Justin's Christmas Carol

Wearily, Justin let himself into his apartment. It was two days to Christmas and he was just getting home from yet another party, another "you really must meet these people" party that he'd gone to knowing he was going to be surrounded by people he didn't know, didn't want to know, didn't much like. Another one of the seemingly endless, meaningless reasons he was in New York, and Brian was in Pittsburgh and they were apparently no-where.

Justin knew that he should have realized before he left what would happen, how it would all play out. Should have known that Brian would push him inexorably away, into his future; the future that Brian believed he had no part in.

He had known. He'd just been dazzled by the opportunity, by the chance that he might "make it", by the phantom of fame. Deep down he'd known, even then, what he was giving up, and known what it was costing Brian to let him go.

If he were honest with himself, he'd acknowledge that he'd known all those things.

But somehow he'd taught himself not to think about them. Taught himself to believe that it was all for the best. Taught himself to think that Brian would happily go back to his old ways as if Justin had never come into his life.

Taught himself to believe that if Brian had really wanted them to stay together, he would have either asked Justin to stay, or else moved himself to New York.

In his heart, Justin knew that wasn't true. Knew that Brian would have cut his tongue out before doing anything that would have limited Justin's choices; knew also that it was far too soon for Kinnetik to have a real chance of successfully competing here, on the home ground of the big Madison Avenue companies; knew that the cost of premises and salaries alone would have killed any chance the young company had. That in any case, Brian wouldn't have attached himself to Justin while Justin was trying to establish himself as an artist and as a man; knew that Brian's consistent policy since the night they'd met had been to leave Justin free to fly. Most of all, that Brian's willingness to do so was the deepest expression of the man's love for him.

But to admit all that, to really face it, would have meant accepting the fact that his being here was all his own decision, and the demise of the relationship all down to his choices.

He was tired, he told himself, as he unwound the scarf from his neck to hang it on the hook by the door with his coat. Just tired. He would feel differently about things tomorrow.

Turning, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror on the hallstand. He frowned. He looked more than tired … he looked weird. Not at all like himself. He looked again. Blond hair, blue eyes, but the face structure was all wrong, and looked … ghastly, corpse like. He blinked, and his own reflection peered back at him.

More shaken than he would have wanted to admit, he decided to have a nightcap before he went to bed. He pulled out the last of the bottle of Beam that he'd bought in the early days - when he'd still vaguely hoped that Brian would be making frequent visits. Not bothering to get a glass, he sank down into a chair and took a long swallow. He tilted his head back slightly, and must have drifted off for a moment, because he was woken by the sound of someone walking across the floor towards him.

He sat up with a jerk and found himself staring at a face, which while pale and dreadful, was also vaguely familiar.

"Who the …?" he whispered. Shivering with shock and cold more than fear, he stared in appalled fascination at this strange intruder.

"You don't even know me, do you?" the young man demanded.

Something in his voice, stirred Justin to anger. "How the fuck did you …?"

"Look, I don't have time for all that shit. I'm dead. I'm here. Deal."

Justin gaped at him, scrambling to his feet and trying to work out where the phone was. As he moved towards it, he stumbled, and instinctively reached out to try to steady himself by grabbing at his unexpected and unwelcome guest.

He wound up on his knees on the floor, as much from shock as from the fact that his groping hand had encountered nothing, save for a brief sensation of bitter cold.

The figure in front of him sighed.

"I told you. I'm dead. You can't feel me, dickhead. You sure as Hell can't blow me."

Justin flushed and managed to get back to his feet. He was about to say something, anything, when the young man held up his hand.

"I told you, I don't have a lot of time. Neither do you. I'm dead. You should fucking know that. You were there when they dragged my body out of the dumpster."

"But …"

"But nothing!" the figure shouted. "Shut up and listen."

More because he couldn't get his brain around anything coherent to say than anything, Justin obeyed.

"Okay, that's better. Now … you're not dreaming, you're not hallucinating. I'm here. They let me come here to try to fucking sort you out a little. Or at least, to tell you that you're going to get the chance to sort yourself out."

"Why?" Justin asked. He did recognize the figure now. Jason Kemp. That was the name. And it was also, he realized with a flash of dread, the face he'd seen in the mirror earlier in place of his own.

The figure stopped talking and gave him a look of deep sadness, and maybe envy, mixed with something that looked a little like pride.

"Because I asked them to. Begged them. I …" he broke off and shook his head. Then he said, "You're me."

Once again Justin felt that stab of dread.

"Me as I could have been, I mean, if I'd met someone like Brian my first night out."

Justin met his eyes full on for the first time. The young man was looking at him with a slightly sarcastic grin now and seemed to be daring him to protest that he had nothing in common with a street hustler. When Justin said nothing, made no protest, he went on, sad and subdued, "And you could have been me … if you'd met someone different; if you hadn't met Brian."

Justin nodded. He was well aware of how he'd courted disaster that night, without knowing it, without any understanding of the risks he'd run. Aware also that his meeting with Brian under that lamp post had not just made his first sexual experience one of deep pleasure and self validation, rather than one of pain or shame, but it had also provided him with a whole support network when he most needed it. Meeting Brian that night had most truly changed his life.

Jason responded to his acknowledgement with exasperation, even anger. "Well, you're really fucking things up, dude. I thought I'd made some dumb choices, but you … you could have it all and you're screwing it up big time. So … you're going to have a few friends drop by … see if they can talk some sense into you before it's too fucking late."

He jumped then, as if he'd heard something, although Justin had heard nothing but Jason's voice. Then, to Justin's complete astonishment, this strange intruder walked over to the window, opened it, and stepped out. For a brief moment, Justin thought he saw him, walking away through the air, and then he was gone.

Justin ran over and checked the window. It was closed and locked. He ran to the door and checked it. Also closed and locked. He stood for a moment in the dimly lit room and found himself shivering uncontrollably.

"Must have been a dream," he told himself. "Fucking smoked salmon. Never eating it again."

Forcing himself not to keep looking over his shoulder, he walked into the bedroom and climbed into bed, fully dressed, hugging the bedclothes around him tightly. Strangely enough, he fell asleep quickly.


This time he was woken by the sound of someone humming "YMCA".

He sat up with a jerk to find Vic perched on the end of his bed.

"C'mon, kiddo," the man said.

The dead man, Justin told himself. The dead man sitting on my bed.

"Time to get moving. Lots to do," Vic said cheerfully, smiling at him kindly, just the way Vic used to.

Suddenly Justin felt his eyes swimming.

Vic! A visit from a dead stranger he could take, but Vic …

"None of that now," Vic chided. "We don't have time for pity parties."

He grabbed the bedclothes and pulled them off Justin, just as he used to do sometimes when Justin had overslept and been reluctant to get up and head off to school.

Almost automatically, Justin got up and followed him to the door. As they stepped through, however, he realized that they were no longer in his apartment. They were on the landing outside his old room at Deb's, and from downstairs he could hear her excited bellow, "You two get your asses down here, I need some help."

Before he could make any response, he was aware of a horribly uncomfortable sensation, like cold pins and needles. He could only stand gawping as a much younger Justin was herded downstairs, by another Vic; herded, as it happened, right through him and his … guide.

"You know the drill," Vic said patiently. "Can't see us. Can't hear us. Have no idea we're here. We just look … and maybe learn a little."

Then they were downstairs and the mayhem was all around them. Deb was in full flight, looking forward to having her whole brood around her.

Justin, watching his younger self (God, how young he looked!) remembered how as everyone arrived they'd each taken a moment to give him a hug and a gentle warning not to hope for too much from the day as far as Brian was concerned. He sometimes didn't show at all, they'd said, and when he did, he was usually wasted and in a bitter mood. Justin remembered that at the time he'd found their warnings irksome, and had been almost unbearably smug when Brian arrived early - well, before the meal was served anyway - and had seemed to be in a comparatively good mood.

Now, though, Justin appreciated how everyone had tried to look out for him, tried to protect him. Even though that night it hadn't been necessary, it was indicative of how much this motley family of his cared about him, about each other.

As Justin watched, the scene changed, the room filling up with people, just as he'd remembered, and then the doorbell rang and Brian arrived.

He had gifts for everyone - including Justin, for whom he'd bought a pale blue cashmere sweater. Justin remembered that he'd been thrilled with it; not only had it come from Brian, but it had felt like his first really "grown up" item of clothing. He hadn't worn it all that often, trying to keep it in pristine condition. Brian had bought it just a little large, which had frustrated him at the time, but it meant that as he filled out across the chest, it fitted him perfectly. He smiled, remembering that he'd worn it the night he'd gone to meet with Brian at Vanguard, the night he'd asked Brian to take him back. He was fairly sure that part of the amused acknowledgement in Brian's eyes as Justin had made his well rehearsed little speech had been that he'd recognized the garment.

Justin's eyes swam as he watched Brian move through the room. Although the man was the epitome of casual cool, Justin saw, much more clearly from his current vantage than he had at the time, how Brian had had one target, and how all his casual maneuverings were intended to bring him to Justin. He was relaxed and mellow, laughing, and teasing Mikey and Ted and Emmett, joking with Vic, flirting with Debbie and finally reaching Justin and "allowing" him to tuck himself under Brian's arm and sit close to him all night; even having a prolonged make out session with him on the couch while they waited for Vic and Mikey to serve coffee after the meal.

He'd left, Justin remembered, not long after that. But before he did, he'd taken Justin upstairs and given him a quick, skilled blow job, and then had tucked him away, done up his pants, and ruffled his hair. "I can't take you with me now," he'd said. "Deb would have my balls to hang on her fucking tree. Come over and wake me up tomorrow. Around ten."

Then, his tongue in his cheek, he'd given Justin a look that got him hot and bothered all over again and said seductively, "Be inventive."

Michael had come suspiciously upstairs then and Brian had turned, and after giving Mikey a quick kiss, he'd left.

Justin, watching, remembered clearly how he'd felt that night; how happy he'd been; how sure he'd been, no matter what anyone said, including the man himself, that Brian loved him.

He blinked away the moisture in his eyes, and when he opened them again the scene had changed slightly. Justin saw himself in the kitchen, making coffee. Brian was "helping' him, standing behind him, sucking on his neck. Deb came in and smacked him on the side of the head. "Can't you keep your hands off him for five minutes?" she demanded.

Justin gave a deep sigh, seeing the look on his younger face, and the way his eyes slid to meet Brian's, their joined look one of happiness and promise.

This was the Christmas before Ethan. Before the aborted trip to Vermont. Before things had fallen apart.

He wished he could say something to that younger self. Try to reassure him, find a way to warn him of the series of mistakes that he was about to make. Maybe if he'd been less needy, then Brian …

"It's too late for that," Vic told him. "You're not here to change things, just to remember the way they were."

Justin watched then, focusing not on himself, but on Brian. Watching the way the man was always on the alert, always ready to fend off anyone who got too boisterous around him, or to draw the fire when the jokes began to target him, or to pull him to sit with him and gently rub his scalp, or his hand when he showed any sign of being tired, Justin realized how little he'd understood of Brian's many ways of loving him. No, that wasn't true. He'd known it even at the time, known what all that meant, but he hadn't valued it the way he …

Would now, he thought. If we were together like that now, and he did those things …

But they weren't together; they were hundreds of miles and all too many lonely hours apart. And Justin feared that they were never going to be together like that again.

He sucked in a deep breath to tell Vic that he didn't want to watch any more, and then it was the next year. The year after Stockwell. They'd been so broke, and yet they'd been happy, too. Even Brian, although he was getting antsy about the job situation as he fought to get Kinnetik off the ground, still seemed content with the decision that he'd made, and tellingly willing to allow Justin to share in his plans to get his professional life back on track.

They'd come to Deb's direct from the Munchers, with Linds and Mel a while behind them when they'd left Muncher Mansion, and arriving at Deb's slightly before them because he and Brian had stopped off for a quickie on the way. Justin watched as the two of them entered, happy and relaxed in their togetherness in a way that they'd never been before. Michael had arrived home with Hunter only a couple of days earlier, and Deb was still scolding him at frequent intervals for making her worry so much. Vic …

Justin's head jerked around to look at Vic, realizing that this was Vic's last Christmas with them. In a few weeks …

Vic smiled at him. "It's not about me, Justin," he said. "Although remembering that you don't get infinite chances to spend Christmas with the people you love, might not be a bad idea."

"Vic," Justin managed to choke out, not at all sure what he would say, and then it was yet another Christmas. He'd just got back from LA, heart sore and disappointed and at the same time so very glad to be home. He watched as they'd all rallied around Deb, trying to make her forget that this was her first Christmas without her brother. Even Brian had been on his best behavior, for once managing not to set the cat among the pigeons by coming out with any of his startlingly honest observations. He had, in fact, been gentle and considerate with Debbie, allowing her to mother him in ways that he would normally turn away from with a scornful comment.

It had been a good day, although, looking at it now, the undercurrents were far more obvious than they had been at the time. The gulf between Lindsay and Mel. The tensions around who got to nurse JR and for how long. The sense of Brian being more and more marginalized by the Lindsay/Mel/Michael/Ben dynamic. And from Brian, strongly, the sense that he felt he was on borrowed time - or at least, that their relationship was.

Justin had been too glad that he hadn't had to fight his way back into Brian's life to really take in at the time how … resigned Brian appeared. Watching at him now, he realized that all those weeks they'd been together once he got back Brian had simply been waiting for the next thing to come along, the next reason for Justin to leave.

And yet, he'd let Justin come back; opened the empty drawer, opened the door to the empty room in his heart, and let Justin stroll in as if he belonged there. He'd done his best to behave as if he believed that Justin was there to stay, and all the while …

As Justin watched this man he loved so deeply he felt as if his heart would break. Looking at the beloved hazel eyes which could turn to cold slate gray, but which could also glow with feeling, he saw the deep pain in them that even the man's joy in playing with his son didn't entirely erase.

`Oh, Brian,' he mourned silently, `why didn't I see? Why didn't you make sure I understood?'

But of course, that was the last thing Brian would do. He would never place any barriers between Justin and freedom. Least of all barriers made of his wants, his needs, his longings. Justin reached out an impotent hand towards him.

The room seemed to spin then. "No!" Justin exclaimed, suddenly knowing what was next. No. He didn't want to see this.

But there it was.

Last Christmas.

He'd not long been in New York, and hadn't really wanted to come back, but he hadn't dared face both his mother's disapproval and Deb's, so he'd come.

It had felt awkward, as if he didn't really belong there any more. Especially, it had felt awkward with Brian.

He'd stayed at the loft for the two nights he'd been in town, and the sex had been great, as always. But it hadn't seemed quite real. And when they were out together, he didn't know how to act, couldn't seem to find the right pattern that would show that he was still Brian's partner, even if he was leaving him again almost immediately. Didn't know how to behave around the man whose heart he was about to tromp underfoot again. Didn't know how to reconcile the love he truly felt for Brian with the way he constantly treated him.

Watching the two of them at Deb's revealed all too clearly that his dilemma must have been obvious to them all. And most of all to Brian.

It was a subdued gathering anyway. Despite their promises, the girls hadn't come back for the holidays, and so there was no Gus and no JR, no Deb in besotted grandmother mode, no Brian in Dadda mode, just the adults, trying to pretend that everything was okay.

There was still tension, he'd known even then, between Michael and Brian. Their friendship had survived the year, but only just. It had been damaged, and who knew if it could ever really be repaired? Ben had a cold, which made all of them very conscious of his health, and at the same time, also served to remind everyone that Hunter also had health issues. And of course, all of that reminded everyone of Vic.

Ted and Blake weren't there. They'd gone away for a week together. Emmett was trying to be upbeat, but he was clearly feeling lonely and left out of the couples thing. And all the while, before their eyes, if they'd only seen it, Justin and Brian, the entity that was Justin&Brian, was falling apart.

It had been painful at the time, but observing it now, Justin found it even more heart-wrenching. He watched the little things that Brian tried to do to save them, or at least, to stave off the inevitable for just a few hours more. The way he used Justin's nickname, not in sarcasm as he sometimes did, but gently, fondly. The way he clowned a little to pull Justin to him under the mistletoe. The way his eyes hardly ever left Justin's face, unless, of course, Justin looked at him, when he'd smile and look away for a few seconds; till Justin's eyes turned elsewhere, and then Brian's would be glued once more to his face.

The look of sheer desolation in them overwhelmed Justin suddenly and he began to sob.

The room blurred as the tears fell harder and harder.


His cheeks were still wet when he woke up.

"I'd cry too if I'd been as abysmally stupid as you seem determined to be," he heard, in a very familiar voice.

He sat up with a jerk.

"Daph!" He reached out a tremulous hand to touch her and was so relieved to find warm flesh and blood that his surprise at seeing her there was swallowed up in it.

"Don't you `Daph!' me, asshole!" she snapped. "How come you decided not to come home for Christmas? How come I've had to come all the way here to see you? Have you forgotten you've got family at home?"

She was clearly pissed, and Justin stumbled through his increasingly threadbare excuses and explanations.

"Oh, yeah, right," she said sarcastically. "Your big career move. Well, that's working out really well, isn't it?"

As she finished speaking, he saw with a shock that they were no longer in his apartment. Instead, they were at the party he'd been to just last night. Tonight. Whenever.

He turned to demand from Daphne what the fuck was going on, when he saw two of the friends that he'd made since he came to New York. They were lovers - one a fellow artist, the other a journalist, well, an intern, anyway. He'd been glad to see them at the party, because it meant that he had someone there who at least knew him. They'd congratulated him on having some of his work in a recent show at a small gallery in the Village. He saw himself walk off, and realized now that as he walked away they were still talking about the show.

"Well, I know for a fact," the artist was saying, "that he didn't exactly get his pictures hung because he's the next Warhol. In fact, if he wasn't apparently very well hung himself, I doubt he'd even scratch an invitation."

The journalist, Troy, laughed. "Oh, well, if that's what it takes, honey, you're doomed to failure, because I'm not going to let you peddle your ass out to any hokey little gallery in some back street in the Village."

They giggled, and kissed, and for a moment Justin felt sure that he was going to throw up. He wondered vaguely what would happen if he did. Would the pair of hypocrites he'd mistaken for friends wind up with vomit all over their shoes? Or would it simply disappear? Maybe when he got back to his room he'd have a nice little surprise to clean up. On that thought, he forced his stomach to stay calm, and turned once more to Daphne.

She was gesturing to another group of people. He recognized his agent, a forty something guy, with an unsettling aura of sleazy charm. He was talking to one of the reviewers who had fawned all over Justin at that last show.

"Well, I have to make the most of him while he's young and pretty. That's what's going to sell him. His art showed some promise, sure, but it's already starting to drop off. So it's a matter of capitalizing on his assets."

They shared a leer then, and laughed, leaving little doubt that his art formed no part of the assets he was talking about.

Justin felt tears threatening again, but before he could say anything, a woman was walking past him, talking to a tall man with a cavernous face. Justin recognized both of them immediately. She was the agent that he'd really wanted to represent him; someone Lindsay had advised was one of the best, and most highly respected. He'd approached her before he'd moved to New York, and again when he'd arrived. She'd reluctantly agreed to see him, but, after a few minutes chat about his move, during which she'd barely glanced at his portfolio, she'd told him that she didn't really have an opening to take on anyone else. She'd been polite, but hardly encouraging. The man with her was the curator of an important gallery, one that was famed for "discovering" young artists. She was speaking, and Justin knew instinctively that she was talking about him.

"I think he has a great deal of talent, but whether he has the maturity, the gravitas, ever to make good on it, of that I have my doubts. If he had any brains at all behind that pretty face, he'd be concentrating on his art, instead of letting himself be peddled as the latest pretty boy. But …" she shrugged. "Perhaps this is all there is. It may be that he lacks the … well, the soul, to really make the break through that he needs to make."

Justin gave a choke and found Daph looking at him with pity in her eyes. "What did you expect," she asked, "when you left the best part of your soul behind? Did you think you could cut out the heart of you and still be able to create anything worth doing?"

Justin stared at her in stricken silence, the import of her words leaving him dumbstruck.

When he tore his eyes away from his friend's face, they were no longer in the gallery, no longer in New York.

They were in his mother's condo. She was sitting alone on the couch, a glass of wine in her hand, and the remnants of a solitary Christmas dinner around her, watching TV - it looked like "It's a Wonderful Life"; and she was crying. Justin knew she always cried over this movie, but he hated to see her sitting there alone and in tears. He looked to Daph for an explanation.

Daphne shrugged. "You weren't coming home," she said. "She didn't want to go to Deb's - thought it would be too awkward with Brian there. So she sent Molly off to spend the day with your father. She figured that way she'd at least have her cousins around, since she couldn't have her brother."

Justin flushed. "I …"

He got no further. "You were being a selfish little shit," Daph said remorselessly. "Just because you couldn't face the mess you've made of things with Brian, you made everyone else suffer. It's not even like you had any really good reason to stay in New York. You were just scared."

"You don't know how hard …"

"No," she interrupted him again. "You don't know how hard it's been for everyone back here. For me. For your Mom. For Molly. And especially for Brian."

As she said the man's name, the scene changed, and Justin found himself once more at Deb's. Everyone was even more subdued than last year. Brian was there, sort of. He wasn't wasted or drunk, he was just … absent. His body was there, but he seemed almost completely withdrawn. Only when Ben proposed a toast to "absent friends", did he seem to come to life, and then it was only to give a choked laugh, and a ghost of his usual snarky grin.

"Don't talk to me about absent friends," Deb spat, and launched into a tirade against the girls, who were once again spending Christmas in Toronto. The absence of her granddaughter was clearly what was upsetting her most, but just as Justin thought that, he heard his own name.

"And as for little Sunshine," Deb said, "He should never have gone. You should never have let him go," she said accusingly to Brian. "I thought he had more sense, but it's obvious that all he wanted from us was a start and now that he's on his way, we're not good enough for him.

"Well, fuck him!" she said, and then sat down in tears.

Brian got up and, picking up his jacket, walked out the door.

Justin started to move after him, wanting to explain, needing to make this right, but before he could reach the door it opened, and Brian walked in again.

This was a much older Brian, though, and Justin recoiled. He turned to ask Daph what was happening, and found himself once again face to face with Jason Kemp.

But before he could ask what the fuck was going on, Michael appeared, with a guy Justin had never seen, and didn't much like the look of.

"Ben died five years ago," Jason told him calmly.

"What?" Somehow this was the final straw. They were in the future now? Holy fuck!

"Chris, the guy Michael's with now … he doesn't like Brian very much. He makes sure that Brian and Mikey don't see much of each other these days."

Justin watched as Brian and Michael hugged awkwardly, and exchanged gifts - gifts that neither opened. As he watched, he became aware of the young man who'd come in with Brian and was standing behind him, looking bored. He was attractive, in a sleek, self-satisfied way. Better dressed than a gym bunny, although he clearly worked out. More calculating and self aware than a twink, though not much older. Altogether smooth and self-possessed, and … empty, Justin felt. There was simply no one at home there.

"That's Kyle," Jason said.

"Brian, we should get going."

Justin hated even the sound of his voice. He wanted to grab him and physically throw him out of Brian's life. Instinctively he moved forward, and this time it seemed that he was allowed to follow when Brian left the house, because suddenly they were at some sort of club. Not a club like Babylon, full of life and music, but a hushed place of privilege. Around them was a perfectly appointed dining room with a bar attached.

"It's like a country club for gays," Jason said. "The A gays built it a few years ago. Brian has shares in it, but he doesn't like it much. Kyle loves to swan around here, though, so …" he broke off and shrugged.

Brian sat at a table, alone and sipped a drink while Kyle circulated. Justin overheard snatches of his conversations. As he sashayed round the room, he not so subtly hit on a couple of guys, arranging to meet them "when we get back". Justin looked a query at Jason.

"Brian's taking him to the Bahamas for New Years," Jason said calmly.

Justin shook his head. "No, … no … this guy … he … he's just using Brian. I have to warn him, I can't let …"

Jason gave a strange laugh.

"Do you think Brian doesn't know that?" he asked.

Justin stared at him, aghast.

"Brian knows exactly what his dollar is buying him, honey, and he sure as fuck knows it ain't true love."

Justin shook his head in desperate denial.

"Oh, he's not exactly paying by the hour, but he knows it's a transaction, just the same. That's the way he wants it," Jason said pointedly. "This way … there are no complications, and when it's over … it doesn't hurt. He doesn't feel anything for these guys, so they can't hurt him."

Justin made a sound that might have been a soft moan of pain. Fuck, what had he done?

"Kyle isn't the first," Jason explained further. "And he probably won't be the last."

"No," Justin said softly, desperately. "No!"

"It's just a way not to be alone," he heard Jason say.

While he tried to blink back the tears from his eyes, the scene blurred and Brian was gone.

Justin was once more in his mother's condo.

Once again, his mother was sitting on the couch, this time with only an empty soup bowl, and several snack foods beside her. The place seemed empty, and for a moment Justin couldn't work out why. Then he realized that there was no sign of Molly about the place. No jacket thrown over a chair, no books and magazines lying around everywhere, none of her shoes near the door, or her coats on the hooks. Nothing.

Clearly she didn't live here any more.

"Your father has convinced Molly that you're a pervert, and that your mother is a sick woman for encouraging you. She's living with your father now, and she's told your mother she never wants to see her or you again."

Justin stared at him appalled.

Jason shrugged. "You haven't been around to remind her who you really are. To her, you're just someone who abandoned his family to find fame and fortune. She was young, it was easy for your father to convince her that if you were any sort of decent human being you wouldn't have done that; to make her believe that you left because you don't feel love like normal people, you just feel lust. Nasty depraved lust for other men."

"But Mom …"

"Did her best to argue with her, but as you stopped calling, or even emailing … I guess Molly was pretty mad with you. She was hurt, and your father at least provided an explanation for why you would treat your family that way."

"I never meant …"

"No. I don't suppose you did."

Justin sucked in a deep breath. This was the future. That had to mean that he could still change this. Could still somehow fix it.

He was about to ask Jason about that, when the room seemed to sway for a moment. Then it was still again, but his mother now looked older, tired and sad. She was standing near the window now, looking out. Beside her, on a small table, was a photo frame. With a shock, Justin saw that she'd been looking at a photo of Brian. Poking out from beneath the frame was a piece of newsprint. Justin glanced at it, and felt his world reel around him. He couldn't see it all, couldn't see the date, couldn't see the beginning of the obit, the part where it said how Brian had died, all he could read was "lived alone on an estate in West Virginia" and "had become almost a recluse".

The room swirled dark around him and he thought perhaps he might indeed have fainted. But then he was aware of himself again, and of Jason. They were once more in New York, at another gallery. Justin was staring at a painting. He was just thinking that, for all its technical expertise he didn't like it very much, that he found it superficial and empty, when he glanced at the wall and saw the artist's name.

Even as he did, he heard voices behind him.

"I know it's heresy, but I never thought that his later work was anything like as good as his early stuff. I think his reputation sold everything he did in the last twenty years."

"His reputation as an artist - or in the sack?"

There was coarse laughter, as the men moved away.

Justin forced himself to read the biography of the artist - his biography.

"Well known figure on the New York art scene" … "arrived as a young man and carved a place for himself" … "lacked the emotionalism of his early work".

He looked at the painting once more and felt nauseous. It was terrible. Technically, it might even have been superb. But it was completely empty, devoid of any feeling, soul-less.

He hated it. He was appalled at the idea that he could paint such a thing.

He stumbled from the gallery, through a side door into an alley. To his shock, he walked right through a boy who was hovering in the shadows. Justin recoiled from the horrible pins and needles feeling, and then, recovering, stood staring at the boy.

It was like looking at a photo of himself at sixteen.

Mesmerized, he followed, as the boy made his way down to the street, and then stood near the curb.

"Looks a lot like you, doesn't he?" Jason commented, appearing suddenly beside him.

Justin tried to shrug, while he fought off a sick feeling that he knew what the boy was doing there on the street.

"That didn't help, of course," Jason said cryptically.

Justin turned his head to ask what the fuck he was talking about, and as he did, he became aware of the large black car that was slowing down as it neared the boy. For some reason, even the sight of the car gave Justin the shivers.

"Molly figured out pretty early that he was gay," Jason explained. "And when the "rehabilitation" places she sent him to couldn't beat it out of him, she threw him out on the street. Said one pervert in the family was more than enough."

Justin's eyes widened in shock, and then he jerked his head around to where the car had stopped, its door swinging silently open. Nothing could be seen inside but darkness.

Jason moved forward.

"I have to go," he said, looking back over his shoulder at Justin, his face ghastly now, that of the dead boy they'd pulled out of the dumpster. "He won't be as lucky as you were. He's going to need someone to meet him."

He moved forward, towards the car, fading as he went.

As Justin watched, his skin crawling with horror, the boy who had his face moved forward also, about to step into the ominously dark interior of the black car.

"NOOOOOOO!!!!!" Justin screamed.


"Sshh, Sunshine, it's okay. Just breathe. Nice and slow, in and out."

The soothing tones of Brian's voice finally reached him, and he blinked in agonized relief at the face of his lover.

"Brian!" he half sobbed, throwing his arms around the man's neck.

"Fuck! Sunshine. You don't need to fucking choke me. It's bad enough you woke me up, screaming like a damned banshee."

But his arms came round Justin warmly, and he rocked him a little, back and forth, till Justin at last sat back with an embarrassed laugh.

"Fuck I'm sorry. I just …"

"Haven't had one of those for a while," Brian commented.

"No. No, I haven't." Justin smiled at his partner weakly. "Sorry," he said.

Brian grinned at him, relieved that his young lover seemed to be okay. "You know what I think about sorry," he said.

Justin grinned back. "Yeah, I know," he said, settling back down into the bed.

Brian, after one look deep into his eyes, switched off the light he'd turned on at the first shriek, and settled down with him.

He drew Justin close, and then fell asleep again almost immediately, Justin clasped in the protective circle of his arm.


Justin lay there for a long while, coming to terms with the fact that the whole thing had been a dream. Including the parts where he'd dreamed he'd woken up.

Even the part about living in New York.

He hadn't moved there yet. He'd been planning to do that in the New Year. He'd wanted to have Christmas at home with his family first. And with Brian, of course.

Now … now he had a lot to think about.

It was a long time before he fell asleep again, but by the time he did, he'd worked out what he was going to do.

In the morning, after soothing Brian's grumbles about his disturbed night's sleep with a fabulous blow job in the shower, making him coffee and packing him off to work with a deep and very loving kiss, he phoned the agent. The woman. The one he'd really wanted to represent him.

He'd called her last week, to tell her that he was moving to New York and that he'd like to talk to her about representation. She'd been offhand, but had told him to call once he was settled and she'd see if she could find him a window. He felt weird making the call this morning, with what she'd said about him in the dream still fresh in his mind, but after pestering her for the appointment, he knew that the least he could do was let her know that he wouldn't be coming.

Besides, for some reason he felt that by doing this he was in some way making his decision final.

When she came on the line he heard the reluctance in her voice. He explained his change of plans in a stumbling rush, feeling like a complete idiot. To his surprise, she was interested in the reasons for his decision. He couldn't very well tell her about the dream, but he could tell her what the dream had made him realize, that he wasn't willing to give up his whole life just to play at being an artist in the Big Apple.

She laughed when he said that, and in her precise English, with just the faintest trace of an accent, asked him how his work had been going. They talked about his art for about twenty minutes, and then she said, "I would still like to meet with you. Is there perhaps a chance you could come here for a meeting early in the New Year?"

He gulped and told her `yes, of course'. And then, because the dream was still vivid in his mind, and he knew that she hadn't previously been interested in representing him, he asked why. Why had she changed her mind about him?

She laughed again. "I thought I was dealing with someone who had talent, great potential, but who was a foolish boy, dazzled by the idea of "making it in the Big Apple". Someone whose talent would be allowed to slip away, while he chased phantoms. For that boy, there is nothing I could do. But a smart young man who is capable of showing wisdom in his choices, this is someone whose talent is worth nurturing. This is someone I can help."

"You don't think I'm doing the wrong thing?" he asked, a little surprised.

"I think that sacrificing your life, your happiness, for a career in art is as foolish as sacrificing it for a career on the Stock Exchange. Perhaps even more so. Conceivably you can be a good stock broker with no soul, but you can't produce good art if you cut away your emotional foundations, if you destroy your soul."

That truth was so obvious, he could only laugh in response.


Justin had known before he made the call that he was making the right choice, the only choice that was right for him. Just like he'd known that the only problem was going to be convincing his stubborn partner that this was the right thing for him to do. That he wasn't sacrificing anything, that he was making the best decision for him, as well as for them.

By the time he'd finally finished the call and said goodbye to her, however, he was in possession of some evidence to help him do that.

He called Brian and asked what time he'd be home. He could tell from Brian's reaction that the man was only too aware of how little time there supposedly was before Justin flew off to New York. He agreed with very little persuasion to come home early.

Justin refrained from telling him "we need to talk", knowing that even now that might be enough to spook Brian into heading off to the Baths, or at least to Woody's to garner some Dutch courage before facing whatever Justin had to tell him.

He tried to act casual when Brian got home, but couldn't have been all that successful, because his lover gave him one sharp look and then sighed, and pulled off his jacket.

"Let me get changed first," he said. "Then you can spill whatever it is."

Justin let him get changed, and poured them both a drink. Brian, coming down the steps, saw the glasses on the coffee table and raised an eyebrow.

"So what the fuck is going on in that little brain of yours now?" he asked roughly.

Justin knew the roughness covered all sorts of fears, not least of which was that Justin might say exactly what Justin planned to say, and that Brian would then have to be the one who pushed him into going, would have to somehow find the strength to force him to take what everyone had told them both was a golden chance. Justin smiled at him fondly, pushed him down into the deep armchair, and sat straddled across his lap, one leg either side of Brian's thighs.

Brian sucked his lips in and looked at him warily.

"You have to listen to me," Justin started. "I just want you to …"

"Justin!" Brian's voice sounded exasperated. But behind the exasperation was pain. Deep pain, held firmly in check. For his sake.

Justin leaned forward and kissed him to silence him.

"I called that agent today," he said after the kiss had ended. "The one Lindsay said was the best."

"You called her last week," Brian said.

Justin beamed at him. He loved it that Brian kept things like that in his memory.

"Yeah, but this week I called her to tell her that I won't be moving to New York."

Brian leaned back away from him and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Justin," he said tiredly, "we've been through this."

"She says she thinks it's a wise decision."

"Yeah, well, you said she didn't seem keen to meet with you. It lets her off the hook."

Justin smiled lovingly at him and pinched him in the side, near his ribs. Brian yelped.

Having made sure he had his lover's attention, Justin went on. "She's changed her mind about that. She wants me to fly up for a meeting in the New Year."

Brian sat looking at him, his eyes confused.

Justin smiled at him again, and pressed his forehead against Brian's.

"She said that when I called before, she thought I was some dumb assed kid who was just all starry eyed about being a starving artist in New York. But when I told her that I didn't think it would be good for my art to be away from all the things that breathe life into it, all the things that make me feel alive, all the things that make me who I am … then she said she knew I was a smart young man who could make wise choices. So she wants to represent me."

Brian stroked his hands down Justin's back, trying not to let this affect him too much. It wasn't … it couldn't be that simple. He had to stay strong. Had to make sure.

Justin pinched him again. "Stop that!" he ordered. "You fucking stop that."

"What?" Brian asked.

"You know," Justin answered, and kissed him gently. Then he got up, and moving to the table, grabbed a pile of paper. He waved it at Brian.

"This is her standard contract. She emailed it to me, so I can go through it. She's going to courier the real document to me: two copies - already signed. I just have to sign them both and then send one back to her. I've already emailed this on to Mel."

He beamed at Brian and then, as the man stood up slowly, he threw himself into Brian's arms.

"And she says she thinks she can get me a spot in a show at that gallery Lindsay talked about. The one where they have this great reputation for discovering new artists. They have a show coming up in March, and the curator is a friend of hers, and he told her he's looking for one more artist, and she's going to tell him it should be me."

Brian swallowed.

"You should still …"

"No," Justin said firmly. "No, Brian. I shouldn't. This is what I should do. This is what makes most sense. This is what will be best for my art, because it will be best for me."

He smiled at his partner, full of love and confidence. "This is what I need," he said simply. "You're what I need."

Brian looked at him for a long moment, and then simply wrapped Justin up in his arms, hugging him so tightly Justin could hardly breathe, but he didn't complain.

Instead he hugged Brian back, and ran his hands over his back, and through his hair, and murmured soft promises of `never' and `always' and `love', until the man finally stopped shaking and could let him go.

Much later, after they'd celebrated on the couch, and in the shower, and on the bed - twice - Justin lay holding his sleeping lover, and spinning more plans.

If the Munchers insist on this stupid move to Canada, he thought, then I'll just have to make sure that we get up there to see Gus at least once a month. We can do that. Brian would have spent at least that amount of time coming to see me in New York, so now we can go to Toronto instead.

We could even have Gus down here for visits. I could get Molly over to help baby sit. And I should take her out more. Maybe get tickets for the ballet. She'd like that. Or at least we can just go to see a movie once in a while.

And I have to make sure that the Munchers come down here for Christmas. Or we could go up there. All of us.

We're going to have such great Christmases, he thought sleepily.

And we're going to spend them together. All of them. I'm not going to let Brian spend even one Christmas without me … he's not going to fall victim to any smooth little hustler … not on my watch!

Brian's mine, Justin sighed contentedly. And I'm going to look after him.

And on that thought, held warm and safe in his lover's arms, he fell asleep.


This time all his dreams were sweet ones.

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