t i c k   t i c k   b o o m

When they split up, Brian doesn't see Justin in every blond on the street. Platinum heads pass unnoticed, lithe bodies and big smiles. Brian doesn't see Justin on every corner, in every spoiled young twink, but sometimes he wants to.

When Justin really is in the room, Brian knows it. When he's not,there's something not quite right about the air, about the warmth of Brian's own body. He fucks men and wants them to be Justin. Closes his
fingers around thick, muscled necks, and dreams.

--

On Brian's thirty-first birthday, he gets totally fucking shitfaced. Chris Hobbs is on every corner, in every car. Behind the bar, pouring Brian's drinks. On his knees sucking Brian's cock. Chris Hobb's face is in the mirror when Brian brushes his teeth for bed. Brian wants to smash the fucking mirror.

He smashes that morning's coffee mug instead, a ceramic soap dish, an empty bottle of cologne. Justin's cologne, and that sets him off again, storming into the centre of the loft, sending a fruit bowl and a dozen green apples flying.

He wants Justin with a sudden ferocity that seizes his lungs and swells his throat. Something burns behind his eyes and he wants to take out that old scarf and wrap it tight around his neck.

Just don't think about it, he tells himself. Just don't think.

--

At the diner Justin pours coffee into chipped black mugs and looks as if he hasn't slept in days. They greet each other with straight faces and carefully blank voices that echo in the mostly deserted diner.

Justin smiles, suddenly. "Happy birthday," he says warmly, and leans over the counter to press a kiss against Brian's cheek. His lips are wet and soft. It makes Brian hard.

"It was yesterday," Brian says. He perches on a stool. "You're belated. I don't want to hear about it again for a whole year."

"Sorry," Justin says. He doesn't sound particularly repentant. "I won't mention it again until next year. When you're thirty two."

"Oh my god," Brian groans. "Fuck you."

Justin smirks and puts a chocolate donut on a saucer next to Brian's coffee. Brian stares at it, the queer scatter of hundreds and thousands against deep brown icing.

"I didn't order this," Brian says.

"I bet you didn't have a cake," Justin says. He holds a match to a tealight and lifts it up before Brian's face. "Blow out your candles."

Brian gazes at him above the flickering light of the candle, below the fluorescent glow of the overhead lights. Justin's hair is so long now, but Brian can picture the thick white scar beneath all that hair as if it were on display in front of him. His body throbs all over for a single second, but Justin is smiling as if he doesn't remember what happened a year ago on Thursday. Such a pretty smile.

Brian blows out the candle.

He takes a knife and slices the donut in two. He hands the considerably larger slice to Justin and says, "Did you bake it yourself?"

Justin laughs a little, but then his smile dims. Brian can see it all coming back behind his eyes, Chris Hobbs and hospital and that terrible absence of memory, the tremor of his hands, those fucking headaches that assault him without warning. Brian wonders if Ethan knows that Justin likes to drink chocolate milk and watch tv after the bad nightmares. He wonders if he can trust Justin to Ethan's care.

"Brian," Justin says miserably.

Neither of them eats the donut.

--

On Thursday morning, Brian tells himself that he won't seek Justin out, but he does. He rises with the alarm at six, showers. Dresses in his favourite Prada suit and a silver tie. He watches a little news and drinks a cup of coffee, and the whole time, he plans to go to work.

When he gets in the Corvette, he drives to Justin's place. Ethan's place, whatever the fuck. He's never been inside, but he knows the building. Knows that the catch on the front door is broken and anyone can just walk right in. He doubts Ethan even has a security system. The thought keeps him awake some nights when he's been smoking weed and getting paranoid. He wishes Justin could have moved somewhere safer. Some cozy fortress.

He stares at that shitty fucking door and hears the clatter of a bat against concrete in his head. Hears his own strangled no, no, no. And then just his cell phone, because it's half past nine and he's supposed to be at work. Cynthia harried and desperate, Where the fuck are you?

He pulls off without going inside. It's just another fucking day.

Just don't think about it, he tells himself. Just don't think.

--

He goes back that night without meaning to. He makes it inside this time, up the stairs. Ethan's door is covered in cracked wood veneer. The building smells terrible, like being inside a microwave. Justin
left him for this.

Somewhere between the shower and here he picked up a bottle of Beam and a bag of pot. He has to restrain himself from holding them out like flowers. He's not sure Justin would appreciate the joke.

Maybe he should have brought flowers, but he's never been able to do that. He has to do things his own way.

Justin looks pathetically relieved to see him. They stare at one another for a moment before Justin stands aside to let Brian pass.

"Sorry it's such a –" He's going to say mess, Brian thinks, but Justin seems to stop and reconsider as he stares around the room. "Shithole."

Brian laughs. It is a shithole. Plaster flakes from the ceiling and Brian thinks he might be getting asbestos poisoning just standing there. God knows how Justin survives, with his allergies. He remembers
wheezing, coughing fits in the middle of the night, sniffles in the morning over toast. Such a loser with the allergies, really.

Brian's first place was this crumbling ruin a few blocks from Debbie's place, a lease signed out of desperation because he had to escape the fucking dorms. That place with its tiny fridge and dirty walls. Jesus, he hated that place. He suspects Justin probably hates this one.

"You should fire your cleaning lady," Brian says. It's a joke he's used before, but Justin doesn't know that. He feels too anxious to be funny. This hysteria bubbles in his gut. Crumbles his bones into his
blood. Justin's blue eyes decimate him.

Justin settles into a nest of blankets on the shitty, coffee-stained couch. He used to do that sometimes when he first got back from the hospital, Brian remembers. He'd stop just shy of building a fort. One
of the blankets is tartan in shades of orange and lime, threadbare and worn around the edges. Brian can't believe he lives this way. Orange and fucking lime.

"Where's Ian?"

There are glasses that look reasonably clean on the kitchen bench and Brian picks up too, making his way toward Justin on the sofa. On the other side of the room is a dilapidated bed with rumpled sheets. Brian
wonders when was the last time they fucked in it. If it's only been hours.

"Late class, I think. He was gone when I got back. I had dinner with my mother." Justin gratefully accepts the generous tumbler of bourbon Brian hands him. "Everyone has been calling all day. Even Michael."

Mikey has been calling Brian all day, too. Brian answered twice just to let Mikey know he hadn't thrown himself off a bridge somewhere.

He settles on the couch next to Justin, but not too close. Some nights, way back when, Justin would somehow extend his nest of blankets to enfold Brian. To keep Brian safe in his fortress. Justin can be a pretty weird kid.

Justin opens his mouth and Brian hopes he's not going to talk about the bashing. Brian throws back most of the Beam in his glass and sees it in his head as always. The tick. Tick. Boom.

He fucking hates to talk about the bashing.

Justin's mass of blankets brushes Brian's thigh. "I haven't slept in days."

Tick.

"I've just been queening out over it like a little fucking faggot."

Tick.

"It's like I'm right back there. In the hospital. Just waking up."

Boom.

Brian has to close his eyes against the force of it. He passes that hospital on the way to work every day, and every time it makes him sick for a split second. Justin still doesn't remember, but Brian does. The doctors and nurses and all the fucking blood. These are the things that Justin can't ever possibly remember. The things he may as well have been dead for.

It presses boiling hot behind his eyelids, that memory. Wells and pulses. He covers his mouth with his hand. Always has to keep it together.

Justin had looked beautiful that night. That night and every night, but under the shadow of a hundred balloons Brian had wanted to tell him so. He'd wanted Justin to be proud.

Justin is staring at him intently and then Brian feels a warm hand around his wrist, sliding down to twist their fingers together. Justin squeezes tightly. He says, "Thankyou for being here."

Brian wants to be somewhere else, anywhere else that won't be this fucking suffocating with grief. Anywhere else that doesn't hurt Justin this much. Just fucking anywhere.

--

Justin doesn't want to talk about the bashing.

They sit together and get slowly shitfaced. Brian forgot how funny Justin can be when he's darkly depressed, or just stoned out of his mind. Justin ends up leaning on Brian's shoulder and telling him
stories about the first time he got stoned with Daphne when they were fifteen years old. They sound just like Brian and Mikey, really. It's almost surreal.

They talk about Brian's new campaign, and he can see Justin disapproves of Stockwell. There's a lot of shit Brian disapproves of in Justin's life, too, like this squalid little home of his and his unfalteringly terrible taste in men. He wants to say so, but he knows the kid would take that as a sign of his jealousy. Brian doesn't fucking do jealous, even if the thought of Justin in that filthy fiddler's bed turns his stomach.

Brian never forgets how young Justin is. It's in Justin's eyes with the grey of his misery, this fucking endless youth that splinters the confidence he's so painstakingly reconstructed.

He wishes that Justin wasn't a good little wife now so he could fuck them both out of this misery. He wishes that he'd beat the fucking shit out of Hobbs when he had the chance. Instead all he can do is
crawl forward uncomfortable on this fucking couch and bury Justin in his flesh.

Brian's weight breaks something inside Justin's head.

Thick, strong fingers grip at Brian's back and he's not even sure how Justin can breathe with his head buried in Brian's shirt like that. He feels the warmth of Justin's body through their clothes, and it's so
hard to be this close and not fuck him. He's so fucking hard.

Brian isn't sure which one of them is shuddering.

--

He wants to fuck Justin desperately. Three hours in and Justin's outside the blankets, now, fingers still desperate against Brian's skin. Brian remembers what it's like to fuck him. The release. Better than anybody he's ever had. The only cure for this sickness that's rising in his blood.

He kisses Justin's cheek, his temple. If they were straight, or fucking lesbians, Brian might murmur something sweet and encouraging into Justin's flesh. That's how Ethan finds them when he comes home from class with three of his friends in tow.

God, Brian hopes this looks bad.

--

It turns out it does, it looks fucking terrible, and Justin ends up storming out of the apartment when Ethan accuses them of fucking behind his back. Brian would feel guilty for the secret thrill that lodges in his cock when they start to fight, but he's too busy collecting the pot and his keys so he can follow Justin out into the cool night air.

Justin is leaning against a nearby fence, scuffing his toe against the pavement. Every time Brian looks at him tonight, he sees him as he used to be. He was so different then.

"Your little boyfriend is a fucking drama queen," Brian says. He slides a cigarette out of the packet and offers the deck to Justin. "And his friends, who the fuck are you hanging out with these days?"

Justin lights the cigarette gratefully. "Myself, mostly."

"I didn't come here to cause trouble," Brian says at length. They've been standing here staring at the dilapidated buildings for what seems like an hour.

"I know you wouldn't do that, Brian." Justin's cigarette is pinched between two fingers. "Not today."

"You wanna go for a walk?" Brian asks. "I probably shouldn't drive."

"No. I have to go back in, or he'll think I've gone home with you."

Brian wants to ask Justin to come home with him.

Instead, he leans over and kisses Justin warmly on the cheek. "Call if you need anything."

Justin won't. It terrifies Brian that Justin won't. It's obvious that fucking Ian doesn't know how to help him.

"Okay." Justin reaches out and clasps Brian's hand tightly. "Thankyou. I think I might have fallen apart if you hadn't been here for me. Not just today."

"You'd have been fine, Sonny Boy." Brian shoves his shoulder when Justin extinguishes the cigarette. "Now run along home."

That night, Brian sleeps in the driver's seat of his car. The next morning he'll wonder why he couldn't just catch a fucking taxi home, when his muscles ache and his head throbs. The next morning his fear
will seem ridiculous. Chris Hobbs isn't hiding in the fucking bushes waiting to jump out and strike. He's not following Justin's every move. He's all in Brian's head.

That night, though. That night when Justin is upstairs with Ian and his friends, when the tick tick boom plays constantly in Brian's head, it paints the world with a kind of bloody terror.

It's hard not to be afraid.

--

Less than two months later, they'll get back together in an explosion of joy and sex and sweat. A different kind of tick tick boom. It'll be Justin's warm hips beneath his hands, Justin's warm thighs against his skin. So fucking warm and desperate, pushing his way back into Brian's mouth. Always pushing. Justin doesn't seem afraid.

Brian is.

He knows at least two ways to lose Justin, now. It's like he loses him every year and finds him born again. Some mythical creature, returning again and again. Changed each time. Harder. A little bit older, every year. Older and so much hotter, that little bit more explosive every time Brian touches him.

He has nightmares every night but not like they used to be. Some nights he doesn't even wake up, just whimpers quietly and clutches Brian's arm. Some nights he wakes up and smokes Brian's cigarettes, sketches quietly until he can settle back down to sleep.

There are a lot of things to be afraid of, Justin tells him, blanketed in the silence of the loft at night. This thing between the two of them, that's not one of them. He always finds his way home in the end.

Brian is trying so hard to believe him. He'll make it there one day. He's just a couple of thousand steps behind.

Every moment with Justin, it's his heart instead of the bomb.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

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