a n   a b s e n c e

The first thing Justin misses is Michael’s wedding, and he tries to pretend that’s not a big deal. It is, though, and Justin feels an immense loss, like he’s sold a kidney on the black market. Like he’s woken up shaken and alone in a bath full of ice, and there’s a gaping hole in his stomach, bleeding and festering and reminding him that there’s something that should be there, but isn’t.

Brian says he’s being melodramatic. Brian smoothes big hands over Justin’s cheeks, using his thumbs to press Justin’s lips into a smile. Brian looks at the dejection in Justin’s eyes, and then tells him every detail of the ceremony, every detail down to the colour of the balloons and the name of the celebrant’s wife. Justin thinks Brian might be making up a lot of these details, because they were things that Brian would never care about, or remember. He does it to make Justin happy, though, so Justin wraps both arms around Brian’s waist and squeezes, inhales the smell of Brian’s cigarettes, and imagines him as Michael’s best man. Imagines the look on Debbie’s face, Ted and Emmett crying in the front row. Ben all happy and laughing, with his Roman nose. The denim of their jeans, and Brian’s dour disapproval.

Still, Justin feels the loss.

--

The other first thing Justin misses is Brian’s acid trip hell ride back to the states aboard what Brian would forever swear was some kind of neo-medieval torture device, and that is almost worse. He can see Brian’s broken body, feel his clammy skin, taste the sweat and shifty tears that spilled on Brian’s cheeks. He has nightmares about Brian’s struggling breath, his overworked heart, the cancer waiting inside him. For his own sake, he clumps the ride in with Michael’s happy gay wedding, because he’s not sure he could handle them separately. For Michael’s wedding, he feels a loss, but for Brian, he feels only shame. He should have been there. He should have been with Brian.

A few days afterward, Brian has him drive to an abandoned lot on the outskirts of the city, bicycle haphazardly shoved in the trunk of the ‘Vette. They destroy it using what Justin suspects is the same sledgehammer Brian used to annihilate the lock on the back room of Babylon way back when, because Brian is the kind of freak that would go back and get something like that. The type that would go back and get it and then hide it in one of the top shelves of his closet, waiting for Brian’s next surge of destructive hysteria.

”It was so important to you,” Justin says, staring down at its mangled remains. They’d fucked it up together because Brian had difficulty using only the one hand. Justin rotated his wrist and felt the answering tug of abused muscles.

Brian says, “I don’t need it anymore,” and lights his cigarette.

Justin stares.

“It served its purpose,” Brian continues. He slings his good arm around Justin’s shoulder, and Justin clutches at his wrist. Brian nudges twisted steel with his toe. “I fucking hate cycling.”

Justin knows he does. He can list from memory Brian’s weird likes and dislikes, knows them by instinct and experience. For instance, he knows that Brian hates Alabama, though he doesn’t think the topic has ever been raised. He knows that Brian hates Alabama the same way he knows Brian hates Baz Luhrmann films. He just does.

”Come on,” Brian says. “You have a flight to catch.”

Brian kisses him goodbye at the airport and makes stupid jokes about traveling salesmen and wives left at home, but Justin looks at him and already feels the absence, a hysterical mad kind of longing that leaves his hands trembling and his cheeks pale. He touches Brian’s jaw, looks away so that Brian will not see the dampness welling up behind his eyelids. Michael is already standing in the background, waiting to drive Brian home. Justin waves, and Michael smiles tightly, lifts his hand like a phone against his ear.

’Call me,’ Michael mouths, and Justin nods. Finally looks back to Brian, who is staring at him with a raised eyebrow and a stiff upper lip. Brian slides his hand across the nape of Justin’s neck and smiles gently. Justin watches the muscles working in his jaw.

Brian presses the side of his face against Justin’s, slides his hand up alongside Justin’s ear. “I’m proud of you,” he murmurs, and Justin feels something threatening to bend and snap within his chest. He nods mutely, incapable of saying anything for fear he’ll queen out and beg Brian to let him stay, which would just be stupid and embarrassing.

He wants to go back to the loft and climb into the shower with Brian. He wants to hang out at Michael’s store pretending to actually get some work done, wait tables at the diner, complain about the gross female things Daphne leaves around their apartment. He wants to know he’ll be coming home tomorrow.

He’s not, though. He’s not coming home for a long time, because suddenly six months is fucking forever, and can't imagine not touching Brian for that long.

Brian kisses his temple and Justin hugs his side, presses desperate fingers against his back, his face into his chest. Closes his eyes and breathes Brian’s cigarettes and thirty dollar soap smell, feels the scratchy knit of Brian’s sweater against his skin.

”Later,” Brian says gives him a nudge away, but then brings him back again, kisses him the way he does when he’s trying to say ‘I love you’ but doesn’t know it.

Justin bites him hard on the lip and hopes it leaves a mark.

”Love you,” Justin says. “Later.”

He calls Brian from the plane and says, “I’m proud of you too.”

--

He’s never lived on his own before, and he thought it would be quieter than this. The world seems to live within his walls, the constant thrum of music and car alarms. Brian’s loft is like that, sometimes, but it seems to rest so far above the rest of the world that Justin has never really noticed. The loft is a quiet place, wrapped up in the silence of Brian’s universe.

As he tries to sleep the first night, he thinks of Brian’s huge windows and Brian’s long floors, the white walls and washed cement of Home.

He clutches at his sheets, hears the steady beep of a truck reversing, and curses the moment he ever heard Brett Fucking Keller’s name.

--

The second thing he misses is Carl moving in with Debbie, which Brian seems to think is the funniest thing he’s ever seen. He leaves a message on Justin’s machine while he’s at work.

”There’s all this grey shit in the closet,” Brian says, snorting and puffing on his cigarette. “And a gun holster hanging over the back of the kitchen chair. Debbie’s barely restraining herself from sticking fucking rainbows all over it.”

Justin listens to the message three times, imagines brown, beige old Carl in Debbie’s Technicolor dreamcoat home, and dreams of her lasagna.

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