Anything is possible. Explaining it is the tricky part. -Brian Kinney, Episode 411


We were talking. Touching. Kissing. Laughing.

He was practically skipping through the parking garage with glee, pulling me along, since I refused to skip, but instead remained quite content to watch him dance around me. I draped the scarf over his shoulders, pushing him lightly against the jeep.

Words filtered through my head...a prom he'd never forget...the best night of his life...and my own silent admission that it had been mine, too. There was a brief moment of hesitation; I wondered if I dared to kiss him now, if that one simple gesture might reveal too much and tell him everything I couldn't say on my own. But maybe that was okay, and that was what this had all meant, and maybe I could make him understand. I think he understood. I know I did.

I was in the car then, watching him walk away, that snow-white scarf around his shoulders. No doubt he'd wear it all night, show it off to Daphne and then take it home and treasure it like the romantic little schoolboy he was. The idea made me smile.

And then came the shadow, the movement of a dark figure in the mirror, and I was watching and running and screaming and failing. Too late and too much blood and pain and helpless fear and everything was gone. There was nothing...nothing I could do and I just begged and cried and held onto him as his life slipped away from me....

There was a scuff of movement behind me that I felt more than heard, and it was then that I realized the shadowy figure of his attacker was no longer within my line of sight, a few yards away, where he was supposed to be. There was a second sickening crack, a cry of agony, and everything went black.

I sat up, my breath catching in my throat, a panicky exclamation dying on my lips. I cursed, running a hand over my face. Another night. Another fucking nightmare.

Once I was sufficiently certain that my legs would support me, I tossed the blankets to the side and got to my feet, picking my way through the dark to the kitchen for something to drink. It wasn't as though I'd be going back to sleep anytime soon, after all.

It had been like this nearly every night for over a week now. Only when I was particularly drunk and high did I manage to avoid such dreams, replaying that moment over and over in my mind. Seeing it like that, watching him walk into his own demise night after night, I hated myself for doing everything so wrong. I could have stayed at the stupid prom. I could have asked him to come home with me. Hell, I could have pulled him into the jeep for a quickie in the backseat. Anything but let him walk away, and yet that's exactly what I had done. I had let Justin walk into his own death.

I sat on the couch, sipping at a glass of scotch. I half expected him to come wandering down the steps, trailing a blanket behind him and crawling all over my lap, killing me in all his kindness. He used to like doing that, those nights in bed or on the couch, when I'd be up late working or watching TV or whatever. He was always cold, but rather than, say, put some clothes on, he'd just take the blanket off the bed and drag it around the loft with him. Not that I was complaining. It made getting him naked a whole lot easier.

Usually, he'd sort of climb on my lap and plant little kisses all along my neck and chin and lips, and if I was drinking or smoking, he'd grab my glass or my cigarette and I'd end up sharing it with him. I couldn't even count how many nights he'd done that, how many times we'd fallen asleep watching TV or talking or, more commonly, fucking. He was somehow caught within this balance between never ceasing to be elated by being allowed to spend the night with me, and acting like he fucking owned the place, entirely comfortable with both me and being in my loft.

It was quiet in the loft now, which was to be expected, I guess, at this time of night. But somehow, it didn't feel like— natural quiet. Normal quiet. I attributed the shudder than ran through my body to the chill of the place, even though summer was mere months away now and it was growing steadily warmer with each passing day. I wasn't sure if it was impossible expectation or some fucked up subconscious desire, but I could almost feel a pair of eyes on my back, as though he were watching me from the bedroom even now, determining the best way to get me to come back and fuck him. Then I cursed myself for being so fucking stupid or paranoid or hopeful or whatever. I was alone. Justin wasn't going to come sidling up behind me. He wasn't going to kiss me, and I wasn't going to push the blanket off his shoulders, and he wasn't going to sprawl himself along the couch cushions for me to have my way with him. That wasn't my fucking reality anymore, and I had to accept that.

I took another long swig of scotch from my glass. Ever since my little hallucinatory episode concerning Justin four days ago, I'd been on edge. It hadn't happened again since, and in fact, those weird little things I'd been trying not to notice had all, inexplicably, stopped. I'd decided that the whole thing had been just a product of my mind's overactive imagination. What had happened was, I had barely slept or eaten in four days. Four miserable days spent trudging through loss and death and despair. That, combined with the drugs and alcohol that had been my almost constant companions...well, naturally, my mind was going to be a little fucked up. To the point where I started seeing dead people in the middle of my bedroom, apparently.

I had also decided that there was no way in hell I would be mentioning this little episode to anyone else. For one thing, who in their right minds would believe me? I could just imagine their faces, sympathetic and maybe a little bit scared.

"Oh, honey," Debbie would say, laying a hand on my cheek. "There's nothing like losing a loved one, take it from me. But things'll get better, you mark my fucking words."

Michael would freak, all the while trying to hide his discomfort and console me as best as he could. "But...I mean, Brian...you know he couldn't have really been there, right? You must have been imagining him...right? Maybe you should talk to someone?"

And then there was Lindsay, who I was pretty sure saw herself as some kind of shrink at times. She'd probably have something insightful to say, something meant to soothe me and reassure me. "You loved him a lot. It's natural that your mind would conjure up his image...give you the chance to say goodbye that you never got in life." Like just because she was a dyke she was suddenly some expert on feelings and human psychosis and whatever the fuck.

So, no. I wouldn't be telling a fucking soul about my little psychotic-hallucination episode, and I was almost able to put it out of my mind. Almost.

I'd run out of scotch before too long, which didn't really surprise me all that much. I'd gone through more alcohol in the last week alone than I would have during a solid month before all this had happened. It wasn't even that it really numbed the pain or anything; it just sort of made it a bit more bearable for a while.

Sighing, I got up to rinse my empty glass and take a piss before going back to bed and trying to catch a few more hours sleep. In the bathroom, I stood at the sink, my hands bracing me on either side of it, and looked hard into the mirror.

I was a mess.

There was no other word for it. The once gorgeous, desirable God Kinney was an absolute fucking fall-down mess. I had dark shadows under my eyes, announcing my recent lack of sleep to anyone who so much as glanced at me. My eyes looked somehow dull, deadened...not to mention the seemingly permanent red, swollen state of them. I had bedhead hair, I hadn't shaved in days, and I was pretty sure I was developing worry lines.

I was just wondering if maybe a hot shower might make me feel any better when there was a clatter from outside the door. I moved, not out of any reaction of overwhelming curiosity, but automatically. Everything I'd done in the last week (fuck, no— had it really been that long already?) since it had happened had been mechanical. Automated. Just going through the motions. I didn't think, didn't feel all that much around the gaping emptiness in my chest. I pictured a black hole, sucking in everything around it, including all light, all happiness...pulling it in and tearing it apart until there was nothing but a vacuum where something warm and alive had once beat against my chest.

I pulled open the bathroom door (that I couldn't remember closing, but that was beside the point), my gaze sweeping what remained of my bedroom. Most of it had been destroyed in my tirade the night of his funeral. What remained was what had been recovered: a plastic ashtray, a few magazines, and some pictures that I'd salvaged from their shattered frames. Most of the rest of it— my alarm clock, the bottle of French hand cream that had been sitting out, and other odds and ends— had all been damaged beyond repair. Maybe that was just as well; there were far too many things in the loft that reminded me of shit I'd rather just forget.

Which didn't explain, really, why I'd kept that picture, the one Michael had found on my dresser four nights ago. It had been the only object within reach that I hadn't destroyed the night of Justin's funeral. I'd tried to throw it out, I really had— tried to just rid myself and my life of him, once and for all. In the end, though, I hadn't been able to do it. And so it remained, face-down on my dresser, so that I didn't have to look at it, at the light in his eyes, the life in his smile. Somehow, though, I didn't think I'd ever be able to get the sight out of my head.

The only thing out of place in the whole room was the object in the middle of the floor in front of the dresser, a small shadow in the dark that had apparently been responsible for the noise I'd heard. I went to pick it up, my fingers inches above it when I felt goosebumps crawl up my arms.

It was that picture.

It was moments like these...these lonely, quiet moments late at night...when I let myself remember what had happened, just four days ago now. When I let my thoughts stray to the impossibility of Justin Taylor in my loft, on my bed, on the night of his funeral. My throat burning, I picked the picture off the floor and set it back on the dresser, this time letting it remain upright.

I swallowed back my anguish and turned to get into bed. It used to be a comfort, sliding between soft satin sheets every night, my favorite pillow beneath my cheek, my favorite companion never far from my reach. These days, it felt far too cold and empty. I'd told Justin once that my loft was only big enough for one person, and that was me. It felt almost too big these days, a gaping chasm that had lost something that now felt essential. The air of 'home,' maybe.

As I'd done every night this week, I stretched out a hand to his side of the bed, resting it on his pillow, as though I hoped I might suddenly catch a few strands of blond in my fingers, or brush against the warmth of his skin. I'd instructed the cleaning lady not to wash that particular pillow case, certain that it would destroy the sacredness of it. Justin had once slept here. A warm, live Justin that I could kiss and touch and fuck.

I'd almost gotten used to being able to roll over and touch him, pull him to me and kiss and grope him. I'd almost adapted to waking up at any hour of the day or night and having him here, if not beside me, then never far. No one had ever woken me up with kisses and coffee the way he used to do, and I found myself missing shit like that more than I ever thought was possible.

My eyes watered, and my throat was suddenly obstructed by the large lump that had formulated there. I clenched my fist in his pillow, wondering when exactly I'd come to think of it as belonging to him, and closed my eyes as little rivulets began to spill out from under them.

In that delicate place between consciousness and the realm of dreams, when you're never entirely sure what's real and what isn't, I could have sworn I felt the weight of a hand in mine.

~.~

It had been fourteen days. Two weeks since Justin had...died. Fuck. I had to get used to saying that. Had to stop hoping it might not be real every single time I opened my eyes in the morning, because frankly, the sensation in my stomach when I realized it hadn't been just some horrible dream got worse and worse every time.

It had been a total of ten days since my hallucination. The first four days afterward, there had been absolutely nothing to suggest that I hadn't simply imagined the whole thing. No doors opening on their own, no objects sliding off counters, and the TV seemed to be working fine again. There was that weird thing with his picture on the fourth night, but I wasn't even entirely sure that had happened. After all, it had been the fucking middle of the night. I'd been tired. I barely even remembered getting up and having a drink. Who was to say I hadn't stumbled back into bed and simply dreamed the whole thing with the picture? Except...well, it was still sitting upright the next morning, that was true, but that didn't mean it had gone and fallen off the dresser for no apparent reason. Again.

The fifth and sixth days after my hallucination had been perfectly quiet, too. And so had the seventh, really, except for the few times my cell phone had started ringing with no one on the other end, but I chalked that up to prank calls from stupid kids without sufficient parental supervision. Days eight and nine had been nothing out of the ordinary.

So here it was, the tenth day after my hallucination, and exactly two weeks after Justin...after the night of his prom. I started going back to work about a week after it happened. You would think I was announcing my decision to move to Timbuktu, with all the protesting this apparently warranted. Everyone I knew— and even, oddly, some people I was sure I'd never met in my life— had something to say about this. To most of the random idiots I didn't even know, this was simply brushed off as me being an uncaring asshole. To others, like Deb, this was me working entirely too hard and putting too much pressure on myself. To people like Lindsay and Michael, who knew me, this was recognized, not as a choice, but as a need. I fucking needed to get out, to work, to do something. I fucking needed a purpose, something to give me some sense of direction, because all I was doing was drowning here on my own.

So, I worked. I went to Babylon. I came home. Then I did it again. Day in and day out, never stopping, never slowing down. It was like a hunger, and if I only satisfied it quickly enough, maybe that relentless ache inside me would ease up. Maybe if I pushed it down and piled everyday life on top of it, it would leave me alone and stop trying so hard to kill me inside.

I called Michael in Portland sometimes...not nearly often enough, but it let me hear his voice, reminded me that life outside of this little pit of hell existed. We never talked long enough for him to ask me more than how I was doing, but it made me feel somewhat content, in some disconnected part of my brain, to know that he was doing okay, even if he did accuse me of shutting myself off from him.

I got that a lot, actually. From Michael, from Deb, from Lindsay. I talked to her, too, sometimes, Linds. I'd go to see Gus, and this let me check in with her without giving her the impression that I wanted to talk about...things.

Gus, though...fuck, my son was the only person in the world who I could even stand to be around for any prolonged period of time. With him, everything was easier. I could concentrate on him instead of deflecting questions I didn't want to answer. I could just look at him and have him look back and know that he was just seeing me, rather than trying to look inside me, the way the others did.

And I felt guilty for it, for pushing my friends inside this little untouchable corner of my life. But I just...I couldn't stand it. Couldn't stand their pity, their gentle, knowing 'how are you?'s. We talked long enough for me to catch up with their lives, and then I just shut off, left or hung up or otherwise extracted myself from life until I once again built up a remote desire to talk to another person.

Not that they hadn't offered— Michael and Lindsay and Deb and the rest of them. Even Emmett and Theodore had told me after the funeral that if I needed anything, just to call. Emmett had even hugged me. In fact, the only people who knew me at the funeral whose sympathetic gazes I hadn't attracted were those of Justin's parents.

Craig, I think, wanted to say something to me. I doubted his decision to hold his tongue and not make a scene was less out of respect for his son, and more because he didn't feel up to taking on the entire group that had congregated around me. He seemed to understand that if he gave one of us shit, the others were all likely to rip his head off, particularly under the current conditions. The asshole had remained stoic throughout the entire service, and Debbie had even heard him comment to one of his relatives that he hadn't had contact with Justin for a while now, not an ounce of pain or regret in his voice.

"It was like Justin was already dead to him," she'd recounted to the rest of us later, shaking her head, as if astounded and horrified that anyone could feel this way about their own child. Why this came as such a shock to her was beyond me; didn't she remember the way Craig had thrown his own son into the streets, not knowing or caring where he ended up or what became of him? I mean, he hadn't known that I would end up taking him in, or that Deb would later do the same. To him, Justin had already been gone.

What hurt far, far worse than Craig Taylor's continued bitter indifference toward the world his son had been associated with before his death, however, was the sheer brokenness of Jennifer Taylor. Like Craig, she shed no tears, but unlike with her ex-husband, the reason behind this conveyed the utter devastation she felt. She'd told Debbie later that she felt like, if she even shed a single tear, she'd never be able to stop. She felt like she'd died inside. She felt like her world had shattered around her, and all she could do was try to hold the pieces together for Molly.

The evening of the funeral was the first time she'd so much as glanced at me since that night in the hospital, and that single look had been worse than even the cruelest words she could have thrown at me. Her gaze had held no prospect of warmth, no promise of understanding or empathy. Simply...regret. That was it. Her eyes had been full of overwhelming regret.

I knew the feeling.

Time seemed to drag on, blending into one continuous strip of emptiness through endless days and sleepless nights. Before I knew it, it had been three and a half weeks since the night that had turned my entire fucking life upside down. There was a pattern my days followed lately, and that repetitive predictability extended to my nights. Ignoring the watchful gazes of Theodore and Emmett, I'd down shot after shot until I didn't have to think anymore, drinking and drugging and fucking like it was the last time I'd ever get the chance. Because I knew how this worked, and I knew if I didn't think, then I didn't have to feel, and I could postpone falling apart for one more night. I went through guy after guy in what was almost a frenzy, onto the next one almost before I'd pulled out of the last. I drank and fucked and got fucked up, more so than I had in years, sometimes, chasing that pleasure, as if I could somehow harness enough of it to smother the devastating pain inside me.

One particular Friday night nearly a month after Justin's death, I gave my body a slight reprieve. I handled my liquor quite well anyway, and I hadn't drunk too much that night, despite being at Babylon since I'd gotten off work several hours earlier. It had to have been late; in fact, I was pretty sure the only reason Emmett and Ted were still there was because of the promise they'd made to Michael to watch out for me.

I wasn't supposed to know about that promise, really, but I'd overheard Emmett say something to Theodore in passing a few weeks prior. At first, I'd made a deliberate effort to ditch them and piss them off whenever possible, but after about a week of this, I'd simply lost the energy required to care. Anyway, what was I supposed to do? Putting up with the gang's constant concern was just part of being out of the loft these days, and it wasn't as though I had much of a choice. I rarely ever went home anymore, going into work early, staying late, and spending every moment between Vanguard's closing time and Babylon's at the club. I'd either take a cab home, or Ted or Emmett would drive me, and then I'd be left to my own devices; I'd catch a few hours of sleep, then wake up and do it all over again. Anything to escape the oppressive quiet and loneliness of the loft. Even in a room full of people, I still felt disconnected, but at least there I could close my eyes and pretend that the one person I wanted with me was there too.

That night, though, I'd had enough. I'd already had four tricks in the backroom, and it seemed that nearly four weeks of work and drugs and sex and too little sleep and food and rest in between was starting to catch up to me. I was tired, and I longed for my bed, in spite of the little sleep I actually got in it these days. Even exhausted as I'd been for weeks, I was rarely able to catch a good night's sleep, and was left lying awake, alone in the impenetrable silence. Maybe I just didn't want to sleep. Maybe what I saw inside my head on the occasions that I did was just too horrible to ever take the chance of subjecting myself to it.

So, in lieu of lying awake alone and miserable, I decided to bring a trick home for the first time in a while. Dark, curly hair. Tall. Muscular. Justin's physical opposite. I couldn't stand to look at the blonds anymore.

Back at the loft, I took a moment to slip Justin's pillow beneath mine, ignoring the weird glance I was receiving from my impatiently horny trick. We were on top of the blankets anyway, Curly and I, but just in case, I didn't want his— non-Justin-ness— all over it. To be absolutely safe, though, I kept him sprawled near the foot of the bed, writhing and moaning away. It wasn't even a hot moan, like the way Justin's always were, all arousing and erotic and making me want to fuck him. This guy's moans were kind of...pathetic. Almost whiny in a way, and they kind of made me want to throw him out. Only then, I'd be left with a night of sleeplessness ahead of me, and this was a (barely) better alternative, at least. And just maybe I could figure out a way to do this without thinking of him every single time. One could hope.

So, there I was, crouched behind him, ready to temporarily lose myself in Nameless Faceless Trick #It-Didn't-Even-Matter-Anymore, when it happened.

That fucking picture fucking fell off the dresser.

Again.

I stopped with the head of my dick pressing into the guy's ass and pulled out, making him curse. "What the fuck, asshole?"

"Yeah, I'll fuck your asshole in a minute," I brushed him off. It was the drugs. Or the alcohol. It had to be. Except it wasn't. I knew my limits, and I knew when I was well and truly fucked up. I hadn't pushed my boundaries tonight, and though I'd played it safe and taken a cab home, I was probably even alright to drive at this point.

But that only meant that it had to be a coincidence, then, right? Albeit an exceedingly odd coincidence. I'd never had any problems with shit falling off that dresser before, and this was what, the third time that picture had crashed unexpectedly to the floor? The glass was still cracked from the first time it had happened, when Michael had been here after the funeral. I hadn't had the heart— or maybe the nerve— to replace it yet. Maybe it was about time I stuck the thing back in the drawer.

I picked up the picture, feeling my dick go soft, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up instead. The more I thought about it— the more I tried to convince myself that it was all a weird coincidence, with the hallucination and the odd little occurrences and the picture falling off the dresser— the more I became convinced that it was anything but a fluke. I had the overwhelming sensation that life was playing a trick on me.

"You need to go."

"What?" Disgruntled Trick #Who-The-Fuck-Cared demanded. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Get out," I said simply, waving toward the doorway. "Go. Now."

He kept up his angry muttering all the way out. I rolled my eyes. Another satisfied customer.

He wasn't the only one of Babylon's patrons that I'd been disappointing lately. I'd fucked more than a few guys since it had happened, it was true, and most of them hadn't been all that shy about letting me know I hadn't lived up to my reputation. Well, fucking sue me. Assholes. And that was all they were, too— random assholes, in a very literal way— every one of them. One-time cheap thrills, nothing more. All except for one. The only one who'd ever been different, who'd made himself count for something. Made himself mean something to me, even if I'd never told him so, at least out loud.

I ran my hands over my face, sighing and sinking onto the now empty bed, still clutching Justin's picture in my hand. What the fuck kind of game was this? And why did I get the feeling that it was one I couldn't win?

"He wasn't that hot anyway."

For the second time in less than a month, I had the highly unpleasant experience of nearly pissing myself. You would too, if you'd been beyond certain that you were alone in your loft, when suddenly someone was talking to you out of nowhere.

Not to mention the fact that this person was supposedly fucking dead.

"What the...fucking...what— who the hell...?" I stammered, on my feet at once. I still didn't let go of his picture, my knuckles turning white from gripping the frame so hard.

"Did I scare you?" he asked cheerily, crossing his right leg over his left, looking quite at home on the edge of the bed. "Sorry. I'm still getting used to this."

"Why the fuck are you back?" I demanded, glaring at the specter-Justin I was sure I was imagining. Again. Why the hell did this keep happening to me? Was this my punishment for what had happened? Full-fledged insanity?

His shoulders sunk, and once again, I caught the hint of hurt feelings at my harshness. "Sorry. I just wanted to see you," he said, a little defensively. "Besides, you can fuck guys like him anytime. I still haven't gotten the hang of this yet...I don't know when I'll be able to come back."

"Back?" I repeated. "No...no. There is no back. You're not here...you're not real. You're just some kind of weird fucked up delusion in my head."

"Well, you are full of fucked up delusions, I'll admit, but I'm not one of them," he said coolly.

And how the hell was I supposed to argue with an impossibility? Particularly one inside my own head?

"Listen to me. Are you listening?" Well, if he was inside my head, did that mean he had to listen to my reason? Or was this all simply beyond rationality at this point?

He rolled his eyes, looking exasperated. "I'm listening."

"You. Are. Not. Real," I spelled it out for him. "You can't be real. You're dead." Try as I might, I couldn't quite hold off the crack in my voice on that last word. It hadn't gotten any easier, this past month, to think it or to say it.

He just gave me that look, that stubborn, I-don't-care-what-you-say look that I knew so well on him. Basically, the look he got whenever anyone told him something he didn't want to hear. "I know. But I'm still here. You're not going crazy or anything, I promise," he said quickly.

I huffed a dark, humorless laugh. "Right. I should take the word of the dead high school senior sitting on my bed. That's what I call convincing."

He opened his mouth, as if to argue, then closed it, looking a little unsure for the first time. Almost...lost, even. I knew the feeling.

"Look, I know this...this isn't what I wanted, either, okay?" He sighed heavily, suddenly looking weary and ten times older than he was. I was shocked to see that his eyes were rather wet; I didn't even know people like him could cry. "It fucking sucks. No one can see me, or hear me...I'm completely fucking alone, all right? Except for you." He sniffled— fucking sniffled. The sound was like a kick to my gut, shattering me inside with the evidence of his anguish.

"Me?" I repeated, my voice coming out all raspy and hoarse. I still had no proof whatsoever that I wasn't simply conjuring his presence from somewhere within my subconscious, but I couldn't help being drawn into this. Standing there, watching him cry and mourn over his own death...the sight of it tore at my heartstrings, even if it was only an illusion.

He nodded, folding his arms over his chest, as if trying to give himself a hug. "Yeah. It really sucks here, Brian."

A single tear streaked down his cheek, and I found myself unable to ignore its presence. Suddenly, I was sinking onto the bed beside him, our bodies an inch away from each other's, not quite touching. I racked my brains for something to say.

"You came to my funeral...I didn't think you would," he said softly, saving me the trouble of coming up with the words.

I shrugged, more than a little uncomfortable at the topic. "I almost didn't."

"But you did."

I didn't answer.

"Could you do something for me?" he asked, looking suddenly hopeful. "My mom is looking for this old watercolor painting I did in the sixth grade. It won this school contest...first place. Could you tell her it's in the box inside my closet? She hasn't touched it yet, and I want her to find it."

Logic and common sense were screaming at me to decline, tell him I couldn't, that his mother wasn't even speaking to me. And even if she was, how was I supposed to explain to her how I knew where some old watercolor was? How fucking crazy would I look telling her to go look for some old painting that I wasn't sure even existed?

"Please," he whispered, and I was fucking undone. My mind was telling me this wasn't real— that it just couldn't fucking be real. Everything else in me, though, was seeing Justin, hearing Justin, speaking to Justin. Ever since that night, months ago now, that he'd told me he wanted more than what I was willing to give at the time, my mind had been screaming at me to run. But, just like now, something else inside me had a different reaction to him. As it turned out, not much had changed. I was as helpless to the sight of a distraught Justin as I'd always been.

I swallowed hard. "I'll let her know," I lied. Anything to assuage him.

His face brightened considerably. "Thanks. I owe you."

I nodded absently. "Right...so, are you ever going to explain to me what the fuck this is? I mean, this isn't...it isn't possible, Justin," I said, a note of desperation clearly audible in my tone.

"Anything's possible," he shrugged. "Whether you believe or not it is up to you."

I had just opened my mouth to tell him that, as a matter of fact, I didn't believe it. I couldn't,because despite what he said, things like this were not fucking possible. Not at all. Before I could utter a single word, however, he was gone. No warning. No flash of light or whoosh of air to signify his disappearance. There was nothing at all to suggest that he'd been sitting right next to me a mere three seconds before.

My gaze sweeping the empty loft and finding nothing out of the ordinary, I clutched his picture a little tighter and stretched across the bed. I was beyond exhausted, but— knowing perfectly well what happened when I closed my eyes for too long— I spent another two hours getting well and truly drunk before allowing myself the reprieve of sleep.

~.~

The very next day, I sat down at my computer with a purpose in mind. My fingers hesitated over the keyboard, knowing what to type, but unwilling to do it. Finally, I remembered that there was no one here to realize what I was doing, and typed in my search keywords.

There were thousands of results, from horror movies to spiritual advisors to ghost stories. There were quotes from The Sixth Sense, old myths and legends, and about a thousand other utterly useless things. Of course, I wasn't entirely sure what I was looking for, but there had to be something useful on the entire fucking web, right?

I was just debating with myself whether or not to add in the keyword 'schizophrenia' to my search, when suddenly, the figure entirely responsible for this search in the first place appeared on the edge of my desk.

"Christ!" I said, nearly falling off my chair in shock. I gripped the desk, my knuckles turning white while my heart rate slowly returned to normal. "Quit fucking doing that!"

"Sorry," he said, not sounding very apologetic at all. "What are you doing?"

I glared at him, and once I was positively sure that I was not going to piss in my pants, got to my feet, striding off across the loft just so that I didn't have to look at him. A 'him' who technically shouldn't even be here. No, not even shouldn't— he fucking couldn't be here.

"Trying to find out why the hell you keep showing up every time I turn around," I said bitingly. As if to prove to me that I didn't even have to turn around, he suddenly materialized right in fucking front of me. I glared at him. Why did I have to have such a fucking annoying hallucination?

"I told you. It's lonely," he said, with a trace of that vulnerability he'd displayed the night before, when I'd evidently been fucked up enough to entertain my mind's little fantasy. But I wasn't on drugs now, and I wasn't drunk either, to the best of my knowledge. Evidently, I'd been more fucked up than I'd realized last night. "You're the only one who can see me."

"That's because apparently I've gone insane." Lucky me.

"You're not insane," he said softly. "This happens, Brian."

I laughed, a dark sound, devoid of any humor. I grabbed for the nearest bottle of beam, only to discover that there was hardly enough left for a mouthful. Right. I'd finished most of it off last night in my latest attempt to ward off the images on the inside of my eyelids. Though, admittedly, what had followed probably couldn't be called 'sleep.' I'd passed out way before I'd gotten to that point.

"Where? Where the hell does this happen, Justin? In mental hospitals? Horror movies?"

"Actually, yeah," he said. "In hospitals, I mean. Do you know how many 'mentally ill' are really just people who are stuck with spirits hanging around them...whether they know it or not? This is more common than you think."

I rolled my eyes. "Well, that's great, I'm showing symptoms of deranged mental illness now. Just what I always wanted."

"I'm serious," he said, his eyes wide with that fervor I knew so well on him. "You have no idea how many people live like this. And then there are the ones who are smart enough to realize what's going on, and don't broadcasting it to the world, so they don't end up in mental hospitals."

"Well, that's comforting," I said sarcastically. "Self-aware insanity. Really, thanks for that. So, when did you say you're leaving?"

His brow furrowed in a familiar expression of hurt frustration. "Why are you so eager to get rid of me?"

I gave him a look of pure disbelief. "Listen to me, Justin. Are you listening? You. Are. Dead. You cannot be here. You cannot be talking to me. You are dead, buried in the fucking ground under six feet of dirt. You never fucking made it out of that parking garage alive. Why the hell is this so hard for you to comprehend?"

It all but fucking killed me to say those words, to hit him with the harsh, bitter reality. But I'd been dealing with it for fucking weeks, and he just did not get to come waltzing in here whenever the fuck he felt like it and torturing me with the illusion of his presence. It was like someone was dangling something I wanted, more than I'd ever wanted anything in my life, right in front of my face, only there was a catch— if I tried to reach out and grab it, it would disappear. It was the cruelest trick my mind could have played on me, imagining Justin's presence when I needed to just forget him. Though how this was possible in the first place, I wasn't sure. I didn't think I'd ever be able to live a day without some reminder of him in my life.

I was certain, though, that having him pop up whenever the hell he felt like it, fucking with my TV and throwing shit off my dressers, was not going to help.

"You're not crazy," he said, ignoring my question completely, "if that's what this is about. You're really not, I promise. I'll prove it to you, even."

"Right. How?" I challenged.

He bit his lip in consideration as his eyes swept the loft for a potential resolution. Seeming to come to a decision, he smiled triumphantly. "I'll be right back."

And then, right before my eyes, he disappeared. Again. I stood staring at the spot for a full twenty seconds, then suddenly, just as quickly as he'd vanished, he reappeared at exactly the same point.

"Call Michael," he said. "He's on David's computer, looking for Captain Astro Issue #145 on eBay."

I gave him a look of incredulity. "What?"

"Just call him," Justin insisted. "Ask him what he's doing. See if I'm right."

I blinked at him. "I fucking must be crazy." Not because I was seeing the spirit of my dead not-boyfriend. Well, not only that. It was also because of the fact that I actually fucking picked up the phone and dialed Michael's number.

"Brian?" my best friend's voice filtered through the phone. "What's up?"

I felt a little guilty for the surprise in his voice at hearing from me. I hadn't exactly been the most sociable creature as of late.

"What are you doing?" I asked, deciding not to answer his question.

"Not much," he said. If he was at all taken aback by the brusqueness in my voice, he didn't let on. "Just surfing the net. What about you? How are you?"

"Anything in particular?" I asked, ignoring the little voice in the back of my head that told me I was most definitely losing my fucking mind. "On the internet, I mean? Any hot porn?" I added, thinking it might sound a bit less...weird...and maybe a bit more 'me.'

"Sorry, no porn. Just this Captain Astro comic I've been looking for," he said dismissively, and I felt my stomach clench. Okay, well...that could have been a coincidence, right? The odds that Michael was doing something Captain Ass-Wipe related were pretty high, weren't they? That didn't mean a damn thing. "It's issue 145. I'm looking for it on eBay."

I nearly dropped the phone. Now that crossed the line of coincidence, right into the territory of What the Fucking Hell. What the fuck was happening to me? How was this even possible?

"Listen, Mikey...I'll call you back later," I said, closing my eyes just so that I didn't have to look at Justin, at the expression I knew I'd see on his face at my realization that he'd been right.

"Don't you have a minute?" he asked. "We haven't talked in forever."

"I'll call you," I promised. "Tomorrow." And this time, I vowed to myself that I'd be keeping my word.

"Okay," he sighed, with a resigned tone that told me he didn't believe me. And why should he? I'd regularly ignored him for nearly a month— had, in fact, ignored everyone who wasn't named Jack Daniels or didn't have a somewhat fuckable ass for a while now. Being around them, my friends...it made me fucking feel too much. Like I could sense that they were feeling it, and it made me feel it, too. It made me have to think, have to remember. Alone, the silence screamed at me. With them, it was too hard to pretend that my life wasn't falling apart. There was no relief, no reprieve, no matter what I did.

I hung up the phone, letting out a long, deep breath. "I just called— long distance— to fucking Portland. To ask my best friend if he was looking for a comic on eBay. Because the dead blond boy standing in the middle of my loft told me to," I said out loud, as if by hearing the words with my own ears they might sound just a little less crazy.

"Well, you believe me now, don't you?" he asked pointedly. "There's no way you would have known that on your own. You have to realize that I'm real now, right?"

Did I?

"I don't...this is just...fucked," I burst out. "This...it's impossible." That was it. It was just impossible, and impossible things just did not fucking happen.

Justin merely shrugged. "You used to think you falling in love was impossible, too," he pointed out, sounding exactly like the dreamy little twink I'd known him to be in life. I glared at him.

"Why are you here?" I barked. "Why aren't you in...in heaven, or whatever the fuck?"

He shrugged, looking a little helpless. A little hopeless. "I don't know," he admitted. "I guess some of us move on. But that didn't happen for me."

He had that look in his eyes, again, too...lost and broken. Alone. Everything I tried not to acknowledge in the mirror lately. I took a deep breath and let it out. "What did happen?" I asked. Maybe figuring out whatever the hell had happened to him after he'd died might help me make sense of what was happening to me now. Or something.

A dark shadow seemed to pass over his face, and his eyes were suddenly in another place entirely. He sighed, materializing right next to me in the space of a heartbeat.

"I don't really know." He sounded younger right then than I'd ever heard him sound, and for a second, he wasn't the determined young man I'd once known him to be, but the scared, fragile child we all carried around inside us, the one he'd been forced to bury at the age of seventeen. "One minute, we were kissing out by your jeep...you were telling me you'd see me later, and I started walking away."

The moment flashed through my head like a video. I'd tried so fucking hard to just get rid of the memory, just cut it out of my mind. But it only ever grew, attached itself to the inside of my head until it took over everything and became my life. It was like some toxic disease for which I couldn't find the cure.

"The next minute," he continued, his eyes—as blue as they'd ever been—carrying the weight of so much sadness, "I was standing there looking down at us on the ground."

I swallowed around the lump in my throat. "Us?" Us, on the ground. Me, holding his lifeless body against my chest, crying and pleading with him to wake up and be okay. Begging him not to die.

"Yeah," he nodded, still not looking at me, as if the memory was too horrible to share through eye contact. "It was really weird...scary. It wasn't so weird that I could see you, but then I realized I was looking at me, and I was all bloody and you were crying and telling me you loved me and begging me to open my eyes."

God. Fuck me, he was trying to kill me here. I turned away just so that he couldn't see how wet my own eyes had become. I couldn't help it. I turned into some kind of pathetic emotional wreck at the mere memory of that night. I felt my face burn at the thought that he had witnessed all I'd said to him in my desperation, but for some reason, I couldn't bring myself to mind what he'd heard as much as I might have before now. I knew firsthand that there were far worse things than giving him those words; I'd been living in my worst nightmare for a month now, after all.

"Did you mean it?" he asked, and though I had no trouble at all in determining what he was talking about, I feigned ignorance.

"Mean what?"

"What you said," he clarified. I couldn't feel the rush of air when he moved, couldn't hear his footsteps at all, and yet...I could sense his movement, feel him behind me, getting closer. "That you...you know...."

"Does it matter now?" I couldn't answer him. I couldn't say it, not again, not when there was any chance he'd fucking take the words and run off with them. Not when the last time I'd said them, he'd left me for what I'd believed to be for good.

"It matters to me." I could feel him behind me, his presence, just...there. Undeniable, like I could just fucking feel the energy he radiated.

I swallowed again, hard. "Maybe," I said, my jaw clenched in discomfort with this entire conversation. "Fuck, it doesn't fucking matter anymore what I said. It didn't help. You died." I strode away from that fucking energy I felt near him, just needing to move. To run. To flee.

Only he was having none of it. He did it again, that materializing right in front of me thing.

"You didn't have to say it," he said quietly. I avoided his gaze, but could feel the fathomless blue eyes boring into me, as if trying to penetrate me just by staring. "You said it just by showing up. Just by dancing with me. It was still the best night of my life, Brian—"

"Fucking stop it!" I said, surprising even myself with my vehemence. "Just fucking stop it, Justin!"

And with that, I spun around and headed in the direction of my bedroom, eager just to put some space between us, hoping he'd get the hint and leave me alone, though why I was so angry with him, I couldn't say. I just knew that nothing made sense and he was talking about that night and everything inside me just wanted to seize him and kiss him and tell him how much I'd missed him lately.

Of course, picking up on hints, even the not-so-subtle ones, had never really been Justin's thing; he was beside me in literally a split-second, perching himself on the edge of the bed, watching me arrange myself in the center of it on my stomach, my head buried in a pillow. "I see you fixed up the room again."

And why was I not even surprised that he'd watched me destroy it? "It needed a new decorating scheme anyway," I muttered.

"Right."

After a full minute of feeling his gaze burning into my back, I rolled over, fixing him with a look. "What?"

He looked surprised. "What?"

"Why are you staring at me? What do you want?" More importantly, what the hell did I have to do to get rid of him? It wasn't enough that I'd had to put up with his stalking in life, but I now had a personal potential-hallucination to do it for him after his death? Granted, after a while, I'd sort of given up on pretending his affections were purely one-sided. Or at least, I had in some ways. Verbally, I'd still made it a point to announce my displeasure with his constant presence every once in a while. God forbid either of us get too comfortable with the other.

It had been the prom that had changed everything. That night...that gesture...it had meant something for me, too. It had been my version of a declaration, an offering— a promise to maybe not push quite so hard, because just maybe I sort of wouldn't have minded getting closer to him. Maybe I sort of even wanted it. And maybe I even sort of felt "that word" for him, even if I couldn't ever tell him that out loud.

And then Chris Hobbes had swung that bat and ruined any chance we'd ever had of having something. Then, it didn't matter what I'd done or what he'd said or what we could have been, because it was over and we were too late and nothing mattered at all anymore. Life had shattered.

"Nothing," he said simply, stretching out beside me. I looked at him, took everything in, every part of him that I knew so fucking well. How was it that his body could be buried under feet of dirt and grass and fuck knew what else, and yet here beside me, he looked as beautiful and flawless as ever?

"Don't you have to be somewhere?"

"Not really. One of the perks of being dead is a pretty open schedule. Lots of free time," he said matter of factly.

I nodded, pressing my lips together, as if this all made perfect sense, when in fact, I didn't think anything had ever made less sense in my entire life. Ever since the prom, it was like nothing had been real. Life wasn't...it wasn't right. Nothing was, not without him.

"How long can you stay, then?" I asked, the words spilling from between my lips before I could stop them. I decided that this meant nothing...it wasn't as though I was suddenly accepting his ghostly so-called presence here or anything. The fact remained that this could not possibly be real, no matter how much I wanted it to be.

He gave a little one-shouldered shrug. "As long as I want," he said, then added quietly, "As long as you want."

I looked at him. Bit my tongue against the declarations and sentimentalism that threatened to fall from my lips. I couldn't want him here. I couldn't want his ghost or his illusion or whatever the fuck he was here with me. I couldn't. But I did. A month without him, and I fucking ached for it. If it wasn't possible, and it wasn't real, and it was just about the most fucked up, insane thing that had ever happened to me...it just didn't matter, because he was fucking here. And just maybe I was empty enough, or broken enough, that the rest of it didn't mean anything.

"You're real?" It was half a question, half a hesitant statement. Pictures falling off dressers, doors opening and closing on their own, weird phone calls and malfunctioning electronic appliances...alone, as isolated incidents, his presence and the strange recent occurrences around the loft might have been justifiable. Maybe. Combined though, and taking into account my somewhat chilling conversation with Michael, it was getting more and more difficult to convince myself that this was all in my head, impossibilities aside.

He nodded, his eyes meeting mine fearlessly, never backing down from the challenge. Just like in life. "I'm real."

"How?" I couldn't help but ask. And wasn't it natural? Wasn't it human to deny what your mind knew was impossible, even when everything else inside and around you was telling you it was right? "What...I don't...."

"You don't have to," he said, anticipating my words, my admission that I didn't understand, that I could not wrap my mind around this no matter how hard I tried, even while some part of me seemed so ready to just accept. Maybe it was the self-preservation part...the part that was responsible for easing my pain. Maybe it would have grasped onto anything to fill up some of this emptiness inside. All I knew was, for the first time in weeks, looking at him, I didn't feel like shattering. He fucking made me feel real, like I wasn't just a mess of empty anguish held together by my own skin, but a person. A functioning human being.

"Can I...am I allowed to touch you?" It wasn't that I didn't want to. And it wasn't that I thought he'd decline any advances I made, even after the less than warm welcome I'd subjected him to. It was that I wasn't sure of the rules anymore. I didn't know if I could, or should, or what would happen if I tried.

His brow crinkled as he considered me. "Well...it's not like there's a manual or anything," he said. "With everyone else though, they just go right through me. I think I make them cold...I'm just this spot of freezing air."

"You don't feel cold from here."

He shrugged. "Maybe it's different with you."

I let my lips curl up into a smirk. "Isn't everything?"

"So...you want to try?"

I nodded, taking a deep breath and leaning in. He looked so solid, so substantial, and for the first time since the last time I'd kissed him, doing this carried some sense of intimacy, of temptation, rather than the mechanical motion it was with tricks. I could feel his breath against my face, marveled over that fact, and he was so close, after so long....

And then we kissed.

Soft and tentative. Mouths closed, a simple brushing of lips. He was soft and even kind of warm, like a body, and I could still feel that pulsing energy around him. I wasn't sure if it was my imagination, or something more, but he still tasted exactly the way I remembered.

"Not cold at all," I said, letting my lips linger just above his. He smiled, looking relieved.

"You have no idea how good it is to be able to talk to someone," he said quietly. "It's so fucking lonely here, Brian. Half the time I can't get anyone's attention, and even when I do, it's only tossing stuff off counters, or turning on the radio or something. It's driving me crazy...I haven't had one person— well, besides you— actually look at me in weeks. Do you know what that's like? To feel like everyone's just looking through you?"

I shook my head, completely caught up in his words, detailing misery and despair, but so beautiful, just because I never thought I'd hear the voice they belonged to again.

"Will you just hold me for a little while, please? It feels so good to be touching someone...like I'm actually here," he said, looking so dejected that I couldn't say no. Couldn't turn him away, not this time.

I let him crawl into my arms, marveling at the solidity of his body against mine. So real, not at all like I'd expected. Not cold or vaporous in the least, he was just...there. Just the way he'd always been.

His chest rose and fell against mine as I lowered us to the pillows, his little huffs of breath warming my skin. Slowly, in awe at the sensation, I slid my hands beneath his T-shirt so that my palms rested against the skin of his back. The shirt, too, was solid, like fabric. Totally real to the touch...at least to mine.

I turned ever so slightly to press a kiss to his hair, wondering if it was as soft as it always had been, but before I could find out, the weight of his body against mine was gone. He had disappeared, again, without warning. My lips were left mere inches away from where his hair had been seconds before, but what was now only empty air.

I sighed, closing my eyes and rolling over to press my face into the pillow that had once been his. I still wasn't a hundred percent certain that I wasn't absolutely fucking insane. But I was certain beyond a doubt that if this was, indeed, real— and if I knew Justin Taylor at all— then this would not be the last time I saw him.

I clenched my fist in his pillow and— letting my perpetual state of exhaustion overcome me at last— I slept.