped out of his pants and briefs. Looking up at him, Brian smiled. Stood and took him into his arms once more. "Mmm… you feel so good."

As did he. Justin could feel Brian's muscles flex even through the clothes he wore as the man ran his hands over the youth's ripe buttocks, his rounded shoulders. He felt indecent, naked against Brian's fully clothed body; nude except for his commitment band, his nipple ring, and his waist chain, the tiny sun charm glinting among his pubes. Parting his lips slightly, he was kissed again and tasted Brian's tongue. Pulling away, he lay down upon the bed and waited for Brian to join him.

First removing his shoes and socks, his jacket, Brian did so, stretching against him and nuzzling his neck as Justin unbuttoned his shirt and tweaked a nipple. He licked Justin's throat and kissed him beneath his jaw. Justin slipped his shirt from his shoulders and he parted from the teen long enough to remove his arms from the sleeves. Over the edge of the bed went the silk shirt. Justin's fingers trailed over his muscles, tracing veins in his forearms, and he drew the young man to him and felt Justin's nipples brush over his pecs. It was at times like this that he realized how much smaller Justin was than him. So fine, so perfect in every detail. So fragile-looking yet so strong. He moved slowly against the youth and sighed as Justin cupped him through his trousers. Felt Justin's cock press against him.

Justin moaned as he rubbed against the slick material of Brian's pants. He rotated his hips and was rewarded with a deep throb that traveled the length of his dick. More, said the pulse in his neck, in his wrist, in his groin. More. He fumbled at Brian's zipper and released his cock from the confines of his briefs. Stroked the head with his thumb. Brian lay on his back, pants and underwear pushed down around his hips, allowing Justin find his pleasure as he would. The teen let go of him and removed his pants and briefs, kissing the insides of his thighs, his knees, his calves, his toes. He reclined next to Brian and ran his hand over his flank. "I love you."

"Say it again."

"I love you." He moved closer and enclosed Brian in his arms and legs. Rolled him onto his back and lay upon him, kissing him until their lips began to swell and they were both aroused. Justin knelt over Brian, with his knees on either side of his chest. His cock rose proudly towards his stomach. A bead of precum decorated the tip. Brian reached around his back and removed the golden chain from about his waist, wrapped it around his shaft, the two ends hanging down over his balls. Gently, Brian tugged on the ends and Justin groaned. His cock dipped then rose again as Brian reduced the force with which he pulled. Again he tugged on the chain and again Justin's cock responded. This time by dripping precum. It hung, suspended in midair above Brian's face, then stretched impossibly thin and landed on his lips. Coaxing more from the swaying cock, Brian continued to tug on the chain until his face was splattered with sticky sweet juice.

Justin removed the chain and rubbed his dick over Brian's face, the end sliding between his lips. "Suck me," he panted and Brian sucked him, tongue swirling over the bulbous head until Justin thought he would pass out from the sensation. He felt a hand slide up over his right breast and waited for the fingers to take hold of the ring and pull. "Uh!" he moaned, feeling the tug in his cock. Who would have ever known that his nipples and his cock were connected that tightly? Each time Brian yanked on the nipple ring, his dick jumped inside his lover's mouth. Sliding his shaft free, he fed Brian his balls, dipping them down into his warm maw, tongue encircling the plump sac. He held onto his cock and jacked it, forcing his balls into and out of Brian's mouth, finally settling down to let the man eat as he would. When Brian eventually let go, Justin's nuts felt like they were about to burst.

But he had no time to feel any relief as Brian immediately turned to his asshole. Justin's thighs spread open even wider and he whimpered as Brian's tongue washed over the knotted bud of flesh. He was so hot, so hot and so hard, so tight, and he wanted Brian to open him up. He felt the tip move among the folds of his asshole and he willed his sphincter to open. Brian gripped his thighs and pulled him down tight so that his face was buried between Justin's buttocks and he increased his efforts tenfold. Justin jerked above him as Brian tongued him and nibbled on the edges of his hole. Finally, he opened up and the thick tongue entered him. He shivered, groaning as he was penetrated repeatedly. Precum trickled down his cock and his buttocks tightened.

Giving Justin's hole one last kiss, Brian motioned for him to move. Jerkily, the teen did, his muscles trembling. "Turn on your side," he said, and Justin complied. He raised his lover's leg to open him up and pushed inside. Justin gasped, mouth wide open, and shuddered. Brian's cock filled him and he lay there, helpless. Holding Justin's leg up, Brian began to fuck him. Slowly, patiently, building their level of arousal thrust by easy thrust. In this position they could fuck for much longer than they normally would as he could only take shallow plunges, only the head and a few inches sliding inside to pleasure the teen. But pleasured he was. Uttering tiny cries as Brian continued to work him. His cock lay against his thigh, having lost some of its rigidity but still a rosy color, still twitching occasionally, still oozing precum.

Even when his leg started to cramp from the position it was held in, Justin didn’t complain because the sensation of Brian thrusting in him outweighed the discomfort and he didn't want it to stop. They'd been fucking for so long that he lost all awareness of time. It seemed to him as if they'd always been joined like this, moving slowly against one another, as if they were underwater, their movements thick and lazy.

Then Brian released his leg and eased him onto his belly, still inside him. His cock slid in deeper and Justin took it all. He could feel Brian's balls tight against his ass, the heavy sac slapping his buttocks each time Brian pumped him. He raised his hips, meeting Brian's thrusts, holding him in place as his hole spasmed around his cock.

Brian withdrew and rolled him over, he wanted to see his lover as they fucked. He raised Justin's legs to his shoulders and pressed his fingers on either side of his hole, opening him up. He entered him, then held onto his legs as he rocked against him.

"Oh…" sighed Justin and he took hold of his cock and pressed the head to Brian's belly, then let go. A strand of precum joined them. Brian reached down and gripped his cock, stroked it hard as he fucked him. Justin grabbed the sheets in his fists and arched his back. It was too much, he couldn't hold out, couldn’t keep from coming, couldn't—

Brian's chest pressed against his and they kissed, gasping for air. A cry rose from his belly and raced through his throat to vanish inside Brian's mouth. Cum erupted between them and smeared their skin; filled him and dripped between his cheeks. The smell of it wafted through the air and tickled their noses.

They had managed to stay awake after making love and cut on the TV just as the ball dropped in Times Square and everyone began to sing.

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot, / And never brought to mind?/ Should auld acquaintance be forgot,/ And days o' auld lang syne."

"Happy Anniversary."

"Happy Anniversary."

Justin lounged in Brian's arms for a while, then reached for the remote; the noise of the crowds immediately ceased. He got up and rummaged in his bag, brought out a folded piece of cardstock which he handed to Brian after climbing back into bed.

"What's this?"

"I didn't know what to get you for our anniversary…"

Brian opened the card. Inside was an ink drawing of a heart.

"It's all I have."

Enfolding Justin in an embrace, Brian said, "It's all I want, Baby. All I need."

Having built a fire, they curled on the fake (they hoped) bear rug by the hearth and talked and sipped champagne.

"I wonder how Joanie did."

"I bet she did great. I can't wait until we get our house and she can help decorate it."

"I have visions of mega credit card bills dancing in my head."

"You're a partner in a prestigious and very profitable public relations firm. You need an impressive house to entertain important clients."

"So says Justin, the hostess with the mostest."

"Shut up."

"So this house," Brian said. "We should probably figure out what kind we want. We need to tell your mom something if she's helping us look."

"I guess."


"Well what?"

Brian nudged him with his foot. "What kind of house do you want?"

"I don't know. Something…" he ventured, "something traditional maybe." Shrugged. "What about you?"

Smiling, Brian replied, "Something modern. Sleek lines. Not too fussy."

Justin laughed. "We're never going to find a place to suit the both of us."

"Well, we have to unless we plan on living in separate houses."

The teen snuggled up to him. "Uh-uh."

"Oh well, I guess we'll know it when we see it."

"That's some plan," snorted Justin.

"Got a better one?"

He had to admit that he didn't. "As long as it has a studio for me, I'm happy."

"No bedroom? No kitchen?" teased Brian.

"Nope. Just a studio."

"Then how about I get whatever kind of house I want and I build you a studio out back?" said Brian, calling him on his bluff.

"I'll just sit on the steps and howl all night until you let me in." Justin howled, "Oww…oww…" Brian opened his arms and Justin crawled into the hollow of his body. "I don't care where we live," Justin said after a while, "just as long as I'm with you."

And even though Brian said nothing, Justin knew that he felt the same way. They were complete in and of themselves. Everything else was just extra.

For decency's sake, they vacated the room so that the cleaning people could change the sheets and clear away the dishes from dinner the night before and breakfast this morning. They could only imagine what the two middle-aged women thought as they removed the cum sticky and stiffened linens from the bed. Maybe they were reminded of their own erotic adventures.

Brian was all for hanging around, not too keen on going out into the nippy morning air but Justin had already begun to feel embarrassed just by the way the women looked at them as they came in, embarrassed by the lingering scent of sex in the room. He turned pink and tugged on Brian's arm as the ladies cleared the table. "Let's go for a walk," he suggested and Brian acquiesced, not fooled for a moment.

Now, as they traipsed through the woods, he wished he'd put up more of a resistance to the idea. It was fucking cold. The tip of his nose felt like it was submerged in ice water. The only positive side to the situation was that Justin rarely moved more than a few inches away from him, gleaning all the heat he could from close contact. They walked, arms about one another, and counted the minutes until the cleaning crew would be done and they could return from their voluntary exile and pile under the covers once more.

Having seen the two women exit the cabin from a vantage point nearby, the two lovers raced back to the warmth of their fireplace. Stripping off all their clothes, they huddled inside a wigwam of cotton-covered down before the hearth and entwined arms and legs about one another.

When they had warmed up, they returned to the bed and snuggled, having no intention of leaving it again for hours to come. At least not until lunch arrived. Or maybe they'd have lunch in bed. To hell with decency, have the waiter place the trays on the nightstands and pretend not to notice that they were naked beneath the sheets.

As he lay on Brian's chest, Justin began to think about the letter he carried in his bag. He'd brought it with him, unable to leave it at home, yet not imagining that he'd find time to look at it again on their trip. Not that he needed to. He remembered every word. Did he dare trust them? And even if Hobbs' intent was truthfully expressed in the letter, what did that mean? Should he go? Why would he? What would he gain from meeting with his attacker? He had faced Hobbs in court, had seen justice done, had even pleaded on his behalf. What more could Chris realistically expect from him?

He wished that he'd talked to someone about it, preferably Keisha. More than once he'd thought about calling her at her office and hadn't. Even when Brian had made arrangements to have her present delivered, Justin hadn't said a word, hadn't volunteered to take it. They hadn't seen her since the previous year but had spoken several times by phone and remained friendly enough that they had remembered to buy her something in Europe as well. Both she and Drew. Brian had gotten him a very expensive, authentic Venetian carnival mask. Not the junk sold to tourists but a mask that had been worn by a very minor Venetian nobleman a hundred years earlier. He'd felt that Drew would understand, having helped him remove the mask he'd worn for so long to reveal the person hidden beneath. Keisha they'd gotten a wig worn by barristers in England. Brian had laughed thinking of her braids dangling from beneath the proper powdered wig.

I should have called her, Justin told himself. She would have been practical, matter-of-fact about her advice. But he hadn't called her and he felt uneasy keeping things from Brian, especially something as important as this.

He kept his worries to himself for a while longer until after the waiter had come and gone, leaving lunch. They ate it in bed, then forced themselves to rise and set the dirty dishes on the dining table. Just as they were about to return to bed, Justin opened his bag and got out the letter. Handed it to Brian.

"What is it?" he asked, sliding beneath the covers.

"A letter." He paused. "From Chris Hobbs."

Brian held it as if it had transformed into an asp. "Is this a joke?"

"Read it." Justin found his briefs and slipped them on. He had a feeling they wouldn't be making love any time soon.

When Brian finished reading the letter, he returned it to the envelope and tossed it on the bed. "So?"

"So what should I do?"

Brian's expression hardened. "You aren't seriously considering going to meet that psychopath?"

"He sounded sincere."

"Fuck that! And fuck him!"

"Brian—" The man had gotten up and was putting on his trousers. "Brian, listen to me."

"No. You listen to me. I don’t want you going anywhere near him. I mean it."

"What are you saying?"

"I’m saying you're not going."

Sometimes it made him so angry, that Brian felt that he could tell him what to do just because he was older by a dozen years. He was an adult, he could make his own decisions. He didn't need or want anyone telling him what to do. "You don’t have any right!"

"I have every right!"

"I’m not a child!"

"Then stop acting like one!" He strode away from the bed, turned swiftly. "What the fuck? What is it? Do you think everyone in the world is a good person? That all they need is to be shown the way? That all you have to do is to come bopping along and give them a helping hand?"

"No, but—"

"Wake up. He's scum. He tried to fucking kill you. I was there!"

"I was there too!"

"Then what the hell are you talking about? Why are you carrying that letter around? Throw it away and forget you ever saw it."

"I can't."

Brian turned from Justin because at that moment, he wanted to shake him, shake some sense into him.

Justin moved to the foot of the bed. "It's just a visit," he said, trying to explain.

He faced him angrily. "You don't owe him a goddamn thing!"

"I know that."

"But you do owe me something."

"I know that you saved me—" Everyone had said it, said it until he was almost sick of hearing it.

Brian snatched the card with the heart drawn on it from the nightstand. "You owe me this! This is what you promised me." He waved his ring hand in the air. "This ring says you promised to put me first, before anyone else. That's what you promised."

"And I meant it. You can't believe—"

"Then throw it away. Throw it in the goddamn fire and forget it. Forget him. If you love me, you'll do it."

Justin half-rose. "Why can't you understand?" Brian picked up the letter and held it out to Justin. The teen studied Brian's face. There was no compromise possible, no further negotiations. He took the letter and crossed to the fireplace. Held it for a long moment, then tossed it into the flames. Watched as the edges turned black and curled up. Hobbs' words consumed and unmade. Still, he stood looking at the ashes.

Softly, Brian said to his back, "When I saw you fall, I thought you were dead. And I died too. I didn't think that you'd be alive because nothing in the world had ever given me any hope. That's what the world had taught me. That good things didn't happen to me. So I went after him. To stop him. Because he had hurt me. And then I went back to you because I didn't know what else to do. But I didn't have any hope, Justin. None. And when I picked you up and I realized that you were alive… I started to hope. You gave me hope." Justin turned. "For the first time in my life. I don't know what I'd do if I lost you. You're the most precious thing in the world to me. So I don’t have any pride, any scruples, any morals when it comes to keeping you safe. The whole fucking world could go up in flames and I wouldn't care. Not as long as I had you." Justin rushed to him and fell into his arms. "I know it isn't fair," he said, "putting all of this on you. But I don't have any choice… because I love you."

Justin kissed his face, kissed the tears that had run down his cheeks. "I know. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." He held him and his heart pounded in his chest, and with each beat of his heart, love sped through his veins until there was no place in his body that was not fed by it.

They left early Friday morning, anxious to return home. Not that the cabin hadn't been nice but they missed Gus, missed their friends, missed sleeping in their own bed. Although the trip wasn't very long, Justin had begun to doze a little. When the car stopped, he woke up thinking they were home. They weren't.

They were in front of SCI Pittsburgh.

Justin looked over at his lover who was staring straight ahead and gripping the steering wheel of the Jeep. "Brian?"

"I was wrong. I don't have any right to tell you what to do. You're my partner, not my child. You're a grown man, and you can make your own decisions. Besides that, I don't want to change you. I love you. That means all of you. The good, the bad, the aggravating, the annoying…"


"And I trust you. With my life. So if you say you have to do this, then you do it. And I'll be waiting for you when you're done."

Cupping Brian's face in his hand, Justin kissed him gently. "I won't be long."

The minutes passed slowly while Justin was gone, giving him more than enough time to retrace the steps of their relationship from its rocky beginnings to their most recent flare-up; and through it all, what he admired most about the teen was his tenacity, his determination, his loyalty, and his honesty. He imagined them, years from now, still fighting, still disagreeing, and still in love. Imagined Justin, older, but just as bright, just as open as he was now. He didn't believe that anything could quench his spirit. He had a strength that came from within, that came from his sense of self. It’s what drew him to the teen in the beginning, it's what kept him interested when all others had ceased to be interesting, and it's what he yearned for even when he wasn't sure just what it was he wanted, needed. Smiling, he remembered Justin singing in the car, "You love me. You love me sooo much," and him wanting to say, "I do," but being afraid to, afraid that he would fail Justin. He knew now that he didn't have to depend on his strength alone, that they had each other, and together they were stronger than they were apart, together they were able to face almost anything. Even Chris Hobbs. Even with everything that had happened afterwards, they still had that dance at the prom. They still had that moment and a thousand others.

The door opened and Justin got in and slammed it shut. "Ready?"


He nodded. "Yep." Took a deep breath. "You think Lindsay and Mel would let us keep Gus this weekend?"

"Always ask. They can only say no." He started the Jeep and pulled away from the prison. They would talk later.

Justin was sitting on the bed with his sketch pad on his lap when Brian returned with Gus, the toddler wearing his SpongeBob SquarePants backpack and carrying both Beh and his new red truck.

Instantly, the toddler began to run but Brian caught the back of his knapsack after about four steps and held him tight until he could squat down next to him and get his attention. "Listen up, it's okay to run in the house but I don't want you running up and down the stairs. Understand?"

"Yeah," the toddler said but Brian didn't think he did.

"I don't want you falling and hurting yourself again. Remember when you hurt your arm?" Gus nodded and held out the arm that had been bumped. "That's right. So no running up and down the steps. Okay?"

" 'kay, Daddy."

Brian took Beh and the red truck and let Gus go. The baby ran to the steps and stopped. Looked back at Brian and then slowly climbed them. Once he was on the next level, he ran to the bed.

Justin, who had heard Brian's talk, smiled. He opened his arms to Gus and hugged him. "Did you miss me?"

"Yeah. Miss you."

"I missed you too," and he gave the baby a big kiss which Gus returned with equal enthusiasm if not skill.

Entering the bedroom and putting down Gus' things, Brian came over and leaned in for a kiss as well. "Did you miss me?"

"Terribly," he replied, then solicited and savored a second kiss since Brian was, without a doubt, the world's best kisser.

"Mmm… You can show me how much. Later. After you know who is asleep."

"It's a date."

But, when Gus had finally gone to bed, having run off roasted chicken and ice cream, they found themselves sitting on the couch and talking about Justin's visit to the prison.

"He was different somehow."

"I hear prison can do that to you."

"I'm serious. He seemed… at peace. Like whatever he'd been running from, he'd just stopped and faced it."

Brian nodded. "Himself probably."

"Probably." The teen leaned back against Brian's chest. "He said that he was sorry for what he'd done."

"Did you believe him?"

"I think so. I told him that I couldn't forgive him, not just yet. I can't forget what he did and how much damage he caused, to me, to you. I want to but I can't."

Brian tightened his hold on him. "No one expects you to be a saint. It's okay to be angry."

"I think I was lucky. That I found you. You and the guys, you helped me be the person I was meant to be. I could have ended up like him, confused, not knowing what I wanted."

"But you did. Baby, you came looking for it." He laughed. "Fucking seventeen-years-old, standing under a goddamn lamplight."

"You came over and you said, 'Had a busy night?' "

"And you said you'd just been hitting the bars. Boy Toy, Meat Hook." He laughed again.

"You asked me if I was heading someplace special and I said no."

"And I said, 'I can change that.' "

"And you did." Justin looked up at him, into his warm hazel eyes, and smiled. He touched Brian's face, his platinum ring brushing against his lightly tanned skin. "And I've never regretted going with you. No matter where."

"Me neither." They curled together and just lay there, content just to listen to one another breathe, and then Brian said, "Someone's going to be twenty in a few weeks. What do you want for your birthday?"

And Justin laughed deep and low, remembering Brian asking him that question on a dance floor in Babylon. A lot of things had changed in those two years, the biggest being that he didn't have to ask for anything this time around—because he already had everything he wanted.

Except maybe…

"What about a commitment ceremony?"



"My Best Friend," by Ron Sexsmith from Cobblestone Runway, Nettwerk Records, 2002.

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