Warning: There is a scene in the following chapter which may be considered “sacrilegious” or even may be thought of by some as “desecration.” If you have a strong belief that the places and stuff of religious institutions should be held sacrosanct, I strongly encourage you to not upset yourself, and just skip this one.
“Hey, Brian,” Melanie greeted, holding the door open with one hand while the other clasped the baby against her shoulder. “Come on in. Is Lindsey expecting you?”
Brian shook his head, noting Melanie’s subdued look. “Is she here?”
“She’s getting out of the shower. Gus is having breakfast. I’d offer you a bagel…”
“No, thanks,” Brian returned, heading into the kitchen.
“How ‘bout coffee, then?” Melanie asked, following him in.
“Daddy!” Gus yelled, pounding his spoon against the table, sending oatmeal flying.
“Gus…” Melanie started, but Brian had already crossed the room and plucked the boy out of his seat, holding him up against his chest.
“Not a fan of oatmeal, sonny boy?” He smiled at his son as Melanie watched. She thought the smile was a bit sad. Or maybe she was just projecting her own feelings. She had felt pretty down lately. The doctor had told her it was perfectly natural, post-partum. Lord knows she’d been all over the place with the hormones during the pregnancy. Her original instinct resisting the idea of getting pregnant had been spot on; it had really done a number on her. She glanced down at the baby in her arms. All worth it, she thought. Now, just getting through these damn blues…
“I think he takes after his father,” Melanie observed, dryly, in an effort to distract herself, and a half-hearted attempt at being her old self. Not that she was sure of who, exactly, she wanted to return to being. “Finicky eater. He’ll only eat the apples and cinnamon oatmeal, not the plain, not the brown sugar and maple. Guess he’s got the same highly developed taste.”
Brian glanced over. “You okay, Mel?”
She twisted her lips. “Yeah, I know, I’m not coming out swinging with the obvious gut shots. Quite a change, huh? Just, not enough energy.”
“Don’t worry, slugger,” Brian returned, “give yourself a year or two, and you’ll be ripping me a new one all over again.”
“Ripping new one!” Gus echoed.
Brian raised his eyebrows, looked down at his son. “Do you repeat everything?”
“Everything!” Gus agreed.
Melanie laughed. “Yeah, seriously, no swearing around the kid anymore!”
“Shit!” Gus yelled.
Brian sucked his lips between his teeth, bit down on them to stop himself from laughing. “Oh? We learn this the hard way?”
“Yes, indeed,” Lindsey answered, coming into the kitchen, raking her fingers through her still-damp hair. “Mommy messed up.” She took Gus from Brian, kissing the latter on the cheek before putting Gus back into his seat and handing him the spoon. “Finish your oatmeal, Gus,” she ordered. “How you doing, Brian? What brings you by? Is Justin okay?”
Why did everyone always assume it was about Justin? Brian wondered, considering how to tell Lindsey about his mother. “I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to take Gus tomorrow …” he started, hedging over the real issue.
“Damn it, Brian, you promised!” Lindsey said, raising her voice.
“Damn it!” Gus echoed, beating his spoon. Melanie moved to the chair next to Gus, and picked the spoon out of his fist, surreptitiously eyeing the two across the table, squaring off. She was staying out of that. Hadn’t she learned the hard way? When Lindsey told her that Brian had encouraged her to leave right after Jennie was born, Mel had at first been furious; a whole new (or old, depending on how one looked at it) reason to fight had been spawned.
But then, somewhere in the middle of one of her and Lindsey’s blow outs, she realized she was too tired to fight. Who had the energy for it? It was a huge waste of time. Literally in mid-shout, she’d stopped, and unconsciously echoed Lindsey’s own statement from a few months before. “I can’t do this anymore, Linds. Fuck Brian. He’s got his own problems. You’re the one listening to him. That’s the problem. You always listen to him. You never listen to me.”
“That’s because you always just criticize me,” Lindsey had returned, suddenly put off the fight herself by the unexpectedly level tone of her wife. “You always want everything your way, you’re never willing to accommodate what I need too. It’s always all about you… you’re just like him.”
“What?” Mel had not been expecting that.
“You have your ideas about how you want to live, and no one gets in the way of that. You’re just like Brian. Look at what happened when his life got disrupted by Justin’s needs. Look how he solved that.”
“They seem to be getting along just fine.”
“Sure, now. But you blame Justin for running off on him over and over? And look what he had to do when he came back, he practically rolled over for him.”
“He wasn’t running off this last time, he was fulfilling his career goals.”
“Oh, sure,” Lindsey scoffed. “But Brian pulled that door wide open by never trying to compromise, by never trying to talk to Justin about his needs, where he was coming from.”
Mel did not want to talk about Justin and Brian. She wanted to discuss Lindsey. “You ever consider that Brian has his own agenda when he told you to leave me?”
“He had a hellish childhood. First sign of trouble, he checks out, and pulls the door wide open for an exit out. Lindsey, come on, consider the source. And I may make all this about me, but baby, I was fighting you for us, all the way. I wasn’t fighting you to keep my own private sense of self intact, with you on the outside. I was fighting you to try to keep intact my sense of us. Maybe I need to revise that, but I’m trying, I’m begging you to tell me what the hell is going on with you so I can at least see where we might be able to go from here.”
Lindsey had stopped then, and frowned. Then she started to smile. “We’re really nothing like them, are we? I mean, are we really comparing ourselves to two emotionally fucked gay men?”
“I think we may be too close to being able to,” Melanie conceded, twisting her lips in reply.
“Let’s not then. Maybe what you just said is the problem.”
“What’d I just say?”
“You were fighting for your sense of us. Do we really know who ‘we’ are anymore?”
Melanie sighed. “I thought I did… but that whole Sam thing changed my vision of you, which changes my vision of us. I just don’t know anymore…”
“So how about we skip the drama, and try therapy?”
That simple. Well, not that simple, there had been a hell of a lot of work since. Long, painful work, with two demanding children. But it was in therapy that it had first been suggested that Melanie may be suffering from post-partum depression.
Was that fight the moment they had started to work together, begin to get back together?
They still had a ways to go. Now, Melanie kept her mouth shut when she watched these two. Her fight wasn’t with Brian, she knew that now. Her fight was with Lindsey, and the fact that her wife had a thing for guys, a thing Melanie had been forced to acknowledge since the Sam debacle. She had been unwilling to acknowledge that before, and had instead cast her hostility onto Brian, so she could allow herself the luxury of believing there was no real trouble with the way she saw Lindsey. It was better that she admit it, though, if only to herself. She hated this part of Lindsey. It threatened everything she believed in. Who was it who said, familiarity breeds contempt? She sure as hell didn’t want that to be their fate. They had a lot still to work on.
But she had stopped brow-beating Brian. He had chalked it up to her baby blues. Whatever, she thought. She sure as hell didn’t want him to know the real reason. Although Lindsey would probably spill her guts to him about it at some point. Mel hoped Lindsey would be too embarrassed to admit her thing for guys was really a thing for Brian, at least too embarrassed to admit it to the guy at the heart of the whole issue. But Mel just didn’t know anymore.
“My mother died, the funeral’s this Saturday. Claire’s insisting on a wake, so Friday’s out too.”
Silence. “Oh, Brian, I’m so sorry,” Melanie murmured, secretly glad at the look of shame that spread over Lindsey’s face at her asshole response before she had even given him a chance to explain. There was a lot of resentment in Lindsey, bottled up under that cool, perfect exterior. Melanie had only begun to see it, and had screamed, as was her way, from the moment she had caught a glimpse, from the moment she had learned about Auerbach. Lindsey kept it all in, hidden away, even from herself. It was that last bit that scared Melanie the most.
“Yeah, thanks,” he replied, offhand, not sounding upset at all.
“Are you okay?” Lindsey asked, carefully, watching him.
“You know I’d much rather hang out with Gus,” Brian said, placing his hand on his son’s head. Gus grinned up at him.
“When’s the funeral?” Lindsey asked.
“Saturday. You don’t have to come.”
“Don’t be silly,” Melanie replied. “Of course Lindsey should go.”
Lindsey looked over at her, her eyes softening, and mouthed silently, “Thank you.”
Mel nodded back. “Do you want Gus there, Brian?”
That startled Lindsey. Gus hadn’t been at Jack’s funeral; Brian hadn’t wanted him there, too many questions from family, and she just assumed he wouldn’t want Gus there now, either.
“Claire knows about him,” Brian said, almost off-hand. “I wrote up the obit with the correct number of Joan’s grandchildren. It’s bound to raise questions.”
Lindsey blinked. More surprises. It was almost as if… almost as if she didn’t know him anymore, but no, that was ridiculous. She shook her head, and Brian took note. “If you don’t think he should be there, then he shouldn’t.”
Lindsey gazed levelly at him. “What do you think would be best?”
That took him by surprise. Where Gus was concerned, he had not had much input. But since he had started taking care of the child, especially during the more turbulent moments, days, of Lindsey and Mel’s breakup, reunion, whatever it was, he had been deferred to on a regular basis. “I think it might be best if I field questions about Gus before he’s presented. Suddenly having him at the center of attention… it might be overwhelming for him. Not an appropriate forum for introduction.” He reached out, took Gus’s little hand. “How you doing, little man?”
“Up Daddy!” Gus held his arms up, and Brian picked him up easily.
Lindsey looked over at Melanie, who smiled back. Wow, Brian thinking outside the rarified atmosphere in the two feet around himself. Melanie was impressed. “I’ll watch him and Jennie on Saturday. You won’t mind if I don’t go,” she said. The last was not a question.
“I wish I didn’t have to go, I wouldn’t curse anyone with this, not even you, Mel.” He looked over, around the little hand that was attached to his nose, and Melanie couldn’t help but laugh. Thank god, a dig, a small one, but the familiar tone was a welcome relief.
Justin got into the Corvette and buckled himself in, as Brian tore away from the curb, spinning the wheel at the same time so that the back of the car spun out, turning them completely around, before Brian’s foot hit the gas and they accelerated up to 50 in seconds.
“Jesus, slow down!” Justin gasped. “The city speed limit’s 30!”
And there it was - his own little public service announcement with him at all times. He was wondering when one would pop up – it had been while. He glanced over to the pasty cast of Justin’s cheek, and smiled. “I just adore the look on your face when I do that,” he teased. “You know I’m in complete control…”
“Hmph,” Justin grunted, glaring at him. “Yeah, I remind myself of that every time you freak me out.”
“So what, reminders daily?”
“At least,” Justin conceded. He stared at Brian’s profile. “But it isn’t just me that prompted that little display of power, as much as I love your flattery.”
“That it’s all about me.”
“Do I have to keep reminding you? it’s all about *me.*”
“You’re nervous, aren’t you? You always get aggressive when you’re nervous.” Justin continued, ignoring that last bit. “Well, more aggressive than usual.”
Brian’s turn to glare. “Nervous. About this? Claire and a couple of priests? If those guys give you the shakes, just remember Father Tom on all fours. You know, I bet you could have him this afternoon, if you wanted…”
“Yeah. I doubt that. Father Tom’s not the problem, it’s Claire. Your sister makes me really nervous, even if you got her locked away in the cooler that is your brain,” Justin continued. He knew better than to ask Brian directly if he was angry at him for Claire’s little visit the day before. He still could not figure out why Brian had given in; he knew it wasn’t just because of what he, Justin, had said.
Brian looked over, really looked at him, assessing. “Do you not want to do this with me?” he asked.
“No! I do! It’s just… I don’t get her. She freaks me out.”
Brian laughed at that, and looked back at the road.
“I’m not kidding! First she tells you she loves your mother and out of respect, you’re not to bring me to this thing. Then she comes to see me herself, and tells me she hated her mother, and that she’s wondered about me, and actually gives me enough credit to be able to get through to you, after suggesting that she’s actually okay with the idea that we actually love each other…”
“Did she say that?” Brian turned onto the main artery that would take them across town.
“Not in so many words…”
“Nope, just enough to suggest what you might want to hear. You’re her tool, Justin. Everyone’s a tool to her. Let me tell you about my sister, she is a real piece of work. She worshipped my Dad; in fact, her temperament is almost exactly like his, totally self-serving and right out there. My mother may have been a bitch on wheels, but at least she was consistent. With my dad, and with Claire, you never know. Her temper suits what she wants at the moment. You can’t believe anything they say.” He glanced over at Justin, whose mouth had dropped open.
“I just figured…”
“I just thought she was really upset that first time. She seemed so sincere yesterday.”
“The excessive crying, telling people what they want to hear… you think I didn’t know about that red dress? I figured it out about twenty minutes after I took off. In fact, I bet she actually went out and bought that thing herself, knowing I wouldn’t be able to resist dressing our mother up in Satan’s color.”
Justin stared at him. “Surely she wouldn’t go that far…”
Brian bit back a laugh at what sounded so endearingly naïve to him. He knew Justin wouldn’t appreciate his amusement. “I just haven’t been around Claire enough lately to clue in immediately. But her little visit to you behind my back brought it all back.” He hesitated, but added, “I’ve actually started being around *you* too much, you make me forget about things like Claire’s little tricks.”
“Thanks,” Justin acknowledged, a genuine smile gracing his lips. He reached out and stroked Brian’s shoulder.
“It’s not a compliment,” Brian snapped as he shrugged the hand off. “You make me forget things I should remember.”
“It is a compliment. And it should make you realize, while a lot of people are shits, not everyone is. The trick to living well is figuring out who’s who, and sticking with those of us who love you.”
Brian rolled his eyes. “Anyway… Claire’s like my father. Our mother hated him. And she hated Claire because Claire was like him. I was more like her, hate to admit it, but there it is. Single minded, and fairly sharp.”
“And not a little full of himself.”
“Yeah, okay, she was a self-absorbed cunt, and so am I. Happy?”
The tone made Justin draw his head back, and he drew his lips together tightly, afraid of saying the wrong thing.
Brian glanced over at him. “I never wanted to drag you into any of my family shit.” His tone had changed yet again, tinged with regret, and softened. Justin took this as an apology.
“I can deal with it. I mean, this is tough for you, it would be for anyone, all this crap. And let me guess, your mother was moody when stressed, too…”
Lips twisted at that last. “I mean, I never wanted anyone else dragged into this. My life. I’m fucked up, okay? But it’s not just me, anyone I touch gets dragged in, they’re like emotional vampires, suck the life out of you. Claire’s visit, you think that surprised me? You asked me why I gave into her, why I turned that 180 yesterday?” At Justin’s silence, he continued, “If I didn’t go along with this, she would find a way to get to me through you. That was only the beginning, her lure of sweetness. She’d switch tactics, until one works. You were right. I need to just get this over with.”
“So… Claire’s the Borg? Resistance is futile…”
“You have to stop watching those Star Trek re-runs.”
“Maybe she’s sick. You wonder if she’s bipolar? Maybe all she needs is someone who really cares about her.”
“All she needs is love?” Brian snorted.
“It didn’t hurt you.”
Face off, Brian’s look sour, Justin’s patient. Finally, Justin gave in. “Don’t worry, Brian, I can handle her. Besides, I have you to protect me. Right?” He batted his lashes.
Brian only nodded, not sure if Justin was really kidding about that last part. Brian certainly took it seriously. He was more worried than he let on. No one “handled” Claire; that was part of the problem. She had a persecution complex, huge insecurities, and a need to control everything she came into contact with. She lied with little compunction, but the worst thing about her was that she believed her own lies; so when she told Justin “I always wondered what you were like” (yes, Brian had been standing outside the loft door for the entire conversation), she really meant, she had been interested in him since she realized he could be useful, probably somewhere around 10 a.m. that morning. But she had, actually, convinced herself that she had indeed been interested long before that morning, she had convinced herself she had been interested in Justin since becoming aware of his existence in her brother’s life years before. She believed that her interest was real and long-standing, when it was anything but. And Justin… well, Justin was a truly good person. And he’d had that innocent, idealistic part of him hurt enough by events in his life. Justin’s bones and skin were made of the same substance, there was no mask, it was all genuine. His deep structure was securely connected to what the world saw. Secure. That was the word. And Brian was damned if he was going to let anyone, himself included, ever allow that quality, the thing that made Justin move beyond attractive into truly beautiful, the thing Brian had finally figured out accounted for that dazzling glow of his partner, that genuineness (and he still couldn’t believe it, every time he thought about it, that Justin was even real, and that someone like that would be at all interested in someone like Brian, to actually really and truly love him), there was no way in hell he was going to allow that security of Justin’s spirit to be bruised as deeply as it had been, not ever again. Not if he had anything to do with it.
But all he said was, “I’ll handle Claire. All you need to think about is handling me,” and he leered across the space
Justin’s turn for the eye roll. “I know it’s part of why you never wanted to get involved with anyone. It’s not just because your history made you think people would always screw you, it’s because you never wanted to have someone you cared about that much get hurt. It’s why you always kept Michael at arm’s length, isn’t it?”
Brian looked away. They had pulled up to his mother’s house; he parked in front on the street, and cut the engine. Justin took off his seat belt, then turned his body fully against Brian, who hadn’t moved. “I’m a lot tougher than Michael and you know it. We both know we can end up abandoned and alone because people suck, and shit happens. Even Michael could, he just doesn’t know it, he’s never had anything that drastic happen to him, but it could. I am going to go through this shit with you and it’s not going to shake me. Nothing will, not anymore. You shouldn’t doubt my ability to handle not just you, but all that shit that comes with you.”
Brian kissed him, softly, a kiss that lingered, their lips touching and holding, a kiss that conveyed all of the love he deeply felt for this incredible person. Maybe one day the vocal expression of those feelings would match his use of the physical expression of them. The actual words just didn’t feel natural; he wanted so much, when (when! It had to be *when*) he said them out loud, he wanted them to sound right, not to feel alien or strange when they emerged into the air between them. He loved Justin, deeply, and those feelings deserved the homage of rightness. He just didn’t know if that kind of vocalization was possible for him. It all went back to the very shit that he was dragging Justin into.
Justin’s smile, so gentle as he pulled away. “I love you too, Brian.”
Brian reached up and stroked his cheek, for just a moment. “You ready?”
Father Steven gave Justin the serious creeps.
Claire had let them into the house, and Father Tom smiled warmly at Justin and Brian when they walked into the living room. No problem with Father Tom. He always had been quite easy to, uh, get along with. After a brief hello with Tom, Claire had introduced Father Steven. “Father Steven will actually be conducting the service.”
“Your mother was very generous with her time, and was devoted to the church. I’m moving to another church soon, but wanted to be sure to give her my last gift.”
Give her my last gift? Justin thought as he watched Brian’s hand clasped in the fat, graying priest’s hand. That’s a weird thing to say.
“And who might this be?”
“I *am* Justin,” Justin replied. Brian glanced at him on hearing the edge in Justin’s voice.
“My brother’s boyfriend,” Claire added. She smiled at Justin, who gave her a lopsided grin in return. Snake or not, she was playing charmer, and he could handle that. Brian’s glance moved to his sister, and his lips twisted.
“Oh…” Father Steven said, but reached out and shook Justin’s hand. Justin felt his palm taken in by damp, cool skin. He shivered, a very bad reaction running through him, and pulled his hand away as soon as he could. What the fuck? he thought.
“Why don’t we all sit?” Claire said. “Anyone want coffee?”
“Please,” Justin replied, desperate for something warm inside him. “Do you need help?”
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” she waved him off as she left the room.
Damn, he thought, sitting on the couch, and scooting as close to Brian as he could without appearing to be weird about it, pressing his right thigh against Brian’s left. Brian looked over, raised an eyebrow, but placed his hand behind the small of Justin’s back, open palm warm. Justin sighed and relaxed, and Brian looked over again, murmured, “You okay?” Justin nodded once, and cut his gaze over to Father Steven. Brian followed his partner’s glance, wondering what Justin’s sudden stiffness was all about. Well, there were other things to be dealt with at the moment. He could ask Justin later.
“How did my mother die, Father Steven? I understand you discovered her body?”
Father Tom opened his mouth to speak, but Father Steven cut him off. “Yes, unfortunately, so terrible. I had been in the office working, so I did not even know she was there. She must have been praying, alone in the church. No one else was there.”
“And no one else was around? Isn’t that, well, strange?” Justin asked. Maybe it wasn’t strange. He had no idea, really, why the scenario struck him that way; God knows he hadn’t been in a church since he’d been baptized as a formality as a baby. He had no idea what strange was when it came to Catholics.
“The church’s doors are open to the public at specific times during the day, Justin,” Brian said. He apparently knew the policies. Justin wondered what Brian’s religious background was, exactly, beyond “Catholic.” He’d never asked him for details. It was not exactly a hot topic.
“Yes, and Joan had access even when it wasn’t,” Father Tom said, his tone clipped. Father Steven’s eyes cut to the other priest, just for a second.
Something was up, Justin thought. He just knew. He never talked about this sort of thing with Brian, or anyone for that matter; he could imagine the response. Still, he got these weird feelings every once in a while that alerted him to currents he had no way of understanding through any logical explanation. These feelings weren’t like voices, or anything that might be put into words. It was more like a sensation, sort of like a muse. When he got the urge to draw something; he would see something in the world that caught him, as if it had sharper edges than everything else, or glowed with a light of its own. Might only be a picture in his own head, but it spoke to him. Not exactly spoke, just presented itself, strongly. Some presence that his human consciousness was too undeveloped to clearly perceive, but could sense on the outer edges of instinctual knowledge, and only came to life after he’d started working the idea out on a piece of paper, or the computer screen. That was the best he could explain these odd sensations, and he’d tried to explain them, if only to himself. There was some connection that sometimes caught him in certain situations, resonating to his heart or soul or whatever you wanted to call it, opening up the future so he could read the future as if what was coming at him had already happened. Like that Kip Thomas thing. He’d known not only that Brian was going to be okay, he’d also known that Kip would cave to pressure applied, and so he’d sought him out and applied the pressure. He had felt guided by something beyond himself, and he hadn’t been nervous for a second, even though what he was doing was nothing short of blackmail, with no logical guarantee of success. And it wasn’t just Brian situations, either, although his instincts when it came to Brian were nothing short of perfect. Well, until after his head crushing. Then, he’d been blank for a long time, nothing vibrated, everything presented as a blank surface he could not penetrate. But then, when Brian had taken on the Stockwell campaign, suddenly there was that vibration again, and he had known he needed to act. THAT was scary, but only because it had been in opposition to Brian’s wishes. And still, he’d known, that instinct was telling him, everything was going to be fine if he did what he had just known had to be done. And everything had been fine. Thank god.
Here again, looking at Father Steven, something was just… off. He glanced over at Brian, who was listening to the priest express his sorrow at finding Joan, obviously dead, lying in the center aisle of the church, cold on the cold stone floor. She’d apparently tripped, and hit her head against a pew. They already knew, the autopsy had revealed a blood alcohol level of .25. Brian removed his arm from behind Justin’s back as Claire re-entered the room and placed the coffee service on the side table, and began pouring coffee for everyone. “Thanks,” Justin murmured, leaning forward and accepting a cup.
Finally, Claire sat. “Father Steven,” she said, placing her cup in its saucer on the coffee table in front of her, “how is the service going to go? I think we just need to know what we need to do. Is there a form we follow?” She glanced over at Brian, who had crossed his arms over his chest, and was gazing blankly at the fat priest.
“Well, yes, actually,” Father Steven replied. “Many families prefer to have readings. There are places in the service where personal tributes can be worked, readings, for instance, should you want her grandchildren to read a poem, or a personal piece…”
“No.” Brian’s voice was abrupt. “Is it possible that you can just do one of the Catholic numbers, straight forward, right out of the book?”
“Brian,” Claire started, then stopped. She looked over at Father Tom. “Father Tom, I assume you could say something about my mother’s work in the church, how much it meant to her.”
“Oh, of course,” Father Steven replied in Tom’s stead, “She was just a gem in handling so much of the necessary work for the church, helping out with the needy, organizing the swap market fund raisers…”
“Fuck that,” Brian interrupted. Both priests visibly winced, but Brian didn’t appear to notice, or care. “Just the service, the graveside ashes to ashes bit. You want my input, Claire? You got it. Fuck the personal shit. I want this simple, straightforward, and over with as soon as possible.”
“You aren’t the only one who felt anything, Brian,” Claire snapped.
“Oh, you think John’s going to want to get up and recite 2 Corinthians? Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful… like that travesty at Dad’s funeral? As if either of our parents knew anything about that passage, what it meant. I wanted to puke, I won’t put myself, or anyone else through that again.”
“Now, Brian, a funeral is a good time to bury any lingering feelings of anger…” Father Steven started, but stopped abruptly with the acidic glare turned his way.
Father Tom jumped in. “Funerals are, of course, more about the feelings of the living, and coming to terms with the larger specter of death. If you feel the straightforward service without embellishment is best, it may be the best for you. And, Claire, John has seemed upset enough by recent events. Brian may have the best idea, to have a simple service, and let everyone get through as best he can.”
“Or she can,” Claire replied, and sighed. “I suppose.”
“You know I’m right.”
Justin wondered at the steely edge in Father Tom’s voice. He watched the look that passed between the priest and Brian’s sister, and then he glanced over to Father Steven, who was busy studying his fingertips, then over at Brian, whose entire body language was stiff, and defiant, his arms crossed over his chest, legs sprawled out. Brian saw Justin staring at him, and raised an eyebrow. Justin offered a small smile, that seemed to shake Brian out of his mood, slightly. He sat forward. “Good, Claire, are we in agreement on that one? Father Steve here wants to give mother his… what was that? The final gift of your tongue?”
“I’d like to conduct the service, yes,” Steven blushed slightly. Justin put a hand on Brian’s thigh, which Brian ignored, completely, not even a relaxing of the muscles beneath his palm. Okay, then…
“Fine. Claire, straightforward, then?”
“All right,” his sister agreed, looking into her cup of coffee.
“Okay, then,” Brian said. “Now, about the wake. You get the afternoon viewing, I’ll be there for the 7-9. Got a problem with that?”
Claire shook her head, saying nothing, still not looking up. There was silence.
“Fine,” Brian finished. “Father Tom, I want to see the spot where my mother died.”
Father Tom started at that, frowned, and hesitated. “You want to see…”
“Yeah, you know where it is, right? I want to see it.” He stood, grabbed Justin’s forearm, and hauled him up. Justin managed to get on his feet without spilling his coffee all over himself, and set the cup down on the coffee table.
“Certainly, Brian, if you feel it will help you,” Father Tom said, standing himself.
“Okay, Claire, you need me, you know where we’ll be.” He paused, laughed. “Well, out fucking’s not quite exact, is it? You have my cell phone number, right?”
Claire looked away. Father Steven practically fled the room in front of them. Father Tom just shook his head.
“Care to explain that?” Justin asked, staring at Brian’s profile as he drove them toward the church.
“What do you mean, what? You think you could have done more to offend the priests?”
“Tom hardly deserves my respect, I’ve been in that man’s ass. And Father Steven… give Joan a final gift. She was just a fucking gem to the church, wasn’t she?”
Justin decided not to address this; it didn’t seem to be the right time. “Why are we going to see where your mother died? Isn’t that kind of…” He let the suggestion hang, not really sure what it was. Creepy. Weird. Morbid. Pick one.
Brian glanced over at him, and didn’t speak for a long moment. Finally, he took a deep breath. “Last time I left that church, I vowed I wouldn’t be back. And here I am. Okay, not exactly the same as returning with Joan alive and lording it over me, but still.” He wasn’t going to tell Justin that he felt Joan’s advantage on home turf was too great in that place, and he felt, well, diminished, like he was a kid again, whenever he walked into the church. God, just think of how outrageously Joan had spoken to him at Kinnetik, where he was Master of the Universe! Well, at least owner of the company. She had no comfort zone or support within the walls of Kinnetik, and still she somehow reduced him to that angry (okay, scared) kid again. Bad enough, the way she spoke to him there. The church was enemy territory, the way his mother reduced his sense of self lingered over the place. He wanted to experience it alone, before he had to face that again, with an audience of family and friends of Joan Kinney, an audience of the enemy, watching him, watching. But he only said in response to Justin’s question, “I want to see it before the funeral, so I don’t do something like a jig over the spot. If I need to do that, I want to do it when no one else is around. It’s going to be strange enough, being in that place….”
Justin eyed him. A jig? Was he kidding? “Yeah, I guess I can understand that,” Justin answered, letting it go. He was glad, in any case, that the subject of discomfort had come up. “Father Steven really weirded me out. Did he strike you as, well, off?”
The breath exploded from Brian’s lips in an incredulous burst. “All priests strike me as off. Steven’s right up there.”
“Well, I know he pissed you off, but it was something else I couldn’t put my finger on…”
“He’s obviously completely repressed.”
“You think he’s gay?”
Brian shrugged. “Not necessarily. But he’s got a bug up his ass on a sexual level.”
“You think he’s a pervert?”
“Jesus Christ, what is this? What difference does it make? All I wanted him to do was shut his mouth about Saint Joan and tell me what I wanted to hear! All right?”
Justin shut his mouth. Whoa. Then he ventured, “All right. Brian… Are you gonna be okay?”
“Just fucking peachy.” The rest of the ride was in silence. Luckily, it didn’t take too long.
“She died right here.” Father Tom indicated a spot three pews back from the front, in the central aisle, to the right side. “They think she hit her head on the corner of this pew.”
There was a new runner that covered the right side of the central carpet. “We will have to replace this section of the carpet; it’s stained with her blood.” Brian lifted the small runner that had been placed over the spot, revealing the slightly darker red of the original red carpet. He dropped the smaller piece back down. “Left her blood staining the church, bet she died happy.”
“Brian.” Father Tom directed his attention to himself. “I am sorry you never got to make your peace with your mother. If it’s any consolation, she told me she loved you.”
Brian shook his head. “Joan didn’t know what love was.”
“Yes, she could not accept the lifestyle choice you made.”
“Coming from you?” Brian sat at the end of the third pew, “I’m afraid I can’t credit your opinion much either.”
Justin hovered back from this conversation.
Father Tom sighed. “I know. She said she loved me on more than one occasion; I told her what she loved was what I represented. She just smiled, I don’t think she understood what I meant.”
“How could she? You never allowed her the courtesy of taking off that priestly mask you’ve got on. But,” Brian sighed, “we both know how wonderful a person my mother was, if she discovered anything resembling human beings, as opposed to the perfection that is your God.”
“I can understand your pain,” Father Tom soothed. “We all live our lives the best we can. And you found love, despite how you perceive your parents’ interests in you. Can’t you find it in your heart to forgive your mother?”
“She never asked me to,” Brian stated, turning his eyes to the front of the church.
Justin felt a constriction around his chest at Brian’s tone. He looked up at the high, vaulting ceiling, then over to the shadowy corners at the far aisles where the pews ended. The place was huge, and cold.
“I understand what you’re trying to do,” Brian continued, “Not that I don’t appreciate it.” Justin heard his tone, though, knew this was his “pretense-at-concession-while-trying-to-g
It seemed to work. “Certainly,” Tom replied. “I’ll lock up, I’m on my way out anyway. Exit at the sacristy, just make sure the door shuts behind you.”
Brian nodded, and continued to stare hard at the giant crucifix hanging above the altar, just beneath the stained glass window. Justin looked around, felt the hushed atmosphere, watched Brian’s grim countenance settle on the cross, at the bloody figure hanging off of it. Why do they want to scare people like that? Justin wondered. He wondered, too, if that was the last thing Joan saw, and wondered how it could possibly have made her feel in her last moments. Comforted? He couldn’t imagine. “I can go, too, if you need a moment,” he said, in the low voice this place seemed to demand of him. Brian’s arms were draped over the pew in front of him. He looked up at Justin, an inscrutable expression on his face. His lips relaxed, and he smiled slightly as he stood, and took Justin by the elbow. “Is he gone?”
The side door slammed shut. “Apparently.”
Brian stood, and walked Justin up to the front of the church, until they reached the railing that separated the altar from the congregation, Justin resisted. “I’m not Catholic.”
“Haven’t you ever wanted to see the view from up here?” Brian slid his hand down to slip into Justin’s, tugging him up the three steps, to just in front of the altar. “Besides, don’t you want to share a moment of my youth?”
He couldn’t say he didn’t. “Which moment are we talking about?” Justin asked, allowing himself to be propelled to the altar. He looked at the cloth-covered bulk at the center, the candles on either end.
“I was an altar boy,” Brian told him. He moved to a seat against the wall, to the right of where Justin stood, watching him. “I used to sit in this seat…” he sat, “…and watch the people in the congregation. There were two guys, a married man probably in his twenties, and a kid, a little older than me. Something about them… I would sit here, and not hear a word of the sermon. I could see my mother’s face, she would have me pinned in her gaze, waiting for me to fuck up. If she decided I did, when we got home she’d tell Jack. He didn’t go to church. But he was willing to let me know exactly how big a failure I was, that I would never amount to anything. Detail exactly how big a piece of shit I was. And she would stand there, her lips a tight line, arms crossed over her chest, nodding.” Brian’s eyes turned from the empty pews over to Justin. “Good thing a hard on was concealed in all those robes. The other altar boy and I would fool around sometimes. But only in the back. I had a fantasy of fucking him on the altar.” He seemed lost in that thought for long moments. Then his eyes refocused, centered on Justin, who held himself motionless at the center of the hallowed space. Brian stood, and approached his lover, who began to shake his head, mouthing, “No.” When Brian continued toward him, Justin said aloud, “No, Brian, no, no fu…” he stopped, appalled at his use of that word in this place, and corrected himself, “no, no way.”
But Brian continued to stalk through the space, moving to the altar itself. He took first one candle, then the other, and place them both on the floor behind him. Then he lifted the sacramental service – apparently the whole thing was on a tray - and placed it to the side. “Come here.”
“No.” Justin couldn’t move, not even to back away. Everything in him screamed to back off, but he couldn’t. He was trapped by that expression in Brian’s face, determination along with fierce conviction, combined with raging, hot lust, freezing Justin where he stood.
“This place… it trapped me. It condemned me. Everything I was. It took my mother, turned her against any chance I had to experience something like love, this place that says it is what love is and doesn’t know shit about it, and it sucked the life and warmth from her and then it killed her. I wanted to take Timmy Ellsworth and fuck him on the altar of this church since I was fifteen, and until this very moment that desire has always burned inside me. But now I have you, and you’re even better for what I need to do. You have given me more than this place, more than anyone in this place ever did. I need to fuck you, Justin, I need to fuck you right now, to take what you give me, to take it here, in this place that has taken so much of what’s mine, this place that had no right to take all it has, to take you and take back what’s been taken from me.” The words, seductive in their rhythm, their low cadence, the power behind them, the power of a conviction that commanded and would not take no for an answer. Inexorable, relentless, irresistible. “Come here.”
Justin swallowed into a suddenly dry throat. Dry with dread? Or a mounting desire that had wormed down into his bones, from Brian’s voice, into his ear, into his blood, his beating heart. “Brian…” But Brian was unrelenting, Justin’s words did not affect the tension radiating from Brian’s body. “It’s just… we can’t,” he finished weakly, one last token resistance, even as he heard his own voice echoing to him from across the years, as he had once spoken to Daphne, “He can do anything he wants.” And it was that that had seduced him, all along. The face of god.
“Come here.” Irresistible.
And he felt his legs carry him forward, to stand in front of this man whose intense gaze blazed out at him, reminding him of those preachers he had glimpsed on those religious programs, fierce in their conviction of their right, their attachment to the glory of something greater than themselves, that same fiery gaze now pinning him against the wood of the altar he felt in his mid-back, before he was grabbed by the hips and hauled upward, sitting at Brian’s chest level. The top button of his jeans was ripped open, the zipper torn down, and he was forced back, with Brian’s mouth on his engorged cock. “Brian… you can’t,” he moaned, even as Brian did, and even as Justin felt himself leaning back, falling back, so he was sprawled out across the altar, his legs over Brian’s shoulders as he was taken by the sensations of lips, of tongue, of worship on his body, and couldn’t resist. “God…” he gasped, and his open eyes took in the cross overhead. “Brian,” he managed to get out, in one last weak attempt to turn away what he really didn’t want to stop, grabbing a handful of chestnut hair and yanking Brian’s head up. But Brian twisted out of his grip, his mouth descending determinedly, all of his years of skill in this particular act coming into play, and with the final curling lick around the head of Justin’s dick, Justin gasped and came, the hands in Brian’s hair not pulling him away any longer, but pushing him closer, down further, as he surged up against the back of his partner’s throat.
Brian thoroughly licked him clean, and then hauled himself onto the altar, turning Justin so he lay face down on the hard surface. Justin lay gasping, shocked at the force of his orgasm, and he felt his pants yanked down, heard Brian’s zipper, then the tear of foil, the pop of a cap, the sudden cold of liquid on him, and the sensation as Brian pushed into him, hard, filling him. His senses revived, and he scrabbled with his hands in an attempt to hold onto the edge of the wood as his jeans held his legs captive, the skin of his stomach catching the smooth surface as Brian’s hard thrusts inside him allowed him nothing to hold onto, no purchase at all. Brian’s harsh gasps resounded in his ear, and he felt his hand curl into his hair, as the other descended over his shoulder to catch the forward trajectory of his body, keeping him in place. Oh, fuck, he thought, as Brian’s heartbeat pounded against his back, the breath at his neck increased, and then a harsh gasp in his ear, and groan, and the pulsations hard inside of him, on and on, lasting a very long time, even for the very accomplished sexual being now holding him, tightly locking them together.
Justin lay in the quiet after, stunned. The stillness after the explosive release of whatever that was, the stillness was palpable. Holy shit, he thought. What the fuck was that? Something huge. And long-standing. He thought of the time Pink Floyd had come on the radio in the car, and Brian had turned up the sound at the lyrics, “And if I/show you my dark side/would you still hold me/tonight? And if I open my heart to you/show you my weak side/what would you do?” He had turned to Justin with an eyebrow raised, and Justin had laughed at him.
Justin wasn’t laughing now.
“Let me up,” he commanded, and Brian rolled off him without hesitation, and lay on his back, his arms spread out. Justin adjusted his clothes, and turned to Brian, cleaning him up, grimacing at the full condom he was going to have to carry out of the church, and then just sighed, and zipped up Brian’s jeans. He got off the altar, letting himself down carefully, and took Brian’s hand. Brian was staring up at the cross, his face grim. “Brian.” The hazel regard turned to him, slightly glazed. “Get down.”
When he had Brian propped against the side of the altar, Justin straightened the cloth (I mean, how do you suggest to the priests that they might want to wash that? or even throw it out?) put the candles and sacramental service back up on the altar, hoping everything was in the right place. Was there a candle specifically for the left side, one for the right? Fuck if he knew. He didn’t even really care much, not at the moment. He supposed he’d lie awake tonight, worrying, but that worry was for later. He had a much more immediate concern; it leaned against the altar. He grabbed Brian’s hand, and led him out of the church.
Once in the open air, he took a long, deep breath and turned his face toward the sun, amazed that it was still shining. He felt as if he had stepped out of his own tomb; the fresh air against his cheek had never been more welcome. Brian was staring straight ahead, that frozen look cemented on his face. “Brian, give me the keys.” Woodenly, his command was followed. Justin led Brian down to the Corvette, and opened the passenger side, sitting Brian, who did not protest being placed into the unfamiliar position, into the car. Justin went to the driver’s side, and slid behind the wheel. He shut the door, but rolled down his window. Then he turned to Brian, who avoided his gaze. “Care to share what that was all about?”
“I told you, you shouldn’t be in the middle of all this.”
“And I told you I could handle it. I’m pretty sure that was the dirtiest thing we’ve ever done.”
He received that same grim look, but at least Brian had lifted his eyes, and was looking at him. “I just… fuck.”
“And you fuck amazingly well. But that may have been pushing even your limits.”
“You went over them with me.”
“I went out over that edge with you, yeah. I told you I would. But that was plain fucked up.” And he was getting horny recalling it. “Hot, but fucked up.”
“Hot as hell, huh.”
Justin’s breath caught. “No, not like hell. Not like hell at all. Like the release of a lot of pent-up anger and confusion of a flesh and blood kid watching a faceless, made up superbeing getting all the love and attention he isn’t getting, but desperately wants. Desperately needs.”
Brian visibly started, and his eyes locked on Justin’s, softening with a vulnerability and confusion Justin had had rarely seen. Brian sucked his lips into his mouth, bit down on them. Then he released the grip his teeth had on the tender flesh. “Maybe I’m not so okay.”
Justin let out a deep breath he had not known he was holding. “Pretty big demons have been having their way with you the last week. I kind of expected that.”
“I didn’t.” The expression, so lost for that brief moment, turned off as if a switch had been thrown, but Justin felt the sadness it had reflected continue on inside himself. Brian turned to look for the seat belt as Justin started the engine. “How did you end up behind the wheel of my car?”
Justin glanced over his shoulder, checking the blind spot. “I think I should be driving right now, don’t you?”
Brian slumped back in the seat. “Yeah, you’re probably right. But don’t get used to it.”
As if you’d let me, Justin thought. He drove in silence. Then, Brian said, “I think maybe I should go through my stuff that was left at Joan’s house.”
Justin glanced at him. “Okay,” he answered.
“After the funeral. We should get Michael to help with that.”
Justin looked away, back at the road. “Okay.” We. We should get Michael to help. Justin had no idea why “we” would want to do that, but “we” would most likely get answers to that question eventually. He glanced over at Brian, seeing only the back of his head as he stared out the window. Obviously, he thought, we are not as certain as we usually are about any of this. I’m glad “we” figured that out.
Author’s Note: It’s about time I started thanking Carlyn, a truly awesome beta, not just for fixing up the glitches in my writing, and her ability to remind me of details I’ve missed or mistaken from past episodes (to say nothing of my own earlier chapters!), but also for her wondrous contribution in brainstorming sessions. I’m lucky to have the bootiest beta willing to work with my stuff.
You look nice,” Debbie observed, as Justin took a seat at the counter of the diner. He was wearing dark grey – charcoal pants, light grey shirt underneath a dark grey cashmere sweater, dark and light grey patterned tie, shot through with the slenderest of yellow threads, picking up the gleam of his freshly-washed hair.
“Wake,” Justin explained.
Her face melted into sympathy upon his words, and she nodded. “Want anything?”
She poured out a glass of water, returning to set the well-scratched glass of water in front of him. Then she leaned onto her forearms, and fixed him in her eye, with the “I’m-fuckin’-serious” look. “How’s he doin’, honey?”
Justin shrugged, sipped at his water. “Not great. But not for the reasons you’d think.”
“What, he’s itching to dance on his mother’s grave, but has to keep it bottled up until after all this ceremonial family and church shit, but it all keeps leaking out so he escapes it by pouring that rotgut down his throat? Fucking everything in sight? You mean, the shit he’s used to dealing with just took a turn in an unexpected direction, so he’s become Brian distilled, acting strange even for him, while pretending that nothing’s changed?” She snapped her gum, grinned at his look. “I know him, Sunshine, probably better than you. Oh, I don’t mean with the crap like what soap he likes or where he likes to be licked. Well, actually, with what I hear around here, maybe that last one… but you know what I mean. I’ve been watching Brian for a long time. I got a grip on that boy.”
He hesitated. She had been only partly right, but close enough. Still, he wasn’t sure he should confide his worries.
“Come on,” Debbie encouraged. “You know you want to say something, spit it out.”
“You don’t know everything, Deb,” Justin told her. “He’s got family coming to this thing, and as far as I can telling he’s outing himself, more or less.”
“By bringing you. That a problem for you?”
Justin shook his head. “He’s not exactly one to discuss these things, he just does them. But, I’m wondering, if this is the right way to do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, shouldn’t this sort of decision, outing yourself after years of not making an issue of it. Shouldn’t that kind of decision be made at a less emotionally fraught time?”
“Well, I’m not sure what ‘fraught’ means, but let me ask you, how’d your family find out about you being gay? Seems like you fraught that one out.” Debbie laughed at her own joke, and Justin joined her, feeling slightly better for it.
“Point taken,” he said.
“Listen, Justin, Brian’s family, and his mother’s friends, they should have known about this a long time ago. Yes, I know, he had a hell of a childhood, and it’s always easier to just let things slide and not deal with them. Claire knew, his immediate family knew eventually. But if he had let this fact of his life out in a more general way years ago, you wouldn’t be sitting here ‘frought-ing’ yourself.”
“Oh, okay! I know what that means. Look, honey, it’s always been his choice, to not let people know who he really is. If Joan had known sooner, maybe she wouldn’t have been so much in his life, and he would have been better off in the long run. But it’s no good thinking about ‘shoulds’ – all you need to do is stand by him and support him. He needs you now, whether he’ll ever admit to that or not. I’d say him having you by his side through this makes your position, and his position where you stand pretty clear. This isn’t just a finger to his family. It’s a message he’s sending you, more than them. You’re a smart kid! I know you’re smart enough to know where the line in bad behavior is, if Brian goes over it. Has he?”
Justin hesitated, then shook his head.
“Well,” Deb continued, “I would say his asking you to help him get honest with his people is NOT over the line. Oh, hang, on, I’ll be right back” And she turned away to take the order of a young man who had settled in at the end of the counter.
Justin just nodded. He thought, let’s just pull that line back to exclude the altar of Joan’s church. That was… he felt his heart rate pick up, and wasn’t sure what he was feeling, but willed it down.
He hadn’t heard Brian enter the diner, so the soft lips on the back of his neck made him jump slightly. “Oh, hey,” he said, turning his head to receive a kiss on the lips.
Debbie returned. “How you doing? You look nice.”
“I’m fabulous. How else would I be?”
“Cut the shit, kiddo. I know you’re not looking forward to this.”
“I’ll be fine, Deb. I am fine. Are you coming to the funeral?”
“Didn’t know I was invited. I wasn’t exactly a friend of your mother’s.”
“Good enough to deliver the news of my late great illness,” Brian snorted.
Debbie looked away, then back. “Do you want me there, Brian?”
“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t.”
She studied his face for a moment, then nodded. “I’ll come with Michael. I’d love to be there for you, honey.”
Brian shrugged, and turned back to Justin. “Are you ready?”
“That campaign’s run its course, time to come up with a new slogan,” Justin teased.
“Hah.” The look on Brian’s face turned serious. “You sure you want to do this? Liam’s father, my Uncle Mike, he’s kind of… he was in the navy. He never really came back from his last voyage.”
“What, he’s crazy?”
“Well,” Brian replied, placing his hand on the small of Justin’s back as they walked out of the diner. “He’s military. Even if he did blow up his last Nazi 60 years ago.”