Chapter 21 - Untwine.
It wasn’t as easy to get Justin home as Brian had expected, unfortunately.
First, they drove to the Cat Lady’s house to find Boss, but nobody was home except the cats who meowed at them through the windows of the screen porch. Boss was nowhere in sight either. Justin refused to go home without his puppy, though. After a little discussion, Justin hypothesized that maybe Xylia and Boss had gone to visit Patches at Vince The Vet’s clinic and Brian agreed to try there.
With the help of the internet, Brian was able to track down a nearby Vet Clinic operated by a Dr. Vince Gupta, and Justin confirmed that was the correct place after identifying the vet’s picture on the website. So, with their street boy entourage in tow, they all headed over to see Patches. Tristan and Hunter seemed to find the interaction between Brian and Justin amusing in the extreme and, since neither was eager to go back to a Hugo who was probably still on the warpath, they were content to trudge along in Justin’s wake. When they all arrived at the vet clinic, Vince advised that he hadn’t seen Xylia that afternoon. He was, however, happy to report that Patches was doing much better.
“Yeah, once we’d cleaned her up and washed off all the remaining chemicals that had been causing the irritation to her skin, she rallied pretty quickly,” Dr. Gupta assured them as he helped Justin take the pussy cat out of her cage so they could all pet her. “I’ve got her on antibiotics, which should clear up the infections, but other than that all she needs is a good home and regular feeding.”
“You hear that, Patches,” Justin cooed at the cat who was sitting quite happily in his lap. “You’re going to be just fine. And I’m sure you’ll like living with Ms. Cat Lady. She’s very nice.”
“Oh, I don’t think Xylia was planning on adopting this one too,” Vince The Vet corrected. “She’s already got a houseful. Besides, considering the infections this one is battling, I’d recommend keeping her separated from any other cats until she’s healed; some of these rashes might be the cause of something other than the chemicals she was doused in and, if so, I wouldn’t want it to spread.”
“But, where will she go then?” Tristan asked, petting at the patchy, sore-looking, little body. “You said she needed a good home . . .”
“Hopefully the local animal shelter will help find Patches a good home. Although,” Vince looked a little skeptical, “it might be difficult with her looking like that.”
Everyone looked at the poor cat’s scabby fur and obvious injuries.
“We can’t let poor Patches go to some shelter,” Justin stated, handing off the cat to his double. “Brian, can you pay Dr. Vince some of my money to pay for Patches’ care? I gave him the money I had last night but I think my Cat Lady probably owes him more than what I had from drawing pictures.”
“Wait . . . What?” Brian seemed blindsided by this new demand.
“We can’t let Patches go to a shelter. She’s sick and needs a good home. We’ll have to take her home with us and Boss,” Justin announced as if it was already a done deal.
“Justin . . . We don’t have room in the loft for all these animals,” Brian objected, although his protestations were noticeably weak.
“Please, My Brian,” Justin pleaded, moving close enough so he could use his kisses to persuade the reluctant man. “Patches won’t be happy in some shelter where all the other kitties will get adopted and she won’t. We can take much better care of her.”
“But . . .”
“Brian . . .” Justin said just the one word, with a stern look added in for emphasis, and the Stud was toast.
“Fine . . .” Brian turned to Dr. Vince and asked. “How much do we owe you, Doc?”
Patches was loaded into a cardboard pet carrier which Tristan was given charge of and then the group moved on. Vince informed them that Xylia actually worked part time at a local pet supply store - mostly because, as an employee, she got a discount on the food and other supplies she used to care for her army of strays - and suggested they look for her there. Brian groaned at the additional side trip but knew it wasn’t going to do any good to complain. Besides, he seemed too happy at having recovered his blond to object to any of the youth’s demands and, instead, resigned himself to playing chauffeur. At least for the time being. So, the next stop was the local PetSet Supply store.
Happily, they found both their Cat Lady and their puppy there.
The pet store had a doggy daycare and pet boarding service in-house and they’d been happy to let Xylia park Boss there for the day while she was working. Boss seemed to have made quite a few doggy friends. He was jubilant to see his person, though, and immediately abandoned all his canine playmates the second he heard his human’s voice. Justin was almost as happy to see Boss as he’d been to see Brian and immediately introduced the two. Brian didn’t really know what to do around a dog, as he’d never had a pet before, but Boss didn’t seem to care and licked the man who obviously smelled like his human, accepting him into the pack. It wasn’t quite so easy to get him to accept Tristan and Hunter, though, as the street boys had been taught to be leery of Demarcus’ attack dogs. Justin was determined, though, to make them all friends in the end.
While Justin was introducing the Doberman puppy to his newfound friends, Brian managed to corner the pet store’s owner. “How much does the Cat Lady’s tab for feeding her strays come to?” he asked.
“Well, we sell her the food at cost,” Manager Mike admitted. “But it still comes to almost $500 a month, depending on how often Xylia goes out. She tries to do more in the winter months when the ferals are less likely to be able to find food on their own.”
Brian didn’t hesitate to hand over his credit card. “Set her up an account on this. Whatever she needs, I’ll cover it.”
Xylia, who had just come up to see how everyone at the daycare was getting along, overheard and rushed to head Brian off. “I can’t let you do that, Mr. Kinney.”
She tried to pluck the credit card out of Mike’s hand and return it to Brian, but he refused to take it.
“Nonsense. I’m grateful that you took Justin in last night. If you hadn’t . . . I don’t know what might have happened to him. If he’d been forced to go back to the pimp who’d mistaken him as Stan, things might have turned out a lot worse. So, please, accept this as my way of paying you back.” Brian reached around the woman and made sure the manager had the card so he could go process it. “Besides, you know Justin will be demanding I do this anyway as soon as he’s done collecting his mutt.”
They both looked over at the three young blonds who seemed to be having the time of their lives playing ball toss with all the dogs and laughing together.
“He’s a special young man. I’ve never met anyone as kind as he is before,” Xylia stated, getting a nod and a smile from Brian.
“That he is . . .” Brian moved closer to the boys and spoke up more loudly. “You ready to go get something to eat, Sunshine? You did say before that you were hungry, right? How about we head over to the Diner so Debbie and the gang can see for themselves that you’re okay.”
Three voices yelled loudly enough to startle the dogs, “YAYYYYYY!”
The drive over to the Diner didn’t take very long. Justin was surprised at how close he’d been the whole time he was ‘lost’ to the section of Liberty Avenue he was familiar with. He’d been less than a dozen blocks away from home the whole time. Brian lectured him a little on the drive over about better observing his surroundings and repeating himself for the thousandth time about Justin needing to keep track of his cell phone and his shoes and all his other belongings. Justin promised again to try harder not to lose all his stuff. Brian just shook his head, knowing it was futile, and threatened to have a GPS tracking chip implanted into his backside so Justin couldn’t get lost again. In the end, Brian agreed to settle for forcing Justin to memorize his boyfriend’s cell phone number so the blond would at least remember that next time he needed to contact him.
There was quite a reception awaiting the group when they arrived at the Diner. Brian had texted Deb to let her know he’d found Justin and they were on their way, so of course she’d called everyone. Michael & Emmett were there, along with both Ted and Cynthia. The girls had brought Gus as well and the little boy was scrambling desperately to get to his Jus the minute the lost boy walked through the door. They’d already cleared out three booths in anticipation of the arrival of Brian’s little harem and Justin received a standing ovation from his friends as he came through the entrance to the eatery.
“Get your butt over here and give me a hug, Sunshine,” Debbie announced, her strident voice easily heard even over the welcome of all the others. And, after the hug, she added in a gentle slap to the back of the boy’s head “Don’t you EVER do shit like that again! We were worried sick about you.”
“Ouch!” Justin chirped
Brian pulled his boyfriend out of the woman’s clutches. “No hitting, Deb. He’s still recovering from a head injury. That’s how he got lost in the first place and I don’t want you giving him permanent brain damage or anything.”
Of course, that statement just led to multiple calls for Justin to tell the rest of his story. So, while Debbie rustled up food for all the boys, Justin seated himself in the middle booth, took Gus out of Lindsey’s arms and plopped the tyke down in his lap, and launched into the tale of his excellent adventures. Hunter chimed in every so often, adding nuances and joking about how crazy everyone thought ‘Stan’ had been acting. Tristan himself didn’t know how to react since he still felt a little guilty for deceiving all these people and didn’t know if they’d be pissed off at him, or what, so he didn’t contribute much.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” Emmett commented when Justin had finally finished telling his story. “Right from the beginning. Baby just wasn’t acting like himself. But now it makes perfect sense. Baby wasn’t Baby at all.”
“The only thing I still don’t get,” Ted added, looking quizzically back and forth between the two almost identical blonds, “is how you two can look so much alike. I mean, despite the urban legends about how everyone has a double out there somewhere in the world, it’s statistically improbable that two people would look so similar and not be related. Is there something you haven’t told us about a long, lost twin, Justin.”
“I don’t think so,” Justin assured everyone, although even he looked a bit confused. “It was always just me and my mother as far back as I can remember . . . But my gut says that, maybe, there were a lot more secrets my mother kept from me than just that we had bunches of money from her dead father.” Justin pushed aside the remains of his dinner and turned towards Melanie to ask his next question. “Mel, did any of the papers from my dead mother say anything about this?”
Mel shook her head. “Sorry, Justin. You were the only grandchild listed on the estate paperwork. But, I guess it’s possible your grandfather, Walter, who set up the trust, might not have known about a second child if your mother didn’t tell him. Your mother and her father had been estranged for several years before the trust was set up and we know your mother wasn’t mentally competent for most of her adult life, so . . . I suppose anything’s possible.”
“You said something about growing up on the streets,” Brian commented to Tristan before asking, point blank, what they all really wanted to know. “Know anything about your birth parents?”
Tristan shook his head, his face screwing up as if even thinking about his past hurt him. “Nah. I don’t know anything, actually. I was abandoned as a baby and child services wasn’t ever able to locate my parents.” That factoid shut up everyone who’d been previously speculating, the faces around the table looking on with both pity and shock. Tristan sighed and rolled his eyes. “I was a really sick baby. The doctors said I was born with a hole in my heart and, while most of the time that kind of thing heals on its own, mine didn’t. I had four different surgeries before I was even five in order to fix it.” Tristan pulled aside the collar of his shirt so that those looking on could see the old, faded scars on his chest. “According to the social workers, my real mom apparently took me to the hospital when I was just an infant because I was turning blue or something and, when the doctors told her what the problem was, she just walked away and left me there. She’d used a fake name, so there was no way to trace her. And, because nobody wants to adopt a sick kid, I ended up in the foster system, which was . . . Not fun.”
“Shit, Stan. You never said anything about that,” Hunter spoke up first. “You always joked that the scars were from your first prison break, dude.”
“Yeah, well . . . I didn’t need everyone knowing my business. Besides, the doctors finally fixed my heart up as good as new, so it isn’t really a problem anymore,” Tristan insisted, blowing off any further sympathy.
“What do you think, Sunshine,” Brian turned to ask his boyfriend. “You two certainly LOOK like you could be twins. And, judging by some of the crazy shit you’ve told me about your mother, it wouldn’t be totally out of character for her to walk away from one of her kids . . .”
“I don’t know,” Justin frowned as he delved back into some of the more painful memories of his childhood. “If the voices told her to do something - even if it was to abandon her baby - I don’t think she would have gone against them. At least not for long. But, even so, how would I not know about something like that? Wouldn’t she have said something about it? Wouldn’t I have known, somehow, deep down, that I had a brother out there somewhere?”
“Oh, come on,” Michael piped up from the far corner of the next booth over, where he’d been sitting and listening with a permanent scowl on his face. “This whole story seems a little far fetched, don’t you think? I mean, it’s bad enough that you seemed to have fallen for one blond freeloader, Brian, but now another one just HAPPENS to turn up? And this one is some street kid who was trying to con all of us so he could rob you blind? You’re not going to fall for this story too, are you? It sounds like something out of one of my comic books. A really poorly written comic book at that.”
“Mikey . . .” Brian began to object, but he was interrupted by a furious blond fury.
“No! You just stop that right now, Michael,” Justin insisted, his voice raised and his countenance exhibiting a ferocity most of the gang had never seen from the normally shy and quiet youth. “You don’t get to say mean things to Freaky Friday Boy or Skinny Boy! I don’t care what they did. You don’t know what horrible things their Daddy says to them or the things he tells them they have to do. I was there and I saw. They didn’t have a choice. He makes them do things that are not at all nice in order to bring him money and if they don’t give him enough money he threatens even meaner things.” Justin turned to face Brian, looking a little guilty. “I was so scared when I was there and Hugo thought I was Friday Boy. The other boys said I should have,” he stage whispered the word, “SEX,” then raised his voice to a normal speaking level, “with strange men, so I could get enough money for Hugo. I told them that I couldn’t do that - because I knew you wouldn’t like me to go off with other men - but they said if I didn’t, Hugo would do bad things to me.” Then he turned to face Michael again. “I don’t blame Friday for pretending to be me so he could get away from Hugo for a few days. I wouldn’t even care if he stole some of our money. I’d do the same thing if I was in his place. You don’t get to be mean to him for that because you don’t know what it was like there in the ‘Tarlight.”
Justin’s angry speech shut up Michael, as well as everyone else who’d been listening, including both Tristan and Hunter. Neither of the street boys had ever had anyone defend them like that. Most of the time, when people found out what they did, they’d get pity, at best, or scorn and revulsion, more likely. It did weird things to Tristan’s gut to have someone stand up for him for a change. It had been so long since anyone had cared for him or done anything nice for him.
Before anyone else could say anything either way, though, Emmett spoke up. “I’m with Baby on this one, Michael. When I left Hazelhurst, Mississippi to find my own way in the world - without much more than the clothes on my back, I might add - I came this close,” he held his fingers up with the thumb and forefinger pinched together, “to falling in with someone a lot like this Hugo character. He bought me stuff and took me out to a fancy restaurant and promised me the world but . . . There was just something about the guy I knew I couldn’t trust, you know?” Several people sitting around the tables nodded. “Anyway, a few days later I met Godiva and she set me straight right away. Let’s just say, if I HAD gone off with that loser, I’d probably have ended up in the same boat as these two kids.” Em smiled at the hustlers, before continuing on with a sterner look on his face. “So, I get where you’re coming from, boys. But, that being said - just a warning - don’t mess with our Baby or you’ll regret it as much, or more, than you would have if you were dealing with your Hugo.”
“I already said I wasn’t going to press charges if Stan helped me find Justin,” Brian reassured the leery street boys, “and I’m not going back on the deal but, even so, I would still like to figure out the mystery of if and how you two are related.”
“You could always get DNA tests,” Mel suggested. “That would tell you for certain if you two are genetically related. Although that can take anywhere up to six weeks to get the results.”
“Yeah, um . . .” Brian looked over at his boyfriend’s mirror image and grimaced. “I don’t think we want to wait that long. Especially if Sunshine is determined that Tristan is going to stay with us at the loft until we know for sure what’s up . . .”
“Wait!” Justin shouted and stood up, almost toppling poor Gus, who’d fallen asleep on his favorite babysitter’s lap while the rest of the group was talking. “My mother’s box!”
“Box?” Ted asked for all of them.
“Yeah. She had this box that she kept hidden in the closet of her room,” Justin insisted, already pulling Tristan towards the door. “It has a lock on it and the one time she caught me playing with it she got really angry and yelled at me and told me not to ever touch it, but sometimes, when she was having a hard time with the voices, I would sneak in and watch her, and I saw her looking at stuff in the box and talking to it. There were papers in there. I never saw what the papers said, but maybe they were important papers?” Justin turned back to look at Brian, who was still waiting in the booth. “I know I said before that I didn’t want to go back there ever again, Just Brian, but I think we need to go look at mother’s box and see what secrets she was keeping.”