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*****Chapter Dedicated to my friend, mamab, aka @PAGramma148, who's been feeling under the weather lately. Hurry up and get well because I miss my Twitter buddy!*****

Chapter 17 - The Same But Different.

“Hey, Boy Wonder!” Tristan was jostled out of a deep sleep by a whiny voice and a heavy plastic object being tossed onto his chest. “Would you please start answering your fucking phone so your boyfriend doesn’t have to call and wake ME up at the crack of dawn!”

Tristan grumbled in response to Michael’s tirade as he grabbed at the phone, “yeah, yeah. Whatever . . .” 

“Justin? What the fuck is going on over there?” the irate voice coming out of the phone speaker yelled at him. “If I didn’t know better, Sunshine, I’d think you were trying to avoid my calls.”

Tristan wasn’t awake enough to force his brain to think like his Twinkie counterpart. The only response he could come up with on the spot like that was a surly, “I do have a life outside of responding to your endless calls and texts you know?”

“...” The shocked silence on the other end of the call was his first indication that he’d screwed up royally. That was followed a minute later with a fully outraged reply. “What the fuck, Justin? Even if you’re pissed at me for going out of town or something, it’s not like you to act like such a dick. What the hell has gotten into you this week, Sunshine?”

By that point Tristan’s brain was finally coming online and he realized he’d fucked up. “Uh . . . Sorry, I, uh . . . I’m sorry, My Brian.” He scrambled for some plausible lie to cover up his un-Justin-like behavior. “I was up really, really late last night and I’m not feeling very good. The guys took me out to Babylon and I think I maybe had too much to drink.”

“You were actually drinking?” Brian seemed almost as shocked by that fact as he had been at Tristan’s snarky comment. 

“Um, yeah. I decided to try some of the beer you said you liked. You always seem to like it so much and I wanted to be just like you,” Tristan simpered, hoping that the sickly sweetness would cover his prior gaff. 

“Well, no wonder your head hurts, Sunshine. You HATE beer,” Brian answered with a quiet laugh. “Please don’t drink just because you miss me, Justin. I don’t want Debbie to yell at me next time I see her for corrupting you.”

“I promise. I’ll be good,” Tristan replied, trying not to gag on the fake sincerity.

“Well, at least you only have to be good for one more day,” Brian responded, sounding upbeat. “My meeting with that new lead last night went really well. I think we’ve roped in another client. I’m meeting with the CEO and their head of Marketing this afternoon and, if all goes well, we should have an inked contract before dinner. Which means I’ll be flying home tomorrow with even more work for you to do . . . Hope you’re ready.”

Tristan didn’t know how his double would respond to that comment. If it were him, he’d be a little pissed off by the thought of his boyfriend/boss bringing home more work for him to do. But, knowing the Justin kid’s weirdness, the cuck probably loved having even more work thrown at him. Who knew? Tristan just didn’t have enough information to compile an acceptable answer, though, so he figured the safest bet was to find a way to end this conversation.

“Oh, hey, Michael is waving at me to get off the phone so we can go get breakfast now,” Tristan lied. 

“Well, I know where I stand, don’t I?” Brian chuckled. “Go on, then. I know better than to get between food and that monster in your stomach. I’ll call you again tonight as soon as I know my flight plans for tomorrow. Maybe you can get Simon to drive you to the airport to meet me and I’ll introduce you to homecoming sex . . . In the men’s room.”

Tristan could tell that Brian thought he’d be shocking his little boyfriend - that Justin would think bathroom sex was totally out there or something - so he pretended to giggle nervously. 

That was obviously the correct response because Brian merely purred, “later, Sunshine.”

“Later,” he replied and quickly hung up. As he tossed the phone aside he mumbled to himself, “thank fuck I’ll be long gone by tomorrow morning. All this naive innocent shit is getting boring.”

Now that he was awake, though, Tristan used the time to think through the rest of his plan. He was more than ready to get out of there, comfortable bed or not. He didn’t think he’d ever had this much difficulty maintaining a con before. This Justin kid was just way too goody-goody for him. It was unnatural. Nobody was that sweet and kind and innocent all the time, were they? It was wearing him out trying to constantly stay in character. Tristan was simply NOT cut out to play that part for long; growing up in foster homes and on the streets had left him way too jaded to feel comfortable in his double’s shoes. It was high time for him to bug out.

That being said, he was pretty satisfied with his haul on this con so far. Besides the loot he’d snagged from Kinney’s loft, he’d managed to clean out two of his three keepers at the bar the night before. Mr. Desperation, aka Ted, had turned out to be the easiest mark Tristan had ever targeted. The man was just too easy. Before the night was over, he’d handed over almost $200 for drinks that had either never materialized or that Tristan had swiped from others. You’d think an accountant would be better with his money, right? But all it took was Tristan batting his long, blond eyelashes at the guy and Desperation had opened his wallet and practically thrown money at the young blond. Michael had been a tougher mark; he’d only let Tristan get away with his little scam twice before he told the younger man off. And Swishy . . . Well, let’s just say the Swishstick was a lot more savvy than Tristan had originally given him credit for. That one might look like a ditzy fruitcake, but he was tighter with his money than almost anyone Tristan had ever met. He hadn’t scored a dime of that one.

Altogether, with the cash he’d pocketed at the bar the night before and the loot from the loft, Tristan figured he had somewhere close to a thou in hand. Maybe more, depending on how well the fence paid. And, if he could figure out a way to add some of the pricey electronics he’d seen at Kinney’s office to the haul, he might be able to double that amount. But he’d have to be a lot more careful with that stuff; coming up with an excuse to get computer crap out of the office without being caught would be tough. Not impossible though. He just had to work it right. 

Hence the need to take a moment to plan things out. He’d love to get one more night of accommodations out of this deal, but that would mean cutting it a bit close, what with Kinney coming back sometime in the morning. And, if he wanted to swipe a couple of laptops from the office, he’d be better off leaving sometime in the middle of the afternoon, when fewer people would be watching him. If he stuck around after cleaning out the office stuff, he’d be way too likely to be caught and, while he might be able to talk his way out of getting collared for the stuff he took from the loft, there was no way he’d be able to come up with a plausible excuse for getting caught with a bunch of high-priced office electronics that weren’t his. So, the choice was either stay another night or double his haul . . .

Not really a touch call; he’d be taking the route that led to the bigger pile of cash, of course.

Which meant he’d need to be ready to book it by lunchtime at the latest. With that goal in mind, Tristan hoisted himself out of bed and made sure to pack up his bag of loochie, before heading to the shower. At the last minute he decided to throw in Michael’s tablet computer and a handheld gaming device that fit nicely into a corner of the bulging duffle bag. With luck, Brunet Guy wouldn’t miss that crap until long after Tristan was history, and those two items were worth at least a few extra bucks if pawned in the right place. 

It was literally like taking candy from babies.

His host was waiting for him when Tristan emerged from a luxurious, hot, decadently long shower about twenty minutes later. Brunet Guy seemed eager to head out to breakfast at the Diner. He also seemed just a little hung over after all those drinks that Tristan had stolen and pressed on his keepers in the hopes of further loosening their wallets. Guess Brunet Guy wasn’t as good at holding his liquor as he’d bragged. No worries, though; that only meant that Tristan didn’t have to work as hard to keep up with the conversation as Michael sat and quietly nursed his coffee. Meanwhile, Tristan loaded up on the biggest breakfast he could stomach - the Butch Bottom Special - intent on filling up with as much hot, delicious food as he could before he was forced to head back to the meager fare he’d get in his street boy life. 

But that’s when it all began to fall apart. 

Maybe, if he hadn’t pushed quite so many drinks on Brunet Guy the night before, his keeper wouldn’t have dragging so much and would have rousted him off to work sooner? Maybe, if he hadn’t pushed his luck and stuck around with the hopes of doubling his take, he would have already been on his way back to Hugo a day earlier? Maybe, if he hadn’t been such a pig, if he had ordered a smaller breakfast, they’d have finished eating earlier and he would have made it out of there without getting caught? Maybe a lot of things could have or should have gone differently, but what did happen, right as he was finishing up the last of his breakfast that morning, was that the whole damn con came crashing down around his head. 

Only, he didn’t know how bad he’d screwed up until several hours later.

Just as they were getting ready to split, however, the little bell over the Diner’s entrance rang out, announcing the arrival of another group of breakfasters. Tristan looked up from his plate briefly but didn’t recognize the two women coming through the door, one of whom was carrying a small boy. Unfortunately, they seemed to recognize him. Within seconds the new arrivals were practically jogging over to the table where Tristan and Brunet Guy were sitting, their faces all glowing with sweet, expectant smiles. 

“Justin! Michael! What are you two doing here so late?” the smaller, dark haired woman asked, bending down to leave a kiss on Tristan’s cheek in greeting before shoving at Brunet Guy’s shoulder to force him to slide over, this providing the woman a seat in the booth. “Aren’t you already at the store by now most days?”

“You try getting this one moving in the mornings,” Brunet Guy grumbled into his coffee cup. “He takes, like, hour long showers and then eats half the Diner menu before you can get him to go anywhere.”

Both women laughed at Michael’s complaints. The blonde, who’d been a couple meters behind her companion, stepped up to Tristan’s side of the booth just then and made a gesture at him to scoot over as well so she and the kid could sit too. Tristan stifled the sigh that wanted so badly to come out and moved over with his best fake smile on his face. 

“Sounds like a typical teenager to me.” Blondie grinned at her younger seat companion. “I can’t WAIT until we get to that stage,” she added sarcastically as she tried to shift the boy she was holding towards Tristan. “This one, on the other hand, got us up at 5:00 AM this morning and has been a handful ever since. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to a time when he actually wants to sleep in on occasion.” 

The cute little brown-haired boy looked up at Tristan with a shy smile, seeming like he was about to say something, before the smile on the tyke’s face abruptly faded. He looked confusedly at the youth for a couple more seconds while his poor mother tried in vain to pry the two cubby little arms from around her neck. It seemed like the boy wasn’t going to cooperate though. His grip tightened even more and he hid his head in the crook of the blonde’s neck with a distressed whimper. 

“Gus? What’s wrong, Lambskin? Don’t you want to say ‘hi’ to Justin?” Blondie asked, still trying to uncinch the constricting arms that were almost choking her. 

“No! No!” Gus yelled when Blondie tried one more time to hand her burden off to the other blond in the booth. “Not my Dustin! No! Not my Dustin! Go ‘way!”

Gus was squirming away from Tristan, acting as if the blond youth was a monster who was going to eat him or something. Tristan shrugged and tried to look like he understood what was happening. Of course, nobody else at the table seemed to understand any better, though, so Tristan’s confusion was in good company this time. 

“I don’t know what’s got into him,” Blondie apologized, hugging her son and rocking him back and forth in order to quiet the boy’s complaints. “Usually I can’t get him to leave you alone, Justin. Remember last weekend when you and Brian were babysitting and Mel had to literally tear Gus out of your arms so we could go home? I can’t imagine why he’s reacting to you like this now. It’s like he doesn’t recognize you or something . . .”

That’s when Tristan realized that the little brat was the most perceptive of the lot of them and that he’d been made. 

“No biggie,” Tristan rushed to change the subject as fast as he could. “Brun . . . I mean, Michael . . . Um. We have to get going anyway. My Brian said he’s bringing home lots more work for me to do, so I better get to the office and finish up what I already have, right?” 

He started to slide closer to Blondie and the baby, intending to get them to move so he could get out of the booth, but that just started the little brat off once more. Gus began to yell ‘No!’ again and to struggle and cry. Blondie had her hands full trying to hold onto the kid so he didn’t fall out of her arms and land in a heap on the floor. The other woman got up from where she’d been sitting next to Brunet Guy and grabbed Gus away from Blondie. The boy seemed to settle down the minute the plucky little lezzie carried him away from the table, although the kid was still sniffling and hiding his head in the woman’s chest as if he was scared out of his skin. 

Tristan knew shit was getting real and decided the best thing he could do was to get the hell out of there as fast as he could. He pushed at Blondie’s shoulder to physically force her to move out of his way. The woman obliged, her attention still distracted by her crying son, as she got up to go to see if she could help the other woman. Together they continued to try and comfort the boy. Tristan tugged at the shoulder of Brunet Guy’s shirt to get him moving too. Michael did get up from the booth but then hesitated, standing in the middle of the aisle between the tables and the counter for at least half a minute, while he looked back and forth between Tristan and the two women holding the crying baby. 

“You coming or am I going to have to hitchhike to work today?” Tristan asked, causing Brunet Guy to scowl at him, but since that was a normal reaction, it was sort of reassuring, and Tristan would happily take it. 

“I gotta drop Boy Wonder off at Brian’s office,” Michael advised the girls, leaning in to kiss first the dark haired one and then the blond one on each of their cheeks, before ruffling the little boy’s chestnut-colored curls. “Can you gimme a call later at the store, Mel? I’ve got some . . . Uh . . . Some legal stuff to ask you about.” 

The dark one, Mel, responded with a distracted grunt of ascent as she reseated herself in the now empty booth and carried on with her soothing of the still-whining little brat. Tristan didn’t stick around to watch, though. He knew the best thing he could do was to get his minder out of there before Brunet Guy figured out what it was that had caused the boy to go berserk. Even a moron like Michael would eventually pick up on the way the kid had shied away from his buddy ‘Justin’ if given half a chance, so it was incumbent on Tristan to get him out of there as fast as he could. Hopefully, before that connection was made and, by extension, he was made too.

Michael didn’t say anything more to Tristan on the drive from the Diner to Kinnetik. Which was a welcome break as far as the nervous con artist was concerned. It wasn’t like Brunet Gut was a brilliant conversationalist at the best of times, right? And tight then, Tristan was feeling too keyed up to talk, even assuming he’d be able to stay in character. All he wanted was to get away from the meddlesome busybody, get to the damn office, and plot out how he was going to get out of this con with all his loot. Before getting caught. 

When they finally arrived at the building where the Kinnetik offices were, Tristan jumped out of Brunet Guy’s car without saying goodbye. He was feeling too squicked to bother standing around making small talk with Ms. Thang or Mr. Desperation, who were both waiting for him in the reception area. He just waved as he bolted for the office that was being used as the ‘Art Department’. He didn’t relax until he had the door closed and locked behind him. 

“Shit! Shit, shit, shit! Stupid little brat blowing my cover . . .” he grumbled under his breath, trying to think what he should do and calculate how likely it was that Brunet Guy would connect all the dots. He pulled out his double’s phone and looked at the time, cursing silently because he knew it was way too early in the morning to call Hugo or any of his other friends. “Damn it. Daddy would have my ass in a sling if I called and woke him up before ten in the morning.” He flopped down in the comfortable chair at the big drafting table and growled at the world. “Fine. I can figure this out on my own, I guess. I just need to come up with some cover story that’ll let me leave here in the middle of the work day without Ms. Thang asking too many questions . . .”

Brian was in the taxi on his way to meet Clifford and Lula Carter, who’d driven up all the way from Springfield to see him, when he received a text from Michael that was just strange enough that it got his attention. 

Mikey: ‘Something’s not right. Gus says Justin isn’t Justin and he’s been acting weird all week. I don’t know what to do. Call me as soon as you can.’

Brian rolled his eyes at the cryptic message, shook his head, and immediately hit the icon pic of Michael’s face at the top of the message app to call his friend. “What the fuck do you mean that Justin isn’t Justin?” he demanded before Michael even had a chance to say hello.

“So, we were at the Diner this morning when the girls came in with Gus,” Michael launched into a full play-by-play description of what happened. “. . . And then Gus threw a total fit and refused to go to Justin screaming ‘Not my Justin!’ over and over. It was the weirdest thing.” Brian didn’t know what to say to that so he just waited and, right on cue, Michael continued on as if the words couldn’t be stopped. “But, what was even weirder was that Justin didn’t really seem to want to hold Gus either. He was kinda, like, cowering away from Gus in the corner of the booth. And, I didn’t really think about it much at the time, you know, but later, after I got to the store, that whole scene just kept bothering me. So I called Lindz and she was still freaking out about it all too. Lindsey mentioned that she’d never seen Justin NOT rush to hold Gus. Not ever. Like, from the first day they met, Gus and Justin had just meshed, you know? She said she remembered it really well because Gus is usually shy with strangers and all but he took to Justin that first morning they met. What’s even more freaky, though, is that Lindsey said she’d tried to ask Gus about what happened after they got back home and Gus had just kept insisting that it wasn’t Justin. So, that’s creepy, right?”

“It wasn’t Justin?” Brian echoed, not knowing what else to say, but getting a really bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. 

“Which makes no sense, right?” Michael kept jabbering on. “Cuz Boy Wonder was sitting right there in front of me looking just like he always does. But then I got to thinking about all the other crazy shit Justin’s been doing and saying the past couple of days since you left and I just . . . Well, it doesn’t make sense. He’s been acting so strange. Not like himself at all, you know? And saying shit that doesn’t even sound like him. Hell, I don’t fucking know what’s going on, Brian, but . . . But I know it’s not right. Something isn’t right.”

Brian’s cab arrived at the coffee shop where he was supposed to meet his clients and he tossed a twenty to the driver before getting out. Then he just stood there on the sidewalk, stunned, while a million different thoughts circulated through his brain. 

Justin not answering his texts and calls. 

Justin ending the calls he had taken as quickly as possible.

Justin insisting that Brian didn’t need to come home and not acting like he cared about Brian being gone even a tiny bit.

Justin bitching him out and telling him he had a life outside of Brian’s calls and texts.

Justin drinking beer and waking up hungover.

Justin flirting with Cynthia and calling her ‘Doll’.

Justin making a comment about Mikey staying to watch them having phone sex and saying something about not giving free shows.

Justin acting like he didn’t want anything to do with Gus. 

Then it hit Brian that, so far, Justin hadn’t once told him he loved him when they’d hung up. Or that he’d missed him. Or called him ‘Just Brian’. Or said any of the million and one endearing things that his Justin said every single fucking day . . .

“Fuck!” he cursed, loudly enough that a couple of folks passing on the sidewalk looked at him with concern. “Listen to me, Mikey. Are you listening? I need you to tell me exactly what you mean when you say Justin’s been acting strange. I want to know everything that’s been going on since I left. Every single fucking thing . . .”



Chapter End Notes:

4/9/21 - Sorry for the late night stealth posting. But, everyone's happy that Brian’s finally caught on to the fact that there’s an imposter back in the Pitts, right? Can I get a couple of ‘Yay!’s? And how perfect was it that Gus was the key! Go, Gus! Now, I only have about 3-4 chapters to wrap up this story, so hang in there! TAG

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