Brian’s Uncle Mike was 83 years old. He looked 70. He was completely bald, with a long nose like a hawk, that he peered out over with sharp black eyes. Liam trailed behind him, his significant frame somehow dwarfed by his father’s presence, although the man was a good two inches shorter, and at least 30 pounds shy. “Claire. Brian. I am so sorry to hear about your mother.”
“Thank you, Uncle Mike,” Claire responded, barely, the last of the sentence swallowed somewhere back in the throat. Brian studied her from the corner of his eye before cutting back to his uncle.
“Uncle Mike. You came a ways.” Mike lived in Boston.
“She was my sister-in-law. It’s the least I can do, pay my respects. Now you two are left to carry on. When are you going to reproduce, Brian?”
Great. Here we go. Every time he’d seen the man since he was 23 (thank god he could count the number on one hand). Babies! Give us babies! Sow your seed in the world, fulfill your duty to family! Mike had not had a great deal of respect for his younger brother, though he voiced a great deal of respect for the idea of family, or, at least, the need to add to it. Brian avoided looking behind Mike at Liam’s grin upon that familiar refrain from the man. Liam quickly suppressed his smile. It was a wake, for God’s sake. There was a corpse not twenty-five feet away at the far end of the room, across from where Brian and Claire stood, receiving those who came to pay their respects.
“I think you better be happy with Claire’s kids, Uncle Mike,” Brian hedged.
Uncle Mike frowned. “But those aren’t Kinneys. Those are, what’cha, anyway, not Kinneys.”
“Don’t you worry, Pop, I’ll give you some one day.”
“Yeah, I’m not holding my breath,” Uncle Mike retorted, glaring at Liam and then back at Brian. “I’m going to go pay my respects, we’ll talk later.”
Brian sighed as Uncle Mike marched away, down to the coffin. Liam moved closer. “So! When are you going to introduce my dad to Justin?”
“We just may skip that one,” Brian answered, glancing around the room. Only a few people were there, including Mrs. Leslie, a small bit of a woman dressed in black who had greeted him in great consolation, and now hovered at the margins about the mourners, looking sad.
Mike had gone to the coffin, and had dropped to kneel, to pray over Joan’s corpse.
“You think he’s praying for her to prepare his way? Please, St. Joan, make sure I’ve got a ticket?” Brian asked. What the fuck did people pray over corpses, anyway?
“I’m gonna pray it’s HIM next.”
Claire turned swiftly on the two men standing next to her. “You will not make this a sideshow about your personal issues! Not about your queerdom,” she glared at Brian, “not about your battle with your father!” She glared at Liam.
“Queerdom, Claire?” Brian raised an eyebrow.
“Just, can you please try to remember, this is a wake, have some respect. Keep your fights with your father out of this room, Liam. And try not to paw your… your, Justin, Brian.”
“Hey, he packs those fights and takes him when he travels, what am I supposed to do?” Liam asked. “I’m gonna go keep your Justin company, Brian.”
“Yeah,” Brian answered, not contradicting the term Claire had invoked. My Justin. He watched Liam make his way to where Justin sat, watching John play a video game, over on the chairs set up across the room. Glancing at his watch, he saw it was on 7:30. Half an hour, and he would be free to “circulate,” or as he liked to think of it, stop having to play nice. Thirty minutes. Anyone coming in later could find him if they wanted. He had no idea why the fuck he was doing this. What was the point?
Justin wasn’t bored, he was puzzled. He had moved over to the only other person in the room he even sort of knew, as Brian and Claire had positioned themselves at the start of his interminable wait, and sat down in the chair next to where John was sitting. This attested to his desperation for mental occupation, to a certain degree. John was playing with a GameBoy, and Justin felt a stab of envy. He was still fairly young himself, and sometimes, having to school himself to act more mature than he actually was… well, it kind of sucked sometimes. Worth every moment, since the prize was life with Brian. But still. He would love to get his hands on that game. Go sit in the bathroom and scream at the villains as he kicked their ass. He blamed Michael for this bad influence. Michael loved video games, and was starting to stock them at the store. Justin was a little addicted to Kingdom Hearts at the moment. Sure, Disney was the ultimate evil heterosexual breeder brainwashing bullshit. He was still addicted to that damn game. Anything was better than thinking about that dead body across the room, even checking out what John was doing. Open viewings gave him the willies. Catholics were fucking creepy; Brian seemed to have no problem shaking his ass in their arcane temples; what was the expression, familiarity breeds contempt? But it was all strange hocus-pocus to Justin, and he got shivers, not in a good way, over the weird attachment to some past tradition, as if the chanting and darkness and symbols linked directly back to when evil actually did walk the earth.
“What you playing?” Justin asked, taking the seat next to John.
John didn’t glance up; he stared at the tiny screen unblinkingly, his thumbs and fingers spasmodically pushing buttons. “Mortal Kombat, Tournament edition,” he answered. Something went wrong, he groaned. At this break in the action, he glanced up at Justin. “Oh. You.”
“Yeah. Me. I kick ass at this game on Xbox.”
“Huh, totally different on the GameBoy.”
“Bet I could kick your ass.”
“You ain’t getting near my ass. Just a second. Hang on.” John pushed several buttons. “Head to head. You go first. Only, we gotta keep it down or she’ll take it away. That’s why it’s on mute. Same buttons as Xbox, basically, just, the back buttons here,” he pointed, “and the control stick’s the arrow buttons, okay?”
Justin glanced across the room; no one was watching them. He took the game from John, said, “You’re on. But, when the room starts filling up, I gotta pretend I’m an adult again.”
John smirked. “Lucky you.”
Sarcastic shit, Justin thought, looking down at the screen.
Five minutes later, his ass was seriously kicked.
“Man, you suck at this,” John said, taking the game back. Justin watched the kid focus on the game.
“How are you doing, John?” he asked.
John didn’t look up. “Kicking your ass. Told ya. I’m already way ahead.”
“I always find those games kind of… hard to watch, sometimes. Then I remind myself, they’re just games.”
“What, you don’t know the difference between death on screen and something like the dead body across the room?”
Shit, he had the Kinney blood, all right. Sarcasm and hardness, like second nature. One suit of armor issued upon birth. Take it, kid, you’ll need this. “No,” Justin answered, “it just reminds me of getting hit in the head with a bat a couple years ago.” It was a risk, but he was easier with bringing the subject up this day.
And he began to suspect his instincts for how to get to this kid were right when John hit a button, put the game on pause, and actually looked up. “You got hit in the head with a bat?”
“Yup. I was in a coma for a long time. Messed me up real bad.”
“What, were you playing baseball? You play baseball?” John eyed him up and down, seriously questioning the possibility.
Justin shook his head. “No…” He wondered why he started this, again. The kid had seemed so distant. He hated that, being ignored. Maybe he really did need to start acting like an adult again, not letting John’s indifference get to him. John’s attitude bothered him, though, and even now, he couldn’t let it go. Ever since his insane accusations of Brian. So young, and so hardened. It was just wrong. “There was this guy who was pretty pissed off that I’m gay. So he tried to kill me.”
“No shit. Well, maybe you can’t blame him.” John glanced back at the game.
Justin felt his heart pause, then race. Oh, hell, what did he expect from the little shit. Talk about games, that was safe. Anything else… not so much.
But John looked back at him. “Did you do something to him? Like feel him up?”
How the fuck did he get into this conversation again? “Uh. We made out.” Like he was going to tell the kid more than that. “But he enjoyed it.”
“Maybe he remembers it different. Maybe he didn’t like it at all.” John was staring at the screen, but he hadn’t turned the game back on. In fact, he sat very still.
“That’s no reason to take a bat to my head.”
John jerked his head up, glared at Justin, eyes blazing. “I know the difference between kicking someone’s ass on video, and that,” he said, nodding toward the coffin. His voice was low and tight. He sounded about ten years older than his actual age. His eyes caught onto the sight of his grandmother’s pallid face, just visible above the lip of the walnut casket, his great uncle beginning to kneel at the side of the box. Something shifted in John’s eyes, and he turned back into a young, very young kid; he seemed to shrink down into himself. “No one deserves that,” he whispered. “Nobody…” He looked back at the game, but still his hands did not move.
“John…” Justin started, not sure what he was planning to say. What the fuck? Had he been that close to his grandmother?
Justin looked up, saved from having to figure this one out by the appearance of Liam. John bolted, not looking back. Justin watched the boy retreat, to disappear past his mother and Brian, ignored by both of them.
Liam dropped into the seat John had just vacated. “How soon before we can get a drink?”
Justin glanced at his watch and sighed. Too long.
The room was filling up, mostly with women Brian had never met, although they professed to know him. Claire introduced them; apparently they attended Joan’s church, or played bridge with her. Or cards. On introduction, they had invariably clucked with sorrow that they had not had the pleasure until now, of meeting the son Joan spoke so highly of. One sallow biddy’s response was fairly typical: “Joan was always going on about how successful you were. It was a shame your work didn’t allow you to spend more time together.”
“Yes,” Brian responded. “A shame.” He glanced over at the side of the room where Justin sat, Liam next to him. Then he looked at his watch. 7:50. Ten minutes, ten more minutes, and he would get off Claire’s idea of a reception line, consisting of him and her. And go sit next to his partner. And resist the urge to lay his head down in his lap, and feel Justin’s fingers weave into his hair, that soothing feeling, a feeling he’d never admit to needing, that Justin knew about anyway.
Damn. Five minutes now. Five minutes that dragged, as Claire asked him when he planned to show up the next day at their mother’s house, if they could talk about dealing with dispersal of the assets, maybe talk about hiring a lawyer (he knew that meant, maybe him hiring a lawyer), and could he please go through his stuff in the attic? It was fine if he wanted her to have all the contents of the house (and sure, that was fine, he knew the veneer of neutrality that overlay the fear tautening her tone, a fear that he would change his mind and decide he wanted the silver). To which he replied, after the funeral. After the funeral. After the funeral. And yes, Justin had convinced him to pick up the stuff he wanted. No, not the silver. And Michael was coming to help him. Of course, she remembered Michael.
Finally, when his watch informed him 8:00 had been reached, he turned to his sister and stated, “That’s it, Claire, I’m done with the meet and greet. If anyone needs me, I’ll be grieving in the corner.” His sister’s face set, but she just turned away, and looked toward her mother’s body.
Brian reached the two men sitting at the side of the room, and Justin stood. “Hey,” he said, touching Brian’s arm. “How are you doing?”
“What I want to know is when we can get out of here and get a drink.” Liam kicked Brian’s shoe with his, an old habit from childhood. Lord knew, no one in their family actually touched each other.
Brian looked down at Liam. “You read my mind. One hour, fifteen minutes, and someone remind me why we didn’t set up a bar for this thing?”
“Ah, yes. Claire. My mother would have been terribly displeased. No alcohol.”
Liam chuckled slightly, but this pleasant sound ceased immediately upon the advent of another.
“Brian!” Uncle Mike came up behind him, and planted himself at the side of Brian Justin did not occupy. “I wanted to tell you, your obituary of your mother. Three grandchildren, should be corrected.”
“It’s correct,” Brian answered. “Uncle Mike, this is Justin.”
“Nice to meet you,” Justin said, shaking the man’s hand. Uncle Mike had the perfect handshake; firm, warm, dry, one pump, released.
Uncle Mike grunted, ignoring his nephew’s lover, intent on the issue at hand. “What do you mean, correct? Did I miss something?”
“I have a son.”
Pause. Liam watched from the sidelines, gleefully waiting for the old bastard to get thrown.
“And I don’t know about this because…”
“He’s not a Kinney.”
“Course he’s a Kinney! He’s your blood, that’s a Kinney! Who’s the mother?”
“A friend of mine. She’s gay. I was the donor. He has the blood, not the name.” He could have been more explicit. What was it about staring in the face of an older generation? It was as though his terms became subject to another, better established set of terms, and he could no longer claim the language for himself, but had to stay inside the definitions of what was considered acceptable to this other, older person.
“Huh. Why advertise it then, if there’s no connection?”
“Mourning is for the living, Uncle Mike, not the dead. I have a relationship with my son. My mother didn’t approve of my life. But that doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of it.” As he spoke to his uncle, his hand crept up Justin’s back, onto the warm skin of his neck, his fingers weaving into the soft hair at Justin’s nape, subconsciously recreating the very caress he craved.
Uncle Mike stared, understanding. He was many things; he was not a fool. There was a long pause, as Mike finally took Justin’s presence in. Then, he said, slowly, “You’re right. She wouldn’t approve. Neither can I. You would never have survived the navy. We had a way of taking care of guys like you.”
Justin drew in his breath as he felt Brian’s hand still, but it was Liam who spoke up. “Maybe, Pops, if you’d had actually left the navy all those years ago instead of taking it with you, you wouldn’t have to find out about the members of your family this way. Maybe there’d be room for us.”
“You too? Don’t tell me, you’re queer too?” Uncle Mike rounded on his son, relieved that he could turn from a confrontation he hadn’t expected, to one he was familiar with. “Why am I not surprised?”
“What would you know about it? You don’t know shit about me, you don’t even want to,” Liam answered.
“Watch your mouth,” Uncle Mike answered. “I suggest you say your goodbyes to your aunt, it’s the least you can do.” He then turned back to Brian and Justin. “I’ll be at the funeral tomorrow. But I’ll be there for her. And Claire. Not for you.” He turned, and left
Liam watched him go, as Justin looked up at Brian’s impassive face. “How long for drinks?” Liam asked, again, plaintively.
Justin laughed, a choked sound, and buried his head into Brian’s shoulder, drawing stares from around the room as Brian’s arm came around his back, drawing his lover closer. Justin looked up at the older man. “I think he was right about one thing.”
“Really?” Brian chuckled. “Only you would find something of value in a ton of shit.”
“Hey, look what I found in you, a buried diamond,” Justin returned.
Brian rolled his eyes.
“Now I know you’re an artist,” Liam groaned.
But Justin would not be distracted. “Seriously. You should say goodbye to your mother.”
“It’s the last time you’ll see her in any way. At least let yourself see her in red.”
“It’s quite the scandal,” Liam added.
“Yeah…” Brian actually wished he hadn’t gone along with Claire’s little plot. Joan really did look bad in red. And it was petty. He did not do petty. Well, Justin would say he hadn’t been himself that day, otherwise he would have resisted the impulse toward the red dress when Claire had manipulated him into the choice. He looked down at the beautiful man at his side. Yeah, before Justin, he would have just castigated himself for having been duped. Now he had Justin, and Justin didn’t even need to speak for Brian to hear his faith in him, an understanding that allowed Brian to be human, to make mistakes. Well, if he made this mistake, he might as well go look at it. Fine, so be it. “Fine, I’ll be back.” He kissed Justin briefly, and walked toward the coffin.
Justin sat back down.
“I think the red dress just stopped being the scandal,” Liam said, nodding Justin’s attention to the little ladies across the room who were staring at him, then turning shocked faces to Brian’s back as he walked toward the corpse of his mother.
Brian looked down at Joan’s face, its stillness, its ungodly whiteness. Shit. She really should be in blue. He knelt down on the pillow placed for just that purpose, rested his arms on the side of the coffin.
“Hey,” he said softly. “Hey, Mom.” He stopped, feeling stupid. Was he supposed to say something now that he hadn’t, that he couldn’t have said when she was alive? Was he supposed to profess a love, a sorrow he just didn’t feel? What the hell. He’d say what he did feel, then. “You really failed me. You failed yourself. I think you knew, though. Didn’t you? You kept turning into religion instead of outward to the people who you claimed to love. I don’t think you knew what love is. That really fucked me up, did you know? did you care? You know, though, somehow, in spite of all that, I seem to be doing okay. How’d that happen? I’ve been lucky enough to find people who actually manage to keep me from hurting myself too badly. Or, they found me. Fuck if I know. I just know I’m really lucky. I’m also really glad you’re dead Mom. You and Dad. I’m hoping I can let all this shit go, now that I don’t have you around to remind me of how big a failure I am, a failure of the expectations from someone who didn’t love me. Now all I have are the expectations of people who do love me, and I still fuck up, but they love me anyway. I’m a human being to them. They think I can fuck up. That I don’t need to be punished. They think I’m human. Was that it, Mom? Did you not know what it meant to be human? You know something, I’m learning that. Just now, I’m learning that. I’ve been unbelievably lucky. I sure as hell never learned what that means from you. But you never let me. But maybe you never knew. That’s pretty fucking sad. And I’m glad you’re dead. We’re both out of your misery.” Well. Once the mouth opened, the confession poured out. That went well, he thought. He stood, and turned around, noting that the room was less populated. He glanced at his watch. 8:15. Well, maybe this would be over sooner rather than later.
He walked back to Justin. “Did we clear out the room?”
Justin shrugged. “Do you care?”
“Where’d Liam go?”
“He went to talk to the funeral director’s wife.”
“That little crow flitting around?”
Liam returned. “Boys, I have found the wellspring of life, and it is in Mr. Leslie’s office.” He held forth a pint of tequila. “Anyone care to join me in the men’s room?”
Justin burst out laughing, as Brian shook his head. Liam looked confused at their amusement. “Liam,” Justin said, “If Uncle Mike were listening to you, I have a feeling he would know exactly why that was so funny.”
“Makes you wonder about Uncle Mike, doesn’t it Sunshine?” They all turned to make their way toward the men’s room for a break and a shot. Or two. “Are you adopting my family now? Uncle Mike?”
“Mother Taylor?” Justin responded, receiving a sour look in return. He smiled, and Brian took his hand and pulled him along. At least Brian wasn’t asking for a blow job on the coffin. He grimaced, feeling ashamed at the thought, knowing he should have more faith in Brian’s judgment and character; by now, he should know that Brian toed the line, he never really went over it. And that Freudian nightmare was definitely over the line, and that was coming up nowhere but Justin’s own imagination. Feeling guilty, he squeezed Brian’s hand, receiving in return a grip that tightened its hold on him.
“You know, I’m not quite sure how I ended up here,” Liam commented, shouting at Emmett over the driving beat at Babylon.
“It’s called tequila! Let me get you another margarita,” Emmett answered. He turned to the bar. “You look very nice, by the way.”
“That’s SOMEBODY’S fault!” Liam leaned across Emmett’s space, and yelled at Brian. “If you had let me go back to the hotel, I could look like you.”
“You could only dream of looking like me,” Brian answered, grabbing at Justin’s elbow to stop its jab into his side. “You insisted we get to the drinks, ‘fuck the hotel!’ Let’s get drunk!’ I seem to recall someone insisting.”
“Well, if I can’t have a body like that,” Liam gestured toward a man walking past, wrinkling his brow at the insanely defined pecs revealed by the see-through shirt, and the well-toned buttocks framed by cutaway leather pants. “I might as well look elegant, while you look like you came in from the loading dock.”
“Yeah, load me up,” Justin breathed, running his hand down Brian’s white tank, under the hem, palm flat against the skin on his abdomen. Justin had insisted they at least stop by the loft before moving on to Woody’s, by whining about smoke getting into his cashmere. No one had pointed out he could just leave the sweater in the car. Really, he’d wanted Brian in comfortable clothes, relaxed, putting that wake behind him, forgetting the day they faced tomorrow. Brian needed some down time. At Woody’s they’d met Emmett, gotten a little shloshed, and somewhere around midnight, Liam was dragged along (well, insisting on being dragged along) to Babylon.
“I got the delivery for you,” Brian returned, nipping at Justin’s ear. “Later. Dance, now?”
Justin nodded, and they headed to the floor. The crowd parted before them, and they took up in the center of the space, rubbing up against each other, Justin sliding his groin up against Brian’s thigh, Brian’s hands moving down Justin’s backside, as they lost themselves to everything else.
Liam turned to face the bar, and Emmett turned around, joining him. “Too much information, honey?”
“Yeah, you could say that. I mean, Brian. Just getting used to the idea.”
Emmett eyed him over his drink. “You seem to be immersing yourself in it fairly well. But you’d better stay out of the back room, if it’s getting a bit much.”
“Back room? What’s that?”
“Room for fucking. See where those guys are going?” Emmett nodded toward the blue-lit corridor that lay toward the back of the club, beyond the bar.
But Liam’s eye was caught by something else on its way to what Emmett indicated. “Hey, Emmett, tell me something, that’s not a guy, is it?” He nodded down the bar, to a female type who was watching Liam from the other end.
Emmett stared, his eyes narrowing, then eyebrows shooting up. “Oh my god! A real live girl! And it’s not even dyke night!”
“Hm. Okay, I’m going to go do some investigating.”
Emmett stared at Liam’s back as he walked away. “Great,” he sighed to no one in particular. “That figures.”
Brian finally dragged Justin off the dance floor for another drink. He already felt the tension easing from his shoulders, under the skillful touch of his lithe partner’s hands and body. Time to consider other activities.
“Hey,” he turned to Emmett after ordering two beers. “Where’d Liam go?”
“Your cousin found the only woman in the place.”
“A woman? Here?” Justin asked, taking the beer from Brian.
“Heterosexual woman, no less. I think. He was on the dance floor for a while… your cousin can’t dance either.” Emmett eyed Brian, who rolled his eyes.
“Heterosexuals,” Brian answered. “Put two in a room, they’ll find each other and fuck. No discrimination.” He took a swig of beer.
“You think they’re fucking?” Emmett returned. “How is that possible? He’s here two seconds, finds a real woman in a gay men’s club…”
Brian smirked. “He’s related to me, you expect anything less?”
“Kinney!” The holler came from down the bar, as Nick Simons pushed his way through the crowd. Brian eyed him; he’d gotten a blow job from the guy when he’d first shown up on the scene, would have liked to do more, but Simons made clear, he was a top, and only wanted a piece of the legend before he established his own buzz. Twenty-five years old, and already making a reputation for himself. “I’m given to understand that PERSON came in with you?”
“What the fuck are you talking about, Simons?”
“Hey, Justin.” A twink named Kirk, appearing in Simons’s wake, greeted Justin.
“Hey,” Justin returned, and turned back to the scene playing out in front of him. Brian’s back had straightened; Justin loved it when he got all butch.
“A guy, about your size, about 25 pounds on you, dressed in a navy suit with a cranberry tie, fucking a woman, FUCKING A WOMAN!!! in the backroom! Did THAT come in here with you?!”
Justin turned to Kirk, who shrugged and nodded.
“Of course, he didn’t cum with me, Simons, he’s apparently cumming with that woman. But yes, actually. He’s my cousin.”
Kirk turned to the men who had followed behind Simons, and telegraphed this news back. “He’s Kinney’s cousin… Of COURSE he’s related to Kinney…” Murmurs echoed back, and Justin smothered a laugh. Hardly the time to show his amusement. Nick and Brian were all but pawing the ground between them. Next thing you know, Justin thought, they’ll lower heads and rush at each other. Kirk tried to interrupt, plucking at Simons’s elbow. “Hey, Nick, ya know, I know a good corner of the alley in back…” Nick shook him off.
At last, Brian just shrugged, dismissing the other man. “Look, Simons, you only need to do what I do when I see something fairly distasteful, such as when I see you going at it. I just look away. Even heterosexuals need to get their rocks off. What, is she your sister?”
“Nick…” Kirk pleaded. Nick looked down at him, and the twink trailed a hand down Nick’s half-zipped jeans. Nick’s face softened slightly, and he said, “Just a sec.” He then turned back to Brian. “Your cousin’s from out of town?”
“Let him fuck up Chelsea, send him out of my territory, back home where he belongs.”
“I think we know whose territory this is…” Brian returned, nodding toward the entrance to the back room, where the few men who had followed Nick out were going back to start playing again. “Didn’t you get the verdict? He’s a Kinney, he gets a free pass through my magical kingdom.”
“Nick…” Kirk begged, sounding literally in pain.
“Fine, if you just can’t wait,” Nick snapped, grabbing Kirk’s hand and pulling him in the other direction, across the dance floor toward the back exit. Kirk twisted his head around to catch Justin’s eye, and winked, before scampering to keep up with the other man’s long-legged stride.
Emmett leaned toward Justin. “What, you running a workshop, tips on how to snag a big bad top?”
Justin glanced over at Brian, who was leaning against the bar and scanning the room. “Kirk’s on his own with the big bad top, Emmett. My man’s sweet.”
Brian turned and smiled, a rare, real smile, before leaning in and kissing his lover. Emmett sighed.
And also, dedicating this chapter to Jude, who asked me way back when whatever would happen to Nick, who appeared briefly in “Ethan’s Back.” He seems to have been very busy (and to have developed quite the ambition!) in the time between my first fic and this one