It was Gus Kinney's seventeenth birthday. His Papa and Dad were hosting a small birthday party at Britin. Since he planned to celebrate with his friends on the weekend, he’d requested that the only ones in attendance today be his uncles - Emmett, Ted, Blake, and Michael. And, of course, his Dad, Papa, and himself. Uncle Drew couldn’t be there because he was the head coach for the Ironmen, who were playing an away game.
As he finished chatting with a friend who’d called to wish him a happy birthday, Gus glanced at his watch, surprised to realize he’d been on the phone for over an hour. He didn’t want to spend all his time talking with friends - they could catch up later - so he muted his phone before going back out to the patio.
His Dad was currently grilling steaks, while his uncles jokingly offered advice. Gus grinned when his Dad flipped them off.
Looking around for his Papa, Gus frowned when he saw him sitting by himself on one of the chaise lounges by the pool - exactly as he had been when Gus went inside.
This wasn't the first time his Papa had ended up alone at a family gathering, and it hurt Gus a little to have it happen again.
Gus loved his Papa beyond belief and would never forget how he’d helped him escape his moms' house when he was ten. As he stood there watching his Papa, his thoughts drifted back to what his life had been like then.
He’d tried a few different times - either when his Dad came up to see him in Toronto or when they spoke on the phone - to tell him how unhappy he was living with his moms, but his Dad usually just joked about women and estrogen and said he sympathized with him.
Gus even tried talking to his Uncle Michael when he came up to visit Jenny, but he just laughed and said he’d lived with a mother once and not to let it get to him.
So one night when his Papa called him from New York, Gus burst out with, “I hate living here with my moms!”
“Why?” Papa enquired, his concern evident.
Gus was silent for a few beats, dumbfounded. Nobody had ever asked him why before.
“Hold on for a sec, kay?” he asked, getting up to lock the door. He didn’t want to take the chance that one of his moms would walk in unannounced.
“When they actually notice I’m here,” he explained, speaking quietly so there was no chance anyone would overhear, “all they do is criticize me. Mom is always gone, going from gallery to gallery ’cause she’s trying to find work or make contacts or whatever. When she is here, Mama picks fights with her, yelling at her for spending so little time at home, and shouting that she should get a steady job.”
“What about your Mama? Does she spend time with you?”
“Mama’s even worse,” Gus complained. “She hates me!” It all came pouring out of him. “She’s always putting me down and calling me names and saying I’ll grow up to be a narcissistic asshole just like my father.” That hurt the most, because he loved his father way more than his mothers.
His Papa asked a lot of questions, like, “Has either of your moms ever hit you or Jenny?” and “Do your moms help you with your homework?” and “Do you have friends you can stay overnight with when it gets really bad?”
Gus hated answering some of the questions. He hesitated for a moment before replying to the first one, “No, they’ve never hit me or Jenny.”
Papa must have heard the worry in his voice, though - Gus was scared that it could happen - because he only growled “Hmm” in response.
It made Gus even more upset that he didn’t have anything nice to say about either of his moms or anything else, really. “School’s okay,” he mumbled, “but I don’t have any real friends.” He purposely hadn’t made friends because he didn’t want to bring them home and have them hear his moms shouting at each other.
“Can you be strong and hold on for a little bit longer?” his Papa finally asked after Gus had answered all his questions. “I promise I’ll come to visit you, and we’ll figure out how to fix things. Okay?”
“Yeah,” Gus choked out, already looking forward to his Papa’s visit. He didn’t expect to see him right away, though.
Imagine how surprised he was when he got home from school a couple of days later, to not only find his Papa had shown up to see him, but that his Dad was with him. He figured, from the looks on everyone’s faces and the heated argument he walked in on, that they'd been arguing for a while.
Papa was the first to notice him. “Gus!” Papa beamed at him, stood up, and walked over to him, giving Gus an extra-tight hug. “I’m sorry you caught us arguing,” he apologized.
Gus shrugged. “It happens all the time.”
His Mama glared at him, her face purpling with anger.
He glanced at his dad, who was giving him a funny look that he couldn’t read.
“Why don’t you go upstairs, get changed, and do your homework, Gus?” his Papa calmly suggested. “How long do you think it will take?”
“Um, maybe an hour and a half,” Gus estimated.
Papa smiled at him. “Come back down when you’re done. Your Dad and I are taking you out for supper.”
Gus nodded and hurried toward the stairs, eager to finish his homework and escape the tense atmosphere.
They went to one of his favorite restaurants, Pizzeria Libretto, where his Dad usually took him to when he came up to see him.
His Dad shook head, muttering, “One of these days, Sunshine,” when his Papa ordered the same thing as Gus - one of the house specialties, a sausage and mozzarella pizza.
The ten-year-old giggled when, before he’d even taken a bite of his arugula salad, his Dad helped himself to a slice of Papa’s pizza.
Dad stuck his tongue out at him.
Gus laughed harder. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so lighthearted.
The mood quickly turned serious, though, his Dad asking him to tell him what had been happening at home. He wanted to hear it from Gus - not just from his mothers.
Gus slowly related how bad things were. “I, uh, I’ve even thought about running away a couple of times,” he admitted. “Sometimes my moms shout really loud, and they throw things, too.”
“Throw things?” his Dad questioned in a deadly quiet voice.
“Yeah,” Gus replied hesitantly. “Glasses and stuff.”
From the corner of his eye, Gus could see his Papa’s right hand clenching around his silverware. Without even looking, his Dad reached over and began massaging his Papa’s hand.
Gus couldn’t help getting upset; what he was saying was making his dads angry, and - worst of all - it was making his Papa’s hand hurt. His Dad had told him about the bashing a year ago when Gus asked what was wrong with his Papa’s hand. Gus was old enough to know, his Dad had decided, making the boy both proud to be treated like an adult and fiercely protective of his Papa.
“We’re not angry with you, Gus.” his Papa assured him. “Just tell us everything that’s happened, okay?”
Gus revealed how the police showed up one night at one o'clock in the morning because the neighbors had called them. “I was really scared, and so was Jenny. Like always when it got really bad, she came into my room, begging to sleep with me. We couldn’t sleep, though, ’cause Mom and Mama were so loud.”
His Dad went silent, his lips pressed together tightly, and it was his Papa’s turn to massage his Dad’s hand, murmuring something into his ear that Gus couldn’t quite hear.
Both his fathers assured him that they’d straighten everything out the next day while he was at school. “So, is basketball still your favorite sport?” his Papa asked, redirecting the conversation to something more pleasurable.
Gus boasted a little about how he’d made more baskets than any of the other boys on the team, and he kept smiling until the rental car pulled up in front of his house. Both his dads got out of the car, his Papa giving him another one of his tight hugs and saying how much he loved him.
His Dad then walked him to the door and made sure he could get in. “I’m sorry, Sonny Boy,” he apologized.
Gus felt a warmth spreading through him; he really liked it when his Dad called him that.
“I should’ve listened better - and not dismissed your concerns - when you told me you didn’t like living with your moms.”
“It’s okay,” Gus sniffled into his Dad’s shirt as his father hugged him.
“We’ll see you after school tomorrow. Everything will be sorted out then.” his Dad promised again before letting go of him and returning to the car.
Gus reluctantly entered the house, not shutting the door until the rental pulled away from the curb.
When he got home from school the next afternoon, Gus found suitcases containing his clothes and other stuff in the hallway. He shrugged off his backpack and let it fall to the floor before trotting into the living room, where his Dad, Papa, and moms were waiting.
“Your Papa is moving home from New York,” his Dad announced, “and all three of us will be living together in our house in West Virginia.
“Really?” His excitement building, Gus looked at his Papa for confirmation. He couldn’t quite believe this was happening.
His Papa grinned at him and nodded.
Gus looked at his Dad again, noticing that he was smiling almost as widely as his Papa. Gus’ smile grew to match his fathers’.
“Say goodbye to your moms,” his Dad urged. “Our plane departs soon, so we need to leave for the airport right away.”
His Mom had reached out to give him a hug, but Gus backed away. “Don’t you at least want a hug and kiss goodbye?” his Mom asked, looking hurt.
“Why?” Gus replied. “You haven’t hugged me in a long time. Why start now?”
Mama looked like she wanted to hit him, making Gus flinch and step back.
Papa intervened, moving between them and putting his arm around Gus’ shoulders. “We’d better get going,” he stated, his eyes narrowing as he stared at Mama. “Why don’t you get Jenny from the neighbors so Gus can say goodbye?”
A look of grim satisfaction crossed his Mama’s face. “I’m afraid that’s not possible. The neighbors have taken Jenny to the zoo.”
Gus wanted to cry. His sister was the only one in the house that he’d miss, and he couldn’t even say goodbye.
“You’ll be arranging for Jenny to Skype with Gus, right?” his Papa growled.
Mama snorted, while Mom dithered, wringing her hands, “I don’t know…”
Dad stared coldly at his mothers. “I’ll be contacting my attor-“
“Fine,” Mama capitulated. “He can Skype with Jenny.” When his Dad’s glare didn’t lessen, she tacked on, “Whenever he wants.”
With that, they left, Gus not looking back once as the house disappeared from view.
In the nearly seven years he had been living with his fathers, the moms didn’t contact Gus once. Not even a phone call. For the first couple of months, he Skyped with Jenny, usually once a week, but neither his Mom nor his Mama came online to greet him.
Then the calls with Jenny stopped, and he couldn’t get hold of his sister. His Uncle Michael turned up at Britin, worried because he couldn’t get hold of Jenny either - the phone would ring and ring but was never picked up.
Dad tried calling his Mom, but he couldn’t reach her on the landline or her cell phone; both numbers had been canceled. That prompted him to hire an investigator.
The private eye discovered that his Mama had taken Jenny and left Canada, not telling anyone where they were going. He agreed to try and locate them but wasn’t too hopeful - Mama had apparently covered her tracks well.
Gus’ Mom was still in Toronto but refused to get in touch. “Miss Peterson insisted that she wants to concentrate on building her career,’” the man revealed, his tone disgusted. “She spends all day going from gallery to gallery, making contacts .”
Gus could tell there was more to it than that, but neither his Dad nor his Papa would share the rest of the investigator’s report with him. “If you still want to know when you’re sixteen,” his Dad stood firm, “I’ll tell you then.”
The day he turned sixteen, he bearded his Dad in his home office. He wasn’t sure why he wanted to know about his Mom; she still hadn’t contacted him, not even once. He shuffled from one foot to the other. “It’s just - she’s my Mom, you know?” he offered in explanation.
“It doesn’t paint your Mom in a very good light,” his Dad warned him, looking pained.
Gus waited as patiently as he could.
“Your Mom was sleeping with a lot of men, hoping to get a job in a gallery. I don’t know if she succeeded or not.”
Gus stared at his Dad in shock, slowly absorbing what that meant. “She’s a whore!” he cried out before running to his room and throwing himself down on his bed. His Mom was having sex to get employment and probably so someone would pay for her upkeep.
His Papa came to his bedroom later. He didn’t say anything, just sat next to him on the bed and patted him on the shoulder.
“She’s a whore!” Gus repeated what he’d told his Dad earlier, furious and embarrassed. “How can she do that, Papa? Mom’s selling herself to get a job, and probably,” his voice hitched, “for money to live on.”
“I don’t know her reasons, Gus, but she must be pretty desperate to resort to that,” his Papa replied, rubbing his back soothingly. “Something good came out of all the trauma between your moms, though; you’re here at Britin with me and your Dad.”
Gus sniffled and nodded, wrapping his arms around his Papa’s waist. He was so grateful to his Papa for hearing his plea for help and setting everything in motion to get him out of his mom's house all those years ago.
In the end, his sixteenth had ended up being a special birthday. The day before his birthday, he’d received the signed paperwork from his Mom, formally relinquishing custody to his Dad. Right after that, Gus legally changed his last name to Taylor Kinney.
A year later on his seventeenth birthday, Gus shook off the memories and went over to talk to Papa. After they’d chatted for a while, he looked his Papa in the eye and asked, "Why are you sitting over here by yourself?"
Papa looked back at him and said with a sad sort of smile, "Don't worry about it, Gus. I'm fine by myself."
Gus tilted his chin stubbornly. “It's not right, Papa.”
Papa chided softly, "Gus, it doesn't concern you, so just drop it. It's complicated."
Gus looked at him for a few seconds before saying, “I’m going inside. Thanks for getting everyone together for my birthday, Papa.”
“You’re welcome, Gus.” Justin smiled at him before picking up the magazine he’d been desultorily perusing.
Gus walked towards the house, glancing back to see if his Papa was watching him, and when he saw that he wasn't, he changed directions. He approached his Dad, proposing, "Dad, tonight after everybody leaves and Papa goes to bed, could we sit down in your study and talk?”
Dad asked, "Is something wrong, Sonny Boy?"
"No, Dad. I just have a couple of questions I need answers to."
"Okay.” His father shrugged, acquiescing easily. “I'll come up to your room and get you after Justin goes to sleep."
"Thanks, Dad. I'm going in the house for a while. Come and get me when the steaks are done?"
"Sure. But it will only be about five more minutes."
"Oh. I'll, uh, be right back then."
Supper went as usual. Uncle Michael sat by Dad, monopolizing his attention, along with the conversation. Gus and Justin sat at the other end of the table. Papa was quiet throughout the meal, speaking only when Gus would ask him a question.
“So, you wanna check out your loot?” Papa enquired once they’d consumed the steaks and veggies.
“Prezzies!” Uncle Emmett encouraged loudly, bouncing in his seat and clapping his hands.
“Please,” Uncle Ted seconded his friend. “I’m stuffed. I’ve gotta let the food settle before I can squeeze in a piece of your chocolate, chocolate chip cake.”
Gus agreed, “Yeah, I’m full-”
“For the first time ever?” his Dad joked, momentarily diverted from his conversation with Uncle Michael.
“He’s a growing boy,” Papa teased, waggling his eyebrows at Gus.
“Yeah,” Gus agreed, a genuine smile spreading across his face for the first time tonight. Maybe it would be okay after all, he thought. His Papa seemed in better spirits now.
“Wow! This is way cool!” Gus enthused as he unwrapped a package, which contained a K2 snowsuit, ski boots, and gloves. “Thanks, Uncle Ted, Uncle Blake.”
“A blond snow bunny told us your size,” Uncle Blake said, smiling slyly, “but if anything doesn’t fit, you can exchange it.”
“Open the one from me and Drewsie next,” Uncle Emmett insisted.
Gus promptly tore the paper off another box, discovering goggles and a helmet with the Ironmen’s logo emblazoned on the side. “Andy’s gonna shit a brick,” he blurted, anticipating his best friend’s jealousy. “Uh, I mean-”
Uncle Emmett shot one of his famous gap-toothed grins at Gus. “Perfectly understandable. The Ironmen - well, one in particular - have the same effect on me.”
“I can’t wait for Thanksgiving break!” Gus exclaimed, turning his head to eye the vivid red and black Rossignol snowboard his dads had given him, which he’d propped up against the wall by the French doors. “I’ve been wanting to go to the Stowe Mountain Resort for, like, forever. There better be tons of snow.” He’d been pestering his dads for the last couple of years about learning to snowboard, and was beyond excited that they’d finally come through for him, gifting him with a vacation package.
Papa smiled wistfully at his Dad when Gus excitedly reeled off the name of the lodge where he would be staying, but his Dad didn’t notice. He was too busy listening to Uncle Michael.
Gus’ excitement about the upcoming trip fizzled before he opened his last present, which turned out to be an Electra Woman doll. Michael had already given him one when he was a baby, and he had no desire to have another one. He’d been hoping for more snowboard gear but, even though he was perplexed by Uncle Michael’s gift, he still dutifully thanked him. His uncle, who was jabbering away at his dad, didn’t hear his thanks.
A few hours later, his Papa bid everyone goodnight and wished them a safe drive home. That was followed by Uncles Emmett, Blake, and Ted commenting that it was getting late, once more wishing Gus a Happy Birthday as they left. As always, Uncle Michael sat down on the couch in the living room, making himself comfortable and settling in for a visit with Gus’ Dad.
Gus waited twenty minutes before approaching his father. “How long will you be, Dad?” he asked. “I’d appreciate it if we could talk tonight.”
Dad frowned at him, clearly annoyed. Gus figured it was because he’d been a little rude. But he didn't care. He intended to get to the reason for Papa's isolation, and find out what Papa had meant by it’s complicated.
“Wait for me in the study,” his Dad finally said, not bothering to hide his irritation. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.
Dad was as good as his word, entering his home office five minutes later and sitting down behind his desk. That made it clear that he wasn’t pleased with Gus; otherwise, he would’ve sat down next to his son on the sofa.
“What was so important that you had to interrupt me and your Uncle Michael?” he asked after a few moments. “Are you having problems at school, or is this about your lack of a love life?"
Gus snapped at him, "Hey! You have no right to say that! I've been spending a lot of time with Papa studying for my SAT. And, if you were around on the weekends, you'd realize my love life, as you call it, is just fine."
"Sorry, Gus. I shouldn't have said that,” his father apologized. “I didn't mean to be flippant. So, what did you want to talk about?"
"Have you noticed how quiet Papa is lately?"
"No. What do you mean?" his Dad inquired, puzzled.
"Did you even notice what was going on today during my birthday party?"
"Sure.” Dad shrugged. “While I was grilling the steaks and vegetables, the guys were standing around talking and laughing. You were in the house for over an hour."
"That's right. That's what was going on. But, you left one person out. Did you pay any attention to where Papa was?"
"Sure. He was there with the other guys.”
Gus shook his head, disappointed in his father. "No, he wasn't. He was over by the pool. By himself. The same as he is every time they are here."
His Dad growled, "Gus, what are you getting at? If Justin’s by himself, that’s his choice. He knows he’s always welcome to join in.”
Frustrated - his Dad was missing the point - Gus blurted out, "Dad, do you still love Papa?"
"What's that supposed to mean? Of course, I love him! Why would you even ask me that?"
"Maybe because you never seem to be around him anymore. Maybe because you put in ten- to twelve-hour days at Kinnetik, six - or even seven - days a week.” His frustration growing, Gus spoke louder and louder, until he was shouting. “When you leave work, instead of coming home, you go see Uncle Michael, and you guys end up hanging out at Woody’s or Babylon. The rare nights you are home, you’re here in your study, working!”
An angry glint in his eyes, Dad challenged him, "Did Justin say something to you? Because he really shouldn't be talking to you about that stuff. Besides, you know that Mikey has needed me, ever since Grandma Deb and Uncle Ben died. He doesn't have anyone else."
"First off, Papa didn't say anything to me. When I did ask him why he was so quiet and withdrawn, he told me it wasn't any of my business - to stay out of it, that it was complicated. Second, why does Uncle Michael need you so badly? Grandma Deb died four years ago, and Uncle Ben died over two years ago. If he’s feeling lonely, why doesn’t he hang out with Uncle Emmett and Uncle Theodore - aren’t they his friends, too? Didn’t Uncle Emmett, like, share an apartment with Uncle Michael way back when?”
Dad looked puzzled. Good, Gus thought, maybe he was getting through to him. “Don't you think maybe Papa and I need you, too?” he continued more quietly, scuffing one sneaker-clad foot against the carpet. “Uncle Michael calls you as soon as you get in the door after work, and within the hour you're gone again. Papa told me it was complicated, so I need you to explain what he meant. Then, maybe, I’ll be able to talk to Papa and make him feel less lonely - make sure he knows how much we love him.”
His Dad was silent for a bit, mulling over what Gus had told him. “Gus, Justin was right,” he finally stated. “It is complicated. Why don't you go up to bed? I have to get up early for a meeting tomorrow, but we’ll talk more after I get home."
Gus was certain his Dad was just brushing him off; that had happened more than once since Uncle Ben died. “Whatever,” he mumbled, his shoulders sagging as he stood up and walked out.
Fuck. His son obviously didn’t believe him. Brian could swear that he’d heard Gus mutter, “If you're not too busy with Uncle Michael.” as he left the study. There had been no 'goodnight, Dad' or 'I love you, Dad,’ which he usually said before going to bed.
His thoughts in a turmoil, Brian returned to the living room and asked Mikey to leave, citing the same meeting he’d told Gus about.
“But, Brian, I thought we were gonna talk some more,” Michael protested.
“Another time.” Brian deliberately kept it vague.
Michael reluctantly stood up and headed for the door, promising, “Okay, I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Brian frowned as he watched his friend trudge to his car. He’d have to screen his calls; otherwise, he suspected he’d end up spending tomorrow evening with Mikey.
Had it really been over two years since Ben died? he wondered, pouring himself a large glass of Beam. Brian sprawled out on the sofa, sipping the bourbon, his mind wandering back over the last couple of years. What Gus had said was true. Mikey called him several times a day, begging him to go out with him, until Brian finally relented and agreed to meet him at Woody’s or Babylon. It was also true that practically the moment he walked in the door at night, Mikey called him. Brian had no idea how his oldest friend timed it so perfectly, but his radar was nearly infallible; he always knew when Brian had left Kinnetik.
Brian thought back to today's party. It had made him feel good to see Mikey so laid back, laughing and joking with Emmett and Ted. However, when the food was ready and they were about to sit down to eat, Mikey had raced everyone to the picnic table, nudging Emmett out of the way so he could sit right next to Brian. “You’re my best friend,” he happily proclaimed.
Although he hadn’t thought anything of it at the time - it was just Mikey - in retrospect, his friend’s behavior was appalling. He’d been all over Brian, touching him constantly while monopolizing the conversation. Brian shuddered. What was Mikey playing at?
He’d promised himself years ago that he would never again let Mikey come between him and Justin but, even so, it had happened again. He couldn’t count the number of times they had gotten together, Michael cruising the hot guys for his best friend and urging, “You should go after that one, Brian. He’s totally fuckable and just your type.”
Brian, as usual, had brushed off the remarks as Mikey being Mikey, and reminded his friend that he didn’t want anyone except Justin. “Why don’t you pick up the hottie?” he’d ask. “You could use a good fuck.”
Mikey inevitably replied with some variation of, “Nah. I’ll stay here and hold up the bar while you take Mr. Muscles to the backroom.”
Contrary to what his son thought, Brian had been puzzled that Theodore and Emmett never joined him and Michael. When he grew tired of Mikey’s badgering about visiting the backroom, Brian would ask, “Where are Ted and Emmett? Why don’t you give them a call and ask them to bring their better halves along?”
Mikey’s response was always something like, “They’re too tired from working all day.” or “They’re busy.” or “They’ve become total sticks-in-the-mud. They don’t like to go out and have a good time anymore.”
Now Brian wondered if Michael had even once asked his friends to go out with him. He ran his hands over his face, squeezing his eyes with his thumbs. Michael had definitely played him, Brian concluded. He always insisted Brian keep him company, and whenever he said he was too busy, Mikey started in on how much he missed Ben and how he needed his best friend to help him get through the evening. But, when they got together, Mikey didn’t mention Ben or appear to miss him at all. Brian usually had to beg off to go home, sometimes as late as two in the morning. And then the very next day, Mikey would call him on his cell, sometimes so early in the morning, he hadn't even gotten to work yet.
And where was Justin all this time? Gus was right, yet again. He had to admit he didn't know how Justin spent his days or evenings. All Brian knew for sure was that Justin got up in the morning, made everyone breakfast, saw him and Gus off, and then what? He always had supper ready at night, Gus usually dominating the conversation while they ate, with only an occasional comment from Brian or Justin. After supper, Justin cleaned the kitchen, while Brian headed to his study or went out for an evening with Mikey.
Brian’s frown deepened. It was like Justin had taken on the role of the ‘dutiful wife’ and was playing it to the hilt. Sometimes when he got home from a night out with Mikey, he'd wake Justin up so they could have sex. Then Justin would roll over, telling him goodnight, and sleep on his side of the bed.
How long had it been since Justin slept on Brian’s side of the bed, his body draped over his husband’s? Brian couldn't remember the last time he had woken up with his arms wrapped around Justin.
Why was Justin still here? Did he feel some sort of obligation because they were married? That didn’t make sense. It must be because of Gus, Brian realized; Justin was committed to taking care of their son. Sure, Gus was old enough now to look after himself in the evening. But two years ago, he wasn't. And, what was that Gus had said about Justin helping him study for his SAT?
Was Justin even drawing or painting anymore? After Deb died, Justin had decided to take some time off. He had wanted to spend time with Gus who was only thirteen at the time, to help him cope with the loss of his grandmother.
Justin’s art had still been in demand, with his agent forwarding requests for shows as well as commissions. Justin was talking about participating in a local exhibit when, eighteen months after Deb had passed away, Ben died.
Ever since then, Brian had been an absentee dad. He couldn’t recall the last time Justin had asked him to model for him, or that they indulged in an impromptu romp - Brian peeling off his husband’s paint-splattered clothes as they sank to the floor in Justin’s studio...
One tear and then another trickled down his face, Brian only realizing he was crying when he tasted the salty wetness on his lips.
Shaking himself out of his reverie, Brian glanced at the clock on the mantel. It was already five in the morning, with his early-morning meeting scheduled for eight o’clock. He might as well get ready now. Levering himself up off the sofa, he headed upstairs and, careful not to awaken Justin, quietly selected some clothes from the walk-in closet in the master bedroom and then showered in one of the guest bathrooms.
Afterward, he started toward his home office but changed his mind, making his way to Justin’s studio instead. He pushed the door open, only to be confronted by a life-size portrait on an easel in the middle of the room. In the center of the painting was a detailed, handsome rendition of Brian, insouciantly facing the viewer. He was standing, dressed in jeans and a black wife beater, cowrie shell bracelet around his wrist, a lit cigarette dangling from between his fingers, his feet bare. In the lower right-hand corner of the painting, Michael sat, worshipfully gazing up at him.
Brian looked around. That was it. No other paintings. No sketchbooks scattered around. No photos or drawings on the shelves. Walking over to the cabinets, he glanced in the drawers, and still didn’t find any of his husband’s sketch pads. Where were they? Justin must have well over a hundred of them by now.
He wondered if Justin had lost his passion for creating art. If so, when had it happened? Was it after Deb died, or was it after Ben died? Even if Justin wasn’t painting or drawing anymore, his sketchbooks should still be in here somewhere. Could he have thrown them away or burned them in the fireplace? Brian turned in a circle, scanning the nearly empty room once more. He couldn’t fathom Justin getting rid of his art like that, so he must have just packed them away somewhere. Regardless, it meant he was no longer creating. Had Brian killed that dream, too?
Brian made his way back to his study, where he pulled up the information for today's client on his computer and went through the campaign again. He had the pitch down pat, so he was just wasting time. He might as well go to the office now.
Before leaving the house, Brian penned a note for Justin and fixed it to the fridge with a pride flag magnet.
I fell asleep in my study last night. When I woke up, I decided to leave for work early, as I have a pitch at 8:00. I’ll be done for the day after that, so I should be home by noon. Have a good morning, Sunshine.
When he reached his office, Brian left a note for Cynthia that he’d already arrived, asking her to see him as soon as she got in. In the meantime, he arranged the conference room for the meeting, including setting up the boards. It wasn't his job, but it kept him busy.
Brian was sitting at his desk, elbows propped up on the surface, massaging his temples with his fingers in an effort to ease a burgeoning headache, when Cynthia entered his office carrying two cups of coffee.
"Thank fuck. I need that," he moaned, taking a gulp of his coffee. He didn’t give a shit that he burned his tongue a little.
"Brian, what time did you get in?"
"Um, thirty, forty minutes ago.” He shrugged. “I set up the boards for the meeting."
"Why would you do that? I don't remember it being part of your job description." Cynthia teased.
"Haha.” He smirked at the blonde woman. “I woke up early, so I came in. Just thought I'd get it set up the way I like it - wouldn’t want whatshisname, the new intern, screwing it up."
"Okaaay... What did you want to see me about?"
"If Michael calls this morning,” Brian instructed, “remind him I have a meeting at eight o’clock and can't take any calls from him. If he calls after that, tell him I'm away on business for the rest of the day and that my cell phone will be off.”
“I’m going to take the rest of the day off, so you can transfer his calls to my office phone if he wants to leave a message. If he asks to speak to Ted, tell Michael he's filling in for me today and can't be bothered."
Cynthia stood, picking up her coffee cup. When she reached the door to his office, she turned around, smiling at her boss. "Thank you, Brian. I hope you have a good day at home. Say hi to Justin for me - tell him to drop by sometime." Then she left the office, shutting the door quietly behind her.
Brian stared at the closed door, his brow furrowing, wondering why Cynthia had thanked him.
A few minutes later, Brian sauntered down the hall to Ted’s office, rapped on the open door, and leaned against the door frame. "Theodore, are you ready for the meeting this morning?"
"Sure, Bri. Is there something else you need me to do?"
"No, just checking. I’ll meet you in the conference room in fifteen minutes. Oh, and Ted?”
“I’ll be leaving for the day after the meeting,” Brian informed him. “Just remember the company policy regarding personal calls during business hours. Not on the company phone or your cell phone. And that means anyone - even your dear friends Emmett and Michael.”
Ted’s eyebrows shot up, his surprise obvious. He well knew that there was no such company policy.
“And make sure, if you meet them for lunch at the diner or after work for drinks, that you don’t mention me or my whereabouts, capiche?” Brian continued. “Don’t talk about Kinnetik either.”
Ted nodded in agreement, his jaw slack as he stared at Brian. He was clearly dying to ask what was going on, his mouth opening and closing a few times, but he kept quiet.
“You’re fired if I find out you’ve blabbed,” Brian finished up, his tone deadly serious. “And that’s not an idle threat this time, Theodore. Thirteen years as my CFO won’t save you.”
Brian suppressed a grin as he walked away from Ted’s office. If the situation with Michael hadn’t become so dire, he would’ve enjoyed twitting his friend about the way he kept opening and closing his mouth like a goldfish.
True to his word, Brian left the office at eleven thirty and was home shortly after noon. When he opened the front door, the house was still. Where was Justin? he wondered. He made his way to the kitchen in search of his husband. No Justin. Next, he tried the media room, where a movie was playing on the TV with the volume turned off, Justin sleeping soundly on the couch.
Deciding to let Justin sleep a little longer, he returned to the kitchen, made a light lunch, and set the table. Then he returned to the media room and sat down on the edge of the couch. "Sunshine, wake up," he urged, gently shaking him.
Justin opened his eyes, yawning as he said, "Oh, hey. You're home early, Brian. What’re you doing here?"
"I decided to leave after my meeting and come spend the day with you. Didn't you see the note I left tacked on the fridge this morning?”
"Yeah, I saw the note,” Justin replied, yawning again. “I just didn't think you'd actually be here this early. Have you eaten? I can make lunch for you."
"No need. I already prepared something. It's on the kitchen table; I’ve just been waiting for my sleepyhead husband to join me."
"Oh. Sorry about falling asleep," Justin mumbled.
"No problem. I can cook once in a while, you know. I'm not that helpless."
While they ate lunch, Brian tried a couple of times to start a conversation, but he gave up when the only answers he got were yes or no. “How about we watch a movie?” he finally asked.
Justin looked warily at him, before giving a small shrug and saying, "Sure, why not?"
Brian kicked back on the sofa, opening his arms in an invitation for Justin to join him. After a moment, Justin sank down next to him. He didn’t move away when Brian wrapped his arms around him, but his body was rigid with tension.
They ended up watching Brokeback Mountain.
“I don’t know how many times we’ve seen this,” Justin murmured, his eyes locked on the screen, “but I can never get enough of Heath Ledger.”
“Twat,” Brian chastised, nipping playfully at Justin’s earlobe. “When are you finally going to concede that it’s Jake Gyllenhaal you can’t stop looking at?”
“Never,” Justin predictably replied. “Heath’s way hotter. Besides,” he twisted around and looked at Brian, “he did what you used to claim you wanted - he died young and beautiful.”
“Christ.” Brian huffed out a laugh. “I was an idiot. And unlike Heath, I was lucky enough to get what I really wanted.”
Justin relaxed in his arms, smiling as he watched Ennis and Jack kiss onscreen.
He’d do whatever it took to stay lucky, Brian thought, nuzzling his husband’s hair and breathing in deeply.
As the credits were rolling at the end of the movie, Brian softly asked, "Sunshine, would you like to go out for supper tonight, just the two of us? Gus can order a pizza for himself."
It took a minute before Justin asked, without looking at Brian, "Don't you have work to do tonight?"
"Nope. I’m spending the evening with you."
Hesitantly, Justin agreed, "Okay. That sounds good. Where are we going? What should I wear?"
"Something nice. Dressy."
Justin didn’t say anything more, but he snuggled in closer to his husband.
Brian smiled when he woke up next to his husband on the sofa later that afternoon, Justin’s head resting on his arm, their legs entwined. This was exactly the kind of moment he wanted more of with his husband.
After waking up Justin with slow, languorous kisses, Brian accompanied him upstairs. He shooed his husband into the master bedroom to change and, stopping at Gus’ room, knocked on the door.
When Gus yelled, "Come in,” he opened the door, catching the look of surprise on his son’s face when he saw him standing there. "Hey, Sonny Boy. I'm taking your Papa out for supper, so you're on your own tonight.”
Gus looked surprised, but pleased.
“You can order one of those greasy pizzas you like so much; just charge it to my credit card. You’ll be okay by yourself, right? Maybe you can take a break from studying for a while and enjoy a movie or something."
"Sounds good, Dad,” Gus replied, grinning broadly. “I’ll be fine. Have a good time."
And that was what they had. A pleasant evening and a delicious meal. He’d given Gus the name and phone number for the restaurant, in case of an emergency, but to ensure that they weren’t otherwise disturbed, he kept his cell phone turned off. Conversation was a bit stilted at the beginning, but Justin slowly opened up, asking questions about Kinnetik. Who his latest clients were, what their campaigns were like, if sales were doing well. Nothing too personal, but Brian counted it as a win.
The ride home was made in comfortable silence.
When they reached their bedroom, Brian excused himself to use the bathroom. He closed the door behind him, turning his phone on to check his messages. Jesus Christ. There were eighteen missed calls and thirteen voicemails! All from Michael. Brian didn’t bother to listen to any of the messages, repeatedly pressing delete until they’d all been erased.
When he got into bed a few minutes later, he pulled Justin into his arms and they made slow, languorous love. Brian was a little sore afterward, but he was smiling as he fell asleep, holding Justin.
The next morning when Brian arrived at work, he stopped by Ted's office, reminding him again of the ‘no personal phone calls during work hours’ rule, and that his whereabouts were not to be discussed.
Two days later when Brian once again stopped in the doorway, Ted held up his hand, silencing him before he had a chance to speak. "Bri, I know what you're going to say, so you don't have to repeat yourself for the third morning in a row. Just so you know, Michael's been blowing up my cell phone with calls, demanding that I get you to call him. He even called Blake at work. He made it sound like an emergency, so the receptionist interrupted a counseling session Blake was having with a new patient. All Michael did, though, was rant and rave about how I needed to call him.”
Fuck, this was way worse than he’d expected, Brian thought in disbelief, a headache growing.
“I checked with Emmett,” Ted continued, “and he confirmed that Michael has been calling him constantly too. Em got so sick of it that he finally quit answering his phone.”
“Shit, Theodore, I’m sorry.” Brian wearily sat down in a chair, sighing, "I didn’t expect it to be this bad. I just wanted Michael to ease up on the daily calls.”
“You mean he calls you every day? Since when?”
“Since Ben died,” Brian informed him. “And it’s more like five calls a day.”
"What?” Ted almost shouted, astounded. “Tell me you’re joking! It’s been over two years since Ben died, Bri."
"Are you telling me that he hasn't been calling you and Emmett about going out at night?"
"He's never called me,” Ted replied. “And I'm sure if he’d asked Emmett, Em would have invited me to go with them."
"Christ! I can't believe this bullshit!” Brian was getting more and more aggravated. “He calls me all the time, going on and on about how much he misses Ben and begging me to go out with him. Telling me how much he needs his best friend. He doesn’t let up until I agree to meet him at the diner, or Woody’s, or Babylon. I've ended up spending at least four nights a week with him. Every time I asked him where you and Emmett were, he said he had called you guys but that you were always busy or too tired to go out."
"And this has this been going since Ben died?"
"Yes," Brian confirmed.
"What does Justin have to say about all this?"
"That's just it, Ted. He hasn't said anything. I didn't even realize how long this had been going on until, on the night of his birthday party, Gus asked why Justin was so quiet all the time. He pointed out that I wasn't home often enough to see how quiet and reserved his Papa had become - he wanted me to explain it to him.” Brian ran a hand through his hair, disarranging the brunet strands. “When I told him I was away so much because Mikey needed me, he asked why Michael still needed so much attention two years after his Uncle Ben had died.”
Ted stared at him, flabbergasted. “Wow.”
“I was at a loss for an answer,” Brian noted, shamefaced. “But, when I thought about it, I remembered how every time we went out to Woody’s or Babylon, Mikey would point out really hot guys, telling me I should fuck them, because they were ‘just my type.’ Even if he doesn’t know we’ve been fucking raw since we got married six years ago, he does know we’re monogamous. I mean, he was my best man, so I figured he’d be thrilled for me, you know?”
Brian glanced at Ted, who was practically beaming at him. Crap. He hadn’t meant to share that tidbit, but he was pleased to get the reaction from Ted that he’d once expected from his best friend. Heck, Michael had constantly badgered him about how he shouldn’t be with Justin at all if he couldn’t commit to the relationship. “Anyway, I thought Michael was just reliving my glory days and didn’t really expect me to act on his suggestions.”
“That explains a lot,” Ted interjected. “On the way home from Gus’ party, Emmett and I talked about how quiet and detached Justin had been. We both noticed how he hardly ate anything that night. We just thought maybe he wasn't feeling well."
"That's not the only thing that worries me,” Brian elaborated. “The night Gus confronted me, I realized that except for one piece I saw in his studio, Justin hasn't been painting or sketching, probably since Deb died. Don't even ask me about that painting - it makes me want to throw up every time I think about it.”
Ted’s brow furrowed in concern as he listened to his friend.
“I wondered sometimes if I should go out with Michael, but I couldn’t help thinking that if it had been Justin instead of Ben, I would have needed someone, too. Although I can say it wouldn't have gone on this long. Since I finally realized what has been going on, I've been asking myself how everything got so blown out of proportion. How I didn't see what Michael was doing. I promised myself a long time ago that I wouldn't let Michael come between Justin and me ever again, but that's just what’s happened. I'm actually surprised Justin is still living at Britin. I doubt he would be, if Gus wasn’t there."
"Bri, would you mind if I talked to Emmett a little bit about this?” Ted enquired. “I promise I won’t share any of your private business with him - not that I think Em would blab - but he doesn’t need to hear anything you’ve told me in confidence.”
As usual, Brian reflected, he could trust Theodore to keep a confidence. Small wonder that, over the years, he’d become closer to Ted than to his one-time best friend.
“We might be able to come up with some kind of solution. Something to get this craziness under control."
"If you can think of anything to help me, I'd appreciate it,” Brian responded, at his wits’ end. “I can't lose Justin, Ted. I know he's been kinda confused these last few days, trying to figure out what's going on, why I’m suddenly behaving like his husband again. I've wanted to talk to him, but I’m at a loss to explain this mess when I don’t understand it myself."
“I’ll talk to Emmett,” Ted assured him, right before Cynthia knocked on his door, paperwork in hand for Brian to sign.
Brian looked up the next morning when Ted knocked on his office door, immediately taking a seat in front of his desk. “I fielded another ten calls from Michael yesterday,” his friend reported, “and one early this morning.”
“Fuck,” Brian groaned. “I had to turn off my cell phone last night because it kept ringing. Mikey even tried the landline at Britin a couple of times, hanging up when Gus and then Justin answered.”
A disgusted expression on his face, Ted continued, “When I went to check with Cynthia yesterday afternoon to see if she was also getting calls, I could hear her talking to Michael. She had to hold the receiver away from her ear because he was screaming so loud, shouting, ‘I’m gonna tell Brian what a rude bitch you are and get him to fire you.’ At that point, Cynthia hung up on him. She told me that Michael calls off and on all day long and has also tried to get into the building - the security guards turned him away twice yesterday.”
Christ. What was going on with Mikey? Brian despaired. He didn’t recognize his childhood friend anymore, and he was no longer sure he cared.
“I talked with Emmett and we came up with an idea that might fix the situation,” Ted related, outlining their plan.
As they went over the details, Brian started to feel more hopeful that everything could be resolved. “Thanks, Theodore,” he expressed his gratitude. “I'll give Michael a call and tell him to meet me at Woody's tonight at five-thirty. That should allow me to get home by seven; I plan on talking to Justin tonight to try and explain everything."
"Let me know if your plans change for any reason,” Ted replied. “And Bri… no matter how it goes tonight, Emmett and I will have your back."
Brian called Michael and asked if he'd like to go out, but insisted it had to be early because he had plans later on. At first, Michael was a little pissy, telling him he didn’t appreciate being ignored for days, but he changed his tune when Brian told him he wanted to go out. Brian could hear the excitement in his voice, and he had to bite his tongue to keep from revealing anything. When five-fifteen rolled around, Ted popped into Brian's office and told him he was heading out to pick up Emmett, so they’d be sure to arrive at Woody's before Brian got there.
When Brian strolled into Woody’s, Ted and Emmett were sitting at a table on either side of Michael. Michael jumped up, a huge grin on his face. “Brian, I’m so happy you’re here!” He leaned over to give Brian a hug and kiss, but Brian sidestepped, avoiding contact.
Brian didn’t miss the flicker of anger in Michael’s eyes.
“Move over, Em,” Michael ordered. “I wanna sit by Brian.”
"No can do, Michael. I’m happy where I am."
"Ted, trade places with me."
“No,” Ted refused.
Michael huffed and sat back down in his seat, fuming. “What’s wrong with you guys?” he asked, directing his animosity at Ted and Emmett. “You haven’t been taking my calls lately. Turning to Brian, he demanded, "Brian, you need to fire your bitch of an assistant. She won't put any of my calls through to you, and she's told the security guards to bar me from the building. You’re giving her too much control; she acts like she owns the place."
It was time to set Michael straight. "Michael, Cynthia does what I tell her to. And I'm the one who gives the security guards their orders, not Cynthia. She's not the one acting as if she owns the place; you are."
"What are you talking about, Brian? I'm your best friend. I should always have access to Kinnetik, so I can come and see you whenever I need to."
"Michael, listen to me. Are you listening?"
"Of course, I'm listening to you."
"Then pay attention, because I won’t repeat myself. My office is a place of business. I don't have time to take fifteen calls a day from you, and that goes for Ted as well. I pay him to work, not take personal calls. As of tomorrow, your number will be blocked at Kinnetik."
"Brian, you can't do that! I need you! What am I going to do when I need you to help me deal with Ben's death?"
"Michael, how long has it been since Ben died?"
"Not that long, Brian. I still need you."
"Michael, don’t you realize it's been over two years since Ben died? If you're still having problems accepting his death, then you need to go see a grief counselor. You haven't bothered to talk to Ted or Emmett” - he gestured at the two men sitting on either side of Michael - “even though you've been telling me this whole time that you always invite them along whenever we go out together."
"What are you talking about, Brian? Of course, I always ask them!"
Emmett shook head and said, "No, Michael. You haven't called me once."
Ted also shook his head. "No, Michael. Me neither."
"Brian, tell me you believe me! I'm your best friend! I'd never lie to you."
"That's two lies right there, Michael. First, both Ted and Emmett wouldn't lie about something like this. Second, you haven’t been my best friend for the past fifteen years. That’s Justin.”
"What?” Michael screeched. “You've got to be joking! Boy Wonder is just a trick! One who has never gone away."
"Michael, do you even hear yourself?” Brian had a hard time keeping his voice level. “Justin has been my husband for six years. And we've been monogamous and fucking raw the whole time. How dare you call him just a trick!"
"Brian, now I know you’re pulling my leg. Brian Kinney does not do monogamy, and he definitely doesn't fuck raw. You're the poster boy for condom usage, for fuck's sake!"
There was no getting through to the man, Brian realized. He could understand, though, why Michael might be upset; fucking without a condom was something he and Ben couldn’t ever have done, not without endangering Michael’s health.
“Michael,” he gentled his tone, “I’m sorry you and Ben couldn’t share that.”
Ted patted Michael on the back. “You know, Michael, if you get counseling, you’ll be able to put things in perspective. You might even meet someone; there are lots of good guys out there.”
Michael ignored Ted’s attempt to make him feel better. His brown eyes wide and shining with moisture, he looked at Brian piteously.
Brian rolled his eyes. “Don’t bother with the waterworks, Michael. I won’t fall for that again.”
One hand outstretched, his lower lip trembling, Michael pled, “But, Brian-”
Brian cut him off. “Believe what you want, Michael. But I’ve never lied to you. I’m not sure if you are delusional or just refuse to believe I love Justin with my whole heart. Do you think I’m incapable of loving someone because I’ve never been in love with you ?”
“You’re just infatuated,” Michael bleated, “with that oversized ass of his.”
“For fifteen years ?” came an incredulous remark from another table, which caused several patrons to burst out laughing.
“More like seventeen,” another wit interjected, obviously someone who’d been frequenting Liberty Avenue for a long time.
Brian welcomed the levity, which helped him calm down a little. There was one admission that might help get through to his former friend, he thought. He didn’t fucking care who heard either; he was no longer worried about his reputation. Quirking an eyebrow at Michael, he asked, “You know I’m a fag, right?”
“Well, duh.” It was Michael’s turn to roll his eyes.
“And fags love to take it up the ass. Which I do, regularly. Justin’s an amazing lover.”
“Holy shit! Did Kinney just admit-” someone hissed.
Brian was surprised by how proud it made him feel when Emmett and Ted beamed at him.
“I don’t believe you!” Michael yelled, folding his arms across his chest, a mutinous scowl on his face. “You’re lying! Brian Kinney doesn’t bottom for anyone, and especially not for him .”
Enough, Brian decided, his face flushing with anger. “Fine,” he stated in a tightly controlled voice. “Then I’m letting you know now, in front of our friends and everyone else in here, that not only will your number be blocked at Kinnetik but also from Justin's and my cell phones and the landline at Britin. You’re permanently barred from Kinnetik. And if I ever hear you call Cynthia a bitch again, you won’t like the consequences.”
He started to get up but then stopped. There was still something he wanted to know. “Why did you do it?” he outright asked. “What did you hope to accomplish? Did you think I’d leave Justin for you?” It was too late to repair their friendship, but he needed to hear Michael’s reasons. And, despite everything, he cared about Michael; he wanted his childhood friend to be happy.
“I did it because I love you, Brian.” Michael beseeched, a tear trailing down his face, soon followed by another. “You’re my best friend. No one else matters. We’re supposed to end up in Palm Springs together - two old queens, happy together forever.”
Brian stared at Michael in disgust, unmoved by his tears, the last threads that connected him to his one-time best friend snapping. “You used me… You used your grief to manipulate me, Michael, and I allowed it to happen.”
“I love you,” Michael repeated brokenly.
“That’s not love,” Emmett rebuked him.
Standing up, Brian announced, “We’re done, Michael. Our friendship is over. I have a husband and son at home who are way more important to me than you have ever been, or ever will be.”
Brian started to turn away from the table.
“Brian!” Michael shrieked, scrambling up from his chair.
Ted and Emmett yanked him back down. “Let Brian go,” Emmett told him, eyeing his friend sadly. “It’s too late to fix things.”
Brian turned back and looked Michael dead in the eye. “Leave me and my family alone, Michael. If you don’t, I won’t hesitate to get a restraining order.”
As Brian walked out of Woody's and out of Michael's life, some of the customers applauded. “About time Kinney got rid of that loser,” one of them jeered.
“Yep. High time,” someone else agreed.
That night after the second round of sex, Brian and Justin lay in each other's arms. Brian drew small circles on Justin’s stomach. Finally, he broke the silence between them with an apology. "I'm sorry, Sunshine."
"What are you talking about, Brian? What do you have to be sorry for?"
"Because I've been ‘gone’ for two years. I'm ready to come home... if you still want me."
Justin’s eyes prickled with tears, and Brian could hear the effort he was making to sound strong when he said, "Brian, I love you. I have loved you for seventeen years. That will never change. You may have gotten lost for a little while, but I’ve waited for you to find your way back to me. Now you have, and I know you won't get lost again."
"I love you so much." Brian shared a passionate kiss with his husband before leaning back and asking, a teasing gleam in his eyes, “Whaddaya say, Sunshine? Shall we finally go snowboarding in Vermont? Together with our son?”
Justin flashed his famous smile at Brian and threw his arms around him. “Yes! It’s about time! Best of all, I’ll get to go with two Kinneys, not just one.”
Brian smiled back at his lover, holding on tight to him. “Taylor Kinney's, you mean. And there’ll be three of us - not two.”
He'd never again lose sight of what he wanted, Brian vowed to himself. He was determined to make up for the last two years by being the best father and husband he could be.
He’d make sure Justin started painting again, so he could show the world how proud he was of his husband.
He'd tell Gus tomorrow how sorry he was, that he loved him, and that life was no longer complicated.