Written By: jule1122
Timeline: Begins 3 years after 513. AU in which shortly after 513 Brian goes to San Francisco where he meets Justin
Warning: AU Brian and Justin meet post 513, but all other canon events and characters remain the same
Summary: Love can bring great joy and great pain. Sometimes it’s easier to forget the pain.
Author’s Notes: Thank you to zortrana for her wonderful beta work. Title taken from the Barenaked Ladies song "Vanishing".
It wasn’t until the doctor came into the waiting room, and Brian tried to stand that realized how long he’d been sitting there. Brian hadn’t moved since the nurse forced him from Justin and led him to the surgical waiting room. He hadn’t bothered to wash the blood, Justin’s blood, from his hands or face. He’d barely noticed when Craig arrived, and hadn’t responded to the tirade Craig began about Brian encouraging Justin’s "disgusting lifestyle" once he realized exactly what Brian was doing there. He’d given a statement to the police, but otherwise he’d simply sat, motionless and silent, waiting.
"How is my son?" Craig demanded as soon as the doctor arrived.
"We did what we could to relieve the pressure on his brain, but the swelling isn’t going down." The doctor shook his head, "I’m afraid his condition is extremely critical. He barely survived the surgery, and barring a miracle, I don’t expect him to survive more than a few hours. I’m very sorry, but there isn’t anything else we can do. If there is anyone you want to call, you should do it now."
"His mother and sister are in Europe and can’t make it back until tomorrow. There’s no one else."
"I’m sorry," the doctor said again. "Come with me; I’ll take you to him."
Brian started to follow when Craig stopped and pointed at him. "Not him. He’s not family, and I don’t want that pervert anywhere near my son."
The doctor looked at Brian sympathetically, but nodded. He’d probably witness this same scene more times than he could count. Brian watched Craig leave with the doctor, and then he started walking. He walked out of the hospital and kept going until he found a cab. Apparently cab drivers were used to picking up all kinds of strange people outside the hospital because this one didn’t even blink at Brian’s bloodstained clothes. Brian’s car was the only one left on the bottom floor of the parking garage. The only sign of what had happened was a scrap of police tape fluttering from a pillar. Brian ignored it as he checked to see if his keys were still in the ignition. They were.
Brian had no destination in mind when he left the parking garage. He just knew he needed to get away. Away from the hospital where Justin was dying without him, away from the apartment Justin had all but moved into, and away from the hotel room they’d been sharing for the last few days before Brian returned to Pittsburgh for good. He drove for hours crisscrossing the city twice and finding parts of San Francisco he’d never seen in the years he’d been there.
At one point he looked at the clock, and he realized Justin was probably gone. He closed his eyes for a minute, and fought against that knowledge.
He opened them to a loud buzzing that wasn’t his alarm as he’d expected, but his horn. Brian had no idea how he’d come to be driving. He watched in confusion as people scrambled around his car which had apparently hit a streetlight. His airbag had deployed and there was blood dripping into his left eye. "Fuck," he muttered as a cop knocked on his window and asked if he was okay.
It was several hours before Brian made it back to his hotel room. The cut above his eye had needed stitches, and the doctors had wanted to observe him for a few hours since the minor concussion he’d sustained couldn’t explain his loss of consciousness or the fact that his last clear memory was from three days ago. In the end, they chalked it up to the mysteries of the brain and sent him on his way with a list of symptoms to look out for. Based on the rumpled tux Brian hoped he could get the blood out of and the fact he had still been out at four in the morning, Brian figured he’d forgotten one hell of a party. Once he got back, he collapsed on his bed and slept for almost twelve hours.
Brian woke up with a headache less than twenty four hours before his plane was leaving. He had started on a list of things he needed to do when he noticed the message light blinking on his phone. The call had come in last night when he was still in the hospital and was from Craig Taylor demanding that Brian call him back. Brian swore under his breath as he tried to figure out what Craig wanted. Craig had been his first big client in San Francisco and had brought him a lot of business. But he was also a homophobic prick and a pain in the ass. Brian was more than happy to hand him over to Chad, the new senior partner of Kinnetik’s San Francisco office.
"Craig, it’s Brian Kinney," Brian began as soon as he picked up the phone.
"Brian, I’ve been expecting your call." Craig interrupted him.
Craig sounded pissed which probably meant a lot of soothing his ruffled feathers. Something Brian never enjoyed. "Sorry it took me so long to return your call, but I was in a car accident last night, and I just got your message."
"An accident? I hope you weren’t seriously hurt." Craig sounded more curious than concerned.
"Just a minor concussion. Unfortunately my memory of the last few days is a bit fuzzy. Was there something I needed to do for you before I leave?" Brian hated admitted any weakness to Craig, but he wasn’t up to bullshitting his way through the conversation.
“That must be very frightening losing some of your memories. Does the doctor expect them to return?”
“Not really so now is the time to hit me up for something good,” Brian tried to joke. He found Craig’s interest in his injury odd.
"Now Brian, I would never take advantage of you like that. I just wanted to wish you a safe trip home and thank you for all the hard work you’ve put in on my behalf. I’m glad you weren’t more seriously hurt. People tend to forget how dangerous the roads are here even natives. My son was in an accident recently as well. Luckily it was also minor, but I don’t believe you ever met him."
Brian pinched the bridge of his nose as his headache worsened. "No, I don’t believe so. I met your daughter Molly, but not your son. She’s in Europe with her mother right?"
"Yes, quite a summer she’s having. I’ll let you go, Brian. I’m sure you have a lot to do before you go."
"It’s been a pleasure working with you Craig. I know Chad will take excellent care of you, but don’t hesitate to contact me personally if you ever have a problem." Brian made an effort to sound sincere.
"Thank you for the offer, but I’m sure it won’t be necessary." Craig hung up without another word leaving Brian wondering what exactly the whole conversation has been about.
Michael met Brian at baggage claim. Brian had shipped everything except his carry on bag, but it was one of the few places in the airport that was still accessible to the public. "Brian," Michael greeted him with a huge smile and a long hug. "I can’t believe you’re finally home."
"I was just here last month," Brian protested, but he made no move to break the hug.
“Visits aren’t the same. You’ve been gone for forever,” Michael dragged the last word out.
Brian nodded as they headed out to the parking lot. Sometimes it had felt that way to him as well. The year he thought he’d need to set up Kinnetik’s new office had turned into almost three. He never expected to miss Pittsburgh, but he had. “You brought it,” Brian shot Michael a grateful look when he spotted the Corvette.
“Of course I did,” Michael grinned proudly.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you’ll have to drive.” Brian threw his bag in the small trunk before settling into the passenger seat.
“Hey, I took good care of it,” Michael protested automatically.
“Just promise me you didn’t let Hunter anywhere near it,” Brian shuddered as he remembered the condition Michael and Hunter had left the car in after their grand adventure.
“Don’t worry; I kept your baby safe. Safer than the car you had in San Francisco. I can’t believe you wrecked it two days before coming home.”
“That was one way to let me know I overstayed my welcome.” Brian winced as he felt a headache start like one did every time he thought about the accident.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Michael shot him a concerned glance.
“I’m fine just tired. We’ll just leave Babylon for another night.” Brian leaned back and closed his eyes. He was asleep before they left the parking lot.
It took Brian a week to notice something was different about the office. He blamed the delay on being overwhelmed by paperwork and clients since his return. But it had more to do with the restlessness he hadn’t been able to shake. He was happy to be back, but he couldn’t help feeling like something was wrong, or more accurately, missing. He was trying to correct hopelessly pathetic copy when he realized there were two new paintings in his office. A quick tour of the building revealed two more, one in the conference room and one in the lobby.
“Cynthia,” Brian bellowed on the way back to his office.
“Yeah, boss?” Cynthia came in right behind him.
“Who the fuck decided it would be a good idea to redecorate in my absence?” Brian scowled when she stared at him in apparent confusion. Blowing out a frustrated breath, he pointed to one of the paintings. “Where did these come from?”
“San Francisco,” Cynthia finally answered. “You had them shipped here with detailed instructions as to where you wanted them. Do you want them moved?”
“No, they’re fine.” The anger faded quickly leaving Brian feeling drained and embarrassed at having to admit to weakness. Only Ted and Cynthia knew about the memory loss after his accident, but he would rather no one had to know. “I must have been power shopping before I came home. Maybe it will all come back to me when I get my VISA bill.”
Cynthia smiled, accepting the joke for the apology it was. “There’s one for your loft I put in storage. I thought you would want to get settled before putting it up. Anything else?”
Brian shook his head, “That’s all. Hey Cynthia,” he called her back just before she reached the door. “Have the painting delivered this weekend.”
She nodded and headed back to her desk. She didn’t have the heart to tell him he’d sent the paintings one by one over the last year and a half.
Brian barely noticed her leaving as he studied the paintings he couldn’t remember buying. Maybe they were an impulse buy. He usually wasn’t that into art unless Lindsay was dragging him to some show. Both paintings were obviously done by the same artist, but he couldn’t make out anything that would pass for a signature. They were abstracts. Understated and elegant just like you’d expect in an office. But the more Brian looked at them, the more they seemed to suggest sex and power - the two keys to his business. It was almost as if they were made for him.
The rest of the afternoon was spent sorting through a mountain of paperwork. As busy as he was, Brian couldn’t keep his attention from wandering back to the paintings. He was still preoccupied with them and with ignoring the headache he’d been fighting all afternoon when he met Michael at Woody’s.
“What’s wrong?” Michael asked after the fifth time he had to repeat himself.
“Nothing,” Brian dismissed his concern. “I’m still getting caught up on the disaster Theodore has left me.”
Michael laughed knowing Ted loved Kinnetik almost as much as Brian did and would never leave a mess for Brian to deal with. “Did you ever think about staying in San Francisco?” Michael picked at the label on his beer bottle and refused to look at Brian.
“What, no!” Brian knew his answer was too quick and too loud so he forced himself to relax.
“It’s just you’ve been on edge ever since you came back. You seemed really happy out there, and even when you were here it was like you couldn’t wait to get back.”
“Mikey, you’re delusional.” Brian racked his brain trying to figure out why Michael thought he’d been happy in San Francisco. It had been a lot of work, and while he hadn’t been unhappy, he’d never considered staying. “Of course I’m on edge. I still have a lot of catching up to do with my clients here. Work will settle down soon. San Francisco was nice, but it’s not the gay paradise everyone thinks it is. Unfortunately when it comes to fags, quantity doesn’t mean quality. The Pitts, such as it is,” Brain couldn’t resist making a face, “is home. It always will be. I need another drink. You want one?” Brian asked signaling the end of the conversation.
Michael nodded happily accepting Brian’s reassurance and drink offer. Brian headed to the bar glad to have that conversation over with. He really didn’t know what Mikey had been thinking. Halfway to the bar, he spotted a familiar blond head in the crowd, and without thinking he took off after it.
He reached the other man grabbing his shoulder to turn him around. “Hey, J. . . ,” the name died on his lips when the face that greeted him had unfamiliar brown eyes and a too large nose. “Sorry,” Brian mumbled stepping back, “I thought you were someone else.”
The stranger smiled coyly, “I can be whoever you want me to be.”
Brian shook his head and walked away no longer sure who he even expected to find. He forced a smile for Michael who stood up as he approached the table.
“Want to play a quick game before Babylon? Where are the drinks?” Michael noticed Brian’s empty hands.
“Sorry to cut out on you, Mikey, but I have a presentation that’s not finished. I’ll catch you for breakfast at the diner.” Brain quickly left before Michael could question him further. His formerly dull headache was pounding in earnest, and he just wanted to get home.
He dreamt of another blond that night. This one had blue eyes and a perfect smile. Brian watched him across a ballroom filled with dancing couples, but Brian only had eyes for his mystery man. Brian followed him laughing into the bathroom where he pressed him against into stall and covered that smile with his mouth. He woke up hard and horny. He jerked himself off to the blond’s rapidly fading image.
Justin woke up two weeks after the accident to his mother’s tear streaked face. She was there every time he opened his eyes. She was there when the doctors explained that he sustained a serious head injury and had been in a coma for two weeks. She was there for every test they performed and for the discovery that he’d lost not only his memory of the accident, but of the two weeks leading up to it. She was there three days later when he was finally aware enough to realize someone was missing. “Brian?” he croaked in a voice still rusty from disuse and the recently removed ventilator.
Jennifer pressed her lips together and said simply, “He’s gone.”
She realized her mistake immediately and rang for the nurse as Justin began to hyperventilate. Her words immediately began running through his head and all he could think was that Brian had been killed, and no one had told him. The same accident that had injured him had killed Brian, and he hadn’t known.
As the nurse drew up the sedative, Jennifer rushed to reassure him. “Brian’s only gone to Pittsburgh, Justin. He’s fine; he wasn’t with you. He wasn’t hurt.”
Justin tried to grab onto the hope she offered him as the medication forced him to sleep. But his first word upon waking was again, “Brian.”
Jennifer sighed deeply before answering. “You don’t remember this, but you and Brian split up a week before your accident. You both decided not to continue your relationship once he returned home.”
That didn’t make sense to Justin. Nothing he remembered fit with what his mother was saying. They had plans; they were happy. Brian wouldn’t leave him. “Does he know?”
“Yes, he knows about what happened to you. Your father spoke to him before he left. He told him what happened, but Brian didn’t change his plans. He returned to Pittsburgh just like he was planning to.”
Justin shook his head. “But Dad doesn’t know.”
Jennifer interrupted him. “Your father knew about you and Brian; he just chose to ignore it. There’s no point in discussing this. It’s only going to upset you.”
“No, Brian wouldn’t leave.” His eyes pleaded with Jennifer to offer another explanation.
Frustrated Jennifer snapped, “He’s not here, is he?” She closed her eyes as Justin turned away. She’d hated saying it, but it was the truth. It was why she’d so easily accepted Craig’s version of events. If Craig was lying, where was Brian? Jennifer had always supported Justin’s openness about his sexuality even at the cost of her marriage. And she had liked Brian. She just thought he was too old for Justin and had disapproved of Justin’s plans to move to Pittsburgh. Maybe caring for Justin would be easier with Brian out of the picture, but it wasn’t her fault. Brian was already back in Pittsburgh by the time Jennifer returned from Europe.
Justin couldn’t believe what his mother had told him. Brian wouldn’t leave him. Brian loved him. Something must be wrong; something no one was telling him. He kept asking about Brian only to receive the same answer again and again. He planned to keep asking until someone told him the truth.
Then the drugs wore off enough for him to realize something was seriously wrong with his right arm and hand. He listened silently as the doctors explained about the angle and force of the blow he took. They talked about messages from the brain to muscles and about destroyed nerve synapses. They talked in circles until he finally asked if he’d be able to draw again, and they shook their heads.
That’s when it began to sink in. Brian was gone; he was fucking brain damaged, and the one thing he’d always been good at was lost to him. Once Justin began to think of himself as damaged, Brian’s absence made perfect sense.
Brian didn’t think much of the package he found waiting for him outside the loft door. The bag had the standard nonapology of “We’re sorry we lost/damaged/destroyed your package but we are not responsible and hey you got it eventually so don’t bother complaining.” Inside the bag was a battered cardboard box that looked like it had been drop kicked into a puddle. The sender’s address had been completely obliterated, and while he could barely make out the loft’s address it wasn’t his name on the package. He squinted at it and decided it was meant for either a J. Taylor or V. Togus. He didn’t recognize either name and tossed it on the counter deciding to pass it off to Cynthia. If it belonged to whoever had sublet the loft, she’d be able to track them down.
He had another dream about the blond that night. They were eating in a small restaurant not unlike the diner which might be why Brian said, “Debbie’s going to love you, you know.”
“You think so?”
“Oh yeah, one look at that ass, I mean smile, of yours and she’s a goner,” Brian teased.
The smile he got in return was almost blinding. “So the diner should be my first stop when I get to Pittsburgh?”
Brain had pulled him closer and growled “second,” before kissing him.
He couldn’t get the dream out of his head as he showered and dressed. On impulse he asked Debbie before he left the diner, “Did anyone from San Francisco ever stop here saying I sent them?”
“No that I can remember, Honey. Why?”
“There was a guy I met at a bar who was going to Pittsburgh for some kind of convention. I told him no visit to the gay Pitts was complete with out a stop at the diner and to tell you I said hello.” Brian lied smoothly.
“Still not ringing any bells. What did he look like?”
“Young, blond, blue eyes, great ass.”
Debbie laughed, “Like that narrows it down any. How about a name?”
Now it was Brian’s turn to laugh, “It wasn’t that kind of bar.”
“It never is with you, Honey, it never is.” Debbie patted him on the cheek then grabbed his chin and tilted his face up for a closer look. “You feeling alright, Brian? You look a little peeked.”
“I’m fine Deb. Just a headache.” He pulled his face away and forced a smile.
“You need to take better care of yourself. You work too hard in the office and at Babylon,” Debbie laughed again at her own joke. She kissed him quickly on the forehead before leaving to take another order.
Brian didn’t actually start questioning his sanity until the flowers arrived. He returned from a lunch meeting to find Cynthia smiling and half a dozen roses sitting on his desk. He approached them cautiously, stretching his arm out to snatch the card only to find it blank. “Cynthia,” he bellowed.
“So who was insane enough to send you flowers?” Cynthia asked not evening bother to disguise her laughter.
“Someone with enough sense not to sign the card,” he answered glaring at her. Turning the card over in his hand he realized the flowers were from H.K. Designs, one of Pittsburgh’s most well known and expensive florists as well as a long time Kinnetik client. “Call Joe at H.K. and find out who sent these. If he gives you a hard time, get Harvey on the phone directly.”
Once Cynthia left, Brian sat at his desk and studied the bouquet. Who ever sent it had good taste. Six roses just starting to bloom filled the simple vase. There was no bow, no greenery. It was as masculine as a floral arrangement can be mainly due to the color of the roses. Brian had never seen anything like them. The outer petals were a dark rust lightening to a deep gold at the center of each flower. But artistic appreciation of the flowers didn’t ease his discomfort at having received them. It was too late for Valentine’s Day, and his birthday was still months away. Brian was not the type of guy people sent flowers to. The whole idea made him uncomfortable.
Twenty minutes later, Cynthia knocked softly, and Brian tried to look like he’d been working as he called her in. The uncertain smile she gave him made him even more nervous.
“Joe pulled the order. It was a wire from a florist in San Francisco. He said the order was unusually detailed as to exactly how the flowers should look and be arranged. When he called the florist, they said their records show that this bouquet and five more for future dates were ordered at the same time. They were all paid for with your credit card. Do you want me to cancel them?”
Brian shook his head wincing at the headache that was starting. “No, it’s fine. Thanks, Cynthia.” She nodded and left thankfully before he felt the need to offer an explanation they both knew would be a lie.
Hours later, Brian slammed the door to his office and headed home. The day had been a waste and his head was pounding. He hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything, but the fucking flowers. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t think of any reason he would send himself flowers. He was starting to think he’d forgotten a lot more than the three days before his accident.
Justin spent the month after he woke up from the coma in a daze. He went through the motions of living, doing the bare minimum at physical therapy and only leaving the house when he had to. Loud noises made him cower, and he flinched whenever someone approached him. He hated being afraid, he hated being useless, and mostly he hated Chris Hobbs.
Fucking Chris Hobbs, the high school bully Justin had jerked off one afternoon in the equipment room. Chris Hobbs who had delighted in calling Justin a fairy and pushing him around. Chris Hobbs who had his college football career ended by a knee injury and his coaching job terminated because of his drinking problem. Chris Hobbs who apparently felt humiliated by working maintenance at the same university where Justin was doing his graduate work at and making a name for himself as a promising artist. Chris fucking Hobbs who decided to end Justin’s success with a bat to the head when he followed Justin from what was now his last show.
It made no more sense now then it did when Justin’s mother has finally told him the truth behind his “accident.” Mostly he tried not to think about it. It was the one thing he and his mother agreed on; there was no point in dwelling on something he was never going to remember. Claiming to be drunk at the time he attacked Justin, Chris Hobbs plead guilty to misdemeanor assault and was sentenced to a combination of community service and rehab. It was a fucking joke, but Justin couldn’t bring himself to care.
Justin never asked for details about what happened in that parking garage, and everyone agreed he was lucky to avoid the trauma of a trial. But a trial would have brought many truths to light. Without a trial, there was no need to play the 911 tape for the jury. Justin never heard Brian, the man who had supposedly already broken up with him, call for an ambulance. He never heard Brain’s voice shake as he demanded help; he didn’t hear the desperation in low-voiced pleadings Brian didn’t realize were still being recorded as he begged Justin to hang on, to open his eyes, to not leave him. Justin never heard Brian’s choked promises to stay with Justin, to be there with him if he would just hold on.
Without a trial, the paramedic who treated Justin was never asked to testify. He never described the condition Justin was in when he arrived at the scene or the steps he took to save Justin’s life. More importantly he never spoke about the man he found it easier to work around then try to separate from his patient. He didn’t talk about placing the IV in the hand Brian wasn’t holding or trying not to listen to the one-sided conversation Brian had with Justin the entire way to the hospital. Similarly, the ER nurse who met Justin in the trauma room was never asked to describe what happened when she took over Justin’s care. She didn’t testify about gently than more forcefully removing Brian from Justin’s side as the team scrambled to stabilize him. She never told anyone how she promised Brian she would take care of Justin even though she knew it was probably hopeless or how she looked the other way as he gave Justin one last kiss.
Justin never heard any of this. He came to believe his future had been killed in the parking garage even though he has survived. He was told over and over again that Brian had walked away without a second glance. When Justin looked at what he had become, he knew Brian had made the right choice.
By the time the second bouquet arrived, Brian knew something was wrong. His dreams were filled with the mysterious blond. He dreamed of being sucked off by him, of fucking him over and over again. He dreamed about pushing him against the shower wall and fucking him behind, of bending him practically in half so he could kiss him while they fucked, of holding tight to his hands while fucking him on his hands and knees, of burying his face in his long blond hair as they lay on their sides and he rocked slowly in and out of his body. He dreamed of dancing with him and licking the sweat and glitter from his skin as they ground against each other. He’d wake up with his hand on his dick and bring himself off quickly letting the rush of pleasure wash away the sense of loss the dreams always brought.
Brian tried to ignore the dreams during the day, but he couldn’t deny the affect they had on him. He hadn’t fucked another blond since the dreams started. But he caught himself scanning the crowds at Woody’s and Babylon, searching the faces along Liberty Avenue hoping to find someone who didn’t exist. He didn’t understand what was happening to him. Brian had never been interested in having a lover; one night stands and variety were more his style. So why was he dreaming of the same face night after night?
The dream that night was different. They were walking down the street together, holding hands and comfortable in a way Brian had never been with someone he’d slept with.
“Six months is a long time. You might forget about me.”
Brain snorted and looked down into blue eyes dancing with mischief. “All the shitty blow jobs I’ll be getting should guarantee I won’t forget about you.”
“I told you I’d ruin you for other men. Being a sexual prodigy has its benefits,” the blond stuck out his tongue and wiggled it suggestively. “Luckily I’m also really, really good at phone sex.”
Brian laughed and was about to whisper some lewd conversation starters when he was interrupted.
“I know! I’ll stalk you then you won’t be able to forget me.”
“I won’t forget you so don’t even think about stalking me. Besides haven’t you tried that already?”
“A few carefully orchestrated meetings do not constitute stalking. No, this is long distance stalking; it requires creativity and . . . flowers!” The blond turned and came to an abrupt stop in front of Brian.
Seeing the florist they were standing in front of, Brian held his ground when his companion tried to drag him inside. He could see this getting out of hand quickly and wanted to put a stop do it. “Under no circumstances are you to send me flowers.” He tried to sound stern, but it was difficult in the face of the blond’s enthusiasm.
“Come on Brian, it practically a law of stalking that the stalker send flowers. You can help me pick them out. I promise they will be tasteful and no sappy cards. That way you can pretend like you don’t know who they’re from.”
Before he could protest again, Brian was pulled into the showroom.
Brian woke with a gasp. No desire accompanied this dream. Only a deep sense of loss he couldn’t ignore. And the realization that he had no idea who the blond was, but he recognized the street. He had walked down it many times in San Francisco, but always alone.
When Brian got to the office, he threw out the flowers. He couldn’t stand to look at them. They seemed to trigger a headache like the ones that came with thoughts of San Francisco and attempts to figure out his dreams. Then he called Ted and told him he’d be doing the follow up visit to the San Francisco office that Brian had planned to handle personally.
Two months after his release from the hospital, Justin finally found a way out of his depression. He couldn’t say if it was anger fueled by desperation or desperation fueled by anger, but he knew things had to change. It started with his mother casually mentioning plans she was making for them to go to Europe over lunch. She said it would be good for his recuperation. Justin stared at her in disbelief as she talked about visiting the Louvre and the fountains of Venice. He got up and left without a word.
When Justin got to his room, he grabbed the first breakable thing he could find and threw at the wall. He watched in grim satisfaction as the glass shattered then sat on the bed and tried to breathe. He couldn’t understand why his mother thought a trip to Europe was a good idea. How could she think looking at great works of art that once inspired him as artist would do anything but remind him of what he’d lost? He knew she was trying to help, but Jennifer wanted a quick fix. She wanted Justin to put his pain and disappointment behind him and be her son again. She loved Justin, but had no idea how to treat the angry, sullen stranger he’d become. Justin felt more alone than ever.
A few hours later, his private line rang, and Justin answered quickly, grateful for the interruption. He was shocked to realize it was one of the Deans from the Pittsburgh Institute of Fine Arts calling to let him know they had an opening in the faculty housing available near campus if he was interested. Justin accepted the offer and hung up before he could change his mind. He could feel his heart pounding with fear and excitement. He should have told the Dean the truth. That if asked today he couldn’t reproduce a single picture from his portfolio, that he couldn’t hold a paintbrush for more than a few minutes without his hand shaking and cramping, that he’d never be the artist he once was. But Justin hadn’t said any of that.
Classes didn’t start until October. That gave him over six months to figure out if he could handle the job. He remembered that as a new professor a large part of his schedule would the graphics classes the older faculty members looked down on. Btu Justin could handle those. He remembered wanting to get into animation in high school. Maybe his therapist telling him he could find new ways to be an artist wasn’t complete bullshit. Finding a new job might be impossible, but since PIFA had already hired him, they would be inclined to give him a chance before firing him. He would find a way to make this work.
Justin held the knowledge that he just might have a future close to him as though he were protecting it. He didn’t know why his mother hadn’t called PIFA and told them he could no longer accept their position. She’d been against the idea since he told her he’d gotten the job making it clear that she thought that moving across the country to be with Brian was a mistake. Maybe she had just forgotten about it in the chaos that followed his injury. Justin knew he wasn’t going to remind her any time soon.
Justin threw himself into his physical therapy, but didn’t tell his therapist what was behind his new found dedication. Patient confidentially be damned, Jennifer could be a bully when she wanted to be, and Justin wasn’t taking any chances. He also finally started seeing the psychologist they’d been pushing at him. He hated the idea of counseling, but he couldn’t be much of a professor if he was scared of his own shadow.
PIFA was Justin’s brass ring; he was going to reach it even if it killed him. One night after a shaky therapy session, he found himself thinking about Brian’s reaction to Justin’s job. They had met for dinner at one of Brian’s favorite restaurant, and Justin was having a hard time hiding his excitement.
“Jesus Christ, Justin tell me whatever you have to tell me before your fidgeting makes me nervous,” Brian had griped good naturedly.
“Well, you know I’ll be done with my graduate work soon. I finally figured out what I’m going to do next.”
“Thank God for that,” Brian teased him. He never understood Justin’s concerns about finding a job after he finished his Masters. He wondered why Justin didn’t use his trust to support himself until he became established in the art world. But as Justin had explained to Brian, he needed to be around people. Given a chance he’d lock himself away in his studio and go mad. He had really enjoyed working with other artists while finishing his degree. Both the advanced instruction he received and the insight teaching the introductory classes had given him had help him grow as an artist.
“You are looking at the newest professor at the Pittsburgh Institute of Fine Arts.” Justin smiled brightly to hide his nerves. He and Brian had already discussed continuing their relationship once Brian returned to Pittsburgh, and how it made more sense for Justin to relocate. But they had never discussed specifics.
“Justin are you sure this is what you want? Pittsburgh isn’t San Francisco. You’ve already had some successful shows here. You’d be giving up some great opportunities.” Brian reached for Justin’s hand and squeezed it taking some of the sting out of his words.
“Pittsburgh is close to New York, and PIFA has a national reputation. I’ll be able to make a lot of contacts working there. I don’t want a long distance relationship; I thought you felt the same way.” Justin pushed back the momentary fear that he’d misjudged Brian. He fought the need for reassurance that Brian had been telling the truth when he said he wanted the changes he’d made in his life in San Francisco to be permanent. That he meant it when he said he wanted their relationship to continue, and he’d had enough of being the “Stud of Liberty Avenue.”
“You know what I want, Justin. I think I’ve made that very clear, but I don’t want you sacrificing your future to be with me.”
Justin let the relief flood his body. He’d knew Brian well enough to realize he had an often misplaced sense of nobility even if Brian would never admit it. He didn’t need any the dramatic self-sacrificing gestures Brain made for Michael and Lindsay. Everything was going to be fine.
Looking back at that night, Justin wondered if Brian was already lying to him. He couldn’t quite bring himself to believe his mother’s story that he and Brian had broken up prior to his accident. The timing fell too conveniently in the short period he couldn’t remember, and nothing in the memories he did have suggested he and Brian were having problems. More than likely, once Brian had been told that even if Justin survived, he’d be a vegetable Brian had cut his losses and left. Justin could never decide which theory hurt more.
As spring slid into summer, Brian’s dreams and headaches continued. As did his general sense of unease. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was fundamentally wrong or missing. He felt like whatever it was stayed just out of his reach, but if he just looked hard enough he could find it. Eventually, despite his best efforts to hide it Michael noticed something was wrong.
Brian was suspicious when Michael called saying Ben had a late meeting so they needed a night out. Just the two of them he promised. But Brian and Michael didn’t get to spend as much time together as they wanted to so he agreed easily. Michael not so subtly maneuvered them to a quiet table in the back of Woody’s, but it took two drinks before he could meet Brian’s eyes.
“The cancer’s back isn’t it?” he finally asked.
“What?” That hadn’t been the question he’d been expecting. “No, I’m perfectly healthy.”
“Are you sure?” Michael tried to stare him down.
“Yes, Mom, I’m sure. I had a checkup last month, and it came back clean,” Brian reassured Michael. He didn’t bothering mentioning that he’d scheduled the checkup himself just to make sure the headaches weren’t anything more serious. His oncologist had assured him he was perfectly healthy, and the headaches were probably the result of stress or worsening eyesight. Brian was not as relieved as he should have been.
“Then what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Brian hoped Michael would drop this because he didn’t have any real answers for him. He couldn’t tell him he dreamed about a blond man he’d never met night after night, that he was sending himself flowers, and making major purchases, but
he didn’t remember doing any of it.
“Something’s been wrong ever since you came back,” Michael persisted. “When you first told me you were going to San Francisco, I thought maybe you wanted to get away.”
Brian shrugged a little surprised by Mikey’s perception, but maybe it had been obvious. At the time getting out of Pittsburgh had seemed like a good idea. Brian had always been sure of who he was and what he wanted. Then suddenly in a relatively short period of time everything had changed. He’d been fired by Vance and started Kinnetik. Vic had died, and he had survived cancer. Michael had gotten fucking married, and Ted, of all people, was his closest confidante. Brian had bought Babylon, watched it blow up, and rebuilt it. Then Lindsay and Mel had taken the kids and moved to Canada. Brian looked around and no longer recognized his life. Everything had changed, everyone had moved on but him. Brian welcomed the chance to go to San Francisco and figure out who he was away from role he played in Pittsburgh. But what ever answers he’d been seeking, he hadn’t found them.
“You seemed, I don’t know, almost lost. Like you were looking for something you couldn’t find here. And you found it didn’t you? It was so obvious, especially the last year, that being out there was good for you. It was the first time I ever saw you comfortable with your life. You weren’t trying to prove something or live up to your image. You were really happy.”
“Mikey, you’re spending too much time with Ben and his yoga philosophy. If you’d visited more often you’d know I was the same person there that I’ve always been.” Michael had visited once a few months after Brian got settled. But once Brian started making regular trips back to Pittsburgh, Michael was happy to see him at home. He hated being away from Ben, and he had the store to run. “Of course I seemed happier when you saw me. Coming home was a break for the insanity of setting up the new office, and it was nice to be on home turf.”
Michael shook his head. “It was like that when I talked to you on the phone too. I’m not as clueless as I used to be Brian. I know you better than anyone. So what happened?”
“Nothing happened. Drop it, Mikey,” the last was a warning.
“Then why won’t you go back? Why has Ted been to San Francisco twice instead of you?”
“I’m not going to justify my business decisions to you. Look Mikey, I don’t have time for this conversation. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Brian threw some money on the table and left.
Later that night, settled in his bed with a joint Brian knew he had overreacted. But something about Michael’s questions had bothered him, and not surprisingly started another headache. Brian blew out a mouthful of smoke and turned his attention to the picture that dominated the opposite wall.
He been fascinated by the picture from the moment he unpacked it. He might not remember buying it, but he could see why he had. It was larger than the ones in the office, but clearly by the same artist. Various shades of deep blues dominated the piece only to be broken up by hints of grey and white. At first he thought it was just another abstract one that reminded him of views from the ocean where the camera was looking up to the surface. But that all changed once he mounted it.
Brian had been surprised to find the handwritten instructions on how to hang it in the crate. The note had been very detailed especially in regards to lighting. Brian assumed someone from the gallery had included the note. He had been tempted to ignore the instructions as they required some minor renovations to his bedroom that he wasn’t sure he wanted to make. But underneath the neatly printed instructions had been a hastily scrawled “Trust Me!” There was something personal about those two words that made Brian listen to them.
It had taken a few days to get everything ready. Once Brian saw the painting under the lights, he could see beyond the colors. When he looked closely, the outline of two men became visible. They were lying together on their sides, legs entwined and faces turned for a kiss. It was such a beautiful image and filled Brian with such peace that he spent more time looking at that then anyone would believe.
He’d asked Michael once what he saw in the painting. Michael had looked at him uncertainly before answering, “Um, a lot of blue I guess.”
Brian wondered if it was one of those images you could only see if you knew it was there. But if Brian didn’t remember buying the painting, how did he know what to look for?
Brian dreamt of walking with the blond in a parking garage. They were wearing tuxedos and laughing. Brian turned to the other man. “You were amazing; you blew them away.”
“Did you see their faces?” he asked Brian smiling. “I have a few things to finish up, but I’ll meet you back at the hotel.
Brian nodded and pulled him in for a kiss. “Don’t be long. We have a lot of celebrating to do. This will be a night you’ll never forget.”
They reached Brian’s car, and Brian leaned against the door settling the blond against him. He was kissed again then asked, “So this is going to be the best night of my life?”
Brian laughed in response. “Ridiculously romantic,” he whispered against the blond’s lips before kissing him one last time. “Later,” he breathed reluctantly pushing him away.
“Later,” the blond echoed back licking his lips in promise.
Brian got in the car and watched him walk away in the side mirror. He opened his mouth to say something, and woke up with his heart pounding. “Jesus,” he whispered in the darkness of his room trying to shake some unknown fear. He hated dreams like this. They didn’t fade like the dreams of sex did. These were so real he woke up confused and questioning just what was reality. The more dreams he had the more questions he was left with. The answers he got two days later made him wish he’d never questioned anything.
Brian dragged himself into the loft after another long day and reluctantly hit play on his answering machine. Michael had been calling frequently since Brian had stormed out of Woody’s, and he expected another inquiry into his well being. He was startled to hear an unfamiliar voice fill the room.
“Hello, this is Margaret Kovach from PIFA calling for Justin Taylor. I hope I have the right number. His San Francisco number has been disconnected, and he listed this as a local contact. If you could please ask Justin to call my office, I just need to fill in a few blanks on his employment file. Thank you.”
It was a wrong number. It had to be a mistake. He didn’t know a Justin Taylor. He didn’t know a Justin Taylor. Brian repeated the words to himself like a mantra even though he knew instinctively they were untrue. The message felt right in a way nothing had for a long time. He walked blindly into the bedroom and stood in front of his painting. If he looked closely he could see initials painted into the bottom right corner: J.T. J. T. Justin Taylor. Justin Taylor J. Taylor. The combinations swam in front of his eyes.
Brian ran back to the phone and quickly dialed Cynthia’s cell number. “Cynthia, what happened to that box? The one I said was delivered to the loft by mistake?”
“Brian is that you?” Cynthia asked confused by the abrupt question.
“Cynthia, the box I brought you from the loft, where is it?” he repeated more urgently.
“I couldn’t track down the addressee so it’s in storage at the office. Why?”
“I need it brought to the loft now. If there’s no one left at the office, get someone there. I need it delivered immediately. Do you understand?”
Brian disconnected the call before she could ask any questions. He spent the next forty-five minutes pacing the loft and trying not to think about what was in that box, trying not to think about what the message meant. He didn’t say a word to the junior executive who showed up at the loft. He just took the box and shut the door.
It was another five minutes before he could bring himself to open the box. He expected the contents to be damaged, but everything appeared to have been surrounded by bubble wrap. He pulled the top layer aside and reached for a letter addressed simply to “Brian.” He opened it with shaking hands.
If I timed everything right, this box was waiting for you when you got home. That’s why it’s addressed to me by the way. I wasn’t sure if your mail was being forwarded or held somewhere. Step one in my stalking plan is now complete! Come on, you had to know there would be more than just flowers.
So I’ve sent along some things to make you think of me and remember how much you love me. I know you’ve never actually said it but I’m an artist. I see it when you look at me. I can hear you now “I don’t believe in love, Justin. I believe in fucking.” I hope you can hear me laughing just like I did the first time you told me that. Sometimes you are so full of shit. Anyway even if you didn’t believe in love it would still exist. We love each other whether you choose to believe in it or not. After all I don’t believe in right wing republicans or clowns, but sadly they still exist.
If you are thinking this is going to be a long six months you are right. Luckily we’ve more or less perfected our phone sex techniques so I’m expecting a call as soon as you’re done with this. And I’m sure you’ll find a few reasons to drop in on the San Francisco office in the next few months. We’ll be fine Brian, I’m not worried.
I love you (and from all the way across the country you can’t stop me from saying it)
Words were part of Brian’s genius. He knew how to use them to his advantage. He also knew how easy it was to misinterpret the written word. We are trained from birth to respond to other clues like facial expressions and tone of voice. That was why the letters Lindsay sent to keep him updated on Gus came off stiff and formal instead of chatty and friendly as she intended. But this letter was full of intimacy and conversations held so often they hardly needed to be said. The closeness the letter revealed made Brian uncomfortable.
The next thing he pulled out of the box was a thick envelope marked “Pictures.” He quickly set it aside. He wasn’t ready for what he was afraid he would find there, of what he knew he would find.
Brian frowned at the paint-stained T-shirt he found. There was a note attached.
This is where I confess to stealing one of your T-shirts when we packed up the apartment. I wanted a pair of your sweatpants because there is nothing sexier than you walking around in nothing but those grey pants. They hang so low on your hips I know right away you aren’t wearing underwear. Such a blatant invitation to suck you off. I never once refused. But I was afraid I’d trip over the ends and kill myself so I took one of your plain white shirts instead. You know I love your James Dean look. I think I’ll be sleeping in it and wearing it when I jerk off thinking of you.
Anyway, I thought it was only fair to send you a replacement. This is one of my painting shirts. You know the ones you loved taking off of me.
Brian wanted to smell the shirt, wanted to look at it long enough to remember what it looked like on someone. But he was too afraid of what he would see.
The last thing in the box was a small leather portfolio only big enough to hold 8x10s. When he opened it, the first thing he found was another letter.
I thought in addition to stalking you, I should try to win over your family. That way when I show up they will be predisposed to liking me. I’m starting with the two toughest ones, but there will be more to follow.
The first picture is for Gus. I modeled him after the last photo Lindsay sent you. If you find out he hates dinosaurs now just burn it. But assuming he still likes them, give it to him the next time you see him. Then maybe when he meets me I’ll be the cool guy who drew the dinosaur picture instead of some geeky guy his dad picked up.
Brian reached into the portfolio and pulled out a drawing of Gus riding a large green dinosaur. There were other dinosaurs in the background and even flying in the sky. The detail was amazing. Gus would love it.
Michael’s going to hate me no matter what. I know that, but I still have to try. I don’t blame him. Daphne will probably hate you at least a little bit when she meets you unless she is completely blinded by your sex appeal which is a definite possibility. But no matter how happy Michael is with Ben, I’m sure there is still a little part of him that still thinks you two will end up together. I’m going to totally fuck that up. So maybe don’t mention who it’s from at first, and we can use as a surprise when he realizes I’m here to stay. I thought he could hang it at the store.
The next picture was filled with comic book heroes. They were changed just enough not to violate copyright laws, but still be clearly recognizable, especially Captain Astro in the center. Along the bottom large letters proclaimed “Superheroes Live Here.” Brian could easily picture it in the front window of Michael’s store.
The last one is for you, obviously. You’ll know why as soon as you see it. I just wanted something to remind you of, well, of everything.
Brian did not want to look at the last picture, but he had to. Instead of removing it like he had the others, he turned the pages slowly until he reached it. It was a sketch of the image in his painting. But here the image was clearer, the figures more detailed. He quickly shut the portfolio before he could look at the faces.
He couldn’t deny it even though he wanted to. The message hadn’t been a mistake. He and Justin Taylor knew each other. Very well it appeared. But somehow, Brian had no memory of Justin. He couldn’t possibly have met him and become this close to him in the three days before his accident.
Brian reached for the pictures. He knew once he opened them it was over. He would have to admit what he already suspected. He would have to acknowledge who Justin was. He closed his eyes and spread the pictures out over the table. There were ten of them. When he opened his eyes, the blond from his dreams was looking at him from every picture just like he’d known he would be.
A few of the pictures were of the blond, Justin, Brian corrected himself, alone. He was smiling, flirting with whoever was taking the picture. Brian imagined he was most likely the photographer. The others were of them together. There were pictures of them kissing, of them dancing, of them laughing at a bar. They were always touching, always looking at each other, always happy.
Brian suddenly knew how the dream he had the other night ended. He watched Justin walk away in the side mirror until someone else came into view. He yelled to warn Justin, he ran to him, but he was too late. He hadn’t been able to stop some closet case high school bully from taking a bat to Justin’s head. He remembered seeing Justin hit the ground; he remembered the blood. Brian remembered every second he spent begging Justin to live. He remembered every moment of holding on to Justin as tightly as he could as though he could keep him alive through sheer force of will. Brian remembered the realization that Justin would die without him and even more profoundly, he remembered the moment he knew Justin was gone. Those were Brian’s first memories of Justin. He ran to the bathroom and threw up.
When he came back out, he carefully packed everything back into the box and stuck in the back of his closet. He remembered everything. It wasn’t like every memory came to him individually; he just knew they were there. The restlessness was gone only to be replaced with crushing sadness. He’d drive his car into a hundred streetlights if he could forget again.
Brian found a mostly empty bottle of scotch. He drained it quickly and threw it against the wall where it shattered with a satisfying crash. He grabbed the first full bottle he could find and the one picture of Justin he hadn’t packed away and took them into the bedroom. He drank until all he saw when he looked at he painting was a whole hell of a lot of blue. Then he kept drinking.