This was stupid. No, this had flipped stupid off while passing it in the right lane. This had given stupid a Jimmy Nickles sandwich to the face and taken its lunch money. This was so unintelligent as to offend Gus's sense of honor and he felt vaguely dirty just thinking about it, like that time he came across a typo in the dictionary or when he'd skipped to the end of A Tale of Two Cities because Sister, Sister was on but he'd still gotten an A on his (arguably well-structured) essay.
He should just do something. He knew it. His co-workers knew it. His neighbor knew it. His dentist -- who was a surprisingly warm and gentle man once you got to know him and had a real knack for being non-judgmentally supportive during Gus's time of need -- knew it. Even his mom had stopped trying to set up him up blind dates with her friend's eligible daughters and when he asked about it, she'd just patted him on the cheek and told him not to worry about it, that everything would work out just fine.
Gus wasn't so sure about that. He'd calculated and cross-categorized the seven hundred and forty-four different ways this could go wrong.
The words were right there, though, on the tip of his tongue, clamoring to get out. Shawn, I have feelings for you. Or even Shawn, I think it's time we considered re-negotiating the terms of our partnership. Yeah, that was nice and vague and didn't contain any references to the time Gus tried the cough-and-yawn at the movies (Iron Man, 'cause Terrence Howard just had that effect on him) and ended up elbowing Shawn in the eye and pinching his suprascapular nerve.
It was just that every time he went to say it he had some kind of superior pharyngeal constrictor spasm that rendered speech impossible, coupled with a sensation in his gut that he was almost positive was an indicator that his gastric acid had eaten holes in his stomach lining. (He had an appointment with his GP on Monday, and he wasn't sure what he was hoping for more -- ulcers or being in love with his best friend. He was leaning towards ulcers.)
And, okay, maybe he'd already started acting like Shawn was his secret boyfriend a few months ago. (So what if he'd filed domestic partnership papers? Shawn was over at his place six nights out of seven, that was practically cohabitation, plus it made it easier to get Shawn on his company health plan.) He really did keep meaning to let Shawn in on it, just like he'd kept on meaning to tell him about Mira, but every time he went to say it, other stuff came out, like Shawn, stop doing untoward things with that pastry or No, Shawn, you are definitely not allowed to lick that.
"This is stupid," Gus said, scowling at his (admittedly delicious) enchilada drenched in salsa verde.
"If by 'this,' you mean the tragic lack of guacamole on my burrito, I'm in complete agreement."
"What are you talking about?" Gus said, transferring his scowl in Shawn's direction, where it appropriately belonged, anyway. "If there were any more guacamole on that burrito it would have a skin and a pit and be hanging from a tree."
"My point exactly," Shawn said, taking another bite and sighing. "The menu promised me that I would think I was biting into avocado, and frankly, it's just not happening."
"And, no, that's not what I was referring to," Gus said, smoothing his napkin over his lap and trying to ignore the pharyngeal spasms that were tickling at the back of his throat.
"Well, excuse me for demanding satisfaction when I pay good money for a meal," Shawn said.
"You mean when I pay good money for a meal," Gus muttered, and no, damn it, he was not going to get off-track like the other three hundred and seventy-two times he'd tried to do this. "Anyway, could you just be quiet for a minute? I've got something important I need to tell you and you have all the focus of a goldfish suffering from head-trauma related amnesia."
"But I thought goldfish always had --"
Gus leaned forward. "Shawn," he said, warningly, because he was pretty sure if he didn't get through this he was going to throw up (well, he might throw up regardless), and vomiting all over a nice restaurant was not part of his plan for this evening, thank you very much.
"Sorry," Shawn said, throwing his hands up in the air. "I didn't know that grumpy-Gus was in charge tonight. The floor's all yours."
"I'm not --" Gus shook his head, stopping himself before they got into it again. He very deliberately exhaled and tried to think of bunnies and children laughing and those limited edition December M&Ms they'd made when he was a kid that had tasted like Christmas in his mouth.
He inhaled, deeply, finding his calm, cool and collected center as he did so. This was good. He was doing well. He was zen like a still pond on a summer day.
"Shawn, I --"
Okay, no problem. A little pharyngeal clenching was perfectly normal. A slight breeze over the water, completely natural, there was nothing to worry about.
"I -- I --"
Except that the words were getting lodged in his throat like a giant gobstopper and the pond was having some major churning issues.
Shawn's face swam in Gus' vision, which was going ever so slightly black around the edges.
"Hey, buddy, you okay?" Shawn said, swimming closer.
Gus slumped, his spine bending under the weight of defeat. He was a disgrace to the Visualize Your Way to Relaxation tapes he'd listened to in the car before he picked Shawn up.
"I'm gonna need a margarita," he croaked, raising his hand to hail the waiter.
Two weeks ago.
Encyclopedia Britannica, thirty-two volumes and over sixty-five thousand articles. Forty-eight self-help books, ranging from How to Be at the Wheel of Your Love Life to Unrequited Love for Dummies. Forty-one comprehensive guides to the animal world, one for each phylum and kingdom. Five clinical psychology volumes, though they were so dense that matter itself seemed to bend around them. He had twelve tabs in Firefox open, everything from Wikipedia to Dictionary.com to Delicious.com, the social bookmarking site he might have gotten a little addicted to last month when he had a brief and foolish night of thinking he could organize the entire internet. (The saddest part was that after seventy-two sleepless hours he'd realized it was possible, but he'd needed about seven hundred high-functioning androids to get it done right.)
And, for dessert, the latest issue of She-Hulk: Unlimited that he'd been dying to check out, because he believed that after all that heavy reading the superb coloring and engrossing plotline would cleanse his palette like a light lemon sorbet.
Gus was ready. Everything was in place: he had a three-day weekend off from work; he'd made an elaborate excuse to Shawn about going off on a spa trip, and very steathily planted a trail of false clues that would lead Shawn on a wild goose chase; his cell phone was off; his fridge was stocked with electrolyte-heavy beverages, baby carrots, and the pantry with high-fiber cereal and pop-tarts; and, last but not least, he had maximized his couch for optimum comfort, all pillows fluffed, all throw blankets freshly washed with scented sheets, and the wobble on his coffee table had been conquered and neutralized, thanks to a fruitful exchange with Mr. Spencer in which Gus showed him how to use TurboTax and he, in turn, spent an afternoon fixing all the things Gus couldn't contractually demand his landlady address.
Gus was going to do what he did best: he was going to research his problem away.
See, he'd made the mistake of following's Shawn advice on his love life before -- not this time. No more pretending to be a throat doctor from the unknown but war-torn country of Gusitania or dressing up like a giant hot dog and trying to sell himself for two dollars at the baseball game. No more meeting people from the dating website that Shawn had signed him up for without his knowledge only to discover that they were under the impression that Gus was a seven-time world wrestling champion who maintained a zero gravity hydroponic garden in his spare time (he wished). Plus, he was tired of the disappointed looks on their faces when they found out that Mrs. Pickles didn't exist and the Flickr album Shawn had created was nothing more than a cruel lie.
See, because this, like any other issue, could be addressed through methodical and logical deconstruction. All Gus had to do was figure out the components of the problem, create a plan for addressing each component in a timely manner, and decide what his preferred outcome was and work towards that as a goal.
He sat down on the couch, picked up the first volume of the Britannica, a yellow pad, and a freshly-sharpened number two pencil. He turned the first page, licked the tip of the pencil, and got to work.
Gus was feeling good. He didn't know if it was the margaritas or the delicious warming effect of the chipotle or some kind of chemical reaction between the two, but suddenly all of his problems seemed insignificant. What problems? He had no problems. He was Burton Guster, executive pharmaceutical representative for the West Coast Pharmaceutical Corporation, successful partner at a detective agency (that, while built on a dubious premise, had a perfect record on cases solved and closed), and proud owner of an environmentally friendly and aerodynamically appealing vehicle. He was a man of the world. He knew twenty Billy Joel songs off the top of his head. He could recite the pledge of allegiance backwards, which, while not the most useful talent in the world, was pretty impressive to manage while drunk.
"Why are you reciting the pledge of allegiance backwards?" Shawn said, his brows furrowed at Gus, which Gus thought was ridiculous, because if anyone should be furrowing brows at anyone, it should be him at Shawn. Shawn was the furrow-inducer, not Gus. Hell, Gus sometimes got indigestion just by looking at Shawn. Shawn should really get that looked at.
"Stands it which for republic to and," Gus answered.
Although Gus wasn't actually drunk. He just wasn't the type of guy who got drunk -- that was all Shawn's territory. Not to say that Gus didn't know how to have fun -- he knew how to have fun -- he just didn't see the appeal of hammering your liver and your pituary gland at the same time when neither of them had done anything other than sustain your life without asking for anything in return except that you not overload them with sugar-and-alcohol-laden mixed drinks.
"Another strawberry margarita!" Gus said, waving his hand.
"That might not be such a good idea, buddy," Shawn said. If Gus didn't know better, he'd think Shawn was worried. About him. Which was ridiculous, because Gus could take care of himself and it's not like he was drunk, so he didn't see what all the fuss was about.
The waiter slid another giant margarita in front of him. It had a straw the size of an amusement park ride and if only Gus had brought his trunks, he probably could have taken a swim in all that blended-up fruity goodness.
"That was impossibly fast," Gus said, awestruck, the sweet scent of strawberry overwhelming his highly sensitive olfactory glands and leaving him a little light-headed, in that good sort of adds-a-nice-warm-light-to-the-edge-of-everything way.
The waiter -- a fine brother who had a voice like caramel and a set of such perfectly sculpted pectorals that Gus couldn't help but give thanks to the Lord for such blessings -- smiled and, just before walking off, threw a flirtatious wink over his shoulder in Gus' direction.
So, all that "good" stuff: scratched. Because Gus was now officially feeling great.
"America of States United the of flag the to allegiance pledge I," Gus concluded patriotically, holding his glass up to Shawn for a toast.
Two weeks and one day ago.
"Please," Gus said, rolling his eyes, because even though she couldn't see him, he knew it would reverberate through the sibling communication channels. "Of course I have a plan."
"Oh, really?" He could hear Joy rolling her eyes right back at him. "And what's that? Pretend he's your boyfriend until he figures it out on his own?"
"What?" Gus sputtered, nearly spitting out the water he'd been attempting to sip before his sister had to go and make wildly inaccurate accusations. "Don't be ridiculous."
He tucked the domestic partnership confirmation under the latest issue of Discover magazine. It would be just like Joy to make some big issue out of it.
"Gus," she said, "I've been your older sister all my life, remember?" And then she waited.
"Joy," Gus said, and he was ashamed that there was a slight whining undertone to it, but she was being unfair. She knew the silently-disappointed-wait-and-listen was his Kryptonite.
"Joy," he said, and there was nothing under the surface about the whine this time.
Her silence, if possible, intensified. He could practically feel their mother's genes activating in her bloodstream.
"I was just gonna do it until I figured things out!" He blurted, the words tumbling out before he could stop them.
"Oh, Gus," she said, and at least her laugh was affectionate instead of mocking. "If it didn't work with Denzel why do you think it's going to work with Shawn?"
"That was completely different and you know it," he said. "I was five."
"He was the heart and soul of St. Elsewhere, yes, we know. But that's exactly my point, Gus. That stuff was cute when you were a kid, but taping Shawn's face onto a pillow and sleeping with it is just sad at your age."
The air came out of his mouth in a long, drawn-out pfffft sound. "As if," he said, and the picture on his nightstand totally didn't count because it was in a frame and it wasn't like Shawn didn't have one of him, too. (Yes, Gus had checked.)
"And I don't know what you're so afraid of, anyway," She said, off-handedly. "It's obvious Shawn's in love with you."
This time, Gus did spit out the water, because he hadn't learned his lesson about trying to imbibe liquids during a conversation in which his sister had clearly gone off the deep end. "The only thing that's obvious is that Shawn goes after everything that moves, and he's never once made move on me, so I think that little theory of yours lacks all foundation of evidential support."
Now her laugh was mocking. "You really wanna talk to me about evidence? 'Cause I've got evidence. I just think you aren't ready to hear it."
"I -- I --" And Gus' voice got stuck on repeat for a minute, because he was desperately trying to think of a topic change, any topic change at all, because he knew that when Joy said she had evidence, that meant Joy had evidence, and he just -- this wasn't the time -- he just didn't want her getting his head all mixed up, not when he was doing such a good job of that all on his own.
But nothing was coming out. He gave up, exhaling loudly. He plopped down onto a kitchen chair, feeling deflated.
"Oh, Gus," she said, her tone now softening. "It's gonna be okay, you know that, right?"
"Yeah," Gus said, fiddling with his pile of lacquered marine-themed coasters. "I know."
"And I'm telling you," she said. "All you have to do is watch him. You'll see."
Gus smiled. "Uh-huh. Whatever you say."
"Big sisters are always right. It's the rule." Static crackled in the background. "Well, listen, they just announced my flight, but anytime you need to talk you just call, okay?"
"Thanks. Have a good flight, Joy."
"Miss you, Gussie."
"Miss you, too. But you're gonna be out for my birthday this year, aren't you?"
"Nothing will keep me away," she said, and he could hear her grinning, and something about knowing that two thousand miles away his sister was smiling in an airport made him feel immeasurably better.
Gus was a man without a plan. He was completely and utterly devoid of a plan. Plan-less, if you would. This must be what it was like to exist as Shawn -- he had absolutely no idea what he was going to do next.
It was kind of exhilirating.
"I have absolutely no idea what I'll do next," Gus announced.
"That makes two of us," Shawn said, leaning forward and scooping out another spoonful of flan. "Your blood-alcohol level is an equal combination of awesome and deeply disturbing."
"Did you know my spirit animal is the blue-footed booby?" Gus sloshed, taking another sip of the strawberry deliciousness. And, see, there was a perfect example. He'd had no idea he was going to say those words until they'd popped out of his mouth. Judging by the expression on Shawn's face, he'd also had no idea Gus was going to say those words.
"Promise me you'll never, ever repeat that to anyone else ever again," Shawn said, his expression deeply serious.
"I found that out using the comprehensive questionnaire in Spirit Animals and the Path to Love by Sparrowtree Goldenflax." He informed Shawn, because even though Shawn had this look on his face like he'd just eaten sour yogurt, Gus knew he was curious.
"And now you're way over the divide towards deeply disturbing," Shawn said.
"I could eat this flower if I wanted to," Gus said, swaying forward, because his stupid center of gravity kept slipping just out of reach, like the time Shawn had insisted it was more fun to play marbles when they were coated in butter. (It wasn't, unless a greasy marble to the eyesocket is considered good times. Gus still had a nervous tick on his left side thanks to that.) He managed to pick the carnation up after three tries.
"I wouldn't recommend it," Shawn said, in a voice that was eerily similar to the tone he used to imitate Henry except that he didn't seem to be aware of it. "Here," Shawn said, sliding the plate over. "I'm ninety-two percent certain the flan's tastier."
Gus looked down at the molded custard dessert and felt a different kind of pharyngeal constriction.
"You know," Gus said, looking at Shawn. "I don't care what anyone else says. You've been a good friend to me, Shawn. The best I could ever have."
"Wow." Shawn blinked. "I, uh --"
Gus stood up; Shawn, mouth still hanging open, caught mid-sentence, watched him. He had no idea what he was doing, but something was bubbling up in him like an intense chemical reaction. Something about the look on Shawn's face, the sweet dessert in front of him, the music playing softly in the background -- it all culminated into one of those rare and perfect moments where it felt like the stars were aligned and his blood was pumping and he felt good, and he didn't even have a damn plan, but it didn't matter because he was right here, right now.
"Shawn," Gus said, taking a step forward and getting down on one knee. "Every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by."
"Gus --" Shawn started, but Gus kept going.
"Every now and then I fall apart," he said, starting softly, but gradually increasing in volume.
Shawn looked at him for a long, considering moment, the same way he sometimes looked at evidence -- eyes squinted, the wheels almost visibly turning behind them as he dissected whatever was in front of him. Something he saw made him smile. "Turn around, bright eyes."
"And I need you now tonight," Gus sang. (Perfectly on-key, he might add.)
"And I need you more than ever," Shawn sang back, half-laughing and half-serious.
"Once upon a time I was falling in love," Gus said, his voice going quieter, and he half-rose so his and Shawn's face were only inches apart.
"You're gonna make me say it, aren't you?" Shawn said, wrinkling his nose.
"A total eclipse of the heart," Shawn whispered, and Gus leaned in and kissed him, no plan whatsoever.