GIFT REQUEST: fluff/schmoop, AU, canon-compliant, humor, Brian/Justin, Brian and Justin work together; no BDSM, no Ethan, no Cody
NOTES: We are in the fuzzy time two-years post-series (which to me is two years, yesterday, time suspended) in which Justin went to NYC and Brian continued to build Kinnetik, but they held on.
For netlagd, who I only know through her brilliant Commuter Flight Stories, which I revisit regularly.
With gratitude to Miss Merlot for previewing and encouraging.
“Certain things, they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”
~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
“Fear of death is form of stasis horrors. The dead weight of time.”
~William S. Burroughs, Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook
Brian considered the man seated across from his stylish yet imposing desk. His hazel eyes were dark, but his countenance impassive, betraying not one of his tumultuous thoughts.
The man who had requested this meeting took a deep breath, willing himself not to shift in his seat or look toward the ominously-closed door for rescue. He knew the man behind the mask better than many, and he reminded himself that Brian was more than his employer - he was also a friend of sorts. He hoped he could say the same when this meeting was over.
“Next Friday will be my last day, Brian. Since Julia’s company promoted her to Director of Technology of their Asia operation, she needs to live in Hong Kong.” He paused. “Caroline and I need to be there with her.”
When the silence stretched to the point of discomfort, the man continued, “After much soul-searching, we decided that it’s the best decision for our family. You know how hard it has been for us with her traveling for work so often. Caroline will be twelve in a few months, and Julia has already missed too much of her tweens.”
Finally, Brian nodded pensively, acknowledging the truth in Murphy’s words. Murph had masterfully been juggling his dual roles as Kinnetik’s executive art director with being a de facto single parent for a couple of years now.
“I am resigning, Brian, effective in two weeks,” Murph reiterated. “I had hoped to give you a month or longer so I could work with my replacement and complete my current projects, but Caroline needs to be there in time to start school with the rest of her class.”
Brian stood, and Murphy prepared to take his leave, thinking Brian must not have anything to say to him. He was loathe to leave Kinnetik and Brian short-staffed, especially with this tension between them.
Brian surprised Murphy with a question. “How can you sacrifice everything you’ve been working toward, Murph? Your talent and leadership capabilities are a major factor in Kinnetik’s success. You probably own 5% of my company now, given Ted’s brilliant profit sharing plan.” Murph gave a short laugh. It was not a well-kept secret that Brian credited or blamed Ted for anything at Kinnetik that might tarnish Brian’s heartless bastard image.
Murphy didn’t hear any censure, only curiosity in Brian’s tone, so he gave the question due consideration. “I am incredibly proud of all we’ve accomplished, Brian. Kinnetik leads a short list of exclusive agencies in the nation. Clients seek us now, and we can essentially choose our accounts. With Kinnetik and with you I’ve grown both as an artist and as a manager.”
He paused, wanting to choose his words carefully. He and Justin were friendly, and he was well aware of their personal situation. “It wasn’t an easy choice, Brian, but I don’t see it as a sacrifice either. With the steel industry moving to China, Julia’s passion is there. Her knowledge of metallurgy and materials, as well as her gift for industrial design, are in high demand.” He grimaced. “Unfortunately for the Pitts, that demand moved overseas some years ago. My talent goes with me, but the most important part of this to me is that I’m getting my family back again. I love them.”
Brian could hear Murphy’s pride in his wife’s accomplishments, and judging from the happiness in Murphy’s tone, he clearly was having no second thoughts.
Murph decided to press. “I need to know I still have your respect, Brian. Are we square?”
Brian came out from behind his desk. “Fuck, maybe it’s time Kinnetik ventured into the Pacific Rim - you can be my advance man.” It was an unseasoned idea, but it had some merit. He always thought Kinnetik would expand to New York, then perhaps London, but he had not accomplished all he had by letting opportunities slip away. He immediately thought of Justin as a glaring exception, then categorically rejected the idea. He and Justin were both doing what they needed to do, where they needed to do it, but they had not slipped. Their lives had just … shifted, perhaps, was a more palatable word.
“I do understand, Murph. We will muddle along without you somehow,” he smirked. More seriously he added, “You’re leaving large shoes to fill. See Ted to sort out the financial aspects. If you ever need anything, your …”. Brian refused to call his business a family, damn it. “Your team is here for you. I mean that.” He shook the man’s hand. “Good luck to all of you.”
Brian closed his office door behind Murphy and poured himself a short Beam.
Slipped or shifted? Semantics, he decided.
Murphy’s words resonated long after darkness had fallen. I don’t see it as a sacrifice. I’m getting my family back. I love them.
Later when he let himself into the loft, he looked around the space that had always defined him. It felt stale, as if it were waiting for something. Or someone, Brian thought, just like I am. The loft was just the place he slept now. He’d only lived there when Justin had lived there with him. I hope you’re ready to come home, Sunshine, because you’ve been gone long enough. It’s time.
Justin cursed under his breath when he realized he had missed his turn. He shoved the rented Land Rover into reverse and backed up so he could ease the boxy over-sized vehicle into the too-narrow driveway that was little more than a path, wincing as he heard low-hanging branches scrape the roof.
What have you gotten me into now, Amanda? He had signed on with Amanda Berrien not quite six months ago, and thus far she had been all he could want in an agent. Justin sketched and painted and sometimes sculpted, and Amanda placed pieces in galleries here and there.
There had been no overnight success in New York City. In the harsh light of day (or more accurately, the neon glare of Times Square at night), Justin decided he wanted to complete his degree as much as he wanted to create for his livelihood. He had never been one to give up easily, and it irked him that he’d allowed himself to become distracted from that goal for awhile. Brian unsurprisingly had agreed and insisted that the terms of their original student loan agreement still applied. Three semesters and a summer later, Justin had a B.A. in Fine Arts with the addition of a minor in graphic design for good measure.
Initially, Brian had tried to distance himself, dredging up the old argument that Justin needed space, but that only made them both miserable. When Justin had balked, they compromised and eventually settled into visits every few weeks, usually in NYC. Sometimes two or three weeks, a few times five weeks, passed without seeing one another. Parting was sheer hell, but every time they managed to be together again, they grew closer and more determined than ever to see this through.
Justin had met Amanda at a small showing at his school. She had been moved by his work and became first his agent, then his friend. He had yet to have the coveted solo show, but he was steadily creating and eking out a living from his creations thanks to a small but loyal following. He was satisfied with that.
Justin, just go see the woman. She wants to commission a painting of her nephew - it’s important to her, and a single word from Winnie Smith in the right ears will open doors for you. Amanda had encountered the dowager at some gallery, renewing a childhood acquaintance. Evidently, Amanda had gone to high school just north of the City in Greenwich, Connecticut with the woman’s youngest son. Their conversation at the gallery had led to catching up over tea, and Amanda had taken it upon herself to show some of Justin’s sketches that were not for sale, much to his annoyance. Based on private drawings he’d done of his friends and family - Daphne, his mother and Molly, Vic, Emmett, Gus, and Brian - always Brian - the woman somehow concluded that he should immortalize her nephew in oil on canvas.
It won’t hurt to meet with her, Justin reasoned. If I don’t have a good feeling about the job, I can be back in my studio before dinnertime. No, after dinner, he corrected, because he would need to return damned Land Rover to the rental company, and he was peeved over again.
The overgrown path opened onto spacious, professionally-manicured grounds, showcasing a gorgeous old colonial home, classic white with deep green shutters and wrought-iron hardware. Splashes of autumn - apricots, ambers, and golds - tumbled out of hanging pots and artfully arranged planters. The only ones he recognized were the chrysanthemums, but the riotous colors softened the austerity of the old place. Justin didn’t think the flowers were the work of landscapers and decided he would keep an open mind about Ms. Winifred Smith.
She answered the door herself, greeting Justin warmly with a brief hug and a buss on each cheek, as if he were a long-lost friend, and led him across the gleaming marble floors of the foyer onto wide-planked hardwood lined with well-worn but timelessly beautiful Persian rugs. They passed a formal living room into a glass-enclosed sunroom that looked out onto a sprawling lawn, gently sloping away from the house until ending at a copse of trees. Justin fancied there was a creek just on the other side of those trees and thought of Britin and the life he and Brian could have made there. Will make there, he sternly corrected himself and shook off the melancholy that usually precipitated an allergy attack at such times.
“It was good of you to drive all this way,” the woman was saying, “but I would have been happy to send a car for you.”
“Driving made more sense so I could bring my supplies,” he explained, and leave at my convenience, “but I appreciate the thought. Amanda tells me you are considering a portrait of your nephew?”
“Of course, we’ll get right down to business. But please may I offer you tea first?” Ms. Winifred Smith was already pouring from a silver service.
While she was occupied, Justin studied her. She was trim and angular in Donna Karan casual wear. She paired a dove gray sweater set with charcoal trousers, and Justin was glad he had remembered to dress like an adult, as Brian would have said, for their meeting instead of his usual paint-spattered cargoes.
Discrete gold hoops adorned her earlobes, but when the light shifted across her left hand, an emerald-cut diamond, easily two karats, likely flawless, and set in a wide gold band, caught his artist’s eye. He loved watching the play of colors and light the stone cast around the room. Justin decided she was the model for a woman of a certain age and considered his own mother would not look dissimilar in another couple of decades. Winifred Smith was still beautiful with lines just beginning to show around her eyes and mouth, and Justin thought she would make an interesting subject herself.
“Will your nephew be joining us?” Justin asked, accepting the proffered china teacup and saucer and taking a seat across from hers on a glider.
“Oh, no, dear. I apologize if you misunderstood.” Justin sipped the hot tea and waited while the woman seemed to consider where to begin. “Wesley, my sister’s son, has been dead for going on twenty-five years now. Nonetheless, as soon as I saw the sketches of your Brian, I knew that if any artist could paint Wesley, it would be you.”
She peered at Justin over the top of her teacup speculatively. “From just a few sketches in charcoal, my impression of Brian is that he is a complicated and difficult man - driven, passionate, loyal, loving, innately kind, often arrogant - and I expect that I’ve barely scratched the surface.”
Justin wasn’t sure how he felt about his personal work using Brian as his model being read so well by a virtual stranger. He settled on agreeing with the easiest part. “Yes, Brian can be complicated.”
“But you love him.” There was no doubt in her assertion. Before Justin could ask what that had to do with this commission, she went on, “What’s more, you were able to capture his love for you, shining through all of the … complexities … of his personality.”
Justin considered this and marveled that a perfect stranger was able to easily read Brian when he himself had lost sight of that fact more often than he wanted to admit.
She elaborated, “Your ability to depict someone’s personality, the layers below the superficial, is a rare gift indeed. It’s present in all of your sketches of people. In much the same way, your abstracts evoke layers of feelings without the viewer being able to articulate the reasons. Nevertheless, the longer you look, the more deeply you feel.” She shrugged. “It’s most evident in the sketches I’ve seen of Brian, but I imagine he’s influenced much of your other work as well.”
Justin realized Ms. Winifred Smith was much more familiar with his art than just the few sketches Amanda mentioned.
“I see some similarities between Brian and my nephew, and if you are willing to try, it is long overdue that a portrait is done of Wesley that tells his truth.”
While Justin’s fertile imagination was filling in the spaces she had left vague, he considered the challenge, “You have photographs?”
“Yes, of course, there are albums of candids, some professional sittings, even a family portrait. Some of the snapshots will probably be your best source of material, but they’re very casual. The portrait is actually by a cousin who is a painter of some note, but truly it is one of the worst I’ve ever seen.” She lowered her voice and whispered conspiratorially, “To call it two-dimensional would be kind.”
More seriously, she asked, “I think you must be willing to get to know my Wesley for you to be able to give him the portrait he deserves. Will you humor an old woman and let me tell you about him?”
Justin was intrigued and settled in to listen to Wesley’s story, thoughts of getting back to his studio long forgotten.
Brian joined Ted in their usual booth at the diner the following morning, enjoying their easily two-year routine of jump-starting their day at Kinnetik with a diner breakfast and caffeine. Debbie filled Brian’s cup, and Ted absently nudged the sugar dispenser closer to his friend.
“Egg white omelet, as usual, asshole,” she confirmed, dusting a kiss to his temple, which he ineffectively tried to evade by ducking. She’d softened toward him considerably since Justin went to New York, and Brian still hadn’t decided if it pissed him off or made him feel loved. A little bit of both, he supposed.
“So, Theodore, when did you know?” Brian asked after Debbie moved away. He stirred his usual four tablespoons of sugar into his coffee.
Ted knew Brian was asking about Murphy’s resignation.
“Cynthia and I both knew something was up when Murphy asked for a one-on-one with you,” Ted replied. Client meetings notwithstanding, Brian had an open door policy at Kinnetik, although usually only the executive staff mustered the courage to brave his office when they hadn’t been summoned. Ted shrugged. “One of the artists confirmed it for us while you were in your meeting with him.”
Brian nodded and sipped his coffee. Debbie bustled back to their booth, placing the omelet he ordered in front of him along with a sizable bowl of freshly cut fruit that he had not ordered. He glared at her because it was expected, but he didn’t actually mind. He knew it was one of the only ways she knew to care for one of her boys.
“What are you going to do?” Ted asked. Murphy wasn’t the only one running himself ragged trying to maintain a long-distance relationship. Relationships, Ted corrected himself, including Gus in Toronto.
“Do about what?” Debbie wanted to know, refilling Ted’s cup.
“Kinnetik,” Brian emphasized, “will search for a new executive art director.” After all, he thought, if his plan to entice Justin back to the Pitts failed, he would need to actually hire someone else. Addressing Ted, he clarified, “You and Cynthia can put out some feelers - discreetly - I don’t want clients to hear a single rumor, never mind read about it in the Help Wanted section.”
Michael slid into the booth next to Brian. “Good morning, Brian! Ted. Read about what?” He turned an extra cup over for his mother to fill.
Brian nodded good morning to their friend and prevented himself from answering by forking a wedge of pineapple into his mouth.
Ted attempted to gloss over the explanation, figuring Michael wasn’t seriously interested anyhow. “Kinnetik is large enough now that we sometimes make the news in advertising magazines and the business sections of newspapers.”
“Wow! That’s terrific! Right, Brian?” Michael exclaimed.
Brian was noncommittal. “It’s terrific when the news is positive, Mikey, but we need to control the release of any sensitive information.” He added with a smirk, “We don’t want to scare the customers away.”
Mikey’s imagination caught the idea of sensitive information and ran with it. “Like it would be terrible if the plot for the next issue of Rage leaked before it was printed and for sale,” Michael theorized.
“Exactly.” Brian smiled at his friend; he should have known that making a comparison to his and Justin’s still-successful comic venture would make the point best.
“What’s so sensitive at Kinnetik besides the underside of your dick?” Debbie wanted to know, laughing at her risque joke.
Ted glanced at Brian. His friend was long tired of playing the role of Stud of Liberty Avenue in which Debbie and some of the other members of his Liberty Avenue family cast him. Brian just rolled his eyes and speared a slice of kiwi.
“We are beginning a search for a new executive staff member,” Ted explained briefly.
“You’re not sick again, Brian?!” Debbie shrieked.
In stereo, “Did you finally fire Cynthia?” Michael asked hopefully. He really hated the way Cynthia controlled his access to Brian.
Ignoring Mikey, Brian reassured Debbie. “No, Ma, I’m just fine. The art department is going to be a man down in a couple of weeks. No big deal. Happens all the time.” He rose and left a few large bills on the table. “Let’s go, Theodore. I don’t pay you for idle chit chat.” Some things were habitual.
As Brian and Ted were leaving, Mikey called out, “Woody’s after work tonight? Ben has late office hours.”
“Business trip,” Brian decided on the spot. He hadn’t planned to go to New York until the weekend, but if memory served, his schedule was light this week. He would confirm that with Cynthia and catch an evening flight. If Ted or Cynthia ran into trouble, he could be available via teleconference. And the sooner he knew Justin’s thoughts about his plan, the easier he would rest, either way.
Michael wasn’t surprised. He had thought with Justin finally out of the picture, Brian would make more time for him. It hadn’t worked out that way yet. Brian was always working or away on business. Michael knew from Mel and Linds that on weekends when Brian didn’t have a business trip, he was visiting Gus in Toronto. Melanie complained about it often enough. It annoyed him that Brian never made any effort to coordinate his Toronto visits with his and Ben’s visits to JR.
At least he’s not chasing after Justin anymore, Michael thought. He only talked to Boy Wonder when he needed panels for Rage. Michael didn’t see how Justin could afford to live in New York only selling a picture here and there. At least Brian isn’t giving Justin a job at Kinnetik, Michael reasoned. Everything will get back to normal eventually.
Justin alternated between packing and pacing, while he waited for Daphne to return his call. They tried to talk at least once a week, but even though they were in the same city, it was difficult given Daphne’s hectic schedule. She should finish her residency next year in family medicine. Daphne was still a good friend, and aside from Brian, perhaps the only other person who would appreciate the importance of this opportunity to him.
Justin stuffed more clothes into his old duffel bag, deciding it would be easier to do laundry after he unpacked. With a lot of grunting, he managed to get the bag zipped. He didn’t know how much longer the seams would hold. The bag had seen him through so many moves that he couldn’t seem to make himself toss it. He grinned, thinking about how often Brian advocated burning it.
Looking around, Justin decided he could get by without most of this stuff for awhile. Several other boxes were half full of items from other rooms. He tossed his toiletry bag into the bathroom to pack last. Maybe I should go to the studio and pack that up now, he thought. He was making a mental list of what he would need from his studio when the phone finally rang.
“Daphne?!” he answered anxiously.
“No, Justin, it’s Linds.”
Shit, he thought. He hated it when he answered without checking caller ID.
“How are you? How’s New York?” she enthused.
“New York is the Big Apple, Linds. It’s always the same, and it always changes.”
He decided there was no harm in telling her about the commission. Whatever her motivations, Lindsay did seem to want him to be successful. “I do have exciting news - I just accepted my first commission.”
“It’s for a friend of Amanda,” he added, hoping to minimize its import to Linds.
“Oh? What is it?” Lindsay didn’t seem as interested now. She had dismissed Amanda as a poor choice of agent because she hadn’t heard of her. Thankfully, Justin was well past the age of allowing her to influence him.
Justin thought quickly. Surely, Smith is a common enough name. “It’s a family portrait for a woman in Connecticut, Winifred Smith,” he answered.
Now he had Lindsay’s full attention. “Justin,” she whispered in awe. “Do you have any idea who she is?”
Actually, yes, he thought, but he decided to be civil. “She’s the mother of a high school friend of Amanda’s, an art patron, lives in Old Greenwich.”
“Not just any patron, Justin.” Lindsay was in lecture-mode now. “Her family is very important, old money. She’s a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I’ve heard she can trace her ancestors directly back to the Mayflower.”
Justin “Hmm’d” while he sorted the clothes not already in the duffel bag into two piles - one to box and ship and one to donate.
“Are you listening, Justin? Her uncle was a notable portraitist.”
“Cousin,” Justin corrected absently, but Linds was on a tear.
“He painted portraits of presidents.”
Justin had seen the family portrait the cousin had done of Wesley and his parents when Wesley was a gangly teenager. It was passable, but as Winifred Smith had warned, two-dimensional.
“What presidents?” he wondered.
“I’m sure he painted Nancy Reagan.”
“She wasn’t a president.”
“You know what I mean!” Lindsay was exasperated. “You must take this seriously…”
“Linds, I hate to cut this short,” Justin interrupted, “but I’m waiting on a call. Is everyone alright?”
“Oh, we’re doing great,” she responded, but Justin thought there was something off in her tone. “Mel and I are thinking of going to a couples retreat while the kids are with their fathers for fall break.”
Justin wondered if Brian knew that Gus would be with him for fall break. The man would be thrilled beyond reason to have a week alone with his Sonnyboy, but Lindsay’s motivations were frequently suspect. She and Mel continued to use access to Gus as a carrot or stick with Brian, whichever suited their purpose, hurting Brian and infuriating Justin. He made a mental note to encourage Brian to pursue some recognized place in Gus’ life, especially now that they - he hoped - were going to be settled into Britin. He tuned back in.
“The retreat is on a farm outside of Albany, but I thought we could fly into the city and spend a few days visiting with you before we drive up there.”
Justin thought about the Toronto-Albany-New York City geography and decided Lindsay made no sense whatsoever. No matter. “I’m sorry, Linds, but I won’t be in town since I’m working on the new commission.” Finished with the closet, Justin began the same two-pile sorting method on his bureau drawers of t-shirts and socks.
Lindsay didn’t need to know where he would be. In the early weeks of New York, when he and Brian were still feeling their way through exactly how this new stage of their unconventional relationship would work, they agreed that keeping the family out of their personal business as much as possible was crucial to their well-being. Their separate lives were difficult enough and their time together too rare and precious to add unnecessary drama.
“Of course you won’t be home, Justin,” she cooed. “I believe the family has a year-round cottage in Chatham. I’m sure Ms. Smith would prefer you to work there.”
“I’m sure Chatham is nice,” he temporized, not that he had any plans to see it anytime soon. “Thank you so much for calling - give everybody my love!” He ended the call before she could wax poetic about Cape Cod.
His phone rang again. This time he checked caller ID. “Daphne?! Finally. You’re never going to believe it!”
She chuckled, loving her friend. “Well, I have the night off, so let’s go to that little bistro by your place. You can feed me and spend all evening trying to convince me!”
In less than an hour, Justin dragged Daphne out of the deep red leather booth where she was waiting for him and gave her a long hug. “I’ve missed you so much. Thank you for dropping everything. I really need your opinion.”
Daphne giggled and said, “I didn’t have anything to drop tonight, and you’re feeding me. My opinion is going to cost you!”
Justin laughed, and the two friends caught up with general news over their meal. Justin ordered a bottle of red wine to accompany the more serious conversation he wanted to have with her.
Justin tried to tell Daphne the story of Wesley as Winifred had related it to him. Wesley had been a sweet, quiet child who grew into a volatile teenager. He was physically gorgeous - thick black hair that he wore a little too long to be fashionable, shining blue eyes that turned a darker gray when he was in a temper.
Wesley chafed at being the heir apparent to the family business - it was a tool-and-die manufacturing concern, but Wesley liked to call it a hardware store. He did everything he could think of to get himself disowned - drinking too much, driving too fast, staying out all night and sometimes away for days at a time. He knew his mother loved him, and he hated the hurt his behavior caused her, but he so miserable living with his father and the pressure he felt that he could not see much beyond that.
Wesley had only joined his private high school’s drama club knowing his father thought acting a common profession. To his surprise, he had a talent for it. He went to a performing arts school instead of Yale against his father’s wishes and courtesy of his aunt with his mother’s blessing.
In his second year at school, Wesley fell in love with Steven, who was also a very talented actor only a year older. It was lust and love at first sight, and the pair only had eyes for one another. To Wesley’s amusement and his father’s embarrassment, they were sometimes mentioned in the society pages, Wesley’s name giving him celebrity status. Neither he nor Steven landed starring roles, but they were both working fairly steadily in a highly competitive field in a largely uncaring city.
There were small parts in off-Broadway productions, and Wesley supplemented these with some modeling. The modeling brought Wesley to the attention of a Hollywood producer who convinced him to try for a role in a new television series. He went to the audition on a lark - all expenses paid to LA - never expecting he had a shot.
“He got the role, didn’t he?”
Justin nodded somberly. Daphne was caught up in the romance of the story, but he knew the common themes running through his life with Brian and Wesley and Steve’s life were not lost on her.
Wesley did get the role, along with a contract for a year with the option to renew if the show was successful. At about the same time, Steve was cast as a supporting actor in a production on Broadway. The men ultimately decided that they were young and had plenty of time for one another - their careers were important. It would be tough, but it was only a year. By then they would know whether New York or Hollywood offered them the best chance for a successful future together.
“Hollywood didn’t work out for Wesley?” Daphne wondered, thinking of Justin’s own disappointment in the film industry after the Rage experience.
“That’s just it, Daph. Aunt Winnie said his career did work out for awhile.”
“Aunt Winnie?” she interrupted, quirking her brow in a very Brian-esque fashion.
“She insists I call her that,” Justin defended himself. “In any case, Wesley was the toast of Hollywood. He went to all the right parties, and he was seen with all the right people,” he parroted.
“What happened?” she whispered. Now, she was sure this wasn’t going to end well.
Justin refilled their glasses with Merlot, and met her gaze evenly. “Daphne - Wesley had Steve, who by all accounts loved him, BUT,” - this was Justin’s major point - “he did not have Brian.”
Daphne was puzzled, but Justin wasn’t finished. “He didn’t have Brian to teach him about the club scene, to teach him to never take drugs from strangers. He didn’t have Brian to tell him to never, ever fuck without a condom.”
“Oh my God,” Daphne breathed. “He got HIV.”
Justin nodded. “The virus didn’t kill him directly. But he was too ashamed to come back home to Steve, to his mother, to Aunt Winnie. It sounds as if he accepted it as the death sentence it was and proceeded to self-medicate to hurry the process along as fast as possible.”
Before the end of that year, his family was notified that he had been found dead in a hotel room off of Wilshire Boulevard from a heroin overdose. Tears clouded Justin’s eyes as he remembered Aunt Winnie reliving the devastation of finding out about her beloved nephew, the feelings still raw even twenty-five years later.
Daphne took Justin’s hand in hers; it was cold. She squeezed it, then held it in both of hers, trying to get him warm. “I can see some of the parallels, Justin, but you and Brian aren’t Wesley and Steve. You know that.”
Justin thought of Sap’s party and his narrow escape. The bashing. Ethan’s asinine suggestion that Justin would fuck him without a condom if he really loved him. Brian’s cancer. Hollywood. The bombing. It was truly miraculous that he and Brian had survived all they had and were stronger for it when fate could just as easily decreed differently any number of times.
“I do know that, but we aren’t Wesley and Steve because Brian saved me,” Justin insisted. “He saved us. Whatever I’m doing here in New York, I can do just as well from West Virginia. It’s time for me to end this ridiculous separation. I’m going home to him, and we are going to build a life together. Contrary to what we would like to think, we don’t have all the time in the world.”
“What did Brian say?” Daphne queried, knowing her friend hadn’t shared this with his partner yet. She firmly believed they were happiest together, but the pair could be so infuriating sometimes.
Justin shrugged. “What if he doesn’t think I've proved myself yet?” he whispered.
Daphne punched his arm. “You idiot. The only person you’ve ever needed to prove anything to is yourself. Brian has always believed in you.” She was confident on this point.
“I’m going home,” Justin said aloud. He loved the way it sounded.
“You’re going to Britin,” Daphne added.
“It’s my palace,” Justin giggled; perhaps he was feeling the wine.
“It is.” Daphne agreed, then added, “Just make sure I have my own room in this palace of yours.”
Brian was packing his laptop and briefcase to leave Kinnetik behind for a week when Cynthia buzzed him. “Lindsay is on the line, Brian. She called earlier when you were on with Leo Brown.”
Better now than later, Brian thought. He had a plane to catch, and he still needed to swing by the loft to get his bag, which had been perpetually packed since his and Justin’s relationship had shifted.
“How’s my son?” he greeted her.
“Brian, hello! It’s so hard to reach you,” Lindsay complained.
He rolled his eyes. He’d been there last weekend so she had seen him in person when he had dropped Gus back home on Sunday evening and spoken with him just three days prior when he’d called to talk to Gus. “How are you, Lindsay? To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Mel and I have been thinking about a couples’ retreat on a farm near Albany …” she began obliquely.
“Your point?” Brian interrupted, impatient to get to the airport, but not before he heard the strain in her voice. All was not well in the paradise that was Toronto.
“Do you think Gus could spend his fall break with you?”
“Of course, Gus is always welcome,” Brian readily agreed.
“Michael and Ben will have JR, so if it’s an inconvenience,” she went on as if he hadn’t spoken, “I’m sure they wouldn’t mind having Gus as well.” Brian forced himself to remember not to grind his teeth.
“I said Gus is always welcome - no inconvenience whatsoever,” he reiterated. “Give me the exact dates, and Cynthia will arrange his flights.”
“Have you heard Justin’s great news?” she asked. Before he could respond, she went on, “He has an important commission, and he will be spending the end of the season and possibly wintering at the family compound in Chatham. I don’t believe it’s very far from Hyannisport. I can imagine the parties and the connections he’ll make.”
“The dates, Lindsay?” Brian tried to get her back on-track but to no avail.
“You were right to let him go, Brian, not to stand in the way of his success.”
Wintering in Massachusetts? Brian felt bile rise in his throat as he considered that he might be too late, but he swallowed it. Until he heard about this directly from Justin, it was only Linds’ fantasy. There may be a grain of truth somewhere, but both men knew full well that she was living her dream vicariously through Justin. One of their realizations in those painful early New York weeks was that they both must remember that they could only trust each other about some things. This definitely fell into that category.
“When-does-Gus’-fall-break-begin?” He enunciated each word clearly. He would not discuss Justin with her.
He quickly emailed Cynthia a request for Gus’ tickets and realized he had a new goal - he wanted Justin home in time for Gus’ visit. He knew he and Gus would have a wonderful time together, but he would love to have his Sonnyboys home at the same time.
I ’m getting my family back again. I love them.
When Justin’s phone next rang, he was in his studio carefully crating some canvasses that were still works-in-progress. Six boxes of supplies, sketchbooks, oils, acrylics, watercolors, chalks, clay, chisels, even several smaller blocks of wood he thought interesting - were already taped, neatly stacked to be picked up. Michael. And Brian wondered why Justin hated to keep his phone on all the time.
“Hey, Mikey,” he answered, absently thanking whoever invented Caller ID. “I’m actually right in the middle of something…”
“I won’t keep you,” Michael began, “but I just wanted to see if you received my story for the next issue?” He sounded excited. “Have you started the panels yet?”
Justin had received the email, scanned it, then shut down his computer before he made a special trip to Pittsburgh to wring Michael’s neck. In the past two years, they had this debate at least six times. Here goes lucky number seven, Justin thought. In every issue since he left for New York, Mikey proposed an exit plan for JT and drafted more Rage and Zephyr scenes that were increasingly suggestive. “No, I have not started the panels yet. I’ll send you a story revision in the next few days.”
“You don’t have to do that, Boy Wonder. Just do your job as the artist. I’m the writer.” Justin took a deep breath and prayed for patience.
“Michael. Rage and JT are not Brian and I. I will revise everything you write until you give me a story the readers want. I won’t draw the first panel until then.”
“You can’t keep …”
“Actually, I can, Michael. If we don’t agree, Rage doesn’t get published. Read the contract,” Justin suggested, as he did every single time.
“Speaking of artists who don’t do their jobs,” Michael interjected smugly, “did you hear that Brian is looking for a new executive artist for Kinnetik?”
“Brian has a nationwide search going on in all of the newspapers,” he added importantly.
Justin wondered what was going on with Murphy; he really liked the guy.
When Brian needed a fresh eye on a campaign, he often sought Justin’s opinion. Justin loved to brainstorm with Brian, sketching Brian’s ideas as they seemed to flow out of him, adding his own enhancements when he saw an opportunity. Brian still said no one read him the way Justin did. Justin’s usual response was a flirtatious smile and his oft-used phrase, Of course not - I’m onto you. It had become a signal between the two men that usually heralded seriously hot fucking or deeply passionate lovemaking, according to their mood, and the lines blurred between lovers who knew one another so well in any case.
Justin adjusted his cock a bit which had taken an interest in that pleasant diversion and turned his attention back to Michael. Even without his father’s much-lauded business degree, Justin seriously doubted that Kinnetik would openly solicit executive staff. In Brian’s business, image was everything, and in addition to cutting-edge, sexy, effective campaigns, Kinnetik was well-known for stability. Oh well, Brian would tell him soon enough.
Brian impatiently ended another attempt to call Justin and took his bag from the driver on the sidewalk in front of Justin’s apartment. He was annoyed that his calls kept going to voice mail. Was it really too much to ask that the twat keeps his phone charged and powered on? Evidently.
He checked the time, nearly ten. Justin was likely home already unless he’d lost track of time in his studio working on one project or another. Brian would check here first, and if he wasn’t home yet, he would interrupt Justin there.
Letting himself into the apartment with his key, Brian looked around at the detritus Justin had left in his wake earlier. Discounting Justin’s studio, which Justin assured him was organized even though Brian could not see it himself, Justin was actually quite neat. Now several boxes were scattered around with half of Justin’s things tossed haphazardly in them. Brian spotted the duffel outside of the closet, along with four distinct piles, two on the floor and two on the bed. Maybe Linds did have some accurate information of work that would take Justin out of NYC, Brian cursed.
Brian turned at the sound of the door and before he knew it, Justin had launched himself. Brian braced to catch him and felt Justin’s slender legs wrap tightly around his hips. Justin kissed Brian thoroughly, urgently needing to convey every single feeling he had for the man. When he pulled back to take a breath, Brian followed, stealing that breath and replacing it with his own, matching Justin’s fervor. Justin opened for Brian and let his mouth be plundered as he knew his body soon would be.
This always feels exactly right, Justin thought. This is where I belong always - Brian’s arms. Why have I been so foolish, wasting so much precious time?
“Brian, what are you … ,” he began, but Brian was sliding his hands inside the back of Justin’s t-shirt, pressing their cocks together, groaning impatiently at the layers of fabric separating them. Brian hoisted Justin more firmly by his well-shaped ass and carried him to the bed, knocking a pile of socks and underwear aside to make room for them. Brian was unbuckling his belt and pushing his trousers down with one hand while working on Justin’s pants with his other. Justin shoved Brian’s hand away and made short work of shucking his own cargoes and briefs then spreading himself wide to welcome Brian into him. His thick cock was hard against his flat stomach, already leaking in the conditioned response he always had to this man. He tugged on himself, growing impossibly harder.
Lube appeared from somewhere, and Brian’s fingers readied Justin while his mouth and tongue teased and tasted his lover’s jaw, his neck, the sensitive skin along his collarbone. When Brian judged him sufficiently prepared, he sheathed himself quickly in a condom, slid his greasy hand down it once, then pressed unerringly into his lover.
Justin responded immediately, lifting his hips to ease Brian’s way and to pull him further inside. He set a pace faster than Brian was ready for. “God, Justin …”
“Fuck me, Brian,” he urged. “Show me … I’m yours.”
And Brian did, thrusting deeply, then deeper still, the root of his cock abrading Justin’s tender hole. If there were a way to crawl inside, he would.
The head of Brian’s dick grazed that spot inside Justin that soon had pleasure diffusing throughout his loins. Sweat glistened on their bodies as Brian violently claimed him. One groaned and the other breathed out something that sounded like now. Justin’s ass clenched and his cock convulsed, spewing his cum between them, and Brian emptied himself into the condom loving the way Justin’s inner walls caressed him.
A long while later, Brian decided he could feel his toes again. He shifted and gently extricated himself from his lover. Justin muttered a protest at the loss like he always did, but fit himself along the length of Brian’s side when the man returned to the bed with a damp cloth to clean them up a bit.
Brian brushed Justin’s hair away from his forehead, loving the length on him, and met the blue eyes he adored. If Justin’s greeting was any indication, they were alright still. Brian was well aware that any walls he had once had to protect himself from this man fell a long time ago. Preparing himself to adapt somehow to whatever was coming, he took a deep breath then plunged. “Going somewhere, Sunshine?”
Be brave, Justin reminded himself. Remember what Daphne said. Nevertheless, he didn’t think he was ready to share Wesley’s story right away. He knew how much Brian was still haunted by the bashing, the bombing, by almost losing him. The last thing he wanted was to cause him any additional pain.
He decided on an oblique approach. Clearing his throat, he winked at the man and flirtatiously said, “There’s a fabulous ad agency looking for an artist. Their work is cutting-edge, avant-garde even. It would be a prestigious position for a lowly artist like me.”
Brian put his tongue firmly in his cheek, realizing Justin’s tactic and loving his twink more than he even knew was possible. “Avant-garde, you say?”
“Definitely. I thought I would try for an interview at least.” Justin shrugged, “Couldn’t hurt.”
Brian nodded in agreement. “Where is this exemplary agency? You seem to be packing a lot for an interview.” He decided to add, “Then again, I have heard that Chatham, Massachusetts would be a great place to spend the fall.”
Justin was torn between aggravation and humor, realizing that their oh-so-loving family must have struck again. How in the world did Lindsay move from a commissioned portrait in Connecticut to a season or longer on Cape Cod?
Justin decided to go with it. “I’m sure it is lovely there. It’s not too far from Provincetown, the gay man’s Disneyland.” He rolled himself over until he lay on top of Brian and kissed him soundly. “Unfortunately,” another kiss, “I’ll be spending the fall in West Virginia.”
“Will you now?” Brian quirked a brow. His cock was burgeoning with new life. He lightly traced the back of his fingers down Justin’s side and then lower across the glorious ass he had just battered. Justin adjusted himself to press his ass into Brian’s now open palm encouraging Brian’s fingers to explore further.
Justin tried to remember the topic. “If I get the job, I will. It’s a bit of a commute,” he continued, “and I do have a commitment to a client here I need to fulfill.” He licked his way into Brian’s mouth, then eventually had to breathe again. “However, I’ve heard the boss can be very flexible.”
Justin hooked his leg under Brian’s knee, and Brian allowed himself to be rolled so that he was once again on top of Justin. Justin was now nibbling along his chin, behind his ear. Brian exulted in the feeling of Justin’s generous cock, hot and still sticky, hardening against his own.
Brian was rapidly getting distracted from his plan, which was why he had come to the city early. “How exactly did you hear about an opening at such an impressive agency?”
Justin grinned. “There’s a nationwide search in all the major newspapers. Haven’t you seen it?” he asked innocently.
Michael, Brian concluded. Some things never change. But, he reasoned, it doesn’t matter as long as Justin seems to be heading in the direction I’m hoping.
Brian turned Justin’s chin to look into his eyes. “Are you sure you’re ready?” he asked seriously.
“In some ways, I’ve been ready since I arrived, but I am now more certain than ever that this is our time.”
“This is our time,” Brian repeated, kissing his parter gratefully, once, twice. The end of the torturous New York period was in sight.
“Besides,” Justin added, “the masters of Britin have been absent long enough.
“The masters?” Brian asked.
“Of course,” Justin grinned mischievously. “Britin belongs to both of us.” Justin remembered the deed to Britin being couriered to him the first week he was in New York. A deed in his name only. A palace for my prince. After the tears had dried, he drank a bottle of water to soothe his raw throat and called Ted.
“I added your name the same week it arrived.”
“How did you keep that from me?” Brian wondered.
“Ted and Mom helped.” Justin elaborated, “Ted said you probably would never notice as long as taxes and maintenance fees came from my personal account. Mom has kept it rented while I’ve been here so that supplied money for the upkeep as well as some for me to put aside or to dip into while I’ve been here.”
Brian nodded thoughtfully. Ted was a good friend. And it sounded as if Jennifer still believed in them too.
Smirking, Brian decided to see how Justin liked the shoe on the other foot. “So, is the other CEO of Kinnetik ready to stop shirking his duties and actually work for his company instead of delegating all of his responsibilities to others like Murphy?”
“Other CEO?” Justin’s voice was small. “I’m only applying for a job as an artist,” he corrected.
Brian shook his head to indicate No.
“How long have I been shirking?” Justin wondered.
“Since its inception. You named it. You designed the graphics. You decorated the offices. You worked on many of the most important campaigns.” He made sure Justin was listening. “I never would have had the courage to open Kinnetik without your belief in me.”
Justin was speechless. He felt an allergy attack coming on, but he also felt empowered. “We’re going to be amazing together.”
Brian pressed their foreheads together. “We already are amazing together. Now we’re going to be unstoppable.”
This time their coupling was gentle, loving, each man giving and receiving in equal measure. They kept bringing one another to the brink of ecstasy before easing away letting the passion subside some before kindling it again. When it became clear that they’d reached their absolute limit, Brian took Justin’s leaking cock in hand, firmly working him to orgasm before following his lover into the bliss.
Much later Brian picked up their conversation as if there had been no interlude. “Speaking of naming things, how would you feel about Gus spending his fall break with us?”
Justin beamed. “That would be great, Brian! Maybe we’ll be in Britin by then. We’ll fix his room first.”
Brian raised a brow.
“OK, second,” Justin agreed, understanding Brian was prioritizing their master bedroom, “but a very close second.”
Brian pulled a sheet up over their cooling bodies.
“Not everyone is going to be happy for us,” Justin ventured.
“Probably not,” Brian agreed, “but I have been hoping for this since you graduated and found an agent. I am happy for us. Are you happy?”
Justin’s smile was the only answer he needed.
“Then the people who matter most are happy,” Brian murmured.
Long moments later when he thought Justin’s breathing had evened into sleep, Brian kissed Justin’s temple and whispered, “I love you.”
“I love you, Brian.”
Not quite asleep then, Brian concluded. No matter. It was getting easier every time he said it.
Brian pulled Justin closer to his chest and breathed in the comforting scent of his lover. He should be ready for sleep himself, but he was also excited and his active mind wanted to make plans. He began making lists of what they would need to accomplish to get Justin home in time for Gus’ fall break. Tomorrow would be soon enough to call Ted and Cynthia and get the movers underway. And they needed to check with Mother Taylor about the tenants at Britin. He wondered what condition the mansion was in. They could rent a space larger than the loft if they had to wait to move into Britin. Brian fell asleep wondering if Justin’s office should be in the art department where Murphy’s was or if he should renovate his own office and the adjoining conference room to create a space for Justin next to him.