t h e   t r i u m p h a n t   a r t i s t e

Two heads warm against his thigh, and this is the first time Brian’s felt calm in weeks. Of course, this is the first time Brian’s really felt anything in weeks, because everything before this was beyond his comprehension, pain dulled by his refusal to feel it.

He lets one hand sift gently through Justin’s clean, cool hair, noting that it’s longer and coarser. He doubts Justin’s spending much of his money on half-decent shampoo. If he knows Justin - and despite everything, he does - the kid has been washing his hair with soap. He watches as Justin slides the joint between his lips, inhales. He watches the smoke trailing a familiar path on the release of Justin’s breath, and exhales with him.

Mikey is talking, and Brian is glad that his friend didn’t object when Brian suggested - demanded - that Justin should stay. He’s glad that Michael seems to have some clue as to what was going on, whereas before ((you should have left him lying there)) he seemed determined to be a dick about it.

It’s not Brian’s job to protect Justin anymore, but he will anyway.

Justin’s head shifts against Brian’s stomach. He’s listening to whatever story Michael is telling about fucking a bear when he was 24, giggling stupidly and running his fingers over Brian’s palm. Brian is fighting hard not to grab Justin’s hand possessively and not let go.

In time, Justin will do it for him.

Brian takes the joint from Mikey’s fingers. He needs to get high, really fucking high, because it’s hard to be this close to his lover and not fuck him. And he has no doubt that Justin is still his, his in every way that counts. In Brian’s mind, Ethan is little more than a trick who stayed too long.

He tries not to think about how Justin was a trick who stayed too long, and then turned into so much more.

“I nearly fucked a bear once,” Justin says suddenly, his hand sliding up Brian’s wrist and lingering there, stroking out portraits in the flesh. “Or he nearly fucked me. I was way too fucking drunk, so I just kept falling over, and I guess he lost interest.”

“A bear?” Brian tries not to sound incredulous. “Jesus, Sunshine, what happened to your good taste?”

“I was seventeen and horny?”

“There’s this thing called jerking off, you want me to demonstrate?”

Justin’s giggling around the smoke in his lungs, spluttering and coughing. Michael sits up and turns to face Justin. He’s shovelling food into his mouth, and talks around a tongueful of noodles. “According to my Mom, little Justin’s got plenty of experience with that already.”

Justin waves his right hand in the air as he passes the spliff to Mikey. “Not quite as much as you, Michael. I‘m at a disadvantage, remember?”

Brian doesn’t want to remember. Thinks of the taste of weed and the lights at Woody’s and the line of Justin’s dick, but that bat keeps flashing through his head.

Without meaning to, Brian’s fingers curl around Justin’s left hand and hold on tight. Justin’s eyes roll upwards and meet Brian’s, and they stare at one another. Justin smiles slightly, and the sound of Michael’s voice becomes white noise.

Brian needs to get high. Brian needs to get really fucking high.

--

Ethan waits for Justin. He waits for Justin for twenty minutes, thirty minutes, and then when he realises he’s been well and truly stood up, he walks to the nearest pay phone.

Justin gets caught up in his artwork, and Ethan’s not quite sure how that happens. His music has momentum; he builds to a crescendo, and point of climax, and then there’s the after, the freefalling, and he’s never known how to stop when that happens.

Justin’s work isn’t alive like that, though, so Ethan can’t understand why he can’t just pull himself away.

He empties a pocketful of quarters into his hand and feeds them into the payphone. Dials the number. Hears the buzzing ring, and wonders if Justin will even pick up the phone.

He does, and the sound of laughter rings in the background.

“H’lo?”

He sounds as if he’s trying to fight off a fit of giggles, and Ethan’s not sure he’s ever heard Justin giggle before.

“Jus, it’s me. Where are you?”

“Ethan! I’m - Hey!” There are muffled rustling sounds, and the clattering of the phone hitting something hard. “Quit it! That - that tickles, quit it. God, you’re such a spaz.”

“Are you with Daphne?” Ethan asks uneasily. He’s noticed that Daphne doesn’t really like him, and it doesn’t really bother him, except that Justin sounds warm and affectionate and Ethan doesn’t want to share that.

“Daphne?” Justin says, “She’s in California.”

“Where are you, then?”

“I’m -” Justin starts saying, and then there are more muffled voices in the background, deep laughter, high pitched giggling, and one of the voices sounds familiar.

“Are you with Brian?”

Ethan can’t fucking believe it, because just yesterday Justin was telling him that Brian didn’t want him back, that Justin wouldn’t go if he did.

“And Michael. It’s no big deal,”

Ethan hears Brian’s voice again, and this time it’s fluid and mocking. “Aw, does your little friend not want you to play with us?”

The other voice, “Give it here, Justin. Don’t hog the goods.”

Ethan finally finds his tongue. “What’s going on, Justin?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”
“Nothing.”

“Are you sure? You sound kind of - ”

“I’m just hanging out with my friends.”

Ethan can’t hold back his grunt of surprise, because there is no way in hell that Brian Kinney is anybody’s friend.

“They’re my friends, Ethan. I don’t have that many.” Justin sounds petulant, as if Ethan is trying to take away his favourite toy. Ethan has the feeling he’s already taken away Justin’s favourite toy. Sometimes he gets the feeling that Justin hates him for dragging him away from Brian.

“Maybe I should come to get you?” (I’m not worried. I’m not.)

“No!” Justin sounds so vehement that it just spurs Ethan on.

“Why not? I‘m coming to get you.”

“You are NOT coming to get me. I‘m not a child.”

“He should come get you,” Brian throws in, “Give us a chance to get to know little Eden.”

“It’s not necessary, E. I can take care of myself.”

Ethan knows, and that’s what he’s worried about. He scrabbles to find a pen in his pocket, and poises it against the back of his hand. “I’m coming to get you. What’s the address?”

--

Ethan is surprised by Brian’s building. He’s lived in some shitholes in his time, and this definitely qualifies, from the faded, flaky paint in the hall to the half-constructed elevator. His confidence grows step by step until he’s standing in front of the big steel door, knocking and waiting with baited breath for a response.

He wants Justin to answer the door, looking sweet and chaste and untouched by Brian’s hands. Instead, the door slides open and there’s that guy Michael, arms piled with food and a bag of chips hanging from his mouth. Ethan doesn’t want to ask how he got the door open.

“Mmmf, Mm.”

The guy turns and walks away and Ethan follows, because he can’t see Justin and he doesn’t want to be dismissed like that.

He doesn’t want to be impressed by the place, but he is. The sound of Justin’s laughter bounces off the walls and ceiling, the sprawling hardwood floors, the white leather couch. Ethan is struck by how different Justin’s life must have been in this place, this fucking palace in the middle of an urban slum. There’d be no scrounging for food or rubbish pile furniture, no sleeping through the fevered moans of the straight couple next door, no wanting for anything, no wondering if you’d make next month’s rent.

Ethan’s always thought that the way he lives his life is romantic. One day, people will buy his biography and read, enthralled, about how he rose from tragic poverty to conquer the great symphonies of Paris, Rome, Vienna. He’ll emerge the triumphant artist, violin in one arm and Justin on the other, descending to a chorus of applause.

He thinks the way he lives is romantic, but the way Brian lives is glamorous, like a scene out of a film noir movie. He thinks about Justin and his talk of design, the way Justin sometimes gazes mournfully at their bed before he climbs inside, and Ethan feels a pang of panic because in no way can he offer this.

“Ewan,” Brian’s voice calls jovially from beyond the Great White Couch, and Ethan feels a burst of hatred deeper than anything he’s ever known, because he looks up and there Justin is, practically in Brian’s lap, leaning and giggling and swooning and Ethan just knows he’s high. “So good to see you again.” Brian’s lips twitch and stretch, smirking, pouring forth lilting, sarcastic words. “Any friend of Justin’s is a friend of ours.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Ethan sneered. “Justin, you ready to go?”

Brian’s hand is on Justin’s arm, around his shoulder, and Ethan sees long fingers stroke through the thin material of Justin’s shirt. He plays a concerto in his mind, because Brian Kinney is not going to get to him.

“I’m having fun,” Justin says.

"He's having fun," Brian repeats with a broad smile.

“You want an m&m?” Justin holds up a plate of m&ms, divided into colour factions. Brian plucks a red with a long fingers and slides it into his mouth, turning to grin at the blonde, displaying the ruby candy on his tongue. For a moment, Ethan is heart-poundingly sure that Justin’s tongue is going to snake out and meet the older man’s, but the two just grin at each other. Justin tidies his collection, grumbling. “You messed up the order. It was perfect.”

“My heart bleeds.”

“You destroyed my utopian society!” Justin cries. “I was going to be the next Hitler.”

“I fucked a guy that looked like Hitler once,” Brian says, and Ethan watches as he takes a drag of a short white joint, inhales, exhales, smoke sliding slow through perfect lips. Ethan hates him. “I was tripping. He kept asking me to call him Steve. It was weird.”

“Yeah, someone expecting you to remember their name? I hate that.” Michael is grinning. Ethan feels like he can’t understand this world at all, like he’s not standing in the room. Justin leans against Brian and Brian touches Michael’s knee with his foot and Michael just doesn’t stop eating.

“Your husband is quiet,” Brian says to Justin, his voice muffled by blonde hair. “Is he shy?”

“You fucker,” Ethan says, stepping up to the white couch, staring down at his lover. “Justin, let’s go.”

“I don’t want to.” Justin says, not looking up from the candy he is slowly collecting and rearranging in a pattern of flowers and stars.

“He doesn’t want to,” Brian echoes, smiling mockingly at Ethan. Ethan gets the feeling that Brian feels he’s won already.

“I want him to. Will you come for me?”

“Take off your coat,” Brian says. “Stay awhile. Pretty sure Justin will.”

Ethan wants to be sparkling and witty, eloquent. He barely manages surly. “Shut up.”

Justin takes a hit and offers the j to Ethan. “Want some?”

“No. Let’s go.”

“Hey, Justin. Throw me the Cheese Doodles.”

Ethan watches the blur of blue fly from Justin’s hands to Michael.

“How come you’ve got all this food?” Justin asks Brian, their faces close together. “You’re going to turn into a lardass.”

“Like Mikey?” Brian suggests, and Justin bursts into a fit of fresh giggles at Michael’s righteous squawk. Ethan’s only been high a few times, but he has vague memories of finding every little thing funny, from the colour red to the way he tied his shoelaces.

He sees the ashtray on the coffee table, full of crumbling butts and ashes. Justin’s warm laughter echoes in his ears.

“Hey, remember that guy with the ass dimples?” Justin’s saying, talking quickly, “And he like, wanted to fuck me. And you went totally psycho.”

Brian shifts. “I didn’t go psycho.”

“You were high! And you told him to fuck off and come back when he had something better to offer!”

“You should be thanking me.”

Justin shoves Brian, laughing. “Fucker! Why? Apart from the ass, he was hot.”

“Not good enough for you. I fucked him once, I know.” Brian’s laughing himself, grabbing hold of Justin’s wrists and holding them to the side. “You have high standards, princess.”

“I do not!”

“You totally do,” Michael says, waving a Cheese Doodle in the air. “Remember that guy you were dancing with a couple weeks ago, with that cool scar? You wouldn’t fuck him because he was a lousy dancer.”

“I fuck Brian, and he’s a lousy dancer.”

“But I’m irresistible.”

“You’re a cock blocker.”

More shoving, and Ethan is about to scream at them to get a room. He’s still standing behind the couch, knuckles white as the leather. “I want to GO, Justin.”

But Justin and Brian have tumbled to the floor, and Justin is laughing into Brian’s side, squealing and squirming and wriggling away from Brian’s tickling fingers. Ethan feels sick, and wants to pour freezing cold water over the pair of them, like a couple of horny dogs.

Fuming, he leaves.

--

Brian finds him a few days later, and Ethan wishes he were surprised. Justin had come back all quiet and sorry, looking at Ethan with large eyes that said he just wanted to go home, and that home was a million miles from here.

What Ethan saw that day, in that loft downtown, was Justin at home. Justin in socks and no shoes, Justin rolling around on the floor, Justin buried in his lover’s arms.

“Hi, Eric,” Brian says. He’s leaning against the lamp post, watching as Ethan packs up his violin. “How’s business?”

“Go away,” Ethan says. He turns his back, but Brian follows.

Brian just stands there, staring with one perfectly arched brow.

“Go. Away.”

“And here I thought we could be friends.”

“Why would you think something like that?”

“Because I’m a part of Justin’s life.”

“No. You’re not.”

“Yes. I am.” Brian leans in close, smile stretched sour over wolfish teeth. “But you won’t be for long. So make the fucking most of it.”

And then Brian’s moving away, as if the exchange was barely a pause in his day.

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