Earlier portions posted here.
Ronny comes to the latest show, which Justin hadn't expected, since he himself hadn't planned to be there. But he's wired--hours and hours of drawing this afternoon, unable to even think of stopping, and his hand feels like a permanent curl in his pocket. Every flex is agony.
Staying back, Justin watches Ronny walk down the line, pausing every so often. A newer one of a street corner hustler--Justin still can't explain that one, sitting in the freezing cold half a block away for thirty minutes to get the basics, hours more to finish it in charcoal. It's one of his better works. Maybe his best.
A faceless, thin, desperate figure in late Pittsburgh winter. The face in Justin's mind belongs to Jason Kemp.
Justin thinks a lot about Jason since Stockwell started his campaign. More now, in the office, seeing the man that represents everything he once fought against. Intolerance dressed up in the popular catch words of family values and decency. There was nothing decent about the way Jason died. Nor in the way it was ignored.
Ronny doesn't know that, though. He doesn't know a lot about Justin. Justin's beginning to wonder, though, exactly how much he knows about himself. Looking on as an observer, not the artist, he sees something in that picture that's been missing from everything he's drawn since he left Brian.
The critic isn't here tonight. It's slow--most people who wanted to see have, and Justin's okay with that. It's quiet, and surrounded by the visions of the world by a dozen different artists in a dozen different mediums, it's as close to peace as he's able to get anymore.
Justin stiffens, stepping back instinctively into a less lit corner as Brian materializes in view, like he's been there all along. A little too polished and too urban for obscure little art shows in the city, but he looks amazing.
Ronny turns to look at him, vaguely interested in that absent way of his. Even if Justin had ever mentioned Brian, he wouldn't remember. His mind is always drawing, even when his hand isn't. "The best here."
Brian smirks and doesn't answer at first, eyes fixed on the wall like he's looking for something specific. He always looked at Justin's art like that, curious and wondering, like he's never entirely sure he's seeing what he's supposed to. Brian hates to not know. Bothers him in entirely anal-retentive ways that used to be funny as hell. "Friend of yours?"
"Roommate." How Ronny manages to imply a lifetime of fucking and a commitment ceremony with just one word is something that never ceases to amuse Justin and hurt him, all at the same time. Ronny knows they're not going anywhere, but it doesn't stop him from believing they are. His mind is always drawing, and usually only what he wants to see. "You?"
There are so many answers to that question that even Justin has to wonder how Brian will distill it down to one word. Or at least, less than a dissertation.
Justin blinks and sees Ronny's eyes widen, looking at Brian like he's grown horns. "Ethan?"
Brian snickers softly. "No. Not the fiddler." Brian's eyes fix on the hustler, narrowing as he takes a step closer. Scanning everything like he's looking for something specific, though Justin can't figure out what he's looking for. He comes back to the hustler time and again, though, and Justin wonders if Brian feels it, too, the difference.
There are a dozen sketches in the apartment with that feeling now, though. A cramped hand is worth it.
Justin watches Ronny finally wander off, kicking disconsolately at the floor with one scuffed boot. Justin knows Ronny had hoped he'd be here. Four days incommunicado have taken a toll on him. Justin wonders when he became so cold.
Then wonders when he became such a fucking coward.
Stepping out, Justin marks time in even steps, not too fast, not too slow, but Brian knows arcane things like this, and he doesn't even turn around, but he knows. Justin reads it in the line of his shoulders beneath black leather, the tilt of his head.
"This the one?"
Justin nods, knows what he means, feeling his hand spasm when he fists by instinct. "Yeah." He looks at the picture like an observer, but he can't look and see what Brian sees.
"You'll get more exposure in Chicago." Brian's voice is thoughtful, like he's weighing the pros and cons of blue versus orange. Disinterested, but the advertiser in him is always evaluating, seeing the potential for sale, measuring the illusion coating the reality. "Good program?"
"Yeah." Very good. Somewhere in his room are the printouts he did from the web. The information package, the possibility of applying for a scholarship, dorms, random little shit that seems disturbingly important to know, like the color of his dorm walls, the distance to the nearest convenience store, and the way the sky looks at dusk. "Why are you here?"
Brian looks at him for the first time, and Justin wishes that just once, Brian didn't make everything so goddamn hard. Like it would kill him in excruciating ways to say something that doesn't have six known meanings or hell, just say what's on his mind. "I haven't seen your new work." Like it's so obvious that anyone should know. Justin doesn't grind his teeth.
"How's Daphne?" That sentence is endlessly bizarre still. "And Jamie?" He somehow can't help that part, and he's looking for a reaction of some kind, knows it, and doesn't like himself for it.
Brian shrugs absently, eyes back on the picture. "Are these for sale?"
"Yeah." Justin almost says, 'except that one', but that would be--childish? "You know, at this rate, you could finance my career on your own."
Brian's smile is slow. "There are worse investments I could make."
It's weird to stand here and say nothing, because he's never been good with Brian and silences. Some part of him always suspected that left to his own devices in his head, Brian could overthink himself into doing incredibly stupid things and think they were great ideas. It's kind of a relief that when Brian gets high, he usually just wants to fuck. Justin doesn't even want to consider the kinds of thoughts Brian would think up unattended in those circumstances.
"When are you leaving?"
Justin's startled out of his thoughts. Maybe he thinks too much, too. "I don't know yet." When I know for sure why I'm doing this. "Before the end of summer, I guess, if everything goes like I think it will." He can't imagine packing again, putting everything into boxes, explaining to him mom that he's not doing anything like running away but really, this is the best idea ever. Debbie. Emmett and Ted and Michael and Ben. Thinking of Chicago brings a longing so sharp it hurts, but sometimes, he gets confused about that, because he woke up this morning after dreaming he was already there in a cold sweat of panic. Comfort in his room and his bed, his life and his world around him like a warm blanket. Mom might be supportive, actually, saying it's time for change. Brian might get how sometimes, there's no going back.
Justin catches his breath and watches Brian when he studies the walls. There's a pitiless kind of intimacy in this, in someone looking at his work who knows him so well. They're not strangers, they can't be, no matter how hard they try. Lovers who shared a house and meals and sex and a life and maybe even fell in love.
"It's getting late. I gotta go." Stepping back, Justin watches Brian's gaze fix on him, coolly evaluative, because maybe it would kill him to show too much. Show anything at all. Or maybe Justin needs to learn to see again.
It's an endless stretch of time, and Justin thinks that Brian's going to say something else. That feeling of potential, like the ticking seconds before a storm, when the hairs rise on your arms and everything smells like ozone. And maybe he can't read Brian for shit, maybe he's imagined everything up to now, but he doesn't imagine this. No one could.
Tell me not to go. Just say it.
"Have a good trip." Hands in his pockets, Brian tilts his head just a little, like he's waiting for something. But Justin only watches, Brian turning like there's nothing to this second, like they're strangers that never shared a life, and he walks away.
Justin thinks, a little dimly in a lonely gallery with shadows crawling up the walls like the nightmares he'd thought he left behind, that Brian was waiting for him to say goodbye.
Dinner at Debbie's is kind of like a sentence, with Debbie as judge and jury. He should have known walking into the diner that morning that Debbie was ready to tackle things head on, and God help anyone who tried to evade.
He *knows* that. He knows because Debbie's the only living person to contradict and manipulate Brian Kinney successfully on a regular basis, and maybe that alone says a lot more about her than anything else. Justin should have known that the thoughtful looks and the authoritative way she snapped her gum that his days were numbered. Apparently, Justin's probation was over.
That's how he ended up sitting with Vic and Debbie at eight one night over minestrone soup, trying to figure out how exactly he'd gotten to this point.
"More soup?" she asks sweetly, ladle in hand, and the look on her face tells him he's getting more soup if it requires an IV push to get it going. Meekly, he surrenders his bowl and watches the vegetables tumble over each other in their golden brown liquid into his bowl with a sense of inevitability. "That's my Sunshine. How's school?"
Vic looks too damn at ease, following Debbie's cues with admirable promptness, like they're working off a script. Or Debbie's orders. Don't spook the kid. Lull him into a sense of well-being and fullness, *then* pounce like a psychotic tiger in the middle of an LSD trip. And do it with all four feet. Yes, Justin knows the strategy. And yes, Justin knows it works.
"Good." He shoves the spoon in his mouth, hoping the look of imminent starvation thing will excuse one word answers. And well, this is damn good soup. Ronny can't cook for shit. Justin almost took over a few weeks ago, but he'd gotten sick at the smell of what he'd begun to make without thought.
Grandma had probably never thought that the one thing Justin had learned to cook from her was the one thing he'd probably never be able to eat again.
Justin glances up, frowning. "Okay, I guess." Late hours at the studio at school, shifts at work, and all that quality time Justin's been using to see if he can pick up Brian's title as the biggest slut in Pittsburgh have cut into roommate time. "You know him?"
"He comes to the GLC," Debbie says calmly, like Justin should know this, and he does, but still. "We talked when he stopped by one night to drop off some paintings."
Oh, that doesn't sound good at all. Finishing his spoonful, Justin gazes at Debbie across the length of the table. "And why am I getting the feeling you're about to say something really personal and really not any of your business?"
"Fucking around with someone who's in love with you? You tell me what you're up to, Sunshine." Debbie doesn't just strip the kid gloves off. She throws them in his face.
Justin sighs. "I told him we weren't--anything but roommates."
"And convenient tricks that live together?" Debbie's eyebrows arch meaningfully. Justin doesn't like it--he's seen her look at Brian like that, and he can honestly say he never expected to see that look aimed at him.
There's a lot he could say in his own defense, but none of it is really worth the effort. "He went in with his eyes wide open, Deb." Justin remembers the first night, like being with Ethan but better, because Ronny didn't seem to have any expectations of anything at all. Slow sex on the couch, Ronny bent over the arm and telling him how amazing he was, and so *new*. Justin had never liked virgins all that much before, but Ronny was amazing, no inhibitions, no expectations, everything brand new, surprising, fascinating. Loved what Justin did to him, loved to reciprocate. "I didn't--"
Justin bites down and picks up his bowl, going to the sink to toss it. Minestrone soup is on the list now. If he's not careful, he's not going to be able to eat anything at all. Behind him, he thinks he can almost see Vic and Debbie exchange looks. "I'm not Brian."
"I know. That's what's scaring me." Justin turns around, and he can face Debbie in a righteous rage or a temper fit, but there's no defense against what she looks like now. Worry written into her skin and eyes so deeply it hurts to look at her. Justin takes a hissed breath. "Sunshine. What are you doing to yourself?"
Fuck. "Living my life. Isn't that what everyone's kept telling me to do for two years? Get away from Brian, find someone my own age, get my own life? I'm doing it. Happy?"
Nothing's static, like Lindsay said. Everything changes.
"No." Her eyes search him, looking for landmarks, and he wonders what she sees. God, sometimes he wonders what *he* sees, because looking in the mirror these days is becoming something strange, like watching himself in a dream. Not entirely real, but the only reality there is. "Neither are you."
"It's okay to feel betrayed."
His fingers hurt from their clench on the edge of the counter. "Trust me, I have no problems being really fucking betrayed. But thanks for the permission."
Debbie on any other day would have blown up, and they could have gotten right into a good old-fashioned shouting match that would have ended with a storm out, but of course, Debbie's like everyone else these days. She's going for the medal in unpredictability. And hell, she may win. "Maybe you need it.
Vic nods slowly, and God, why does everyone feel this stupid need to analyze him? He's doesn't want it, doesn't need it, doesn't-- "I'm fine. I'm moving."
Her face doesn't change. "Brian told me. Chicago?"
Justin doesn't meet her eyes. "They accepted me for the second summer session."
"They'd be idiots not to."
Justin waits for more, but Debbie just watches him evenly. Nothing. Shit. "What? You're not going to say that I'm running away again?" Because I am.
"You know it and I know it. You're a big boy, Sunshine." Her head tilts as she looks at him. "You'll do okay."
Oh fuck this. "You never cared what I wanted before. So why now?" The baby, Justin thinks irrationally. All about Brian's damn mistake. Fucking *hell*.
"Who are you pissed at, Sunshine?" Debbie stands up, taking her empty bowl and stacking it on Vic's before moving toward the sink. Justin moves out of her way just enough to give her access. He's tired of making space for everyone except himself. "I don't want you to go. God knows, your mother's going to be pissed. And you're not going to be happy either."
Justin looks down. "What makes you say that?"
"You take it with you wherever you go. You took it to the loft and you took it to my house and you took it to Ethan's, then you took it to Ronny's. You'll take it to Chicago, too, and where will you go when you realize that, hmm?"
"Take what? Brian?"
Her hand touches his face, gentle as his mother's. Harder than she could ever be with him, because it takes distance to tell the truth when it's going to hurt like this will.
"Yourself, Sunshine." She fingers the too-long hair gently, pushing it away from his eyes, cupping his cheek. Her expression hardens just a little. "You learned every one of his tricks for not dealing, but this one's dyed in the wool. You never learned how to give up, sweetie. You just learned to run away."
Just almost pushes her away. "I'm not running away. I'm moving on."
"You're not moving at all. You haven't in longer than I can remember." Her fingers are a gentle stroke that makes him hurt, matching the hurt in her eyes. "You never give up. You don't even know how. You think a few hundred miles will change anything? You'll still be Justin and Brian and Daphne will still be here and there'll still be this. All of it. And it will still hurt and you'll still be angry and you'll still somewhere in that fucked up head think that you don't have the right to be."
Justin looks at anything but her eyes, seeing everything there that he hasn't been able to say. "I--I never really believed I couldn't go back, if I wanted to. I just--I just thought I had time." Justin stops, sucking in a slow breath, trying to make it make sense. To Debbie. To Vic. To himself, most of all. "I thought--I don't know what I thought. It's Brian. Of all the people I had to worry about moving on, he--just doesn't. Isn't. Wouldn't. He wouldn't for me, so why the hell would he for anyone else?"
It's not fair. He should have had time, post-Ethan. He'd lost it, because Brian couldn't keep his dick in his pants and Daphne lost her fucking mind on one night that shouldn't have even been in the running for possible. It's stupid and it's unfair and it's wrong, but it doesn't make it less true. They took away more than just his trust, the belief there were some places, some things that were safe. They took away his hope.
"Maybe it's not for anyone else, sweetie." Both hands cup his face now, making him look up, and her face is a blur of bright lipstick and pained eyes. "Maybe he's doing this for himself."
Debbie laughs softly, hands sliding to his shoulders and shaking him. "Such a smart boy, but so dumb. You didn't listen to anyone before, you *knew*. You knew what most people never learn, how to go after what you wanted and how to keep it. What the hell's stopping you now?"
Who the hell knows what he wants? "You haven't met Jamie." That's entirely a surprise, even to himself, and Justin blinks at the way his voice sounds. Like--is he. Jealous?
Debbie's eyebrows arch, tongue between her teeth as she grins at him. Both hands slide up into his hair, giving him another tiny shake, palms pressed into his cheeks. "Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
Justin stares back. "What?"
Her hands smooth down his hair as she steps away, still grinning, like she knows something he doesn't. "Right. Dumb kid. When you're nineteen, it's all life and death, isn't it? This or that, no in-between. Don't look at me like that, kiddo. I know you, I knew you the day I met you. Whatever the hell you think you're doing now? Get your head outta your ass. What do you want?"
It's on the tip of his tongue, because there's always only been one answer to that question. He bites it back. "What if--what if it isn't possible?"
He takes in her surprised frown, like she's wondering why he started speaking a language she doesn't understand. "Since when do you care?"