Gay Pittsburgh is too small.
He forgot that, building up these idealized memories of his apartment, school, home, wrapped up in soft-focus, picture-perfect visions of life before he left the first time, when Justin changed his world, became his world.
He's not five hours into the day before he hears more than he ever wanted to know about what had gone on in his absence--a mayoral race, a homophobic candidate, Justin the junior activist, and Brian. Brian, Brian, Brian, like it's not enough Ethan hears that name in his dreams, his reality reflects it, too.
A second class coffee shop reminds him of Justin, the stale biscotti and cheap syrups they used for flavor, right off campus, where all the students gather, and it should be the safest place but it's not. In hours, Ethan knows everything there is to know about suspensions and non-apologies, fucking the boss, the mess of the internship program. Justin's name is constant, traded from table to table like a street hustler, Justin this, Justin that, Justin, Justin, Justin....
They don't notice him, and he likes that, though he can't explain why, hunched down in yesterday's clothes beneath his coat, watching his coffee like it has the answers to every question he didn't ask. Conversation is a slow ebb and flow around him while he wraps his fingers around the mug and tries to tune it all out.
He sorts through the mail with one hand, spreading out months of computer paid bill receipts, junk mail, IFA information, fan letters that somehow found his home address. A few named to Justin that make his fingers shake--that subscription to Architectural Digest, an invoice for dry cleaning, the internet bill. A thin envelope with the cancellation of a flower delivery, and Ethan's throat tightens. Canceled the night Justin left, fuck the deposit, and Ethan crumples it between two fingers, wondering if he'll ever smell roses again and not get sick.
He hasn't made it up to the apartment yet to find out.
A body drops in the seat across from him, and Ethan looks up, sharp words already on his tongue, but they freeze before they can find air, because it's Justin, looking at him from behind a fall of too-long hair and completely unreadable eyes.
Justin, who's so easy to read he's like a book, broadcasting everything he feels in every look, in every touch, but there's nothing to see but the kind of cool evaluation Ethan gets from critics and his manager, the one that would throw a fit if he knew how Ethan had spent his first night in the city.
But. Justin. He's here.
"Hey." Ethan take a short drink of too-hot coffee, trying not to choke as he swallows it down. It's bitter - the kind of bitter that supposedly puts hair on chests - but the counter staff have become accustomed to filling his mug only halfway full so that he can temper the bitterness with sugar and cream, himself. Sure, he could always order something that wasn't as strong, but then he wouldn't have the rich taste of the coffee underneath the sugar and cream; a small, infinitely simple pleasure. Like fresh, clean, white sheets against skin nearly as pale... a lithe, firm body awaiting him in bed.
Justin always hated this place. Though considering how much coffee he drinks at the diner, he's really not in a position to judge, now is he? "I -- I wasn't expecting you." Wanted, yes, but Ethan remembers the look on Justin's face last night.
"I guess not." Justin glances down at the plethora of envelopes, like artifacts from a different life. Faintly aware of his connection to them but not caring enough to find out why. "I didn't know you were back in the city."
Ethan's not sure what to say to that. "Yeah. Taking a break. Too many hotels." Cocking his head, he watches Justin study the letters, making no move to reach for the ones with his name. Justin was looking for him? It feels like it. Ethan's stupid enough to hope. He's stupid a lot these days. "You okay?"
Both eyebrows arch, a single glance around the room, and Ethan takes in the quiet with surprise. Conversation dropped to the level of whispers. Feeling the looks. Oh. "Pretty good, thanks." Justin rests both elbows on the table, long fingers twining casually together, and if he's nervous, if he gives a shit about what he has to know everyone says, his body doesn't show it.
"I didn't mean to surprise you like that," Ethan says slowly, when that's exactly what he meant to do. Justin's neutral expression isn't encouraging, but it's not hostile, either, which is more than he should have expected. He can't be blamed for wanting more, though. "It's just--I wanted to see you. See how you were doing." If you missed me like I missed you.
Justin leans back in the seat, and the evaluative look is back, sharp and thoughtful. It's strange, to look at someone you shared your bed with, read every emotion on his face, knew every word that would come out of his mouth, and be faced with this. Like more time than a few months has passed. Justin's not a stranger, he could never be that, but it's somehow worse.
He doesn't like it--hates it, suddenly and inexplicably. This is Justin, and Justin isn't a random fuck at a concert, he's--God, he's fucking everything. "You landed on your feet. I knew you would."
Something flickers in his eyes, but the voice, if anything, betrays a hint of irony. "I usually do. Tour going okay, then?"
Ethan nods slowly, thinking of long nights in hotels, when even the bodies sharing his bed never quite dispelled the feeling of being alone. His manager's completely undisguised relief when he understood that Justin wasn't in Ethan's life anymore. The checks that he stared at, blank and unmoving, thinking of all the ways this was supposed to assure their future together, Justin's future. In his mind, he was the one paying Justin's tuition bills, paying for his art supplies, making up his home and his world, and how the hell had that changed? Why the hell had that changed? "It's good."
Justin nods absently, but Ethan can see the long fingers tighten, and whatever Justin came here to say, Ethan's suddenly isn't sure he wants to hear it. "I--."
"Why were you at Babylon last night?" It's a new habit, that calm stare, like he's searching Ethan for his answers, trying to work them out by sheer will before Ethan says a word. That look was there the first time Justin asked him about the guy at the concert, and only now, Ethan understands what it means.
He doesn't try to prevaricate. "I wanted--I needed to see you."
"That's what phones are for."
Ethan almost laughs. Like that would have worked. "If I'd wanted to see you? And, anyway, would you have called me back if I had?"
Justin shrugs in acknowledgement. "Probably not."
They look at each other over the space of a scarred linoleum-slick table like there are miles between them, not just time. Too much time or too little, Ethan's not sure. "I'm sorry if it..."
"It surprised me." The ironic edge makes Ethan wince. "Ted said you were pretty plastered. What on earth could you have to say to me? Besides to come pick up my mail, that is."
It's not hostile--at least, Ethan doesn't think it is, and that's--God, that's something. Leaning forward, Ethan shoves his cup aside. He doesn't know how not to try. "I miss you. I--God, Justin, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry for what happened, I just -- I never had the chance to explain, to tell you --."
Justin squints a little. "You did explain. If you need forgiveness or closure or whatever, you got it. But that's all I can do. You get that, right?"
"Because of Brian?"
The frown is so slight that Ethan would have missed it if he wasn't tuned to every one of Justin's moods. The restless artist who couldn't be disturbed, the hyperactive kid, the thoughtful student, the thousand different shades of personality that made up Justin Taylor in whole, but this part is completely new and Ethan's not sure what to make of it. "Brian doesn't have anything to do with it."
That's such a complete and total pile of bullshit that Ethan can't believe Justin even bothered to say it. "You're kidding me, right?"
"No." Justin frowns a little more, just that sharp line between his eyebrows, before a fall of glossy blond hair covers it. "I don't think we really have anything to say to each other anymore. I'm glad tour is going so great and I'm glad you're a success. I'll always be happy for you. Can we just leave it at that?"
The calm, reasoned tones raise something in him--Ethan's not sure what, or if he can blame the traces of Beam left in his system, or hell, maybe it's the crappy coffee or something that's short-circuiting rational thought, because there's no other explanation for what comes out of his mouth. "Glad I'm a success, huh. Yeah, thanks. I guess I finally have one up on good ol' Brian."
Ethan shuts his mouth in shock, tasting bitterness like hard liquor over the too-sweet caramel coffee. No. That's not what he meant to say at all.
Justin's expression doesn't change--where did he learn that, who did he learn it from?--but the table is miles across and Justin might not even be on the same planet anymore. Ethan's mind runs like a hamster in a cage, looking for something--anything--to cover that, explain it, but it just sits there between them, all the ways that Ethan's fucked up on display.
"You don't know shit." Justin shifts in the booth, his mind probably out the door already, because when Justin decides something, it's decided and to hell with everything else. He's already tuned Ethan out, like a bad recording, like a fuzzy radio station, like a memory he doesn't want or need. Ethan's been relegated to Justin's uncomfortable past and that's where Justin wants him to stay, tucked in with every other bad decision of his life, and Jesus, they were *more* than that. He wasn't just Justin's mistake, part of Justin's learning curve, Justin's--God, Justin's back-up. He wasn't. He *wasn't*. "I gotta go--"
"How long?" The words snap out, not checking in at his head, and this is going all wrong. When they met again, Ethan had words prepared, speeches--about love and forgiveness and how losing Justin ripped him apart, and how sorry he is, but for some reason, none of it's making the cut. "How long did it take for you to run back to him? Days? Weeks?" A rough husk of a laugh, humorless, sharp. "Hours? Did you walk out on me and go back to him that same night or did you make him wait a while? What difference would a few more hours make, a few more days, when you knew you were going to be reunited with your true love?"
Christ, it's like he's gone completely crazy, and Ethan's never heard himself sound like that before. Bitterness he hadn't even known was there, bubbling up from the bottom of his mind, thick and ugly and sick, and nowhere in his head had he ever thought he'd ever say these things to *Justin*.
"Maybe it wasn't like that," Justin says, and his voice is so low that Ethan has to strain to hear it. "Maybe I never stopped. Maybe I was fucking him all along. Every time I told you that I had to work late, I was getting fucked in the bathroom of the diner. Every time I was at Michael's working on the comic, I had Brian's cock in my mouth. When I didn't answer my cell, I was getting my ass reamed out and couldn't hear it over my screaming. Maybe it was all a lie. Maybe that was how it was."
There's no words now, not even angry ones--this blank space where everything Justin said twists and roars and magnifies, and he can remember, suddenly and painfully, every late day from work, every early morning with Justin going to the comic store, every evening he tried to call Justin's cell phone and didn't get an answer. An ugly, poisoned layer over every memory, and Ethan thinks he can't breathe, chest tight; it feels like a small animal is trying to claw its way out, sharp claws and sharper teeth.
"Or I just made that up. Which one do you believe?" Justin pauses, and Ethan watches through a red haze as he buttons his coat, standing up. "When you look back, do you wonder now? Because I did. I wondered about everything."
Son of a *bitch*. Ethan takes a slow breath, face hot. Guilt never goes out of style. "Did you enjoy that?"
Justin slowly shakes his head. "Ted wanted me to make sure you were okay. Done that. I think that's all I really have to say. Just... please... stay the hell away from me." Justin turns on his heel, walking past the whispering students, like he has no idea he's the center of all attention, like half the damn place didn't hear them talking, going out the door with a jaunty sound of the bell.
Ethan stares at the chilling cup of coffee and doesn't turn around again.