Things are going badly for Kal when Cookie calls, which is no coincidence, of course. She teases and laughs her raucous laugh; it makes him feel like he is twelve again, awed and believing she was a queen for real.
“Come to New York, Kal. I got a pitch – I need you for it.”
He tries to protest, but she just snorts. “You ain’t busy, sweetie. I keep tabs. Your new album tanked and that blog post didn’t go down too well. Your kingdom’s crumbling.”
He clenches his jaws. He hears her smile.
“And I know how to stop it.”
“She isn’t wrong, you know. You’ve been bitching about the backlash for months. A change of scene might be good for you.”
Sometimes Kal wishes Christopher weren’t so damn logical about everything. “You don’t know Cookie Lyon, man. Once she’s got an idea in her head… I might be gone a while.”
Chris shrugs. “Maybe that’s what you need right now.”
“You could come with.”
“And do what, hang around the studio and cheerlead?”
“Hmm. Only if you wear the outfit.”
Chris laughs, but pushes Kal’s groping hands away. “I have to be in court all week. But seriously, go.”
The last time he flew, it was to Montreal. To see Tariq.
The pain’s a dull ache now, burrowed deep, but it’s still there, alright.
Fuck. He doesn’t need that now.
He tries to get down some lyrics but nothing’s coming. He sleeps, restlessly.
He expected Cookie to send him a car, but not that she’d come in person. She waves out the window, smiling and gorgeous.
“Hello, sugar crumpet.”
When he leans down to kiss her cheek, he sees that she’s not alone in the car. “You remember my son, Jamal?”
Fuck. He doesn’t need that now.
Cookie’s got it all worked out, of course. She wants a single. She’s going on about kings and lions, PR, and “working that gay card,” whatever the fuck that means. She’s practically brainstorming with herself.
Kal furtively watches Jamal, whom he barely remembers from when he was, like, five. He’s saying little, just observes. He only objects when Cookie actually starts talking songs. “It won’t work. Our styles don’t mesh.”
Cookie waves that away. “We’ll make them mesh. We need this, baby, and Kal needs it too!”
Jamal eyes Kal, coolly. “No. I don’t think I need that at all.”
Kal tries not to think about what is happening here. What is not happening here.
What is not happening is laying down tracks with Jamal Lyon, no matter how hard Cookie may be pushing it. Jamal claims he has no interest in it, which to be honest offends Kal a little, because that little fucker should be so lucky.
Jamal tastes like cinnabons and expensive coffee; his skin slides against Kal’s like heated silk and he looks seriously fucking gorgeous on his knees. That also isn’t happening, except for the part where it is and Kal is so, so screwed.
When the music does happen, it feels almost more like cheating than the sex. He can delude himself a fuck is just that. He can’t do that with music.
The studio’s all light and warmth, and so is Jamal. He’s on the piano, swaying to the dance of his fingers on the keys, head laid back, eyes closed, and he is burning. He’s not singing as such, just vocalising, trying out a tune. Before he knows it, Kal is sounding out words, an unsettling counterpoint to Jamal’s voice, a rhythmic confession. Staccato bursts of feeling, like a vein bleeding out.
Cookie doesn’t even know. This isn’t for recording or for other people’s ears.
This is just them. Just two voices working out how to fit around each other, how to make the fact that they don’tfit work. Using the contrast. Making it an exchange, a dialogue, thrumming with challenge and desire and questions neither of them have any answers to.
Later, in bed, Kal can still hear it in the sounds they make.
Kal knows he’s free-falling. On the phone with Chris, he sprinkles random apologies into conversations that don’t need them and waits for Chris to ask why.
When it happens, it isn’t because of any questions anybody asks.
A track leaks, and suddenly it’s everywhere. Empire makes all the right noises, voicing public disapproval, re-appropriating rights; but Kal has played this game for long enough to know this was no accident. Soon money comes rolling in.
The track is unmistakable. It’s not just the words, it’s the sound of them, the heated tension of their vocals, the unmistakable timbre of sex.
“Who?” he asks. Jamal, mouth twisting, says, “Who do you think?”
Kal takes a breath. “Tell me you didn’t know.”
A flash of hurt. “Fuck you.”
Cookie, of course, is unrepentant. “I did what needed doing, boys. You were making gold and hiding it away. Well, not on my watch. This shit is hot and we are gonna make sure people pay us for the privilege of getting their ears scorched.”
Not on her watch, because of course she was watching. Listening.
Kal feels ill. He doesn’t ask just how meticulously she planned this, just how sure she was that he could not resist Jamal; he doesn’t think he could stand to hear the answer.
Furious piano music thunders from the studio. Kal doesn’t go in.
“When were you planning on telling me? I’m sorry – that was presumptuous. Assuming that you were going to tell me.”
Chris doesn’t do dramatic outbursts. When he is angry, he gets calmer, cooler, crisper. His voice cuts through to Kal like a frost-tipped knife.
“It’s very good. The song. If that’s your kind of thing.”
“I didn’t mean for this to happen. I never meant to hurt-”
“No. You don’t get to say that anymore. Do you love him?”
Kal swallows; shuts his eyes. “Chris…”
“I think,” Chris says, very calmly, very quiet, “I’ve heard everything I need to hear.”
Your kingdom is crumbling, Cookie said, but it wasn’t truly, not then. Not the way that it is now. He remembers the day he sat in front of his laptop, filled to the brim with defiant elation as he pressed “Send” on his confession. Remembers Christopher’s hand on his shoulder, warm and grounding.
Cookie is talking at him, contracts, plans. “Honey. Don’t lose the plot, now.”
But he’s lost it already, lost it a while ago. He thought, back when he hit that button, that he was making a start on being who he really was. He’d been so sure.
He is ungrounded now. He goes to Jamal, who looks at him with turmoil in his eyes but shakes his head. “I don’t know what to tell you, Kal. I think this was real, but I think it… was, past tense. I don’t see how it could work.” He talks on, about the business, about Cookie, about how everyone he touches is sucked into the great machine of Empire.
“We could leave.”
“Yeah? And go where?”
Jamal hesitates; cups his hand around Kal’s cheek. “I’m a Lyon, Kal. My place is here.” A pause. “But you should go.”
The house looks empty when he gets back, every trace of cohabitation removed with trademark Chris meticulousness. The quiet hits him like a punch.
Never mind Cookie; the only one to blame is himself.
He doesn’t miss New York: the winter rain, streets between mile-high buildings, like riding down the bottom of a gorge. He doesn’t miss the Empire, built of gold and crystal with edges sharp enough to cut.
He does miss the music: the piano, the challenge and answer of their voices, clashing but oddly harmonising. He misses the way it filled him up with purpose, passion, selfhood.
Eventually Kal starts, slowly, to try and rise to the challenge of rebuilding himself again.
Jamal has released a new album, leading with that song, their song. Cookie called about the rights; Kal told her she could have them, and choke on them, too. “You damn fool,” she sighed, not even really angry. In her way, he supposes, she does like him.
He goes to work; tries to find his own voice again, disentangled from that alluring timbre of Jamal’s. To his astonishment, it’s not that hard. His voice is harsh, baring his failures ruthlessly. It hurts. It feels good.
Chris answers on the second ring, there is that much – he hasn’t deleted his number, then. “Hello Kal.” He sounds crisp, businesslike, in control.
“Hey, Chris. I was wondering… can we talk?”
There’s an uncharacteristically long pause. “No. I… don’t think so.”
“Are you sure? Please.” He tries to balance on persistent and not tumble over into pushy. “It’s not to give me another chance, or anything: I know we’re past that. But I owe you… an explanation.”
Another hesitation, then: “Not now, Kal. Not yet. But later… maybe.”
Kal closes his eyes, nods. “Okay.”
He can live with Maybe.
“I heard your new song. Keep It Real. It’s… flattering, I suppose, but you know you can’t slap a heartfelt song on this, turn on your puppy eyes and expect me to come running back, right? You broke us, Kal.
I don’t care about the sex. If you wanted us to be open, we could’ve talked about it. I care about being lied to. And the music. Because I can’t be with someone that I may lose whenever another pretty boy with a great voice comes along. I can’t be with someone to whom what I am is not enough.”
“The song wasn’t about getting you back. I don’t go for that Hollywood bullshit. It was about telling the truth. I learned a bit about that this past year, and a lot of that was thanks to you. So that’s what that was. Being honest.
And you’re dead wrong if you think I’d ever want you to be anything but what you are. Truth is, whenever I’ve been with someone in the biz, it was a fucking mess because everything was tangled up together. Work, life, emotions, identity. Music absorbs that, merges it. It’s in the nature of music to sweep you up in it. I love it but I don’t want it to have all of me, all the time. With you… it never was like every aspect of who we were had to be about each other. We could have things that were just our own, parts of our lives that got to be independent. And those parts that did touch… well, that kinda was like music, a different kind. Calmer. Balanced. And I’m so sorry that I messed with that because it was exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t just “enough” – it was plenty. It was real.”
They talk. Sometimes their voices rise, and they get looks from other patrons of the café. Sometimes they sit for minutes saying nothing.
“Jamal Lyon called me, by the way,” Chris says abruptly. “Pleading your case, as it were. Asking me to hear you out.”
“That so?” Kal keeps his voice carefully neutral. “What did you tell him?”
Chris snorts. “To go fuck himself. I didn’t need his help to make up my mind about coming here.”
He gambles everything on the motion of leaning over, putting his hand on top of Chris’s. Chris tenses, but doesn’t pull away.
When Kal notices a guy staring from the next table, he growls, “You got a problem?!” The man hastily looks away. Turning back, Kal catches a tiny smile hiding in the corner of Chris’s mouth.
“I don’t want this to be the end,” Chris admits, slowly, as if it’s costing him a lot. “It’s gonna take time, and I don’t know if it can work anymore. But I’d like us to try.”
Kal swallows. “I’d like that too. Very much.”
Christopher turns his hand in Kal’s so their palms meet, fingers entwining. Joy rises slowly inside Kal, fragile but warm.