Queer as Folk FanFic by Morpheus
The Prisoner of Tremont Street
Part 8: The Man Behind the Curtain
I take deep breaths, telling myself to relax as I wait for the arrival of Gardner Vance. This will be the first time he's been to my loft. I'm wearing the new black silk pajamas Justin picked up from my tailor yesterday - Jacques himself had come to the loft to fit me for some new clothes, a concession from the man who holds the sartorial reputation of a hundred Pittsburgh businessmen in the palm of his hand. He's tailored a few pair of slacks to accommodate this fucking lumpy cast - which I'll have to wear for another month - without making me look like I'm wearing jodhpurs. Today I've chosen to wear the lounging pajamas because I want to appear casual and relaxed for this first face-to-face with Vance since (as far as he knows) I've been out of the loop at the agency.
Justin's antsy but he's hiding it pretty well. I'd rather he was not here for the meeting but I need his help, damn it. He’s been flitting around since he came home at lunch time, cleaning things the cleaning service already cleaned, picking up imaginary dust balls, he even insisted on polishing the metal rims of my wheelchair, an action that made me want to smack his ass or kiss him, I couldn’t decide. Finally I said, "Justin, please sit down," and he threw me a look of instant comprehension and contrition, realizing that he was making me nervous. He settled on the sofa and folded his hands in his lap. "Put some music on," I told him, to give him something to do and to break up the deafening tense silence filling the loft.
Justin jumped up to hurry to the CD player and pick out some soft background music, then I called him over to my side and kissed him. Kissed him again. Kissing Justin is such an amazing pleasure, he's got full soft lips that I can pull into my mouth for delicious sucking, I can kiss him for hours and hours. I stopped after a few minutes - it wouldn't do to have us greet Gardner Vance with raging twin hard-ons.
Cynthia's been keeping me up to date on everything, I'll have to engineer another raise for her when things get back to normal - if things get back to normal. Vance thinks he's staging a coup, it's time to call his bluff or pull out the contingency plans. One of my back-up plans is exciting and incredibly tempting, but I'm not foolish enough to think I'm ready to take it on under the present circumstances - not as long as I'm The Prisoner of Tremont Street.
That's what Justin calls me when he wants to torment me, when he wants to get the upper hand - part of our battle of wills currently in a holding pattern while I deal with Gardner Vance and try to save my fucking career. I've gotten support from unexpected sources, and if only I were physically able to tackle some new options, I'd be thumbing my nose at Vance this afternoon, I'd be calling his bluff and kicking his ass down the stairs. But it's no use lamenting circumstances - ironically Justin, the little excitable drama princess who appears to have his head in the clouds most of the time, has helped me come to terms with the practicalities of my situation. He's also amazingly bright, I'll bet he would’ve wound up valedictorian at Dartmouth if he'd gone there as his dad wanted.
At my request and on my credit card, Cynthia had flown to Chicago, and followed up some leads in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, and she'd helped me map out three new client campaigns in the past two weeks. She's done all that while managing to appear bogged down in paper-trail accounting and client billing at the office. She's even spent a couple afternoons with Vance's personal assistant, volunteering to help out in her 'spare time' during my absence, and managing to gather some interesting information about Vance's recent client meetings.
I hadn't realized that Justin was eavesdropping during an intense conference with Cynthia last week, apparently he'd been listening in on some of my client phone calls too - betrayed by his knowledge when he barged into the middle of my talk with Cynthia. He'd been in the kitchen concocting one of his elaborate quiche recipes, while Cynthia sat near my desk and we discussed some of the options on the table. She was explaining that the Cincinnati client, Max Cheevers, tentatively okayed our proposal for a sweeping campaign to introduce his high-end frozen food line to the northeast market, but she said Cheevers feared that market was already saturated with competitive products.
We were trying to hit on a different slant to the marketing focus when Justin butted in, calling out from the kitchen, "What about getting one of those famous tv chefs to do commercials?"
Cynthia and I both turned toward the kitchen. At first I was annoyed by the interruption but a moment's reflection stopped me from bitching at Justin and made me turn to look at Cynthia. "Hmm," she said, "That's a different angle. If a well-know chef recommended Cheevers' stuff, that might be a real selling point."
"Like who?" I asked. Justin watches cooking shows on tv all the time, I have no idea who's who. "Julia Child? Is she still alive?"
"Sort of," Justin answered, walking toward us and wiping his hands on a dishtowel. "She's funny, too. Or maybe somebody like Yan. You know that show, ‘Yan Can Cook?’"
I shook my head no but Cynthia said yes.
"Well," Justin went on, "You could have a slogan like 'When Yan CAN'T cook, he serves Cheevers’ frozen entrees.' Something like that?"
Cynthia and I were silent, then we turned our heads slowly to look at each other, and she was the first to react. "My God, that's - that's brilliant!"
I shook my head. Jesus, that kid continues to surprise me. "Not bad," I kept my enthusiasm reined in.
We fell silent again, the implications of Justin's idea percolating through our brains. Justin returned to the kitchen and Cynthia began scribbling notes on a yellow tablet while I played around with various slogans on the computer. We discussed the idea further and decided to explore that angle - Cynthia agreed to research the availability of celebrity chefs for promotional work, and by the time we'd finished and Cynthia was shoving folders into her briefcase, Justin came over to announce that his quiche was done and invited her to stay for dinner.
"Oh, I'd love to, Justin," she smiled at him as she stood up and set her briefcase on the chair. "But I've got a dinner date tonight - I've just got time to run home for a shower if I hurry."
"Are you dating a guy?" Justin asked in his brash, wide-eyed way.
Cynthia laughed and I raised my eyebrows at Justin. "Some people ARE straight, you know," I informed him, "God knows why." He came close to me and punched my arm. "Ow, you hurt my broken ribs," I moaned, but he only laughed.
"Liar, trying to get sympathy, your ribs are all healed up. But show Cynthia the scar inside your mouth."
"What scar?" Cynthia asked, as she pulled on her coat.
"There is no scar," I lied. I'm not vain, but I'd been afraid there would be a scar on my chin from where some piece of metal had cut me during the accident.
"It's really cool," Justin was explaining, "They made stitches only on the inside of his mouth, and put a bandage with this fantastic Krazy-glue stuff on the outside of his skin, you can't even tell he was cut there." He turned to look down at me and begged, "Show her the inside of your lip, Brian."
"Fuck off, go open the door," I dismissed him, rolling over to see Cynthia out.
"Let me get my jacket, I'll walk you to your car," Justin said, "It's dark out." Despite Cynthia's protests that she was fine, Justin insisted on going with her, and I think she was pleased that at least one of us has good manners.
When they were gone, their footsteps descending the staircase, I rolled over to peer in the mirror and pulled out my lower lip. The scar really was kind of interesting. It didn't hurt any more, and the doctor had told me the redness from the absorbed stitches would virtually disappear in time, but meanwhile there were a few little bumps there that my tongue was always playing with. Justin's tongue played with them too. I wondered if he was up for a quickie before dinner.
I like Cynthia, and I'm glad Brian has her to look out for him at work. I don't understand all the politics and shit - not that I couldn't, but Brian doesn't tell me much.
"I parked about two blocks away, it's nice of you to go with me but I'm fine, really."
"Oh, I don't mind, I need some fresh air anyway.” It’s the truth.
“You’re chief nurse, right? It must be hell on wheels keeping Brian under control.”
“It’s what they call ‘a challenge,’” I admit and we both laugh.
“Down this way,” Cynthia points, so we turn the corner and walk down the dimly lit street. “He’s lucky to have you, I don’t suppose many people could stand his bad moods.”
I nod. “You, too. You’ve been working for him a long time, right?” When she agrees, I tell her, “I know he likes you a lot, and he doesn’t like very many people.”
“Thanks, Justin,” she lays a hand on my arm and squeezes. “Being liked by Brian Kinney is such an honor!” We laugh again, then she stops next to a blue Honda Accord parked underneath a street lamp and takes out her keys. “Thanks for walking with me, you’re a sweetheart,” and she leans over to kiss my cheek.
“Cynthia – “ I hesitate, and she turns back to look at me inquiringly. “Is Brian going to be okay – at work? He won’t say very much, and it worries me.”
“Yes, I think he will, Justin. He’s absolutely brilliant, the best account exec there is. He’ll fall on his feet, don’t worry.”
Cynthia opens the door and I close it for her, then stand on the curb waving while she drives away. When I get back to the loft, Brian’s logging off the computer and glances up as I come in the door.
“So,” he drawls, “Did you two fall all over yourselves, admiring each other’s courage for tolerating me?”
“Yeah, we did,” I admit it, causing Brian to snort and push himself away from the desk, roll his chair past me and over to the bedroom steps. “Brian, let’s eat, I’m starving.”
“Put the dinner on hold,” Brian says, looking at me over his shoulder. “Come to the bedroom first, and tolerate my cock for a while.”
Justin answers the buzzer and tells Gardner Vance to come up to the top floor. He pulls open the door to wait and I watch him for a moment - he's outwardly calm, standing still, hands at his sides. He's golden today, dressed in tan slacks with a light mustard color sweater pulled over a blue shirt, the collar of the shirt matching his eyes, the golden sweater reflecting the gold highlights in his blond hair. In the enforced stillness of his studied calm, I realize suddenly that Justin is beautiful. Not cute, not darling, just beautiful. I haven't seen him quite this way - I mean, I haven't noticed till now that he really has changed physically from the hot and sexy boy he used to be. He's a man, and suddenly he looks like one. I'm surprised that I haven't noticed before. Then I pull my eyes away from him and stare at the computer monitor, clearing my mind of the blond distraction waiting at the door to greet Gardner Vance.
The elevator arrives and spits out my adversary. "Hello, Mr. Vance," Justin steps into the hall and I glance again at the door. His back's to me, I can't see if he's smiling. I hear Vance respond with a hello, then I see Justin's hand gesturing him to come in through the door. Vance immediately sees me sitting at the computer and pastes on an oily client-greeting type grimace.
"Hello, Gardner," I mirror his nuanced smile, "This is my friend, Justin Taylor, who's been helping me while I'm stuck in this chair."
I'd prepared the introduction ahead of time, no coy hesitation would do, and when I thought about how I'd introduce Justin, it occurred to me that he really is my friend. Not a boyfriend, although we practically were for a while and who knows what we might be in the future. But Justin has been a friend to me, as much as - more than - most of my other friends. He's supported me through a lot of bullshit - he helped with Michael after the birthday party; he encouraged me first to keep Gus and then to give him to Melanie; he forgave me for pissing on his comic book sketches of Rage. It was strange to realize that, though all those difficult times, I'd never before acknowledged that Justin is my friend.
Justin sticks out his hand and with the merest calculated hesitation, Vance shakes it. "Mr. Taylor," he says, dismissively.
Justin's quick, I can see him picking up on Vance's almost-hidden disdain, but he only smiles and says, "Let me take your coat, I've put a chair for you here by the desk, and I'll get you a drink, if you'd like one."
Vance removes his coat, his eyes roaming quickly around the loft, then he brings his gaze back to Justin. "Ah, a bartender too, are you? Wonderful. I'll have a gin and tonic, no ice."
Flushing only slightly, Justin nods, takes the coat and turns away. I don't let my annoyance show at Vance's condescension, instead I wheel my chair away from the monitor to the side of the desk nearest the chair where Vance sits down and crosses his legs, his bony fingers absently smoothing the crease of his exquisitely tailored slacks.
"So," Vance resumes his oily smile as he studies me, "You're looking quite fit for an invalid, it seems that lying about agrees with you. Pyjamas in the middle of the day - and elegant ones, at that."
"Yes," I agree, "They're quite comfortable if you're forced to sit down most of the time, though I haven't been 'lying about' the last few weeks, I've been keeping up with work." I lose the fake smile and look Vance sharply in the eye. "And keeping up with my clients - though I've learned that you took it upon yourself to contact them and try to take them over."
'Tsk-tsk," Vance leans back in the chair, templing his fingers in that annoying way of his. "They're Vanguard clients, partner, not YOURS, remember? And somebody had to make sure the accounts weren't slipping during your extended absence."
"They haven't been slipping, I've been in touch frequently with every one of them, and they've all told me they're satisfied with the progress of their accounts."
"Mmm-hmm," Vance murmurs, then turns to accept his drink from Justin without a glance or a word of thanks. "But, dear boy," he looks at me from under his hooded lids as he takes a sip from his glass, "The agency has not been static while you've been gone this month and more, companies are not successful by merely running in place. Aggressive marketing, garnering new accounts, that's the key, and that cannot be achieved by employees on extended leave of absence." His voice hardens, he emphasizes the word 'employees' and curls his lip slightly as he takes another sip of gin and tonic and regards me coolly. "That's why I've been considering making some changes."
"So I've heard." I lean back in my chair and pick up a pack of cigarettes, offer it to Vance who doesn't even glance at it, shake one loose and light up. Vance waits while I exhale a cloud of blue smoke. "You've been sucking up to Johansen over at Bierbohm & Taft. Looking for a new partner?"
We stare at each other steadily for a moment, then Vance nods. "Johansen's good, he'd be an asset to the agency. Your secretary's been busy nosing around, has she?"
"Cynthia's my assistant, not my secretary, and it was from Johansen himself that I heard about your offer to him. He called me a few days ago. Seems there's some honor, even among ad men."
"And did he tell you he's considering my offer?"
I snort. "He said that's what he told you. But in fact, he's accepted an offer at Drysdale-Merton, in Philadelphia."
Vance is surprised and not pleased, it shows briefly on his face before he covers it up smoothly with a laugh. "That's fine, Johansen was only one option, there's plenty of eager young advertising mavens ready to take your place, Kinney. You're good, but you're not irreplaceable."
"Nobody's irreplaceable. But all your fishing around can't catch you as good an adman as me."
He nods. "In your prime - maybe. But you're out of the loop now, have been for weeks. The agency needs new blood, you're resting on your laurels at this point, and you know it."
That's when I smile. I pick up the stack of files at my elbow and hold it out to Vance. "Here's what I've been up to while I've been resting on my laurels."
He takes the stack and, after staring hard at me for a moment, sets down his drink on the edge of the desk and begins to look through the folders.
"Three new clients - big-ticket clients," I tell him. "Signed and sealed."
Vance is trying to hide his surprise - he's a good poker player, but I can see through him.
He opens the first folder as I tell him, "Cheevers is the biggest account, he's accepted my proposal for an east coast promotion campaign, a three-month saturation strategy, Cynthia's signed the celebrity chef and is already working with the media to begin blanketing the northeast right after Christmas."
Vance glances up at me, one eyebrow raised. "You've kept this all very dark, I've not heard a word."
"Really?" I grind out the cigarette and sit forward, stretching out my left leg, trying to relieve a cramp without letting the pain show on my face. "Craftsman signed a few days ago, they want to make inroads outside southeast Pennsylvania, they're planning to expand operations throughout the state." Vance opens the second folder and peruses the top sheets.
While he's not looking at me I shrug my shoulders a couple times, there's tightness in my neck. When he closes that folder and opens the third, I tell him, "That's Coopersmith and Reynolds."
Vance raises his eyebrows. "They're based in Chicago. Why should they come to us?"
"They didn't come to us, they came to me. At the recommendation of someone in Chicago."
Closing the last folder without comment, Vance hands the stack back to me, and I toss them onto the desk.
"Hmm," he says, picking up his drink again and leaning back in the chair. "Not bad. Not bad at all.” He takes a sip of gin. "But why haven't you consulted with me about your efforts the past few weeks?"
"You haven't consulted with me the past few weeks. Fact is, you've written me off. Partner."
"Now, Brian," Vance leans forward and gives me what passes on his face for a sincere smile, "You've got it all wrong. You've been recuperating from a serious accident, how considerate would it have been for me to annoy you with details of the office while you were sidelined? I didn't want to bother you."
"No," I agree, "Instead you were looking around for my replacement."
'Business is business," Vance declares, one hand going to his tie to loosen it slightly. "One has to plan for every contingency."
I nod. "You're right. I've been planning for a few contingencies of my own."
Studying me closely, Vance rubs a hand over his shiny bald head.
"Justin?" I call. He's been sitting at his computer on the dining room table, back turned to us while he eavesdropped and pretended to work. He jumps up and hurries over to my side. "Another drink for Mr. Vance please."
"No," Vance waves a hand, "No, thanks." He glances at his watch and stands up. "I've got a meeting with accounting at four o'clock."
"Justin - Mr. Vance's coat, please?" Justin turns and hurries off to the bedroom.
"Well, Brian, it's always good to be prepared, isn't it?. But you won't want to do anything rash, you'll need to stick around Vanguard and take care of the old clients you've helped bring in - and these new ones you've secured for us."
I keep my face noncommittal. "The fact is, Vance, they are NOT new Vanguard clients, they're MY new clients. And they've all agreed to stay with me, if I decide to make a career change."
He tilts his head to one side. “Hmm. You've been looking out for your own contingencies, haven't you?
"Yes," I reply. "Learned that from you: Secure client loyalty before showing your hand. As you yourself did, Vance, when you bought out Ryder and fired all the ad execs."
Vance smiles at that, his first genuine smile since he arrived. "All but one."
Justin arrives with the coat and Vance shrugs it on. "Your secretary - ah, excuse me, your assistant, tells me that you're starting physical therapy. Does that mean you'll be back at the office soon?"
"Possibly. I'll let you know."
"Yes, yes, stay in touch. Give me a call when you're up and about; we'll do lunch."
Justin goes ahead of him to pull open the loft door and accompanies Vance into the hall. I can hear their voices while the elevator creaks its way upward, but I can't hear what they're saying. When the elevator begins its descent and Justin returns to the loft and pulls the door closed, he comes over and leans against the desk.
"Wow," he exhales a long breath.
“It’s so cool to see how you work, you’re really amazing.”
I’m torn between annoyance that my personal life and business life have spilled over into each other – I like them in separate compartments – and semi-pleased that Justin’s impressed. But having him now be privy to the machinations of my ad exec persona makes me feel – exposed. I want to tell him, ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.’
“You'd do well in business yourself - you'd have wowed them at Dartmouth,” I tell him, an understatement. What I could say is that he’d be the bomb, with his quick intelligence and intuitive nature, assets necessary to a successful business career. When he opens his mouth to protest, I quickly interject, “If you weren’t committed to being an artist.”
I think for a minute, then add, “Besides, you lack the necessary cutthroat mentality. You’d be helping your rivals, playing fair, you’d never go for the jugular.”
He studies my face for a moment, then says, “Don't be so sure. Maybe it would depend on the prize I was after.”
Then I remember the sexual harassment fiasco - how Justin had gone after Kip Thomas, seducing him and then turning it into blackmail. Maybe Justin's more cutthroat than I thought.
Now Justin says quietly, "People underestimate me sometimes."
I agree; I'm one of those people. "What did Vance say to you, in the hall just now?"
Justin makes a face. "He said it was a pleasure to meet Brian's houseboy."
That's annoying but for some reason it makes me laugh. "And what did you say?"
Justin takes a deep breath, hesitates, then answers grandly, "I said, 'Actually we're just friends, but if it titillates you to think otherwise, go right on ahead.'"
After a moment's pause, I asked, "And what did you REALLY say?"
Changing briefly from beautiful man to bratty kid, Justin answers, "I said, ‘fuck off.’”
"Come here." I open my arms and pull Justin against me, make him sit down on my right leg.
"Careful!" Justin's scared of hurting me.
"You're fine," I assure him, smelling the sweetness of his hair against my face.
"Brian," he says earnestly, pulling away slightly to look at me. "You told Vance that I'm your friend. Did you really mean it?"
Christ, I hate being put on the spot. But it's not like a declaration of love or anything ridiculous like that. It's only the truth. "Yeah," I say finally. "Yes."
"Oh, Brian," Justin gasps, "That's the nicest thing you ever said to me."
“Hunh,” I reply scornfully, “A friend is just somebody who'll loan you money, and who'll tell you when you look fat.”
He smiles but shakes his head. “It means more than that.”
“Yeah.” He slips his arm around my neck. “It means you like me. A lot.”
“Yeah?” I repeat.
Justin’s other arm goes around my neck; he’s waiting. There’s a long silence as we look at each other, and then finally I succumb. “Yeah, okay,” I agree, “Probably it does.”