Woody's wasn't as bad as Justin had feared. They arrived late enough that most of the rowdy crowd had moved on to Babylon already and so they could actually find a table and play pool. Emmett wanted to know every detail about Justin's decorating choices. Ted and Michael were both eyeing different men they wanted to approach, but were too cowardly to actually do it. And Brian happily flitted from group to group, like a hostess at a cocktail party.
"He's been watching you all night," Emmett said. "Even while he's flirting with every man in Pittsburgh."
"He's worried about me," Justin chuckled. "I still don't do well in big crowds. This is only the second time I've been out to a bar since the attack."
"What happened with the first one," Emmett asked.
"The first one was in London," Justin smiled remembering. "We made a deal, he went to see Wicked with me, and I went to the club. It was a small place, not unlike Woody's, but it was smokier and there were more people. I was fine as long as we were together, but at one point he left to get drinks and I started to panic. By the time he got back to me, I was almost hyperventilating. I calmed down almost as soon as he came back, but he wanted to leave right then. The thing was, I didn't want to leave. I wanted to dance. It had been so long. So I convinced him to stay a while longer. After that, he wouldn't leave my side, but it was good. That I could stay at all means I'm starting to get better. Maybe someday soon, I'll be able to go back to Babylon."
"But not tonight," Emmett said.
"No, not tonight," Justin agreed. "There has been too much tension and stress today for me to try tonight. It would be a complete disaster."
"No, Justin's going home with me to take a bath," Brian told Emmett. "He's got all these essential oils and comes out smelling like lavender and roses." Brian made a face at that, but Justin just laughed. He knew Brian didn't mind the smell or he wouldn't join him as often as he did.
"It's lavender and bergamot. You'd love them Em," Justin said. "And they really do help take away stress and tension."
"Next time you restock, give me a jingle and I'll go with you," Emmett said.
"This place is dead," Michael complained as he and Ted joined them. "Why don't we head over to Babylon? It's got to be hopping by now."
"You guys go on," Brian said without looking at Justin. "I've had a tough week at work and I want to go home early."
"But Brian," Michael whined. "You've been gone and haven't been out with us in ages."
"I'm out with you now," Brian said with false joviality. "We've had a good time, but now I want to go home. Is there a problem with that?"
Michael must have heard Brian's underlying warning because he backed off. "No, it's fine. Are we on for breakfast at the diner tomorrow?"
"Actually, Justin and I have plans for tomorrow," Brian said. "We're going car shopping."
"You're buying the twink a car?" Michael shouted, no longer able to hold back his true feelings. "You just bought him an apartment and let him spend a fortune on decorating it!"
Brian glared. "Our finances are none of your business, Michael."
"For your information," Justin put in hotly, "I received control of my trust fund recently, so no, Brian is not paying for my car. I am. And the studio is something we did together."
"I think we should go," Brian told Justin before turning to Michael. "And you better get your act together, or this will be the last night we hang out together. If this is your best behavior, it's seriously lacking."
Justin was too pissed off to argue with Brian about leaving, though he did hate that the evening ended so badly. And he felt bad for poor Emmett and Ted who would be stuck listening to the great whiner.
"Call me, Emmett," Justin said as he gathered his jacket. "We'll set up a time to go look for those bath oils."
"Will do," Emmett said cheerfully, willfully ignoring the tension in the air.
"See ya, Ted," Brian said and then they were leaving.
Brian waited until they were in the parking lot before exploding. "Mother fucking asshole! He stood in our home, going on and on about how he could see how wrong he'd been, and then he pulls this shit! Well, it will be a cold day in hell before he's welcome in our home again!"
"Brian. Brian!" It took two tries before Brian calmed down enough to look at Justin. "Give it time. Maybe it was just too soon."
"You're defending him?" Brian asked, outraged. "He all but called you a whore, in case you didn't notice."
Justin laughed darkly. "I noticed all right. And so did half the bar. That is the only reason I said anything about the trust. But Brian, he's had less than a week to come to terms with everything, and we keep throwing more at him. He didn't know about the apartment until he got there. And he certainly didn't know about the car, since we just decided on that. It was a lot for him to take in, especially considering he's still trying to work through his issues with us."
Brian had visibly calmed as Justin spoke. "It still doesn't give him the right to talk about you like that."
"No it doesn't," Justin said. "But it doesn't make him a monster because he jumped to the wrong conclusions."
Brian took a deep breath and sighed. "Alright, I'll give us both time to cool off and think before I talk to him."
"Good," Justin said. "Now take me home so we can take that bath. I think we both need it tonight."
Justin picked Emmett up on Sunday morning in his new CR-V. It was black, fully loaded, top of the line, and Brian had haggled the price down to fit under their budget. It was a warm spring day, so Justin put the windows down and opened the moon roof and let the fresh air wake him up.
Justin called Emmett when he reached the apartment the older man shared with Michael. He didn't want to have a run in with Michael so soon after Friday night's disaster. So he sipped his latte and waited for Emmett to come downstairs. When Emmett arrived, he stopped to look over Justin's new ride before getting in.
"Wow, Mr. Trust Fund," Emmett teased. "Nice wheels."
Justin handed Emmett the latte he had picked up for him and snorted. "You should have seen Brian dealing with the salesman. I don't think the man knew what hit him. He got this thing fully loaded, with the navigation system and extended warranty, at about five grand below sticker price."
"Leather seats, wood grain finish on the interior, six CD changer, and satellite radio too?" Emmett asked. "The salesman must have been gay and gagging for a go."
"Surprisingly, no," Justin laughed as he pulled away from the curb. "Had a picture of the wife and kids on his desk and kept glancing at us and looking nervous when we would touch each other. Of course, that made Brian act out more. He kept using pet names and holding my hand. He even kissed my cheek a few times. It was nauseating. I think the poor breeder was just happy to give us a deal to finally get us out of the showroom."
Emmett laughed. "Not your typical negotiation tactic, but when was Brian ever typical?" Emmett sipped his latte and sighed, "This is heavenly. Just what I needed to wake up, thank you. So, where are we headed?"
"Out to Ross Park Mall," Justin told him. "Brian refuses to set foot in the place, but that's where the homeopathic store is where I get my essential oils. It's actually not far from my mom's house."
"How is she doing since the divorce?" Emmett asked. "I saw her last weekend when we were moving you, but didn't really get the chance to talk."
"She's doing better than my father, apparently," Justin snorted at the irony of that. His father had always needed to be in control of everything, but now that he was on his own, he couldn't even seem to manage his own dry cleaning. "You know she got her real estate license, right?" Emmett nodded. "Well, she's been doing really great. She's sold at least three houses every month since she started. With those commissions, the interest from her inheritance from my grandfather, and child support my father is required to pay for Molly, she's better off financially now than she was living with my father."
"What about emotionally?" Emmett asked.
"She still has bad days," Justin admitted. "But she's started dating again."
"Really? Is he dreamy?" Emmett asked with excitement, ready for the juicy details.
Justin laughed. "He's okay for a man in his fifties, I guess."
"A little old for Jennifer, isn't he?"
"That's what I said, but she pointed out the age difference between me and Brian and I couldn't argue," Justin shrugged. "He's nice enough. I've known him for years. He was my grandfather's lawyer and always seemed to be around after grandfather died. Anyway, they reconnected when my mother fought my father over my trust. Jeff was the one who set up the trust and he was happy to work with my mom and her lawyer to make sure it was executed properly. His wife died a few years ago from cancer. He's got two kids, but they're both older than me."
"Sounds like true romance," Emmett sighed. "Love that was denied by time and circumstance can finally be given the chance to blossom and grow."
Justin laughed again. "Emmett this is my mother we're talking about, not some tragic heroine from one of your novels. They are old friends who decided to give dating a try."
Emmett sighed dramatically. "If you say so."
"How was Michael after we left the other night?" Justin asked in an attempt to change the subject.
"He was..." Emmett sighed again. "He was ugly, honey. We went to Babylon and he drank way too much. He picked up some loser and spent some time in the back room. It was like he was trying to channel the old Brian but was just too pathetic to pull it off."
"He doesn't have the looks or the personality to be Brian," Justin said.
"You could do it," Emmett said thoughtfully. "You've got the same kind of draw that Brian has, even though you express it in a different way."
Justin shrugged. "Maybe. But I don't see the point in it all. Even Brian has mostly given that up."
"He gave up the casual sex," Emmett clarified, "But he hasn't given up the need for the hunt. Just look at how he got this car. He was ruthless in his tactics. And I'm sure it's the same at work. I doubt that it's a coincidence that he got the partnership after he stopped putting all his energy into getting laid. He's channeling that energy elsewhere and you are both reaping the dividends."
"I've told him I don't expect monogamy," Justin said. "I know that there is still a part of him that needs to prove to himself and the world that he can still get any man he sets his eyes on. It's all part of his insecurities resulting from a shitty childhood. But the more secure he is in our relationship, the less he feels the need to prove himself."
"So you just have to make sure our boy feels all manly and secure," Emmett smiled and patted Justin's leg. "And not be disappointed when he falls off the wagon."
Justin laughed and pulled into a parking spot near the mall doors. "Let's go put a dent in my new platinum card."
While Justin was off with Emmett, Brian spent two hours at the gym, fending off four offers to fuck in the sauna, and then went in to work for a few hours. In the past, Sunday afternoons had meant dinner at Debbie and Vic's but now... Well, Brian was not ready to deal with Michael yet. Besides, he had a new company in his sights and had some research to do.
Living Well health food markets were a growing company, quietly making inroads into urban and suburban markets all over the northeast. They had made great strides through grassroots marketing, but Brian knew he could make them a household name all over the country. They were still small enough to consider a local advertising agency, but they had the potential to become a national chain. If he could get them now, before they struck gold, and had his percentage set in stone, he would make a killing when he took them national.
All he needed was the right campaign.
Spring seemed to melt away into summer. Brian was busy with his latest campaign and was making real headway with the Living Well people. Justin was caught up in finishing Gus' room and his finals. Nothing had changed with Michael in the weeks since the blowup at Woody's, though Ted hinted to Emmett, who promptly told Justin, that he might be coming around.
Brian wasn't sure he wanted Michael to come around. He was happy with his life right now, despite the difficulties with Mikey. Debbie and Vic had started coming over to the loft for dinner once a week, so he still had them thanks to Justin's interference. He didn't see Ted as much as before, but that wasn't a great loss. Emmett was around quite often these days, he had even posed for Justin's final project for one of his classes. Lindsey and Gus came by regularly, and Brian often accompanied Justin on his Thursday night baby-sitting duties to spend more time with his Sonny Boy.
Work was really rolling. Since Green Hill, he had created and signed three other new campaigns. Ryder was slowly backing out of the daily operations, as they had agreed when Brian had signed on as partner. And if things kept up the way they had been, Brian would be able to buy out Ryder much earlier than they had originally planned. Within a year, the agency could be his outright.
That was the real reason he and Justin were on a budget, and why he had put off any renovations to the loft. If he wasn't financially preparing for the transfer, he never would have agreed to accept Justin's trust payments, and when they were on stable footing again, he would insist that those funds should stay in the trust, where they were secure and could continue to grow. Justin might not like it, but Brian was sure he could convince him that it was in both of their best interests in the long run. For now, they were living off their joint account, each contributing monthly to cover their living costs, mortgage and car payments.
"Brian?" Brian's assistant stuck her head in his doorway. "Justin's on your private line and I'm going home. You should too. It's after seven already."
"Thanks, Cynthia. Have a goodnight," Brian said.
"You too," Cynthia replied before disappearing.
"Hey," Brian said into the phone.
"Hey yourself," Justin laughed. "Are you coming home soon?"
Brian looked at the stack of paperwork and mock-ups awaiting his approval. "I'll probably be another hour or so, why?"
"I thought I might come pick you up and take you to dinner," Justin told him. "I've been too busy finishing my projects for the year end show to think about eating, but I just dropped the last canvases at the school gallery and realized I'm starving."
"Sounds good to me," Brian sighed. "But I really need to get through this shit before tomorrow."
"Don't worry about it," Justin said. "I told Debbie I might swing by the diner to say hi for a minute. And she's sure to feed me something to tide me over. Then I'll come by and pick you up, okay?"
"Yeah," Brian agreed. "If you'll drop me off in the morning, I can just leave the jeep in the garage here tonight."
"It's a plan," Justin said. "I'll be by, when? Eight thirty?"
"Yeah," Brian said. "Call me if I'm not down there when you get here."
"I know," Justin laughed. "Want me to pass anything on to Debbie?"
"Nothing that can't wait until dinner tomorrow night," Brian said. "Later?"
Brian had just reached the sidewalk when Justin pulled up to the curb, and he could tell right away that something had upset him. If his distracted and nervous manner weren't enough of a give away, the fact that Justin gave Brian the keys to his CR-V and asked him to drive would have been.
"What's up?" Brian asked, once they were on their way to Roxanne's. He'd called for reservations after hanging up with Justin earlier.
"Michael came into the diner while I was there," Justin said. "He said he wanted to apologize. And he wants to talk to me about some business venture."
"What sort of business venture?" Brian asked. "He sank every penny he had into that comic book shop, so I can't imagine he has a lot of capital to be investing right now."
"I don't know," Justin said. "The whole conversation gave me the creeps. He kept smiling at me and looking at me. If I didn't know he had spent the afternoon with his mother, I would have sworn he was on something."
"So what did you tell him?" Brian asked with a frown.
"I told him that I would need to discuss any possible business ventures with you," Justin sighed. "I think that was what he wanted. He lit up and invited us both over for coffee tomorrow."
"But Deb and Vic are over tomorrow," Brian objected.
"I know," Justin sighed. "And I think he knew it too, because when I said we had plans, he said he could come to the loft if it was more convenient."
Brian sighed. "So Mikey's going to show up for dinner tomorrow?"
"No," Justin laughed a little. "Debbie walked up right then and caught on to what was going on. She called him on being rude enough to invite himself to our house. And then she looked at me and said maybe neutral ground would be best. So we're supposed to go to Debbie's for brunch on Saturday."
"Do you think he's... trying to do something?" Brian asked, feeling bad being wary of his best friend's motives.
"I don't know," Justin said. "But nothing about him rang sincere to me, Brian. Maybe he thinks if he can just pretend to like me he can fix things with you. I don't know."
Brian pulled into the restaurant parking lot and parked the SUV. He took Justin's hand and said, "I guess we'll just have to wait and see how it all plays out."