Justin woke up sweating and shaking. He’d had that fucking dream again.
And it had ended just the same fucking way.
The beginning of the dream was terrifying. He could never really remember exactly what was so scary. He was only ever left with an impression of greenish haze in which moved vague shapes - man-like, but moving in an odd way that was for some reason profoundly disturbing. Although he only got glimpses through the mist, he thought they were wearing strange, old-fashioned clothes, but tattered, almost rotting. Yes, rotting … because there was the smell of decay … not putrid like rotting flesh, but like something which had been left for a long time in a damp place … moldy and disgusting … and sometimes he almost glimpsed faces. Except that at first it wouldn’t be a face, it would be a skull, but then suddenly the skull would be clothed in ghastly flesh, mottled and deformed, covered with barnacles, or tentacles, like some nightmare creature of the deep.
What was worse than all that though, was that through the whole dream was woven a thread of dread, a sense of terror of something that lay beyond, and behind all of this, but was far worse; something so old and malevolent that it made his heart thump, while his limps felt weak and heavy.
But something always made him walk forward. He walked, as he found out each time, to the edge of the deck, because at that point he always realized he was on a ship. An old, old wooden ship, with sails that hung in tatters, yet seemed at the same time to belly full above him even though there was no wind. And each time he stood at the deck railing, high above him a pallid moon would seep through the clouds and light the black flag that flew at the mast head. The flag with the skull and crossed bones which seemed to glow in a lurid light of their own - like those “glow in the dark” stars he’d had on his ceiling when he was a kid. Except that this light was wrong, unnatural, evil even.
Each time in the dream he’d stand for just a minute at the railing. The shapes would start to move towards him, somehow both torturously slow and deadly fast, and he’d become aware of someone immediately behind him. That should have been even more scary, but somehow it wasn’t; somehow it gave him the strength and reassurance and the courage to do what came next.
Because at this point, he would always clamber quickly over the railing, and reaching only to clasp the hand of whoever it was who’d moved now beside him, he’d jump.
Down he’d fall, in that horrible sickening way that you do in dreams. But unlike most dreams, the fall wouldn’t lead to his waking. No, he’d go on dreaming; he’d dream of hitting the water and sinking deep beneath it. He’d feel it choking him, filling his nostrils, his mouth, finally his lungs. Although he’d strive towards the surface, some force would seem to drag him down and down, all the while feeling as if his heart would burst from his efforts to fight free.
Then abruptly, the water would seem to release its hold, and he would feel himself lifted, elevated somehow effortlessly, able to breathe freely and easily, and he would realize that now it was the ship that was being dragged down into the unforgiving sea. He’d suddenly find himself above the surface, and then washed ashore, his body swaying in a gentle current in the shallows of a beautiful lagoon. Then as he’d stumble to his feet and start to wade up a beach of pristine white sand, strong arms would wrap around him, and he would flood with a feeling of indescribable happiness. He’d turn and look into the eyes of the man who held him, the one, he’d realize, whose hand had been clasping his all the time that he’d fought the water; he’d know that they’d fought the water together and that it had been the power of their combined strength which had brought them safely through the fearful ordeal.
And every time he’d reach this point of the dream, the sight of those eyes would grip his heart with wonder because those eyes would be the most beautiful he’d ever seen. Hazel was too simple a word; they were a wonder of color - myriad shades of green and brown lit by flecks of gold. But their real beauty didn’t lie in their color, or even their shape, although that shape was exquisite enough to make him long, even in the dream, for paint and canvas to try to capture them; no, their true beauty lay in their expression, in the depth of feeling that lay behind them. If eyes really were the windows to the soul, then this man had the most beautiful soul he’d ever known.
The man would smile at him, and even in the dream Justin would know how rare that smile was, how few had seen it. Then he would bend his head, seeking Justin’s lips.
And every fucking time, right at that moment, he’d fucking wake up; sweating with remembered terror and shaking with desired.
As it happened, it was purely by chance that Justin Taylor was in that particular coffee shop on that particular morning. He’d arranged to meet the owner of the Sydney Bloom Gallery about an “emerging artists” show the gallery was planning. He’d been right on the doorstep when his cell had rung. It was Sydney Bloom himself, full of apologies; apparently he’d had car trouble and was running very late. Would Mr. Taylor be prepared to delay the appointment for an hour? Mr. Taylor was gracious enough to agree (easy enough to do that he would have camped out on the doorstep for a week if he had to for this opportunity), and, faced with the choice between the glossy steel and plastic coffee place across the road from the gallery, or the smaller, older one he’d passed a block or so back, chose to walk back. The older place had an air about it that was far more inviting.
Such a small, unimportant decision it seemed at the time.
His chosen venue wasn’t exactly empty, but he had no trouble getting a table. He propped his portfolio on a spare chair, and seeing the waitress moving around, sank down and waited. She was taking his order when the guy walked in and headed to the counter. He was tall and slender, and not actually Justin’s type. Being not so tall himself, he tended to go for guys around his own height, finding it less awkward physically, and providing fewer opportunities for people to try to force gender roles into the relationship and turn him into the “little woman”. He also preferred a more solid build. This guy was verging on downright skinny.
But there was something about his body, about the way he held himself, the way he moved that seemed so familiar …
As if Justin should have recognized him immediately even from the back.
Then he turned, and Justin found himself looking into the hazel eyes that he’d dreamed about so often. Except that while in his dream those eyes had been filled with feeling, depths of emotion that Justin had wanted to swim through forever, these eyes were cold, almost devoid of life. He felt the world spinning.
For a moment he simply went blank - a cold terrifying blankness. Then that was replaced with a sensation of warmth … no, heat … so intense that it felt as if his bones might spontaneously combust. But then, with no sign of recognition, the guy turned again to the counter, picked up his take out coffee and left the shop. And suddenly Justin felt cold once more; the intense heat evaporating with the man’s departure, leaching out of him and leaving him chilled and shaking, and feeling more alone than he had ever felt in his life.
He forced himself to drink his coffee, grateful for its warmth, all the while berating himself for getting so freaked out by some ridiculous coincidence. How crazy was it that for a moment he’d actually expected the guy to recognize him and come over? That was just fucked.
He forced himself to calm down, and even to eat a donut before he took himself off to his delayed appointment at the gallery.
But even while he was going through his portfolio with Mr. Bloom, even when “please call me, Sydney” assured him that he wanted at least three of Justin’s pieces in the show, Justin couldn’t stop thinking about the guy and his amazing hazel eyes.
That night Justin had the dream again.
But this time it didn’t start with the figures and the mist, it started with the man with the hazel eyes. He was whispering frantically into Justin’s ear, but Justin couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. Until right at the end, he heard the soft desperate voice say, “You have to hold on. No matter what happens, you have to hold on.”
And this time, when the man embraced him on the beach, that same voice, soft, but filled now not with desperation, but relief and even joy, whispered, “Thank you.”
And then Justin understood for the first time that his leap into the ocean, and all that followed it, hadn’t been driven by fear, but by hope. It wasn’t so much a desperate, seemingly doomed attempt at escape.
It was a rescue.
Two weeks later, he was at the gallery again. This time to supervise the arrival of his paintings. That’s when he met Lindsay. She was Sydney Bloom’s assistant and apologized to him on her own behalf for the delayed meeting with her boss.
“Normally I’d have been here,” she said. “But I had to go to my son’s school that morning to meet with the head mistress about some problems Gus has been having. I must have just missed you, though, because I got here only a few minutes after you were due to meet with Sydney. I thought I’d be later, but Gus’ father gave me a ride.”
Justin nodded vaguely, not all that interested in her domestic arrangements, although he supposed it was nice of her to apologize. Not that it mattered. With three of his smaller works in the show, and the large painting that he’d been afraid Sydney would think was too ambitious for such an unknown currently being carefully placed against the wall where it would hang, the minor inconvenience of the delayed meeting had been more than worth it.
Although, when he thought about it, he supposed that if Sydney hadn’t been late, and Lindsay hadn’t had her meeting, he never would have seen that guy.
And if he hadn’t, maybe he wouldn’t be having the fucking dreams quite so often.
They were every night now.
Night after night of terror and joy, and morning after morning of frustration and loss.
He was surprised he wasn’t going out of his mind. But he supposed that his painting helped. And he’d been painting like a fucking fiend. Paintings of weird ships and ghostly shapes; paintings of joy and lust and love and terror; and, of course, paintings of a man with the most amazing hazel eyes.
By the night of the Opening, Justin had almost managed to convince himself that he’d imagined the whole thing with the guy in the coffee shop; or at least, he’d imagined that the guy bore any resemblance to the man in his dreams. While his mother and Daphne circled around him, he sipped white wine and tried to look as if the whole experience of having his artwork on display was not something new and so damned exciting his throat was almost too tight to swallow even the small sips of wine. He was succeeding fairly well he thought, when Lindsay approached him with a small dark-haired woman in tow.
“Justin, I wanted to introduce you to my partner, Melanie.”
Justin smiled dutifully.
Lindsay went on, “And my friend … oh, where on earth has he gone?” she broke off, looking around in confusion.
“Probably found someone to suck his dick, as usual,” the dark-haired woman sniped.
Justin wondered what her deal was.
Then Lindsay’s face changed, she smiled, and said warmly, “Brian … I wanted you to meet Justin Taylor. We were very happy to have Justin’s work to include in this show. We feel very privileged to be the first to show it. We certainly won’t be the last,” she finished with another warm smile at Justin.
But he didn’t see it. Didn’t see anything except the hazel eyes that were looking down at him so coolly.
He wanted to run, he wanted to hide, he wanted to throw himself at the man’s feet, or throw his arms around his neck and hug him till he responded. But of course he didn’t, couldn’t, good little WASP boy that he was.
Instead, he did his best to acknowledge the introduction, and then thankfully his attention, was claimed by someone else who wanted to compliment him on his work, and when he turned back, Lindsay, Melanie and the guy, The Guy … Brian, had she called him ‘Brian’? … had moved away.
The rest of the evening passed in a sort of blur.
He could hardly take in that it had been a professional success; his first. All three of his small paintings had sold, and another gallery owner had expressed interest in including the large one in an exhibition in Philadelphia in a couple of months’ time.
But he was hardly aware of it all; his mind and body were both in turmoil. He sought refuge in the men’s room, and was confronted by the last thing he was prepared for. When he entered, Brian was standing at the sink, washing his hands. As Justin went to move past him, the man’s arm snaked out around his waist and pulled him close. Before he could react, Brian’s free hand was opening his fly. He struggled for half a moment and then Brian’s mouth found his and somehow the less than romantic reality was flooded with all the resonances of his dreams. He found himself responding eagerly, passionately, and didn’t resist as Brian pulled him into a cubicle.
It wasn’t great sex. It only lasted a few minutes.
And afterwards, Brian zipped up, walked out and calmly washed his hands once more.
Justin followed more slowly, fighting not to break down and cry like a child.
“Not bad,” Brian commented drily as Justin joined him at the sink. “You want to come with me and see if we can’t do better?”
Justin knew in that moment, what it was like to feel your heart break. He had to get out of there; he wanted to say ‘No’, and then run home and bury himself in his tiny apartment, and his paintings, and his dreams.
But even as he went to shake his head, unable to trust his voice not to choke out his pain, he seemed to hear a soft whisper in his ear, “You have to hang on.”
His eyes widened and met Brian’s. For the first time, he had the chance to look deeply into Brian’s eyes, the eyes that had seemed so cold, so empty; but now Justin saw something trapped behind the coldness.
For a long moment that look held, a moment somehow outside time, a fragment of eternity, and in that glimpse into eternity Justin realized that just as in his dream, this man was somehow trapped, desperate and alone and in need of rescue.
Suddenly, all the hurt and confusion fell away. He knew exactly what he had to do.
“Sure,” he said. And smiled.
Back at Brian’s luxurious loft, they definitely did better.
The sex was both intense and leisured, Justin felt as if they had lifetimes to explore each other’s bodies, but at the same time, as if every new touch, every fresh bit of skin uncovered was so amazing that they would remember it forever. It was also vigorous and exhausting. So exhausting, that despite all his best intentions, Justin fell asleep in Brian’s bed.
He was on a ship, but not the one which usually figured in the dreams. This ship was whole and sturdy and the sails flapped white in the wind. But even as he thought that, out of nowhere it seemed the sky darkened, the wind sprang up, and while the captain roared orders to the crew to pull in the sails, the seas rose. Higher and higher the waves reared; and then there was a sudden blast of icy air, a smell of decay and, before his eyes, the maws of the sea seemed to open and spit forth the ship of his dreams, his nightmares.
It was only a few yards away, and he stared across at it and saw him. Brian.
As they had that evening, their eyes met; and across the gulfs that separated them, their souls recognized each other. In this dream Justin knew beyond doubt that the hazel-eyed man of his dream and the man he slept beside were one and the same.
That was what it felt like.
But then as the captain tried to turn his ship away from the horror which had so suddenly come upon them, the deck Justin was standing on heaved, and with a startled cry, he found himself falling. He hit the water, but almost as he did, he felt a strong arm circle his waist. Brian, dangling one handed from a rope, had somehow reached him. He pulled Justin close, telling him once more to hold on, and as Justin wound his arms around his neck, Brian painfully began to haul them both upwards to the uncertain safety of the ghost ship.
And, in the impossible way things happen in dreams, on the way, while Brian heaved and struggled and fought to bring them both aboard, somehow he told Justin all the things he needed to know.
Told him of the curse that was placed on the ship to sail the seas forever, appearing only one day in every ten years; how the ship existed by preying, not just on the lives of their victims, but on their souls. Told him how Brian’s own father had betrayed him and left him subject to the curse. Told him how he could be rescued by one who loved him, and who was prepared to risk not just death, but the living hell of becoming himself slave to the ship to save him. Told him that before that day ended, if Justin was willing to take that awful risk, he would have to board the ship, and then before sunset, choose to leap into the raging ocean, taking Brian with him. That if he didn’t wish to do so, he should let go now, and go peacefully to his death, with his soul intact.
And finally, in a voice in which pain and despair struggled with a desperate hope, Brian whispered, “If you want me, want to help me, you have to hold on.”
So Justin held on.
He held on as Brian finally clambered over the rotting railing, pulling Justin with him.
He held on when he faced the crew - terrible creatures, who had all but the last semblance of humanity in their willing slavery to the ship.
He gripped Brian’s hand as they stood together once more at the railing.
And he clung to it while they fought the waters.
Even when it seemed that this time they would lose the battle, he held on.
The blessed relief of air in his lungs once more told Justin the dream was ending. He fought the knowledge, but as always at the end of the dream, the hazel-eyed man bent his head towards him.
This time, though, their lips met and with a shock Justin realized that dream had merged with waking and he was lying in Brian’s bed with Brian’s mouth teasing his.
His eyes snapped open, and met Brian’s and it seemed to him that something in them had shifted.
Brian smiled at him, almost shyly, and then looked away quickly.
“You want to have a shower and maybe go grab something to eat?” the man asked, only his voice betraying that it wasn’t entirely a casual invitation.
Justin stared at him without speaking for a long moment, till finally Brian turned to him again, one eyebrow raised.
Justin fought away his confusion and nodded, and something very like a look of relief passed fleetingly over Brian's face.
They showered together, taking time to once more explore each other’s bodies.
They dressed, Brian offering to lend Justin a sweater that was more suitable to a casual breakfast than what he’d worn to the Opening last night, and as they were on their way out the door, Brian surprised him completely by reaching to take his hand. Justin froze just for a moment, and when Brian turned to him, couldn’t hide his astonishment.
He told himself he imagined it, when Brian, shrugging, said softly, “I told you all you had to do was hang on.”
But then Brian tugged on his hand, and Justin decided that it really didn’t matter.
Maybe he had imagined it.
Maybe he’d dreamed the whole thing.
But right now he was walking down the street hand in hand with a man with hazel eyes. Eyes he’d fallen in love with from the moment he’d seen them.
And maybe he was falling in love with the man too.
Maybe they were both falling in love.
At the moment, all Justin knew was that they were finally together, and that was enough.
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