Now That You're Here - The College Years
Brian turned down the pot of chili so
that it could simmer for awhile and took another look around his and Justin’s
small apartment. They’d been living there for almost two months already, but he
still couldn’t get used to the fact that he was living on his own with Justin.
Every day he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Not that living
with Chris and Zander was horrible. Brian had considered himself lucky from the
moment he moved in with his brother and his partner. It was just nice to be on
his own with Justin, living like a couple and being adults. So nice in fact,
that they hadn’t made a trip back to Sierra Vista since their move. But that was
about to change. It was Thursday night and his classes were over for the week.
Justin had one early morning class and then they’d be on the road heading home.
He was looking forward to it, too. Despite loving his new found independence, he missed Chris and Zander more than he thought he would and couldn’t wait to see them. He took a moment to set the table for four, expecting Zac and Jason to show up before Justin made it back, and then went to work on a paper that was due the following week. It still amazed him how much he loved college life over high school. In high school, all homework and projects were shoved off to the side until the last minute when he’d pull it out and rush through everything as best as he could. Now he found himself completing his work as soon as it was assigned, regardless of the actual due date. He was just settling down with a notebook in his lap when his phone rang. A quick glance told him it was Dane and he quickly picked up the phone.
“Relax, I told you I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon,” Brian laughed as he answered the phone. Dane had been calling him regularly, talking about nothing but the baby and how much he missed his friends. “Justin’s class lets out at 10:00 so we should be on the road by 10:30.”
“I know and I can’t wait. You won’t believe how big Julia is getting. She’s really starting to become a little person.”
“As opposed to the little puppy that she was before?” Brian teased.
“Oh shut up! You know what I mean,” Dane laughed.
“I know, but I couldn’t resist. How are things with Stacey? Has she found a job yet?”
“No, and it’s starting to freak her out a bit. It’s a good thing she moved in here. Otherwise they’d probably be on the streets by now. Ashley had to get a paying roommate to help with the rent. I keep telling her she should focus on going back to school and let me worry about money. She was half way through getting her nursing degree but took time off when she found out she was pregnant. There’s no reason for her to give up her dream just because we have Julia.”
“Why won’t she?”
“Because she doesn’t want to be a burden. She says that letting her stay there is more than generous and that she refuses to sit back and let everyone take care of her. It’s frustrating, because she doesn’t understand that all we’re doing is providing for my child and her mother. She’s not a burden, and if she goes back to school and gets her degree, she’ll be able to support herself and Julia without so much assistance. I don’t know how to get through to her, but I haven’t given up trying.”
“I’ll try talking to her if you want,” Brian offered. “I know all about feeling like a burden.”
“Bri, how can you say that? Chris and Zander love you and would never consider you a burden,” Dane replied quickly. “You know that.”
“I do know that, now. Most of the time. But it doesn’t mean I’ve never felt like a burden. And Stacy isn’t a burden to you and your family because she gave you Julia. Let me try to explain it to her, from one non-burden to another.”
“Well, it’s worth a try. Nothing I say is getting through to her.”
“I’ll see if I can help,” Brian replied. He heard a soft knock at the door and got up to answer it. “Dane, I’ve got to go. Zac and Jason just got here.”
“Oh, alright. Tell them I said hey and call me tomorrow. Love you.”
“Love you, too. Later.” Brian disconnected the phone as he pulled the door open. “Hey guys, come on in.”
“Mmmm…something smells good,” Zac said as he walked inside with Jason right behind him. “I gotta warn you, I’m starving. I haven’t eaten anything today.”
“Oh wonderful,” Jason sighed. “Maybe we’d better order a couple of pizzas on top of what you made, just in case. You know how Zac can eat when he’s really hungry.”
“Hey, that’s not nice,” Zac whined.
“Maybe not, but it’s true,” Brian laughed.
“Oh come here,” Jason said as he pulled Zac in for a deep kiss. “It doesn’t make us love you any less.”
Zac smiled at the comment. Ever since Jason flew in for the graduation and explained his reasoning behind not wanting to live together freshman year, things between the two of them had been good. They weren’t living together, but their dorm rooms were down the hall from each other. Everyone knew they were a couple and they spent at least three nights a week sharing a bed. Although they hadn’t crossed the line and had actual intercourse yet, there had definitely been some intense nights that ended with wonderful 69’s and a bit of anal play. Things were good between them; really, really good. Yet a part of Zac couldn’t help but feel like something was missing; that something being the promise of a future together. Jason still treated their relationship as if they were just having a good time while Zac had been sure of his love for Jason for months. Which was why hearing Jason put himself in the ‘love you like a friend’ category pulled at his heart.
“Of course not,” Brian insisted. “In fact I, for one, love you more because by the time you’re done eating, there’s nothing left. It helps me keep in shape.”
“Ha ha, you guys are so funny,” Zac pretended to pout, but it was hard to keep it up with Brian making faces at him. “Oh, shut up,” he finally laughed.
“You guys want something to drink? Justin won’t be home for another hour. The chili should be done simmering by then.”
“You’re so domesticated,” Zac pointed out. “It’s cute.”
“Why? Because I cooked dinner? We don’t live on campus, remember? We don’t have a cafeteria downstairs that we can go to when we’re hungry. It’s either we cook or we order take out and take out is way too expensive,” Brian replied as he grabbed a couple of sodas for the guys. “Besides, I spent the last four years living with the Gay Super Couple of Arizona. Of course I’m domesticated.”
“Yeah, you got a point there,” Zac laughed. “How are they, anyway? Have they gotten used to having the house to themselves yet?”
“I don’t think so. I get text messages all the time, mostly from Zan. I think he’s the one affected most by Justin and me leaving. Chris is probably pretty happy to have Zan all to himself,” Brian said. “All I know is that we didn’t get asked to go home this weekend, we were ordered to be there. What about you? How are your mom and dad taking having you gone?”
“Sadly, they’re taking it very well,” Zac replied. “They’re talking about moving me to the attic and making my room an upstairs TV room.”
“You’re so lucky,” Jason sighed. “Every time I talk to my mother and she gets ready to say goodbye, she starts getting all weepy. You’d think I was on the front lines in Iraq, not at some classy university only a quick plane ride away.”
The three of them sat around talking about their college experiences so far, from roommates to parents and everywhere in between while waiting for Justin to arrive. Brian once again thought about how grateful he was for what he had, thanks to Chris and Zander.
Meanwhile, Justin was thankful for the end of the day. He was starving and couldn’t wait to see Jason and Zac. He hadn’t seen them much in the last few weeks. As soon as the professor ended the class, Justin grabbed his books and headed towards the door. A quick glance at the clock told him that Jason and Zac would already be at the apartment with Brian, waiting for him to get there. As he crossed the campus, he heard the faint sound of someone calling his name. He turned to see Colin jogging towards him. He refused to acknowledge the way his heart rate sped up as the other guy approached.
“Hey, I was hoping to catch up with you. I wanted to know if you wanted to work on our history project this weekend. I thought maybe we could meet up Saturday morning, spend a few hours deciding on what we want to do and then maybe have some lunch, catch a movie.”
Justin took a deep breath before replying. He finally had the perfect moment to let Colin know that he was involved with Brian and that although he enjoyed their flirting, the budding friendship between them would never go any farther than that. “Sorry, I can’t. I’m going home for the weekend. I’m leaving right after my early morning class.”
“Oh, okay. Um, so where is home anyway? You don’t sound like you’re from Arizona.”
“I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but I moved to Sierra Vista more than a year ago. That’s home now,” Justin replied.
“You moved before senior year? That must have been tough. I’m from a small town north of Dallas and I spent my whole life there. The kids I graduated with are the same kids I played in the sandbox with.”
“Yeah, well my parents were killed in a car accident so I moved out here to live with my cousin,” Justin offered, wondering why he was sharing so much information. Yet he still hadn’t shared the most important information of all. Colin still didn’t know he had a boyfriend.
“Wow, I’m so sorry. That must have really sucked. My dad took off when I was a baby, so it’s just been my mom and me. I can’t imagine how I would get through something like that happening to her,” Colin said softly. “So you live with your cousin?”
“Yeah, him and his partner and his partner’s brother. They’ve been really good to me,” Justin said, as he considered what his life in hell was going to be like. He was obviously the biggest slime ball on the planet. Colin needed to know that Brian was so much more than just his cousin’s partner’s brother.
“That’s great. At least you have family around. Okay, so Saturday is out. How about Monday? We can meet up after classes and grab a bite to eat while discussing the project,” Colin suggested.
“Um…yeah…that might work. I’ll see you in history class on Monday and we can discuss it.”
“Cool, have a good weekend and I’ll see you on Monday.”
Justin waited until Colin was gone before pulling his cell out of his pocket and making a call. Matt answered on the second ring.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Matt, I’m going to hell. I mean really going to hell. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I mean, I know better. I do know better. And I meant to say something. It was on the tip of my tongue and I just…didn’t. What am I going to do?” Justin sighed.
“Um…Jus…you’re going to have to help me out here and tell me what’s wrong or I can’t help you,” Matt said.
“Oh, right. You have no idea what I’m talking about,” Justin chuckled humorlessly. He headed towards the shuttle stop with a heavy heart. “There’s this guy in my history class. His name is Colin.”
“Well, he’s been flirting with me…we’ve been flirting with each other since the beginning of the semester. It’s innocent, at least on my end. But now he wants to work on a project together, but not in the library in between classes like a lot of students do. He wants to go out and grab food, maybe catch a movie. I think he wants to do more than work on a project.”
“What an asshole. He knows you have a boyfriend, right?” At Justin’s hesitation, Matt continued. “Jus, you told him about Brian, right?”
“See, that’s where my going to hell comes in,” Justin admitted. “I wanted to tell him about Brian, but I just haven’t found the right moment.”
“Don’t you think the right moment would’ve been when he was asking you out? That seems like the logical time to me,” Matt pointed out.
“I know…but I couldn’t do it,” Justin sighed again.
“Why Jus? Why couldn’t you just say hey, I have a boyfriend that I live with and I love him? You do love Brian, right?”
“Of course I do,” Justin insisted immediately. “He’s the most important person in the world to me.”
“Then why didn’t you tell Colin that?”
“I don’t know. I think it’s because I like the attention he gives me. Colin is totally hot and I like the way he flirts with me; the way I’m the only one in the room when he’s around. It feels good, you know?”
“I’m sure it does, but Justin you have to tell him. You’re not being fair to him, letting him think that he has a chance with you. Unless you’re considering ending things with Brian.” Once again, Justin hesitated. “Jus, are you thinking about breaking up with Brian?”
“No…I mean…I don’t think so…Matt, what am I going to do? I don’t want to lose Brian. I really don’t. It’s just that things between us have become…predictable. We’re like an old married couple. All we do is hang out at the apartment and watch TV or study. We never go out and do anything fun. We’ve turned down four parties in the last three weeks because Brian just wanted to stay home. I’m 18 years old and a freshman in college. I don’t want the highlight of my Saturday night to be a rented movie and a bowl of popcorn.”
“Have you tried talking to Brian about this? Your boredom, not Colin.”
“I’ve mentioned it once or twice, suggested that we don’t get out enough, but he doesn’t get it. He thinks that as long as we have each other, we don’t need social lives. His idea of a night out is grabbing dinner before our weekly trip to the supermarket. I’m telling you, he’s become boring.” Justin sighed in frustration. “I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t want to spend my college years sitting on our couch, either.”
“Jus, you really need to talk to him about this. If you don’t, you’re only going to start resenting him more and more until you end up doing something that you’ll regret. Go home right now and talk to him.”
“I can’t. Jason and Zac are there. We’re having dinner together.”
“Well maybe after they leave? Or tomorrow? Aren’t you guys going home this weekend?”
“Yeah, we’re leaving after my morning class.”
“Perfect! Talking to him there might be better. At least Chris and Zan will be around if the conversation doesn’t go well,” Matt said.
“You don’t think it’s going to go well?” Justin asked in horror.
“I didn’t say that. I just meant that if it didn’t go well…shit, do you want me to go home and meet you there?”
“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Justin replied with little enthusiasm.
“It’s no big deal. My parents have been giving me a bunch of crap for not going home more. It would make my mother’s day to have me show up unexpectedly. Chances are you won’t even need me, but I’d like to be there just in case. Besides, I haven’t seen you guys in weeks. It would be cool if we got a chance to hang out for awhile.”
“Thanks Matt,” Justin sighed in relief. “You’re the best.”
“I know,” Matt teased. “Now I’d better get going. I planned on doing a lot of studying this weekend and since I’m going to be going home, I’d like to get as much as I can done before I leave tomorrow. Peace.”
Justin locked his phone and put it into his pocket before making his way to the shuttle stop. They only brought the jeep with them in August, choosing to shuttle back and forth to the campus most of the time. It was easier than trying to find decent parking and one of the perks for living in the apartment complex he and Brian had found.
After spending his short wait thinking about the conversation he knew he needed to have with Brian, Justin pushed all thoughts of Brian and Colin to the back of his mind so that he could enjoy his evening. Jason had known him for most of his life. The last thing Justin wanted was to have his friend pick up on his confusion and bring it to Brian’s attention.
The evening went by quickly and Justin was thrilled when it was finally time to climb into bed. It had been a long day and he was exhausted. All he wanted to do was get a good night’s sleep. He had an early morning class and then they’d be on the road back to Sierra Vista. Unfortunately all thoughts of sleep were shot when Brian climbed into bed and turned towards him.
“So, you want to tell me what’s bothering you?” Brian asked the moment he was settled.
“What do you mean?” Justin asked innocently. “Nothing’s bothering me. I’m just tired. As much as I love college life, I miss the days of high school and its easy work load.”
“Nice try Blondie, but try again. Something’s been bothering you for weeks now. I was going to wait until we were back at home to talk to you about it, but after seeing how distant you were tonight, I couldn’t wait anymore.”
“I don’t…” Justin began but Brian interrupted him before he could say anymore.
“Please don’t play stupid. If you’re not ready to talk about whatever it is; than say that. Just don’t lie to me and tell me nothing’s wrong. Not when it’s so obvious that something is.”
Justin sighed in resignation. “I guess something has been bothering me lately, but I really don’t want to get into it tonight. I have to be up early and then we have the drive home. Can we talk about it later?”
“Any chance you can give me a hint about what it is?” Brian prodded.
“Alright, I’ll let it go for now. But you promise we’ll talk this weekend, right?”
“Yes, I promise,” Justin chuckled. “Now give me a kiss. I’m exhausted.”
“If you insist,” Brian teased before kissing Justin deeply; trying his best to show all the love he had for the blond in that one moment.
When the kiss was broken, Justin rolled over on to his side letting Brian snuggle up behind him. It was the way they always fell asleep, causing Justin to once again to think about how predictable they’d gotten. How boring. Hell, they couldn’t even go to sleep without falling into the same old routine. Yeah, he definitely needed to talk to Brian. He just hoped that he’d be able to find the right words to tell his boyfriend how he felt without hurting Brian’s feeling.
Brian wrapped his arms around Justin and held him tightly as the blond drifted off to sleep. Once he was sure that Justin was out, he carefully slipped away and grabbed his phone before heading into the small living room. A quick glance at the clock told him that Steve’s shift at the restaurant where he was working part time was over and that he should be on his way back to his dorm. He sent a text and waited about ten minutes before his phone rang.
“Hey Bri, what’s going on?”
“Not too much. How’re things on the east coast?” Brian asked, once again hating Steve’s decision to go to Princeton. Ivy League school or not, Brian hated having his best friend so far away.
“Pretty good. Classes are rough, but I’m managing. I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to keep working, though. I’m beginning to see why they frown upon their students having jobs during the semesters. I can’t believe the work they pile on us. How’re things at Arizona State? I spoke to Zac last week and he seems happy.”
“Yeah, he’s doing okay. We’re all settling in okay, I guess,” Brian replied.
“Uh oh, what’s the matter?”
“Bri, it’s late here and I’m tired. Don’t lie to me. I knew there was something wrong the minute I got the text from you, but I thought I’d get the greetings bullshit out of the way first. Now tell me what’s going on,” Steve insisted.
“I think Justin’s seeing someone else,” Brian mumbled.
“Um…what was that? I must have misunderstood you. It sounded like you said that you thought Justin was seeing someone else.”
“I did. I think there’s someone else.”
“No way. That’s not possible,” Steve stated.
“How can you say that? I haven’t even told you my suspicions.”
“I can say that because I know Justin. He loves you. There’s no way he’d cheat on you. Now start from the beginning. What makes you think there’s someone else?”
“I don’t know. He’s been distant lately; and kind of moody. And he’s tired all the time. All he wants to do is go to bed early. Zac and Jason were here for dinner tonight and as soon as they left, Justin went right into bed and went to sleep,” Brian explained.
“Bri, all those things don’t necessarily mean that he’s seeing someone else. It could just be that adjusting to college life is taking a toll on him. I’m exhausted all the time and I’m sure someone would call me moody and distant if I knew anyone around me,” Steve replied. “Lucky for me, I chose to go to school 2400 miles away from everyone I know,” he added sarcastically.
“It’s more than that. I asked him what was bothering him before he fell asleep tonight. At first he denied something was wrong, but when I pushed he admitted that something was wrong but that he was too tired to talk about it tonight. He promised that we’d talk about it over the weekend.”
“That still doesn’t mean that there’s someone else.”
“I saw him with some guy the other night,” Brian admitted.
“What do you mean saw him with some guy?”
“The other night…he had a late class. I was sitting at home waiting for him and I was bored so I went to the campus thinking I’d meet him and we could go grab a pizza or something. I saw him with some guy. There were laughing together.”
“Laughing together? Oh shit, you mean I’m gay?” Steve gasped in horror.
“What? What the hell are you talking about?” Brian barked.
“Well…I was laughing with this guy I work with tonight. Obviously that means that there was something going on between us so I must be gay,” Steve said mockingly.
“Alright, I get what you’re saying. You can stop being an ass now,” Brian growled. “But there’s definitely something going on with him. He admitted that much to me.”
“Fine, there’s something going on with him. But stop freaking out and making assumptions over what it is. He’ll talk to you about it when he’s ready, but I’m sure it’s not whatever you have running through that head of yours. Just relax.”
“I wish I could be as sure as you,” Brian sighed. “But I guess you’re right. I should just wait until he’s ready to talk about it. Thanks.”
“Hey, that’s what best friends are for,” Steve replied. “Trust me, one day it might be you talking me down off a ledge.”
Brian laughed. “Somehow I doubt that. Out of all of us, you’re the only one who seems to have their head on straight.”
“You’d be surprised,” Steve mumbled.
“Nothing…so how’re classes going?”
“They’re good. I still can’t get over how much I like college compared to high school.”
“I wish I felt that way. My class load sucks, my homework takes up more time than I have, and work wants me to pick up more hours.” Steve sighed in frustration.
“You know, I’m still not sure why you insisted on getting a job. You didn’t work when you were here. Why start now? You’re going to one of the top colleges in the country. You didn’t actually expect the classes to be easy, did you?”
“No, but I just…I don’t know. I guess I figured that working would help me forget how much I miss everyone. But it’s okay. I’m adjusting.”
Brian could hear the catch in Steve’s voice and knew his friend needed him. “Steve, talk to me. What’s going on?”
“Nothing. I’m cool.”
“No you’re not, liar. How bad is it?” When Steve didn’t respond, Brian pushed. “Hey, I’m your best friend. You can talk to me.”
“No I can’t, because if I do…”
“Shit Bri, I don’t know if I can do this. I’m miserable here. I hate my roommate, I hate my professors; hell, I even hate my boss. There’s only one person in this whole town that I actually kind of like. The guy I said I laughed with earlier. Only he’s married with two young kids so once we clock out at the end of the night, he goes home to his family and I go back to the roommate from hell.”
Brian was at a loss over the despair he heard in his friend’s voice. “Wow, I didn’t know. Why didn’t you tell me before how bad it was?”
“Because I didn’t want it to seem like I was whining. And I thought that if I gave it some time, things would get better, you know? Like maybe I just needed an adjustment period and then everything would be fine,” Steve admitted softly.
“That’s fucked up. You could’ve at least talked to me about it instead of feeling so alone,” Brian replied somewhat angrily. “I thought that’s what best friends were for; to be there for each other when needed. How many times were you there for me when I needed someone to talk to? Come to think of it, you’ve never come to me before, have you? I don’t remember you ever coming to me with a problem you needed to work out. How come? Am I so hard to talk to?”
“Of course not. That had nothing to do with it. Bri, you’ve had a really rough life. I love being able to be there for you. What was I supposed to say to you that could compare to the things you endured? After the shit your old man pulled, was I really supposed to complain to you? About what? My easy going father and Martha Stewart mother? About the extremely generous weekly allowance that my parents insisted on giving me or the new car they bought me for passing my driver’s test? Maybe I could’ve whined about the unfairness of the easy A’s that I seemed to be able to earn without so much as opening a book. Tell me Brian, what right did I have to complain about anything?”
“You had every right!” Brian yelled, momentarily forgetting to keep his voice down so that he didn’t wake Justin. “Yeah, from the outside your life seems to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that it is. Everyone has their share of problems and should never feel like they can’t share them with someone close if they need to. Am I that unapproachable? After all these years, do you really feel like you can’t talk to me about what’s bothering you? I thought we were best friends!”
“We are,” Steve insisted.
“No we’re not. Not if you don’t feel like you can talk to me.”
“You know what? Never mind. I get it now. I’ll stop bothering you with my problems. Your days of charity work are over.”
“Yeah, you know. Helping the underprivileged. Lowering yourself to work on my problems when you obviously had so many of your own. I won’t bother you again.”
Brian hung up the phone and threw it across the room, unaffected by the way it shattered against the wall. He knew he was probably being childish, but he couldn’t help it. His friendship with Steve, the one person in the world that he could easily share everything with without a thought to how he’d be judged, wasn’t what he’d thought it was. After four years, the realization that their friendship was one sided hurt. It hurt really badly. He suddenly felt like his whole world wasn’t as he thought it was. Like everything he knew was suddenly foreign to him. He was so wrapped up in his pain that he didn’t hear Justin approach and was startled when he felt strong arms wrap around him from behind as he stood by the window looking out over the complex parking lot.
“Hey, is everything okay? I thought I heard yelling.”
Brian turned around and threw his arms around Justin, pulling him close. He kissed his neck and then whispered in his ear. “Please tell me you’re not leaving me. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, please say that it’s not going to end with you walking out that door. I don’t think I could take that.”
Justin was startled by Brian’s emotional state. He hugged his boyfriend tighter, offering the comfort that he needed. “Shhh…I love you. I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”
Hearing Justin’s reassurance broke the tension that Brian had been carrying around for weeks and allowed his emotions to spill out, along with many unshed tears. He refused to worry about appearances as he cried on the blond’s shoulder, finally letting go of the fear that had been plaguing him.
Justin’s heart broke as he listened to Brian’s soft sobs. He should’ve known that Brian would notice that something was bothering him and turn it in on himself. He should’ve realized that Brian would see there was a problem and allow it to escalate into so much more than it was. His guilt was overwhelming as he led Brian to their bedroom, barely giving the broken cell phone a second glance. They needed to work on their own issues before Justin even dared dig into what caused Brian to smash his phone.
Once they were settled in bed, with Brian lying in his arms, Justin quietly approached the subject he’d been dreading for weeks. “Babe, I love you more than anyone on this earth. You have to know that. And our life together is almost exactly what I want.”
“Almost,” Brian whispered hoarsely.
“It’s not a big deal, really. It’s just that it’s been so…repetitive. We don’t have any fun. We don’t do anything exciting. We get up, go to classes, come home, have dinner and go to bed. Every once and awhile we have Zac and Jason over for a few hours. That’s it. Don’t you want to experience college more? I mean, I don’t want to become one of those guys who end up throwing away his college career in favor of partying, but there has to be more than this, you know? I just want us to get out there and have some fun occasionally.”
“Of course us. Did you think I was planning on going out alone?”
“I saw you laughing with some guy the other night. It was Tuesday and you had your late class. I was bored here so I thought I’d meet you on campus and we could go grab a couple slices at that place you like so much. When I got on campus, I saw you laughing with some guy. I thought…I guess I was worried that…” Brian couldn’t even finish his thought.
“Colin,” Justin sighed. He’d been hoping that he’d never have to speak his name to Brian. He had been wrong. “He’s in my history class. I have to be honest with you, Bri. We’ve been…flirting with each other, but I swear it’s nothing more than that. He’s just some guy in my class.”
“Just some guy,” Brian replied softly. “Does he know that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so, but you have to know that I would never do anything to hurt you,” Justin assured him.
“Does he know about me?”
For a split second, Justin considered lying, but then decided against it. “Not yet, but he will.”
“So you’ve been flirting with some guy, claim that it’s innocent, yet you haven’t told him you’re in a committed relationship. And I’m not supposed to be worried?”
“No, you’re not supposed to be worried because you’re supposed to trust me when I tell you I love you and would never cheat on you. You’re supposed to have enough faith in our relationship to believe in us and know deep down inside that there isn’t anyone out there that can come between what we have.” Justin said.
“Okay, so I’m supposed to have enough faith in our relationship to believe in us when you don’t have enough faith in me to tell me that you’re bored. You’ve been distant for weeks, yet you never once came to me and told me how you were feeling. That’s a little hypocritical, don’t you think?” Brian asked cautiously.
“No, I don’t. I planned on talking to you about how I was feeling. I was just trying to figure out the best way to say it without hurting your feelings or making you feel bad.”
“You found a way to say it tonight,” Brian pointed out.
“That’s because you were automatically thinking the worst. Trying to explain that I want a little excitement in our lives doesn’t seem that difficult when I’m trying to reassure you that I’m not cheating on you and I’m not planning on leaving you. We really need to work on our communication skills if you sense something is wrong and immediately jump to the worst case scenario. Have I ever done anything to cause you to doubt how much I want to be with you?”
“No,” Brian admitted.
“Then you have to start trusting me. I’m exactly where I want to be, and with exactly who I want to be with. No more second guessing me, okay?”
“I’ll try,” Brian said shyly.
“Well, it’s a start,” Justin laughed, trying to ease the tension. “And do you think we can try to develop a bit of a social life while we’re here? I don’t want to become a party animal. I’d just like to get out once and awhile.”
“I guess I just like having you all to myself, but yeah. We can work on that,” Brian agreed.
“Good, now that we got that settled, why don’t you tell me why your phone is in pieces?”
Brian spent the next few minutes telling Justin all about his phone conversation with Steve, feeling guilty for his reaction to his friend’s admission. By the time he was finished and waiting for Justin’s input, he already knew exactly what the blond was going to say.
“You were an ass. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, I know,” Brian sighed.
“And you just validated Steve’s fears of sharing his feelings with you by totally disregarding them and making the whole thing about you.”
“Yeah, I know that too.”
“Why don’t you take my phone and call him back? Don’t let him think he has no one to talk to.”
Brian kissed Justin quickly and reached for the phone, hoping to straighten things out with his best friend. Instead, all he got was Steve’s voicemail. After leaving a brief message apologizing for being an ass and asking Steve to call him on Justin’s phone, he curled back up with his boyfriend and tried to relax. Things between him and Justin were okay, and once Steve listened to his message, he was sure that his friendship would be back on track. After a tough couple of weeks and a very emotional night, things were finally looking up. It wasn’t long before Justin was once again drifting off to sleep in his arms, but this time Brian was quick to follow him into slumber.
After Justin’s morning class was finished, Brian and Justin got on the road to head home. Despite the fact that it was a Friday, they knew that Zander was sitting at home waiting for them. Chris had been out of town, due to return later that night and Zan refused to let the boys make their first trip home in over a month without having someone to greet them. At least that was the excuse that Zan gave for why he’d be home when they got there in the early afternoon. Because of that, they chose not to stop for lunch when both of their stomachs started growling around noon. Knowing Zan, he’d have a wide array of food waiting for them when they arrived.
It was just after one when they finally pulled up into the driveway. Leaving their bags for later, they walked inside surprised that Zan wasn’t outside waiting for them. Justin walked in first, followed closely by Brian, but stopped when he heard the soft sobs coming from the living room. He looked at Brian and then hurried into the room to find Zan on the couch with his head in his hands. He approached quietly.
“Zan? What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“What?” Zan said softly, seeming startled when he realized that he wasn’t alone. “Oh, you’re here. I didn’t hear you pull up. I’m so glad you’re home.” Zander wiped away his tears and jumped up, pulling first Justin and then Brian into a tight hug. “You must be starving. Come into the kitchen and let me fix lunch. I bought lunchmeats and salads. Brian, I bought that Amish Potato Salad that you like so much. Just give me a minute to get it together.”
Justin watched Zan rush off to the kitchen before turning to Brian. “What do you think that’s about? Do you think he and Chris are having problems again?”
“No, it has nothing to do with Chris. At least I don’t think it does. I talked to him last night. He’s as miserable as he always is when he travels without Zan and can’t wait to get home. No, I have a feeling that whatever is going on has nothing to do with my brother.”
“Well then, we’d better get in there and see if we can find out what’s wrong.”
When Justin got to the kitchen, he found Zan standing at the counter automatically preparing the food, but the look on his face showed that he was obviously lost in thought. After sharing a knowing look, Brian and Justin both waited until Zander laid out the food before forcing him to sit down.
“Alright, now that you took care of the food so we don’t starve to death, why don’t you tell us what has you so upset?” Brian asked.
Zan laughed humorlessly. “It’s stupid. I know that it is. I shouldn’t care. I mean…I don’t know why I’m even upset, you know? It shouldn’t matter to me.”
“Zan,” Justin said softly as he crouched down in front of the chair where Zander was sitting. “We’re both here and we really want to help you, but you need to tell us what it is that shouldn’t matter to you. We can’t help if we don’t know why you’re upset.”
Zander looked deeply into Justin’s blue eyes. Eyes that resembled everyone in the Morgan family, and felt his eyes tear up again as the enormity of the situation hit him once again. “It’s my father. He had a heart attack late last night. The doctors did everything they could, but…he, uh…he didn’t make it.”
Justin felt something close to sadness wash over him as he took Zander in his arms and held his cousin while he cried. Sadness over the news that his uncle, his mother’s brother died before Justin ever got a chance to meet him. Not that he necessarily planned on meeting him. But there had been times when he felt like he should try to initiate contact with his uncle and at least tell him how much his sister regretted the family feud that had kept them apart for so long. Justin had so many pictures of his mother and uncle playing together as kids, being a part of each other’s weddings, of holding each other’s children on the day they were born. One of Justin’s favorite pictures on the mantle in the living room while he was growing up was of his uncle holding him when he was just days old, with a young Zander standing alongside of them looking on. Knowing that he would never get the chance to try and repair the rift between the two families pulled at his heart strings. It was one of the last things he wanted to do for his mother, and although he held some resentment when he heard what kind of man Kevin Morgan turned out to be, he still contemplated reaching out to him.
“Zan, I’m so sorry,” Brian said as he stood by and watched Zan and Justin embrace. “I know things between you and your dad were bad, but he’s still your dad. It’s only logical that you’d be upset. Have you called Chris?”
Zan pulled away from Justin and looked up at Brian with damp eyes. “No, I don’t want to bother him. He’ll be home soon enough.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Brian agreed. “Why don’t you go splash some water on your face and calm down? When you’re done, we’ll sit down and eat and you can talk about it when you’re ready.”
“Um…okay. I’ll be right back.”
The minute Zan was out of ear shot; Brian put his hand out to Justin. “Give me your phone.”
“You’re calling your brother.” It wasn’t a question.
“Of course I am. He’ll want to know what’s going on. Maybe he can head home sooner.” Brian dialed Chris’s number and waited for the older man to answer.
“Hey Jus, what’s going on?” Chris answered.
“It’s me, Chris. My phone is out of commission at the moment. Listen, when are you heading home?”
“I have a few more things to take care of here and then a business dinner. I should be on my way back around seven, I guess.”
“Zan didn’t want me to call you, but I think you need to come home right away,” Brian said softly.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“His dad died.”
“Shit. Is he okay?”
“Not really,” Brian admitted. “Justin and I just got here and found him crying in the living room. He thinks he shouldn’t be upset and he’s trying to hold it together, but he’s a mess.”
“Okay…I’ll need about twenty minutes to go find who I need to find and let them know that I have a family emergency. I’ll call you when I’m on the road. Just stay with him, alright? I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Okay Chris, just be careful. We’ll handle things until you get here.”
Brian hung up the phone and handed it back to Justin just as Zan walked back into the kitchen. He smiled sadly at the blond. “Have a seat and tell us what happened. Who called and told you?”
“My mom, if you can believe that. We haven’t spoken in years and she just picks up the phone and calls me to tell me that my father is dead.”
“Did she say anything else?” Justin asked. “Did she…I don’t know…ask how you’ve been or something?”
“No, she just said that he had a heart attack and the doctors couldn’t save him. Then she said that she figured the services would be sometime next week and that I should let her know when I got into town,” Zan laughed bitterly. “Like I’m going to jump on a plane and fly more than 2000 miles away to pay my respects to a man I didn’t respect.”
“You’re not planning on going home?” Justin asked incredulously.
“Jus, I am home. My home is here with Chris…and you two. That man didn’t want anything to do with me when he was alive. I’m sure he wouldn’t want me there now.” Zan watched Justin closely and could tell he was struggling to hold back his feelings. “You think I should go?”
“Maybe,” Justin admitted. “I just think that…I don’t know. I guess I’m not the right person to tell you what to do. My parents were great. I just think that it would be good for you to go back and face your past. Your dad can’t hurt you anymore. It might do you some good to say goodbye to him now that he’s gone. I’d…I’d go with you if you wanted me to. I mean, he is my uncle.”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure I even want to say goodbye. And then there’s my mother. Am I supposed to go back there and act like nothing happened?”
“Of course not,” Justin replied. “Too much has happened for you to just go in there and act like everything is fine. But like it or not, he is your father. Maybe he doesn’t deserve your forgiveness, but you deserve the closure.”
Zan was quiet for a moment as he thought about what his cousin was saying. Would he regret it later if he didn’t go back and say his goodbyes? Probably, and that was the last thing he wanted. To have his father on his mind for the rest of his life. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“I’ll email my professors now and let them know that I’ll be out next week,” Justin said.
“Jus, you don’t have to go with me. I don’t want you missing classes.”
“It’s fine. Like I said, he’s my uncle. Family is family. Besides, Chris has that big book signing next week, remember? I definitely don’t want you going alone.”
“Damn, I forgot about that,” Zan sighed.
“And knowing my brother, he’d try to cancel it if he thought you needed him,” Brian pointed out. “If Justin goes, there’s a chance he might be willing to stay here and honor his commitments.”
“A small chance,’ Zan smiled. “As long as you’re sure it won’t be a problem.”
“Trust me, it’s no problem. I’m not having any trouble with my classes,” Justin assured him.
“But now I have a problem. How am I supposed to sleep all alone in our apartment every night?” Brian whined.
“Aww, my poor baby,” Justin said as he reached for Brian. “I’m sure you’ll find a way.”
“Okay, now that that’s settled and I’m feeling a little bit better, let’s eat. I want to hear all about what’s going on in your lives.”
“Zan, you make it sound like we don’t talk to you at least every other day.”
“Humor me; I’m suffering from empty nest syndrome.”
Justin and Brian spent the next hour watching Zan push the food around on his plate while they regaled him with stories of college life. It wasn’t too long after that when Chris showed up, causing the tears to start falling again as soon as Zan saw his partner. Brian and Justin left them to catch up while they went to the mall. Brian was going out of his mind without his cell phone. From there they headed over to Dane’s house to check in on baby Julia. She seemed so much bigger since the last time they saw her although they’d only been gone less than two months.
While they were there, Justin got a phone call from Matt, who had just gotten home from school. When he found out where they were, he joined them at Dane’s and they all hung out like they did before college separated them. The absence of Steve, Zac, and Trent, who had taken a year off to ‘find himself’ while back packing around Europe, was noticed but not mentioned. By the time they said goodbye to Dane and Julia, it was pretty late. Brian called Chris and found out that neither he nor Zan had eaten so he offered to swing by the pizza place and pick up some food before heading home.
Justin suggested that he ride with Matt and that they pick up the food while Brian went home and brought in their bags. Brian looked at him skeptically, but didn’t question him. Instead he just gave Justin a kiss and went home. As soon as he was gone, Justin looked at Matt. “I’m so sorry to drag you back here; especially since I’m probably flying to Pittsburgh either tomorrow or Sunday.”
“What are you going to Pittsburgh for? I thought all your business there was finished.”
“It is. Zan’s father died. Considering he’s my uncle, I agreed to fly back with him. Chris has an important signing next week that he can’t get out of,” Justin explained.
“Oh, poor Zan. He and his father haven’t spoken in years have they? That must make it tough.”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Well don’t worry about me. I didn’t tell my parents that I was coming home. You should’ve seen the look on my mom’s face when I walked through the door. It was priceless. I didn’t realize how much I missed them. Besides, it’s only a five hour drive. Gave me time to think about things.”
“Things? What things? Anything you want to talk about?”
“Nope. This weekend is all about you and your problems. If and when I feel that there’s something that I need to talk about, you’ll be the first person I call. You know Jus, I hate the circumstances that brought you to Arizona, but I’m sure glad you’re here. I think you’re the best friend I’ve ever had. Brian and the gang are awesome, and I know they’ll have my back if I need them, but you’re so much easier to talk to. And I trust you with my life.”
“Wow, thanks Matt. I feel the same way.”
“Okay, not enough of that crap. I guess I didn’t realize how much I missed you, too,” Matt laughed as he pulled his truck into the parking lot of the pizza place. “Now out with it. What’s going on? Anything new that I need to know about?”
“Well, I talked to Brian last night. He apparently saw me with Colin and jumped to all the wrong conclusions. He begged me not to leave him. Made it so much easier to talk about the things I needed to talk about. We’re going to work on getting out more and having a life.”
“That’s great, but what about the other problem?”
“What other problem?” Justin asked in confusion.
“Jus, when you mentioned Colin, I asked you if were thinking about ending things with Brian. You didn’t sound all together sure of your answer. I know that you enjoy flirting and having fun with Colin. Are you 100% sure that you want to be with Brian?”
“How can you even ask me that? I thought you were Brian’s friend!”
“I am dumb ass. Look, I’m both of your friends. I don’t want to see you stay in a relationship that makes you unhappy as much as I don’t want to see Brian in a relationship with someone who doesn’t truly want to be there. I’m not suggesting that you break up with him. I’m just trying to make sure you’re where you want to be. If you have any doubt, you need to address it now and figure out what to do next.”
Justin remained silent for a moment before facing Matt with tears in his eyes. “I love Brian. I love him more than anyone else in the world. I truly can’t imagine my life without him. Do I have some doubts sometimes? Yeah, I do. But they’re not strong enough to make me consider leaving him. I think we just need to straighten things out. It’s easy to enjoy flirting with someone new…because it’s someone new. Brian’s not new anymore. For the moment we’ve experienced all the new in our relationship. Leaving him for someone else will give me new…but only until it becomes old again…and then I’d be left without Brian. And again, I can’t even imagine that. Does that make any sense to you?”
“Yeah, I think so. Just do me a favor and talk to him if you have any more doubts or concerns. Don’t let things build up until it’s too late to fix them. I’m here if you need me,” Matt assured him.
“Thanks. Now we’d better get the pizza before they send out a search party for us.”
By the time they got back, the plane tickets had been purchased. Justin and Zander were flying out Sunday morning. Chris wasn’t happy when Zan refused to let him cancel his signing, but he felt a little better knowing that Justin was going with him. There was no way he’d let Zander go alone. The five of them hung out eating pizza and watching movies until well after midnight. Matt had been exhausted after staying up the night before to do homework and then the five hour drive. After a quick call to his parents, he crashed in Justin’s bed while Justin curled up with Brian. They all fell asleep within minutes of lying down.
Brian, Justin, Chris and Zander spent Saturday hanging out around the house. They slept in, enjoyed a huge breakfast that Chris prepared and then spent the afternoon by the pool enjoying the exceptionally warm weather. Dinner turned out to be a backyard barbeque that included Dane, Stacy and Julia as well as Matt and his parents and Jules and her boyfriend. Even Ed and Estelle stopped by for a while. It was a great day and Chris was thrilled that the boys were home.
He just wished that he wasn’t facing having to say goodbye to Zander in the morning. He normally hated being away from his partner for any amount of time, but knowing that Zan was going to be facing his past and saying goodbye to his father made it that much harder to deal with. He didn’t like the way Zander refused to let him cancel his signing, although he had to admit that canceling, regardless of the reason, would not look good. A part of him wondered if some of Zander’s insistence was because he didn’t want to bring his male partner around his mother. Zan never stuck around long enough to find out how his parents felt about his sexuality, but they had always assumed that it was just another reason why Zan’s parents never tried contacting him through the years.
It was another late night for the Taylor/Morgan/Kinney household. Matt stuck around after everyone had gone to help with the clean up and then he, Justin and Brian watched another movie. The friend’s missed each other and knew it would be six weeks before they saw each other again.
Chris and Zan skipped the movie in favor of spending some time alone. They had just been apart for four days and now another four or five loomed ahead. The tickets they bought were open ended since no one knew what the next few days held. Chris was so happy when he finally climbed in bed and took Zander in his arms.
“I really wish you’d let me go with you.”
“I know you do, but you can’t cancel this signing. Babe, you’re making the New York Times best sellers list. This is your chance to be the next Stephen King or Nicholas Sparks. You’re going to be a household name. You need to do whatever it takes to accomplish your dream. If my dad and I were close and I was devastated, it would be completely different. Truthfully, a part of me doesn’t even know why I’m going. I said goodbye to my father a long time ago. This is just a formality. Besides, I’ve got Justin with me.”
“Yeah that’s the only reason I let you talk me into staying here,” Chris informed him. “I think Brian and I are going to do a little work in the basement tomorrow. I figured we could rip up the old carpet and throw up a fresh coat of paint. I think it’s time to actually utilize all that space.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Well, I was thinking that we could turn it into a sort of mini apartment. Brian and Justin have at least four years of college to get through. I thought it would be cool if they had their own space when they came home for weekends, holidays and the summer.”
Zander smiled. “You’re trying to make sure they want to keep coming home for weekends, holidays and summers, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. What’s wrong with that? Don’t tell me you don’t want the exact same thing.”
“Oh trust me, I do. If I had my way, they’d never leave home. And I guess you’re right. They’d be more comfortable downstairs instead of bouncing between rooms upstairs. I wish I could be here to help.”
Chris laughed loudly. “No you don’t. You hate painting!”
“Okay, you’re right. I do hate painting. But I enjoy watching you work without a shirt on and I’m going to miss that.”
“Come here, you.”
Nothing else was said as Chris and Zander made love, preparing for their next separation.
Matt stayed over again and then said his goodbyes first thing in the morning. He was going to go home and spend the morning with his parents before heading back to school. Brian and Justin couldn’t seem to get enough of each other as they sat in the back seat of the SUV and kissed for most of the ride to the airport. They hadn’t been apart since Justin’s last trip to Pittsburgh and that had only been one night. Neither one of them knew how long this trip would last.
Chris dropped the guys off at the unloading zone and neither couple cared if they were getting stares as they kissed their partners’ goodbye. Zan and Justin watched as the SUV pulled away and then headed inside. After checking in, they sat by their terminal in relative silence. It wasn’t until after they boarded and settled in their seat that Justin finally spoke.
“You ready for this?”
“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” was Zan’s reply. He still couldn’t help but wonder if going back was the right thing to do. He just hoped that whatever he was about to face wouldn’t be the biggest regret of his life.
End of part 1
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