Brian was just finishing up his lunch at the Diner, when Michael and Emmett tumbled through the entrance, Michael holding up a new comic book he'd apparently just received and Emmett commenting derogatively about the new superhero's costume.
"Come on, Michael - purple and green tights! He looks like a reject from a 1980's step aerobics class. And paired with that bright yellow leotard? I guess I just have an aversion to loud colors on anyone other than me!" Emmett was going on in true fashion diva mode.
"Like I could give a crap about his outfit, Emmett," Michael laughingly retorted. He looked up, quickly spied Brian and steered his friendly fashion consultant over to the booth so they could join their friend. "Hey, Bri. Check out this new graphic novel I just picked up."
"Afternoon, boys," Brian greeted them. "What's new in the land of the super-lame super-geeks?"
"Not much, Brian. Just another fashion tragedy that not even Captain Astro could prevent, I'm afraid," Emmett went on. "So, how are you, Brian. We haven't seen you around much lately. How's that country manor of yours?"
"My country manor is just fine, Emmett. I'm thinking of having a barbeque and inviting over the hetero neighbors next week. Want to help me plan ways to scare the shit out of them about the pending 'invasion of the queers'? It could be fun. I was thinking about handing out dildo's as party favors. What do you think?"
"OOOOH! Excellent. I could invite my friend Godiva and a couple other drag queens I know. That should go over well in the 'burbs," Emmett added clapping his hands and chortling as he came up with other innovative ways to terrorize Brian's new country neighbors.
"In the meantime, Brian, you want to join us tonight at Babylon? It's the Wet Willy contest tonight. I know how much you enjoyed consoling the BIG losers last year. We're meeting at Woody's at 8:00 if you're interested." Michael interrupted the escalating barbeque plans before his friends got too out of control.
"Sorry, Mikey. Can't. I've got plans," was Brian's terse response.
"Come on, Bri. We never see you anymore. You've always loved the Wet Willy contest," pleaded Michael. He truly was a little concerned about his friend - it wasn't just his standard complaint or a desire for company this time. Ever since Brian had moved out of the loft he'd been a little reclusive. And now that he lived so much further away from all of them, it was harder to keep tabs on their friend to make sure he was doing okay. Everyone had noticed that Brian hadn't been the same since that weirdness last New Year's. No one mentioned it anymore, not even Brian, but Michael suspected that his friend was still stewing over that mysterious lost 'Justin' guy. Michael decided that enough was enough. time to get Brian back - back to the clubs and bars and baths where the other man had always seemed to enjoy himself. Enough with the self-pity, he thought.
"I told you, Mikey. I've got plans."
"What plans?" persisted Michael.
"I'm going dancing," Brian said with an inscrutable gleam in his eyes. "And then, maybe, I'll try some batting practice."
Michael was not sure he liked the mysterious tone in Brian's voice at that last comment. However, if Brian was really actually going out tonight, even if it wasn't with the rest of their little group of friends, it was definitely a step in the right direction, he thought. "Well, okay, then. Hope you have a good time. If you get done early though, you can always meet up with us at the club later."
"I might just do that, Mikey," Brian added, thinking that if everything went the way he hoped, it just might be an option. "Well, gotta get back to work, boys. Later."
(May 20, 2002 - 1:30 pm)
"Hey, Daph. I'm totally swamped right now. You'll have to have a seat and wait a bit before I can take a break, okay. Can I get you something?" Justin tossed out to his friend as he rushed past her to pick up a waiting order cooling in the kitchen window.
"No problem, Jus!" Daphne noted as he dashed past again in the other direction. Daphne silently thought to herself that it was great that Justin was being kept so busy - today of all days. The busier her friend was, the less time he would have to think.
"Hey sweetie. How ya doing today," said Debbie to the curly-haired young brunette woman who had just seated herself at the counter.
"I'm fine. Just here to check up on you-know-who and make sure he's doing okay, you know."
"Yeah - I know. I already talked to Jennifer this morning. I told her I'd personally make sure Justin was on the schedule today so he'd be super busy and his pretty little tush would be where we could all keep an eye on him. His mom said that he had a really hard time last year - do you think it'll be better this year?" Debbie asked conspiratorily of Justin's best friend.
"It was bad last year. Really bad. Jennifer was almost ready to put him back in the hospital - the panic attacks were so bad for a couple of days. But, he seems to be doing a little better this year. He's been really depressed for the last few months though, so I don't know. We'll just have to wait and see." Daphne confided in the older woman. She was glad to know, though, that Justin had so many other people out there watching out for him on this tragic day.
As she looked around to try and keep an eye on the object of everyone's attention, she noted another member of 'Team Justin' entering the Diner and waved Emmett over to join her. Emmett was the newest member to have been let in on the conspiracy. He and Justin had forged a strong friendship over the past few months and the kind-hearted older man had willingly joined in on the plans to keep Justin occupied and distracted today in the hopes of avoiding another reoccurrence of last year's bashing anniversary debacle. Daphne and Emmett had already worked out a plan to take Justin out for pizza and a movie as soon as he got off work this evening. Between the two of them, she thought they had a pretty good chance of keeping Justin from going off the deep end this year. At least she hoped so.
(May 20, 2000 - 4:30 pm)
"Cynthia, did the dry-cleaners drop off my tux yet," Brian's voice came through the speaker on his assistant's phone.
"Yes. They just delivered it about fifteen minutes ago. And, I confirmed with the car service that they'll have the limo ready and pick you up at the loft at 8:00 pm," the capable and well-trained woman responded. "So, are you gonna tell me what this is all about now?"
"Nope. Thanks, Cynthia," Brian said as he hit the button to cut off the intercom.
Brian meanwhile was pacing in his office. It seemed like his plans were all falling into place now. He was still antsy though and couldn't concentrate on what he was supposed to be working on. It was way too early to start getting ready for tonight, but it was a Saturday and he felt bad about keeping Cynthia here so late on a weekend, especially if he wasn't going to actually be doing anything productive. 'Shit,' he thought. 'Might as well let everyone go home and take off myself. I'm not accomplishing anything here anyway and I can pace at the loft as easily as I can here.'
So saying, Brian gathered up his briefcase, intercommed Cynthia to tell her to send everyone home for the day, and headed out to the entry to grab his freshly cleaned tux and start for home himself.
(May 20, 2002 - 4:30 pm)
Justin was bushed. He'd been kept running all afternoon. It seemed like Debbie kept coming up with inventive new ways to keep him busy - every time he was almost done with the last task she'd set him, she would be sending him off in a different direction. He was really too tired to go out with Daph and Em tonight, but they'd been on him about this for a while now, so he didn't think they'd let him off the hook at this late date.
"Deb, I'm going to take the garbage out and then go get cleaned up. Daphne and Emmett should be here soon to pick me up. Okay?" Justin asked as the waitress passed him carrying a tray full of food for Table #3.
"No, problem, sweetie. Have a good time tonight!"
"Thanks. 'Night, Deb," Justin added as he headed out the back with the large black plastic garbage bag dragging behind him.
Just then the bell over the entrance pealed out its plaintive little 'ding' and Debbie looked up to see her son shuffling into the Diner carrying a largish box full of assorted odds & ends. From the morose look on his face, Debbie guessed right away what Michael had been thinking about this afternoon and also what was probably in the box. Checking quickly to assure herself that Justin had already left, she hurried over to console her son who had just set the box on the floor and seated himself on a stool.
"Sweetheart, how you holding up?" she asked as she leaned down to give Michael a hug.
"Been better," was the succinct reply. "I was out at the house today. I figured I should finally start clearing some of his stuff out. It's been two years now, so . . . . Well, I guess it's finally time."
"You should have let me know, honey. I would have come with you," Debbie tried to console her boy.
"It's okay. I needed to do this myself, I guess. Gawd, Ma! I still can't believe it's been two years. I miss him, every day." Michael was trying to keep it together but Debbie could see tears in his eyes just waiting to fall.
"Anyway, I grabbed some stuff that I thought you might want to keep. You can go through it later if you want."
"How about let's take a look right now, huh? Debbie bent to lift up the box and set it on the counter so they could look through the contents together.
The first thing she pulled out of the box was a beautifully framed pastel drawing of Liberty Avenue. It had been a favorite. She held it up to the light and the mother and son spent a few moments looking at the exquisitely done artwork showing a slice of their little community.
"Oh!" came the small noise from behind the pair. Debbie whirled around to see Justin, who had just returned from dumping the trash, standing a few paces behind them, mesmerized by the drawing Michael was still holding up.
"Deb, where . . . where did you get that drawing?" the stunned blond asked in a small, pained voice.
Debbie was unsure exactly how best to respond, and while she was still framing her answer, Michael spoke up for her. "It belonged to a friend of mine. I was cleaning some stuff out of his house today. He always loved this drawing. I thought maybe Ma would like to keep it."
"Justin, honey, aren't you going to be late for your date with Daphne. You should probably get going," Debbie tried to interrupt.
Justin's feet felt like they were glued to the spot - he couldn't move, he had to find out about the drawing, which he was still staring at unblinkingly.
"Your friend . . . what's his name?" Justin asked of Michael, ignoring Debbie's attempts to distract him or, in the alternative, shut Michael up.
Michael, appeared oblivious to Debbie' efforts (Debbie was, at that moment, standing behind Justin waving her hands in the air at Michael), and bluntly responded, "Brian. Brian Kinney. Did you know him?"
"Yeah. I know him," Justin whispered, his left hand raised tracing the lines of the drawing as he spoke, a bewildered expression on his handsome face.
"Do you know how, um . . . how I can get in touch with him. Is he anywhere I can . . . um . . .r each him."
"I'm sorry. He . . . died. Two years ago today, actually," Michael said with a catch in his voice and the tears in his eyes, again threatening to fall.
Justin took two steps backward, his hand jerking back away from the drawing to cover his mouth as if to hold in the tiny whimper of pain that nonetheless managed to escape his lips.
"He was killed . . . he'd been trying to stop some homophobic asshole who was bashing a kid. The fucking monster beat him so badly he bled out before anyone found him," Michael sobbed out, completely unaware of the pain he was inflicting on the young man in front of him, lost in his own painful memories. "He was my best friend. I loved him so much. God, I miss him so much."
Justin looked up at Debbie with a dazed expression. It was as if the words hadn't yet penetrated the barriers of his mind. Debbie looked at the poor boy, compassion flooding her countenance as she reached out to try and enfold him in her arms. Her actions were interrupted though by the entrance of Daphne and Emmett who approached the scene warily, unsure what had transpired but aware that there was something going on affecting their friends, causing them pain.
"Jus, are you okay?" began Daphne.
She was immediately interrupted by her friend, who demanded, "What day is it, Daph? It's today, isn't it. It's TODAY!" Justin shouted at the top of his lungs to the Diner at large.
"Justin, honey. Calm down. It's okay - you're going to be okay, sweetie," Debbie was intoning, trying to pacify the frantic youth.
Justin regarded the woman reaching out to him and then spun around to see his best friend also looking at him with that same, knowing, sympathic concern on her face.
"You knew. Didn't you? You all knew - it was him. You knew and didn't tell me. FUCK YOU! How could you not tell me," Justin was frantic with rage and shock. He was backing away from the four people who were still standing around the almost forgotten drawing, watching the young man's melt down.
"Justin, we didn't want to make it any worse. You were so upset. You didn't remember anything and your mom and the doctors thought it was better, for now, if you just didn't have to know," Daphne tried to explain. Justin just kept backing away from the group, accusations darting from his eyes.
"You too, Debbie?" Justin shot out at the older woman. "Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Honey, I met your mother at the hospital that night. You were still in surgery and I was waiting to find out if . . . well, they were never able to revive Brian. We kind of kept up, you know. And when you decided to move to this neighborhood, Jennifer called me to see if I could hook you up with a job and all. She told me that your doctors had recommend that we not tell you about Brian. I didn't even tell Michael or his friends about the connection. We didn't want to upset you. You're still so fragile . . ." she tried to console the frantic young man.
"Oh god, oh god, oh god, ohgod, ohgod, ohgod ohgodohgodohgodohgod . . ." Justin intoned as he crumpled to the ground in pain and terror, once again reliving that horrendous night.
Justin knew now with complete certainty that it had all been his fault. He was responsible. Brian was dead and it was his fault. Brian had gone to the Prom for him - to find him - it was his fault.
Without warning, Justin vaulted to his feet and raced out of the Diner, leaving his stunned audience still standing there unsure of what had just happened or how to help the scared young man.