by Josselin Kohl
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by Josselin Kohl
Michael and Hunter walk into the diner at 1:30 on a Tuesday, to find Justin taking his lunch break sitting in a booth with Emmett. “Hey,” Michael greets them, and he’s promptly covered with kisses from a squealing Emmett, who calls him baby and asks where he’s been and when he got back and a bazillion other questions.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Michael says. “Can I get some lunch first? I’m starved.”
Emmett promptly scoots over and Michael slides in next to him. Hunter is left standing next to the table since Justin doesn’t move over and Hunter’s still staring at Justin with a superior sort of smirk.
Michael rolls his eyes and gets up, shoving Hunter in next to Emmett and sitting down next to Justin, who moves over reluctantly. “We got back last night,” Michael explains, “and after my mother almost killed us both with hugs, we got Hunter settled up in my old room—“
“Hey, that’s my room!” Justin interrupts.
Michael turns to him with a smile, “Not anymore, boy wonder.”
“I’m gonna go through all your stuff,” Hunter tells him smugly, and Justin kicks Hunter’s shin under the table.
“Hey!” Hunter says. “He kicked me,” he complains to Michael, pointing at Justin.
“Now, boys, boys,” Emmett intervenes, “let Michael continue his story, please. He’s just about to get to the good part with ‘I haven’t seen my boyfriend in a month’ reunification sex.”
Hunter makes gagging noises. “Then I left Mom explaining the new rules to Hunter, and I went back to see Ben,” Michael finishes.
“That story was anti-climatic,” Emmett complains. “It needed more details at the end.”
“Oh, there was plenty of climax, believe me,” Michael says. Hunter begins to make gagging noises again.
Deb brings Michael and Hunter their orders, giving her three sons each an affectionate pinch on the cheek, and Emmett one too, for good measure.
“So,” Michael says as the food is delivered, popping a fry into his mouth. Emmett, Justin, and Deb all mouth this predictable question along with him. “Where’s Brian?”
Deb shrugs and snaps her gum before being called back to the kitchen, and Emmett raises his hands in an I-don’t-know gesture, so Michael is forced to turn to Justin. Justin crumples up the napkin he had spread politely over his lap and throws it on his plate. “He’s gone,” he tells Michael.
Michael looks around at their faces, the slight smile on his face slowly transforming into a puzzled frown. “What do you mean, gone? Gone where?”
“We don’t know, sweetie,” Emmett says apologetically, reaching out to pat Michael’s hand. Michael shrugs him off.
“Well, what did he say before he left?”
Justin clears his throat. “He told me that he was going away for a while, and that there wasn’t going to be any way to reach him, and he didn’t know when he’d be coming back. And he asked me to pick up his mail while he was gone, and pay his bills and stuff.”
“Pay his bills?” Michael echoes incredulously, “No one has enough money to pay Brian’s bills, not even him.”
Justin gives a little shrug. “He left me his checkbook and told me that I should pay the minimum balance on everything that came in and that it would be okay.”
“Brian left you his checkbook?” Hunter asks interestedly, but everyone else ignores him.
Michael is still reeling in shock. He keeps looking around, as though Brian’s going to pop up from the booth behind Emmett and reveal this all to be an elaborate practical joke. “When did he leave?” He asks finally.
There’s a short silence as Emmett looks intently at the wall and Justin swallows a sip of water. “Three weeks ago,” Justin says finally.
“Three fucking weeks?” Michael says, almost hysterical. “He’s gone off to God knows where and he’s been gone for three fucking weeks and nobody knows what’s happened to him?”
Emmett tilts his head to the side and looks pointedly at his former roommate. “Yeah, it’s a little bit like what you did, honey.”
Michael looks affronted. “I told people I was going! And I had to go, because of the police, and, and…” he stutters off, and then rounds on Justin with questions. “How did he leave without a car? Did he take anything with him?”
“He took a duffle bag and he caught a taxi.” Justin offers.
“God, was he in trouble or something? Did he have to run from the police? From that prick Stockwell?” Michael keeps shaking his head in shock, staring at the food on his plate. “What if he’s depressed, about his job and everything? What if he goes off to do something stupid, like get drunk and get a tattoo—“
“Hey, I like Brian’s tattoo,” Justin interrupts, at the same moment that Hunter interestedly asks, “Brian has a tattoo?”
“Or go sky-diving in Mexico, or…kill himself or something,” Michael continues, a panicked look on his face.
“Christ,” Michael says, turning to Justin. “You should have stopped him!”
“How could I have stopped him?” Justin asks, finally getting defensive. “He was of sound mind, and he’s a lot bigger than I am.”
“That’s not what I hear,” Emmett says as an aside, giving Justin a grin and a raised eyebrow.
Justin turns to Emmett, rolling his eyes. “I mean he’s taller than I am.”
“Could you two be serious for one minute?” Michael says, exasperated.
“Give Sunshine a break,” Emmett tells Michael. “You know how Brian is. When he’s got his mind set on something, there’s nothing anybody could do to stop him. And this’ll be good for him. Give him some time to be alone, work out what he wants to do with his life—“
“It’ll give him a lot time to fuck a lot of guys and OD on drugs, that’s what it’ll do,” Michael says.
Emmett just shrugs and turns to see if Justin can talk any sense into Michael. Justin’s opening his mouth to say something more—maybe admit that he, too, is worried about where Brian is, and what he might be doing, but there’s nothing either of them can do about it, is there?—when Deb calls them over to the small TV set on the counter.
“Hey, guys, it’s the first episode of that new show that replaced Gay as Blazes, Queer Survivor!”
“Ohh!” Emmett claps his hands together excitedly. “I’ve been wanting to see this,” he confides, leaning across the table. “Let me out,” he tells Hunter, scooting out of the booth.
All four of them migrate over towards the television, where they see shots of a pristine Caribbean island beach and jungle, small little huts made out of palm fronds, and finally the collection of bronzed and oiled men, all only wearing cut-off jean shorts.
“Look at that landscape,” Emmett says, sighing.
“All those men,” Justin adds.
“That’s what I meant,” Emmett says indignantly. “I think this is my new favorite show,” he continues.
“Our third contestant is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” the announcer says, and Emmett squeals and elbows Justin excitedly.
“Maybe we’ve met him,” Emmett says. “It’d be cool to know someone famous.”
But Justin’s a step ahead of Emmett, and has turned to look at Michael, who’s having the same revelation.
“He wouldn’t,” Michael says, shaking his head.
Justin scrunches his nose and turns back to the screen, starting to worry.
“A thirty-two year old former ad-exec, Brian Kinney!” And on the tiny diner television screen, almost drowned out by clanging silverware and the diner bell, Brian’s image appears, looking tanned and confident, and unbelievably hot.
“He did,” Justin concludes.
* * *
The premier episode ends, and Emmett rushes off to get back to work, Hunter is cruising a guy sitting in one of the front booths, and Justin and Michael sit side by side in front of the television, which has now switched to a cooking show featuring a fat lady with a tall chef’s hat.
“Well,” Michael says finally, “at least we know he’s all right.”
Justin gives a weak kind of laugh that’s more just like a chuff of air. “Except he’s lost his mind.”
“If you think about it,” Michael offers, “it’s probably debatable whether Brian was ever really sane to begin with.”
They sit in silence again.
“So when’s the next episode?” Justin asks.
“I don’t know,” Michael says, and the two of them spring into action, Michael grabbing Justin’s arm as they get off their stools. “Let’s go find a TV guide.”
* * *
The first episode had aired at various times on Tuesday, but after the premier, Queer Survivor is on every Tuesday evening at eight. The gang always gathers to watch, along with ninety-nine percent of gay Pittsburgh, who are all interested in seeing the hottest new show on the air and their fixture from the Babylon backroom forced to perform stupidly contrived island tasks.
Justin and Michael and Emmett are understandably given priority seating up close to the TV in front, at the bar. Ben stands behind Michael, with his arms around him, because they’re still in the kissy reunification stage of their relationship—Justin fondly remembers that stage, back before his boyfriend decided to randomly leave one morning—but Hunter prefers to skulk around the back of the bar, avoiding the guys and Debbie and Vic’s table.
The first episode had introduced each of the twenty guys on the island, and divided them into four different teams. Brian had ended up on the Peacock team. Melanie had snorted when she heard that. “Someone’s figured him out,” she commented. Once divided into teams, the contestants had to elect a team leader and then complete their first project, which was to build a sandcastle to certain specifications: it had to have one tower that was at least three feet tall, and incorporate three objects from a treasure chest that they had to find on the other side of the island.
Brian’s team had elected a redhead appropriately named Sandy as their team captain, and Justin had watched, fascinated, as Brian did almost nothing during the whole election process. He sat in his chair that was pushed back so he was half in the corner of their hut, and he didn’t contribute anything to the discussion, either in the form of trying to promote himself as the team leader the way all of the other guys were, or in preferring one or the other of the guys as the elected representative. “See,” Debbie had said back at the diner, raising a painted nail to point her finger at the screen, “he’s learned his lesson about getting involved in elections.”
The Peacocks’ sandcastle looked like a giant phallic monument when they were done. While they discussed architectural possibilities, Brian had been assigned to follow the “treasure map” to retrieve the team’s three treasure objects.
“Uh, oh,” Michael said. “Now they’re in trouble. Brian can’t follow a map for shit.”
It had indeed seemed like Brian was wandering aimlessly through the jungle, cursing occasionally at branches that seemed to pop out of nowhere and slap him in the face. But he eventually reached the treasure chest, which Hunter pointed out looked exactly like pirate chests from the movies. When he got there, the cameras following the other three team representatives trying to find the chest revealed that they were all still wandering around in the forest. Brian stood next to the chest and then turned round in a slow circle, trying to see if anyone else was coming. When he didn’t see anyone, he bent over, allowing the camera to get a nice shot of his rear end, and opened the chest. Instead of grabbing just three of the brightly colored dildos and heading right back to his team’s castle, Brian gathered as many as he possibly could in his arms, which was about eight, and headed off into the jungle in a random direction. He dumped the dildos in groups of two: two in a palm bush, two under a large rock, two thrown up a tree, and two tossed down to the bottom of a small stream. Then he went back to the chest and grabbed the three that he needed, leaving one lonely dildo sitting at the bottom of the open chest.
The Peacocks won the sandcastle activity despite Sandy accidentally knocking over the tower during a bit of macho posing and having to rebuild. They won simply because none of the other teams were able to complete the assignment at all, not having their three pieces of treasure to include in the project. So at the end of the episode, the team unanimously voted Sandy off the island, and elected Brian to be their new team captain.
The show hostess was an annoying blonde woman named Lisa. She had short spiky hair that spoke of hours in a makeup tent and not harsh survival on an island. She questioned Brian about his treasure retrieving techniques. “It doesn’t quite seem fair, what you did,” she said, “hiding all the other team’s materials.”
Brian laughed. “Who said anything about fair? I want to win. Besides,” he continued with a knowing smile, “if you hadn’t wanted somebody to steal all the materials and make your show more interesting, you wouldn’t have sent us all to the same trunk.”
The second episode goes back in time, showing the sixteen remaining contestants when they arrived, and the luxury materials that they brought with them. Brian’s duffle bag is opened to reveal hundreds of condoms and the largest container of lube that Emmett’s ever seen. “And that’s saying something,” Emmett points out, “cause I used to work in a porn studio. And Teddy bought in bulk. It’s more economical,” he tells Justin.
On the television, Lisa laughs at Brian’s luggage. “A bit ambitious, hmm?” Brian just smiles enigmatically.
Apparently there’s been some action in the Peacock hut, because the youngest member of their team, a twenty-three-year-old med student, takes every opportunity possible to cling to Brian in a needy, possessive way. Brian shakes him off irritably, and finally sends him on a water-gathering mission. He goes readily, happy to fulfill any tasks Brian gives him.
When the med student suggests to the group that they decorate their hut with some flowers, he and Brian finally get in a fight.
“No fucking flowers,” Brian says firmly. The show editors beep out Brian’s expletives, but anyone who knows him has a good idea of what he’s saying.
The annoying student sidles up to Brian and wraps his arms around Brian’s chest as Brian looks at him with disgust. “Flowers are romantic,” he says throatily, “they’ll put me in the mood.”
Brian sticks his tongue in his cheek. “All the more reason, then” he says snidely, “to not have any.”
The student steps back and looks affronted. “You liked it well enough last night,” he complains.
Brian pushes the student aside and leaves the hut. “I don’t do repeats.”
A guy from the back of Woody’s calls out, “You tell him, Kinney!” There’s a general roar of applause at the newbie’s introduction into Brian’s ways. Justin shakes his head slowly, but he’s smiling.
Not unsurprisingly, the med student is voted off the island at the end of the episode.
* * *
Life for Justin seems to be on an odd sort of hold, measured out by the number of diner shifts he has between Queer Survivor episodes, and the uncountable number of guys who have decided that with Brian being obviously out of town, it’s time to hit on Justin. He takes a number of them up on their offers, and the way he feels afterward, walking alone back to Brian’s ‘vette, reminds him of the way he felt in that strange depressed period between Ethan and Brian II.
Michael comes over to the loft one evening so that he and Justin can spread out all of the proofs for the latest issue over the conveniently empty floor space. As they do final checks, Justin says, “What do you think the next issue should be about?”
Michael looks up from the proof sheets, and they stare at each other for that moment of silence that seems to be becoming a fixture in their relationship, that moment of common knowledge, of bonding together over the inexplicable psychoses that come from knowing one Brian Kinney.
“How do you feel about drawing palm trees?” Michael asks finally.
* * *
It’s the third episode—after Brian has managed to snag a fish in his net, winning a victory for the Peacock team, and snag three more guys onto his list of conquests as well—when hostess Lisa asks Brian if he has a boyfriend. Justin hates to admit it, but his heart catches in the moment between Lisa’s question and Brian’s answer. He tries to tell himself that it’s not that he couldn’t take the “No” response from Brian, but it’s the circumstances—how embarrassing to be publicly disclaimed on national television in front of everyone he knows, half of whom are here with him at Woody’s. Hell, he even found out a few days ago that his mother is following the show closely.
“Sort of,” Brian answers, and that’s enough to make Justin’s heart start beating again.
“And how does your sort-of boyfriend feel about you being away and sleeping with all these other guys?” Lisa asks coyly.
Brian fingers his cowry shell bracelet. “He’s probably wishing he remembered to set the VCR,” Brian says, with a small, self-satisfied smile. And Justin manages to laugh somewhat naturally along with all the rest of the guys in the bar.
“So, Taylor,” a guy in a tight gray t-shirt calls to Justin during the commercials following the credits, “did you set the VCR?” This sets off another round of good-natured laughter in the bar.
“Why record what you can see any time you want?” Justin manages, sparking more laughter, and he grins, until he has to excuse himself to use the restroom. He’s splashing some water on his face when the guy in the gray t-shirt comes in, coming up behind him to stand really close. He’s hot, with a nice chest that he’s obviously not reluctant to show off.
“Hey,” the guy says softly, “you wanna come back to my place? I think I can find some videos that you haven’t seen before,” he says with a knowing grin.
Justin stares at his reflection in the mirror for a moment, closing his eyes briefly before looking back at the guy. “You drive,” he says.
* * *