Title: Stronger ~ Part 1
Rating: Hard R/NC 17 depending on the chapter.
Genre: Angst. teh Love. More Angst
Characters: Brian, Justin & their non-defined, non-conventional family.
Disclaimer: I own nothing except my thoughts, and even then sometimes, I rent.
Timeline: Post-513 All canon assumed.
Summary: That which does not kill us...
Author's Note: This is a work in progress. I am a slow writer - there's no getting around that - but I promise that it will be completed. Comments feed the muse. Just sayin'.
For Karen, without whom my story would not be the same.
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"The world breaks everyone and afterward, many are strong at the broken places."
Prologue Part 1
New York City, May 2009
A late spring storm punishes the New York City skyline, distant flashes of lightning reflected a thousand fold in the rain-streaked windows that take up most of one wall of the birthing suite. The slashing rain and rolling thunder provide a fitting soundtrack to the drama unfolding around him.
“Come on, you’re doing great!” He rubs the small of her back, grimacing as her fingernails burrow into the thin flesh of his wrist. “You’re doing great,” he repeats through clenched teeth, seeking assurance from the doctor seated at the foot of the delivery table. Right? Is it supposed to be taking this long? What the fuck can I do?
The grin hidden behind the doctor's surgical mask crinkles the corners of her eyes, her slight nod of encouragement answering all his unspoken questions. His focus narrows, sounds reduced to white noise, the cheerful colors and serene decor fading into the background until all he can hear is his own heartbeat pounding in his ears.
“Okay Abby, just one more. That’s it. Push now!” A muted scream erupts from the laboring woman’s throat, drowning out the doctor’s instructions as she bears down one last time.
“Holy shit!” He hears the words from a distance, only vaguely aware that they are his own as a momentary hush falls over the room. Grasping the exhausted woman’s hand, he squeezes it hard, instinctively pressing it to his lips as the doctor suctions the tiny mouth and nose. She turns the baby in her hands, gently massaging its back. A lifetime ticks by with only the sound of the rain to mark its passing before the silence is broken by a small but mighty wail - quite possibly the most beautiful sound he has ever heard.
“Oh my God,” he whispers, still in awe. “Oh my God.” He blinks back tears as the doctor clamps off the umbilical cord and then offers him a pair of surgical scissors.
“Do you want to cut it?”
Nodding, he takes the instrument with slightly trembling fingers and tries to concentrate on what he’s been told: it doesn’t hurt the babe or the mom. It doesn’t hurt, doesn’t hurt, doesn’t hurt. He forces himself not to close his eyes, and barely breathing, makes the cut. The doctor nods her approval and hands the baby to the waiting nurse, who quickly takes vitals and measurements and gently wipes away some of the detritus of birth before wrapping the small, wriggling form in a warming blanket. She returns moments later, looking back and forth between the mother and the man at her side.
“Go ahead.” Abby nudges him lightly when he hesitates, her voice tired but encouraging, “Take your daughter.”
He moves forward and the nurse places the baby into his waiting arms. Dropping a soft kiss onto her forehead, he breathes in her sweet baby scent, certain he will remember the smell for the rest of his life. Gazing wondrously at his newborn daughter as the tears finally spill over, he murmurs a grateful thank you to the exhausted woman beside him. “She’s perfect.” One tear splashes onto her cheek, and he smiles as her tiny nose crinkles in protest. Her eyes blink open and she looks up at her father for the first time. Just a few minutes old, she is splotchy and red, with a shock of raven hair plastered to her head, but he sees only beauty in the promise of what she will become.
“Well hello there, little one. Welcome to the world.”
He cradles her gently, his heart swelling with love even as it aches for what is missing. His eyes leave her for just a moment as a long, low roll of thunder draws his attention to the storm raging outside. The thoughts come unbidden, as ephemeral as the lightning that flickers across the dusky sky. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I need you. I can't do this alone. The baby wriggles in his arms, one impossibly small hand stretching up to pat his chin, as if she knows he needs her touch. He smiles down at her as she fists her little fingers around his own large one, even manages a gentle laugh when she pulls it straight into her mouth and starts to suckle. Her eyes flutter closed and he nuzzles her tender cheek. “We’re going to love you so much, baby girl,” he says softly, gathering the tiny bundle to him. Turning toward the window again he adds a silent prayer to his whispered promise. Please. Please let us have the chance.
New York City, September 2008
I’m really not sure who I’m more pissed at, him or me. I mean, I should know better. The sun rises in the east. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. Brian Kinney is an asshole. Somebody call the New York fucking Times. Yet still, after nearly eight years of dealing with the most emotionally retarded fucker on the planet, I have to admit, I didn’t see this one coming. Brian’s done a lot of fucked up things over the years, but the one thing I could always count on from him was the truth. Yeah, it took him five years and a large explosive device to finally get him to admit that he loves me, but we all know it wasn’t me he was deceiving all that time. Even when I wanted him to, when it would have kept me from walking out the door, even when his truths cut me to the bone, Brian never lied to me. Not until today.
Him. I’m definitely more pissed at him. I need to be pissed, because the alternative is to curl up into a ball and cry. I stare at the cell phone in my hand – the screen is still lit. I seriously consider redialing. Calling him out. Demanding an explanation. Why, Brian? You made me believe this is what you wanted. For me. For us. What is your fucking damage?
I shove the phone into my pocket and stalk around the small apartment, swearing when I nearly trip over a half-packed box of dishes. I sneer at the single votive candle flickering on the coffee table between two empty wine glasses, and curse some more as I toss the cushions back onto the sofa. I re-wrap the glasses, put them back in the box, and snuff out the candle, effectively erasing any signs of the celebration I was sure we’d be having right about now.
I put the unopened Pinot Noir back into the scarred wooden sideboard that doubles as a liquor cabinet and see Brian’s nearly-full bottle of Jim Beam. I remember the night he showed up with it, spoiling for a fight and armed with his weapons of choice – a sharp tongue and eyes that could pin you in place with deadly precision when he was intent on winning. I can’t help smiling when I think about how that weekend ended, but it’s gone just as quickly when I hear his voice again in my head. This was a mistake, Justin. I pour myself a shot and swallow it in one gulp, gasping a little at the burn. I need a cigarette.
As I head for the bedroom to find his stash, I pull out my phone again and redial, but end the call before it can connect. The rational part of my brain knows it would be useless. I guess that’s the part that makes sure I aim for the pillows instead of the wall when I launch the phone across the room. It skitters along the cool, raw silk of the goose-down duvet (the one Brian insisted I buy before he would fuck me on my ‘ridiculously small’ bed) and I follow behind it, burying my face in the pillows to muffle the groan of frustration building in my gut. Goddamnit. He swore to me, swore that he was good with it. That the idea of a kid, a baby, was not going to send him into panic mode. That the days of him deciding our future by shoving me off a fucking cliff were over.
And I believed him. Even this morning, when the warning bells should have been deafening, I believed him.
It’s funny because I hardly ever go to Midtown, and never that early in the morning. But Thomas needed someone to pick up the last piece for the Cantrell exhibit before the artist left town for the weekend and he certainly wasn’t going to drag his ass through Friday morning rush hour to do it.
And that’s how I found myself sitting in traffic, in a cab, on East 53rd at nine o’clock in the morning, wedged into the back seat with a crate roughly the size of my first apartment. I eyed it with disdain; not only was Jared Cantrell’s multi-media work overrated (my opinion only, of course), it was fucking heavy. I had turned to look out the window, more for the sake of not looking at the atrocity beside me than any real interest in my surroundings, when I saw him climbing into a sleek, black Town Car. It was just the briefest of glimpses - a beautiful head of chestnut hair, a classic profile, broad shoulders accentuated by a washed leather jacket that was probably worth more than my entire wardrobe disappearing into the back of the limo. My eyes were drawn to him of their own volition, like some kind of primordial radar, its accuracy confirmed by the ping of pure energy that ran down my spine. The visceral thrill I feel whenever I see him again after any length of time apart. There is no mistaking Brian Kinney for any other man in the world.
In the few seconds it took my brain to register anything beyond ‘what the fuck?’ the light changed and the cab eased through the intersection towards Lex, while his car waited to make the turn onto 3rd Avenue. I was half-way tempted to jump out of the cab and catch up to him on foot, and if not for the precious artwork I was accompanying, I might have. Shouting ‘follow that cab’ at the driver also crossed my mind, but the cliché alone kept me silent. Not to mention, what the fuck?
Originally, I'd planned to go home this weekend, but after Abby called from the clinic on Wednesday with the news, I convinced him to come here instead. We needed to celebrate. Shit, I wanted to write it in giant letters across the sky. But first I wanted it to be just the two of us, and there was no way that would happen in Pittsburgh, not with both Deb and my mom around. They don’t even know we’re doing this yet, but those two are like fucking bloodhounds when it comes to Brian and me, and I don’t exactly have a poker face when I’m happy about something. I did everything but beg him to come early, make a long weekend of it. (Okay, maybe I begged a little, but it’s not like that didn’t happen routinely during our late-night, long-distance phone calls, only usually I was begging him to let me come.) But he said he couldn’t get away and he’d see me Friday evening.
Traffic was barely moving and I could still see his car, though the windows were tinted so dark I couldn’t see him inside. I dialed his cell and imagined I could hear it ring all the way across the grid-locked intersection. He mostly leaves it on vibrate during business hours but I swear he changes it to that retro-disco-porn ringtone on our weekends just to drive me insane. It was just about to kick over to voicemail when he picked up.
“What are you doing?”
“It’s nine a.m.” Over the years I’ve learned that the most effective tool for getting Brian to talk is silence. And so I waited. The Town Car made its turn onto 3rd before he spoke again. “Was there something you wanted?”
I smiled a little.
“Uhhuh. What are you doing?” I practically heard his eyes rolling and he answered me like I was more than a little slow.
“It’s nine o’clock in the morning, Justin. What do you imagine I’m doing?”
So he wanted to play games. Okay. I glanced up at the driver. He appeared oblivious, but I slid the window in the plexi-glass divider closed anyway.
“Hmmm. That depends, are you alone?” Brian and I have spent a lot of hours on the phone in the three years I’ve been in New York and the lion’s share of them have been on calls that started out with words just like those. If he wanted to mess with me by showing up early after telling me he couldn’t, I certainly wasn’t going to make it easy for him. Maybe his answer should have been enough for me to twig to the fact that all was not well in the great state of Being Brian Kinney, but I guess I was just too happy, too excited. Too confident. I guess I heard what I wanted to hear. Because that first lie didn’t faze me at all.
“Unfortunately, no. I’m in a meeting,” he responded without hesitation. Damn, he’s good. It just made the game more interesting. I lowered my voice and purred into the phone.
“Excuse yourself... tell them you have to use the bathroom, Brian. I have a little problem we need to take care of.” That at least earned me a little pause before he answered.
“As tempting as your offer is, I’m afraid…”
“Come on, I’ll be quick.” I interrupted, panting softly, “I’ll make it worth your while when you get here, I promise.” I all but moaned the words in his ear, no small feat considering it was taking all my self-control not to laugh out loud. The muted traffic noise filtered into my cab, but the more luxurious Town Car was quiet enough that I could hear the slight whistling sound he sometimes makes when he breathes through his nose. I knew I’d scored a point when it pitched a little higher, followed quickly by a sharp exhale. The limo was out of sight now, but I had no problem picturing exactly what he looked like up against the supple leather interior, slightly flushed and adjusting himself as he slid further back in his seat. “Do you want me to beg, Brian?”
“Justin… I…” His voice was low, rougher than a moment ago. For one crazy second I was afraid he was going to call my bluff and I’m not entirely sure I wouldn’t have let him. Things have been a little tense the last couple weeks waiting for the news and our phone-sex life has suffered the consequences. I was a little too convincing for my own good, as evidenced by the growing tightness in my jeans, and this was fucking hot. But then he coughed lightly and the spell was broken. “I have to go. Later.”
He disconnected before I could even form the word, but I said it out loud anyway. “Later.” Oh yes, Mr. Kinney. The cab ride back to the gallery took forty minutes and I used every one of them to plot the many ways I would make him pay for his little deception later. I even managed to forgive Cantrell his conceit as I hauled the enormous objet d’art into the gallery. Sometimes bigger is better, if only for concealing the state that my little fantasies had left me in.
I spent an hour with Thomas getting the Cantrell set up and putting the finishing touches on the exhibit; to say I was distracted would be an understatement. The second time I nearly knocked over his pretentious new piece of crap, he sent me home.
Thomas can be difficult at times. He’s owner of one the most prestigious galleries in New York. Demanding, bossy, flamboyant, and when things don’t go just exactly the way Thomas Headley decrees, the ultimate drama queen. I think of him as the gay man Debbie Novotny always wanted to be. But, like Debbie, he also has an enormous heart under all the bluster, and a soft spot for me. He’s one of the few people who knows about the baby – he’s been so good to me, I owed him the truth. He already knew why I had the weekend booked off, and while Thomas is genuinely fond of me, he adores Brian. I mean he fucking adores him. This is a man who was at Stonewall, who knows what it means to be out and proud in a straight man’s world, and according to him, Brian Kinney is the epitome of everything a gay man should be. Unconventional, smart, ballsy. A big fat fucking success on his own terms. A walking wet dream. I swear if Thomas wasn’t pushing seventy and completely devoted to his partner of 30-plus years, I might actually worry about him.
So when I explained what had me so… preoccupied (leaving out the details of the phone call – because, no) he waved me out the door with orders to make the most of my unexpected long weekend. He really is a good guy; I’m going to miss him.
I walked the six blocks home from the gallery trying to figure out what Brian was up to. It’s not like his showing up without warning was unprecedented – I’d found him pounding on my door at two a.m. more than once over the years. One time, I forgot to put the security chain on the door and I woke up with a hand over my mouth and a warm, wet tongue in my ear. Fucker took ten years off my life!
Anyway. 53rd & 3rd isn’t exactly ‘on the way’ from LaGuardia to the East Village, and he was clearly getting into that limo. I tried to summon a mental picture of the area, but all I could come up with was a vague impression of tall office buildings interspersed with minor retail – definitely not Brian’s style. There are a lot of pubs and bars, but even if they weren’t the kind of hetero-havens that Brian loathed (they are), it was nine o’clock in the morning. He has a few clients in the city, but he wasn’t dressed for business. I was no closer to an answer by the time I reached 7th Street and I decided it didn’t really matter. Knowing Brian, he was probably planning some ridiculously romantic gesture that he would deny any knowledge of later, or more likely, picking up some wicked new toy to celebrate with in the way we do best. That last idea had me sprinting the rest of the way down the block.
It’s fifty-four steps up to my third floor apartment. I took them two at a time.
I fumbled with the locks in my haste to get inside, but I knew he wasn’t there the moment I stepped through the door, and not just because the chain wasn’t latched. There’s a reason I came up with the name Kinnetik all those years ago - I feel Brian’s absence in a room every bit as strongly as I feel his presence.
I didn’t mind all that much though; it gave me a chance to get things straightened up since I hadn’t been expecting him until late evening. I put away the art supplies that were scattered around the place and threw a drop cloth over the canvas I was working on – a piece I’d just started and wasn’t ready to share yet. I washed up the few dishes in the sink and put fresh linens on the bed, switching the plain white sheets for navy blue. The white ones were still clean, I just loved the way Brian looked sprawled naked against the richly colored, dark Egyptian cotton, all toned and tanned and perfect. Damn. I slid the lube and an extra handful of condoms under the pillow on his side of the bed just because, then spent a few more minutes setting out wine and glasses and re-arranging the sofa cushions onto the floor just in case we wanted to start the party there. On a whim, I grabbed a couple of candles from the cupboard and set them on the table as well. I was standing admiring my work and wondering if I should make us something to eat when it struck me that I was rapidly becoming a girl. Fucking hell.
It was noon when I called him the first time. It went straight to voice mail so I hung up and decided to have a shower. I left the door unchained – sometimes it’s good to live a little dangerously – and stayed in until the water ran cold, but there was still no sign of Brian. Another hour passed before I pulled on a pair of sweats and uncovered my canvas again. By four o’clock I had to step away from the painting because it was taking on a decidedly dark mood I never intended it to have. I called his cell again, ready to leave a message this time. I wasn’t prepared for a woman to answer the phone.
“Brian Kinney’s office.”
“Cynthia?” I repeated her name because for the life of me I couldn’t seem to make anything else come out of my mouth. Once again, what the fuck? was the best I could come up with. I checked the number on the screen, just to make sure I had dialed his cell. I did. Occasionally, Brian will give his private number to a client, but I tried to recall another time that Brian had forwarded his calls to his office. I couldn’t.
“Yes, Justin. Brian asked me to take his calls for a few hours.”
“A few hours?” I echoed her, as repetition seemed to be the only speech pattern I was capable of.
“Yes. Did you want to leave a message?”
“A message?” Christ, I had to stop doing that. “No, no message.” I should have just hung up then but my brain chose that moment to re-engage. “Where is he, Cynthia? I really need to speak to him.”
“He’s meeting with a client. Left strict orders not to interrupt him unless someone was dead or dying, myself included. He said he’d switch the call forwarding back when he was finished. Is there anything I can do for you in the meantime?” So... he'd embroiled Cynthia in his little game, the only question being, how far?
“No, I guess I’ll see him in a few hours anyway. He’s on the 5:45?” Liberty Air Flight 1027, non-stop from the Pitts to LaGuardia, arrival time 7:20 pm. I knew the schedule by heart. Since winning the account away from Vangard, Kinnetik had tripled Liberty’s market share in the northeast and earned Brian a Liberty Air employee card as a bonus, which meant unlimited free airfare anywhere the airline flew. Both his bank account and my ass had benefitted greatly as a result. Frequent flyer took on a whole new meaning for me. I heard the faint clicking of fingernails on a keyboard and then a short pause, and a distinct ‘huh’ before Cynthia came back on the line.
“That’s odd,” she said, “he didn’t update his calendar, but I’m sure that’s right.”
“He didn’t mention it before he left for his meeting?”
“I’m sorry Justin, I haven’t actually seen Brian today. For a few days, in fact. He’s been working from home.”
Well, fuck me. A frisson of apprehension ran down my spine and settled low in my gut as her words sank in. Cynthia is Brian's right hand - sometimes I think they are really two sides of the same coin. Most of the time, I just count myself lucky she's not a gay man. And Cynthia wasn’t in on it. Somehow, that worried me more than anything else, and for the first time since seeing him climb into that limo, I felt a glimmer of real concern. Still, I didn’t want to involve her any further until I knew what was going on, so I wished her a good weekend and she did the same, with a promise to have Brian call me if she heard from him before she left the office.
After we hung up I just sat there for a few minutes trying to decide if I should start freaking out right then and there, or wait for an actual reason to. I mean beyond the vagaries of being Brian Kinney’s significant other. So far, all I really knew was that he hadn't been to the office in two days, he was in the city and hadn’t told his most trusted employee he was leaving town early. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t even ‘late’ yet, and I knew if I did anything foolish like, say, call Michael and ask if he knew what was Brian was up to, I would be risking the wrath of Kinney. Or, at the very least, a weekend of endless mockery when he found out. And there was no doubt he would find out. Michael and I are pretty good friends now; he’s like the big brother I never wanted. But he can’t keep his mouth shut to save his life, especially where Brian is concerned. So, no Michael.
Google Earth briefly crossed my mind – just to see what was in the vicinity of Fifty-third and Third, of course. Fortunately, sanity prevailed and I squelched my inner stalker with a firm hand. Jesus Christ, I was making myself crazy based on nothing and I needed to stop. I felt a sharp pang in my stomach – hunger, not fear. I was starving.
I glanced at the time. If Brian was going to keep up the pretense of arriving on schedule, then I had nearly four hours to kill and I knew he wouldn’t eat even if I waited for him to show – he never did. At 37, he was still as slender as the day I met him. If anything he was even thinner lately, yet he diligently maintained his ‘no carbs after seven pm’ rule. I, however, had no such qualms, before or after seven, and I never met a pizza I didn’t like. Gianelli’s on St. Mark’s has the best pie in the Village and not only do they deliver, Mama Gianelli knows my order without asking. Mr. Justin’s large pepperoni, light on the sauce and well done, would be at my door in thirty minutes, give or take. ‘You givea me grief, I takea two hours,’ is Mama’s standing joke and she was still cackling in my ear as I hung up the phone.
Resigned to waiting, I turned on the television for distraction, idly flipping through channels - something I normally enjoyed, if only for the entertainment value in guessing how long it would take Brian to lose his mind and snatch the remote away from me. I think his record was twelve minutes; somehow it wasn’t nearly as much fun alone. Less than half an hour later, the buzzer sounded and I found myself oddly disappointed when it turned out to be my pizza.
I debated opening the wine to go along with my dinner, but couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was going to want to be on my game when (at that point I was still thinking when, not if) Brian showed up. I ate in front of the television, but the pizza didn’t have its usual appeal and most of it went in the fridge, untouched. My frame of mind was nowhere near where it needed to be for working, so that was out. I tried passing the time packing some of the things I wouldn’t be needing for my last few weeks in the city, but even that seemed to require more concentration than I could muster as the time that Brian should have arrived came and went.
The apartment grew dark but I didn’t bother with the lights. Instead, I lit one of the candles and sat there in the flickering candlelight, telling myself there was still no reason to imagine the worst. Christ, at that point I couldn’t even tell you what I thought ‘the worst’ might be. I mean, things are good. Really fucking good. Better than I ever dreamed they could be when I closed the loft door behind me three years ago.
I didn't want to come to New York. The night we called off the wedding, Brian challenged me about what I really wanted, what I would do if it weren't for him. At first I was angry, hurt. Scared. I fought for five years to make him love me the way I thought he should, only to find out I had no fucking idea what that really meant. Not until that moment, when I saw just how much he loved me - enough to let me go. And that? Was fucking terrifying. But as much as I hate to admit it, he was right - it was what we both needed.
Not that things weren't a little shaky at first. Let's face it - our relationship skills aren't exactly ideal when we're standing right in front of each other, never mind four hundred miles apart. Brian did his thing where he tried to convince me to move on, forget Pittsburgh. Forget him. Christ, and they say I'm the one with brain damage. Only this time, I had the ultimate weapon to battle Brian's demons - his own words. We did not go through everything we did just to sacrifice it to a little bit of time and distance. It's amazing how easy it is to fight Brian when he doesn't really want to win.
Slowly but surely I’ve gained some recognition for my work, largely thanks to Thomas and his incredible support. Living here, working in the gallery, being a part of the whole culture - I think it's made me a better artist. I know it's made me a stronger person. Strong enough to know, finally, that I'm not settling for a life with Brian. I'm choosing it.
As for Brian, well, he's more successful than ever. Kinnetik - shit - it's one of the most elite boutique agencies in the whole country and Brian drives it just like he does everything else, hard and fast, and with no margin for error. It's no secret he can be a Class A prick at times, but he never asks more from his people than he's willing to give himself. As a result, they've got a shelf full of industry awards and a client list any Madison Avenue firm would kill for. Kinnetik has made Brian a very rich man.
And then there's Babylon. Re-opening the club was something that Brian struggled with. He likes to cultivate this image of cold-hearted cynicism, and no one would argue that he achieves that goal pretty fucking well. But that's what it is - an image, a facade. The truth is, knowing so many people died in his personal playground, nearly losing his best friend, it hit him hard. Sometimes I don't think any of us really understood just how hard - his brief stint as a pod-person notwithstanding. I know he had every intention of following through on his promise to sell it, because my mom had the listing. And then, in a rare burst of sagacity (not to say hypocrisy), Michael convinced Brian that he should resurrect Babylon. Do it for himself, do it for them, show the fuckers that they didn't win. Let the thumpa-thumpa play on, forever. Christ.
So Babylon has reclaimed its rightful place as the Mecca of gay Pittsburgh. It's more of an investment and less of a lifestyle for him these days, but Brian is still Brian. He will always have a large streak of the hedonist in him, and frankly, I wouldn’t want him any other way.
Babylon wasn't the only thing to rise from the ashes of the bombing. In the midst of the ensuing media circus, a reporter doing background for an article on 'ground zero in the deadliest hate crime in the state’s history', connected the club’s owner with the hero of an underground gay comic book. The fact that its creators were not only victims of the bombing themselves, but the young lover and best friend of the entrepreneur, was just too good an angle to resist. The story gained national attention, and interest in Rage, well, it exploded, so to speak. Back issues started going for big bucks on eBay, demand for new issues went viral, and suddenly publishers that wouldn’t even return our calls before were offering us ridiculous amounts of money for the rights to our gay crusader.
Neither Michael nor I were interested in taking Rage mainstream. After the Brett Keller debacle we figured it would take about as long as the next news cycle for them to get scared and try to neuter Rage again. But then we were approached by a smaller publishing house that was willing to produce the comic on our terms, to promote it for what it was. Hard-ass, edgy. Queer. We were both uncomfortable with the idea of profiting from the publicity surrounding such a horrific crime, but you have to admit the paradox was pretty fucking sweet. An unapologetically graphic comic about a gay superhero made famous by the hate-filled actions of those who would see it banned from existence. Rage’s debut issue for Inception Comics sold more copies than all our prior issues combined. We dedicated it to the victims of the bombing and donated the profits to a fund started in their name to help assist the families. Issue #14 goes to press in a couple weeks and there has even been some talk about an animated series down the road. We’re probably never going to retire off it, but Rage, Gay Crusader, is still making the world safe for gay boys everywhere, and Michael and I? We’re pretty fucking proud.
If there’s any shadow at all in our lives, it’s Gus. Well not Gus exactly – he’s amazing. At eight years old, he's tall for his age, does well in school and is already showing signs of being a really great young athlete. Brian tried everything to steer him towards soccer, but his passion is baseball. Their house is about two miles from the stadium where the Blue Jays play, but he lives and breathes the Yankees, and he’s the star of his Little League team. Brian nearly swallowed his tongue when Gus stood up at Thanksgiving dinner last year and loudly proclaimed himself a catcher, not a pitcher. I bet Brian still has a bruise on his shin from where Mel kicked him under the table the instant he opened his mouth to speak. But Brian only told Gus how the catcher was the most important member of the team, the leader, and how proud he was of him. He really loves that kid - and that’s the problem - he’s missing out on most of his life. Gus spent the first three weeks of summer vacation with us this year and I know how it guts Brian to watch him leave again.
Nobody is going to believe it, but this whole thing – the baby, the surrogate, all of it was Brian’s idea.
Three weeks worth of curtailed sexual activity (which in Brian’s world means anything less than fucking in any given place, at any given moment) found us lying naked on the floor in front of the fireplace that night after Gus left for Toronto. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was lack of blood to the brain, given what we’d just done. Maybe it was the joint we were passing back and forth as I lay there with my head resting on his stomach, who the hell knows? But I heard myself saying how empty the house seemed without Gus. Considering that the last week of his visit also included J.R., the munchers, and most of our extended family at one time or another, Brian’s muttered response about relocating with no forwarding address before the next visit was about what you’d expect. It was a familiar game for us – he pretended to be a heartless shit, I pretended to believe him. Watching him watch his son pack up his things to go home told me all I needed to know.
“I miss him already,” I said, and stretched out beside him, tracing lazy circles on his chest with my fingertip. His response was to roll me onto my back and shot-gun the last hit off the joint directly into my parted lips. He lingered there, kissing me deeply while I held the pungent smoke deep in my lungs, then pulled back just enough to let me exhale. Christ! My whole body buzzed, the effect so intense I think my brain short-circuited, because the next thing out of my mouth was, “I want one.”
I swear to God, I don’t know where that came from, but the second I said it, it just seemed the best fucking idea I ever had. Maybe I'd have been more convincing if I weren’t giggling like a teenage girl. “We should totally have a kid of our own.”
That earned me an arched eyebrow and the look of pained amusement he usually reserves for occasions when my inner princess is having a moment, and then he silenced me with his tongue down my throat. But I was undeterred (and very, very stoned) and the second his lips slid off mine and began mapping their journey southward, I continued. “I mean it, Brian! I bet Daphne would probably help us out,” I said, narrowing my eyes at him, “You know she’s always had kind of a thing for you.”
If not for the muffled laugh I felt tickle the crease of my thigh, I would have thought he didn’t even hear me. “Briaann…” I pawed at his shoulder to get his attention and then he did that thing he does with his tongue and I said his name again, but it had nothing to do with wanting to talk. We spent the rest of the night getting reacquainted with most of the flat surfaces in the house. I considered the discussion closed, Kinney style.
He was already up and dressed when I woke up the next morning, sitting at the table with coffee in hand and his laptop open in front of him. I felt his eyes on me as I moved around the kitchen and turned to find him watching me over the rim of his coffee cup.
“What?” He was studying me like some new species of bug and it was starting to freak me out. “What?”
“Were you serious?” They were the first words he’d uttered since I walked into the room.
“A kid. Is that something you want?”
“Why, did you find one on Craig’s List?” I laughed and leaned over his shoulder, sure he was fucking with me. A little payback for my drug-induced confession. He closed the laptop and pulled me around onto his lap, pinning me there with the patented Kinney stare.
Holy shit! He was serious and I had absolutely no idea how to respond. Of course it was something I wanted. A home and a family with Brian has been part of my dreams since I was seventeen years old for fuck's sake. But I knew going into this thing with Brian that it was probably not in the cards. As much as he loves Gus, I never thought he would even consider having another child. It seemed so far out of reach I honestly didn’t let myself think about it much, occasions when I was stoned out of my mind notwithstanding.
“I won’t do it again,” he said finally, and I let out the breath I’d been holding. Of course he was fucking with me. Shit. But then he went on in a tone of voice I barely recognized, one I hadn't heard since we stood in each other’s arms in front of a bombed-out nightclub. “I won’t share another kid, Justin. I can’t. If we do this, it can’t be with someone we know.” And then he opened up his laptop again and showed me what he’d been looking at.
That was not-quite three months ago.
The amount of red-tape involved in surrogacy is incredible, but there are few things in the world more formidable than Brian Kinney on a mission. He moved us through the process of finding an agency willing to work with two gay men and clearing the legal hurdles involved, all with remarkably little bloodshed. Choosing an egg donor was fairly straightforward, but it took us another month to find Abby. Once we did though, things started to happen quickly. She began the treatments right away, we made our ‘contributions’, and two weeks ago, Abby had the procedure. And then we waited.
The doctor warned us to keep our expectations in check, that there was no guarantee of success on the first try (or ever, in fact). They told us it would be ten to fourteen days before they could confirm pregnancy – two weeks of jumping every time the phone rang and driving myself (and Brian) insane surfing the medical websites, reading about all the things that could go wrong. It’s probably a good thing Brian and I were in different cities; his threats to smother me in my sleep are far less effective over the phone. He’s been seriously fucking amazing through all of this, so I chalked his occasional dark mood over the last couple weeks up to stress and the standard Kinney stoicism that is his stock in trade.
Now I wondered if maybe I had just been too wrapped up in my own excitement to hear what he’d really been saying. But he’d been genuinely happy when I called him with the news. I know he was.
The flickering candle flared brightly for an instant and then winked out. And wasn’t that just the fucking saddest little metaphor ever? I laughed out loud and tried not to notice the tremor in my hand while I was lighting the second one.
I needed a drink, with or without him, but before I could open the bottle of wine, I felt my cell vibrating in my pocket. It was a text from Brian. A text? He wouldn’t.
Won’t be able to make it this weekend. Talk later. B.
Oh, no fucking way. I dialed his number, not at all surprised to get his voice mail.
“Call me, Brian. Now.”
I waited a couple minutes and then texted the same message.
Ten minutes after that, I texted him again. Answer your phone, Brian, or so help me God I will fucking hunt you down.
I gave him two more minutes and then dialed his number again. His voicemail takes five rings to kick in. He answered on the fourth.
“Hey.” I heard the familiar whistle of his deviated septum only tonight it was louder, more pronounced, the sound it made when he was high on something. Something that went up his nose. Jesus. “What’s going on, Brian? Where are you?”
“What is, ‘Things that are none of your business?'” He spoke carefully, enunciating every syllable, using that forced, sing-song voice that meant he was really, seriously fucked up. “Did I win? What’s my prize, Alex?”
“Quit screwing around. Where are you?”
“I’m in heaven, Sunshine. Homo fucking heaven.” He grunted that last word like it was a curse. I could hear music in the background but it didn’t sound like he was in a club. Outside one maybe, like in an alleyway. Or in a back room. I thought I heard another voice, too. Male, laughing, muffled, like maybe it had a mouthful of something. Motherfucker.
“What are you doing, Brian?” I hated the way I sounded, but I couldn’t help it. “We’re supposed to be celebrating. You’re supposed to be here.”
“Sorry… Sorry’s bullshit. Isn’t that right?”
“No apologies, no regrets. Words to live by, aren’t they? I am the fucking philosopher king. Or maybe I fucked the philosopher king. It's so hard to keep track of these things.” The cold, mirthless laugh that followed sent a shiver down my spine.
“Please don’t do this.”
It got really quiet then. Too quiet. I began to wonder if maybe he had nodded out. He hadn’t, but the cadence was gone from his voice. He just sounded wasted.
“This was a mistake, Justin. A huge fucking mistake."
“Brian, I...” I searched for something to say to that, but it didn’t matter.
He was already gone.
* * *
So now here I am, alone and wondering how I could have been so stupid as to not see it coming. The more I think about it, the angrier I get and I don’t know what to do with it. I want to scream or cry or throw something, but I’m afraid if I start I’ll never stop. He’s scared, I know he is. Fuck, so am I - having a kid, making this commitment, is a scary fucking proposition. But we’re supposed to be in this together. He fucking promised me and now that it’s real, the first thing he does is go off on the mother of all benders? Part of me wants to go and find him, talk him down; a bigger part wants to kick the shit out of him. I grab the pack of cigarettes and climb out onto the fire escape for some air.
The days are still pretty warm for September, but the night air is damp, touched with the chill of an early fall that seeps into my bones as I sit on the cold, metal steps. I don’t smoke much anymore unless Brian is around and the first hit of nicotine makes me a little light-headed. By the time I realize I’m sitting here shivering, I’ve gone through half the pack and most of my thumbnail. It’s not quite dawn, but the sky is already more blue than black.
Back inside, I’m too wired to sleep, but I’m fucking freezing so I crawl under the duvet. My phone is still wedged halfway under the pillow and I can see the message light blinking. Shit. One missed call. From Brian. I almost delete it without listening but fuck me, I can’t. It’s only three words and I have to replay it twice to hear them.
“Open the door.” The message is nearly an hour old. There is not enough what the fuck in the world.
Logic says he has to be long gone by now, but it’s far too late for rational thinking, so I wrap myself in the duvet and go to the door. Something’s blocking the peephole and I can’t see a fucking thing; I slide the chain off and unlock it anyway. At this point a crazed serial killer bursting through the door would be the least surreal part of my evening. I feel the brunt of his weight against it when I turn the handle and even though I’m tempted to let him fall on his ass, I ease it open. The fucker has the gall to smile as he stumbles by me into the apartment, as wasted as I’ve ever seen him. And that’s saying something.
His keys are still dangling from the handle - I guess that security chain is good for something after all - though why he didn’t just pound on the door until I answered it is beyond me. It’s not like that’s never happened before. I snatch the keys out of the lock and toss them aside, close the door quietly and take several deep breaths before I turn around. He’s just standing there, swaying, as though he’s not quite sure how he got there.
I move slowly towards him, ready to explode, chew him a new asshole, until I get my first real look at his face. He’s still wearing that demented smile but now I realize that his cheeks are wet. His eyes glisten in the half light. He’s fucking crying. I have never seen Brian cry, not ever. But there’s nothing else there – no anger, no joy, no fight. Behind the sheen of tears, his eyes are dull and vacant.
“What’s wrong?” I ask when I can find my voice again.
He shakes his head so slightly I would miss it if not for the utter stillness of everything else around us. I take a step closer and he takes one back, and that awful smile finally falters. Suddenly I’m not angry any more. I’m flat out fucking scared.
“Whatever it is, it’ll be okay,” I say, but that's not really true. If he’s changed his mind about the baby, if he’s changed his mind about us... it won’t be okay. I won’t be okay. But I have to know. “Talk to me, Brian. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong, sonny boy,” he says, his voice full of smoke and bourbon. The duvet falls to the floor as I step toward him again, only this time he doesn’t move away and I grasp him by the upper arms and squeeze until he finally looks down at me. Those beautiful hazel eyes have made me feel a lot of things over the years, but never the cold fear that is turning my knees to jelly. I want him to stop right there, want to throw my hand over his mouth, because somehow I know whatever he says next is going to break me. My head shakes no, no. No. But he goes ahead and says it anyway. Because, after all, I asked him to.
“Everything’s fucking perfect. I am fabuloso, señor.”
Jesus. Fucking. Christ.
* * *