Title: Stronger ~ Part 3 cont'd
Parts: 1 | 2 | 3
He turns the folder around so I can see what he’s been studying so intently. The results of the blood work are right on top. I’ve seen a dozen of these reports over the last four and a half years; Justin insisted on keeping copies of everything - blood tests, radiology reports, all of it. Mind-altering drugs and mind-blowing sex are my weapons of choice for fighting my fears. Information is Justin’s. Like his stealth examinations of my balls, we don’t discuss it, but somewhere in the back of a desk drawer at the house, there is a file very much like this one.
So I know what normal numbers look like. These? Not normal. These, in fact, are not even in the same universe as normal. Not only do they confirm the other lab’s findings, they’re even higher. Higher than two fucking weeks ago. Jesus Christ.
Ninety-nine percent. That’s what they told me. With proper treatment, a ninety-nine percent cure rate. Pure seminoma with minimal invasion into the surrounding tissue. As testicular cancers go, it’s the one to have - the most curable solid tumor of them all. Surgery, a little radiation and I’d be back on top. So to speak. Minus one ball, of course. Lucky me.
My βhCG level, one of the tumor markers associated with TC, was pretty high, but they said that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not all tumors like mine even produce markers, but in some fucked up way it was actually a good thing because it’s something they can measure, a way to monitor the disease. I swear, if I was any luckier I probably would have dropped dead right then and there.
Fortunately, my levels were back to normal within weeks after the surgery, which meant there was a good chance I was cancer-free, even without further treatment. But because of the tissue involvement, there was a possibility, however small, that it had already spread. The thing about seminoma though, is that its path is both extremely predictable and exquisitely sensitive to radiation therapy. So I let them zap me with their ray gun and spent the better part of a month puking my guts up in exchange for the closest thing to a guaranteed cure I could get. Ninety-nine motherfucking percent. Seemed like a pretty good deal to me. Right up until this moment.
“...if you can do that, Grace will set up the appointments for you as soon as possible.”
I look up, suddenly aware that Keppler is still talking and apparently awaiting some kind of response from me. I suppose the fact that he doesn’t make me ask him to repeat himself is testimony to just how accustomed he is to breaking this kind of news to his patients. He takes off his glasses and sets them on top of the report.
“I’d like to refer you to a colleague for a second opinion. Your blood work is quite troubling, but the greater concern is this.” At some point he’d turned the monitor around and there is an x-ray -- presumably mine -- on the screen. I hear words like ‘further tests’ and ‘biopsy’ and but it’s mostly white noise as he uses the tip of his pen to point out what is obvious, even to me. An ominous looking shadow, roughly the size and shape of a small avocado, just to the left of my spine.
Fuck. That’s it - the only thought I seem to be capable of forming. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. It’s the words ‘lab error’ that finally snap me out of it.
“This could still be a mistake?”
Keppler considers me for a long moment before pushing the file aside, then gets up and walks around the desk, perching on the edge in front of me. “I’m afraid not, Brian. Further tests are in order, of course, but your blood work is conclusive; the tumor markers are definitive for testicular cancer. I’m sorry, clearly this isn’t the news we were hoping for.”
He wisely ignores the derisive snort I can’t quite suppress. “You think?”
Fuck. Fuck. He’s talking again and I need to focus, but my eyes keep straying to the image on the monitor. In the beginning, when I anticipated this conversation every time I had a blood test, shit, every time I had an ache or a pain I couldn’t explain, I imagined a lot of different scenarios. I never envisioned that.
“Brian?” His hand is on my shoulder and he’s looking at me in that kind, compassionate, infinitely understanding way that makes him a great doctor. It also makes me want to punch him in the face. I shrug him off and give myself a mental shake.
“Okay, it’s back. I get it. But... ” He follows my gaze to the computer screen.
“Well, that’s the thing.” He pauses for a beat or two, stroking his jaw pensively before turning back to me. “I don’t believe it is ‘back’, precisely.”
What the fuck just doesn’t cover it. Fortunately, he continues before my head can actually explode.
“According to the pathology report following your surgery, your tumor was 100% seminoma. Your markers levels, or rather, the complete lack of the AFP and LDH markers, also helped confirm the diagnosis.” He takes the top sheet out of my file again, as well as the report from the other lab, shaking his head slowly as he looks them over. “These tests show significant amounts of all three.” He hesitates again, just long enough to make sure he has my full attention this time. He absolutely does. “The dramatic increase in these levels in a matter of weeks, the speed with which this tumor has developed... all these factors point to nonseminoma and, I suspect, a highly aggressive form.”
“Christ, give it to me straight, Doc. Don’t sugar coat it,” I scoff, because fuck me. God knows nobody appreciates the no-bullshit approach more than I do, but fuck me running. I grasp at the one pathetic straw I can find. “Are you sure?” I ask quietly. “You said lab error. I didn’t imagine that, did I?”
“No,” he smiles ruefully, “you didn’t. I’m sorry, Brian. I was referring to the original diagnosis. You see, it would be extremely rare, in fact I’d go as far as to say impossible, for pure seminoma to mutate into nonseminoma. Given that, there are really only two possibilities. One is that the original pathology was wrong. It’s uncommon, but certainly not unheard of, for a minute portion of the tumor to contain mixed cells that can be missed during biopsy. If there were, and any of these cells had already metastasized, the radiotherapy would have been ineffective on them.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I can’t even wrap my mind around the idea that my life could be on the line because some twat in a lab-coat had a bad day. “Jesus Christ, are you telling me they missed it?”
“I didn’t say that. I said it was one possibility, but in all honesty, I don’t think that’s the case. Johns Hopkins is an excellent facility. Other factors besides the biopsy were considered in making your diagnosis and all indications are that it was the correct one. Quite frankly, I believe if that had happened, you would have likely relapsed within months.”
This is so seriously fucked. The fact it’s taken nearly five years to get cancer again is my reassurance they didn’t botch my diagnosis? And yet, I get the distinct impression that he would have preferred a lab fuck-up over whatever the alternative is. Keppler slides off the desk and sits down in the chair alongside mine, drawing in a long, uneasy breath. The kind someone takes just before telling you something you really don’t want to hear.
“So what aren’t you telling me, Doc? What’s behind door number two?”
* * *
Liberty Air Flight 1030, NYC-Pittsburgh, September 2008
“Brian, please, you have to reconsider...” As hard as I fight it, I can’t quite keep my voice from cracking a little.
“I am not having this conversation.”
He puts in his earbuds, cranks up the volume on his iPod and closes his eyes, slamming his seat back into the reclining position as if to emphasize the point. Thankfully, the guy in the seat behind him is in the lavatory, and fortunately for her, he misses the flight attendant’s disapproving glare. I offer her an apologetic smile with a ‘what-can-I-say?’ shrug and hope she doesn’t spit in my drink.
Damn him. I badly want to snatch the ear-phones out and make him listen to reason but if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s how to pick my battles with Brian. Or at least where and when to pick them. A crowded commuter flight to Pittsburgh is neither. I couldn’t even persuade him to wait until morning to fly home, never mind this. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to give up completely. I reach over and stroke his cheek, running my fingertips lightly along his jaw-line as I turn his face towards me.
“At least promise me you’ll think about it?” I know he can hear me, despite the music blaring in his ears. Reluctantly, he opens one eye, arching his brow in that way of his that speaks volumes without his ever having to utter a word. He pulls my hand down, but he doesn’t let it go, instead weaving his long fingers through mine and tucking them between us before settling back in the seat again. I’ll take that as a maybe.
Honestly, at this point, it’s more than I expected. Just getting him to agree to me coming home with him took a solemn vow that I would out him to both Deb and Lindsay before the wheels touched the ground if he didn’t. Between that and our little “come-to-jesus” at the hotel, I think I’ve pushed my luck far enough for one day. I stifle a yawn and check the time - a little over an hour until we land. I’m totally wiped but there’s no sense in trying to sleep, even if I could.
I steal a glance at him and I’m mildly shocked by how... good he looks. I mean, I can see the tightness around his mouth, the slight furrow he gets in his forehead when he’s brooding. But to the rest of the world, he’s Brian Fucking Kinney, large and in charge. Jesus, given how wasted he was last night, it’s hard to believe he’s even sober now, yet still he looks like he just stepped off the cover of GQ, while I on the other hand look exactly like what I am - a guy who’s running on empty. How does he do that?
It’s a façade though, a thin veneer of calm stretched tight over a storm of such magnitude it could blow us all right out of the sky if it were unleashed. Last night I caught a glimpse of just how fragile that façade is, how easily penetrated. How devastating the consequences if it should fail altogether. How dangerously close it had already come.
Kneeling at his feet this morning as the story of the past couple weeks unfolded, keeping that from ever happening again became my number one priority. I won’t lose him. I just won’t. Yesterday morning my biggest concern was whether we’d go out to celebrate or stay in and fuck our brains out all weekend. Christ.
I push my own seat back and close my eyes, grateful to at least rest them for a little while. Instantly, I hear the words again. Like I have in every quiet moment since he first uttered them. Words that changed the course of my life. Of our lives. Words that are burned into my soul.
“Then help me. For God’s sake, help me understand. Tell me what’s going on.”
“Damnit, Brian. What does that mean?”
“Fucked.” He huffs out a humorless laugh but his voice is flat, emotionless. “Screwed. Done for. Behind the eight ball. Up shit creek without a paddle.”
“Would you stop it!” I snap. “Just tell me what...”
I sit back on my heels, reeling as though he’d slapped me, my petulant demand stuck in my throat. He did not say... he didn’t. And then, because he knows me, he says it again.
“I’m dying, Justin.”
I think maybe it was the way he said my name that made me believe him.
Or at least made me believe that he believed it. Because he’s not. No fucking way. I don’t care what the doctors say, or the statistics, or Brian, or fucking God himself says. He’s not.
But in that moment, Jesus, I thought I was going to puke. I mean, I knew... in my gut, I knew from the minute he stumbled through the door last night looking so broken. I knew the cancer had come back. Deep inside, I think some part of me has always known that one day I’d have to hear those words. I was so fucking scared when it happened the first time that I made it my business to learn everything I could about his disease. Knowledge is power, and knowing that even if it did come back it was still almost always curable gave me the strength to live with the possibility. Truth be told, to even forget about it now and then. I swear to God, the thought that he might get some other kind of cancer never even occurred to me. The idea that he could die... Shit.
“Hey, ease up there, Sunshine.” His voice is soft but rather urgent and I cringe when I realize I’ve got a death-grip on his fingers, laced with mine on his lap. My knuckles are white and it takes me a second or two to tamp down the wave of nausea I feel at the memory and let go.
He gives me that barely-there, inscrutable smile of his and puts his hand back overtop of mine, but he doesn’t say a thing. Doesn’t mock the word, or my shaky delivery of it, and isn’t that one of the signs of the apocalypse? And how pathetic is it that I really wish he would?
I know how to deal with cocky, sarcastic, at times even cruel Brian. I’ve learned (most of the time anyway) to see the truth behind his frequently acerbic wit, whether it be affection or scorn, reluctant praise or outright disdain, self-loathing, or more often, self-preservation. Sure, sometimes he’s just being a prick. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But sometimes he reveals more of himself to me with those seemingly thoughtless words than in all the earnest conversations we’ve ever had put together. That’s not to say he can’t still cut me to the bone at times, but that’s part of who he is, how he deals. As perverse as it sounds, I find a little bit of comfort in it. Right now, he needs that defiant, ‘fuck-you-I’m-Brian-Kinney’ attitude more than ever. *I* need it.
This Brian, the one who responds to an impassioned plea for reason by holding my hand? Who lets a weak-ass apology pass without so much as a quirk of his eyebrow? Freaks me the fuck out.
And I truly thought my freak-out threshold had reached capacity this morning as he sat on my bed and calmly, like he was reading his fucking grocery list, told me that he has an extremely aggressive tumor growing in his chest that may very well kill him. Then proceeds to tell me that the doctors want him to begin treatment immediately - - as in Monday morning - - but he’s not going to do it. And then, for his coup de grâce, stands up and announces he’s going back to Pittsburgh. Alone.
For a solid minute, I’m gut-punched. I feel like I might actually vomit. I watch him walk across the room and pull on his jeans, then pick up his shirt, his nose wrinkling in disgust as he sniffs it and then tosses it aside. He opens up my top drawer and takes out one of my white t-shirts. Of course it’s far too small and fits him like a second skin. Naturally, it still looks better on him than it ever has on me.
I guess I must have said that out loud because he turns his head briefly in my direction, then continues rifling in my drawer. He comes up with a pair of socks and sits down on the bed again. It’s not until he’s got them on and starts to get up to get his boots that I finally regain the ability to move. I grab his arm and pull him back down with surprising force, considering I’m still sitting on the floor at his feet.
“Are you insane?” Okay, so not exactly what I thought was going to come out, but seriously. It doesn’t even faze him. He just sits there, stoic, like he knows full well what’s coming and he’s just going to let me get it out of my system or something. Asshole. I’m shaking - and not just because I’m still naked and soaking wet. It takes just about everything I have to stand up and face him, but I refuse to let him see that.
“Seriously, Brian. Have you lost your mind?” I take his face in my hands and make him look up at me. “Because if you think *anything* you just said is actually going to happen, you’re fucking crazy.”
Now I wonder if he didn’t tell me that way because he did know exactly how I’d react. That I’d be so pissed at him for thinking he could just leave me behind, for even entertaining the thought of refusing treatment, that I might forget to be scared out of my mind. Considering the way things played out, I guess it worked. At least for a little while.
I look down at our hands, joined together, his over mine. One day, I really will kick his ass, you know?
* * *
New York City, September 2008
“It doesn’t matter, Brian. If you... if we can’t...”
He’s still got what’s left of my balls in his hand. I almost have to laugh, and not just at the allegory of it all. He looks so stricken it would be comical if he just wasn’t so damn sincere. I reach down and cup my hand over his.
“Don’t worry, Sunshine, the family jewel is safe.” His eyes never leave mine as I slide our hands up my body and if he notices the slight catch in my breath as I splay his fingers across my chest, he gives no indication. It’s still tender where the needle went in, but his hand is warm, soothing.
“Then what...” He starts to ask the question and I just can’t let him. Not yet. Not when he’s looking at me like that, like... like I’m his whole fucking world. I stop him the best way I know how. He lets out this breathy little moan as I slip my tongue into his mouth. I know it’s wrong, that I should be strong enough to walk away, that this is only prolonging the inevitable, but God help me, I want this. As fucked up as everything is, it’s been weeks. The worst two weeks of my life and I want... I fucking need this. I need him.
I push one hand up into his hair, slide the other around his waist and pull him to me. He’s already growing hard against my thigh as the kiss deepens, the needy little sounds he’s making going straight to my cock. I’m practically lifting him off his feet as I gather him closer, and Christ, he feels so good. I tilt his head back and run my tongue along his jaw, scraping my teeth over the sensitive hollow just below his ear. He shivers as I nip at his throat and his fingers curl where they lay against my chest. I suck in a quick breath... and freeze, hoping maybe... but there’s no chance he missed it this time.
He pulls away, his eyes drawn immediately to the spot where his hand is pressed against me. Shit.
“What is this?”
Shit, shit, shit.
“I… I don’t understand.” He runs his fingertip lightly over the mark, and I can’t help it, I flinch, draw back from his touch. It doesn’t even hurt - except for the part where it’s killing me. I never should have come here.
“No, you really don’t.”
I step out of the tub and head for the bedroom. I need to get out of here but my head is fucking spinning and suddenly I feel like if I don’t sit down, I’m going to fall down. On top of everything else, I have the granddaddy of all hangovers. Fucking perfect. I need aspirin, coffee and quite possibly a loaded Glock, but for the moment I’d settle for a cigarette. Thank Christ for small mercies, my cigarettes and lighter are still in my jacket. I take one out and sit down on the edge of the bed. “You’ll need to stop smoking immediately, Mr. Kinney.” Fucking bullshit. If I want a cigarette, I’ll have a fucking cigarette. “The chemotherapy regimen you require carries a high risk of lung toxicity. Smoking increases that danger exponentially. I really can’t emphasize it strongly enough.”
Fuck it. Fuck it all. The lighter hits the wall hard enough to leave a mark and I drop my head into my hands. “Christ!”
And then Justin is there again, on his knees, asking, fucking pleading for answers.
“Then help me. For God’s sake, help me understand. Tell me what’s going on.”
The truth. It’s all he’s ever really wanted from me. Trouble is, it’s hardly ever been what he really wants to hear. I’ve spent most of the last two weeks trying to decide whether to shove him off that cliff one last time or jump myself. I still don’t know. I know he deserves better than this. Than me. If nothing else, he deserves the chance to walk away. Or to run.
“Damnit, Brian. What does that mean?”
“Fucked.” Sometimes I really am a prick. I can’t help myself. “Screwed. Done for. Behind the eight ball. Up shit creek without a paddle.”
“Would you fucking cut it out!” he snaps. “Just tell me what...”
“I’m dying.” And there it is. His precious truth. He sits back on his heels, his mouth frozen open. Before he can voice the denial I can practically see forming right there on the tip of his pretty pink tongue, I say it again. “I’m dying, Justin.”
His skin is still flushed from the heat of the shower, but I can see him blanch beneath it. He looks like he might pass out, or throw up. Or both. He wraps his arms around his torso, as if he’s literally holding himself together, and just stares up at me for the longest moment. And then he asks, why? Not how or when or what, but why? So very Justin.
So I tell him. How Keppler sent me here to Sloan-Kettering for a second opinion because it has the most advanced diagnostic facilities in the country. How their CT guided needle biopsy confirmed what he suspected: Primary Mediastinal Non-Seminomatous Germ Cell Tumor. Specifically, a particularly nasty mixed germ cell tumor - rare enough that Keppler had never actually seen a case himself. Currently measuring about seven centimeters, too large and because of its location, too intricate for surgery pre-chemo. That it’s Stage IIIA, if the two or three ‘questionable’ lesions on my left lung are the metastases they believe them to be. That it’s not a recurrence or a relapse, but a new, primary cancer, which only makes it that much worse. Strictly speaking, still testicular cancer, dialed up to eleven. Go directly to ‘Poor Risk’. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Fuck you very much.
Four rounds of chemotherapy over twelve weeks, and then, *if* it works and my markers go back down, and *if* it shrinks the tumor enough to operate safely, surgery. Then *if* there’s no viable cancer left in whatever they remove, maybe a forty percent shot at remission. And if there is? They wouldn’t even talk about odds in that case. “Let’s take it one step at a time, Mr. Kinney.” Which is doctor-speak for, “the odds are, you’re fucked.”
He’s not even looking at me anymore. He’s leaning up against the end of the bed now, hugging his knees up to his chest and rocking slightly. I wouldn’t even be sure he’s listening, except for the abject horror on his face. I know that look well enough to know that there is nothing I can say or do at this moment to take it away. Except maybe replace it.
“They said I could do the chemo here at MSKCC, or back in Pittsburgh - they’ll be providing the protocol either way. They want to start on Monday.” I pause for a beat, long enough to make him look up. “I’m not going to do it.” Funny - I didn’t even know I’d decided that for sure until the words came out of my mouth. I feel his eyes boring into me as I get up and pull on my pants. “I’m going back to Pittsburgh,” I say, grabbing a clean t-shirt from his dresser. “It’s probably best if you stay here.” I hear him suck in a breath as I pull the shirt over my head. Fucker. And just like that, I know he’s going to be all right.
I sit down on the bed again to put on some socks and as I start to get up for my boots, he grabs my arm and yanks me back down, practically hissing at me.
“Are you insane?” He’s pretty amazing, this kid -- no, not a kid anymore -- this man, who’s been kicked in the teeth so many fucking times, and every time, he stands up. Maybe a little bent, but never broken. He and Michael, they’ve always drawn Rage as the indomitable hero, but I think we all know who really has the superpowers. Even naked and trembling, he gets up and takes hold of my face in those strong, artist’s hands of his. “Seriously, Brian. Have you lost your mind? Because if you think anything you just said is actually going to happen, you’re fucking crazy.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Justin Taylor.
* * *
“Jesus, Brian...” He toes an empty fifth of vodka out of the way and sets the overturned chair upright, casting a disapproving eye over the rest of the room.
“It would appear housekeeping hasn’t been around yet,” I say, picking up the empty bottle and dropping into the wastebasket beside the bed. Seems they take the do-not-disturb sign quite seriously here. I vaguely remember hanging it on the door when I stumbled back in here after Justin’s phone call last night. There is a half-burned joint sitting in the overflowing ashtray and I eye it longingly. Before I can reach for it, Justin grabs the whole mess and flushes it rather unceremoniously down the toilet.
“Lucky for you,” he says, wiping his hands on his jeans as he comes back out of the bathroom. “Christ, they probably would have called the cops.”
Looking around, I suppose it does somewhat resemble a crime scene. The bed is pretty much intact, but that’s about the only part of the room not in disarray. Fortunately, this is The Benjamin and not the Best Western. Six hundred bucks a night buys a fair amount of discretion. That, plus what I’m sure will be a hefty charge on my Amex for the empty mini-bar and at least one crystal glass that’s laying in pieces on the floor.
An untouched room-service meal sits congealing on a tray on the desk and I feel my stomach roll just from the smell of it. The handful of Advil I swallowed at Justin’s hasn’t even put a dent in the pounding in my head. The riot act he read me about exactly how, when and why he was coming back home with me whether I fucking liked it or not didn’t help, either. Twat. All the time he was talking, he was stuffing clothes into his duffel bag, randomly throwing in a few art supplies, a sketch pad, shampoo, his fucking toothbrush. Like he doesn’t have an abundance of all those things in Pittsburgh, but I suppose it felt like he was at least doing something. By the time he finished his argument, or more accurately, his declaration, he was standing in front of me fully dressed and bag in hand.
And now he’s doing the same thing here, only with my things this time. He’s already got the suitcase open on the bed and right now he’s standing in front of the open closet. Since his little rant at the apartment, he’s been oddly quiet. I know there are a hundred questions lurking under the surface -- he’s practically vibrating with them -- but he hardly said a word in the cab on the way here. No questions, no admonitions... no tears. I’ve always admired that about Justin. He’s taken a lot of shit over the years, from his piece of shit father, from the assholes at school. From me. But as much of a drama-princess as he can be, I’ve rarely ever seen him cry.
He stands at the closet door for the longest time, staring at the clothes hanging there like they had a story to tell. Then he walks over to the dresser, opening one drawer, then another, without touching a thing. He says something, so softly I can’t make out the words, and then, very slowly, he turns around.
“How long have you been here?”
I’m not sure I understand the question, except... except that I do. I just wish I didn’t, because I know with absolute clarity that I did the wrong fucking thing. Again. I shrug.
“How long, Brian?”
My instinct is to say something sarcastic; a pissed off Justin is so much easier for me. But I can’t. Right or wrong, I chose how I was going to deal with all this. Now he gets to choose. He deserves at least that much. I’m only surprised it took this long.
The flash of pain in his eyes makes me feel even sicker than I already do, but it’s nothing compared to the sadness that replaces it as he speaks.
“All week. You’ve been here all week, going through this alone while I was ten minutes away.” He thinks about it a moment longer. “When I called on Wednesday about the baby... When we made plans for this weekend, when I practically begged you to come early but you said you couldn’t get away...”
“I wasn’t lying,” I offer. Pathetic, even to my own ears. He just shakes his head.
“Don’t, Brian. Don’t fucking do that.” He doesn’t even seem angry, just... resigned. Or maybe resolved is a better word. He sits down on the edge of the bed, scratching at the light stubble on his jaw as he considers me. Because I can’t think of a single other thing to do, I reach out and brush the hair back out of his eyes. It’s long again, which means he’s been painting a lot. He tends to forget little things like haircuts when he’s in that zone. Just one of the many reasons I appreciate his single-mindedness. Before I can push my fingers into the soft, blond locks, he takes my hand and pulls me down beside him.
“I’m s...” I begin, but he cuts me off.
“Don’t,” he repeats, shaking his head again. “I can’t say it’s all right, or that I understand, because we both know that would be bullshit. It’s not all right, and there’s no way I can understand what you were going through... what you are going through. I know that, Brian, but I hate that you didn’t feel like you could share this with me.” His voice cracks a little and he looks away. “I fucking hate it.” The silence stretches out for a minute before he goes on. “I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. I’m sure you think you’re protecting me somehow, sparing me the pain or some fucked up thing, but you’re wrong. So fucking wrong,” he adds the last on a whisper.
“It isn’t about you, Justin,” I say, and immediately he rounds on me.
“Fuck you,” he snaps. “Fuck you, Brian. How can you say that? We’re supposed to be partners. We’re having a child together. Everything that affects you is about me. You’re about me, just like I’m about you. Jesus Christ, what would you do if it were the other way around? How would you feel?” And finally, the tears come, in his voice, in his eyes, but he still refuses to give in to them. He swipes them away with the back of his hand and swallows hard. “I do understand that you’re scared - so am I. I’ve never been more scared in my entire fucking life. But you know what’s even more terrifying, Brian? Wondering if you’re telling me everything now. Wondering why you still don’t trust me after all we’ve been through. Wondering if *I* can trust you not to walk out of my life ‘for my own good’, or... or worse.”
Fuck. He’s a perceptive little shit, I’ll give him that. I’d be lying if I said that it hadn’t crossed my mind. But not because I don’t trust him to be there for me - for exactly the opposite reason. Because I know that he will be, no matter what, and because there is so much about this fucking disease that he doesn’t know yet. Because I know what’s in my future and fuck me, I do love him too much to ask him to bear me through it. The bitch of it is, I also love him too much not to. Can anyone really blame me for thinking we both just might be better off if I finally bought that ticket to Ibiza?
I slip my hand around the back of his head and pull him to me, and this time when I murmur my apology into his ear, he doesn’t stop me. “I’m sorry.”
“I know,” he says, pressing a warm kiss into my neck before he draws back, fixing me with those intense blue eyes. “I know you are, but I can’t do this anymore. It has to end - right here, and right now.” The tears are rolling freely down his cheeks and he does nothing to try and stop them. And I swear to god, I think my heart stops for the few seconds it takes for him to continue. “I love you, Brian. More than anything thing else in this world. For better or for worse. I need you more than I need air and I would do anything for you. Anything. Do you believe that?”
All I can do is nod.
“Good. Then believe this, too - if you try to push me away again, or ‘protect’ me with a lie, or even think about giving up for even one second, I will never fucking forgive you. Ever.”
I cup his face in my hands and just hold him like that for a long moment, then tilt my forehead to his. And for what feels the first time since Cynthia handed me that little pink message slip, I exhale. “Okay.”
“Okay?” He narrows his eyes at me, but he almost smiles. Almost. I nod silently, lean in, and kiss him until I’m sure he knows exactly what I mean. We’re both a little breathless when I finally let him go.
Then he does smile, watery as it may be, and this time he leans into me. His kiss is tentative at first, but then his tongue seeks mine, his hands slide around my neck and mine work their way under his hoodie, and for a long while that’s all there is - and all the forgiveness we’ll ever need.
He pulls down the zipper on my leather jacket and pushes it off my shoulders. It lands in a heap on the floor and then I return the favor, yanking the sweatshirt up over his head and tossing it aside in one fluid motion, our lips barely parting in the process. I lie back on the bed, pulling him with me. He straddles me, running his hands over my hips, up along my waist and over my pecs. I’m still wearing his t-shirt and his hands are warm through the tight, thin cotton. He presses against my chest as he moves up to kiss me again and I tense up, only for a second, but it doesn’t go unnoticed. Damnit.
He sits back on my thighs, his eyes cast down. I’m not sure what I expect, exactly, but I’m relieved when he just slides his hands under the shirt and pushes it up. Wordlessly, I raise my arms and let him pull it off me. When I lie back again, he reaches out and lays his hand on me.
I move it just a little until his palm rests just below my left pec. For a long time there is nothing but the sound of our breathing, still needful and quick, but he never takes his eyes off his hand.
“Does it hurt?”
I shake my head. It’s fucked -- even the doctors aren’t sure why – but it doesn’t. If hadn’t seen the scans for myself, I wouldn’t even know it was there, this ugly fucking thing inside me. “There’s no pain.”
Another moment passes in silence and then, slowly, he begins to trace a pattern on my chest, first with his fingertips, and then with his mouth, his lips warm and gentle as he maps every inch where his hand had lain. Hot tears fall on my skin, each one marking the path of soft kisses in their wake as he works his way up to my mouth again. He raises his eyes then, and there is a heartbeat or two when he just stares at me as if... as if he's committing something to memory, and then he kisses me long and hard, like my fucking life depends on it.
Maybe it does.
* * *
“Hey.” I feel his hand caressing my bare ass, and when I don’t respond quickly enough, he swats it lightly. “Wakey, wakey.”
“Not sleeping,” I mutter.
“Uh huh. Well, I suggest you haul your not-sleeping ass out of that bed and get dressed. The car will be here in twenty minutes.”
I squint at the clock on the bedside table. “Shit! Why’d you let me fall asleep?”
“Let you?” He chuckles low in his throat at the joke we both know that is. Apparently being a gay man doesn’t make me immune to the stereotype; not falling asleep after great sex is pretty much impossible for me. Once, after an epic brainstorming session for Rage, I even managed to fall asleep during – a fact that I may never live down. The only reason I ever got another rim job again is because Brian then immediately followed up my… faux-pas with the douchiest dick-move move of all time. Anyway.
I swear I only just closed my eyes, but the clock says it’s been almost an hour, during which time Brian has not only managed to pack and put the room back in enough order that he won’t be barred from the hotel, it looks like he’s showered again as well. He’s clean-shaven, dressed impeccably in black wool Armani pants and a mossy green cashmere sweater that sets off his tanned skin to perfection. His hair is clean and shining and I just now realize he’s had it cut since I left Pittsburgh. He looks... flawless. We made love -- no -- we fucked for hours and he took me to all the places he ever has, and then some. How can he be.... fuck. I have to stop going there.
“Tick tock, Sunshine.” Another smack on the ass chases the useless thoughts out of my head, and me out of the bed. We’ve got a plane to catch.
Standing at the toilet, I catch my reflection sidelong in the mirror. My eyes are puffy and still a little red. A terminal case of bed-head, not to mention the remnants of being fucked into the mattress, has me looking rather pathetic by comparison. I finish up and glance out at the time again. Car or no car, I need a shower.
The spray is cold and bracing as it washes over me, exactly what I need. As I rinse off the few places Brian’s tongue missed, I’m struck again by how surreal this all is. Nobody knows better than I do that life can turn to shit in the blink of an eye. Or the swing of a bat. Still, it doesn’t seem possible that yesterday I was literally as happy as I’ve ever been, poised to start the newest, most amazing chapter of this saga we’ve been writing since I was seventeen years old. Today, my most immediate goal is convincing this man I love so much to put himself through hell in order to save his life.
Where the fuck do I begin?
* * *