"...and that's when he said he was going to clown school, but he was hoping I'd wait for him."
Justin blinks up from the stack of butchered pancakes. She looks amused, like Brian, like everyone seems to these days. "I was listening."
"You were committing manslaughter on breakfast." A pause, and Justin sighs, looking down at the mess of rough triangles, artistically trickled in syrup. There's a sense-memory of watching *Close Encounters of the Third Kind* with his mom when he was a kid. Should be glad there weren't any mashed potatoes in the mix. "Want to talk now or is the repression thing working out pretty well?"
"There's nothing to talk about." Because there really isn't. Stockwell is licking his wounds--or himself, and wow, there goes any hope of appetite for the next year or so--school's gone, Michael's one call home hasn't been repeated, and Emmett's a mess. And Jesus, Brian.... "Literally. Nothing."
He can feel her watching him across the table, like maybe she knows what he's thinking. "IFA?"
"Out of the question." And what school would accept him with this on his record? Give up everything, right--he and Ethan had talked about that once; romantic, silly images of garret apartments and Paris in springtime, selling art to the tourists. Lots of artists did that once upon a time. Ramen noodles and barely making rent. Making love on shitty beds. Cold water showers.
What was he *thinking*? He can't stand a sheet count below three hundred. And he can't stand Ramen. "Justin. Talk to me."
"There isn't anything." Restless everywhere under his skin. This need to do something, but there's nothing to do. "I--don't know."
Reaching across the table, her hand covers his, long fingers stroking lightly. "Have you talked to Brian?"
Okay, that's funny. "Brian's--I don't know." He catches her frown from the corner of his eye. "No, not like that. It's not him and me--at least, not mostly. It's--I don't even know how to put it. He--" Isn't himself. Is himself, in a really weird, completely the wrong universe way. "It's like he went fatalist or something, and he's just *not*. I--I want--" My life back. Before Stockwell fucked with it, before Ethan fucked with it, and wow, that puts him right back in the single most miserable period of his life, and really, he can't possibly be remembering *that* fondly. He isn't that much of a revisionist. "I have no fucking clue."
Daphne's expression is puzzled. "So what, exactly, is making you crazy?"
"I don't know what to do." There. He said it. And it's not really freeing at all--shit, he's watched way too much Lifetime TV with Emmett. "Everything--when Stockwell went down, I thought--things will work themselves out. Somehow." Jesus, that sounds even worse. "That--I don't know. That Vance would give Brian his job back and IFA would say, wow, Taylor, you were so right...." Okay, he hadn't believed that, he *couldn't* have. "I'm not seventeen anymore, Daph. I don't--"
"Jump without thinking? Sure you do. You just think now you know what you'll land in." Bitch. He watches her pick up a bagel, studying it with the kind of concentration he's used to seeing her focus on boybands and music videos. "You can still work on the comic, though."
"I'm not the writer." He can't even imagine trying. "Michael did that." To think he'd ever, ever thought he'd miss Michael. One sneer, one condescending look, and yeah, he *is* bored, he's getting nostalgic about *that* and he swears, if Michael returns safe, sound, and unindicted for felony kidnapping, he'll never ever make another crack about Captain Astro's tights again.
The waitress comes by, filling his coffee cup without comment, and Justin almost snarls at her bright smile. Thank God Debbie isn't here--she'd kick his ass. He's been a waiter, he knows how to be nice. Looking up, he tries a smile that's returned before she walks away, greeting someone at the door, and Justin frowns as the man stops to talk.
Tall. A vague resemblance to David, come to think, and Justin blinks the memory away. Dark hair, cut shorter. Dark eyes. All over--
He's--staring. He can't help it. The guy looks back--not someone who doesn't pay attention to his surroundings, either. Justin feels the visual appraisal like a touch. He's used to it--hell, you can't *not* get used to it--but this isn't Babylon, a bar, but Liberty Diner in the middle of the morning. It's like Brian, all that look of evaluation, consideration, but just that touch off that sets Justin's teeth on edge.
Again, that thing with instinct has been really, really useful. You know, when he listens. He's listening now.
"Justin?" A hand on his elbow shakes him back, but Justin thinks he smells chlorine and his fingers itch for his sketchbook. Visual memory's all well and good, but he'd like confirmation on paper. "Justin?"
Looking away, Justin focuses on his coffee, trying to figure out what to say. "Okay, you believe in coincidence?"
"I believe in alien abduction and Mysterious Marilyn, who by the way, was totally right about my last ex, in case you're curious. What's with you?"
Justin keeps his gaze on his coffee, letting peripheral vision do the work for him. The guy finally looks away--Justin didn't need to see that to feel the lift in regard. "Look at the guy at the bar. Tell me what you see."
He can almost *see* her eyebrows going up, but the sound of her shifting tells him she's looking. "Don't be obvious."
"Yes, psuedo-hustler, I'd hate to do less well than *you* did in your forays into surveillance," she mutters, and Justin holds back a laugh with difficulty. A few long seconds pass, and Justin thinks, okay, he was wrong. He had to be. Because weird timing happens all the time, all ways, all kinds, but hell, this would be a topper to them all. "Jesus. Justin. Is that--"
Oh crap. And to think he'd said he was bored.
"I'm not imagining it." Picking up the cup, Justin takes a drink. "It's that guy in the picture."
"Uh huh. Man, they only get better as they get older, don't they?"
Trust Daphne for that. Justin swallows hard, trying not to laugh. "Stop it."
She grins back, completely shameless. "I can look, even if touch is pretty much impossible. That's--weird. Like fate."
"Fate. Coincidence." Weird. Too weird. Sipping the coffee, Justin ignores the fact he forgot to add cream or sugar. This insane desire to get up and go introduce himself, but something holds him back. Good sense, maybe. Explaining this would be an exercise in freakishness, that too.
But mostly, that look. That look, that instinct that wants him to duck and get away from the attention, and it's the one thing he's never, ever ignored. He's not Brian--he doesn't have the height, the weight, the age, or the reputation. Brian can trick with anyone and be relatively sure he'll be okay. Justin's never believed the same was true for him.
"Let's get out of here." Ignoring Daphne getting her purse, he pulls out a twenty, dropping it on the table. He's not even aware he's shaking a little, this really great reminder of eighteen and rehab, but Daphne's arm goes around him so casually that he doesn't think anyone even notices his stumble. It's hard to walk by the stool--right back front and center, and Jesus, it's Brian all over again and not at all, want like heat on his skin, and he wants *out*. Now.
She doesn't let go when they get outside, not until they're ten paces down the sidewalk, and Justin comes to a stop, drawing in a slow breath, going through every relaxation technique he's ever learned.
"Justin, you okay?" She's moving away, and there's an unreasonable spurt of panic--she can't leave him here, just can't--but she's whistling for a taxi, and he watches as one comes down, slowing at the curb. "Come on."
"I don't--" Need to be somewhere quiet, private, and safe? Stupid to even try to protest when she's pulling him to the car, and he climbs inside, not even trying to fight her off. "Daph--"
"Where to?" The driver's green eyes are just visible in the rearview mirror. Justin feels himself draw back and fights the sudden desire to hit something.
Daphne looks at him for an eternal minute, and Justin thinks he can actually see the address written in her eyes. "Don't you dare...."
His current luck says that Brian won't be home. Or will be home, which has a high percentile of a trick being there, and Justin doesn't think he's up to watching or participating. Or doing anything but wondering, what the *hell* just happened?
But some things remain the same. Whatever instinct that Brian seems to have about Justin is in force, and he's alone, doing something on the computer with that studied look of concentration that, despite everything else, makes Justin curious as hell.
"Brian?" Daphne pulls the door open farther, stepping inside and pulling Justin in with her. He's not fighting her. He's not ten. So what if he likes to walk slowly?
Brian stands up, mild curiosity and a little smile, but Justin's not so out of it he doesn't miss the fact that Brian locked his screensaver on before he stepped away from the computer. The smile fades after a few brief seconds, and Justin wonders what he looks like. "What happened?"
"Panic attack," Daphne says simply, and Justin really doesn't like the way Brian tenses. "I don't have--"
"Valium in the cabinet over the refrigerator, one quarter tablet. Sit down."
It's a command, and Justin used to think he was immune to them. Usually, he thought that well away from Brian's influence. There's a really rebellious thought of just sitting on the floor to be contrary, but--but--
But it's been a really *long* time since he had one of these. Taking a careful breath, he drops down on the old couch that Brian had exiled months ago to storage, brought back to utilization with the entire selling of worldly goods. It smells faintly of dust, almost enough to make him sneeze, and an allergy attack right now would be the capper to a hellacious morning.
Across the room, Justin sees Daphne's mouth open, and that would be--bad. "Nothing." Right, that's not going to cut it. "Nothing serious. I just--"
"Someone asked about the GLC thing with Stockwell."
Justin looks up in shock, but Daphne's face is hidden by the cabinet door. She blushes when she lies.
Brian frowns. "Who?"
"Dunno." That's a vague kind of truth, and Justin takes a breath, surprised to realize he's relaxed. Fuck Daphne's instincts. Fuck his own, for that matter. "Could we not talk about it?" We're so good at it.
He thinks for a second that Brian's not going to let it pass, but thank God and Brian's defensive strategies, habit takes over. He won't ask, but it's a close thing. "You want something to drink?"
"Do you have anything without an alcohol content?" He does his best, sneaking in things when he doesn't think Brian notices. But apparently, anything will do as a mixer in a pinch.
A glass is shoved in his hand, along with the tablet. Justin ignores the pill, taking a drink of the juice, closing his eyes briefly, but the man stares back at him, from a picture, from the diner. A little shiver with memory, and when he opens his eyes, Brian is crouching in front of him. Worried, definitely.
A second passes, then another, and Justin makes a fist around the pill and looks back. He doesn't want to talk about this--can't even begin to explain, doesn't even want to try. Of all the fucking times for Brian to be trying to get in touch with his communicative side....
"I gotta run, Justin."
Daph's an icebreaker and already half-way to the door--probably aware she'll be Brian's next object of scrutiny and doesn't want to deal. Good for her. He almost envies her the freedom to leave, but only waves, mouthing a thank-you when Brian isn't looking. The look he gets back tells him he's going to have some serious explaining to do.
It's delaying the inevitable. It's a nice idea to consider trying out sexual distraction, but he just doesn't think that this is one of those times it's going to work.
When the loft door closes, Justin takes a careful breath and considers how to handle it. "I'm sorry. Just tired."
"You haven't been sleeping very well."
This from someone who runs on four hours a night at most is kind of funny. Justin bites back the instinct to laugh, taking another drink. "I'm just--."
"Have you contacted IFA yet?"
Justin shuts his eyes. "For what? I wouldn't go back if they begged me." It's almost a lie, except--except the memory of the dean's office is too vivid. He's compromised for everyone for so damn long, and Ethan burned out the desire to even try anymore. He has to damn well stand somewhere. Brian gets all the compromise left in him. IFA is just out of luck.
"You don't mean that."
"You'd go crawling to Vance?" He's actually wondered about that--looking up, he sees the thoughtful look on Brian's face. "Would you?"
"I don't crawl."
"Same difference. Would you? If he asked?"
Brian would have once, he thinks. Pride is pride, but there's income, Versace, and Prada to be thought of. Gus. Mortgage payments. And more than those things, the drive beneath the skin, the one thing that no one in Brian's family could have given him, that need not only to succeed, but be great doing it. And the need to *do* something. Brian *does* things. Marking time isn't him at all.
But that was before. Brian's come out on the other side of everything. He's still feeling his way.
Familiar. There's a hospital room that reminds Justin a lot of that moment.
"I don't know."
Justin nods slowly. "Yeah."
And like always, the moment's broken, and Justin leans back when Brian stands up, restless everywhere. "Ben called."
Straightening, Justin refuses to feel hope. "Michael?"
"Fine. Something about a scratch on the hood of the car. Fucking thing will need to be detailed when it gets back. God alone knows what Hunter's done with it."
Justin tries not to smile. "Think Mikey lets Hunter drive?"
Brian isn't amused. "I'll have his balls."
"Where are they?"
Brian shrugs. So Michael hadn't told, which is a good indicator that this wasn't an announcement of a homecoming. Justin doesn't let himself react at all. "Ben's--"
"Wired. Between the store and classes and police questioning, he's strung too thin." Brian ducks into the refrigerator, leaving Justin with his thoughts. "He's having problems with Mikey's inventory organization. Can't find anything."
"Publisher first, then pilot issue date," Justin answers , sipping his juice. "He's a purist. The older good stuff gets the best shelf space. Newer stuff, upper shelves."
He's aware suddenly of Brian looking at him, thoughtful again. No, not right. Measuring. "Supply delivery dates?"
"Wednesdays and Saturdays, early morning." Seeing Brian's surprise, Justin shrugs. "It's the only time we had to work on Rage sometimes, with my class schedule and other commitments." Ethan. You. But mostly Ethan. "I got used to helping out. Michael couldn't work when everything was a mess." Anal retentive ass sometimes, and Justin knows, *knows* the bastard got off making him lug those damned boxes around.
"He had Ted auditing, but he keeps meticulous records. It's his baby. Why are you so curious? Taking notes for Ben?"
Justin's completely thrown by Brian's smile. *That* one, and usually, it means sex, which makes Justin wonder, since when exactly have office supply discussions become a kink? He's not objecting--hell, if he'd known, a major in business might have turned up in his college curriculum after all. "Something like that. How are you feeling?"
Hot. Justin blinks, trying to tear his gaze from Brian's mouth. It's not easy. There's an entire fantasy series devoted to just Brian's mouth and a hotel room in Venice, but-- "Fine. I--"
"Get your coat."
No, wait.... "What?"
"Ben's having a very civilized nervous breakdown at the comic shop." The smile widens, like it always does when Brian starts rearranging everyone's lives to suit himself. Manipulative bastard--except, okay, what is he doing, exactly? "Let's go help him out."
There's nothing that kills sex like discussing dry numbers, but Brian's doing his impression of utter absorbed attention, which is suspicious in itself, and Justin can tell it's making Ben nervous. Because this--this is a comic shop. In no normal world does Brian look like he's getting a relatively good blowjob while Ben drones on about supply costs.
Ben's made a mess of the storeroom, though--Justin finally wanders off, leaving the two to talk in numerical code while he shuffles through. X-Men mix and match, Hellblazer left alone beside a pile of low-end Marvels, and Ultimate Spiderman is in danger of being lost inside the DC section. Justin knows shit about the comic industry, but crossing the streams is wrong on any level.
Taking a few minutes, Justin wanders through. He has to admit, Michael's doing a hell of a lot better than anyone could have possibly guessed. The once half-empty shelves near the far end are starting to fill with the Japanese imports. Graphic novels, still in plastic and protected in carefully sealed boxes--Justin remembers Michael going over the newsletters from conventions to find out what was hot, painstakingly highlighting what seemed interesting enough to investigate further.
The supply area's just--Justin winces, trying not to imagine Michael's face. Out of half of everything. Ben doesn't know what to order, of course, but the comic shop was Michael's sanctuary, home, best friend, other half. He knew what was needed like he knew how to breathe, instinct, no thought.
"Justin." Putting down the remaining few boxes of plastic covers, Justin turns to see Ben looking at him expectantly. Okay, what? Brian looks--smug. Satisfied. Frighteningly hot, because honest to God, nothing is hotter than Brian Kinney when he's winning.
Winning what, Justin's not sure, but-- "Yeah?"
"I was thinking about--look, would you be interested in manning the shop for a while?"
And imagine that, Brian had a strategy. Who saw this one coming? And dammit, he should have, but--Justin stops at the doorway, watching the two men watch him with every sign of interest in his least word.
"I don't know anything about--comic books." Completely ignore the fact he's writing one. Ben's expression doesn't change. "I don't know anything--Ben, you've got to be kidding. Michael will kill us both. Or at least me--he *likes* you."
Ben shook his head, smile widening. "I know shit about the business. Michael did all the work. Look, it'll only be for a little while, until Michael comes home. I can't--" Ben stops short, something crossing his face that's too close to pain for Justin to look on, and Justin jerks his gaze to Brian.
"Can I have a minute with Brian, Ben?"
Brian's expression doesn't change--but then, Brian's always a little less impressed with his temper tantrums than anyone else. It's frustrating. Ben glances between the two of them, and damned if the ass doesn't grin before nodding and picking up the styrofoam cup of coffee at his elbow, the bell ringing merrily as he wanders out.
"What are you doing?"
Both elbows on the counter, Brian's the picture of assumed innocence. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Bullshit. You set me up. What--"
"You need something to do." There's a scary kind of surety in his voice that makes Justin wince--and he'd thought Brian hadn't noticed how he felt. "You're being a princess about IFA--"
"You ass, I have reason--"
"And the store needs to stay open. Ben can't do it--he's killing himself trying. Everyone wins."
Michael's store. Justin doesn't let his mouth tighten--a corvette and a store and God knows what else. "You do it."
Both eyebrows rise. "You're kidding."
"You know more about it than I do. And you have an applicable major. And--"
No discussion, right. Justin leans into the doorway, trying to work out what exactly just happened. He's--got a job. Somehow. Here. And--Justin sighs. "Mikey'll hate it."
"Mikey will like being solvent. That's assuming we're not visiting him in Attica or wherever the hell they send kidnappers these days."
"Who says I'll visit?"
Brian smirks and doesn't answer. Another sigh--he's getting way too comfortable with those--Justin crosses to the counter, leaning against it. Brian shifts close enough for their foreheads to touch. "Do it. Stockwell's over. You need to find out what you want to do now."
"I was thinking of selling my art on the street corner."
"How ridiculously romantic of you." A brushed kiss, and Justin tilts his head up, catching Brian's smile on his mouth. "It'll help Ben."
"And you're being really, really altruistic for someone running one seventeen in debt."
"One sixteen four-forty eight." Brian bites once, hard enough for Justin to catch his breath, then backs off. "Go over the details with Ben. I'll bring lunch by."
That's a nice thought. They've never fucked in the storeroom. Mikey's never out of it long enough. But-- "Wait. I didn't say yes."
Brian grins from the door--his answer, apparently, is the merry ringing of the bell.
Justin stares around the dusty, comic-book stuffed room, a little bemused. He remembers this feeling. Right after he dropped acid that one time.
Looking up at Ben's hopeful expression, Justin blinks. Ben's too vivid to be part of an acid trip, and anyway, he really doesn't remember taking anything today. This is actually happening. "I'm in. Let's talk pay."