“Honey, I’m home.” Brian’s sarcastic voice rang clearly in the loft. The metal door clanged shut behind him.
Justin didn’t look up from his computer. “Hey.”
Waning daylight spilled through the open windows into the loft. Brian dropped his briefcase and topcoat on a chair and picked up the mail. “My day sucked. I had to eat McDonald’s for lunch, and that was the high point.”
Justin made a sound indicating he was listening. He shaded in Rage’s uniform on the monitor. Michael wanted the next issue of the series to be available prior to the holidays so people could give it as a gift and Justin still had half the story left to illustrate.
“Look at all these damn Christmas cards.” Brian flicked through the brightly colored envelopes. “Brian and Justin, Brian and Justin, Brian and Justin, Brian and Justin. God, it’s almost like we’re a real couple.”
“It’s just a way to save paper, since we live together,” Justin said flippantly. He squashed any hurt he felt by Brian’s attitude.
“Oh, here’s a different one: To Justin and Brian. How nice, I’m the wife,” Brian said with disdain.
Justin rolled his eyes and kept working. “It’s no big deal.”
“I’ve become part of a conjunction.” Brian tossed the envelopes on the desk and headed for the bedroom. “I’m taking a shower.”
Justin heard Brian’s unspoken desire to wash off any relationship-related germs. Brian Kinney didn’t do boyfriends.
In the past, Justin would’ve been upset. Now, resignation tempered the pang of childish romanticism. He knew Brian loved him and that was the only thing that mattered, not some sentimental label defining what they were to each other.
“So, are you going to join me, or what?” Brian said. He sounded perturbed that Justin was still working. He stood nude in the bedroom doorway, staring at Justin with hot, heavy-lidded eyes.
Justin had a lot of work to do, but he craved Brian’s touch more. He’d take affection how he could get it. He stood and shed his shirt all at once, and followed Brian into the bathroom.
“Are you guys coming to our holiday party?” Lindsay asked. She stood beside the table with Gus in her arms. Mel was beside Michael and Ben was sitting next to Brian in the booth.
Justin perched on the edge of the booth seat next to Brian. The Liberty Diner was busy with the morning crowd. Justin had class, so he wasn’t scheduled to work, but that hadn’t stopped him from fetching refills for everyone at the table.
“Celebrate crass commercialism with a bunch of people I can’t stand?” Brian said. “It sounds thrilling.”
“Well, I’ll be there,” Justin said. He nudged Brian. “With or without Mr. Scrooge.”
“Humbug,” Brian retorted in a monotone.
“What day is it again?” Ben asked, retrieving his personal organizer from his pocket.
“The twenty-second,” Mel replied. “We sent out invitations last week.”
“Yes, here it is: ‘Jingle Bells at Linds and Mel’s.’” Ben looked at Michael. “Cute.”
Michael grinned and turned to Lindsay. “Should we bring anything?”
“Just yourselves,” Lindsay replied, shifting Gus.
“Um, hi everyone.”
Ted stopped by the table with Blake, halting conversation.
“Teddy, hi,” Lindsay greeted with forced enthusiasm. Mel muttered something under her breath.
An awkward silence ensued. It had been a week since Ted returned from rehab and things were still tense among the friends. Justin noted Ted and Blake’s body language as they stood there and knew that they were together.
“Ah, you all remember Blake,” Ted said. “Blake, I’ll re-introduce you. This is Lindsay and her wife, Mel.”
“And our son, Gus,” Lindsay said, always the compassionate peacemaker. She helped Gus wave.
“Hi,” Blake said politely.
“Michael, you remember, and his boyfriend Ben,” Ted continued. “And Brian and his… whatever Justin is.”
Justin didn’t have time to feel uncomfortable or hurt. Brian put his arm around Justin’s shoulder and smiled self-amusedly. “Justin is my ampersand.”
“He’s your what?” Michael said and the others echoed.
Justin turned to Brian and saw the half-playful, half-serious look in his eyes. Justin got it immediately. A smile slowly brightened his face.
Brian tugged Justin’s head down, kissed his temple, and released him completely. “C’mon, Sunshine. Let’s get you to school.”
Justin rose and fetched his coat from behind the counter. Ted and Blake stepped out of the way.
“What’s an ampersand?” Blake asked Ted.
“It’s the symbol used to represent the word ‘and,’” Ted looked fairly taken aback by Brian’s statement.
“Brian Kinney,” Lindsay said with amazement. “That has to be the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“I promise it won’t happen again,” Brian said, sliding out of the booth. He clamped his hand on the back of Justin’s neck and, amidst a chorus of goodbyes, guided him out of the diner.
Outside, Justin laughed joyfully, earning a bemused look from Brian. “What’s so funny?” he asked.
Justin turned in the loose hold on his neck and smiled up at Brian. “Life,” he answered obliquely. “Now, kiss me.”
“Whatever you say,” Brian said, and complied.
Justin no longer expected hearts and flowers. Sex was the person you took to bed, love was the person you wanted to wake up to, and Justin knew which one he was to Brian. Labels were unnecessary.
But Justin would take ampersand, anyway.