Brian closed the loft door on Liam and John, after telling them he’d call them the next day. Then he turned back, and looked across the room, where Justin had switched on the evening news, and settled back on the couch. He turned to Brian as he came around the couch, sat down next to him, and then kept moving down, his head burying itself into Justin’s lap. Justin wove his fingers through Brian’s hair. “How you doing there?” Justin asked, and gasped as he felt Brian mouth against his soft penis, which wasn’t remaining in its acquiescent state by any means, not with that hot breath steaming through the fabric. “Brian…”
“Ask me after,” Brian said.
After, Justin didn’t ask him anything, just enjoyed the pleasant hum coursing through his sated body. Brian had made love to him, slow and sweet; and sure, Justin knew he’d never call it that, would be fairly embarrassed or downright hostile if Justin put it in words, but that was exactly what it had been. Love-making.
“Aren’t going to ask me?”
“Do you want me to?”
“You’re going to anyway.”
Justin sighed, giving in, knowing now was not a time to fight this particular battle. “How you holding up there, honey?” He grinned widely at Brian with that last, enjoying the eye roll that answered him. He’d learned how to deflect getting drawn into Brian’s bullshit. It was as if the man couldn’t help himself.
Worked like a charm. One deflected Brian replied, “I suck.”
“This sucks. Better phrasing?”
“Phrasing yes, situation, no. All this does suck. What are you planning to do?” Finally, Justin turned serious.
Brian rolled on his side, propped up his head on his hand, toyed with a strand of hair, spiky with sweat, that curled around Justin’s ear. “I don’t know. I don’t think this should be in the hands of a 13-year old. But is it right to make all these decisions that are going to affect him, without giving him a say? But, shit. He shouldn’t have to face this at all.”
“Well, true, he shouldn’t have gone through what Father Steven put him through. But giving him some say over what happens now, may just give him back some idea of control over his life. Over his bodily existence. And besides, it’s not all in his hands. He’s got you. And me. And Liam.”
“Seriously, Brian. You’re handling this pretty well for the fact that the issues are pretty difficult. I’m proud of you.”
Brian made a face and turned away; Justin grinned, knowing his lover didn’t want him to see the blush that spread across his cheeks.
Melanie stared at the man sitting across from her, his usual insolent lounge nowhere to be seen. Instead, he sat on the edge of the plush chair stiffly, leaning forward, staring at her and waiting.
She’d been surprised when he had shown up at their door and replied to her explanation that Lindsay and Gus weren’t home, that he hadn’t wanted to see them. That was surprising enough. This was… well. He’d told her the situation with John, ending, “What can we do, legally? Without it ending up more of a trauma for John?”
He was holding himself stiffly, but this particular intensity was something she had only caught glimpses of; she had never been at the receiving end of an absolutely no-bullshit Brian. Even with that Kip lawsuit years back, Brian had played his games, sure, he knew it was serious, but he had never allowed her to see that it was being taken terribly seriously, even though she caught the same look she was now witnessing, out of the corner of her eye, when he hadn’t realized she’d been watching him. The look he wore in full view right now.
Maybe it was because this wasn’t about him. For himself, he could walk through fire, through hell, with that swagger that announced he wasn’t touched even as his bones turned to cinder. He’d be fucked if he ever let anyone know he could be touched, hurt. But if it were someone else…
That, that Brian couldn’t control. He couldn’t clamp down on someone else’s pain and give them the trick of imagined Teflon coating that was really a big lie. If no one knows, pain is one’s own secret. A masterful, beautiful, downright awe-inspiring lie, but in the end, just a cheap parlor trick. Melanie understood that particular trick. She never believed in the Kinney magic. It was all a cheap pose, as far as she had been concerned.
But other people’s hurts… those, Brian couldn’t stand, couldn’t take, couldn’t bounce back. No wonder he resisted caring, she thought, looking at his carefully composed features, the tension shooting through his body. Her own muscles ached in sympathy, just looking at him.
Well, this was surprising, coming to all these revelations about the asshole in such a short period. She was surprised he was putting himself out for his family, but there it was. She had been surprised he had put himself out for Justin. Hell, no one was more shocked than she when it became clear (she was probably the last to know, but then, this sure ruined her image of Brian, and what the fuck was she supposed to do with him when she couldn’t keep him in that neat little compartment she had constructed for him, and safely hate him from the distance?), when it became clear how much he loved his partner. Brian. Love. Who knew?
“Yeah, I’m thinking.” Probably not about legalities, but tough shit, motherfucker. She almost snickered at the idea of how Brian would react if he could hear that one, but suppressed it. Brian couldn’t control HER, he never could, and she delighted in being the one person on whom his charm really didn’t work. “Well, the church has zero tolerance these days. You’d think it would be for moral reasons, but it’s not, it’s the…” she trailed off. “Well, that’s it, of course.”
Brian waited. He was no fool, never had been. Was as successful as he was, in fact, because he knew when to keep his mouth shut. How to draw people to him.
Still, Melanie couldn’t help fucking with him, just a little. Yeah, she thought, not too nice of her, but she couldn’t help it. People thought she and Brian had a totally dysfunctional relationship, bullshit. It functioned just fine. But on wholly selfish terms, and never to the other’s primary benefit. She smiled again, this time allowing the grin out.
“That’s a nasty smile there, Mel, want to share?”
“Well, I was going to say the church is really addressing the problem to avoid lawsuits. And people criticize American lawyers for forcing this kind of reform. You know what would happen in Italy if there was a rash of molesting priests? Absolutely nothing. They’d probably worry their rosaries, and trust the punishment to god since there’s not the same recourse to the law. And nothing would change.”
One eyebrow lazily rose at that. “That’s nice, but I need advice in this case, not an overview of the wonders of America’s legal system, which is pretty fucked up, but let’s take a raincheck on that, shall we? What about John?”
Melanie nodded, feeling some sort of old fire ignite in her. Hopefully, this signaled the tail end of those baby blues, thank god. And she had Brian to thank for it. Not that she would ever tell HIM that. But she wouldn’t forget, either. “Lawsuit, that’s the answer. From the situation you describe, and if you really want this to end now for John so he can get on with his life, it would be best for this Steven character to plea to a lesser charge, endangering the welfare of a minor or something, assault if you can manage that, even sexual assault, though his lawyer would fight that one. You need to have John’s statement on record, but avoid trial altogether. Will the other priest cooperate?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“The problem is, with zero tolerance, the endangering charge might force the church’s hand, and the sexual assault certainly would. But you do want Claire to press some sort of charges. Probably the best way to do it would be to get Steven to resign his commission or whatever the fuck they call it, then plead to the charge from the status of a lay person.”
“Believe me, this Steven guy is as far from a lay as you can get.”
Melanie shot him her death look; he had the compunction to not return the look with that insolent tongue-in-cheek thing. “You know what I mean, cut the bullshit. If you get Steven to go along with this, agree to a lesser charge, you’ve got a statement, and hopefully he’s only thinking of how he can weasel out of more jail time, thinking you’re only protecting John now, and not thinking of how John has around seven years to file a civil case, for which all statements made can be used. Of course, his lawyer will fill him in on that one. But any criminal defense attorney will point out that a year or two is better than ten. And then, John will have time to decide if he wants to push a civil case, until he’s about twenty. However, of course, it’ll be more difficult to get to the church’s money, since a cover up will be impossible to prove, and Steven won’t be jailed while still a priest. But it’s not impossible to get to the church’s wallet, if John should choose to proceed that way. OR he can settle now, and the church will do its damnedest to keep it quiet, pay him off, and put a no-tell clause in any settlement.”
Brian flexed the fingers of his hands against each other, pressing the pads of his fingers together to form a steeple in front of his mouth as he considered all of this. “I don’t know if John’ll care about the money. Claire will…”
“Well, the best thing to do will be to convince Tom to hand back the inheritance. But to John, not to Claire. Unless Claire doesn’t mind looking like a for-shit mother?”
“Mine didn’t,” Brian answered compulsively, then pursed his lips.
“Neither did mine,” Melanie added, not knowing why she wanted to ease his embarrassment at that slip. Shit! That fucking Kinney charm… Nope, she had repellant, wouldn’t work on her. They looked at each other, assessing. “You want me to talk to my contact in the D.A.’s office?” Melanie asked, changing the subject quickly. “She’s very discreet.”
Brian thought a moment, then nodded. “Yeah. They have to let Steven out on Monday. So something needs to be decided by then.”
“I’ll email her at home.”
Liam called him as he was walking into the loft on return from speaking with Melanie; apparently John was bugging him to get over to the loft so he could kill more zombies or some such bullshit. He told Liam to let John know that Justin was out, but he could come over and kill all the zombies he wanted, wondering as he hung up why he hadn’t just let John take the damn thing with him. Hell, Justin had to be pried away from the tv set that morning. He was not going to compete with electronics for his lover’s attention.
He was helping himself to a beer and telling himself he really should be working when the loft door slid open and he could hear Jennifer’s voice following Justin into the loft. “But spending my sudden riches on my children is part of my privileges, honey…” They’d been out shopping apparently. Justin dumped a bunch of bags at the foot of the couch. Macy’s, Sak’s, some shoe store he’d never heard of, a bright fluorescent bag that he didn’t recognize. Well, shit, this did not bode well. More bag-man look for the boy. What was it with that generation, did they think their looks would last forever? Let’s see how unattractive we can make ourselves? Guess what, people? it goes. Make the best of it while you can.
“It’s bad enough Brian wants to dress me up all the time. Besides, I do have my own money. You and him, Mom, sneaking behind my back to buy shit for me.”
“I never sneak,” Brian said from the kitchen, knowing Jennifer was rolling her eyes even though her back was to him.
Both of the people across the room jumped. “Shit! I didn’t know you were home.”
“Hi, Brian, how are you?” Jennifer’s voice was all concern. She didn’t ask, but there was no doubt Justin had filled her in, at least on the funeral details. Brian tossed her a quick nod on his way to inspect the contents of the bags. “Fine,” he replied. “Shopping, again?”
Jennifer watched him cross the room, his eyes fixed on the bags, his long fingers reaching out to open them, pulling out a pair of sneakers Justin had insisted on buying and rolling his eyes. She was not fooled; the inspection was only an excuse to get into the same space as Justin. Those two were just… she watched, still slightly disturbed at recognizing her son as a man, not just that, a gay man, not just that, a sexually active gay man, not just that, a sexually realized gay man in a relationship with another who was his match. She wondered if she would ever really get used to it. Knowing that the power of her maternal relationship with her son could never compete… not even for attention. She wondered how it would be when Molly brought home a lover. Would it be different because she at least understood that? But it was more than just his homosexuality; it was as if she had melted out of the room when Brian turned to look at her son, and the formerly childlike face, a face she couldn’t help but see whenever she looked at this child of hers, turned up to his lover, an expression as far from childhood as you could get rising up into his eyes, his lips, in the slight flush under the skin. Nope, if that look crossed Molly’s face, Jennifer thought, it would be just as disturbing. I’m getting old, she thought. But who ever gets used to the idea of her child taking over the realm of adulthood? who ever gets used to the idea of mortality?
“Yeah, I know,” Justin was saying as Brian stared at the bright red sneakers in his hand, then back at Justin. “It’s your fault for throwing the old ones away. If you had just waited for them to fall apart, maybe I wouldn’t have needed to replace them with a brand new pair.”
“I told you he’d hate them,” Jennifer reminded Justin.
“My mom was quite delighted to remind me of how much you’d hate my choices, and then she wanted to pay for everything,” Justin snickered. “But like I told you,” he turned, speaking to Jennifer now, “I can pay for myself. I do have money of my own.”
“I’m your mother, honey, we never get past wanting to take care of you, you know that.”
She must have said the wrong thing, because Justin tensed up, and looked over at Brian, who reached out and pulled Justin back against his chest, kissing the top of his head, whispered something in his ear. The tense look evaporated from Justin’s face and he even looked vaguely annoyed, at Brian, not at her. But she still felt awful. Of course, not all mothers wanted to do whatever they could for their children. So impossible to fathom that fact, so easy to ignore what surely could not be the case. “So Brian,” Jennifer continued, needing to fix her faux pas, “Since this one seems to be abdicating his proper role of letting me pamper him, how ‘bout you?”
“Me?” The surprise was real; Jennifer almost chuckled, but stifled it. She actually liked Brian, unbelievable, but true. He was so easy… not in the way she had heard, but emotionally, once you learned the right buttons to push. For some reason, as Justin’s mother, ever since he’d actually fallen in love with her son, and she’d known pretty much the second he had actually tripped into the abyss, poor man, she had felt access to this singular power, knowing she had some sort of honored spot as the Lover’s Mother. Probably because his own mother had been such a shit. Jennifer was no fool; she took advantage. “Christmas is coming, what do you prefer? Prada? Gucci? Or even better, what do you say we take a weekend at a health spa? I’d ask Justin, but he’s so stubborn, he’d probably insist on paying his half. And then how would I satisfy my maternal urges? What do you say?” She was babbling, but she didn’t care; Brian’s eyes crinkled at the corners as amusement played over his face, and she felt very powerful, having erased his tension, if only for a moment.
Justin couldn’t see Brian, though, with his back turned against his lover’s chest, and his head tucked under his chin. “Jesus, mom, what is this, you replacing me?”
“Now, now, your mother knows a good deal when she sees one,” Brian teased. It felt good, to let Jennifer play this game, to actually be included in the little family unit. When the two had walked in, before they’d realized Brian was there, he’d listened to that easy communication and had felt so outside of it, so isolated, as if he’d missed something huge. He had missed something huge, and he felt a sharp pang and hated it, hated it, wouldn’t allow it, self-pity was for losers, reality was to be accepted, not avoided. He’d taken a swig of beer, forcing himself to calm as he’d watched them.
But Jennifer had somehow picked up on the sharp pang that had remained, somewhere in his mid-section. She couldn’t remove it, but as she spoke, its hard edges dulled.
“Maybe a more expensive deal, but I know Brian would appreciate an all-expense paid vacation to a resort where they wrap you in mud, make you work out like an indentured servant, feed you rabbit food that wouldn’t keep a sparrow alive, then deep muscle massage you til you drop asleep, all on someone else’s dime. He knows how to call that ‘taking advantage’ even as the giver receives the joy of giving only mothers… some mothers, experience.” She knew to qualify it this time, and was repaid with that small smile Brian could produce, almost a real one.
“See, Sunshine,” Brian said, his voice low so she had to strain to hear, “Your mother is selflessly trying to fill the void for your poor grieving lover. She knew all along I’d take everything I could from you. She just didn’t know it would end up being her, too.”
Jennifer snorted. “Oh, I knew. I just had to be sure I was being taken in by worthy hands.” And now I know I am, she thought, but she didn’t say that. Brian stared at her, thoughtfully, before a grin stretched at the corners of his mouth.
Justin pulled away from the hands that were rubbing against his shoulders, stood back, looking from his mother to Brian, both of whom were now grinning like idiots. He hated feeling that the joke was at his expense. And he had wanted them to get along? “I’m not even going to try to understand either of you freaks. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some tasteless rags to go try on again…” He grabbed a bag and marched up to the bathroom.
Jennifer picked up her purse and a Tiffany’s bag, which she had set down with the others she had carried in. “So. You okay, Brian?” She was serious this time.
“Yeah, fine… thanks for asking, Mother.”
He’d dropped the “Taylor,” Jennifer noted with a thrill shooting in her stomach despite the sarcastic emphasis on that last word. “I’m not kidding about the spa,” was all she said, moving toward the door.
“Fine, but put your son on the bill and get us a room with a two-for-one mud bath, and we’ve got a deal.” She grimaced; he saw that. He laughed slightly. “You’d think you’d have gotten over that by now, we do live together. And you did walk in on…”
“Please do not remind me,” Jennifer interrupted, quickly moving to block the mental image of coming home from a conference a day early, and finding her son, who was only supposed to be turning on the lights she had forgotten to leave on to discourage burglars, her son naked on all fours on the rug of her living room, covered with an equally naked, sweaty Brian, clothes tossed everywhere… nope, nope, not gonna remember that one. “Seriously. You need anything…” She let it hang.
Brian moved to shut the door behind her. “Yeah… I appreciate that.” He looked away from her smile, suddenly overwhelmed, and banged the door shut. Turning back, he made his way into the bedroom, admiring Justin’s ass in the pair of fitted black trousers he’d taken out of the Macy’s bag. “Not bad,” he said, sitting on the bed to watch.
“Yeah, figured these would be okay… Can’t exactly wear them in the studio, though.”
“John’s on his way over. Says he wants to quote, kick some zombie ass. Unquote.”
Justin sighed deeply. “What is it about you Kinney men, you all want to play with me…” He turned, pulled the t-shirt over his head and tossed it aside, bounding across Brian’s body, straddling his hips, pinning Brian’s arms over his head. “How long?” he asked, running his tongue up the side of Brian’s neck, drawing out the goosebumps.
“I don’t know.” Brian reached for the zipper on his pants. “Long enough.”
“I want to put that fucker away.”
John’s face was set.
Liam gestured with a hand. “He wakes up, this is the first thing he says.”
Justin looked over at Brian, who was frowning worriedly. “John,” Brian said, “Did you hear what I just told you? My friend Mel thinks we can set it up so you can sue…”
“No.” The boy’s face was set. “I want him to fry. Are we done here? Justin? Can we play another game?”
“Uh…” Justin glanced over at Brian, then back at John. “John, I think Brian’s worried that you’re not thinking clearly…”
“I’m thinking clearly for the first time in over a year,” John shot back at him. “You said you’d stand by my decision, didn’t you?” He had turned toward Brian again. The sudden defiance in his eye wavered, as he searched his uncle’s face.
Brian returned the look, cursing his family all over again. The kid had been terrified by that priest, and why? because John had known he would be thrown to the wolves, to his family’s sense of propriety, of keeping up appearances. Of duty and resentment. No one ever satisfied, everyone vaguely aware that they’d been sacrificed to bullshit, but either unwilling to acknowledge it, or too weak to do anything about it. And spent their lives justifying the decision to suffer, by spreading the misery around. Even to the most innocent, hardening all within reach into the good old family tradition. No one escapes. And if you got real troubles, well, shit, you think your family’s going to help you? More likely to ask what you did to deserve it. You feel bad? You don’t know what pain is, you don’t know what MY pain is, how I’ve suffered, and now you’re going to make my life worse by telling me your problems? Suck it up. Suffer. You’re on your own. It’s a hard world, better learn how hard as soon as you can. You think family’s ground for safety’s purchase? Think again.
Brian had made his nephew a promise, the promise he’d made himself. No More Bullshit. And it was about time the rest of the family – Claire, anyway – started understanding that Brian was just as bull-headed as the rest of them, but about the escape, not the trap. John was really asking him for help, for more than that damn priest, he was asking for something he didn’t know he even needed. A way out. He had no idea there was another way. Brian glanced over at Justin, his eyes pulled to his partner like a beacon. Justin’s eyes were filled with pain, pain and anger. Not the resignation Brian saw in his own eyes, every so often when he looked into the bathroom mirror early in the morning, before he’d fully woken up. Justin, his pole star. Who was now smiling at him slightly, sadly. But with a determination that Brian had never known until he had met him.
“That’s right, your decision. We’ll try to lock the fucker up.” Brian’s gaze, locked firmly on John’s.
“You know, though,” Justin added, his voice cautious, “we can press charges, and he may still get off. There are no guarantees. And you may have to go through a trial, and a possible shit storm of publicity. For your attacker to get off.” Justin’s voice was bitter.
John stared over at him, started to say something, then shrugged.
“What?” Justin asked.
John shook his head, looked away.
“John, seriously, what?”
John pressed his lips together, then looked back. “You went through all that, though, right? The bashing? By that Hobbes guy? I looked it up on Liam’s computer last night, after he’d passed out.”
“Oh…” Liam looked sheepish.
Justin shook his head at Liam, not his fault, then turned back to the boy. “Yeah, and it was that bad. I felt like a freak for a long time. Right in the eye of a storm of media.”
“Did you testify?”
“He pleaded guilty, so there was no real trial.”
John was silent for a moment. “Were you mad you didn’t?”
“John…” Liam started.
But Justin cut him off. He knew what John was asking. “I was too freaked out to testify. Back then, I was just glad it was over, that I didn’t need to say anything. So no, I wasn’t mad. Not then. But now… sometimes I wonder if I’d said something publicly, if that bastard would have been strung up.”
“Would you do it? Now, I mean? Looking back?”
“There’s no second guessing this, Jesus!” Brian swore. “Justin did what he had to do, it’s a completely different situation. Hobbes pleaded guilty. The judge was a homophobic prick. Child molestation is a whole different league as far as assholes like those judges are concerned, they don’t shrug at it the way we… the way Justin got shrugged off.”
John turned a curious eye to Brian. “Did you testify? That attorney called YOU a child molester.”
“John…” Justin began, seeing the look crossing Brian’s face.
“No.” Brian’s voice was much calmer than it had been a moment ago. “Do you see, John, this is what I’m talking about. You saw those reports? That’s what it’s going to be like. Only, it won’t be about me, it’ll be about you. How will you like having articles in the paper questioning whether you asked to be raped because you let a man you liked take you to a ball game?”
“Brian…” Liam spluttered.
But John was shaking his head. “Okay, okay. I get it. I didn’t mean, I mean…” He blushed. “I know you’re not a child molester.”
“I know you know.”
“So maybe Father Steven’ll plead guilty.”
Brian took a deep breath. “Hobbes was arrested in the act. This is different. And… you’re on record of having done this before. Made an accusation. A false one.”
“But…” John’s eyes widened. “But, I did that, just ’cause of Father Steven, I mean, I know you didn’t, but…”
Brian shook his head. “This is what I mean, John. I don’t want to scare you, and I don’t want you to think we don’t believe you. We know what happened. But this is what I’m saying. In a trial, the defense attorney will only want to win. And he won’t care about what the truth is. He’ll want everyone to think you’re a liar, and he’ll go for your blood.”
“So, because I’m just some stupid kid, he’ll say nothing happened. And because I accused you, they’ll believe him.”
“Father Tom has a confession,” Justin added, thanking god the subject of his bashing was past, but wishing they could get away from this one. For fuck’s sake, John was in tears.
“Yeah. Father Tom. Has a confession. That’s protected by law from being divulged,” Liam reminded them. “Can’t use confessions to priests.”
John’s face had been darting between them all, slowly crumpling from its defiant expression, into plain old pain. “So,” he finally said. “It’s gonna be complicated. And even if we get him on trial, people’ll probably know it’s me. And they’ll know I’m a liar. Because of the last time this happened. I’m sorry, Uncle Brian, I really shouldn’t have… I just…” He trailed off.
“I’d like to tell you better news,” Brian answered, gruffly. He thanked god his cell phone saved him from having to say anything more. What John had done to him wasn’t okay, not by a long shot, but this particular repercussion was pretty severe. “Kinney… Yeah, fine, we’re here.” He turned to the others after ending the call. “Your mom and Tom are on the way over.”
* * *
“Mom,” John mumbled his reply, not wanting to look at her.
Claire came around the sofa, to squat down in front of where her son sat. “Honey, I am so sorry, I really am…”
“You say that all the time!” John exploded. “Why can’t you just not have to say it in the first place!!”
Brian turned away, but not before Justin saw the look of pain that crossed his face. Justin moved closer to him, and squeezed his hand. “You okay?” he whispered.
“Fine, just… flashback,” Brian answered, turning toward Tom, but not dropping Justin’s hand. “How’s it hanging, padre? Or,” he added, glancing over to John to make sure he was still listening to his mother’s hissing pleas, “is that only a question for padre Steve?”
Tom did not respond to that. Smart man, Brian thought. Rude, but the alternative would be to punch the man. Sarcasm worked better. Justin squeezed his hand more firmly.
“We think we came up with a solution,” Tom said, his voice pitched low.
“Hey, John, the father wants to talk to you,” Brian called, rescuing John from responding to Claire’s sobs. God, that woman just did not stop.
John extracted himself, and walked over toward the kitchen counter. “Yeah?” he asked Tom.
“We…” Tom began, glancing over at Claire, who had moved to join them. “We think we have a solution.”
“I want the fucker to burn,” John said. He was angry again. Good, Brian thought.
“John!” Claire exclaimed.
“Oh, cut it out, for Christ’s sake, Claire, the kid has a right to call that asshole whatever he wants! you’re going to keep up these forms of propriety when all this bullshit is going on! Where the fuck are your priorities?” Brian made himself shut up. This was about John… but it wasn’t. He felt Justin’s hand slip out of his and move to his back, where it begin rubbing soothing circles. Damn it, this was getting ridiculous; he reached behind his back, grabbed Justin’s hand, and threw it back at him. Justin only raised an eyebrow, and moved away. But not too far. Shit, Brian thought, sometimes this emotional closeness was just fucking annoying.
“I want the fucker to burn,” John repeated. He had moved around the kitchen counter, and stood closer to Justin and his uncle.
Tom sighed. “We’re still worried about a trial. Neither Claire nor I think that’s a good idea…”
“We’re all in agreement on that,” Liam added. Brian shot him a look. “Brian, we have to figure this out. Find some common ground, so, John, we can do what’s best for you.”
John looked at Liam, then up at Brian, and finally his eyes fastened on Tom. “Do you think it’s still in my best interest to just shut up?”
“No. No, John, and I apologize deeply for doing the wrong thing. I thought… well, clearly, I wasn’t thinking. I was thinking about the scandal, and how it would affect you, and I wasn’t considering other issues. But, I do want you to know, I spoke to my brother, he’s the headmaster up at Henley School, outside Philadelphia. Beautiful school, has a great sports program. The students go on to the best colleges in the country. Your mother and I thought… we thought we would honor your grandmother’s will to hand the house and her estate over to me, but then I’ll put it all in trust for your education. And if you want, you can go to boarding school, at Henley. You’ll be close enough to home to visit when you want, but it’s far enough away, that if you want to go through a trial…”
“I don’t want to go through a trial. But I will. I will.” The last was not spoken as firmly as it had been when he first showed up, if the distinct tremble in his voice was any indication.
Silence. A very long silence. Finally, Tom broke it. “Okay. What do you say about setting up an interview at Henley?”
“Me and Peter,” John answered.
“Peter…” Claire spoke up. “But…”
“Peter’s smarter even than me,” John said. “He deserves a good education just like me. If you’re gonna set up an educational fund, I want it for both of us.” His lower lip jutted out. He looked as young as he was. Brian suddenly realized that sometimes he forgot just how young John still was.
Claire studied her son’s face, then turned to her brother, and the priest. “Okay, then. I want part of that trust you’re going to set up for my son to go to therapy for him. And I want all this in writing.”
Justin watched Brian nod, and Tom along with him. Man, he thought, he would never get a fix on that woman. He felt Brian’s hand move onto his shoulder, squeezing it. Guess the earlier storm of annoyance was over. Justin sighed. Some days he didn’t think he’d manage to understand any of the Kinneys.
* * *
“So, do you think John’ll be okay?” Michael asked, huffing with the weight of the box he was carrying through the loft door. Brian gestured across the room to the living area, where Justin was putting his box down in the splash of sunlight washing through the room.
“I don’t know,” Brian asked, watching as Justin bent over to open the box, from which he pulled that damn purple stuffed animal from Brian's childhood, and threw Boo-Boo across the space. Brian caught the thing deftly, and placed it on the back of the couch before he stood back to look at it. “Doesn’t quite match the decor.” Justin smirked, and turned to the box Michael had put down, yanking the duct tape off to dig into the next box.
“Uncle Mike’s moved down from Boston for a while to stay with Claire, and pull John through this. They think that fucker may plead down, but the D.A.’s going to try to make sure part of the charge includes sexual offender status. But who the hell knows.” Brian paused, then continued, “John seems… I have no fucking idea. He was such a little ass before all this. Not sure what to compare this version of him to.” Subdued, but no longer a shit. Was that good? Brian had no idea.
“Well, as bad as it is, maybe it’s good that he has something to turn his energy toward. Too bad it took something that awful to do it,” Michael added, eyeing the armful of baby books that Justin was dragging out of the box.
“Yeah, well, hopefully this new school he’s going to look at will give him a better direction.”
“They arraigned the guy, though, right?” Michael continued. Then he smirked, distracted by something on the page of the book Justin was holding up and showing him. A big grin spreading across his face. Brian barked, “Hey! What are you looking at?”
Justin turned the book toward him, showing him a picture of baby Brian, stomach down on a blue blanket, butt naked, a big baby smile gracing his toothless face as he looked up to the camera. Brian smiled back. “Yup, gorgeous from day one.”
“Ugh,” Michael groaned. “That’s it. You guys are coming over later, right?” he asked, heading to the door.
“For tofu a la Ben?” Brian grimaced.
“We’ll be there,” Justin seconded, his attention firmly on Brian’s baby picture.
“And,” Brian added, vaulting over the back of the couch and crowding up to Justin’s side, “if I had been showing my other side, you would see my impressive frontal ass…ets as well.”
Justin turned his “ha” face up for a moment, and Brian leaned into him, pressing him back against the couch, kissing him deeply.
The baby books were forgotten.
* * *
Until later that night. Brian was busy rolling a joint, relaxing after returning from Ben and Mikey’s. Imagine that, returning to his loft with his boyfriend after being at his best friend’s with his husband. So frickin’ domestic for god’s sake. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t gotten trashed, but what the hell, he was making up for that now. A little herb to forget all that fucking domesticity they'd left behind at Mikey's, but not too much. Still worse, he was actually looking forward to a quiet night all alone with his fucking domestic partner, or fucking his domestic partner.
“Hey, Brian,” Justin called. He sounded troubled.
Brian lighted the joint, and wandered over in a puff of smoke. Justin took the proffered weed, inhaled sharply, and said on the exhale, “I’m not sure I should be reading this…”
“What?” He glanced down to a page filled with Joan’s tight handwriting. He’d assumed it had been all inoculation records, report cards, all that lovely shit that meant nothing.
“Do you know your mom kept like a diary in your books?”
Brian felt his stomach sink. Oh fucking hell, what was this? The funeral had been a week before. All the remnants were done with, the lawyers were on the legalities, the house was on the block, John and Peter were getting everything, and good riddance. Justin handed the book over to Brian. “You should read it.”
Eyebrows up. “Do I want to?”
Justin shrugged. “I’m gonna go…” he gestured at the computer, moved to stand up.
Brian grabbed his arm, kept him firmly planted. “You want to read it, though, don’t you?”
“I think I read too much already,” Justin hedged, and Brian released him, watching him walk to the computer without looking at Brian. Justin sat down, still not looking at him. Brian watched him boot up. Then he turned to the books. Shit.
“I started writing here because it’s the only place Jack won’t read. I had a journal and he ripped it to pieces, saying I was too critical of him, when I wasn’t. I just said I’d wish he’d respect me more. He hates that I go to church. But it’s not like I go to church religiously. I stay home plenty, at least I did when we were first married. Sometimes I wonder what happened.
“Brian’s the smartest baby I have ever seen. I know, lots of mothers say that, but it’s true. He’s already making clear what he wants, and he figured out how to take the nipple off the bottle! That was it, I guess he wanted to switch to a cup. He’s so eager to grow up…”
Brian skimmed over stories of his childhood. The tone though. “Such a bright boy! Takes after his mother…” “He hugged me when I was crying because Jack was in the bar again, and even though he doesn’t understand, he wants me to feel better…” “He started talking today! Momma. Of course. Even Jack’s sarcasm about having a “momma’s boy” couldn’t make me unhappy.”
And increasing references to the church. “I talked to Father John about Jack’s attitude… Brian’s becoming increasingly willful, I prayed for him…” “Easter services were lovely, Brian will make a lovely altar boy…” “Father John told me I can never divorce, but I already knew that. I shouldn’t have said anything, but after Brian’s visit to the hospital I didn’t know what else to do. I shouldn’t have even thought of divorce, but I was so angry. And what we give to the Lord through raising our children, well, I need Jack, I do, I can’t do this alone. He provides a good living. And he does his duty, just as I do mine.”
And all the willfulness on Brian’s part, plainly, Brian could see as he read, in direct proportion to the increasing criticism of her husband and her reliance on the church. He sighed, and threw the second book down. They ended when he was ten, anyway. The other boxes had his stuff just thrown in them, not mounted in albums. And no more comments. He supposed Joan was too busy achieving Sainthood at that point, having given up on her willful son and hopeless husband. He looked over at Justin, and saw his eyes cut back to the screen, but not quite quick enough.
“What did you think you shouldn’t read? It was that reference to me in the hospital, wasn’t it?”
“Hospital… no, it just seemed so personal.” Justin got up, began moving over to the couch.
Well, obviously, he hadn’t read up to that part. Shit. Brian leaned forward, picked up the joint. “Can you bring me the whiskey?” Damn it. He was going to ask. Unless… Justin had developed the ability to sit back and let Brian come to him. Which he didn’t always do. This time Brian really wished Justin would push.
Justin sat next to him on the couch, and handed him the bottle. And a glass. And moved a coaster in front of him. Brian smirked. “Thanks, dear.”
“Fuck you Brian, you yell at me for leaving water marks on the surface…”
“I don’t yell at you!” Brian barked, far too loudly for someone who didn’t yell. “Shit.” He turned to the whiskey, eschewing the glass, and drank straight from the bottle. He put it down, to see Justin staring at him calmly. “What?”
“Tell me about the hospital.”
Brian stared at him, as Justin crept closer, until they were hip to hip, then he flung his leg over Brian’s thigh, his arm around his shoulder, nuzzled his neck.
“Why are you so good to me?” Brian practically whispered. Because he didn’t want to yell.
“What do you mean?” Lips on jawline now.
“I’ve been an absolute shit to you.”
“You have been wonderful to me.”
“Yeah, talk about mixed messages.”
“The good outweighs the bad.”
“Think that’s what my mother said to herself?” Well, shit, where did that come from?
Justin pulled his head back, but kept his limbs draped over Brian’s body. He stared at him. “Did she say that? Is that something she wrote?”
“Not in so many words. More like, he provides for us. But that’s about as positive as it got.”
“You do more than provide for me, Brian.” Back to the soft kisses, moving down the neck.
“Well, just look at tonight. Right now, you’re about to make love to me… even after I’ve dragged you to a dinner party, where you make good conversation, and you listen to Michael and me talk shop while you and Ben roll your eyes at each other behind our backs but you don’t say anything directly…”
“Caught that one, did you?” Brian put his long fingers onto Justin’s jaw, and raised his head, staring down into the luminous blue just before he moved to kiss him, to end this conversation. It was enough; it was about to become too much. But Justin put his hand up between their lips, shivering when Brian’s tongue came out to trace circles in his palm, his soft lips touching lightly against the skin.
“What happened to put you in the hospital? That’s when you got Boo-Boo, isn’t it?”
“Yeah…” Brian leaned back, and sighed. “Jack always drank a lot. He didn’t know his strength when he was drunk, and that you don’t wrestle a four year old when you’ve had one too many. Cracked my head open.”
“Oh, my god. Were you all right?”
“No, I died,” Brian retorted, leaning forward and grabbing the bottle again. Justin smacked him with the back of his hand. Then he leaned back, and moved his foot up into Brian’s lap, wiggling the toes. “Did your dad hit you a lot? When he was drinking?”
Brian wrinkled his brow. “Are you kidding? After my mother spent the rest of his life castigating him for that little incident every time they fought? Every fucking time. He wasn't going to give her more ammo. But I did pay for it. I would sit in my bedroom and listen to her list every fault he had, prominently featuring that time with my split skull, and him yell back that Jesus must love her catering, since he never got any, and she was going to ruin me, and he was going to ruin her brilliant future priest…”
“Priest?!” Justin exploded, his foot digging down.
“Ow! watch that, Sunshine,” Brian said, picking up Justin’s foot, massaging the instep. Justin leaned back, groaning. Brian told himself he continued because Justin wouldn’t just let him off without telling him all, but part of him wanted Justin to know, anyway. “Jack didn’t beat me, nothing like that. He didn’t have to. He’d make fun of me when I came to the bar where he hung out with his cronies, called me ‘Momma’s boy,’ they all ended up doing it. Telling me I was a scrawny little shit, never amount to anything. I had an average of 95 in high school, Jack was always telling me how he’d gotten better grades. Everything was a competition. And when he was drunk, he’d grab me and compare muscles, then push me away, sometimes I’d hit the wall. Shit like that, those bruises I could deal with. Then he’d tell me if I weren’t such a scrawny shit, I wouldn’t get hurt like that. And then he’d apologize when he sobered up. I stopped listening to the apologies. Every night, my dad would come home drunk, and my mom would start screaming. Claire would sneak out to get drunk with her friends. I went up in my room and studied. And every night I would mark off the days until I went away to school. I started at 1,485.” Brian took a swallow of his whiskey.
There was a long silence. Then Justin said, “I’m sorry, Brian.”
Brian turned his head sharply. Well, shit, he’d almost forgotten he was there. “Not your fault.”
“I can feel bad you went through that.”
Brian shrugged. “It made me who I am, for better or… better and worse.” He squeezed Justin’s foot, put it down, then reached over and hauled his lover across his thighs. “Much better than the foot,” Brian grinned, as Justin wiggled his ass into the contours of Brian’s lap, and Brian slipped his hands under Justin’s shirt, onto the smooth flesh of his back.
“My mom’s invited us to dinner…”
Brian groaned. “First the couples’ dinner with Mikey, now what, Sunday night dinner with Mom?”
“Hm… couples… calling your lover’s mother Mom… and with only a smidge of sarcasm… I may have to make it official.”
“You made it official the night I met you. It just took me a while to catch up,” Brian replied. “And you can tell *Mom* we’d love to come to dinner.” He moved forward, to catch the lips parting in surprise with his own. Justin’s reply was muffled; Brian thought he might be trying to say ‘what the fuck,’ and would have laughed at the reaction, but he was too busy with other things.
Gotta keep the boy off balance. Or maybe he was feeling somewhat more free than he had this time a week ago. Maybe.
At the moment, he had much better things to think about.