It’s not that Brian is ignoring Justin. He isn’t even actively avoiding him. Not really. It’s just that Justin’s social sphere and Brian’s no longer overlap. With Ben and Michael getting more serious, Justin and he had agreed to take a break from Rage. Justin had quit the diner, much to Debbie’s unhappiness, to take a job at a local art supply store just off campus. And with Justin’s little boyfriend Ian, occupying so much of his time, Justin wasn’t at Woody’s or Babylon too often. Brian, not wanting to get sucked back into all the drama, leaves him alone, and settles back into his own life of work and tricks, Gus and Lindsay, and Michael. So he’s not really keeping track of things. It’s not until over halfway through the semester that he figures out something is wrong.
He’s sorting through his mail after work one day and he finds a letter from PIFA. Furrowing his brow he opens the letter and its accompanying check. It’s the full semesters expenses, what he’d paid in January. At first he thinks it’s Justin’s doing. That somehow he’d paid the tuition himself and this is a refund check from the school. It sort of pisses Brian off. They’d had a deal. But the letter quickly derails that line of thought.
The letter is very apologetic in the delay to get his money back to him. But offers no explanation for why they had done so in the first place. He calls the Bursars office during lunch the next day. That’s when he learns that Justin has withdrawn for the rest of the semester. When he asks why, the woman on the other end of the line apologizes and tells him she can’t give out that type of information. Brian asks when Justin had withdrawn and the woman hesitates before telling him that Mr. Taylor had withdrawn in late March. Brian hangs up the phone confused.
It’s been awhile since he graduated from college, well relatively, but he still remembers how tuition works. You have to pay it up front or have a payment schedule in place, and there are deadlines for withdrawal. If he remembers correctly, and he is sure he does, you basically forfeit your full tuition just a few weeks into the semester. There’s no way Justin would be able to pull out in late March, 2 months in to the Spring term, and get all of Brian’s money back. He stares at the check for the rest of his lunch break, before picking up his cellphone and dialing Justin’s number. He refuses to dwell on the fact that he can still dial Justin’s number from memory without having to stop and think about it.
The phone rings and rings, before going to a generic voice mail service. Brian contemplates leaving a message but ends the call without doing so. He sits back in his chair, staring at the check and the ambiguous letter.
He leaves the office right at 5pm that day, surprising Cynthia when he walks out of his office wearing his coat and carrying his briefcase. It’s so much earlier than usual. He goes directly to the diner, hoping to weasel some information out of Debbie or Michael or Emmett. Someone has to know something. But no one does. Debbie tears up a little, talking about how she hasn’t seen her little Sunshine in weeks. Michael shrugs his shoulders, digging into his dinner and telling Brian they were still on break from the comic. Brian starts to worry.
It’s easy enough to get to Ian’s apartment. The first few weeks after the Rage party, Brian had kept careful tabs on Justin. He had wanted to know where he was living, and the craptasticness of the building had been memorable enough to leave a lasting impression. He knocks on the door, and when he gets no response knocks again. The door across the hall opens and a little old lady sticks her head out.
“Looking for Ethan?” she asks, voice wavering. Brian grimaces.
“For Justin actually, have you seen him?” he asks. She frowns at him.
“Blond boy? Blue eyes? Big smile?” she asks. Brian nods, sticking his hands in the pockets of his suit jacket. She eyes him carefully.
“He moved out. Some big fight. Must have been a couple of months ago now. Poor boy. I saw him leave. He looked upset when he left. Came back the next day to collect his things. Hasn’t been back,” she explains. Brian sighs.
“Thanks,” he says, stepping past her.
“Should I tell Ethan you stopped by?” she asks. Brian pauses, and shakes his head.
“He won’t want to have heard from me. Thank you for the information,” he says.
Walking out to the car, he checks the time on his watch. It’s nearly 8. He’s tempted to call Jennifer, but he doubts dear Mother Taylor would be too happy to hear from him. He slumps in his car seat laying out mentally everything he knows.
Justin had been enrolled for the Spring semester at the end of January. Sometime in February or March he and Ian apparently broke up and he moved out. In late March Justin dropped out of school, but somehow got a full refund for his entire semester’s tuition. He wasn’t working at the diner, he wasn’t in contact with Emmett, Ted, or Debbie and Vic. He and Michael weren’t talking at the moment, on break from Rage. And Justin hadn’t been around Liberty. This is not assuaging any of Brian’s worry. Picking up his cellphone he dials Lindsay.
“Bri,” she greets him warmly. “What have you been up too? Your son is excited to see you on Saturday,” she says. Brian fights the urge to roll his eyes.
“How is Gus?” he asks dutifully. She laughs.
“Gus is fine, but he misses you,” she replies. Brian suppresses a sigh.
“Don’t read too much into the following question, ok?” he asks. She is silent on the other end of the line. “Have you heard from Justin lately?” he asks.
“No, why?” she asks coyly. “Have you finally realized you miss him?”
“No, Lindz. I’m trying to figure something out. He’s dropped out of PIFA, and no one has spoken to him in weeks. I was hoping maybe he’d been by to see you or Gus,” he explains. More silence.
“I haven’t seen or heard from him either, Brian. What do you think is wrong?” she asks.
“I don’t know. But I intend to find out. That little twat dropped out of school, and disappeared off the radar, and now I get to hunt him down to find out why.” Lindsay laughs at his grumbling.
“I’m sure it’s nothing to be concerned about, but do keep me informed. Justin is a good kid, Brian,” Brian resists the urge to roll his eyes again.
“Tell Gus, I’m excited to see him on Saturday,” he says quietly.
“Of course. Good luck,” she says. Brian ends the call without replying.
Now where to look? Brian asks himself. Then it hits him.
Daphne looks shocked to see him, but the surprise gives way to a sort of nervous terror.
“Brian?!” she asks, her voice pitching higher.
“Daphne,” he says simply. He leans against the open door frame. She stares at him with sort of wild eyes. “Where is he?” he asks. Her eyes dart away from him.
“I promised him I wouldn’t tell you,” she says. He watches her draw herself up then, steeling her resolve. She crosses her arms over her chest and eyes him with determination. Brian smirks, leaning into her space, and watching her eyes dilate. She moves back away from him.
“Where is he?” he asks again. She turns away, but Brian moves with her, stepping into the small apartment, not letting her avoid him.
“Brian!” she says in admonishment. “I promised!” she looks at him with wide eyes, and he almost feels bad for her. She looks distraught. “I want to tell you! I really do! But he made me swear!” Brian sighs. He can hear the tears in her voice.
“Just tell me what you can, then. I know he broke up with the Fiddler. I know he dropped out of PIFA. I know he’s not talking to any of us. Not to Deb or Michael or Lindsay. So tell me what you can? Did the little drama princess drop out because of Ian?” he asks. She sniffs, rolling her eyes.
“No! Of course not,” she replies. “That fuck head cheated on him!” she replies, “but Justin would never give up school because of him!” Brian scoffs.
“So Mr. Perfect wasn’t so perfect after all?” he asks. Daphne shakes her head.
“He went away for one night and couldn’t keep it in his pants. Justin found out, dumped his ass and moved in with me. But that was weeks ago. He’s not staying here anymore.” She turns away again, reaching for a pack of cigarettes on the coffee table and tapping out one. She lights it, taking a long drag. Brian jams his hands into his pockets.
“That’s all you can tell me?” he asks. Daphne shrugs, tears coming to her eyes again.
“I tried to get him to call you. To let you know what was going on. But you know Justin. He doesn’t do something if he doesn’t want too. He can be a stubborn fucking asshole that way,” she says, slumping down on the couch. Brian takes another deep breath.
“So then where is he?” he asks. Daphne’s lips thin and she avoids his eyes. “You really won’t tell me?” he says. She shakes her head.
“A promise is a promise,” she grits out.
“Fine we’ll play 20 questions then.” He shrugs out of his jacket and tosses it over the back of the couch, flinging himself down next to her. “He’s not staying here and he’s not staying with Deb and he’s not with the fiddler. Is he staying by himself?” he asks. Daphne shakes her head no. “Is he staying with a friend?” he asks. Again she shakes her head no, brown curls bouncing against her cheeks. “Did he move out of state? Run off to New York?” he asks, flabbergasted. Daphne tilts her head toward him, looking up at him like he’s being an idiot.
“Get real, Brian.” Brian looks at her seriously for a moment and it suddenly clicks.
“He moved back in with his mother?” disbelief washes through him. He watches her shoulders slump, and feels the fear that has been building in his system for the last twenty-four hours dissipate. “Jesus. I thought something was really wrong! That little shit!” he stands up, grabbing his jacket up and pulling it on. He heads back for the door, but Daphne jumps up after him, darting around him.
“Brian wait!” she says. She reaches for the door to stop him, and he freezes. He turns to look at her, and sees the pain etched into her face. “Think for a second. He wouldn’t move back to his mother’s unless there was something wrong. Really wrong!” Brian feels the dread flood back into gut, like a lead weight.
“Daphne, just tell me what the fuck is going on!” he asks. She looks at him, her face crumpling with anguish.
“I promised,” she’s cut off when he grabs her, hands closing on her upper arms and pulling her closer.
“Fucking tell me!” he demands. She deflates against him, sobs racking her frame, and his arms slide around her to keep her from collapsing to the floor.
“He’s sick. Really, really sick,” she whispers. “He didn’t want you to know. I told him to tell you! But he thought..” she trails off.
“What? That I wouldn’t care?” he asks, voice hollow and empty. She shakes her head.
“He knew you’d care. He wasn’t sure how much but he knew you’d care on some level. But he didn’t want your pity. It’s why he hasn’t been around. Why he’s not told anyone from your crowd. He even lied to Debbie about getting a job at some art store…” she trails off. She pulls away from him, wiping at her face.
“What do you mean, sick?” he asks. She frowns.
“Cancer,” she says softly. He’s out the door before she can stop him. “Brian!” she calls after him, but it doesn’t stop his forward progress.
He pulls up to Jennifer’s house late. It’s after 10 by then, but there are still lights on. Upstairs and down. The family is still awake.
Brian contemplates leaving. Just as he’d contemplated turning around on the drive over a half dozen times. Justin is sick? Justin has fucking cancer? Justin has not told him. He sits in the driver’s seat, hands gripping the steering wheel, and head tilted back against the headrest. He tries to get himself to open the car door, to step out, and knock on the front door. But he can’t. His hands refuse to let go of the steering wheel, and his chest feels tight.
Brian is not a crier. He does it very rarely and only when he’s so emotionally distraught and/or drunk/high that he can’t stop himself. So when he feels the wetness dripping off his chin, he’s startled into movement. He wipes at his face, blinking the tears back. He’s not sure he can do this again. He’d been there through the bashing. He’d watched, even removed as he was, as Justin struggled through the rehab. He’d walked Justin back to the world of the living one step and one drawing at a time. He’d let Justin go when Justin needed to be let go. And now here he is facing the possibility of Justin dying on him. Again. And he doesn’t know if he can…
But, fuck. Fuck. FUCK... It’s Justin. The decision made, he yanks on the door handle, flinging the door open, and jumping out. Walking to the front door, he sets his face into a determined scowl. He will be let in. He will see Justin. Nothing is going to stop him. Not ever again.
Jennifer opens the door after the second round of pounding, takes one look at his face and sighs. Her shoulders slump, and her face falls, but she opens the door wide and lets him inside. Even she knows that this is where Brian has to be.