The ride back to Jennifer Taylor’s house was deathly quiet. Debbie drove, her hands clutched to the wheel as she struggled to deal with the aftermath of Justin’s attack. The light was just beginning to peek through the night-time gloom, yet did nothing to lighten the thoughts of those riding in her car. Vic sat in the back seat with an arm draped over Jennifer’s shoulder, while her head rested against his chest. Silent tears dampened the front of Vic’s shirt, but he paid no heed. He had admired how well she held it together, sitting for those long hours in the waiting room of the hospital, praying for some kind of good news about Justin’s prognosis. If she needed to fall apart now, he was more than happy to be of what little support he could.
The trio finally pulled up to the front of Jennifer’s townhouse. No one made a move. It had been a long exhausting night, and they were drained of every ounce of energy. The only reason they left the hospital, and Justin’s side at all, was a result of the reassurances by his primary doctor that he was going to survive his injuries. The doctor admitted he couldn’t say just how much damage Justin’s brain received… not until they felt it safe to bring him out of his induced coma… but he would definitely live. Once they knew that it would be a while before Justin would be fully conscious again, all his loved ones realized that they had to return home and get some much-needed sleep to refresh themselves for the obvious ordeal confronting them. They had even convinced Brian, after much arguing, that he too needed to go home, if only for a short break.
Jennifer finally lifted her head and saw that they had arrived at her home. She thanked God that Molly wasn’t inside waiting for her. Molly adored her big brother, despite their sibling rivalry, so Jenn was not yet ready to tell her what had happened. She thanked her benefactors for being there for her at a time when her driving might have been risky. All three stepped out of the car, so that they could provide one last reassuring hug for each other before separating. Jennifer felt overwhelmed by the kindness that Debbie and Vic were showing her. She had no doubt about the depth of their feelings for her son. Gratitude for that love brought fresh tears, as she promised to meet with them again at the hospital later in the day. Each of them would get whatever sleep they could, so they would be fresher for the ordeal they knew awaited them in the coming days, weeks, and possibly months. All they could do for now was wait, and pray, that the Justin they all knew and loved would still be there when he finally came back to them.
The first morning after Justin’s bashing, dawned with a sky as grey and ominous looking as the emotions felt by his mother. She had barely gotten a couple of hours of sleep, and her dreams were filled with frightening images. She finally gave up trying to rest and padded her way to the kitchen, hoping a strong cup of coffee would calm her nerves. Her first order of business was a call to the hospital to check on Justin. The news was neither encouraging nor discouraging. There was no sign of change to report. She already knew that he was in an induced coma so that his brain could heal from the horrific blow it suffered. Once the swelling had gone down inside his skull, and his vital signs were good, they would bring him out of the coma. Knowing this and accepting that she had to be patient were two different things. She knew it was now simply a waiting game.
She next started to dial the house of her family friend who was taking care of Molly. Before it could ring, she clicked the phone off. She told herself that it was because it was too early to call, but deep down she knew she was stalling. She had no desire to tell Molly about her big brother. Molly was an innocent who had never seen violence, except for the movies and television. She knew that the knowledge that her own brother could be the victim of such an atrocity would be devastating for the young girl. She only prayed that Molly would not ask why their father wasn’t visiting Justin. Molly still loved her father, despite his absence from their family life. Even the fact that he already had someone else in his life now, and was forming a new family hadn't stopped her caring about him.
Jenn took her coffee into the small dining alcove and sat down. As she sipped at the hot liquid, her mind drifted back to some of her final thoughts from the previous night just before drifting off to sleep. Some of the anger she felt towards Brian Kinney, when first hearing how he had been at the dance, and what had transpired during it, faded as she remembered her own part in putting Justin in the path of evil. She began recalling how she, Debbie, and Vic had convinced Justin that he shouldn’t pass up the chance to attend his Senior Prom… stressing that it was a rite of passage he would look back on in the future with great fondness and nostalgia. Oh, he would look back on it, alright. But, of course, the memory was now destroyed by one single unfathomable act of unwarranted hatred.
As she began to wrestle with her own feelings of guilt over the attack on her son, the phone rang. It was Debbie, calling to check on her. Jennifer wondered if Debbie, or even Vic, had yet considered their part in Justin being at the prom dance. She made a mental note to ask them about it. For now, she answered Debbie’s inquiries into how well she had slept, and whether she would like for them to pick her up to take her back to the hospital this morning. She gladly accepted their offer. She was certainly more capable of driving herself now than she was last night, but she didn’t want to be alone. Debbie had become like a sister to her, helping her to understand Justin better, and accept him more freely for who he is. She valued their friendship. Besides that, she wanted to talk things out with them. She suddenly felt that she couldn’t handle the feelings of guilt that were starting to build up inside her. She prayed that Debbie would help her keep things in perspective.
Her next call was to the hospital again to make sure that Justin was still in a stable condition. It was the news she expected, because they would have called her if there had been anything to report. Jenn poured another cup of coffee and quickly made some toast. She wasn’t hungry, but knew she had to keep up her strength. She finished her minimal breakfast and got dressed. Debbie and Vic would be by to pick her up very shortly. She took the time while waiting to finally call her friend, who reported that the girls were still asleep. Jenn asked if she would mind keeping Molly just a little longer and promised to pick her up later in the day. Her friend’s compassionate voice assured her that there was no hurry. She promised to find an acceptable excuse to use that would explain why Molly was staying with them longer than had been planned. Jennifer thanked her effusively before hanging up. She settled on the couch and waited for her ride.
Debbie turned to Vic and grimaced. She could hear how tired Jennifer was from the sound of her voice. She had obviously suffered from as little sleep as they had. When they first arrived back home in the wee hours of the morning, they had been too distraught to head for bed right away. Instead, Debbie put on a pot of coffee and they sat at the kitchen table, each absorbed in their own thoughts. Finally, as the hot coffee began to warm the chill in their hearts, they began talking. Vic started off the conversation.
“I don’t know about you, Sis, but I feel some sense of responsibility for what has happened to the boy. After all, we were the ones who convinced him he shouldn’t let the chance pass him by to attend this last rite of passage before adulthood. He never would have been at that dance if not for us.”
Hesitantly, Debbie responded. “I... I was thinking the same thing, but it sounds even worse when you say it out loud. It kills me that we pushed him to go, but we did think it was the right thing for him to do. But, Vic, just think about poor Jennifer. If we are feeling this guilt, can you imagine how his own mother is feeling, or will, if she stops to think about what we all said to him? I mean, she might not remember it right now, because her main concern is what is happening with Justin at this very moment. But it’s bound to come up in her thoughts sooner or later. It’s going to be devastating to her. I have no doubt of that.”
“You’re right, Sis, but what can we do about it? We can’t take it back. It’s too late for that. Besides, our sitting around whipping ourselves because of it isn’t going to do a damned thing to make Justin better.”
“Yes, I know. There will be time enough to apologize to Justin for our part in this insane situation, once he is well again and back to normal. In the meantime, I don’t think we should bring it up to Jennifer at all… not unless she says something first. She has enough on her plate to deal with. There is no need to add guilty feelings to the list.”
The siblings agreed, then finally took to their beds to get as much rest as possible before facing a second day waiting for something positive about Justin’s condition. When they woke a few hours later, Debbie called Jenn to check on her and remind her that they would be happy to drive her to the hospital again. Deb and Vic were relieved when she accepted their offer. The three of them together would be a greater comfort going forward than if they tried to deal with their fears all alone.
Michael hung up his phone and glanced over at his mother. Debbie tried to act like she didn’t have a clue as to what was going on during the phone call, but she had her suspicions. It had been nearly a week since Justin entered the hospital, and she was all too aware that Dr. David was losing his patience with her son’s delays in joining him in the home he had set up for the two of them. She frowned as she thought about the way Michael kept making excuses for staying in Pittsburgh. She knew they were full of crock. His main excuse was that Brian needed him because he was devastated over what had happened to Justin. She had no doubt that Brian was deeply affected by the whole thing, seeing him at the hospital every day while waiting for Justin to come out of his coma. But outside of that first night, she only saw Brian distancing himself from everyone else, including Michael. She had tried to stay out of her son’s business, but she now realized he needed to hear what she had to say.
“Michael, was that David?”
“Yeah, Ma. Why?”
“You know why I’m asking, Michael. Don’t you think it’s about time you either shit, or get off the pot with that poor man? You are keeping him dangling with no end in sight, while you hang around here trying to make up your mind what you want for your future.”
“For God’s sake, Ma, this isn’t about my future. This is about being there for a friend… a brother, when he needs me. I’ve tried to make David understand this, but he doesn’t seem to get it.”
“What doesn’t he get… that you want to be there for Brian even though he has been making it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want you hanging around him all the time? He doesn’t get that you are supposed to be his life partner, yet you keep putting someone else’s needs before his? You told me… you told everyone that you love him, but you’re not acting like it. Is he just a substitute for Brian, since you know you’ll never have him? If so, then you owe it to David to be honest with him. I didn’t raise you to play with the feelings of other people in such a cruel way.”
“Damn it, Ma, I do love him. I was at the airport all ready to get on that plane with him. Doesn’t that prove that I want to be with him? I didn’t ask for all this to happen. I just wanted to be there for Brian the way he has always been there for me. You know I would have had a much rougher childhood if it hadn’t been for him.”
Debbie’s voice softened. “I know, son. And I understand why he means so much to you. But, Mikey, Brian will never want more from you than a brotherly kind of love and your friendship. If you want much more than that with a man, it has to be with somebody else. And if you think that somebody is David, then you had better hurry up and join him, or I’m afraid he’ll tire of waiting on you and find someone else. Think about it. And Michael, make the right decision… one you can live with. Please!”
Michael walked over to Debbie and hugged her. “I will. It’s Wednesday. I’ll make a final decision no later than the end of the week. I promise.”
Debbie felt relief wash over her. She trusted her son. He never made a promise to her that he didn’t keep. That was one problem down. Now she could concentrate more on her prayers for Justin and his recovery. She checked her watch. It was nearly time to pick up Jennifer again. The two ladies had joined together in solidarity every day since Justin was hospitalized. Either Debbie would pick up Jenn, or the other way around. Vic would usually join them, although he hadn’t been feeling very well for the last couple of days. They still hadn’t talked about the events leading up to the prom dance. No one seemed ready to open up that can of worms. Yet, Debbie knew it would come up sooner or later. For now, they would simply let sleeping dogs lie.
Daphne stepped out of the small boutique, where she had just bought a new dress and shoes with the graduation gift certificate from her parents, and felt a pang of guilt that she was enjoying her shopping trip so much. She wondered how she could feel good about anything with her best friend still in the hospital. True, she thought, she did wait until Justin finally came out of his coma and was slowly but surely on the mend. Despite knowing this, she still felt that she should be at the hospital instead of here at the mall. Before making her way with her purchases to the food court for a quick snack, she reminded herself that Justin wouldn’t blame her for what she was doing, any more than she would blame him if the circumstances were reversed.
With a smile returning to her face, she hurried off to the food court. She would return home, deposit her packages, and head for the hospital for another visit with Justin. She had been at home when she got a call from Justin’s mom telling her that he had finally awakened. Daphne hurriedly drove to the hospital and was relieved to see that it was true. She hadn’t stayed long because it was obvious he wasn’t ready for more than a short visit. This would be her second visit since then. She just hoped he wouldn’t ask about Brian again as he did that first time. She didn’t know what to tell him then, and she certainly didn’t know what to say now either. She knew Brian had stayed at the hospital almost continuously up until when Justin woke up, but he spent little to no time talking with anyone. Brian had obviously retreated into a world all his own.
Daphne reached the food court and stepped up to the Taco Shack. She placed her order for a soft taco and coke and turned to find a seat nearby. It was then that she spotted Chris Hobbs hobbling towards the same shop with a few of his fellow high school athletes tagging along. She had heard how he was arrested after the attack, but he was then given bail until his trial. The very idea that he would be walking, or at least hobbling around, as if nothing had happened brought angry tears to her eyes. She found her seat and tried to calm herself down. She couldn’t take her eyes off the boys who laughed as if they were having a jolly good time. She watched them place their order and take it to a table not that far from hers. Suddenly, one of the boys noticed her. He turned to the others and said something, which made them laugh out loud. Daphne couldn’t take it anymore. She jumped up from her seat and strode purposefully the short distance to where they were seated. They all turned to look at her at the same time.
“What do you want, Chanders?” one of the boys asked.
She ignored him. “I want to know why you aren’t rotting in prison for attempted murder, you piece of shit,” she snarled, looking straight at Chris.
No one said anything. “You just go right on and have your laughs. If there is any justice in this world, you’ll be rotting in prison soon enough, while Justin continues living his life with the man he loves. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to like being fucked by men too once you're inside those prison walls.”
Chris started to jump from his seat, fury written all over his face, but one of his friends with a cooler head, pulled him back down into his seat. Daphne turned on her heel, satisfaction filling up the space where anger had been. She went back to her table, grabbed her food and drink and walked away. She prayed it would be the last time she saw his face, unless it was in court when he was sentenced to countless years for what he did to her best friend. She made a mental note to never tell Justin that she had run into Hobbs. She was able to see the trauma Justin was suffering, despite the fact that he always greeted her with a smile. She had no doubt that the mention of Hobbs would only bring her friend pain, and she wasn’t going to add to his distress if she could help it. She only prayed that by the time he finished the physical therapy they had put him on since awakening, he would be more like his old self… confident and able to deal with the blow that had been dealt him.
Justin woke from another nightmare, screaming in agony. It hadn’t been long since he came out of his coma, but he sometimes wished he was back in it. Every night brought fresh terrors. He seldom could recall just what he had been dreaming about, but he knew in his heart what it was. The fear that swept over him as he became conscious could only be caused by the attack, although he could never recall any of the details of that entire night when awake. He couldn’t even remember Brian coming to the prom. That upset him as much as the attack itself. He only had the stories Daphne told him about that night to be able to know what occurred, and she was a hopeless romantic. She could be exaggerating just to make him feel better. Once Brian had turned down his invitation to the dance, he found it surprising that the man had changed his mind so completely.
Justin wanted nothing more than to ask the questions that swirled through his brain of Brian himself, but he never visited. His mom and the others told him Brian had been there throughout the early days of his stay in the hospital, but once he was out of the coma, they had to admit that they never saw him anymore. Everyone told him that he needed to stop worrying about Brian and concentrate on getting better instead, but Justin couldn’t stop thinking of him. There was a part of him that understood why Brian stayed away. He suspected that Brian might be feeling guilty for what happened. He hoped he was staying away thinking it was what was best for Justin, but he knew that wasn’t true. Justin knew that being with Brian again was the only thing he needed to make him feel safe and alive again. Yet, thinking all this was sometimes pushed out by the thought that Brian stayed away simply because he didn’t want the hassle of dealing with such a horrific event. Maybe Brian had decided that Justin was just too much trouble. Whenever that thought crept into his brain, Justin would curse at himself and force it out. But he would never know the truth unless he got out of the hospital and found Brian. Once they came face to face, he would know exactly where he stood. But first, he would fight like hell to be well enough to get back home. Nothing would stand in the way of his goal.
Brian watched in agony as he witnessed Justin going through another miserable night full of terrors. He had stopped visiting the hospital during the day once Justin finally came out of his coma. He was tired of everyone staring at him in the waiting room, as if expecting him to say or do something dramatic that they could react to. Once he had gotten over the initial shock from the attack on Justin, Brian allowed himself to become numb to all feelings. He had nothing to say, and there was nothing he could do to change a damned thing, or help Justin in any way. All that was left to him was to keep a watchful eye on him until Brian was one hundred percent certain Justin would survive the damned ordeal fully intact.
Brian had no intention of letting anyone else know what he was doing practically all night long. He always waited until he knew the others had departed the hospital for home. Luckily, Michael had already left town to be with his doctor boyfriend. He was aware that the rest of them probably thought he had given up on Justin. He didn't care what they thought. He simply had no desire to talk to anyone about anything. The pain he felt for Justin ran too deep. Brian wasn't opening that door to his heart again. It hurt too much. He silently promised himself each night, as he watched Justin sleep and suffer from frightening nightmares, that he would go back to his most important rule to safeguard his heart... a new trick every time and no trick twice. He just prayed that Justin would find someone who would be better for him. It was far too late to deny that Justin mattered to him. But with those feelings came a pain he didn't think he could bear. It was as simple as that.
Justin listened closely as his doctor announced that he had accomplished all the goals they had set for him with his rehabilitation. He felt a sense of overwhelming relief when the doctor went on to tell him that he was signing the release papers, so Justin could return home. Justin glanced over at his mother and saw joy, tinged with worry, in her eyes. He felt he understood her concerns, but the only thing that mattered to him was being free to find Brian and confront him. He now knew that Brian did stay at the hospital as much as possible while he was still in a coma, but no one could testify that he hung around after that. Justin still hadn't spoken with Brian at all since that last word they shared... LATER... just before the world crashed in on them. He knew he could never fully deal with the trauma until he spoke with Brian.
Later that evening, Justin finally left the hospital. He had been paid visits frequently by Debbie, Vic, Daphne, Emmett, Ted, Melanie, and Lindsay during his month in rehab, but was now alone with his mother and sister as they drove to her new townhouse. He was tremendously grateful for their support, especially when he learned that his father hadn't bothered to even check up on his condition even once during the entire time he was hospitalized, but the one thing that still preoccupied all his thoughts as they drove home was... where was Brian? That thought remained front and center, even as he settled into the spare bedroom his mother had set up for him when she first purchased the new home after her divorce.
Justin tried settling in, but he found himself feeling suffocated by the way his mother kept checking up on him to see if he was feeling alright. He knew her attitude came from a place of love, but he felt more like an infant who needed protecting, than the grown man he knew himself to be. During his first few days at home, no one came to visit. He knew, after talking on the phone with Daphne, that it was at the request of his mom. She wanted Justin to have the chance to adjust before having visitors. But now, as he sat in his room wondering why Brian wouldn't take any of his calls or at least try to visit, he overheard Jennifer talking on the phone to Debbie. She was agreeing to a visit from her and Vic. Justin felt an immediate sense of relief. Maybe, just maybe, either Debbie or Vic could enlighten him on what was up with Brian. His mother avoided the subject like The Plague, changing the subject every time he tried to bring Brian into the conversation.
Later that evening, Justin heard the crowd of reporters, who had been camped out near their front door for what seemed to be forever, getting noisier than usual. A quick glance out his bedroom window revealed Debbie and Vic struggling to make their way through the reporters to reach the front door. Justin shivered at the memory of that first night they had come home after leaving the hospital. Apparently someone revealed that he was being released from care and they had waited for his arrival. Thankfully, Jennifer drove around the block, called the police for help, and waited until two squad cars arrived to force the reporters far enough away from the door for them to get in safely without being mauled. The sight of them still hanging around kept Justin indoors ever since.
Finally, he heard the front door close as Jennifer rescued Debbie and Vic and slammed the door on the mob. Justin waited at the top of the stairs, gathering his strength so that he could appear unaffected by all the attention. He knew he needed to remain calm. He didn't think he could handle having all three of them handling him with kid gloves. One was enough. Steeling himself, he made his way down the stairs. At first it looked as if he might have fooled them. Then he spotted a huge red stain on Debbie's blouse. Although he never saw blood from his attack, the image conjured up an image of violence and he almost lost it. Valiantly, he struggled to bring back his composure and finally succeeded.
Justin managed to stay focused on an outward appearance of calm throughout the delicious dinner Debbie and Vic brought with them. He ate heartily in order to convince them that he was fine, although the food felt like a lead weight sitting in his stomach. After dinner, they retired to the living room to chat. Molly was staying with a friend, so everyone felt they could be candid. At first the conversation skirted around what everyone was really thinking about. Then, invariably, the subject of the attack came up. Although they still had not discussed their feelings of guilt together, Debbie and Jennifer suddenly apologized almost simultaneously for prodding Justin to attend the Prom.
It was the first time that he realized how guilt was weighing down the people he loved most, besides Brian. And for the first time, Justin wondered if Brian was feeling some kind of guilt over what had happened too. Now, more than ever, he knew he had to see Brian. Feigning exhaustion, Justin excused himself as quickly as he could, but not before reassuring everyone that he felt none of them were to blame for the evil of Chris Hobbs. He reassured them that Hobbs didn't need any excuse to attack him... that if it hadn't happened at the dance, it might easily happen under different circumstances in the future. He could hear the slight relief in their voices as he departed up the stairs to his room, and they bid him goodnight.
Justin waited as long as needed for Debbie and Vic to leave for home, and Jennifer to retire to her bedroom for the evening, before making an SOS call to best friend, Daphne. She agreed to wait for him around the corner while he snuck out of the house through the back, avoiding the few remaining photographers and reporters who still clung to the hope that there would be something worth waiting for. Daphne was so happy to see Justin up and about again that she would have agreed to anything he asked of her. She had described the night of the prom for Justin in the hopes it would jog his memory, but knew he was still at a loss to recall anything that mattered. She listened patiently as he complained bitterly about the way everyone was treating him with kid gloves. She couldn't imagine the depth of his pain as a result of the attack, both mental and physical, but she knew he'd never really heal if he wasn't allowed to connect with Brian again. Thus the ride to Liberty Avenue... she only prayed it would help Justin in some way.
Justin watched Daphne leave, feeling the confidence he had left the house with drain away with each faltering step he took on the street. The only thing driving him on, despite the agony he felt every time someone got a little too close, was that he was absolutely certain he would find Brian here somewhere. His first thought was Babylon, but he was fully aware that he wasn't quite ready for that cavernous place full of noise and flirting men. It would be a last resort. It had to be Woody's first. He stepped inside the door of Woody's and instantly regretted his decision. Suddenly he was surrounded by men, all closing in on him to ask prying questions. It felt like a giant wave crashing over him, drowning him so that he couldn't breathe.
Justin might have started screaming if it wasn't for a familiar voice whispering that he was safe. He suddenly realized that it was Michael, who had just returned for a visit to the Pitts, and had come to his rescue, pushing all the strangers away so that he could come up for air and breathe again. Then it happened! Brian stood only feet away, staring at him as he crouched in the corner of the room. Long moments passed as they stared at each other, neither making a move. Michael finally broke the tension that stood between them like an invisible wall, maneuvering Justin towards Brian. Brian was the first to speak.
"Shouldn't you be home recuperating?"
"I came to find you," Justin answered him in a shaky voice. "I…I need for us to talk."
Brian tried to appear nonchalant, but couldn't carry it off. "What about?" As if he didn't know.
"Not here, Brian. Can we go back to the loft, please?"
Michael interrupted. "Yes, why don't you do that? I'm sure Justin would feel a lot more comfortable there than with all these men gawking at him."
Brian nodded his agreement. "Okay, come on then." He still did his best to appear unaffected by seeing Justin standing right in front of him.
Once at the loft, Justin could feel the pain that Brian was in almost as much as his own. It didn't take long for him to realize that Brian was feeling the same kind of guilt that Debbie and his mom felt, if not more so. When Brian broke down and began describing what had happened in the hotel garage, Justin felt the first inkling of strength he had experienced since that night. In a twisted way, he felt that Brian needed him. That knowledge alone saved him from the darkness he had been experiencing as a victim. The couple settled on the couch and continued to talk for the longest time, as they wrestled with the memory and lack of memory from that horrible night. There were long moments too when they said nothing at all, but simply sat close together with their hands touching. Eventually, mental exhaustion took over. Brian offered to take Justin home.
By some miracle, when Brian drove up to the front of Jennifer's townhouse, there was not a news person in sight. Before Justin was willing to step out of the Jeep, he asked for a promise that Brian wouldn't disappear on him, that they would continue to see each other in the future. At that very moment, Brian knew it was what he wanted too. One year earlier, he would have done anything to avoid the kind of pain he felt over the attack on Justin. That was no longer the case. He had to admit to himself, if not to anyone else, that Justin was too important for him to ignore any longer. He would accept the discomfort that came with the memories of that night as long as he could keep Justin in his life.
Even the sight of a very agitated Jennifer, when she opened the door to find her son coming home in Brian's Jeep, would not deter him. He didn't blame her for feeling the way she did, but somehow he was going to stay connected to Justin. It was what he wanted. It was what Justin wanted. He would do his best to respect any boundaries Jennifer might want to set up, but Justin was a part of him now. Brian had no idea what the future held for the two of them, but he sensed that they already held a place in each other's hearts, and no matter what was to come, that one fact would always be the truth.