It's long after dinner before Justin remembers what he left upstairs. Intoxicated with way too much of Vic's really good wine, lulled by pasta and garlic bread, Vic and Brian discussing something that he can't focus on. Stretched out on the couch with Brian touching his hair every so often. It's heady. It's strangely normal. He's been a zip code or two away from normal for so long that he's not sure he can evaluate the moment objectively. And he really doesn't care. It's good enough.
"Ready to go?"
Brian leaves it up to him--it's redux from the beginning, but in a different way. Justin knows he's always welcome to go home with Brian. The implied freedom of it, that he can say no, doesn't mean he uses the option often. Or, well, ever, if he can help it.
From the corner of his eye, he sees Debbie smirk and turns his head away. It's not like she saw--much.
"Sure. I need to grab my bag from upstairs. Hold on." It's hard to move, but he manages, taking the stairs slow because Debbie's pasta's heavy stuff and he's sleepy and weirdly wired. Like he could sleep and dance all night at the same time. Pushing the bedroom door open, he grabs his backpack from where he dropped it by the door, then glances at the bed he and Brian left only a couple of hours before.
Neat and tidy, as he left it before hurrying downstairs, good, no one else has been in here. Ducking a hand under the pillow, he pulls out the pictures and puts them carefully in his sketchbook, tucking it at the bottom. Zipping it up, he thinks for a second on just how *weird* he's acting about this--just ask Debbie, he thinks, even though he knows he won't. Something about the box, stuck water-marked under the bed, tweaks him in a vague, alarm-sounding way. Instinct over reason, which he's gotten good at recognizing, ever since one long-ago night that he can't even remember the right way. The way he knows how far to push Brian and then back off.
It's been a useful sort of thing to have around, once he started *listening*.
Downstairs, Debbie and Brian are talking--possibly about future employment opportunities or something like that, since the it's the topic du jour and she can't let anything go. She's been riding Brian about getting a new job. Brian's watching with a kind of distant curiosity, like she's telling him he should take up sky-diving and he's not entirely sure why. He tuned you out five minutes ago, Deb, Justin wants to tell her. Just let it go. He's not doing a thing until he's good and ready, he never does.
The arm around his shoulders makes him grin, and he leans into Deb's kiss, wondering if telling her would make her understand. It's always going to be on his terms, and you have to wait until he knows what those are. But it's worth waiting for.
Justin thinks Debbie is worried, but then again, she's always worried. With Michael off God knows where and Ben doing the zen patience thing with a noticeable increase in workouts and cold showers, Ted detoxing in a serious way, Emmett barely speaking to anyone, she's in the habit. Like everyone, she doesn't ask, though Justin's thought the words have been on the tip of her tongue, waiting for an excuse. And sometimes, Justin thinks his answer's just as close, but--he doesn't want to explain why it took him less than a month and a half to switch beds and God knows, Brian doesn't want to explain why Justin is back there, either. If Brian's ever said a word, it was to Michael, and from the puzzled looks he gets from the man, half-resentful, half-curious, Justin's pretty sure he doesn't know either.
That, or Brian is as lost as everyone else is.
Kind of comforting. Let Brian be on the ground with mortals for a change.
"I guess dinner is off," Justin says as he looks at the rental car that Brian, in an act defying credit damage and lack of significant liquid income, had somehow picked up. Five credit cards maxed, right, but Justin knows about card six, seven, and eight. The ones making mortgage payments and keeping food around when Brian considers the concept of eating as more than something that other people do to get through the day. Not to mention whatever crap he buys when he's fucking his way through the rest of Pittsburgh, and if his goal is to see if he can actually say that he's fucked everyone in the city, well, he's damn well on his way to achieving it.
Justin slides a careful arm around Brian and feels the fingers against his shoulder brush, a deliberate and understated caress. For a man who fucks on Babylon's dance floor and kisses Michael in the middle of a comic shop in broad daylight, he can get strange about that sort of thing.
"You're kidding. You can't possibly be hungry still."
Given a couple of hours? Hell yes. Justin is sure he hasn't reached his full growth, please God, one more inch, is that so much to ask? And no, not his cock, though that would be great, too. Craning his neck, he sees Brian smirk down at him and shakes his head, then grins. He can't help it.
"Out?" Brian shrugs, which is so close to a no that Justin interprets and goes with it. "Movie? Sit really still so I can draw you?"
A twitch at the corner of his mouth. "Try again."
"Fuck until I pass out?"
He never sees the kiss coming--fast and too short, leaving an afterburn like his skin's been brushed by a live wire. "Better."
There's a bulletin board in the wallspace Daphne gave him--if he's honest, it's more like a few walls of space, and he still isn't entirely happy that the Matt Damon poster was sacrificed for the sake of art. Still, Daphne had been stoic about it, and sometimes, he almost feels at home.
Only sometimes, though, and now, sometimes is elusive, like sleep and emotional stability, but really, it wasn't like he has a life to worry about.
That's why at eight in the morning, with Daph at school and Brian doing whatever he does these days, he's sitting here pinning up these pictures.
Other people's pictures are boring. He's always thought so, except these aren't other people's. These are of his family, closer than the ones in blood in some ways, and this is the history he wasn't around to see or feel. The subtext behind a dozen conversations he doesn't understand, maybe won't ever understand. It's not being young--Michael can look at him like he's ten and still riding a bicycle to elementary school, but he hasn't been young since he first really *got* what he was, and that was a long time before he ever stepped one sneakered foot on Liberty Avenue.
It's being--being himself. Being Brian's not-trick and Debbie's surrogate son, Emmett and Ted's tolerated acquaintance and Michael's cross to bear, and the GLC poster boy for the abused and innocent gay teenager living in the dangerous wilds of straight America. Wow, he's not bitter, is he?.
Poor, fragile little Justin, be careful, he might shatter, and it's truer than he likes to admit. Once upon a time, if he's honest with himself (and now, he tries, he does, he's got to), he taught them how to define him and conditioned them to accept it.
He almost rips the picture putting it up. Unsurprisingly, it's Brian and Michael.
Oh-kay, and to think he'd thought he was totally over that bit of non-history.
The board's big--Daph got it for him a few days after he showed up on her doorstep, and he's still not sure what she meant to say with it. It scares him that she might have had *no reason at all*, and he's spent way too much time obsessing over her motives. Maybe she liked it and thought he would to. Maybe it was on sale. Maybe she found it in her car by magic and was told by a leprechaun to bring it to him, because one day, he'd be using it to psuedo-stalk some history. Maybe she was thinking he'd pin pictures of Ethan up on it to throw things at.
Maybe he needs to stop overthinking.
He's not using pushpins, just the clay-stuff that Daph uses on the walls to hang up light posters. Deb looks marvelous and Vic looks suitably impressive, and the one of Lindsay and Brian's just too damn good, he's got to get that one blown up for Gus one day, once he explains, oh, where he got it and how and right, he won't be doing it today. Or anytime soon. Brian, all trendy messy hair, streaked from the sun, looking impossibly beautiful and more remote than anything human could possibly be.
Michael and the boyfriend in the pool, when Michael was barely older than Justin is now.
"I see chain smoking's becoming the new blue." Daphne really hasn't gotten over the entire thing with the campaign, and why did he tell her again? Turning around, he watches her lean into the doorway, watching him with raised eyebrows and a quirked smile. She's way too cheerful for eight in the morning.
"Aren't you supposed to be in class?"
"Canceled. Whatcha doing?" She's already moving, dropping down beside him, and Justin fights the urge to cover the pictures or whip them away from sight. They were going on a bulletin board, after all, not exactly privacy central. "Jesus, he's hot. I don't get it. He doesn't even try."
Justin guesses she's talking about Brian. In no sane universe does anyone look at Michael and think, hot. Cute, yes, though Justin's perfectly willing to admit he's not objective and doesn't plan on being anytime soon. Glazed eyes meet his, and Justin grins, watching her shake herself out of the stupor and settle on her heels.
"Putting up pictures." Because he does this all the time. Uh huh. He gets a sharp look. Bullshitting Daphne's hard at the best of times--she knows what everyone else does and then, everything they don't. Like he threw up on her shoes in fifth grade and his thing for Nickelodeon is only getting worse as he gets older and the fact that he owns the entire original Wonder Woman television series on bootleg video tapes in the closet. High quality, too. Cost a half a paycheck on ebay.
She knows him the way only a best friend can. She knows when he's been tricking and when he's not sleeping and regular as clockwork, goes with him to the doctor to get tested every six months and does it herself without comment.
She knows why right now, they've been going every month.
She knows every one of a thousand reasons he could have left Brian and the one reason he did. And she knows the one reason he left Ethan that was a thousand reasons in the end.
Taking a deep breath, Justin sits back. "It's just pictures. Of--"
"Brian and the gang. Got that." He can feel her eyes on them, studying them with the objective eye of an acquaintance. "College?"
Good guess. "Yeah. I just--liked them." Completely not the entire truth, but she probably knows that.
She grins, nodding as her eyes travel down. "Who's the hottie in the black speedo?"
And that's the question. Justin shrugs. "One of Mikey's exes?"
"He really has a type, doesn't he?"
This is why Justin loves her. Leaning back on one arm, Justin studies the picture. "It was stupid. A box in my--old bedroom. I got them from this pile and smuggled them out."
"What is it, the Bluebeard box?" Seeing him stare at her, she shrugs. "You know. Where Brian and Debbie hide the pictures of the unsuitable Michael exes they killed."
The way she thinks sometimes. It blows his mind. "That fairytale is in no way applicable to this situation."
"Fable. If you squint, it totally works. Get up and let's get some breakfast. You look like death warmed over."
Thanks a lot. He is hungry, though--second dinner is for shit when you work off most of it for most of the night and how does Brian get up at seven anyway? Justin remembers living with him vividly, and while Brian had still gotten up on time every day, it'd never been like this. Like sleep was something to be escaped, not curled into and clutched.
Then again, that could be Justin, who has no life anymore. Or future. Or prospects of getting one. Besides a comic book with a man who isn't even here, and God, no fucking *wonder* he's obsessing with perfectly ordinary boxes under beds. He doesn't have anything else to *do*.
"Come on." Her hand's under his elbow, pulling him up from numb knees. "I'm buying."
He tries to pull away, stung, but there's something to be said for a girl who takes self-defense classes three times a week. Hell of a grip. "I can pay."
"I know. I just want to. Take a shower, get changed, and I'll tell you about my bad date last night."
Daphne has a life. This could be interesting. "How bad?"
Daphne rolls her eyes. "Legendary. Let's get going."