Saturday morning, Brian and Justin arrived at Debbie's house right on time. They were both apprehensive about the coming meeting, and both men had been unusually quiet the entire trip over. Brian parked the jeep and met Justin on the sidewalk. They walked to the house together, unconsciously putting up a united front from the very beginning.
"Hey Sunshine!" Debbie smiled as she opened the door for them. "And Brian. I'm glad you decided to come."
"I wouldn't let Justin face this alone," Brian told her quietly. "Has Michael told you what this is all about?"
She shook her head. "He hasn't said a word about it, the little shit. He's been here for two hours making sure everything is perfect. Driving Vic nuts, if you want to know the truth. Well come in; don't stand on the porch all day."
Justin gave her a nervous smile but followed her into the small living room. "Something smells great."
"Uncle Vic made quiche," Michael chirped as he entered the room. "And spinach salad. I'm glad you both decided to come. We have so much to talk about!"
"Well, before you boys get down to it, I think we should sit down and eat," Debbie commanded. "Things are always easier with a full stomach."
"I'm not so sure about that," Justin whispered to Brian. He was feeling distinctly queasy.
They all sat around the small kitchen table and Debbie and Vic made an effort to keep the conversation light, but Brian remained silent throughout and Justin only answered questions directed to him. It was a relatively brief meal, but it felt like it took forever before Debbie and Vic shooed the younger men into the living room so she and Vic could clean up.
"So what is this about?" Brian asked as soon as they sat down. It was the first time he had spoken to Michael since they had arrived.
Michael looked at his oldest friend and seemed to get serious. "Well, I wanted to apologize to Justin-well, to both of you-for the way I behaved before. It was wrong."
"Yes it was," Brian said, coolly.
Michael seemed disconcerted that Brian didn't just jump at his apology. "Um, well, yeah. I wanted to let you both know that I'm going to make a better effort to accept your relationship in the future. To that end, I wanted to make a proposition. I've been thinking about it since they killed off Captain Astro and I think the world is ready for a gay superhero. I've got loads of story ideas, but I need an artist to make them come to life. What do you say, Justin?"
Justin raised his eyebrows in surprise and sat back in his chair. What did he think? He thought this was a monumentally bad idea, that's what he thought.
"Well, I..."Justin hesitated, but then gathered his wits about him. "It sounds like a good concept."
"I knew you'd do it," Michael smirked.
"I didn't say that," Justin denied. "I think it's a good concept, but there are some rather large problems with having me draw the panels for you, not the least of which is the fact that I'm not a graphic artist, I'm a painter. I might be able to do an okay job of it, but if you want this to sell, you need someone who specializes in that type of drawing."
"You won't do it?" Michael asked, disappointment and anger flaring in his eyes.
"I can connect you with a friend from school who does graphic art almost exclusively," Justin went on. "Considering how complicated everything is right now, I think it would be a better option for all involved."
Michael scowled, but nodded. "Who is this guy?"
"Her name is Claudia," Justin said. "And she is an amazing artist. She was just complaining to me the other day that she had nothing to keep her occupied over the summer. She loves comic book art. I'll give her a call for you, if you want."
Michael looked away and nodded. "Thanks."
Brian finally spoke up, "Listen Mikey. If this is your dream, then go for it. Justin's right. You should have the best. In this case, that appears to be this Claudia girl. And if you need start up money, or you want help marketing the comic book when it's finished, Justin and I will help. Alright?"
Justin raised his eyes at that, but didn't contradict Brian.
"Yeah," Michael sighed. "Sorry I'm being such a twit. I just thought this would be a good way for Justin and me to get past our differences."
"The only thing that will work for that is time and effort," Brian said.
"Why don't you come to the school's year end show tonight and you can see some of Claudia's work. If you like it I can introduce you to her and you can make your case," Justin suggested.
"I'll do that," Michael smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Ma and Uncle Vic already said they were going, so I can just go with them."
"Sounds like a plan," Brian said.
"Are you sure you want him there tonight?" Brian asked after they had said their goodbyes and were back in the jeep.
"Sure? No." Justin sighed. "But it does seem the easiest way to introduce him to Claudia."
"It's just that you worked so hard all year for this," Brian said. "I would hate to have anything spoil it for you."
Justin smiled. "He won't spoil it. Debbie will kill him if he fucks up my night. She said as much when you were in the kitchen with Vic."
"Good." Brian said. "She'll keep him in line, then."
"Um Brian," Justin said hesitantly. "Are you sure we can afford to back this little project?"
Brian sighed. "Yes and no. I was going to wait to tell you all of this when I was more sure of the timeline. When I became partner, part of the agreement was that I would buy Ryder out when I could. He wants to retire, and I want the company. That's why I've been working so hard and why we've been budgeting so closely. As things stand now, with all the new business I've been bringing in, and my percentages in their contracts, I was hoping I could pull it off by the end of the year. But..."
"But if we invest in Michael's dream, yours may have to be put off for a little while," Justin concluded. "Brian, are you sure you want to do that?"
"No," Brian said, echoing Justin's earlier answer. "But if this is real...if he really is attempting to work this out...then I have to be willing to make a conciliatory gesture too."
"Delaying your dream is more than just a gesture," Justin told him. "But I'll back you whatever you decide. Whatever happens, we're in this together."
Brian grabbed Justin's hand and glanced at his partner. "Thanks."
Justin was pacing a hole in the loft's floor as he waited for Brian to finish getting ready. "Come on Brian. We're going to be late."
"We aren't going to be late," Brian said as he came up behind Justin and pulled him into his arms. "We've got half an hour before the show begins and it only takes fifteen minutes to get to the gallery."
"But what if there's traffic?" Justin muttered as he buried his face in Brian's cashmere sweater. "What if we can't find parking?"
"Traffic on a Saturday evening?" Brian said. "I doubt it. And if there's no parking, I'll drop you off and meet you inside."
"Can we go?" Justin asked, lifting his head to look at his partner.
Brian chuckled. "Yes, we can go. We're taking the CR-V, right?"
Justin grabbed the keys and handed them to Brian. "Yeah, we have to clear out the gallery tonight."
A few minutes later, they were on their way. "What has you so keyed up about this?" Brian asked.
Justin sighed, "PIFA is one of the best art schools in the country, and only the best students are selected to present their work at the final show. Every year, critics and gallery reps from around the world come to the final show to see if they can spot the next big thing. This isn't an open house, where parents come to exclaim over how great their child is-though I'm sure there will be plenty of that-this is an opportunity to gain national recognition as an artist."
"Well, you just point out the critics, and I'll sell Justin Taylor to him," Brian smirked.
Justin laughed. "I'd rather you just stick with me and make sure I don't make an ass of myself."
"So only the best make it to the show?" Brian asked. "Why didn't you tell me? I thought it was just like you said, a parents night."
Justin shrugged. "I was hoping if I didn't think about it, I wouldn't get my hopes up."
"Well, you've done your best, and now all you can do is hope the critics recognize genius when they see it," Brian said. "How many freshmen made the cut this year?"
Justin grinned. "Just one."
"See, your professors recognize genius," Brian told him. "Now quit worrying."
They arrived with time to spare, and Brian ushered Justin past the waiting crowd of parents and friends so that he could do a last minute check on his display. Brain noticed other students doing the same thing, but he didn't see anyone with work as vibrant and filled with emotion as Justin's. He hadn't been blowing smoke up his lover's ass to make him feel better. Justin's art was truly unique and special.
Each student had a large cubicle of space to display his work, enough space to hang two or three good sized paintings on each of the three walls. Some had chosen to overfill their display with a number of smaller paintings crowding the space. Some had spaces that looked almost barren, with only three or four paintings total. Some displayed sculpture or multimedia pieces. Justin's space was full without being too busy. He had used each wall to display a different series of paintings. On the left wall was the impressionistic portrait of Emmet he had done as well as an impressionistic portrait of his mother and his sister Molly and one of Debbie and Vic. To the right, he had displayed three landscapes that Brian recognized from their trip to London. And in the center, he had hung three paintings of Brian on the red chaise. Despite Brian's teasing, they weren't pornographic in the least. They were, however, rather explicit.
"You are still my favorite subject," Justin teased, and Brian was reminded of Justin's first showing at the GLC.
"Pretty good likeness," Brian smirked. "It's a good thing I don't mind lying around naked."
"Good for me," Justin agreed. "Now, can you help me with this light? It's casting a glare on Emmet's face."
Brian laughed and went over to help.
For the next two hours, Justin's display area was crowded with spectators, and Justin was inundated with people wanting to talk to him and give him their cards. Brian was proud of his partner, but he was getting just a little annoyed with the sycophants. He whispered to Justin that he was going to get them something to drink and took a minute to slip away from the madness.
He made it to the bar and grabbed a glass of champagne. That was where he was found by Debbie, Vic and Michael. Jennifer and Molly had already been by to see Justin's work, but Molly had to be taken to her father's right after. Emmett had dragged Ted along to see how his portrait had turned out, but they had realized that Justin wouldn't have much time to chat with them and had disappeared to look at the other students' displays. Now that Debbie and Vic were here, everyone of importance to Justin had made it.
"Where is he?" Debbie asked when she made to Brian's side, Michael and Vic following behind.
"See that crowd over there?" Brian asked. "He's in the center of it."
"Oh! I knew he would be a hit," Debbie said. "Didn't I say so, Vic?"
"A thousand times, Sis," Vic agreed with a devilish smile.
"So why aren't you over there with him?" Debbie asked and smacked Brian on the arm.
"OW! That fucking hurt," Brian muttered. "I just left to get us some champagne. I was on my way back. Jesus!"
"That's better!" Debbie huffed. "Well? What are you waiting around for? Get Sunshine his champagne and get back there. You know how he is with crowds! Tell him we're here, but we'll wait until the crowd thins before we bother him."
Brian grabbed two fresh glasses of champagne and followed orders. When he reached Justin's side, the blonde looked relieved to see him and almost immediately grabbed his arm. Suddenly, Brian felt horrible. He'd only been gone a few minutes, but it had been too long.
When there was a break in the conversation, Brian told Justin that Debbie, Vic and Michael had arrived but were waiting for things to calm down a bit before coming over. Justin nodded and drank his champagne gratefully before turning to greet the next sycophant with a card.
The show was scheduled to last four hours, and Justin's display space stayed crowded until almost the very end. With only twenty minutes left, Debbie, Vic and Michael finally came over bearing fresh drinks for both Brian and Justin.
"Sunshine!" Debbie exclaimed. "You are the belle of the ball, aren't you?"
"A few people seemed to like my work," Justin smiled.
"A few?" Vic said. "You have a gift for understatement, Princess."
"So, Michael, did you get a chance to look at Claudia's work?" Justin asked, trying to take the attention away from himself. After an entire night of gushing, it had gotten old, even though he appreciated his friends' support.
Michael jumped on the subject and spent the next five minutes praising the unseen graphic artist while Vic and Debbie looked at Justin's work.
"He's very talented," Vic said.
"He's a fucking genius," Debbie corrected.
"He even made me look good," Emmett said. The others hadn't noticed him and Ted return. "And Brian looks like some Roman god. Bacchanalia, perhaps"
"I am a god," Brian smirked. He looked for Justin and Michael, but they had disappeared.
"He said he was going to introduce Michael to Claudia, whoever that is," Ted told him. "He's not trying to set Michael up with a woman, is he? He does know Michael's gay, right?"
Everyone but Ted laughed. It was Emmett who finally explained. "No Claudia is a girl that Justin thinks might help Mikey with his comic book idea."
"Oh, is she the one with all the superhero paintings?" Ted asked. "Because her men were certainly well endowed."
"Almost pornographic," Emmett said. "She'll be perfect for Mikey's project."
"How many business cards did you get tonight?" Brian asked after the others had helped them pack up Justin's canvases and they were finally on their way home.
"I'm not sure," Justin replied, still dazed at the reception his work had received. "Close to thirty, I think. About half of them from gallery reps."
"Looks like we'll need to find you a good agent," Brian smirked.
"Brian, I don't know anything about the business end of things," Justin said, getting a little panicked. "I've only ever thought about painting and having people like what I create. What the hell do I know about finding a good agent? Or negotiating with galleries?"
Brian laughed. "I already made a few inquiries with colleagues and got a couple names," Brian told him. "I've always believed you would be big someday, I just didn't think it would be this soon. I talked to Lindsey, too. She said both agents are really good and known for their honest dealings with artists. Why don't we set up meetings this week and then choose one."
"But will they want to take me on?" Justin asked, looking down at the cards still clutched in his hand.
"With as many offers as you got tonight?" Brian asked. "Not to mention the number of critics who are in their hotels as we speak emailing your praises to their various publications."
Justin nodded. "Okay. We can set up meetings. Will you be able to go with me?"
"I'll make time," Brian promised. "And we won't sign anything without going over it with our lawyer first, okay?"
"I think they liked all of my work, but the pictures of you were the ones people commented on the most," Justin told him.
"Yeah, you wouldn't believe how many people asked if I was the model," Brian admitted.
"Are you alright with me putting them on display if I get a show?" Justin asked.
"I'm not ashamed," Brian said. "I kind of like the idea that my cock will be out in the world somewhere, captured in paint for posterity."
Justin laughed. "I could always do a portrait of just your cock. I'll need to work a lot this summer. I promised Emmett, Debbie and my mom that they could have the portraits, so if I do get a show, I'll need something to fill in the empty spots."
"My cock can fill your empty spot any day," Brian leered.