I really, really need chocolate right about now.
jaymalea however, didn't let me STOP, which may be close enough.
Anyone want to beta or can I start repressing now?
Once and Again
He's a kid.
Michael's seen it. Eats cheerios in front of the television on Saturday mornings, still in sweatpants and t-shirt, spilling milk on expensive leather and wiping it absently with the edge of a worn blanket that he has to have had since childhood. Wears headphones and lip-synchs when he's alone in the loft, sliding across the hardwood floor in clean socks and no shirt. Still watches MTV and sleeps in an abandoned sprawl anywhere and everywhere.
He's a kid, dressed in college chic jeans and a t-shirt, worn coat wrapped around him, chewing on the eraser of a pencil and making faces at his sketchbook like it might react if he makes just the right one. Pushing it away with a frown and an absent rub of his palm, thumb pressing into the center like will alone will make it work. Jesus knows, the kid has will.
A kid, who looks up at him with clear blue eyes that don't seem like they can keep any secrets at all. The fall of long blond hair's only icing. A kid. "Thanks for going with this cover, Michael."
Michael nods from behind a pile of unsorted comics, trying to fix his attention on the mundanities of inventory lists and projected earnings. Nothing's working.
"You're here early." Not an accusation or a complaint. He thinks.
From the corner of his eye, he sees Justin shrug. "Early night."
Not at the loft, then. Michael takes another stack from the box, riffling through it, barely comprehending what he's seeing. He thinks he can feel Justin looking at him, but every time he turns, Justin's absorbed in their second issue, mouth moving silently over the words like he's living the moment with the character. Maybe he is.
"Everything okay?" He shouldn't ask, shouldn't even care, but if it affects Brian, Michael wants to know.
"Great." Justin turns a page idly, playing with the edge of his coat with his other hand. "This'll sell well."
He can only hope.
The silence stretches--the expectant kind that can never last very long, it's too thick. Too hard to deal with, screwing with concentration, and Michael gives up, turning around to face Justin on his stool. A kid, he thinks, watching Justin yawn, open mouthed and rubbing his eyes with one fisted hand. A pretty kid with clear blue eyes and a brilliant smile, wrapping half the world around his finger, and he's got to know that by now. It all comes too easily for him, and Michael doesn't think he resents it. He doesn't really try to think about it at all.
"Something on your mind?" Justin can be subtle when he wants to be, but the restlessness is a dead giveaway. He's known him almost three years, and it's all telegraphed in every too-fast, stuttered movement.
Justin pauses, eyes flickering to Michael briefly, then slips the comic closed with a finality that tells him that whatever's on Justin's mind, it's not something he's looking forward to saying. Complaint about Brian? Not likely, not to Michael. Something with the comic? Possible. Michael settles back against the counter and watches Justin lean back on the stool, feet kicking absently. A kid's nervous energy and uncertainty, but when Justin looks at him, he remembers why he stopped thinking of Justin as a kid a long time ago.
Oh, he plays the part all right, innocent smiles and uninhibited laughter, but it's all surface glitter, hiding everything beneath. What, Michael's not sure of, but he's seen the flashes too often to ignore.
"I wanted to talk to you about something."
Michael nods slowly, letting Justin take his time. It won't be something he likes, he knows that already. But what it *is* he's not sure of either.
"You've been acting weird since Brian and I got back together." Michael blinks a little, watching Justin shift, kicking his heels into the stool's legs. More than nervous. "You okay with it?"
Does it matter? A cold day and slivers of pain, the shock of being hit. The shock of who did it. The unsurprise of why.
No, it doesn't.
"I'm fine." It's not a lie.
"You think he shouldn't have." The coolly assessing voice makes Michael look up, but Justin's still Justin, watching him without any expression at all. Michael's not going to lie.
"No, I don't."
Justin nods, eyes flicking downward. "Have you talked to him about it?"
Now that's a stupid question. "Not really." Only once. Fruitless conversation. Circles, because when Brian's not interested in talking, it doesn't happen.
And what could he say? Repeat the litany in his head. It's a mistake, Brian. He's going to fuck you over, Brian. He's too young, Brian. Why him, Brian? Justin, who didn't know him, understand him, not like Michael did. Justin, who expected too much too fast, expected some things that couldn't happen at all.
"Do you care?" Pushing the comic aside, Michael watches Justin consider the question, tracing the changes almost three years could make. Maybe a little taller, still awkward adolescence and too-long limbs, but he's growing up.
Has grown up.
Michael wonders if it's too late to go back to inventory. He's not up to dealing with Justin today. If he's honest, he's not usually up to dealing with him at all.
He doesn't expect the answer, doesn't expect to look up and see Justin watching him so intently, doesn't expect the little twist of discomfort in himself. Doesn't like himself for not liking Justin better, doesn't like the fact that the price of Brian's peace is sitting in front of him in worn cotton and denim and he still can't deal with it. Doesn't like the fact he's not saying everything he thinks and never has. But then, he's Michael. Don't rock the boat. Don't push too much. Don't make everything so fucking hard.
Flickering gaze to the blond hair that covers the faded remains of the scar that almost took Justin's life. Maybe easy isn't quite the right word.
"You think it was too easy, don't you?" The low voice echoes his thoughts too closely, and Michael turns away, picking up a stack of comics to drop into the sale box. Half-priced, used-up, low quality, limited runs. They rarely sell well.
"We really don't need to talk about this."
Probably a good idea to duck into the backroom now and go looking for those lost issues of Wonder Woman that he would have sworn he put on the top shelf when he unloaded the other day. Brian had snickered he'd need a map to find anything back there.
"Michael." Michael stops, because that's what he does when someone sounds like that. Because it's easier to give in than it is to walk away. It always has been. "It wasn't easy."
He wouldn't... He wouldn't say anything. Not when he hears the sound of Justin's stool sliding on the wood, not when he feels him at the doorway, watching him. This conversation can't go well, no matter how Michael looks at it.
"It wasn't easy." Something in his voice, maybe, that's what makes Michael pause.
Michael knows. Brian doesn't have to tell, never would anyway--forty-eight hours make the difference, this one eighty that still leaves him a little dizzy, a little breathless, a lot confused, and not confused at all. Brian's an addict by nature. Justin's heroin and speed and ecstasy all wrapped into one. Justin could fuck him over for the rest of their lives and it wouldn't mean a thing. He knows it like the color of his eyes and the sound of Ben's car coming down the street and the exact taste of alcohol when you've gone one over the limit and start thinking you have nothing to lose.
Jesus, Ben would tell him, you really are a pessimist, aren't you?
"You don't--" Stop. Stop now. A long breath and a stare into the warm darkness, shelves with piles of familiarity he can touch. "I have work to do, Justin." Go do yours. Whatever it is. Whatever you do.
That's the kid in him, that wants to know. Wants to understand. Pushing and prodding and sometimes just plowing until something gives, someone gives up, and Michael's a giver, always has been.
"Don't push." Don't ask me questions I want to answer. Don't make this harder than it already is. And it's hard, Jesus, it's harder than you think, and you don't even know why. "Just let it the fuck go, Justin."
"I did that once." There's a thousand things in Justin's voice that Michael can't read. One of those thousands of times that Michael wants to just--hit something. Like Brian, who talks in code, this habit that Justin's picked up, too, like they can have entire conversations that Michael will never understand in a few short words and a look. "We have to work together. I just--"
"Want to clear the air? You expect too much."
Or maybe he's picked it up, too, and he looks at Justin, watching the words sink in. You expect too much, you want too much, you want everything, and no one gets that.
"Just fuck off!"
It's like kicking a puppy, and he wishes he hadn't turned around, hadn't looked up, hadn't seen the way Justin's face paled, the step backward that's a precursor to another famous Justin habit, run for safety. He's a kid, Michael tells himself, but he doesn't believe it.
"You never liked me."
"You're right about that." And there's never been a good reason to. First impressions are a bitch and Michael's never been friendly with Brian's tricks, so why should Justin have been different?
That's the thing. He was different, and Michael's still picking up the echoes of why.
"I really don't like you either."
And that's a shocker...or it should be, but Michael's not rocked and the world doesn't change. Maybe saying it has made it easier, somehow, made this a little more concrete. A little more real than two men who pretend that being in love with the same man is enough to build a friendship on.
"But I love Brian. That should be enough for you."
It should be. It's just not.
"What do you want?" It's the thousand dollar question.
"And that's why you left?"
It's the ammunition for what could have been years of polite conversation and hidden barbs. A direct hit, iff Michael kept track of those kinds of things, and he doesn't. The only reaction is long fingers tightening on the frame of the door, like he wants to leave fingerprints in the wood, like he leaves them everywhere else for Michael to find.
"I left because it was easier than staying."
No shit. The room seems to get smaller, and Justin, slim as he is, seems a huge block to getting out. Getting away.
"Easier to let someone tell me what I wanted to hear than figuring things out for myself. You think I don't know--"
"You have no idea what you did to him."
Justin's smile is crooked and too old. He knows. Michael can see it in his face. "I came back."
Jesus Christ. "And that was easy."
The smile widens. "No. That was the hardest thing of all."
Michael almost laughs. He didn't want this conversation. He doesn't want it now. He wants *out*, Jesus Christ, no wonder Brian gave up. Fucking terrier. "What did it take? Two days? Three? You show a little contrition and a little ass, and you--"
"Smile a little smile and tell him whatever he wants to hear. And what he doesn't. That's hard, Michael. Try it sometimes. Just once." Justin's so still Michael's not sure what he's thinking. "Try it. Tell him, don't. Say please. Promise anything. And watch him do it anyway. Then stay. Every night. Every day. Every hour. Tell me how easy it is."
Maybe. "I do."
"Really?" A step inside, involuntary, and Michael forces himself not to step back. All that anger, simmering up from someplace that Michael's not sure that Justin was even aware of until this minute. This second. "You watch him fuck his tricks, but I bet you never were in bed with them. You see him pissed and high and drunk and you take him home, but you're not there when he wakes up. You can be his great comforter in all life's fuck-ups, but I'm the one that deals with the daily shit, and you think you have any fucking *clue*?"
"Then why the hell do you stay?"
That's a question anyone that Michael's never wanted answered, but he asks anyway.
"He doesn't need me for anything that he can't get anywhere else. He can get sex from anyone and perfect love from you, so why the hell does he even want me around?"
"I know why. He loves me. That's why I stay. That's why I can work with you when you'd like nothing better than to kick me out. That's why I can stand here and ask you to stop."
Stop? It's almost claustrophobic--he's forgotten how much space Justin can take up when he wants to, how much attention he can command, when they met, after they met, when he could walk up and be the focus of everything and everyone. Brian.
"What do you want?"
Justin shrugs, slow and easy. An instant where Michael sees a flash of--something--before the anger's gone and it's just Justin, this kid who won't back down and won't go away and who let go and then for some insane reason, grabbed right back on again.
Michael knows Brian, too.
"Everything I can get. You love him, I get that. And you want the best for him. So do I. I want you to think about that when I ask you to back off."
The bookcase against his back is the only thing grounding Michael in the room. "What?"
"You had eighteen years to do it. To get this far. You could have gotten farther and faster, you know every button I'm just learning. You installed some yourself. I get that. He loves you and you love him and never the twain shall meet except in your fantasy life and I still don't get why and don't really care. You didn't. That's reality. I'm reality. That's why you have to let him go."
"What the hell do you mean?" He knows. He thinks he's been waiting for it since Justin came back.
"I want the big things, too." Justin doesn't move, but the world seems to shift anyway. "I want him to be free enough to come to me. He did it for you once. Do this for him."
Silence, silence all around, that he'd thought he wanted, but now he wants anything but. Silence, to mask the shock. The not-shock. The strange inevitability of this moment that's been coming forever and he'd never thought would come at all. "You don't have any idea what you're talking about."
"One night, say you're busy when he calls. Don't go looking for him every time something happens and you need to be the one he turns to. Don't drop by unexpectedly every other day. Let me have him."
"He's not a possession." Right, Michael? Your best friend and your confidante, your--what? Everything short of sex, and that always seemed the most important, the thing you wanted and couldn't risk to get. How much a risk would it have been, anyway? Really?
No, he can't think like that. Ever.
"He's not." With that, the last of it fades--whatever it is, whatever drove Justin, and Michael takes what feels like the first deep breath in hours. Years. "It's too late for you and him, you know that. There's no going back. You can do it, because you love him. Because you know that it's what's best for him. And because you know I'm what he wants." Justin takes a breath, like he's been running all day and hasn't ever stopped. Like he's been running his whole life and needs to rest. Like whatever Michael says now will let him. "Let him have me, too."
The sound of the bell makes them both jump, and Justin turns away, almost like relief, almost like desperation, and Michael breathes out and pushes himself off the shelves. Turning, his eyes fasten on the row of neatly labeled comics before he hears a familiar voice and hears Justin stop short, stumble.
He's a kid.
Michael's seen it. Throws himself into whatever he wants, no consequences, no regrets. Climbs across counters to get a kiss and a smile, laughs like it doesn't matter who hears. Slips back down to the floor and leans into the counter, elbows on the glass, looking up, as bright as the sun at noon and just as relentless.
Low voiced conversation, and it's the first time that Michael's ever felt the need to hide. Just for now. Just for a minute.
"Mikey. Breakfast. Coming?"
He walks out and watches Justin look away. This second where he can say anything at all. Justin's a kid. Too young to know what he wants. To know how to handle it when he gets it. If he gets it.
When. Easy or hard. Michael takes a breath and meets Brian's expectant eyes.
It hurts more than he thought it would. "I've got some stuff to do before I open. I'll see you around."
Boxes of comics to sort, columns of numbers to work, inventory to be done, and Ben to call and just listen to him breathe. Pretend that this is any day in any time and it doesn't mean a thing, because it doesn't He's said no before, and he'll say it again.
He looks away from Justin's face and the understanding, picking up the clipboard he'd abandoned one life ago.
He's said no before. And he'll say it again.
Just now, it's going to be hard.