THE school shrink that Brian dragged Tate to see was really a nice man. Fifty-ish, graying, paunchy, with a balding head and a ponytail, Dr. Sutherland looked like he’d smoked plenty of weed in his misspent youth, and kept that happy, jovial buzz for the last thirty years.
Tate found himself loathing the guy. He loathed his deep, gravelly voice. He loathed the man’s misshapen neutral-colored cardigan sweaters and slogan-bearing T-shirts underneath. He hated the brightly spangled tinsel that decorated his office for the holidays and at this moment, more than anything in the world besides his own skin, he hated the guy’s over-perceptive hazel eyes.
“Could’ya call me Talker, Doc? I like Talker. You know, ’cause it’s not just a name, it’s like, a function, you know, like a noun and an adjective and a name and a….”
Brian’s hand, always somewhere steady on his body during these sessions, tightened on his knee, and Talker subsided. He was talking too much. Blathering. Going on, because he was uncomfortable. Brian knew it, because Brian loved him, and took care of him, and listened to him, and knew all his most painful of painful things, and when Brian told him that he needed to focus, he listened.
Whether he wanted to or not.
“Okay,” Dr. Sutherland said gently, ignoring the fact that he’d been calling Tate by his given name for nearly six months, since Brian had started dragging him there out of sheer, stinking worry. “Talker, this is the first time you’ve brought up the rape….”
“Date,” Talker said tightly. “It was a date. A really shitty one. Don’t make it all about the drama, Doc.” Tate turned to his lover, and Brian shook his longish, sandy-blond hair out of his eyes so Talker could get some comfort from him. “Tell him, Brian. Tell him it’s not all about the drama.”
To his surprise, Brian closed his eyes tightly, as though he were in his own pain. “It hurt you,” Brian said softly. “It hurt you so bad….”
“But I’m all over that now!” Tate felt it before it happened, that sense of dislocation between where he was and where he wanted to be. They’d happened less since he and Brian had gotten together, but this subject—The Worst. Date. Ever—brought out the twitchiness in his shoulders and the sudden jumpiness in his chest.
When his body jerked this time, Brian’s cornfield-sky eyes flew open, and his Adam’s apple bobbed convulsively. “Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “All over it. I feel you. All done.”
Talker cringed from the bitterness in Brian’s voice. “Brian,” he said placatingly, knowing his voice was hurt, and not able to keep it to himself. He’d never been able to keep it to himself—not his heart, not his hurt, not anything. Until Brian had come along to be his friend, he’d been one big exposed nerve with nothing to keep him from running into shit. Once Brian had come out of the closet and into Tate’s arms, it had been like being cloaked in a suit of armor, covered in velvet. He’d been kept warm and safe, and nothing could hurt him.
Except his memories.
Brian shook his head and looked away. “No worries, Tate,” he said tightly. “I’m sorry for getting snotty. I just….” He shot Talker a look that seemed hunted, and then looked at the shrink like he was the last best hope he had, and the guy had dropped him off the roof of a ten-story building. For a minute, Talker was afraid Brian would have to leave the room, and being locked in there by himself, with no one but his shrink, was one of his worst fears, and Brian knew it.
Brian didn’t, though, ’cause he was solid. He closed his eyes hard, and when he opened them, they were shiny and red-rimmed. “You were hurt. And you didn’t… you were so tight in your hurt, there was so much shit you didn’t see. And I saw it all. And it hurt me. And it won’t stop hurting me until you talk honest, and you’re not doing that now.”
Talker frowned and stroked the back of Brian’s hand. It was wide-palmed and capable, like Brian. Brian didn’t think quickly, but he usually thought right, and so many times Talker needed someone who thought right to keep him from running off and doing something stupid that he thought up too quickly.
“I don’t want to hurt you.” Talker was devastated by the thought. He didn’t want Brian to have to ever face the consequences for something he himself had done. Brian had taken such good care of him. Talker wouldn’t hurt him for the world.
Brian shrugged now, although it obviously cost him. “No worries. Just… just, you know. Talk to the shrink, okay?”
Tate turned back to Dr. Sutherland with haunted eyes. “Okay. You wanted to know about The Worst. Date. Ever. It sucked, okay?”
“TATE?” Brian’s voice called Talker out of his reverie. “Tate? Tate… baby… Talker!”
Talker’s shoulders jerked so hard that his tendons actually snapped against the side of his neck and he had to suppress a grimace of pain.
“Sorry, Brian, I was thinking.”
Brian’s arms came up around his waist, and Talker realized that he’d spaced out, right in front of the coatroom where he worked, and he leaned his head up against Brian’s, feeling his warmth and easing up a bit on the embarrassment. Brian moved his head gingerly, trying to avoid the glued spikes of hair that Tate wore Mohawked down the center of his head, and Tate wished for a second that he would let his hair grow out. Brian kept complaining that the ’hawk was going to put an eye out.
“I know you were, baby,” Brian said, making Talker focus on the moment. “What about?”
Tate managed to give him a weak smile. “Last week’s session.”
Brian closed his eyes, and Talker turned his head tightly, so he could take a moment to wonder at the blond tips of his lover’s eyelashes.
“It was rough,” Brian said softly. “It’s gonna be rough until we hash it all out, then it’ll be better, okay?”
Talker’s throat got tight, and he nodded jerkily. “Waiting for it to get better.”
Brian’s lips feathered along the right side of Talker’s face. The side of the scars. Talker had tattooed over them, and it had hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, but he hadn’t cared. Every moment it hurt, Tate had told himself that this way, the world would get to see him the way he wanted to be seen, not the way that his cruel old man or drunk old lady had tried to make sure he was seen. There was one person in the world Talker trusted to touch him, touch his face and his body on the right side, and that was Brian. Except for… for… The Worst. Date. Ever., right? Because Trevor hadn’t been “allowed,” right? Tate had told him the date was over, right? Right?
But Talker hadn’t been able to say that to Brian or to Dr. Sutherland, not at first, and maybe that’s why his mind had been yanked back to their session like some sort of hideous time-travelling neural retriever that kept returning home to the one place that really beat the hell out of it.
“It’ll get better,” Brian murmured. “I promise, baby. That’s what I’m here for, to make it all better.”
Oh, Brian, you do. You do. You make it better every time you touch me.
Talker put his hand over the sturdy hand that rested on his own flawed shoulder and shuddered. “I just don’t see…,” he muttered and then tried to focus on the song that had been playing in his head all day. It didn’t come, and he twitched a little.
“Don’t see what?” Oh God, Brian’s arms came up and wrapped around Talker’s chest, and he just felt so good. His shoulders were so wide, Tate didn’t see how anything could ever hurt him if Brian stood between him and the world.
“Why it just can’t be us. Why do I have to spill my guts in front of old-hippie-shrinkoid….”
“That’s not nice!” Brian must have really liked Sutherland, because he didn’t often defend members of the human race.
“Yeah, whatever. Why do I have to spill my guts for Doc Sutherland? You know the truth. You can help me…. Why can’t we be enough?”
There was a sigh in his ear, and those strong, strong, gorgeous arms tightened around him to the point of making it hard to breathe, and then they relaxed.
“I’m not enough, Talker,” Brian said at last. “Don’t you deserve more than just me?”
Talker sniffed, appalled at the thought. “You’re more than I deserve, period,” he said, meaning it.
“You mean an all-male review lined up to blow you isn’t on your list of things you’ve earned?” Brian kidded, and Tate had to smile at that.
“Well, you know, besides that.”
“Well, you’ll have to settle for a couple of people that care,” Brian told him, all serious again, and Tate wanted the light moment back.
“I’d rather have the naked men.”
Brian wasn’t fooled. He gave Talker another whisper kiss on his temple and said, “C’mon, get your coat. I’ll take you home and make you dinner.”
Tate had recovered some of his “Tigger-bounce”—as Brian called it—as he put on his denim jacket and red scarf and took Brian’s hand as they went out the door. It was two a.m., and Gatsby’s Nick was closed, and it was time for all good bar-backs to go home with their ever-patient boyfriends and make love. Or at least this good bar-back, Tate thought with a little smile. He needed Brian’s bare skin on his and those wide shoulders to shelter him from the bad thoughts and the pain.
“’Night, Jed!” he called to the bouncer who still stood at the door, making sure the last of the patrons left peacefully.
“’Night, Talker, Brian.” Jed nodded, and Brian smiled his quiet smile. “Be careful on the way home. There’s supposed to be ice!”
“I’m always careful,” Brian called back. “The damned Toyota doesn’t go fast enough to be reckless!”
Jed’s white smile was a surprise in his night-dark face, but a pleasant one, and his chuckle followed them out into the crystal December night.
Jed and Brian were pretty tight these days, and Brian wasn’t tight with anyone except Tate, and maybe his ex-girlfriend, Virginia. He might have had a few co-workers he talked to, but Talker’s Prince Charming was, perhaps, the quietest, most self-contained person Tate had ever met. But Jed had helped Brian get Tate out of a dangerous frame of mind when they were first getting together, and of all the people in Gatsby’s Nick, he seemed to be the one person Brian had really gotten to know.
If Jed hadn’t been straight, with a wife and two kids, Talker might have been jealous, and that wasn’t fair, because if anyone deserved a busload of friends, it was Brian. Brian had a few co-workers at his own work, and his aunt, and… and….
And Talker had him. It was the one truth he knew.
The parking lot was dark and poorly lit. Talker guessed if more women came to Gatsby’s Nick, they might have fixed the broken soda lights, but men didn’t like to whine about getting mugged and the heebie-jeebies—not even gay men—so the lights stayed broken. Until The Worst. Date. Ever., Talker hadn’t cared about the broken lights either, but in the months since, he’d been more susceptible to the willies than eleven years of foster care should have left him. Every night Brian or Jed walked him out, he told himself that nothing was going to get him, nobody was jumping out at him, he was safe, he was safe, he was—
“What in the fuck?” he stuttered.
There were three of them, and one of them looked like Trev, except the last time he’d seen Trev, the guy’s nose had been perfect, and he hadn’t had gold crowns on his teeth. And he hadn’t needed a chain, jangling ominously from his hand, to seem like a threat.
Brian took a deep breath and grabbed his shaking hand. “Don’t panic,” Brian said harshly. “He’s not here for you. Go get Jed.”
“Brian?” Why wouldn’t Trev be there for Talker? Trevor had hurt him. God, it had hurt, and so had the betrayal and so had the helplessness. Tate dreamed about Trevor, sneaking into his room and ripping his asshole open with a four-by-four and whispering, You want it, you little bitch, you know you want it....
“Talker, just go!” Brian ordered harshly, and Tate looked around them to the three advancing figures in the darkness. Except for Trev, the other two had dark stocking caps on, the kind with spaces for their eyes and nose and mouths, and nondescript clothing, right down to their dark parkas against the December cold.
Talker might have stood there, mesmerized, terrified, until his brains were turned into pudding, but Brian grabbed his shoulders, turned him toward the door to the club and shouted, “Run, goddammit! Get Jed, now!” just as the first figure got to him and hit him in the back of the bad shoulder with a lead pipe. Brian let out a howl, but as Talker ran, looking behind him as he went, Brian managed to round back and land the guy a solid in the nose, right before Trevor whapped him across the head with a chain.
Talker started screaming as he ran, and when he made it to the front of the club and through the doorway, he realized he was screaming Jed’s name.
Jed was hunched over the front table, eating a sandwich with one hand while he tallied bar receipts with the other, and as Talker gasped, “Help, Jed, it’s Trev….” Talker thought he’d never seen a human being move so fast.
“Shawn,” he shouted to one of the waiters, “call nine-one-one now! Tell them it’s a fight and they’re gonna need medical! Sandy!” he shouted to the lead bartender, “Want to come with?”
Sandy had red hair and a hellacious temper, and he was vaulting over the bar like an action star, even as Talker led the way back out to the darkened parking lot.
Brian was down by the time they got there, a still sandbag of a figure lying in the midst of three assailants, all of them kicking the crap out of him. Jed shouted, “Trevor, you piece of shit, leave him alone!”
Trevor looked up, and wiped blood that was mostly not his from his face. “Yeah, big J? You go ahead and report me for this! Think Talker’s fuckin’ roommate’s gonna do good in jail?”
Jed ignored him, and as the other two men melted like December fog, he managed to land a solid punch in Trevor’s nose, and Talker heard something crunch as more blood spattered across the icy concrete.
But then Trevor was gone, and Tate had other things to worry about.
“Oh God… Brian… oh shit… Jed… Jed… come help him… Brian!”
Brian was breathing, but his eyes were swollen shut, red, puffy, bloody beyond recognition. Half his face was a mass of blood, and Tate saw one of his teeth lying on the ground two feet away.
Talker didn’t want to think about what the rest of his body looked like under his ripped jacket or the jeans. He knew that there was blood seeping through his tattered T-shirt at his stomach, and that his arm was twisted and bent at an odd angle under his body. His bad arm, the one connected to the bad shoulder, the one he wrote with and pretended didn’t hurt after a long shift waiting tables with the trays at his shoulder—that arm.
He grabbed Brian’s other hand and squeezed it, holding it to his cheek, and the bruised lumps of flesh over Brian’s eyes contorted. Brian scowled at him a little. “Told you to run.”
“I did, idiot. I got help.”
Brian breathed out, tried to nod. “Don’t worry. Won’t hurt you. He won’t hurt you. Won’t let him hurt you….”
Tate’s shoulders shook more, and his vision blurred, and Brian was still mumbling “Won’t let him hurt you….” as the staff of Gatsby’s Nick covered Brian in their own jackets and shivered in the a.m. cold. He’d stopped mumbling, though, by the time the world became red lights and harshly barked questions. Talker just sat there, ignoring the authority people and the aching cold coming up through the sidewalk to his knees. Brian was lying there, covered in other people’s jackets and winter mist and blood. Talker’s grip on the battered hand was the only thing that kept Talker from screaming.
By the time the paramedics hefted him into the ambulance, Brian was completely silent. They drove off, after Jed managed to get a hospital name from Talker. Brian had insurance which was a blessing that hardly registered, because for the moment, Brian was leaving, leaving, leaving Talker on the icy sidewalk, feeling as though a bomb had gone off and he was the only one left standing.