a   p r e s e n c e

The first time Justin finds a photo of himself in the loft, he stops and stares at it for a full five minutes, brain buzzing as he assures himself that yes, this really is happening. Brian is sleeping on the new couch, face mashed up against the leather, and Justin glances at him as if he would really consider asking him for answers.

It’s a framed photo. Black leather frame, black matte insert. Black and white photo of Justin just-woken-up, bleary-eyed and cotton-mouthed, rumpled blonde hair, but smiling. Skin pale against dark sheets. Justin barely remembers Brian taking it. He thinks it might have been the morning after this year’s King of Babylon contest, the morning after too much E and too many guys and having a threesome with Brian and the winner. Brian had made fun of him for being so fucking high, and Justin had seen extra colours til three in the afternoon.

He thinks it might have been then. He knows there are other photos, of him drawing or fucking or taking a shower, and he knows that Brian has them all neatly organized in secure files on his computer. He knows that if he clicks on the file ‘Disneyland’ and types in the password (‘brando’, that gigantic nerd) he’ll come up with a page full of photos of Justin on his knees, Justin smiling, Justin’s cock, Brian’s mouth. Justin working on Rage, naked and focused in the middle of the night. Justin chopping onions and pointing a knife in Brian’s direction. Justin spread out sleeping sock-footed on the floor. Justin giving Brian the finger. Brian tries to pretend it’s a file full of porn, but Justin has seen the truth.

He knows about the photos. He’s just never seen them on display before.

--

The first time Brian frames one of Justin’s pieces, Justin walks past it fifteen times before he notices. The sixteenth time, the landscape of Gayopolis stretches before him on the wall of Brian’s office, blue lights twinkling against the glass. A whole world created by Justin and Michael, working tirelessly into the night. It seems to fit here, in Kinnetik. Rage’s other kingdom.

”Brian?” Justin says. Brian glances up. Justin gestures at the frame hanging bright against a white wall. “Artists expect some kind of financial compensation for their work.”

Brian glares at him, shifting papers around his desk. “Don’t you owe me thousands of dollars?”

Justin stares at him blankly. Brian ignores him, but they go to Justin’s favourite restaurant for dinner, and Brian buys expensive champagne.

--

When Michael tacks a photo of Brian and Justin cuddling at Deb’s to his fridge, Justin lets out a surprised burst of laughter, because it’s fucking Michael, and it’s so out of the blue.

”Michael?” Justin says, gesturing to the photo. Brian’s grinning face, pushed drunkenly against Justin’s chest. Justin’s arm around his shoulder. So fucking happy that night, everyone getting along. Everyone well and glowing from the wine. In the periphery of the photo, Gus’ hand grabbed at Brian’s jeans.

”It’s a nice photo,” Michael says defensively, crossing his arms over his chest in that way he has. Justin remembers the first night they met. Arms crossed and defiant, determined that Justin get lost the fuck now.

They’ve come so far. Everything has come so far, and sometimes, when he notices, it freaks Justin out. He remembers when Michael hated him, and Brian may as well have, and that was only three years ago, but it feels like fucking forever. Forever since they were all stupid kids, because Justin knows he’s not the only one that has grown up.

He thinks of Michael’s excited midnight calls to his cell, Brian’s early morning wake up calls. The way Brian loves him, now. More openly than ever, every day crossing some boundary that had seemed concrete and intransient before. Every day taking some step towards what they’re supposed to be.

He looks at the photo, and he remembers the first dinner at Deb’s. Brian pretending to ignore him but stroking his thigh beneath the table. Michael glaring at him with barely concealed malice. Ted and Emmett mostly unaware of his existence, except when it suited them. Lindsay and Mel enthralled by his presence because he was 17 and sweet, and they had their own baby boy asleep in the den.

Justin remembers those days fondly, but they seem so far away. Three fucking years, and he barely remembers who those people were. Barely knows them, and if he walked into their houses the way he is today, they wouldn’t recognize him.

He’s actually pretty fucking proud of that. Pretty proud that he knows them now, when it turns out they’re probably the best, most human people he’s ever met.

He takes a couple sodas from the fridge and gives one to Michael. He thinks things have turned out pretty fucking well.

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