Feel free to correct canon mistakes and so forth.
For earlier installments of the fic that just keeps going, go to http://seperis.illuminatedtext.com/other/how.html.
It's an awfully long wait, even for Justin, who prides himself on his patience.
Still, though, the loud knocking startles him, and he hits his head against the wood of the wall and bites back the groan of pain, reaching up to cup the bruised skin and praying that the knocking was enough to cover it.
Lights come on upstairs, and Justin can hear Deb, yelling who the hell came by at midnight when it's only eleven fifteen and really, she should be used to this by now. Crouching more, Justin rubs his head and listens for doors opening. Deb's room, the unmistakable pound of her slippered feet on the upstairs floor. A second door, farther back, opening more slowly. That would be Vic, who wouldn't miss an event on his deathbed. Eyes closed, Justin listens for the third door, every muscle tense. Squeak of unoiled hinges. That weird way it scrapes the floor when it's half-open because the house isn't completely level anymore.
*"You're nuts, you know that."*
*"Like this is totally new information. You have a better idea?"*
*"Home in bed? Drunk off our asses at Babylon? Breeder baiting at sports bars? Justin, listen to what you're saying. *Have* you been listening to what you're saying? The words that are coming out of your mouth?"*
*"You're really overreacting."*
*"*I*'m overreacting? I'm *overreacting*?"
*"Give me three minutes, then do it, okay?"*
*"I can't believe I'm doing this."*
*"Relax. This'll go great. I saw this on TV once."*
*"See you in a few. And remember--two blocks. Good luck."*
"Keep your hair on," Debbie grumbles above him, and Justin freezes against the wall at the sound of Debbie coming down the stairs. A glance up shows her tying her robe haphazardly around her waist, one hand smoothing her wig down quickly. Vic is only a step behind her.
That third door hasn't opened yet. Fuck.
Holding still, Justin watches Deb get to the door, quickly unlocking it and jerking it open. He's got to talk to her about doing that--anyone could be out there, anyone at all. "Emmett! What the fuck is going on?"
This is the part that's going to pretty much make or break the entire thing. Justin doesn't even realize he's holding his breath until sparks start dancing behind his eyes. Letting it out in a soft gasp, he presses against the wall and waits, keeping his eye on the door.
"Debbie." The strange flatness of his voice isn't good--nor is the fact Debbie's annoyance isn't abating much. "I--"
"I--" There's the sound of shuffling, and Justin shuts his eyes. Do it, Emmett. Come on. Do it. "I--Ted called."
Justin blinks his eyes open at the broken edge in Emmett's voice. No playacting there. That was totally real.
"A--a few hours ago." Justin can see Debbie reaching out, pulling Emmett inside by one sequined wrist, and Vic is blinking a little at the sight that Justin hadn't really gotten a chance to appreciate yet. That has to be the brightest shade of yellow ever created. The faint light from outside bathes Emmett in a kind of martyred, post-modern glow, with a side of glitter, like something out of the Fellowship of the Rings. At some point, and Justin doesn't even want to know when, Emmett had smeared black eyeliner below each eye. He looks a mess of depressed and unhappy queen.
And Justin hadn't even known Emmett *had* cosmetics carried around with him.
"He's not supposed to call out, but he did, and he was--Debbbieeee!"
The bemused expressions on both his foster parents' faces is classic as Emmett hurls himself forward into Debbie's arms, and Justin worries at Debbie's stagger at six feet of very skinny Emmett draped over her like a toga. Vic's already moving to help, but Debbie waits tables and carries trays for a living. She catches herself on one strong heel and holds on.
"Sweetie, sweetie. Come on, sit down." Between the two of them, Vic and Deb maneuver Emmett to the couch, and Justin winces at the sudden spout of hysterical tears. A small, very small, one might say tiny, part of Justin's conscience flips over and swims uneasily. That sounds--really real. Really *really* real.
And that third door isn't opening.
Debbie turns on a small lamp to illuminate the room, giving it a quiet yellow glow. No overheads. So far so good. If only that third fucking door would open.
"...but you know you can't let him get to you. He's in recovery, sweetheart."
"He's miserable!" Emmett's voice breaks on a dramatic whine that makes Vic wince. "He says everything will be better if he can just come home, that he's sorry for everything--"
"And you believe that?" Debbie's voice breaks through Emmett's like a whale through the ocean. Really big and pretty scary. Justin can hear Emmett swallow a sob. "He's going to get better, he is. Listen to me, honey. If he wants to. You give in now, he never will."
Okay, he's waited long enough. Slowly, Justin slips forward, watching the three on the couch. All the focus is on Emmett--so far so good. Creeping to the stairs, Justin starts the first one, and the loud squeak freezes him cold, eyes instantly flipping to Debbie, whose back straightens.
"But I can't live without him!" Emmett bawls, throwing himself forward like that latest production of *Romeo and Julio* they saw at the community theatre, when Romeo watched his ex lover Mercutio die tragically and lengthily half-way down the stage before falling over the edge and requiring rescue by a group of drag queens from the south side. Shakespeare had never had it that good, Justin remembers a little affectionately, as Debbie jerks forward and catches Emmett before he hits his head on the coffee table.
Right. Back to business.
Thankfully, he remembers now which stairs make the weirdest noises, and Justin takes them two at a time, ducking into the nearly-perfect dark of the hall, eyes fixing on his--no, Michael's--no, James' door. Okay. Breathe. Just--this is not a big deal. This is--going to be a snap. This is going to be so easy that he's going to be laughing about this to Brian one day.
Justin shivers. Oh no. He's never, ever telling Brian about this. Because Brian will never, ever believe it.
The door squeaks only at one half open, and the lock is the easiest thing in the world. Taking out his key, Justin takes a slow, deep breath, clearing his head. Thinking this through will mean he'll screw it up. That's what always happens when he overthinks something. It's what happens when *anyone* overthinks something. Do it or don't, but don't sit on your ass--or stand in a dark hall upstairs from the family--and try to *think* about it.
Kneeling on the floor, Justin slides his hand around the doorknob and carefully inserts the key. Breathe. Pushes it inside--and see, if he'd been this calm that first time, man, would sex that night have gone a hell of a lot better--and why is he thinking about *that* again? A quick turn--
The door isn't locked, and Justin's so surprised he lets go of the door, watching dumbly as it swings slowly open, like something out of a teen horror flick. The squeal of the door is so loud he swears the entire neighborhood can hear it, and he stares blankly into the cool dark of the room, waiting for a big body to lever itself out of the bed and see him kneeling there like the biggest idiot ever.
Except, his eyes adjusting, he can see the room is empty.
Jesus Christ, why didn't he *think* of that?
Slowly standing up, Justin takes a few short steps inside, trying to shrug off the discomfort. James is out. Of course he's out. He's out doing things tonight. It's not even midnight and nothing has started yet on Liberty. Okay, so. Hugely wasted dramatic scene downstairs, but hey, it's killing time, and Justin carefully shuts the door behind him, crossing the room to flip on the small lamp, not quite willing to risk overhead lights right now.
There's a suitcase by the dresser and the bed's a little unruly, like it was made by someone who really didn't have that huge a thing for hospital corners. Justin *knew* he wasn't the only one obsessed with that, but he's not sure he really wants to be in the same classification as James either. Running a hand through his hair, he takes a deep breath, taking a second glance around. Nowhere visible, but hell, it could be anywhere.
It's a familiar room, easy to search. Debbie's a shrew about neatness sometimes. Quick work to circle the bed, but the familiar book isn't anywhere in sight. Shit. Inside the bedside table, where Justin can't help grinning at the condoms and tubes of lube stuck, because Debbie's a huge fan of safe sex and has no illusions about when and where it's going to happen.
That leaves--the suitcase. Justin takes a slow breath to brace himself, crossing the room to kneel beside it. For some reason, pulling the outside zipper is indecently loud, and the weirdest and most inopportune thoughts are floating up around in his head, trying to distract him.
Ethan had fucked him in this room once upon a time. Same shocking sound, making him catch his breath, hands braced against the cool wall, eyes closed because he hadn't been able to believe he was doing this *here*, doing this *now*, with everyone downstairs, with Michael in the kitchen pushing everyone away while he held ice to his eye, while Brian's name was on everyone's lips, and he remembers gritting his teeth and hating them for saying it, for somehow making even this about Brian. Hated Brian for coming where he hadn't been expected. Even hated Ethan for wanting to do this for whatever insane reason that maybe had a lot less to do with sex than it had to do with reminding. This is what you chose and I am who you chose and this is whose you are. And it's not his.
Like he'd ever needed a reminder. Like he'd ever been able to *not* remember that the one promise Brian had ever made him turned out to be the one he also kept. He was never not there.
"Shit." Justin sucks in a slow breath and jerks the zipper open more, pushing the top back. "Focus, Taylor."
He's talking to himself. Jesus. Emmett may not be far off on the state of Justin's sanity after all.
It's just clothes--conservative, businessman-travel, Justin's Brian-trained eye picking out the difference between top of the line and discount knock-offs, hands careful to pick through and keep everything folded, though it's enough disarray already that Justin doesn't think a little picking around is going to do much good.
Where the hell is it? Pushing the top back down, Justin pulls the zipper back. Just clothes. Not even anything he can poke over, and he admits it, there's some part of him hoping to find something useful. Like what were you expecting, anyway? This isn't a made for TV movie here. You're not going to find his plans written down for you to read and then steal to show everyone. And your inner drama queen is getting a hell of a workout, you know. Not that it's that much inner these days.
Justin sits back on his heels to survey the room. Emmett can't keep up that level of emotional breakdown forever, and anyway, Justin told him thirty minutes, tops. He's killed at least twenty of that already.
A huge bang from downstairs makes Justin straighten, and his mind stops. That doesn't sound like a door. That sounds nothing like a door at all. That isn't a door because he chooses to believe it can't be, because now that James isn't here, by all rights he should be getting himself fucked up in some random backroom or hell, if it was Justin's night, maybe passed out beside a dumpster somewhere.
It's never, ever Justin's night, though, so that's a door and that's James and that is so bad his mind won't even *move*.
"Debbie? Is everything okay?"
Distance and background noise aside, James voice booms through the entire house like the sound of doom itself.
Justin thinks he probably could have heard the muffled sound of Debbie's reply, but his heart's beating too fast. Another sweep of the room--it's got to be here. Unless James took the fucking thing with him, and why the hell would he do that? Though Kinko's doesn't close until midnight.
And the conspiracy theories continue at an alarming rate.
Rubbing at the streak of a headache that burns across his forehead, Justin forces himself to move. It's here. He's going to find it. Just focus on what's at hand. Debbie's talking to him and that's giving him some breathing room. Grabbing a dresser drawer, Justin jerks it open. Nothing, just old clothes. Another. Another. His right hand is shaking from the strain and he rubs it into his hip bone, feeling the contractions of the muscles beneath the skin. Useless unless he rubs it down when he gets back, spastic jerks of overworked muscles and he winces at the cramping. But shit, he doesn't have *time* for this.
The closet's all that's left, and Justin doesn't even bother hesitating. Pulling the door open clumsily with his left hand, he surveys the neat line of James' suits--heh, nothing designer here, and it's the *stupidest* thing, but it cheers him up because right now, he's grasping at straws. Lines of immaculate shoes on the floor. A long black coat, not at all appropriate for a Pittsburgh winter, too light, with big pockets, but the kind you wear when you're not going to be outside for too long. All on their own, his eyes slide up to the shelf just above, and freeze on the gleam of ambient light off the cover of the holy grail of this insane adventure.
Bracing a hand on the closet door, Justin reaches up his right hand, vaguely aware it's shaking and he doesn't care. His fingertips just graze the binding, and he scrabbles for purchase, pulling it centimeter by centimeter and wishing that he'd been given just one more inch for height.
"Yeah, it's been a long night, Deb."
Justin closes his eyes and jerks, nails digging into the cover. From somewhere distant, he can feel one fingernail tearing, but that doesn't matter, he'll care when he has time. The slide is all slow-motion movie-time, and he thinks he can visualize James going to the stairs.
"No, no tea, Deb. I'll see you in the morning."
It's an endless eternity, and Justin watches it fall into his hands, blinking at the darkening smear of his blood and the fact he lost half a fingernail to this, but who the fuck *cares* if he can't get a decent manicure for a month or so? Winning's always good, it's great, it's heady stuff, like getting high and really drunk but without the vomiting aftereffects, and he turns around, clutching it to his chest. James is on his way up, and Justin shuts the closet door, tucking the book under one arm and going to the window.
This is the part he wasn't worried about at all, and that'll be funny later. Unlocking the window, he pushes it open, tuning himself to the sound of footsteps pausing on the stairs, ignoring whatever James is saying to Deb, who thank God, is never one to let a conversation end before she's damned good and ready. One leg slung over the windowsill, Justin remembers a hundred other times he did this, head ducking out and nothing's really that weird about this part, he did this nightly for so long that Deb has to have guessed after awhile though she never said a word. Bracing his outside foot, Justin swings over, left hand on the windowsill, all his weight held on one very slightly loose piece of siding before getting an elbow on the sill and pulling the window as closed as he can. It was enough to fool Debbie, after all. Sort of.
An easy drop to the roof of the back porch, and Justin has to wonder if the neighbors had ever really gotten used to watching Justin doing his impression of a circus performer.
He freezes at the sound of the bedroom door opening, ducking down beneath the sill, just as he hears the distant sound of the front door opening over his own soft panting.
"I'll be fine, Debbie."
James' footsteps entering the room, yellow light filtering out the window and Justin looks at his right foot bathed in a square pool of gold.
"No, I think I'll turn in and get some rest. Big day tomorrow, huge client. Must be fabulous and all." Emmett sounds strained, faint from distance, but that could be because he's been doing some seriously impressive histrionics. It's enough to make Justin giggle, but the sound of footsteps in the room strangles it, and Justin clutches the book to his chest and breathes out slowly. Carefully. Almost done, and he's going to so panic later, but right now, this is just too cool. On all kinds of weird and probably disturbed levels, but he's got the book and he's on the roof of the back porch and he really can't believe he did this. So the fuck what if he couldn't pull off being a hustler--he has a great future in burglary should the art thing completely fall through.
Carefully, Justin inches over from beneath the window, hideously aware his foot is still in view and if James takes to the idea of looking outside, he's really, really screwed.
Jesus *Christ* Emmett, shut the fuck up! Another inch. Carefully. Another. The edge of the window frame hits the top of his head and he sucks in a breath before he can make some really incriminating noise.
Oh God, this is how it's going to all go down the toilet. He doesn't get caught until Emmett screams the neighborhood down. Another slow slide, and he's out from under the window, leaning against the house, and this isn't the time to laugh, it's not, it's just *not*. Hysteria and relief and he's not out of the woods by a long shot, but he can't help it. Dropping to his knees, Justin crawls to the edge of the roof and looks down the side.
Luckily, Emmett's already circled around and is looking up, which shows he at least guessed what the hell Justin had been planning. Wide blue eyes look up into his, still streaked with black and completely welcome, and Justin hears his own giggles starting again.
"Justin! What the hell--"
"Shh! Hold onto this." Justin reaches out, letting the book fall, and Emmett doesn't even try to catch it, watching it like it's some kind of small poisonous animal that might bite, then spend a few more seconds staring at it lying on the ground. Like he really doesn't believe this has happened. That they did this. And Justin can'r help it--the giggling won't stop and he can't even bother himself to try. "Move. I'm going to drop down."
"How the hell do you *think* I used to get around Deb's curfew? A flying carpet? Move!"
Emmett gives him another long, worried look, but he does start moving, leaning down to pick up the account book and clutching it to his chest like a talisman before taking a step back, then another. Obviously worried and obviously having no idea what else to do.
This is the easy part. Turning around, Justin grabs the edge of the roof, distantly aware that his right hand is shaking badly, but all he really needs is a few seconds. Swinging a leg over, Justin takes hold of the edge and braces his other knee between his hands, taking a slow breath.
His fingers refuse to close completely. Crap. This is all going to be on his left hand after all. Closing his eyes, he thinks of the ten foot drop and remembers vaguely of learning how to fall in that karate course his dad made him take when he was twelve, making noise about discipline and being a man.
Okay. He can't sit here forever. Justin takes a long breath and lets himself swing down.
His right hand gives out without even trying.
It doesn't hurt.
That's the first thing he thinks, staring up at the sky full of a lot more stars than any self-respecting sky in history. Just chock full of them, in every shade of the rainbow, like a big Pride parade in the sky. His chest is strangely tight and he's peripherally aware he can't quite catch his breath, and somewhere, Emmett is saying things that don't make any sense at all, but he really doesn't care. Even the headache's gone.
And to think he'd been expecting pain.
Okay, now there's pain. Justin sucks in a sharp breath that feels like needles cutting through his lungs and there's a explosion of pain across his forehead that he can't even believe. A vision of something huge and wooden swinging toward him fades before he can recognize it completely, and he's looking at Emmett, white and utterly terrified. Still clutching that book that's right now worth it's weight in pure gold.
"I'm fine." His voice sounds weird, wheezy and breathless. His hand is spasming and he slowly tries to clench it into a fist, biting his lip at the new and really unwelcome shocks that somehow aren't drowned out by the general misery of his entire body.
And when he really looks, that porch roof is a hell of a lot higher than ten feet.
"You look--" A bare hand touches his face and Justin winces away without thinking, his body rolling without conscious control, and he's crouching on his knees, somehow, God knows how. "Justin?"
He--doesn't like what he just did. Blinking, Justin shivers, and it has nothing to do with the cold.
"I'm--I'm okay. Just winded." Nothing's broken, he thinks. Emmett doesn't move from his kneeling position only a few feet away, and Justin tries an experimental breath. He's okay. Bruised spectacularly, probably, but he can deal with that. "Where's the car?"
"Two blocks down." Emmett's still staring at him. Justin tries a smile and then makes it stop when Emmett shivers. "Honey, can you--"
"I'm fine. I just--" There's no way he can stand up--even holding this crouch is killing him and he's about a second from toppling over. "Um. Can you help me--"
"Yes. Yeah." But Emmett's slow about it, tucking the book somewhere in the recesses of his furry coat and standing up, keeping carefully in Justin's line of sight like he's an animal that Emmett doesn't want to spook. The touch of the cold hand on his shoulder makes Justin flinch, but Emmett, thank God, ignores it, pausing only briefly before crouching beside him and sliding a arm beneath his shoulder. "Are you sure--"
"I'm fine, I swear. Let's just--just get to the car."
Emmett's nodding slowly and stands up, taking Justin's full weight with careless ease. Slowly turning, Justin grits his teeth as he measures the distance of two entire blocks between here and the car with his eyes.
Then just closes his eyes and lets Emmett lead.