Well, I gave it a week and my nose is still doing revolting things I won't discuss, the congestion won't end, and nausea's added for reasons I won't go into for any reason short of imminent death, and only messy death. Headache on fourth day straight Four fifteen appointment. Yay me.
So of course, after taking enough sudafed to cause poisoning in small experimental rodents, I spent time this morning in socks, ugly polyester pajama bottoms and wrote.
Slowly, the snail pounds through the snow and molasses wilderness.
Emmett shows up at the shop just as Justin braces himself for another round of box-opening, knocking on the door while holding up an unmistakable white cardboard box.
Emmett believes in sugar, cholesterol, and all the wonderful things associated with both. Opening the door, Justin steps back and breathes in the smell of coffee and donuts. "I love you."
It's even *better* with the box open on the counter, and screw Michael and his rule against food up front, is he here? Nope. Chocolate covered, chocolate filled, glazed, they're all there, nirvana in pastry form. Brian doesn't allow them in the loft. Dire predictions of heart attacks and cholesterol counts.
"I bet you say that to all the boys who bring you food." Pushing the cup of coffee toward him, Emmett settles on a stool and reaches for something powdery and filled with jelly. "How's that gainful employment coming?"
"I'm in hell."
Emmett grins back, eyes fixed on the windows again. He's thinking of curtains. And damned if it wouldn't serve Michael right to come back to an Emmett-decorated comic shop. That's the kind of gift that keeps on giving. Grinning, Justin picks up a bearclaw and takes a slow, careful bite. Sugar. Glazed white sugar. No redeeming nutritional value. Oh hell yes. "So how is everything, Sunshine?"
You'd be surprised and wouldn't believe it. I don't believe it either, except it happened and I wasn't high. "Great." It's scary how much he means it. Shouldn't be a word associated with this place.
"Where's Brian?" Emmett makes a huge show of looking back at the storage room, like Brian would be caught dead flipping through comics when anyone could see him. Right, he can play that entire too-cool-for-this-shit thing, but Justin's not an idiot and he's had a lot of time this morning to go through Michael's books. And he'll be damned if he doesn't recognize Brian's handwriting on some of those order forms. 'Supporting a friend' Justin's very white ass. He just wants to know where the hell Brian *keeps* them.
Come to think, this would be a *great* time to do some spring cleaning in the loft, wouldn't it?
"New York for a few days." Taking another donut, Justin stuffs the entire thing in his mouth, grinning through the chocolate filling at Emmett's raised eyebrows, chewing quickly. "I can tie a cherry stem with my tongue, too. What are you doing down here anyway?"
"I have an appointment in the 'burbs this morning." Which doesn't explain a damn thing. Justin nods like it makes perfect sense, because in a way, it does. This morning, he'd been kissed against the loft door and asked to check in every so often to make sure the place didn't go up in smoke. The emptiness had been like an ache. He'd walked to work way too early. And he's really catching up on things. Two extra hours can do that to you. So can loneliness. And that thing with not having a life. "So Brian's trying New York?"
Justin nods as he picks up the cherry glazed. "He had an offer."
Emmett swivels on the stool, blue eyes fixing on him. "You okay with that, honey?"
No. Maybe. Have to be. "Why shouldn't I be?" They still act like he's glass that will shatter if he's handled wrong. To think he used to think the same thing about himself. Shaking himself, he holds the donut between his teeth and fixes his coffee, looking in amusement at the phallus-tipped stirring rod. He won't even ask.
"If he gets the offer?"
I have no idea. We're not at that place where discussing the future is really a huge concern. Pulling off a bite, Justin chews to kill time. But eventually, he has to swallow. "I hope he does."
Don't trick while I'm gone. Jesus, a two-three day absence wouldn't be enough to make Justin even consider it. He has a weird feeling there's some symbolism going on here, but of what, he just can't work out. What about you? Ask and find out.
Justin blinks back into the shop, belatedly aware the bell on the door is ringing. Crap. He should have locked the door. People just don't pay attention to signs these days. "Excuse me, we're--"
His morning is taking a downslide fast.
"Justin?" Emmett's tap on his shoulder brings him back to the here and now. "This is--James Evans. Um, you didn't have the chance to be introduced." How diplomatic of Emmett. "James, Justin Taylor."
Justin doesn't put down the coffee or the donut, blinking at the man leaning familiarly into the counter across from Emmett, as if it's some kind of God given right to lean against any and all counters in his general vicinity. Breathe, Taylor.
"Justin. Debbie's told me a lot about you." A wide, white smile, like a really cheesy ad for toothpaste that Brian would have sneered at in production. Justin feels himself nod, autopilot good manners taking over. He can feel Emmett's worried stare and tries to make himself concentrate. Okay. Just. Be calm.
"I've heard a lot about you as well." There. It's childish, but he's never seen anyone make Brian act like that. Stay away from him. Not a problem, Brian, trust me. Except when he shows up at work. Leaning both elbows into the counter, Justin flicks his hair from his eyes with powdery fingers and makes himself look uninterested. "How's the search for Michael going?"
It's still there. Evaluative, penetrating, looking him over like he's a piece of equipment up for sale, like a Babylon hustler, like--that fix of eyes on his mouth. Justin feels vaguely dirty, but he's been around long enough to stay still. Looking never hurt anyone.
But damned if he has to like it.
"I have a few leads to check out." Beside him, Justin can almost see Emmett smiling when the man looks at him with that smile. Yeah, Emmett, keep up the flirting. It's the most animated he's been since Ted left. "Debbie tells me you're an artist?"
Justin nods slowly. What all did Debbie say? He knows Debbie talks about him--about him, Brian, Michael, Emmett, hell, even Ted. For some reason, though, right now? Not something he wants to think about.
There's an edge of condescension that sets every hair on Justin's neck up and he almost--almost reacts. "Yes. Michael and I are working on one together."
"Mikey's done well for himself." James gives the store a slow once-over, making Justin uncomfortably aware that he hasn't swept, the DC section is a complete mess, and one of the table legs is being held together with duct tape, after that unfortunate incident with the seven year old and the adult comic ban last night.
"He's done really well." And this is how it starts. This is how you know something is wrong with the world, because Brian's giving up random sex and Justin's talking up Mikey like he likes the man. He sounds like a fucking *commercial*. A bad one. But he can't help himself. It's kind of like being drunk but without the fun. "Really great. He and his partner Ben are totally giving it their all."
James nods pleasantly, and Justin shuts his mouth over the next bite of donut. Stop babbling. Stop. Now. "I just dropped by to pick up a few things Debbie said might help my search. Do you mind?" James motions at the counter, and Justin is assaulted by a wild desire to yell NO, which is all kinds of weird. Mutely, he steps back, letting James come around and slide by him--way too close for anything resembling personal space. So right, he's over his extreme dislike of crowding--he's never going to be over not liking it when it's like this.
"I--need to get these boxes moved." The one behind Emmett looks promising, and less like make-work than it actually is. Pushing the remainder of the donut in his mouth, Justin dusts off his hands automatically on his jeans, leaning over to pick it up.
And it doesn't move. Belatedly, Justin remembers *why* this one hasn't gone back yet. Fuck. Fuckity fuck. Breathe. Think. Think. "Emmett? Give me some help?"
"I can get that."
Oh hell no. Justin opens his mouth, but James is already stepping around him, and Emmett's less than no help, blinking in surprise at Justin's glare. What, he seems to be asking with wide eyes. Hot guy wants to help with a box? Where's the bad in this?
Emmett's so going to pay for this.
The bulk of James body forces Justin back, and he leans into the counter, too aware of how close the man is--the brush of his coat against Justin's hip, the scent of some subtle cologne that makes Justin want to start sneezing, and hell, wouldn't that be a capper for a great morning? Though then he'd have a great reason to run for the bathroom, and away from the guy, and--
"Where do you want this?"
Justin stares at the box at his approximate eye level. Show-off ass. "In back."
"Mind showing me?"
Yes. I really do. "Just straight back by the first shelves. I'll unpack it later."
James grins at him over the top of the box and turns away, disappearing into the room briefly, and Justin's aware Emmett's still looking at him like he's grown an extra head.
"Justin?" There's about ten thousand questions wrapped up in that one word, and Justin doesn't want to answer any of them.
James comes back out before Emmett can move into the interrogation portion of the morning, and Justin gives the old clock hanging above the counter a desperate look. Still can't open yet. Fuck. But James is all that is completely calm, shuffling through the counter and space beneath like it's all his own, and Justin has a horrifying memory of some customized photography he's been looking at for the last few days. Where is it? Daphne's? The loft? Debbie's? Mom's? Here? Oh God, and Brian will have him killed or cut off his sex privileges if that thing with banana cream ever, *ever* sees the light of day....
"Is this Michael's account book?" James holds up the plain binder with a flourish. Right, in his backpack. Phew.
"Yeah." Reaching across the space, Justin closes his fingers over the edge and almost falls when the man holds on.
"Mind if I borrow this?"
Absolutely. "I kind of need it here to run the store." Justin doesn't let go--so right, in a serious dispute of ownership, Justin would be ass over heels on the floor and that binder would be James', but it's the principle of the matter. Deb likes him. Brian apparently has some serious negative thing going on here. And that's Michael's book. Tightening his fingers, Justin jerks it away, and James lets go like it's not that much of a big deal. "I can leave it at Debbie's after work today if I can get it back tomorrow."
James nods slowly, eyes on his mouth again. Like he's *ever* going to have the pleasure. "That'll be fine, Justin. Thank you." And the bastard sounds gracious. Justin closes his eyes in quiet frustration at Emmett's slow sigh of admiration. Yes, Emmett, suck up to the man. Go ahead.
"I'd better get going." James says slowly, finally looking away from Justin to give Emmett another bright smile. "It was nice to see you, Justin. Will Brian be around later? I'd like to ask him a few questions--"
"He's kind of busy." Sliding one foot over, Justin slams his heel into Emmett's ankle when the man opens his mouth. Don't you fucking dare. Another look, but hey, he can be as irrational as he likes, dammit.
"I thought he was fired from Vanguard?"
And aren't you one to keep up with details? Justin keeps his bright smile intact. It fools people who don't know him. "As I said, busy busy busy. Resumes, errands, that sort of thing. I'll give him the message." Tucking the book into the counter behind him, Justin widens his smile. "Okay, guys, great chatting, but gotta get the store open. Hope to see you both later, but work work work, all that stuff. Mikey trusts me with the store, you know? Don't want to let him down or anything."
Mikey wouldn't trust Justin with his old socks, but Mr. Man here totally does not need to know that, now does he?
"Of course." James sounds really amused, and that's not scoring a single point. "I'll see you tonight at Debbie's, Justin."
Oh fucking swell.
Later, he'll be amazed at his ability to hustle both of them out--luckily, Emmett's so surprised the donuts are completely forgotten on the counter, and after this kind of morning, Justin deserves a sugar high from hell. Watching them stop to chat on the sidewalk, Justin determinedly turns the sign to Open and steps back to survey his domain.
Another glance outside shows James and Emmett walking away, but James gives a single glance back, and even though it's impossible to see inside from out there, Justin would almost swear the man is looking at him.
Debbie's got that entire combination order/plea thing down to a kind of art. There's a reason that Brian tends to obey her and Michael's deathly scared of her, and right, while Justin didn't have her overwhelming influence during his formative years, he still lived in this house, ate of this food, and there's some myth about eating the food of a place that sticks you there (pomegranates, right?), but he's way, way too tired to remember it. But the gist is, it works on him, too. Mostly. Usually.
But he's *fortified* this time. It's called, utter and complete desperation. The kind of desperation that let him sneak out windows at home at age seventeen to stalk down the rotten love of his life and also, to stand up to Debbie's pleas. Even though he can smell spaghetti and his stomach's still in rebellion from the fact lunch was five danish from that fucking coffee shop nearby that is becoming his most frightening addiction yet. Nicotine's understandable, and hey, meth or heroin junkie has a kind of shabby-dirty resonance, but what can you really think of yourself when you say you're a whore for triple vanilla espressos?
He shivers to remember it.
"You need to eat, honey. You're skin and bones!"
Brian had mentioned something about that a few days ago, but Justin had been sort of involved with sucking his cock and hadn't gotten around to answering.
"I gotta get home--I mean, back to the loft. I have--" Homework? Assignments? Nope. Art. Art! "--something I'm working on for the next GLC show." Like he'd allow something of his to be shown there if they went down on their knees and begged him. Which is another image he really doesn't need to even begin to visualize, like Stockwell naked, and Justin takes a step back before he finally admits insanity.
"Just for a little while. Your mother's worried about you."
Play the mommy card. Like that ever works. Or he's even looked at the voice mail on his cell phone.
"Brian's expecting me back." And this is one of those times that Emmett being very employed and pretty much invisible is such a plus. He needs to call him and--what? Don't tell Brian's in New York, and no, I don't have a reason, except I've lied twice and what the hell, let's keep it up for kicks? Justin pushes a step back toward the door, pushing the account book at Debbie. "I gotta run. I'll come by the diner and pick it up in the morning, okay?"
Debbie's mouth opens again, but Justin already has those pauses in Debbie conversation mapped--he's got his hand on the doorknob, which is like half the battle.
"What did Brian tell you about James, Justin?"
Oh hell. "Nothing." Half-turning, Justin looks at her disbelief and shakes his head. "Nothing, really. We haven't talked about it. I'll see you in the morning." And escape, out the door, he's already down the porch, where the rental Brian left him to use is waiting patiently. At least it's automatic.
Pulling his coat closer, Justin pounds down the sidewalk, feeling vaguely hunted. James could be back any minute. There's a good chance that James is on his way over and Justin doesn't want to be here when he arrives, and if anyone asked his reasons, he'd lie, mostly because he wouldn't be able to explain even if he tried. I don't like how he looks at me, I don't like how he smiles, and I don't like he makes me feel like that. Brian's reaction is just confirmation that he isn't pulling this crap out of his ass.
For no reason in particular (for every reason in the world), Justin ends up at the loft, and saying, I'm checking to make sure everything is okay is silly. The invitation had been something completely different and he knows it. What he really wants is quiet--after the comic shop and after Debbie and after James and after those endless triple vanilla espressos that are playing havoc with his sleep patterns.
The emptiness is disconcerting as hell, though he's been here often enough when Brian's away. Closing the door, he remembers vividly why he left this morning--too quiet, too much space, somehow not enough either. The heat's off, he turned it off this morning before he left. The cleanness is disturbing in some way. It's not like Brian left for a few days. It's more like the feeling of a place you don't come back to.
Justin snorts to himself. He's becoming such a ten year old girl.
Turning on the heat low--what's an extra few hundred dollars on a hundred thousand dollar debt anyway?--Justin flips on the main lights and goes into the dark bedroom, finding his way by body memory. Here's where the edge of the bed is, and his feet know the path when his eyes don't. The closet door's open and Justin kneels and reaches inside, past more shoes than Imelda Marcus could ever have hoped to own, to the very back, where his hands find the poster paper. He grabs a bundle and pulls them out, putting them in a haphazard bundle onto the floor and restacking them, then carrying them out. Spreading them out under bright, unforgiving light.
History of art class, freshman year. For some reason, the name of the professor eludes him--tall, stick-like guy way too old to have ever been young, moving with too-fast, almost jerky movements of a pencil across paper, but he'd blown Justin's mind with what he could produce with charcoal and pastels. Someone had told him once that he'd spent time in East Germany, but Justin hadn't ever thought to ask, hadn't been really interested enough.
Justin remembers falling asleep a *lot* during that class--it was first semester, he was pushing himself way too hard, trying to prove everything was just fine, thank you, now get the fuck off my ass already Mom, Deb, *Brian*.
Justin opens his eyes at the boom of the professor's voice. Lifting his head, the paper he'd been doodling on clings to his cheek and apparently, he drooled. Jesus. He's got to get more sleep.
Luckily, no one's paying attention--peeling the paper off, Justin glances around and sees the entire class seems to be focused on their professor, who looks about the same as always, so what the hell is going on?
"Agitprop. Can anyone give me a definition?"
"Political strategy in which techniques of agitation and propaganda are used to influence public opinion." Justin snickers to himself. He remembers going back to sleep almost immediately as examples were named--famous Russian, European, American artists who'd turned their talent into political statements, and what had he been thinking again? Oh right--he was *above* that. Prostitution for politics, so very beneath him, so very not what real artists did, he was in it for the *art*. Blah blah blah, I need coffee already.
How the fucking mighty have fallen.
Laying them out, Justin takes a second to study technique. Vivid, heavy slashes--the idea had been, go big. Subtle shading of dark and light, balance, hadn't been the point. This was supposed to be something you noticed, thought about, *remembered* long after out of sight had commenced. And Christ, if his future was in propaganda, he had a sure winner going on here. Dammit, he was *good*.
Arrogant little shit, he remembers Brian saying affectionately.
*"So how did you know it was me?"
Brian snorts softly. "I lived with you. What do you think, I wouldn't know your style by now?"
Justin sits up, looking down at Brian. "I never thought you paid that much attention."
"Amazing how well you don't know me, isn't it?"*
Fucker. Brian hadn't ever said when he'd figured it out, but Justin has a sneaking suspicion the first poster was all he really needed. There are all kinds of fingerprints you leave in what you're good at--Justin can spot a Brian-masterminded commercial at fifty paces for the most part, but it had never occurred to him that Brian knew him well enough to do the same.
Of course, the Stockwell thing had been a shock, and it *still* pisses him off that he didn't figure it out with the first airing. Maybe--maybe suspected some of Brian's touch, but--shit. It hadn't penetrated. Too out there, unnatural, like a heterosexual Emmett or Babylon becoming a coffee shop. Even indecent, considering it was *Brian*, who loved money and loved power and loved best when the two were together.
No, he didn't know Brian that well, it seemed.
Sophomore level art student who helped bring down a mayoral candidate--could you even put that on a résumé? How do you even phrase that? Classically trained artist with experience in computer graphics, cartoonist, and political propaganda? A laundry list of weirdness. Can also wait tables and currently runs a comic book shop. And despite the last part, does get laid regularly.
His life can be summed up just like that. And all he has to show for it is a collection of posters, a very broke lover, and a host of half-hearted regrets. He doesn't think he'd do much differently, but that's because there's no point he can see where he could have stopped. Events fluidly leading into each other like some kind of inevitability, like fate maybe, which he's sure he doesn't believe in, but he's beginning to really wonder about that.
The ring of the phone jerks his head up, and he almost gets up, stopping at the last minute, remembering that Brian's out and he doesn't have to. Looking back down, he sighs, wondering exactly what he *is* going to do. He's miles and miles away from being the kid who didn't know what to do with himself. At least, he thinks so, most of the time.
"Pick up the fucking phone, Sunshine. I know you're there."
Blinking, Justin straightens at the sound of Brian's voice on the answering machine. He's not at his most graceful when he skids across the floor, but he blames the posters that get under his feet, and he gets hold of the handheld and flips off the machine at the same time.
"You were expecting someone else?"
See, this is the problem with the entire quasi-cheating thing being in your shared past. You start reading really bizarre things into simple statements. Justin bites back something sarcastic and drops onto the floor, leaning into the kitchen counter. "Yeah, but you'll do. How's New York?"
"Fucking freezing." The background noise makes Justin curious--that sure as hell isn't the dignified quiet of a hotel. If he didn't know better--
"Are you clubbing?"
"I didn't plan to go to bed at a decent hour." The ripple of amusement's annoying as shit. "Look but don't touch. Much."
Do blowjobs count? Maybe he should have asked if they were using Clinton-rules or not. "Uh huh. How is everything going?"
"Better than expected." There's something in Brian's voice that Justin hasn't heard since the days before that commercial came out. A quiet, secret glee, a kind of excitement that simply doesn't fit the image at all. The drama queen in Brian's skin that gets so damn little actual airtime and itches to get more. Frankly, it's alarming. Justin can read Brian like a book except he can't right now, hasn't been able to since he found out about the commercial, because this is a Brian who has gone places that his designer shoes wouldn't have considered going before, and he's still going. There's not a roadmap in sight.
"What does that mean?" He wants to know. It's unfair--he spent so much fucking time working out the psychology and wanting so badly for Brian to--to just--change? No, not the right word. Something. Become the person Justin had sensed so damn long ago, with their first meeting, with the first time Brian held Gus, with the first time Justin knew, *knew*, like he knew his name and knew he was gay, that this was *it*. When you look upon the shape of your fate fucked up out of his mind and think, you think--
Yeah, that's him, romantic to the end.
"It means exactly what I said. How's the shop?"
Justin bites his lip, shifting the phone to his other ear. "Okay. I'm almost done with inventory. I'm going in early tomorrow to finish up." How sad when he puts it in words. He's becoming a Mikey clone. But cuter. "How does Mikey feel about fuschia curtains?"
Brian's laugh makes Justin smile. "Don't you fucking think about it."
"Add some color and all." Grinning, Justin leans back into the counter. "When's the last time Michael's books were checked?"
"Ted was doing it. God knows what since." The reception becomes cloudy for a second, but the connection doesn't snap, and Justin listens to the noise level drop, the sound of a slamming door. Brian's outside. "Why? Do you need money?"
"I might need it when we start getting the new stuff. Ben has access to the accounts, right?"
"I think so." There's a brief, thoughtful silence. "Has Evans been poking around the store?"
Justin straightens against the counter. "Yeah. He said he was looking for stuff to help him find Michael. Why?"
Another silence, even more thoughtful. "The books. The ones for the shop. Did he see them?"
Justin swallows hard. "He wanted to look them over, see if he could find a clue where Mikey--" Fuck. "Is Michael pulling from the shop's accounts?"
Justin doesn't even bother to ask how Brian knows that. He knows Michael. "But--he can't just request bank records, can he?" Even to himself, his voice sounds faint. "I mean--even the police can't--"
"There's some dispute on what the hell actually happened. Ben's claiming Hunter ran away and Michael went after him to talk some sense into him. That's why yours truly isn't currently in a jail cell for aiding and abetting a kidnapping." Oh right. The car. "Keep those away from him."
Well, too fucking late for that. They're in his sticky paws right the fuck now. "Brian? What's worrying you about him? Seriously here. Deb wouldn't have called him in if she thought--I mean, it's not like he's--" Going to turn information over to the police. To their great friend Stockwell, who is probably drooling at the chance to get any of them in his fat little hands. Oh *man*. This can't be good at all.
"I don't know what the fuck he wants." Brian sounds tense. And also, like he's not paying much attention. "I really don't give a shit. I know Mikey doesn't want to be found and I know the fucker wasn't that great for him the first time around. Just do it. Talk to Ben, give him some excuse. He's not that hot for Debbie's little idea either."
Justin blinks. "When did you talk to Ben?"
Brian ignores the question. Typical. "Gotta run. Remember to turn on the alarm before you leave in the morning."
Despite the faint stirrings of nausea, Justin can't help smirking. "Who says I'm staying the night here?"
"Where else would you be?"
"Daphne's." Justin closes his eyes, trying to visualize Brian on a New York sidewalk. Long coat--the leather one, maybe? Phone against his ear, looking for a cab. Or just walking, because it's a cold, clear night and because he wants to. "Mom's." Brian snorts his belief in that one, and Justin keeps his eyes closed. It's warming up. "I miss you."
There's a moment where Justin thinks Brian won't answer. But then again, this is all new territory. He knows better than to think he knows. "I miss you, too. See you soon."
The phone clicks off and Justin sets it down on the floor, eyes still closed.
He's not quite ready to move yet.