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Part 28: Michael

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Even after as long as it’s been, I’m still always a little surprised when Brian and I are able to pick up right where we left off, no matter how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other. Someday I’ll probably stop worrying that he’ll forget about me now that he has the big-city life he’s always wanted, but it’s still something I think about. Once in a while, anyway.

Right now, though, the condo living room is a scene straight from my early 20s: KFC bucket empty on the table, Brian blowing smoke rings, head resting on my stomach. He hands me the joint, and I take a drag before giving it back. We’re, I have to say, very stoned, and I’m studying the ceiling, fascinated by the even rows of the modernist lighting.

Rage is selling better than ever,” I tell him, after a while. “Justin’s rise to fame is really putting Red Cape Comics on the map.”

“Glad to hear it,” he says, and I assume that that’s the sum total of his thoughts on the subject, but then he sits up, fluidly, how he always moves when he’s really high, and looks down at me. “By the way, when did you stop hating him?”

“I never-” I say, but he cuts me off with a look.

I sigh. “I don’t know. It was never really Justin’s fault that I didn’t like him.”

Brian snorts. “No shit.”

“At some point,” I say, and I guess this really is a flashback to us in our twenties, me spilling some secret just because he stared at me hard enough, “I realized that you and I would- we’d never happen. I’ll always be your sidekick, and you’d never be able to be in a relationship with someone who wasn’t just as much of a main character as you are.”

He rolls his eyes. “Always with the superhero metaphors.”

I punch him in the shoulder. “You and Justin are superheroes, though. Don’t you get it? He’s … you, more well-adjusted and definitely less of an asshole, but you both have different versions of the same powers. You and him can both walk into a room and have anyone you want, you both live for sex and success, not necessarily in that order, you both refuse to follow other people’s arbitrary rules. I knew the moment you took him home a second time and then lied about it to me and the guys that it’d never be just you and me anymore, it’d always be you and me and him.”

Brian raises his eyebrows. “This is very Freudian. I feel like I should lie down on the couch and tell you how my mother never really loved me.”

This conversation is hard enough to navigate without the thorny topic of Brian’s fucked-up parents, so I choose to ignore that comment. “Justin’s a star, and you’re a star, and I’m just … me.”

“And now I feel like I’m in High School Musical,” Brian says. He definitely has not seen High School Musical, but I’m not going to challenge him. “You’re not ‘just you,’ Mikey, you’re not ‘just’ anything. Never have been, never will be.”

“You know what I mean, asshole,” I say. “Rage is the best thing I’ll ever do, and that’s great, but for Justin it’s just … some comic he used to draw before he made it big.”

Brian rolls his eyes, again. I’m thinking that this conversation might be a sarcasm record-breaker, even for him.

“Stop worrying so much about how other people feel about things you care about,” he says. Another classic piece of Kinney advice. “Yeah, Justin can’t spend his summers drawing comic-book panels all day any more, but he’s not the kind of person who forgets where he came from. He cares just as much about Rage as you do, maybe more.”

He has this slightly misty look he always gets when he talks about Justin and his art. Because I’m stupid when I’m baked, I say, “You really are totally gone on him, aren’t you?”

Brian fishes a roach clip out of a bowl on the coffee table and puts the remains of the joint in it before taking a long drag. “Completely,” he says, exhaling a long thin stream of smoke towards the ceiling.

I’m aware that these are dangerous waters I’m in, but, like I said, I’m really fucking high, and that’s not conducive to good decision-making. “So why did you ever let him leave you, before?”

He looks at me, eyes narrowed. “That whole spiel you just gave me, and you can’t figure it out on your own? No one lets Justin do anything. He does what he thinks is best, and who the fuck am I to judge him for that?” He taps some ash into the empty chicken bucket. “All I want is for him to be happy, and it took me a long time to figure out that he’s happy with me, as long as I’m willing to do the very basic work of acknowledging that I’m fucking crazy about him and I want him to stay.”

I don’t know how to respond to that, so for a while we just sit in silence, Brian smoking, me poking at the pile of the carpet.

Then Brian says, “I hired a hustler.”

“For his birthday? Yeah, I heard about that. Not your greatest idea, but-”

“No.” He’s looking at me, eyes all serious. “When he left me for Ethan, the violinist kid, I called an escort service and asked them to send me a blond blue-eyed twink so I could f-” - he glares at the ceiling, lip curled - “so I could make love to him and pretend it was Justin.”

“Jesus.” I prop myself up on my elbows so I can stare at him properly.

He takes a long drag off the joint, sneer now dulled to a blank stare. “Don’t tell him.”

“I won’t. But- does he know how long you’ve been-”

“I told him. A year ago, maybe a little more. I told him I started falling in love with him on the second night I fucked him and I never stopped.”

His voice is a little fragile, now, and I think - I know, actually - that I’m the only person other than Justin who he ever talks with like this, sharing the parts of himself that he’s petrified of ever showing to the rest of the world. Speaking through actions publicly, being on time to all of Justin’s shows, practically nailing him on a public dance floor - that, he’ll do, but speaking through words? I’m not sure he’ll ever be able to do that with anyone he doesn’t trust completely, and there aren’t many people who qualify on that front.

One more question, I decide, and then I’ll drop it. “Are you happy?”

Brian smiles, the genuine smile that he started using mostly on Justin a long time ago. “More than I ever thought was possible.”

***

An hour later, we’ve barely moved from our respective positions on the floor. Brian found a pack of cards in the couch cushions midway through joint number three, so now we’re playing poker (he’s trouncing me, of course) and laughing our heads off for no reason in particular.

Justin gets home right as Brian finishes his millionth retelling the story of how my mother brought my lunch to school - high school - when I forgot it at home one day. “Looks like you two had a productive afternoon,” he says, toeing off his sneakers and walking over to sit next to Brian on the carpet.

“Hey,” Brian says, misty-eyed again, and yanks him closer, almost into his lap, for a dirty, sloppy kiss, and there it is, that electric chemistry that’s why I knew, almost from day one, that Justin was never going to be just another trick. When they break apart, Justin removes Brian’s hand from his crotch, rolling his eyes in a magnificent impression of his husband. “Just how stoned are you?”

Brian smirks and hands him what’s left of the joint. “A lady never tells.”

Justin looks over at me with a funny little you see what I have to deal with? expression on his face.

I smile and shrug, because I might be the only other person in the world who does, and Justin laughs.

“We’re supposed to meet Emmett at Element in an hour, by the way, if either of you have enough brain cells remaining to go,” he says.

Brian stands up, stumbles, and flops back onto the couch. “Of course we’re going. Mikey only gets to see what big-city partying’s all about a few times a year.”

Justin pats him on the shoulder. “I’ll make coffee.”

“Need any help?” I say, sitting up.

Justin smiles. “Sure.” He holds out a hand and I take it, pulling myself up to a rough approximation of a standing position.

Brian, who is definitely not going to offer to help, says, from his sprawl on the couch, “How heartwarming. It’s just like one of those news stories about a collie rescuing a boy stuck in a well.”

Justin and I flip him off in perfect unison as we walk over to the kitchen.