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Silence and Tears

Chapter 9: Brian's POV

I hit the slopes as soon as I arrive. I feel the need for physical exertion, hoping to work out some frustration and free-floating anger as I careen down a mountain at breakneck speed. I start on a slightly easier slope, since I haven't skied in awhile, but fuck that. By my second run, I'm on the Black Diamond trail, and it's fierce. I'm a black slash against the white powder. My jacket, pants, boots, gloves, everything I wear is black. Even the stuff you can't see. I figure they can find the body easier that way when I plow into a tree, but so far so good. I can't imagine that my form is anything to applaud, but I make it through three runs without a single fall, and that's amazing.

The fourth run is another story.

As soon as I exit the lift, I know I'm being stupid. I'm exhausted. I've allowed myself no recovery time. My knees and thighs are screaming with tension and I feel a little shaky from the altitude. The wise words of my trick stick with me, his taunt that expert skiers take the most chances and give him the most business. I'm too tired for this run. Despite the cold, I'm sweating with exertion beneath my layers, and my lungs just can't seem to take in enough oxygen to keep up with the demand. Damned cigarettes.

Looking down the mountain at the scars left by other skiers, I notice the ruts are starting to ice. That's bad. The temperature has dropped and the air feels wetter as flakes begin to fall and accumulate. The snow crunches with new resistance under my skis, rather than supporting me on whispery powder. Looking around, there are a lot fewer skiers out here, now, as the skies have turned a threatening shade of gun-metal grey. The run looks impossibly steep, full of moguls, drop-offs, trees and the other obstacles that make it a Black Diamond run. This is supposed to be fun, but suddenly I feel terrified. I'm not sure about my strength and even my vision seems a little impaired. I'm a little woozy. So what do I do? I push off. What else? Stupid, macho, fuck that I am.

At first, it goes okay. I get into the adrenaline rush. The frigid air feels good against my overheated skin, and my challenged limbs are holding up. I soar over moguls like a pro, landing unevenly only once. As I pick up speed, I figure I must be about halfway, so I know I can make it. I begin to relax a little, even have some fun. After this, I'm thinking a warm sauna and a hot toddy. I might even meet a hot Todd as I bask at the spa. That rescue guy was cruising me as I stood in the lift line earlier. Wonder when he gets off duty?

And then it happened.

A tree suddenly leapt off of its root system and took two steps left to become a previously non-existent impediment in my path. Holy shit! I take a hard swerve but not hard enough. The outward branches of the tree hit me straight across my chest with the force of a sledgehammer. I feel the buckles on my boots break free as I'm lifted off of my skis. The black slats continue down the mountain without me. I'm thrown backwards, through the air, before I land on what has to be a pile of concealed granite.

Pain explodes in multiple locations, but my immediate problem is that I-can-not-breathe! I try to breathe, but nothing. Nothing comes in, nothing goes out. I'm absolutely without the ability to breathe. My mouth gapes open like a guppie on a dock, I feel my hands struggle with the snow, as if to help me stand, but someone pulls a black curtain over my eyes, and that was it.

I'm not dead. Damn it.

I have no idea where I am, once I start to wake up. My first sensation is fear, it's a terrible feeling to lose time and place, especially for a control freak. I open my eyes but the room spins and I quickly close them, feeling the nausea rise in my stomach. My heart explodes into a fast rhythm of panic. As the adrenaline awakens my sleeping limbs, the pain comes rolling in.

"What the fuck?" I say aloud, noticing there's a heavy weight on my chest, making it difficult to breathe, to move.

"Relax, son," a man's soothing, elderly voice and a cool hand on my arm. I reach out and grab that hand as if he can pull me out of this vortex of pain and confusion. He pries my fingers off of his wrist with a chuckle. "I need that hand to work, loosen up."

I let him go and let my hand fall to my chest to discover what is pressing me to the bed. All I feel are bandages wrapped over my skin, covered with a flimsy gown. I notice my left arm doesn't want to move at all. Even a slight upward movement is excruciating. I try opening my eyes again and the spinning slows to a slight wobble. I still feel sick, but won't give in to it. My chest hurts so much it causes beads of sweat to break out on my upper lip. I focus on the man, a small, silver haired Santa type, sans beard, wearing a white lab coat accessorized with a stethoscope. He stands over me as he asks,

"Can you tell me your name? Do you know where you are?"

"Brian Kinney. Is this the Canadian version of hell? Because it hurts enough to be."

He chuckles and shines a light in one of my eyes and then the other. "Mr. Kinney, do you recall having a fall on the mountain?"

I glance down my body. I see no sign of plaster and I can feel my legs, so that's good. I wish I couldn't feel anything above the waist, however, because the pain is excruciating. "I remember a tree jumped out in my path."

"Yes, our trees are very naughty that way. Some strong branches caught you right across here," he motions to a diagonal across my chest. "Knocked you plum out of your skis and you landed hard on a mogul."

And by 'mogul' I know he doesn't mean an oriental potentate. Rather a stack of granite, if I recall the pain correctly. He goes on. "It could have been worse. You fell on your back so you didn't tumble down the mountain. Most serious fractures occur in that tumble."

"Lucky me. Why am I in such pain? I can't breathe. Did I puncture a lung?"

"No, your lungs are fine. You have a mild concussion. You strained the rotator cuff of your left arm. You broke four ribs and bruised your coccyx."

"My what-x?"

"Your tailbone. You twisted your right knee but I don't see any signs of serious injury there. But it will be tender for a while. In short, your ski adventure is over for this trip, Mr. Kinney. The bad news is, there's not much you can do with broken ribs except tape them up and let them heal. The pain is fairly intense because you use the core of your body for almost all movement. The good news is, you're very fit. Your core muscles are quite strong, and that will help support the ribs for healing."

I have to smile. Merry fucking Christmas. I get it, God. I've been bad. Punish me. Good News Doctor Santa continues.

"Because you bruised your tail bone, it might be difficult to find a comfortable position for a few days. Sitting will hurt, but lying flat will put a lot of ache on your ribs. I suggest a recliner. You might find that more comfortable than a bed."

"How about some serious painkillers?"

"Not with that head injury, not for twenty-four hours. I'm going to give you Advil, three capsules every four hours. For these kind of injuries, Advil works as well as anything I can prescribe."

"Advil? Can you hook me up with a heroin dealer? I take Advil for headache. This is way beyond Advil pain."

He thinks I'm a riot, laughing again at my predicament. "You're a tough guy, you'll soldier on. The hotel said you listed no emergency contact. Who shall we call?"

"Call?"

"Yes, Mr. Kinney. The first twenty-four hours will require someone to watch you and monitor your concussion. You'll also find that these injuries are quite debilitating. You'll need help with even small things, like dressing. Who would you like me to call?"

I think of my last trick, that fucking doctor. He jinxed me with his fucking prediction! He fucking jinxed me. The bastard. "No one."

"You don't understand, Mr. Kinney. I can't let you go without someone to take care of you."

"You don't understand, doc," I level a glare at him. "No one cares. Got it? I can take care of myself. Always have, always will."

"Then we'll have to keep you here for twenty-four hours."

"No," I hate it when the world conspires against me. I try to sit up, but the effort is excruciating. The one thing I hate more than hospitals is being a drain on someone. My independence is more important to me than the comfort of being cared for. What a strange revelation that is. Who thinks that way? Who is that terrified of being needy? I am. I've broken out in a sweat from the pain and exertion, and my stomach rolls again.

"Let us call someone, Mr. Kinney," he prompts me in a kindly voice. He just doesn't get it. No one cares. Not my mother, my sister, not Michael, who would come, but would be a martyr and would spend the whole time reminding me of how stupid I am, not Lindsay, that relationship is broken, not Ted, who would come, but make me pay for it forever, no one. No one cares. I turn my head away from him, towards the window, feeling abandoned and a little scared, and then a familiar voice intrudes.

"You don't need to call anyone, Doctor. I'm here. I'll take care of him."

I'd blame it on the drugs, but they haven't given me any worth noting. I turn to look at the vision standing at the end of my bed. A shock of blond hair falls across his forehead, and his powder blue sweater matches his eyes. This unexpected angel of mercy can't be real. I meet his stare and get so choked up on unbidden emotion that I can't even speak. The doctor asks,

"Who are you?"

"I'm his partner," Justin says. Hark the fucking herald angels sing. It really must be Christmas.


Chapter 10: Justin's POV

Getting Brian dressed was like trying to cram a giraffe into sweats. His tall lanky body was suddenly completely inflexible, and he created expletives never heard before as I stuffed him into the clothes I brought over from the hotel. This wasn't exactly the way I pictured our reunion as the van drove me from the airport to my destination. When I checked in, I decided to beard the lion in his den and immediately let Brian know we were victims of a conniving female plot. I asked the guy behind the desk to leave a message for him and he looked curiously at me.

"Do you know Mr. Kinney?"

"Yeah, why?"

And that's how I found out what happened. Security went to his room with me to retrieve his sweats. I guess they wanted to make sure I didn't steal anything else while there. I left my stuff in my room and then took a cab to the hospital with his clothes shoved into my messenger bag. It took me awhile to find his room. No one was anxious to help me, and when I did find it, I walked in on the kindly and patient old doctor who was being harangued by a grumpy and hurting Brian Kinney. Few things are more formidable than a grumpy and hurting Brian Kinney.

The way Brian looked at me, I know he thought he was hallucinating. After outing him to his doctor, and shoehorning him into his sweats, a nurse wheeled him to the front door. I had arranged for a cab and when he resisted my helping him into it, I put a strong hand on his good shoulder before he could even try to stand.

"It's icy out here, Brian. Slick. You're hurt. You're woozy. You can barely move. If you're going to be a macho asshole the whole time, I'm just going to leave you here in the hospital where they can drug you or restrain you or something. I'm not here to be abused by you because you're mad at yourself and in pain. Are we clear on the concept?"

He glared up at me and then sighed. "Just help me into the car, Clara Barton."

Helping him is not that easy. I can't really put an arm around him, his mid-section is too sore. I can pull on his good arm, but his knee is torqued, so he's very unsteady. I plant my feet and extend my hand, saying, "You pull yourself up, using me to steady yourself. That might be easier."

Somehow we get him into the car and he turns as white as the snow, the pain of movement is so excruciating. I have a fresh bottle of Advil, courtesy of the hospital, but he can't have a dose for another hour. I feel like Shirley MacLaine in that weepy chick flick where Julia Roberts is in such pain and her mother, Shirley, demands drugs for her. Wait, I think I'm combining two different young-girl-dies movies. He says,

"What are you thinking?"

"Whether you're Julia Roberts or Debra Winger."

"Swell. You're mental. When did you go mental?"

I smile. "Forget it. Merry Christmas, by the way."

"You followed me here?"

"Not exactly. My mother gave me this all-expense paid ski vacation to Banff. Isn't that a coincidence?" Our eyes meet. He shakes his head.

"That fucking Cynthia. She is so fired."

"Yeah. Like you can get along without her."

"What were they thinking?"

"I don't know, Brian. Who can understand how women think?"

He moans as he leans against the far door. "Are we almost there? My ass is killing me."

"Now you know how I felt all those years," I tease him, but the response I get is a glare. He doesn't have much padding to protect his bruised tail bone. We can't all have the benefit of my bubble butt. At the hotel, he walks across the lobby in a great, if unintentional, imitation of the mummy meets Frankenstein. I know I sound glib, but I really do feel for him. It's just that with Brian, the worst thing you can do is to appear overly sympathetic. While they were checking him out of the hospital, I arranged with the hotel to cancel our rooms and give us a single suite with a recliner in the sitting room area. They moved our luggage, so the suite was ready when we arrived.

I fetched a pillow from the bed and used it to soften the leather recliner before guiding him into the chair. I cover him with an afghan from the sofa and light the electric logs in the hearth. He's so pale. I'm really worried. I put on a good face, though. He's playing with the incline on the chair, trying to find the least painful position. When he decides on something, I hand him the remote control to the television.

"If you're settled for the moment, I thought I might take a shower. I feel grungy."

"Justin, I'm here, I'm fine. I can call room service if I need anything. You don't have to stay."

I smile at him. There's a shocker. Brian Kinney telling me he doesn't need my help. "I'm staying," I declare and walk into the bathroom for that shower. Wrapped in a robe, revived, I walk out to find him asleep, the television still off, the remote slipped from his hand to the floor. I take a chance and lean over to kiss his clammy forehead. He stirs but doesn't wake up. I'm supposed to make sure he isn't sleeping too deeply for the first twenty-four hours.

I turn on the television, at low volume. Outside, the snow has turned into a blizzard. Couldn't be on the slopes even if I wanted to be right now. The wind screams at the windows, but we're safe and warm and... together. How I've missed being in the same room with Brian. Glancing at him now, pale and miserable, I still feel a sense of relief that he's here.

I'm crying through my one-hundredth watching of "White Christmas", because the scene about "following the old man" always gets to me, when he awakes with a groan. "Jesus X. Christ, get me something for the pain!" he demands and I hand him a banana and three Advil with a bottle of water. He glares at the banana. "When did the pain reducing qualities of bananas become known?"

"They said not to take Advil on an empty stomach. Here, I'll peel it for you."

"I'm not eating it," he downs the green capsules and I shake my head at his stubborn determination.

"Yes, you are, Brian. Do you want the drugs to burn a hole in your gut? Think of it as a nice hard cock and open up."

He takes the denuded banana from me and deliberately deep throats it, reminding me of his phenomenal technique before he bites off half of it and chews it up. I smile, satisfied, and throw away the peel. "Want to tell me what happened?" I ask as I sit down cross-legged on the rug beside his chair. He stares down at me. He tries to shrug, but his body doesn't cooperate.

"I was on my fourth run and it started to snow. I guess it obscured my vision because I didn't see the tree until it was too late. I swerved, so at least I didn't have a solid impact. At that speed, it would've killed me."

"Harsh."

"Stupid. Let's just say of all the shitty Christmases in my life, this is one of the worst. First the crap with the lesbians and now this."

"People do care, you know."

"Huh?"

"You said no one cares about you, when you were at the hospital. That's not true. Besides me, any one of your friends would come here to help you out and so would Debbie or even my mom. Lots of people care about you, Brian. The real issue is your pride. You'd rather shrivel up and die in a dark cave than ask for help."

"So what's your point?"

I smile. "Point made. There's something weird that goes on in your head that makes it so impossible for you to seek any kind of assistance."

"Redundant. This we know."

"It's all about control, Brian. And you have to give up a little control to be in a real relationship, right?"

"I'm not in the mood for this, Dr. Phil."

"Ok, that's fair."

"I have to piss. This should be fun. Will you help me up? See? I asked for help."

"Sure you want to get up? I could get you a... "

"Just help me up, piss queen. No games today."

I laugh at his twist of my offer and together we get him on his feet with a lot of swearing and a lot of grimacing. He insists he can make it there on his own, and it takes him a long time to make a short trip. When he comes back, he's sweating as if he had been running for miles. I help him back into the chair and he drains the rest of the water in the bottle. I get him another. "I need real drugs," he says and I shake my head as a knock interrupts us. I open it to find an attractive man dressed in ski clothes. He stares at me and then asks,

"Is this Brian Kinney's room? The desk clerk... "

I sigh. Trick, I suppose. Some cruise from the slopes, from the spa, from somewhere. "He can't see anyone."

"Who is it?"

"Brian, it's Brent." He walks past me and I see Brian grimace as he focuses on the man. "I heard you were injured. I thought I'd... "

"You jinxed me."

"How did I jinx you?"

"You predicted it and here I am. Happy? And did you follow me here?"

I watch and listen and don't like it very much. "Brent" says, "I told you I thought a ski vacation sounded good. Mind if I have a look at you?"

"Yes, I mind. Can you prescribe something stronger than Advil? If so, look as much as you want."

"Excuse me?" What's with this looking stuff? Who the hell is he?

"I'm a doctor," he throws over his shoulder at me as he lifts up Brian's sweatshirt and gently prods his bandaged ribs. Brian cries out and I say,

"You're hurting him!"

He ignores me. The man then tortures Brian's shoulder and his knee and shakes his head. "You're a mess."

"Is that your medical opinion?" Brian asks with a snarl as he pulls the afghan over his legs. "So where's my scrip?"

"You have a head injury, Brian. I can't give you anything. Maybe tomorrow. You need to force yourself to breathe deeply. If you let the pain of those ribs shorten your breath intake, you're just asking for pneumonia. Especially since you're virtually immobile. Coughing your guts up when you have broken ribs is no fun."

"Breathing is no fun."

"I'll make sure he breathes," I interrupt this little diagnosis. I perch on the arm of Brian's chair and rest a hand on his forearm. Mine, I want to say. But is he?

"Who are you?" the doctor is all set to dismiss me. Asshole.

"I'm his partner."

"I thought you said you were single?" he asks Brian, who doesn't even blink as he says,

"We're separated."

I give him a cold stare and the doctor leaves after telling us his room number in case we need him. I'd rather call Dr. Santa. At least he wasn't after Brian's bruised ass. "You told him you were single?"

"Don't start."

"Is that how you see yourself?"

"You did leave. You do live in another city. We are separated."

I reach out and smooth his hair, feeling him tense beneath my touch. "I still love you, Brian."

He stares down at the floor, refusing to look at me. This isn't going the way I planned. "Do you still love me?" I venture and he finally meets my eyes.

"Yes," he says and then adds, "But so what? It's like loving a ghost. You aren't here."

Nothing's changed for him. He hasn't really made any progress in figuring out what a relationship means to him. He's just feeling abandoned and angry, now. I fucked it up. I feel sad as I kiss the top of his head. "I'll get the room service menu. We'll order some dinner. Did you fuck that guy?"

"Yes."

"Do you plan to fuck him again?"

"No."

"He's hot for you."

"That's his problem, not mine. Look, did you really expect me to be celibate?"

"No, Brian. Not at all."

"Good. I'm not hungry, just order what you want."

I order a meal for me, soup and crackers for him. If time and distance isn't the right answer, what is? I'm playing out of my league. I don't know how to fix anything anymore. I slump onto the sofa, flipping through the channels with aimless misdirection. He calls out to me.

"I'm having a hard time with this, Justin. I won't lie."

"So am I."

We stare across the room at each other, trapped in separate, but equal, hell.


Chapter 11: Brian's POV

I wake up, not sure when, not sure how I even fell asleep. I hurt so much it's hard to believe I could ever fall asleep. Waking up hurts. I adjust the recliner, trying to redistribute my weight. Nothing really helps. The lights are off except for the ambient glow from the television that's broadcasting yet another showing of "It's A Wonderful Life". I see a brush of blond hair on the arm of the couch and I know he's fallen asleep there, instead of going to bed. So much for making sure I didn't slip into a coma.

Oh God, I am so sore.

Muscles I never knew I had are screaming. I want drugs. I need to piss, again. I'm a miserable, helpless, useless, fucking baby. And now I feel like crying, going full circle on the baby thing. I hate feeling dependent on anyone. I hate it when my body turns on me. First, the fucking cancer, and now this. I'm so fucking over having to deal with health issues. I know people have it worse. I know people live with torrents of pain every day. I acknowledge that sad truth. But I still feel a little sorry for my own plight, and that makes me mad at myself.

I lower the footrest to the floor and put my weight on my good arm and my good leg and slowly manage to stand. Unsteady. Now what? One foot in front of the other, I make it three steps then brace myself on the back of the couch to keep from falling. I stare down at him, watching him sleep. The sleep of the innocent, he's oblivious to my drama. I resent that, unreasonably. I resent everything, unreasonably.

"Could you at least help me walk to the bathroom?" I bark at him, unfairly, and he instantly hops up and says,

"You shouldn't have stood up on your own. You can't fall, Brian. Your head, your ribs... "

"Just help me, god damn it."

He steadies me with his arm and I make it to the john and shut the door in his face. Why am I being such an asshole? He's helping me when no one else would. Why do I resent it? I sit on the edge of the tub when I'm through and try to garner the strength to walk out. He lets himself in and places a hand on my uninjured shoulder.

"You okay?"

"No, I'm not okay. I'm in pain. I'm miserable. Will you get me some Advil?"

"Yes, come on. Want to try the bed?"

I shake my head. I know if I lie down in that bed, I could never have the leverage to get out of it again. Totally dependent. Shit! I limp back to my chair, grabbing a pillow on the way. One goes under my ass, this one will be for my back. "Is it cold or is it me?" I ask as he covers me up with the afghan. He leaves and comes back with the comforter from the bed. It's huge, but the soft warmth is soothing. He makes me eat some crackers with the Advil. I drink water. I wait for the relief that doesn't really come. The edge goes off the pain, maybe, but I'm never free of it.

Free of pain. Nice concept. Something I know little about.

"Please turn off that ludicrous movie," I beg him. He does. Watching him flip the channels and land on something on MTV, I experience a revelation. Call me a prophet, I don't know, but it hits me with such clarity that it's as if someone lit the burning shrub. The pure, white knowledge that I receive is jarring to me. I want to erase it from my brain. I want to make it go away. I want to do something to myself to make it stop.

Wait, didn't I already do that? On my fourth run? Why do I always have to be my own victim? I look at him. Bad alternative. Don't do it, Brian. "Do you have to listen to that crap twenty-four hours a day?" I can't help myself. He calmly switches off the television and turns on a lamp.

"What's wrong?"

"Besides being in agonizing pain?"

"Yes."

I reach up with my good arm (hurts to do so because of having to use some muscles in my torso) and rake my hair. It feels grungy. I want a bath. "I don't think I should talk right now."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm in a foul mood. I might say something I'll later regret."

"Maybe you'll just tell me what you really think, for once."

Don't go there, Justin, I think to myself. Not tonight. It's not fair for me to fault him for going to New York to follow his career. Even if I don't really understand the necessity for New York, it's his call and his career is as important to him as mine is to me. I won't do it. This is my problem, not his. He didn't do anything wrong by leaving. He was right about how stupid the whole marriage sham was. He saved us from a fatal mistake. How do I know this isn't the right thing, as well? He's a lot better at this than I am, apparently.

Or is he?

"Yak, yak, yak," I grumble. "What's the point?"

"Some might call it communication," he gets up and comes back with that damned messenger bag of his. He pulls out a familiar looking present. I wince.

"You haven't opened it?"

"I was saving it. Then this happened. I'm going to open it now."

"Don't."

"Why not?"

I sigh. "It was a stupid, impulsive gesture."

"Of course it was," he says with a smile. "You bought it." He rips open the paper and stares at the red leather box with the gold scroll trim. A small gold button is pushed to open it. He doesn't push it. "Cartier?" he says with a shocked expression. I shrug. He finally opens it and removes an eighteen-karat yellow gold band with flat screw heads evenly spaced around the bracelet. He turns it over on his palm and tries to slip it over his hand, but it won't get past his knuckles. "Is it a puzzle? It's beautiful, but... "

"There's a note."

He looks in the box again. Under the lid is my handwritten note that reads: "Cartier first made this bracelet before either of us were born. It was called the "Love" bracelet because it can only be opened and slipped on when you use a special little screwdriver. So one lover "cuffed" the other and it was supposed to be symbolic. Come see me and I'll give you the screwdriver to open it. Merry Christmas, Brian".

He looks over at me, his eyes glistening. "I'm here."

"Not really. You came here to ski, not to see me. And the screwdriver is at my loft."

"I would've seen you. You're the one who left town for Christmas." That's true. "I'll bet the hotel has a screwdriver I can borrow."

"It's a proprietary fit, you have to use the jeweler's screwdriver. It's a little piece of art on its own, hangs from a little chain. The original concept is the giver wears the key to the cuff."

He stares at me. He then gets up and goes over to the table where my stuff from the hospital was tossed. My torn sweater and parka, my ski gear, an envelope with my personal effects, all are where he left them. He rips open the envelope and sorts through my watch and lift pass and small zippered nylon thing that holds some cash and my room key and ID. A slim gold chain with a small eighteen gold cylinder hanging from it glistens. It looks like art, but the top of the cylinder reverses to reveal a ridge that acts as a screwdriver. He shakes his head. He knows me too well. He knew I'd be wearing it, and he's right. Damned bloody scarf. That was the giveaway, I guess.

"Now you're lying to me?"

I shrug. I guess I am. The necklace has become a talisman for me, a connection. Something ephemeral. He brings it over to me, along with the bracelet. "Open it."

It's hard to do when one of my arms is so tender, but I manage to unhinge the screw that closes the latch. The bracelet expands to fit over his hand. Once it's in place, I tighten the latch and he puts the screwdriver back in closed position and slips the chain over my head. It looks stupid against my bandages. He holds up his right hand, admiring the classic look of the band. "I hope it's paint proof."

"It's gold. Gold is tough."

"It's way too expensive, Brian."

"You can pawn it if you need the money one day."

"Yeah," he sits cross-legged at my feet, using the overflow of the comforter as cushion. He looks about fifteen with his hair a mess, his sweat pants and t-shirt rumpled, and white socks on his feet. He looks fucking beautiful, breathtaking. "That's exactly what I'd do. So far I'm managing to keep the wolf away from my door."

"You're never going to be my equal," I tell him. "And I'll never be yours. So what the fuck are you trying to prove? If you're trying to prove something about your art, your talent, okay. I understand that, I guess. But if you're trying to prove you can be my equal, forget it. We're two different people. I'm older than you, more experienced in a lot of ways, a better businessman, better with money, better at the ad game, more capable of dealing with sharks on both sides of the conference room table, and I always will be. You're a better artist, more attuned to the emotional side of life, able to capture that emotion and vision on canvas, more intuitive, better with people, and you always will be. Why are we supposed to be 'equal'? What does that mean, anyway?"

He stares at me. "I don't think I've ever heard you say anything so straight-on about our relationship, Brian."

"Are you making fun of me?"

"I'm serious. I'm impressed."

"Am I wrong?"

"No. But it's not that I'm trying to be your equal in the boardroom, or in any of the theater where you operate. Or that I'm trying to match your bankroll, even. Maybe someday I will. But that's not it. I just don't want to be your boy, at home, you pay all the expenses, I live off your money, paint, dabble, become... one of those guys. I can't respect that, and while you may think it's okay now, sooner or later you'll start to resent it. I know you, Brian. Any partner you ever take on will have to have their own personal drive and ambition or you'll ultimately lose interest and start feeling like you're being used."

I'm listening. He's not wrong. "You do have drive and ambition."

"Yes, I do. But it needs to go somewhere. It's not just a desire to paint. It's a desire to get my work out there, noticed, sold. I know some artists, great artists, didn't sell their work, and didn't care if their work sold. Others, not so great, seem to paint only to sell their work, they've become a business. I think I've got a foot in both camps. I'm not motivated to paint by whether I think my work will be commercial, but I do want to sell. Someday I want to walk into Cartier's and buy you a matching bracelet with my own money."

"Don't you see how unimportant that is to me? If I wanted a bracelet, I could buy it myself."

"And don't you see why it is so important to me to be able to buy it for you?"

We stare each other down and then I sigh. In a way, I do see. My dependency issues are not unique to me. Just as I hate being dependent on him right now because I'm hurt, he hates being dependent on me for everything financial. That's not unreasonable, and he's right. If he were willing to settle for that indefinitely, I probably would tire of it. "Why can't you let me be the breadwinner until you do start selling?"

"Because I need to be a little hungry to be motivated to get my work out there. I'm a perfectionist about my art. It's never good enough. I need to be able to say, stop. It's finished. Put it in a gallery and see if someone bites. So long as I'm completely supported by you, I can tweak a painting forever. I think once I get some pieces sold for real money, I'll learn more about when a work is ready to pitch. I think I've already learned something about that. You're not an artist, Brian, so it's hard for you to understand. I suspect it's like an author writing a book. Sooner or later he has to say, this is it. It's ready, otherwise it dies in eternal editing. No one ever reads it."

Smart and beautiful, he makes it so damned hard to shoot holes through his theories. I like that. But then there's that damned revelation of mine. What about that? It won't go away. I can't ignore it. It explains so much to me. My anger, simmering beneath the surface, my dissatisfaction with everything, even tricking, my self-destruction, all become understandable in context. The core of my life is not what it used to be. For the first time since I've been old enough to understand what I want from life, I'm not living the way I want to live. And that is alien to me. I take a deep breath, it hurts, my fucking ribs remind me, but I do it anyway. It's now or never. I have to tell him about the burning shrub, or there's never going to be any hope for us. And that's not okay.

"I'm no longer happy living alone," I throw it out there. "I don't know what that means for us, but I don't want to live this way anymore."

The silence expands. The crickets in my head chirp. Time is suspended. Neither one of us knows what to say next.


Chapter 12: Justin's POV

My blood has turned to ice. My stomach is twisted into a Gordian knot. Sex is out of the picture, because he's so beat up, so I turn to another disassociation I learned from Brian: sarcasm.

"I don't suppose that means you want a kitten?" I ask. What an ass I can be.

He doesn't crack a smile. "You think this is funny? You think this is easy for me to say?"

I sigh and rub my hands across my face. Of course it isn't funny. Of course it isn't easy for him to say. As for me, just hearing it is like being hit by a train. But kind of in a good way, however that's possible. A train made out of marshmallows, maybe. Why am I thinking of these stupid things? Because I don't know what to say. What I want to say will only make me want to cry. I finally get the balls to say it anyway. "Does that mean you're looking for another partner?"

He grimaces. "Can you see me out there like Theodore going to Jewish singles parties to find myself a nice doctor?"

"You had a nice doctor who came to see you here tonight. I don't know if he's Jewish or not, but... "

"Stop. He was a trick. Period. I'm not interested in him. I'm not looking for another partner. I'm just telling you how I feel."

There's an element of relief to what he says. I suddenly feel like we're a step closer to where we need to be, but still far from the finish line. "I guess I really want to hear you say that you don't want to live alone anymore, and the person you want to live with you is me."

"You know it is. Why do I have to say that?"

"Because I need to hear it, Brian. You told me you loved me for the first time when we were standing in a scene of utter chaos and devastation. You asked me to marry you when you were still in a slow boil over the fact that some crazy element of the straight community was willing to kill our kind rather than let us rally in favor of gay marriage. When you said that you loved me, I believed you. I felt like you were finally voicing what I had always known. When you asked me to marry you, I knew your motivation was fucked up. And even though I thought marriage was what I wanted at the time, I now know that it wasn't. I don't need that mansion in the country, that ceremony, that piece of paper. We're here tonight with no bombs going off, no rage underlying your motivations, just the two of us. I need you to tell me exactly what you want from me, as if we lived in a perfect world."

He winces, from the pain, or from the emotional burden, or both, and leans back with a moan. "I want you here with me. I want to know that when the lights go off, you're sharing that bed with me. I don't need to know where you are every minute, Justin, and I don't want you dogging my every move, either. I want us to be together because we want to be together, not because of some convention that says we have to be together. I don't expect you to be the little woman, preparing a hot meal for me every night. I don't even want that. I want you to paint. I want you to sell. I want you to be the next Jackson Pollock, and I accept that it takes a lot of freedom and free time to create the way you do. Artists don't work a nine to five schedule. I want to be free to go out with my friends when I want to, without recrimination, whether you join us or not. I may trick, occasionally. You may trick, occasionally. We may trick together. I don't care about that so long as it's meaningless, and who knows? Maybe we'll mutually decide we're past that part of it. I don't know. I don't see a reason to draw bright lines around our relationship right now. I think we let it evolve. But for that to happen, we need to have a relationship to begin with. We need to be together. I'm so tired of being lonely."

I rest my hand on his uninjured knee and massage it gently. "I'm lonely too, Brian. Sometimes I think I'm losing my mind, I miss you so much. I guess the angst gets poured into my work, which is better than ever, but no matter how many people are around, if you're not one of them, it's not the same."

"I know. So here we are. You have good and rational reasons for needing some distance. I have good and rational reasons for needing us to be together. Neither one of us wants the other to sacrifice his goals. So we've created a perfect picture of desolation."

I smile and twist the beautiful bracelet on my wrist. "Your brooding Irish side always looks for the rainbow, doesn't it?"

"Is there a rainbow?"

"For me, hearing you say you're lonely and you want me with you is huge, Brian."

"I'm happy to stroke your puny ego," his sarcasm flares to life. "But the fact is, I don't want you to stop doing what you feel you need to do just to put a band aid on my bleeding heart."

"I know."

"You're the one with the perfect SAT scores. You tell me what the answer is."

"Like you would ever listen to me."

"I listen to you more than you'll ever believe."

I smile at that. I know he does. He hears me, he appears to blow me off, but he broods over what I say and makes his own decision, after taking it into account. I love that about him. "I don't have a fast solution, Brian. I just have a request."

"What's that?"

"While we work on this dilemma, please don't try to find some guy with a lot less issues than I have to fill that empty place in your loft."

For the first time since coming here, I see that Kinney smile, the real thing, not something tense and forced. "Damn it, get me my phone so I can call off the auditions."

"Not funny."

"Yes, it is. Justin, from that very first night when I took your cherry, I knew this was different. I even wished you were older, that you'd already lived a lot of life so that we'd be closer to the same place. I didn't let myself explore how much I cared for you, because I knew it was hopeless. You were a kid. You had to live before you decided to settle on anyone or anything. Cutting you off from those experiences, even if I could, would be wrong. So I let my walls stand, and reinforced them when they began to leak. But you still got through."

I smile. "I told you I was in love with you from the moment I saw you."

"That was lust. That was crush."

"Maybe, but at some point, invisible to me, it became love. I love all the truly terrible things about you, Brian. I love your gruff, sophisticated boredom with all things romantic while underneath you are the most ridiculously romantic man in the world. I love your sex machine persona, even when you direct it at some other guy. I love seeing how other men react to you, and that fierce freedom in your style. I love knowing that even when you're fucking them, you still love me. Only me. I love your toughness, how you act like testicular cancer is a vacation in Ibiza, how you finish that bike race in agony, how you let Gus move to Canada with his mommies, even though it broke your heart. But I also love how underneath that iron man exterior is vulnerability so raw it takes my breath away. I love how you protected me from my father's hatred. I love how you came to the hospital every night when I was bashed. I love how you tried to recreate that dance for me. I love how you wore that bloody scarf next to your heart. I love your completely fucked up self-esteem issues and your ambition and your absolute decency. I love Brian Kinney. Not some domestic clone of Brian Kinney. I never want to change you. If you change as the result of experience or age or whatever, fine, I'll love that version of you, too. But don't do it for me. Don't force it because you don't want to lose me."

I see that I moved him. His eyes glisten. Unconditional love is not something Brian Kinney has known in his life. Far from it. I haven't given it to him, either, before now. But isn't that really one of the biggest issues we have? We conditioned our love for each other. And we're two people who require freedom in order to be together. He wiggles a finger, urging me to come closer. I stand and hover over him, not sure what to do, where to touch him. He puts his good arm behind me, urging me down. I kiss him, gently, on the lips. He parts his lips and lets his tongue find mine. We taste, we probe, and we connect. I see the color rise in his pale, pale skin. He has such a quick trigger; even now, in his present condition. I love his passion. He leans back with a sigh.

"This is torture. I hurt way too much to let this get started."

I smile and smooth his hair. "I know."

"I love your courage, Justin. The way you came back after that bashing, the way you stood up to your father, the way you call me on my shit," he says with a smile. "I love your talent, your artistic eye, your creative mind, your perfect ass. I love the way you cried when I told you I didn't believe in love, only in fucking, and yet you still wouldn't give up. I love the way you had the balls to come after me following your fiasco with the fiddler, and how you wouldn't let me walk away. I love how you can care for me without smothering me, without making me dependent. I love the way you play me, sometimes, reminding me of what matters, of who matters. I love that you saw beneath the Kinney façade and still wanted what you found there, quivering and cold," he reaches out and touches my face. "We let other people, other circumstances come between us, Justin. The way others perceived us, and what we should need from life, had a terrible impact on our relationship. We operate best in a vacuum of our own creation. It's not a relationship others necessarily understand or admire or want to emulate, but who gives a shit? If it works for us, why do we let other people and their conventions, chip away at what we know is right? They tell you that you deserve more, better, and maybe they're right. They tell me I need to commit to you, be a steady partner, and yet in the same breath they tell me I need to let you go, so you can follow your dream, and maybe they're right. But they're also inconsistent. They say what they want to say when they want to say it, and let's be real. Most of what they say is fucking hurtful. You let Michael convince you that you really wanted domestic bliss. You let Lindsay convince you that you really needed to move to New York. I let Michael convince me that I really want to be a party stud until I die, and I let Lindsay convince me that I was causing you to make a terrible sacrifice in order to be with me. Fuck Michael. Fuck Lindsay. What we need to decide is what Brian and Justin need and want. We have to shut off the outside world, because that's the only way we really seem to work."

As I listen to him, take in what he's saying, I realize that what we just did, spontaneously, is to exchange the only kind of vows that really matter. We just told each other what we love about the other and why we want to be together, on our own terms. I know we can't shut off the outside world and live in a vacuum of our own creation, but I also know exactly what he means by that. I have no idea how to make this work, but I have never loved him more than I do at this moment.

"I do," I say softly. He looks perplexed.

"You do what?"

"I do take you as my lawfully wedded husband."

He laughs. "I want some of what you're mainlining."

"What we just did is exchange vows, Brian."

"We exchanged truths."

"A vow is a declaration, a promise. No ceremony could mean more to me than what you just said."

"We can't have a wedding night when I'm too banged up to perform, so this doesn't count."

I smile. "It counts."

"All we've done is tell each other how we feel. We haven't solved a damn thing."

"I know. But isn't that what the rest of our lives for? Solving damn things? Together?"

"One step at a time, Pollyanna. We haven't even talked about how we can be together, or even if we can be together."

"And we will. But right now, you're going to sleep. You look so tired. Move over."

"What are you doing? There's no room for you on this chair."

"I'm not that big. I promise not to hurt your sore parts. I just want to be close to you."

"You can't get close to me without hurting my sore parts," he complains, but I manage to find a little cove next to his body where I can lie on my side with one arm gently placed low on his abdomen and my head resting on his good shoulder. I snuggle under the comforter and close my eyes as I breathe in the slightly seamy scent of athletic exertion that was abruptly interrupted before he could shower. I don't care. I love the way he smells.

I feel him relax in my embrace, and within minutes he's asleep. With our luck, he'll probably slip into a coma and die, that's the way some would write our resolution. But I have other plans for him, plans that don't include his premature death. I kiss his throat and then I, too, fall asleep, hoping I remember to wake up often enough to ensure he's still alive.


Chapter 13: Brian's POV

I didn't think it was possible to hurt more than I did yesterday, but it is. I do. I wake up to find I turned into the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz overnight. Every joint is seized up and locked, and my oil-can is nowhere in sight. My one uninjured limb is asleep under his blond head. When I try to move, the ribs come to life and I groan. He wakes up and struggles out of the chair with a minimum of jostling to keep from hurting me. No such luck.

"It's worse," I say through gritted teeth. He nods.

"Second day usually is."

Together, we manage to get me to my feet and I limp into the bathroom. He brushes his teeth at the sink while I take a piss. I tell him, "Will you fill up the bathtub? I'm not going another day without a bath and I think the needles of a shower will hurt too much."

He obliges and then starts to undress me. It's harder than it sounds when none of your joints want to bend. Unwrapping the elastic bandages from my ribs is like unraveling a mummy. When the last layer comes off we both wince at the skin underneath. A long diagonal slash, looking like the rip in Rage's costume, extends from my right shoulder to the left side of my waist. It's set in a large, deep purple bruise that meanders over my torso. The tape helped the pain, because now it hurts even more to breathe.

"Holy shit, Brian. You could've been killed."

"If it was a little higher, if the branch hit me in the head, I probably wouldn't be talking to you now."

He spreads a hand on my cheek and sighs. "Thank God it wasn't any higher, then."

Getting into the tub isn't easy. Sitting down in the water is almost impossible. I'm not even going to think about what it will be like to get up again. The hard porcelain is unforgiving against my bruised tailbone. But the warm water feels good. While I feared the motion of the Jacuzzi jets, after an adjustment, the pulsation is comforting. He leaves me soaking to go order breakfast, after warning me not to try to stand up without calling him. As if I could.

My eyes close. I remember last night. We had "the talk". Once you have "the talk" everything is different, no matter what the resolution may be. You can never go back. I laid myself open like I never believed I would or could. More than a whispered, "I love you" or a determined proposal of marriage, this time I told him exactly how I feel. It scares me to think of being that open with anyone, even him, but it also makes me feel relieved. I did it. I expressed my feelings to him. For better or worse, he knows the whole ugly truth. I have needs, too. I have wants, too. And it may make me appear weak or vulnerable, but I hope he just thinks it makes me human.

Because I am.

And I'm lonely.

And I love him.

He comes into the room. "Thirty minutes on breakfast. You okay?"

I nod. He undresses and gets in the shower. I watch him through the glass door. My cock stirs. I wonder if... but no. Not now. No matter what sexual variation I come up with, having an orgasm involves muscles tightening, breathing getting heavy and fast, and right now the thought of that is excruciating. I elevate my thoughts. The soap smells like lemons and vanilla as I move the bar over my skin. He gets out of the shower, wraps in a towel and walks over to me with a small bottle of shampoo. His hair is sticking up in wet spikes, freshly washed.

"Let me do your hair. You'll never be able to get your hands up there."

I give in and close my eyes, letting him scrub it in. He rinses it out with a cloth, running it over my head and back from my face so the suds don't burn my eyes. He is incredibly gentle and caring as he performs this little ritual. It is intensely erotic for me. When I open my eyes, he's smiling that Sunshine smile of his. "What?" I ask and he nods towards my cock, which is standing at full mast. I sigh.

"I can't help it. Mind of its own."

"Want me to... ?"

"Not sure I can take it."

"My money's on you." He soaps up his hand and begins to stroke me. Yeah, I feel the muscles tense. And yeah, it hurts, but...

"Don't stop," I tell him and he laughs.

"Thought so."

When I hit my orgasm, I try to control the clenching and convulsive shudders, but the body has other ideas and once the extreme relief and pleasure passes, the rest of me returns to the punishment. Getting out of the tub is the nightmare I feared it would be. Despite the pain, and ludicrous aspects of it, we both end up laughing as we try several different ways to accomplish it.

Finally I'm free of the torture chamber, and dry. I sit on the closed toilet as he rewraps my bandages. I tell him to pull it tighter, because the pressure does help. Finally I'm mummified again. Wearing a fluffy terrycloth robe, I return to "The Chair". The bath was a good idea for more than one reason.

By now, breakfast has arrived. Wearing a robe that matches mine, he signs the ticket and has the table pushed over by me so I don't have to get up. The room service waiter gives us that look that says "I know you're queer and you disgust me". I know that look very well. I hope Justin sees it too and doesn't overtip him. Excuse me if I don't pay you for your contempt.

When we're alone, he sets everything up, and I stare at the oatmeal I thought I wanted, rethinking it now. He's digging into pancakes and crisp bacon. "You want to trade?" he asks and I glare at him.

"You want me fat as well as helpless? No thanks." I sprinkle some brown sugar on the tan gruel and dig in. It tastes better than it looks. The coffee is even better and I wash down my Advil with orange juice. I guess I was hungry after all, because once the food is in me, I do feel better. The bath, the food, the company, I'm slowly feeling human again. I appreciate the fact he hasn't said a word about "The Talk". The bracelet gleams silently from his wrist.

"I want you to hit the slopes today," I tell him. "You came here to ski."

"Forget it, Brian. I'm not leaving you."

"I don't want you hovering over me all day. Just leave me with the phone and the remote and I'll be fine. The danger of the head injury is past, I'm not dying on you. I can get up to piss, which is all that really matters."

"Did you ever consider the possibility that maybe I'd rather spend my time with you than on the slopes?"

I guess I really didn't. I stare at him. "Okay, you can do both. Go ski for awhile, and then come back and spend the rest of the day with me. How's that for a compromise? See how compromise works?"

He laughs. "You are such a dick."

"And you're surprised by that how, exactly?"

He leans over to kiss me. "Okay, I'll take a couple runs and then I'm back by lunch. How's that for a compromise?"

"Check the snow conditions first. It was icy yesterday. But it looks like a nice powder fell overnight."

"You envy me, right?"

"Yes, you little prick, I do. I came here to ski, too. And if you fall, you're on your own. Two cripples do not a whole person make."

"There's a handicap slur in there somewhere."

I watch him leave the room to change into his ski clothes and I sigh. Bullet dodged. I know we'll have to pick up that painful conversation again, but at least for now, I'm home free. Once he's gone, I pick up the phone and dial a number from memory. My only regret is that it's too late to be waking her up.

"You are so fired," I say as she answers her home phone. She feigns innocence.

"What are you talking about, Brian?"

"Don't even try, Cynthia. You and Mama Taylor must think you're so clever. Well, I don't need two fucking women interfering in my love life. And you don't have the right to share my private travel plans with anyone."

"Are you through?"

"No, I'm not through. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't fire you?" It feels good to be back in bitchy form. She doesn't hesitate.

"I'm the only one who truly understands the billing system."

I ponder that. Damn it, she's right. "I'm not kidding about your breach of my confidence."

"You're right, Brian. Sorry. But it was Jennifer, your partner's mother, not some skank trying to track you down to sleep with you."

"If it was someone trying to fuck me, I might be more forgiving. I don't know what you two thought would happen."

"I guess we hoped you two stubborn, prideful, miserable men would sit down together and talk about your lives and your needs."

I frown since that's exactly what did happen. Damn it. "Well, nothing got settled. Happy?"

"Did you talk?"

"Of course we talked, what option did we have?"

"Then I'm happy. That's a start."

"Don't interfere in my personal life again."

"Point taken, Brian. And thanks for the gift certificate to the spa. A whole day of pampering is a wonderful gift. Thanks."

"I'd cancel it if I could."

"You would not. Quit being ridiculous. Why aren't you out on the slopes?"

"I... had a fall. Nothing major."

"Break anything?"

"Some ribs."

"Brian! You need me to do something for you?"

"Besides stay out of my personal life?"

"I get it. Let it go. Seriously, do you need some help?"

"I got all the help I need. I didn't open your gift, by the way. It's waiting for me in Pittsburgh."

"No rush. Did Justin like the bracelet?"

"What's not to like? It's Cartier."

"Yeah, I'm sure that's what appealed to him about it." She saw the bill come through on my Amex card. There's no hiding shit from Cynthia. "Where is he now?"

"Skiing. Duh."

"Who's taking care of you?"

"I'm not a fucking invalid!" Well, close enough.

"Brian, don't waste this time with Justin. Tell him how you feel. You're breaking my heart. You put up an excellent front but I've known you long enough to recognize how unhappy you are."

"Shut up. I am not and the rest is none of your business."

"I care about you."

I can't stay mad at her. I know she does. And she believes in me. If I were straight, I'd marry her. "Are we clear on the concepts?"

"Yes, boss."

"Good. When are you going back in the office?"

"Tomorrow."

"Okay."

"Brian, good luck."

"About what?"

"You know what."

"I'm hanging up now. You're tromping on my last raw nerve."

I hear her laugh as we say goodbye. Am I really that transparent? Are other people thinking I'm some fragile little flower underneath it all? That possibility annoys me. I hit the remote and I surf until I find a game, any game, and settle on that. I watch and I wait. Wait for him to come home. Who am I kidding? Even now, I miss him. Time passes slowly when you're alone. I hope he's having great runs, but I also hope he comes back soon. Such is the strange dichotomy of love.


Chapter 14: Justin's POV

Whatever I do, I can't limp. If I limp, he'll know. If he knows, he'll get all torqued. So he can't know. He has enough to deal with right now. So I can't limp. Why the fuck would I pick now to try snowboarding for the first time? I'm a decent skier, maybe not black diamond ready, but close enough. But do I stick with that? No. I have to try snowboarding because it looks like so much fun. And it was. For about five minutes until I hit air and the board and I parted company. I landed funny on my left ankle. It's not broken or anything, I know that would make it impossible for me to move it, but it hurts. I sit down on a bench at the chalet, waiting for the shuttle back to the hotel, and loosen my boot so I can get a look at it.

Maybe a little swollen, but nothing major, I decide. I try to rotate it and it will do as told, but it hurts. "Are you okay?"

I look up at Dr. Trick. He appears very pro in his tres chic ski gear. I don't really want to admit vulnerability to him, but he is a doctor and maybe he can just tell me that I'm fine. "I think I twisted my ankle." Why does that sound like something a female ingénue would say in a 1930's romantic comedy? He sits beside me and pats his thigh.

"Put it up here."

I oblige and he gently removes my boot and my sock. The cold air bites right into my naked toes. Ouch. He takes off his gloves and pokes around and prods and rotates and pokes some more. Is he really looking for an injury or just torturing me for being Brian's partner? He then puts my sock back on my foot and I manage to stuff the injured limb into my boot once again. "Well?"

"I'd prefer to see film of it to be sure, but it feels like a sprain. Keep it iced and elevated, take Advil, and don't constrict it. It will probably swell and discolor, and you may want to wrap it loosely later to protect the joint. Stay off of it as much as you can for twenty-four hours. If it gets worse or throbs or feels hot, go to emergency and get an xray. I think it'll be fine."

I can't do all that without tipping Brian. Oh well, maybe Brian will just have to deal. What was that he said about two gimps do not a whole make? Something that rude.
"You and your boyfriend are making your own little hospital ward out of that hotel room," he teases me. I shrug.

"This trip wasn't about skiing anyway." He can take that any way he wants. He gives me a smile that I don't particularly like.

"Reconciliation?"

"What do you mean?"

"Brian said you were 'separated'."

"Not exactly separated. Not how you mean."

"How many ways are there to be separated?"

"A lot." I'm liking him less by the minute.

"Being involved with Brian Kinney has to be a thankless job."

"Someone has to do it, and that would be me," my look for him adds the words, "not you". We share the shuttle back. He sits beside me, uninvited.

"Funny thing," he says, and why do I think I'm not going to laugh? "I'll bet I've known Brian longer than you."

"Doubt it. Unless you went to school with him or something."

"No, but years ago, we first fucked in the empty bed of a room at the hospital while his friend was in a coma in the bed next to ours," he chuckles at the memory. "The fact that his friend was near death a few feet away certainly didn't take the edge off for Brian."

I suddenly feel buried in an avalanche of snow. Brian fucked this guy in my room while I was in a coma? One thing I love about Brian is the image of him lingering around my room while I was vegged out, just hanging with me, watching over me. It doesn't matter that he wasn't celibate while I was hospitalized. Why would he be? But getting it on in the bed next to mine while I was in such terrible shape? That hurts. I don't remember there being a second bed in that room, but maybe they moved me later, when I woke up. So much of that time is lost to me. I don't want to give away any of my pain to Dr. Trick, so I say nothing, and stare out the window, willing him to leave me the fuck alone.

When I make it to our suite, he mutes some game he's been watching and smiles at me. He could use a shave. I'm not in the mood to help him with that. I might just cut his throat.

"How was it?" he asks. "Let me live vicariously."

"Good, until I fell and twisted my ankle." So much for being a martyr. I sit on the sofa and remove my boots and socks. I wrap some ice in a towel and press it to my ankle as he stares at me.

"Do you need to see a doctor?"

"I did. Your doctor."

"Doctor Santa?"

"Doctor Trick."

"Where did you see him?" He asks with a wince as I glare at him.

"We shared the shuttle. He looked at it and said it was a sprain. No big deal. But it hurts."

"I'm sorry. Maybe we need to look for sunny beaches instead of snow."

"Brian, he told me you tricked him in the bed next to mine when I was in a coma."

"Why would he tell you that?" His tension is apparent from across the room. I seize the moment.

"Because he's making a point about how long he's known you. But that's not the issue. The issue is, you fucked him in the same room with me when I was in a coma?"

"No."

"No?"

"No, Justin."

"Why would he make it up? How else would he even know that I was in a coma?"

"Are you calling me a liar?"

"One of you is lying."

"And you think it's me?"

I can feel his Irish rising all the way over here. I begin to doubt Dr. Trick. Brian isn't a liar. He'd tell me if he did it. "Why would he say that?"

"It was Teddy."

I shake my head, completely confused. "Huh?"

"Teddy was in a coma in the next bed. In fact, he woke up while we were in the middle of it. You can call him to verify, since you obviously don't believe me."

Oh shit. Ted had that overdose right when I first met him. Dr. Trick was right. He has known Brian as long as I have. And he never said I was the one in the next bed. I just presumed. "Fuck," I say softly and Brian glares at me.

"You really think I'd fuck someone in your room while you were hovering between life and death? Is that what you think of me?"

Damage control. "No, Brian." The bloody scarf, the devastation everyone said he felt, the guilt he carried after what happened, the re-creation of the dance that day in the loft with Daphne helping, the gentle caution he showed while bringing me back to life, how could I doubt him? I limp over to him and scrunch my ass into the chair with him. I can feel him stiffen, and not in a good way. "I'm sorry."

He shakes his head. "I thought you had a higher opinion of me than that."

"I said I'm sorry. I do have a high opinion of you, but put yourself in my place. Coma, hospital, why would I not think of myself? It was a major event in my life, you know? And he so wanted to minimize our relationship. And why did you do him again? You don't do that."

"Don't try to shift this over to me."

"I'm not. It's a serious question."

He ponders that for a moment and then says, "I was lonely. It was Christmas Eve. I had a bad scene with Lindsay. I went into a gay bar in Toronto and he remembered me. I didn't remember him until he told me. It was just easy, Justin. There was no pursuit involved. Not on my side, anyway. Did he follow me here? I think so. He's predatory. But even if you weren't here, it wouldn't have done him any good. I would've told him to pound sand."

"Would you?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I don't need complications in my life. You're complicated enough. Now get your fat ass up and put ice on your ankle."

"Fat? You are so going to pay for that!"

I retrieve the ice and the room service menu and snuggle up with him again. "I'm hungry."

"There's a news flash."

"Hey, I've been exerting myself physically while you vegetated in this chair."

"I think my flesh is growing into the leather."

"There goes my appetite."

He laughs. We're back on familiar ground. I place an order for us and then he says, "When do you leave?"

"Trying to get rid of me?"

"I have to go back to work, there's money to be made. I'm scheduled to leave tomorrow."

"Me too. Will you be up for a flight?"

"Sure. Are you going back to Pittsburgh or to New York?"

"Pittsburgh."

"For how long?"

I stare into those guarded hazel eyes of his and say, "I don't know. I think we need to talk about that."

He nods, but I can see the glimmer of hope twinkle in his expression as he pulls me in a little closer and punches the sound up on his game. I have no idea what we'll decide about what time I spend in Pittsburgh. We each have legitimate concerns that haven't really been addressed, but I share his optimism for now, content to let it unwind at its own natural pace.


Chapter 15: Brian's POV

It would be funny if it wasn't so pathetic, the two of us limping through the airport to get to our gate. He offers to fetch me a wheelchair, an idea that I kill with a shriveling glare. It's not that I don't want a wheelchair, I'd love a wheelchair, but my ego won't allow it. I don't want to appear that fallible. I haven't been with Justin for this amount of time without fucking him since... well, never.

I hate it.

I really want to fuck him, but damn, we both hurt. It's like a cosmic cruelty joke. I upgrade him to sit next to me in first class, and for once he doesn't resist. I think he knows it will be an easier flight up front when he hurts the way he does. We get the bulkhead so we can both elevate our aching limbs by propping them up on the wall. I take the aisle. My legs are longer and if I have to get up, it will be easier from here.

By the time we're underway, I'm exhausted. Just the hassle of checking in, going through security and boarding took all my gas. I order water instead of booze, feeling a little shaky. He orders a beer. He's less shaky, less injured.

"Did you boys have a great ski trip?" The faggot steward leers at us, managing to make fun of our obvious injuries by asking. I glare at him.

"It was a non-stop fun fest. Why do you ask?"

He moves on, unsure of what to say to that. Justin snorts. "You are such a bitch."

"I can be." Thank God we're not delayed. Once we're in the air, the ride is smooth and I start to relax as I adjust the seat to accommodate my tailbone.

"He probably thinks your ass is sore from my macho ramming," he continues to trigger my nerves. I glare at his smiling face.

"Your ramming my ass would hardly cause a grimace, short stuff."

"Not short where it counts."

I get to laugh now and it hurts my ribs to do so. "I have only a vague recollection of that boast."

He reaches over and puts my hand squarely on his crotch. "Bring back a memory?"

I give him a squeeze and then withdraw before the straight middle aged couple across from us fall into a righteous rage. "Oh yeah, now I remember. Not bad."

"We can't all be Mr. Nine Inch Nail."

"It's a burden, but I shoulder it well."

"At least one of my balls isn't made out of jelly."

From anyone else, that would be cruel. From Justin, it's funny and I laugh. "That's no problem for me. Since the other one is jumbo sized, it more than picks up the slack."

"Is this turning you on? Because it is me," he says with a leer.

I smile at him as my water is delivered. "Everything turns you on. It's your age."

"It's the fact I haven't been laid in awhile. I didn't spend Christmas Eve with Dr. Trick."

I wince. "You didn't miss much. So you just have a vague, free-floating horniness, nothing to do with me?"

"Maybe a little to do with you and the discussion of your nine inch nail."

"Moving on, since it's never easy to get off in the head of a jet, and when you're as crippled as I am, it's an impossibility. Maybe when we land and the loft awaits. You are staying with me, right?"

"No, I thought I'd stay with my mother. Christ, Brian, of course I'm staying with you. Sheesh."

"Just checking." If he didn't want to stay with me, I'd know it was hopeless. "So what did you get me for Christmas? Nothing?"

"It's at your loft. I asked management to put it inside your door."

"What is it?"

"A gift."

"Justin... "

"It's not from Cartier's."

"I don't need anything from Cartier's."

"Just wait and see."

I lean over him to watch Canada disappear beneath the clouds. I think of Gus. I feel sad. I already miss him and my encounter with his mommies was particularly brutal. "I want my kid," I say to him. He looks at me and then pats my arm.

"I know. What can we do?"

"I'm not sure."

"That's why they have lawyers."

"Right. But do I want to put him through a custody battle?"

"Yes. You do. Because he has a right to know his father. You're a good man, Brian. You love him. That means a lot to a boy. It's not as if you'd try to cut them off and become the parent he lives with. You just want to enforce your rights to visit him and have him visit you on a regular schedule. As much money as you pay towards his support, it's only fair."

"Right." I know he's right, but the thought of going through the battle makes my head hurt. I can hear them now. What a rogue I am, how promiscuous I am, how careless and unreliable. What about them? Lindsay's affair with that idiotic painter, Mel's cheating on her and their on again off again relationship, their unreliable income record and finally fleeing to Canada. I don't know. The knife seems to cut both ways. No one is perfect. Do we really want to fight this out in public? Why can't we just settle it among us like adults? "Did you notice my goggles when you packed? Did they get in the bag? Gus gave them to me for Christmas."

"Yeah, two pairs, and your torn parka. I packed it because I think it can be repaired and it's obviously expensive."

"Good."

I let my hand cover his on the arm between us. I squeeze it gently and he smiles at me. "What?"

"Nothing. I'm just glad you're here."

He rests his head on my shoulder. "When I was eight, my mom gave me my all time favorite Christmas present. It was a downsized artist's easel and three paint-by-numbers kits. One was a collie, one was a house and trees and one was a parrot. I loved that gift! I felt like Rembrandt when I finished that collie. It was so awful, and yet my grandmother had it hanging up in her home forever. I never thought my mom could eclipse that gift, but she did. This is my all time favorite Christmas present, now. I was mad at her for meddling, but now I can't be mad. I loved being with you, even though you were hurt and grouchy."

I shake my head. "I wasn't grouchy. I'm always like this."

"You're worse when you're sick or hurting."

"Really? Oh well. I'm entitled." I reach down and rest my cheek on his soft, soft hair. I'm also grateful to Jennifer, and even Cynthia, though neither will hear it from me. No matter how we resolve this, for a few painful, soul baring days, I had him back in my life. All the way back in my life. And that filled the gap.

We both manage to sleep and it's the prissy steward who wakes us up to tell us to put our seat backs up and prepare for landing. I've stiffened up during the flight, not in a good way. I wince as I sit upright and Justin climbs over me to limp to the bathroom. The man on the aisle across from me leans over and asks, "So what do you think of gay marriage?"

"I don't believe in 'gay marriage'," I tell him. He looks surprised.

"You don't?"

"No. There's no such thing as 'gay marriage'. There's only marriage. Between two partners, who love each other and who are willing to accept the conventions of society and follow the rules. Gay, straight, who cares? Marriage is marriage. It's a personal thing. How do you feel about it?"

"I believe marriage is a sacred union between a man and a woman."

I nod. "Like divorce."

"What do you mean?"

"That's obviously reserved only for men and women too, and since every other marriage ends in divorce, that little nuance gets a lot of use. Not quite as sacred, I guess, but maybe the sanctity wears off of all these solemn vows you people share."

"We've been married fifteen years!"

"Congratulations. You know anyone who's been divorced?"

"That's not the point."

"True. The point is, it's sacred when you want it to be sacred, but when you decide your hot mama secretary tweaks your interest more than the old lady at home, and you want to move in with her, forget the vows and let's move on to door number two. Or three. Or four. Serially sanctimonious. I like it."

"You people are the ones who are so promiscuous, who introduced AIDS to our society!"

I laugh. "If AIDS was limited to my tribe and it's now in your tribe, someone on your side of the fence was visiting on the down low."

Justin comes out of the john and looks from me to Mr. Straight America. "What's up?" he asks nervously and I grin at him.

"Sit down, baby. We're discussing gay marriage."

"Baby?" He repeats as he sits down and buckles up. "Let it go, Brian."

I reach over to kiss him but he leans away and puts a finger on my lips. "No," he says. "Not putting on a show for the man."

I sigh. He's right. I turn away from the man across the aisle. Let him bait another queer. I'm going home. I've arranged for a driver to meet me at the airport and he loads our luggage. He drives me often, and he seems pleased to see Justin is with me. At the building on Tremont, we wait for the creaky elevator, neither of us willing to tackle the stairs. It's a slow ride up and he opens the door and drags our luggage in as I collapse on the chaise, still wearing my coat. I'm happy that he still carries his key to the loft. That's childish, I know, but I am. He brings over a rectangle wrapped in red foil paper. No bows. I take it from him and tear off the paper to reveal bubble wrap. Under that is a beautiful abstract painting that shows off his maturing skills.

"It's brilliant."

He smiles as he straddles my thighs, careful of where he puts his weight. "I thought it would look good in the bathroom."

"Your time in New York is paying off. This is really, really good."

"Thanks." He leans down to kiss me. I kiss him back. He gently takes the painting from me and carries it over to the sofa, then returns. He helps me out of my coat and sheds his. We kiss again. We've had some very good times on this chaise, with and without ice cream. He moves his ass against my crotch as we kiss and I moan. I want to fuck him, I really do. He reads it in my eyes.

"You think we can?" He asks. He shares my need.

"Maybe with you on top and keep some of your weight on your legs. You'd have to do the work."

"I don't mind that."

His hand loosens my belt, unzips my jeans, reaches in to stroke me. My hands run down his back and slip under his sweater to feel his skin as our tongues dance. And then it happens.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Fists on the door. Voices outside. "Brian, are you home? I know you're in there! Open up!" Bang. Bang. Bang. I look at him and groan. He winces and rests his forehead against mine.

"Welcome back to Pittsburgh," he whispers and I come up with a revolutionary idea.

"What if we just refuse to answer the door?"


Chapter 16: Justin's POV

His cock is in my hand and it's hard to the touch. His face is flushed, the way it always looks when his heat is up. I want him so much I can feel it in my core as well as everywhere else in my body. And then the knock intrudes. I see the frustration in his eyes as he sighs, audibly. I unstraddle him and walk away. His gaze follows me and then he laughs as I veer from the door and go into the bedroom, returning with lube and condoms.

"Fuck them," I say as I strip off my clothes and then his. "Or maybe I should say fuck me. To hell with them."

I've wanted to fuck him for so long. If they think they can stop this locomotive, they're wrong. I don't care if they stand right here in the room. I'm going through with this.

And we do.

Somewhere in the middle of it, the banging on the door stops as the banging on the chaise gets hotter. Or either I just blocked the noise. Sex, done right, is always good, but sex with Brian is like no other for me. He fits my body, he knows what I need, and he gives it to me. Even hurt, limited in movement, it works for us. I close my eyes as I ride him, careful to keep my weight back, off of his torso, opening my eyes when his breathing and motion tell me he's about to shoot. I love to watch his handsome face when he comes. The grimace of his features, as if in exquisite pain, the high color in his complexion, the way his relief starts with a gasp and ends with a smile.

Watching him makes me come, and only then do I really think about the fact I just spunked his bandages. Normally I would fold over him now, pressing his body to mine, but not today. Not with those ribs. I reluctantly dismount and come back with a wet cloth to dab the traces from his mummy wrap. He laughs. "Hope they don't run a blue light over me."

"Expecting the CSI crew?"

"Well, someone was hammering my door."

"You should be so lucky that it was the CSI crew," I toss him an afghan to cover up. "I'm going to take a shower and then go out and get some take away and also refresh your supply of Advil and mummy wrap."

"Can you walk?"

I shrug. "It's a block. I'll manage. You stay put. I'll help you shower when I get back."

"Justin?"

"Yeah?"

"It was... " he hesitates and I smile.

"I know. It was."

When I'm dressed and headed for the door, I pause to kiss him goodbye, but he's asleep. I kiss his forehead and leave him there. My ankle is sore, yeah, I'm not running any marathons, but I can manage this pain. I still take the elevator, and take my time walking to the drug store to be followed by the Chinese place we like. Being back in the 'hood feels as strange as it feels good. I miss the familiarity, the sense of belonging to this community. Plenty of fags in East Village, but not this sense of community. I've met artists, and we have a lot to talk about, but in a way I get sick of them. If I'm not painting, I don't want to sit around and talk about painting. And the act of creation isn't really verbal, anyway.

As I fill a small red plastic basket with Advil and bandages and hot and cold packs and cigarettes and condoms and other necessities of life, I hear my name being called in a distinctive whine. Michael. "I heard you were in town," he says as he walks over to me and curiously eyes my shopping choices: Brian's brand of cigarettes, Brian's brand of condoms. "I called your mom's house and she said you went skiing."

"Right."

"With Brian?"

"As it turned out, yeah."

That look I know so well. Half suspicion, half envy, all pathetic. "Interesting. I thought you two had sort of put it on ice."

"You never know with us," I throw in a couple power bars, a couple Hershey bars, you decide who gets which.

"We were just over at Brian's place, my mom and me, but he didn't answer the door."

"I know. We were in the middle of it. Bad timing. Next time you may want to call first." As if that concept would ever enter his dictionary of rude behavior.

"Are you limping?" He chooses to ignore the sexual confession, as always preferring to believe Brian and I have never touched each other intimately. It's easier for his fantasies that way.

"I sprained my ankle snowboarding. It's no big deal."

"And naturally Brian can't be bothered to go out and let you rest." This is another thing he does. He never misses a chance to dis Brian behind his back. I don't consider this appropriate BFF behavior.

"Brian also had some bad luck on the slopes, worse, in fact. Broke several ribs, wrenched his knee and shoulder, and had a concussion. He couldn't go out shopping if his life depended on it."

Now he gets that winsome, puppy dog eyes look that says "I'm so worried about my poor widdle Bwian." I just roll my eyes and put the basket on the counter. I picked up Brian's wallet on the way out since I have virtually no cash. I get carded on the cigarettes. I try to show him Brian's ID. "Six-two?" He asks and I sigh and produce my own. He obviously thinks it's fake, but sells them to me anyway. Damned baby face. He bags the items and Michael walks out with me.

"Has he seen a doctor?"

"Duh, Michael. Yes."

"And?"

"He'll be fine, but he's laid up for now."

"Who will care for him when you go back to New York?" His unfinished question leaves out the "soon I hope". Will he ever be over his unrequited passion for Brian? Yeah, when the world stops spinning. He follows me to the Chinese restaurant.

"I'm not going back until he's on his feet, and after that who knows?"

"What do you mean 'who knows'? Are you considering coming back? Listen Justin, don't let him guilt you into leaving New York. He's been just fine since you left and... "

"Stop," I tell him. "Just stop. What we decide to do about our living arrangement is between Brian and me. If I want your opinion, I'll ask for it. Otherwise don't presume to tell me about Brian Kinney and what he wants and needs. I think I'm in a better position to measure that than you will ever be."

I'm as shocked as he is by what I just said. Did that come out of my mouth? I remember, in Banff, when Brian said we can't let those on the outside alter our relationship by poisoning us with their opinions. I think he's right and I think we were both foolish to do so before. We have enough issues without allowing third parties into the mix.

"I think I've known Brian a little longer than you, Justin," he plays the BFF card. I shake my head.

"In an entirely different way and longer doesn't mean better."

I order our usual preferences while Michael steams. "So, how are Ben and Hunter?" I ask with a bright little smile as if I didn't just eviscerate him. He glares.

"Fine."

"What did you guys do for Christmas?"

"We went to my mom's. You can't just keep bouncing in and out of his life, Justin. It isn't fair."

"What do you not understand about my not discussing my relationship with Brian with you?"

"Someone has to talk sense to you two."

I laugh at that. "You mean you?"

"Is that funny?"

"Well, yeah." The food comes out quickly and I hand Michael a bag as I start back to the loft. It's inevitable that he's going with me, I know that. His Brian stalks won't end until he spies the beast. I should have asked him if he wanted me to order something for him. Whoops.

We're silent in the elevator, and when we enter the loft, he starts to talk, but I hold a finger up to my lips and nod towards sleeping Brian. He hasn't moved since I left. I quietly unpack the food, filling a tray with white cardboard boxes and fetch Brian's favorite ebony chopsticks with the silver tips. I put a couple bottles of Evian on the tray and carry it over to the chaise. Michael follows.

I set the tray on the floor and lean over to kiss his sleeping lips. Sleeping Beauty, for sure. He really is. He stirs and smiles up at me. "Hello, Sunshine. Your face is cold," his fingers spread out on my cheek.

"It's chilly out there. Hungry?"

"Yeah, smells good. Kung Pao chicken?"

"Of course. And spring rolls and fried rice."

I balance the tray on his lap and kneel beside the chaise so I can get to the cartons, after shedding my cold weather gear. Only then does he notice Michael. "Haven't I told you about letting things follow you home?" He quips and we both laugh but Michael is into puppy dog eye mode.

"Are you okay, Brian? You look like shit!" A glance at me, as if I had beaten Brian with a broomstick. He shrugs.

"I've been better, been worse. You want some?" He's a better host than I am. Michael shakes his head.

"Mom and I came by earlier but Justin said you were... busy," another baleful look at me that I ignore. "We had your Christmas gifts. She took them with her."

He nods. I know Brian. He would've already had their gifts delivered so they could have them on the day. "Something to look forward to."

"I was going to use my key but Mom said you might not be alone and she didn't want to walk in on something."

"I always knew Debbie had a brain under that fright wig."

"Brian, do you really think this is a good idea? You and Justin, I mean? You were just starting to... "

After exchanging a look with me, Brian points his sticks at Michael and says, "Don't go there."

"But... "

"Seriously. Don't. If I need your opinion, I'll ask for it."

"Fine. Except I'm always the one who has to pick up the pieces he leaves behind."

Ouch. That hurts. Brian's expression darkens. "Eagerly."

"What?"

"You eagerly pick up those pieces, Michael. It makes you feel important to me. It keeps me where you want me to be. Alone."

"How did this become about me?"

"It isn't about you. That's my point. Don't you have a hubby in the 'burbs somewhere?"

"Fine, I'll go. But when he's back in New York and you're feeling blue again, don't bother calling me."

He makes a dramatic exit and I stare at Brian. "He really dislikes me, doesn't he?"

"He dislikes my loving you."

"Better that you're lonely?"

"Yeah, better."

We both wince. Some friend. "I guess the crazy aunt is out of the attic, Brian."

"Huh?"

"New York. We can't keep dancing around it."

"Mixed metaphor."

"Whatever."

His eyes meet mine. "What are you about to tell me?"

I stare into his beautiful, expectant, guarded face and I have not one clue about what I'm going to say next.

Continue to the next chapter

Disclaimer: The television show Queer As Folk and its characters are the property of Showtime and CowLip Productions. No money is being made. Stories and discussion are intended purely for the entertainment of fans of Queer as Folk, the Brian and Justin characters, and Randall's writings.
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Beginning
July 25, 2004