Babylon is for losers with no lives, or that's what Ethan tells himself, even when he's standing there, a drink clutched in one hand. Solid bodies coat the floor, a moving, writhing ocean of nameless, faceless people. Like watching the largest clothed orgy in history.
He hates it.
He hates what it is, a meat market for bodies, for a quick fuck, for mindless, meaningless sex. He hates what it symbolizes, the power one man can have over so fucking many. He never brought Justin to Babylon when they were together. He was never that stupid.
It meant something, the day he took Justin away from this, and he remembers how high it made him, giddy like a kid, excited like playing a flawless concerto, like performing for thousands. And it probably means even more that the second Justin left him, he came back here.
The lights, with their cartoon-colored gels, flashing on and off in time to the beat of the music, make him feel lightheaded. The music is monotonous and electric - some soulless techno, thick with sharp bass. He frowns into his tonic water and the pitiful slice of lemon floating in it.
It's stupid to be here, but God, everything seems stupid these days. A pretty face at a concert, a quick, mindless fuck in a hotel, and the smell of rotting roses on his floor. He was hours staring at them, shaking hands touching ripped petals, velvety smooth beneath the pads of his fingers. They may still be there, dried flowers and the lingering scent of loss. He doesn't know. He hasn't been back.
Ethan hunches his shoulders against a heavy palm on his shoulder. Meat market for bodies, less than meaningless sex. It's not him. It never has been. "Fuck off."
Of course, the one man with power over seemingly every last man on Liberty Avenue *would* be here, tonight. Swaying against the rhythm in the center of the crowd, at the heart of it. Right at home. The techno is sweet in Brian's ears, like Chopin or Pachelbel, and the lights don't make him dizzy so much as whatever he taps out of a small vial onto the back of his hand and sniffs.
Ethan takes a drink, eyes fixing as Brian licks the residue away, slow and through, like even this is another kind of sex, and hell, for him, maybe it is.
He curses and turns to face the bar, slamming his glass down onto it, but the sound is swallowed up by the crowd, and he can't even get the satisfaction of hearing it.
It shouldn't be like this. This isn't how he planned his life.
"More--water?" The bartender smirks, and Ethan bares his teeth in nothing like a smile.
"Beam." Justin's drink of choice. No, Brian's drink of choice, dark and thick and heavy, burning the tongue, God, Ethan remembers kissing Justin and tasting that like a brand. And even though it wasn't, even though it couldn't be, it always, always felt like Brian's unique message to anyone that did more than look. You may have him now, but I always will.
"Fuck." It tastes like shit, Ethan can't *stand* hard liquor, but he throws it back, instantly dizzy from the rush. Another one after - the bartender setting it in front of him without Ethan having to ask - and Ethan takes it, choking a little at the sharp burn
From the corner of his eye, Ethan catches a glimpse of blond hair--a dime a dozen here, pretty blond boys offering up ass for shots, for drugs, for fucking *nothing*. But he'd know that color in his dreams, sunshine and the smell of smoke and spring, blue eyes like the sky after it rains, and confidence like a beacon. Dear fucking God, he thought he was ready and he wasn't.
One more drink. Maybe that will help. The third doesn't go down any easier. He buries his face in the crook of his elbow, muffling his cough in his sleeve as he half turns from the bar, feeling his eyes begin to water.
"Hey, honey, why don't you take your jacket off and stay a while? Not that leather isn't a good look for you, but they've got the heat turned all the way up tonight."
Glancing up, Ethan vaguely recognizes the worried face, short honey hair, too-tight clothes. Friend of Justin's. "Fuck. You."
Perfectly curved eyebrows slip upward, but he doesn't flounce off, like anyone with sense. Sitting down, the man glances briefly at his glass, then leans an elbow on the bar. "Ethan Gold, right?"
Yes, definitely a friend of Justin's. Justin, who's dancing on the floor right now, slim body swaying with that perfect rhythm that always made him so fantastic in bed. Some not-Brian wrapped around his back, but the glazed eyes are fixed on Brian, five people away, and they might be apart, they aren't even fucking *touching*, but they might as well be.
"Yeah." He gestures to the bartender for another. If he can't work up the nerve to go up to Justin, open his mouth and try to talk, the least he can do is get completely hammered before he leaves. At least then, the night won't be a total wash. "You're... Emmett?"
The man smiles, then extends a hand over his glass, palm down. "Yes. Think you've had enough, hmm?" Before Ethan can say a word, before he can even *think* it, he's pulled up and away, stumbling at the rush of vertigo. "Come sit with us."
"Wh - I --" His tongue is numb but his feet seem to be moving just fine. "They have -- tables?"
It's kind of welcome, when they move far enough away not to see the floor, but halfway up the stairs, Ethan glances down. Watches dazedly as Justin sniffs a line off Brian's hand, pretty pink tongue chasing after, sucking a finger into his mouth with a glance up that makes Ethan immediately hard. Pulled into Brian as they kiss, like they're alone, like they're not surrounded by what feels like a million curious eyes. Swaying against Brian like he's never been anywhere else, like he has no idea there's anywhere else to be.
Like almost five months are *nothing*, like Justin never left this place, these people. This life. That man.
"Come on." The hand on his elbow pulls again, and Ethan stumbles up the next stair, Justin's smile burning into his mind, and God, he hates it here, *hates* it here, this fucking church of the one night stand with its high priest feeling up his most willing, most fucking eager sacrifice.
Fucking *hell*, why is he here?
"Where are we *going*?" he manages, clutching at Emmett's sleeve. His toe catches on the next step and he lurches for a moment before catching himself. Guys of all shapes, sizes, colors file past him down the stairs. A black guy in a cowboy hat and chaps, a blond surfer in a skimpy leather thong with a silver zipper on the front and a black studded dog collar.
"I told you, honey - upstairs. I think someone's had a little too much to drink," Emmett says, not looking at him, but still pulling him along. "You were about to fall off your stool."
"I wasn't sitting on one."
"Exactly." Emmett snorts softly, like he's thinking of something else entirely. "Not for very long, anyway." Another pull--he's stronger than he looks. A glance shows blond hair disappear into the backroom, and God, he could have lived his whole life without seeing that.
He knows about it. Knows that less than a day after Justin left him, Justin was here, in that room, and maybe it wasn't Brian, but it was someone. The art of pain management as learned from one Brian Fucking Kinney, like all the habits he'd said he hated, discarded like old clothes and shoes that don't fit and Brian himself, that were just on hold, not gone, not forgotten
Ethan may have slipped, one fuck, one night, one stupid mistake, but he never did this to Justin. He never, ever denied who he was.
"Down, boy." Somehow, God knows how, they're at a table, and Ethan sees a vaguely shocky--Michael? Hot guy wrapped around him that he knows he'd recognize if he was more sober.
"What the hell--"
"I'm telling you, they weren't fucking each other," Michael is saying as he took a sip from his drink. "They don't know what they hell they're talking about."
"Ooh, gossip? Tell, tell!" Emmett begs as he drags Ethan over to a chair. "Is it good? Is it anyone I know?"
"Lex Luthor and Superman," Ted says with a small smile. "Michael's been watching this new show on the WB... Smallhell? Smallworld...?"
"Smallville. It's so wrong," Michael says firmly.
It's like they don't even *see* him, and Emmett grins and reaches for something foamy and pink, taking a sip as the big man laughs at some low voiced comment by Michael. Across the table is one vaguely familiar face and one not at all. Ted, his mind offers blearily. He remembers him, God, who could *forget*--too thin, too pale, clinging to his water glass like a lifeline. All the earmarks of the recent graduate from rehab. The thin blond with him is doing the same thing, worried blue eyes fixed on him to the exclusion of all else.
"That's Ben," Emmett tells him, pushing a glass of water in front of him. "Ted. Blake."
Michael looks up, and it's almost funny to see the look on his face when he really *sees* who's at the table. Justin never needed to tell him that Michael was the enemy from day one. It was all over his face every time they saw each other.
And that wasn't often. Ethan thinks Michael worked to make sure of that.
"How's it goin'?" Ted says, offering him a wan smile. Ethan can still see the sickness around his eyes, the hunger, the craven addiction.
"What the *fuck* is he doing here?!" The words are out of Michael's mouth like buckshot, leaden and deadly.
"Having a drink," Emmett says, sipping the pink thing so casually, he might be totally unaware of the fact that Michael looks ready to implode.
"Ethan. We've met before," Ben--Ben?--says, extending a hand. At a loss, Ethan returns the favor, the big, firm palm sliding against his. He's hot. Ethan's mind offers up a vague memory of Justin saying something like that once. The thought slips away before he can catch it.
"Yeah. Um. Hi."
"Why does he have to have a drink with us? There are a million other tables - *empty* tables - he could be sitting at," Michael gripes. "Brian'll shit if he comes back up here and sees *him* here." There's such venom in that word and the way that Michael says it, Ethan feels sick to his stomach. Well, more sick.
Emmett's eyebrows go up. "Brian can take care of himself, honey." Leaning an elbow on the table, Emmett gives him the most comfortable smile in creation. "So. Back from tour?"
It's surreal. Everything is tonight. "Yeah."
"Tour? You're a musician?" Blake asks, playing along with a kind of pathetic curiosity. Anything to keep Michael quiet, Ethan thinks.
"Yeah, uh... I play the violin," he says, letting his voice creep up in octave as he says the last words, almost making it into a question.
"Oh, cool," Blake says, smiling, strain showing around the blue eyes. "Do you play any opera? Ted loves opera."
Ethan blinks back to Ted. "Some."
"So how long are you in Pittsburgh?" Ben asks, and it's kind of getting funny, because no one except Emmett looks anywhere near comfortable, except Ted, who seems to be in a world all his own, watching his water like it holds salvation.
"I don't know." Probably a while. Ethan thinks of long nights in hotels and the too-pretty blonds he's picked up, magical bow and magical charm. Justin had said he was beautiful when he played.
Justin had said--
"Hello, children," Brian murmurs as he swaggers over to the table, knocking back a mouthful of Beam. "Have we been behaving ourselves?"
"I won't tell him about the spitballs if you won't," Michael mock-whispers to Ted and gives him a big, conspiratorial wink.
Ethan swivels around, and God, he doesn't mean to, should have stayed the fuck down, but instinct is instinct and hell if he wants Kinney anywhere near his unprotected back. He takes up too much space, too much air, and Ethan's always hated that about him. He notes the unbuttoned top of his jeans, the studied mess of quickly rearranged clothing. Brian takes in the table at a glance, eyes brushing Ethan impersonally like he's not entirely sure who he is. A slow burn of anger--I'm the one that took your boyfriend, you son of a bitch--that turns off the second Justin materializes from behind him, chin on his shoulder.
"Hey," Justin wraps his arms around Brian's waist and kisses the round of his shoulder, bared temptingly by the sleeveless shirt he wears. Ethan feels invisible. "What's up?"
Justin, beautiful and sweet and high as shit, taking Emmett's glass with a grin and a smile that's too bright and too wide. Vaguely disheveled in that way that suggests he's been on his knees, messy blond hair and glassy eyes.
"Get your own drinks," Emmett says, but Brian's body blocks his reach for his glass and Justin just grins, drinking it in a single swallow. He shouldn't be that hot, sweaty and high and smelling like another man, wrapped around him like a cheap hustler, but he is. God, he is.
Brian turns his head, glancing over his shoulder, and smiles indulgently, knowingly - proudly - at the lovely mess that Justin is. His eyes own every inch of Justin's body, from the tips of his hair to the soles of his square-toed boots. Jesus, he's even *dressing* like him, now.
"Now, now, Emmett," Brian chides. "The boy is thirsty."
"Yeah," Justin chimes in. "It feels like I've been dancing for hours and hours..." His head falls onto Brian's shoulder as Brian takes the glass back from him, dropping it carelessly on the table.
Ethan opens his mouth. "Justin." He's not sure when he became suicidal. Maybe that's what Beam does to you.
For a second, he's sure Justin didn't hear him. Nothing, no movement, not even a twitch, but he gets Brian's unwavering attention, and yes, he's always, always understood the addiction of that, why Justin wanted it so badly. But his eyes are on Justin, who lifts his head, eyes meeting his in confusion, and the shock of recognition chasing just after, lighting the blue eyes from inside. Justin hadn't even seen him until now, Ethan realizes with a sick jolt he feels all the way to his feet. He didn't even realize Ethan was there.
"Ethan." The single slow, slurred word makes him tense, remembering that voice whispering his name in bed, chanting it to the ceiling, face down on the mattress. A thousand ways he's heard Justin say his name--what feels like a thousand nights remembering--but he's never heard it like this.
Fingers tighten on Brian's waist, instinctive recoil, and Ethan thinks he understands. He's part of Justin's past, and he's being erased. No one likes to see their work undone like this.
He can understand Justin's reaction, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt. It does. Like crazy. "Justin," he whispers, pleading, feeling the knot in his stomach slowly working its way up into his throat. "How's it going?"
The table's silent, and Ethan wonders what they see--past and present touching, just like this, Brian without anything but pure amusement, like Ethan's never been anything and never will be. I had him, Ethan wants to say, and I still would if I hadn't fucked up.
But then, Ethan thinks as Justin looks at him, sharp and unhappy, Brian could say the same thing.
"I'm good." God, dammit, why did he *come* here, and the answer is so simple. I had to see. I had to know. I had to try, and Justin has to respect him for that, has to understand that, has to get that letting go isn't as easy as it sounds. Of all people, Justin should know that.
And God, if Brian just looked--uncomfortable. Angry. Jealous, something, anything, like how Ethan felt every time they met, but Brian--Christ, he doesn't even *care*.
"Ready to go?" Justin asks, low-voiced, and Brian's eyebrows raise, a sharp look that belies the easy looseness of his body, whatever he's taken tonight, whatever he's given Justin.
"Sure," he says, brusquely, and hooks his arm around Justin's neck. Neither of them look back as they walk away, but when Justin leans against Brian, it's not as carefree as before. He puts more of his weight against Brian, now.
Brian stops briefly at the bar, another quick shot, and Justin leans up, soft pink mouth and wide open eyes. A slow, careful kiss, and nothing like the floor, just this taste that lasts forever, and Ethan can't stop watching, can't even think how he could try. Justin, who wraps himself around Brian like a blanket, like Brian's the only protection in the world, and maybe he is, Ethan thinks a little dully. That's the one thing that Ethan knew he could never be.
When they're gone, he catches the tail end of Michael looking away, and damned if he doesn't feel that expression on his own face. Wiped away as soon as Michael sees Ethan looking, turning to Ben and the conversation with Ted.
Emmett's hand on his thigh is gentle. "Want more water?"
Ethan thinks he'll throw up if he drinks anything at all. "No. I--gotta go." Where, he doesn't know, he can *smell* Justin, and his apartment is where his memories are. Can feel him on his skin, like they were in bed this morning. Taste him, and taste the Beam that reminds him of Brian, and Justin, and how stupid it is to love someone who doesn't know how to stop loving someone else.
"Wait, honey. Let me get someone to take you home."
Ethan bites his lip. "I'm fine." He stumbles when he gets to his feet, and right, that doesn't make him look sober at all, but he is. He's never been more sober in his life.
Emmett's hand catches him by the elbow and his eyes scan over the table, considering. "Teddy, give him a ride. He can't drive home like this."
"Walked," he croaks. Like he has time to buy a car. "I walked here."
"All the more reason." Emmett says flatly.
A glance at Ted gives him the almost hysterical view of Ted's naked shock, like he can't imagine why anyone would ask him anything of the sort. Blake, though--Blake?--nods slowly, leaning back in his seat and picking up his glass, and the glance at Ted has to be significant, but Ethan can't figure out why.
Ethan opens his mouth to protest, but Emmett's fingers tighten on his elbow, cutting off words, thought, and pretty much anything that isn't blinding, searing pain. Oh. Fuck. Before he can try again, catch his breath, Ted's pulling out his car keys, standing up with a few words to Michael that Ethan doesn't pay enough attention to hear.
He hears Michael, though. People in *space* can hear Michael. "He's a big boy, Emmett. He can certainly take care of himself."
"That's not the point," Emmett says primly. "Being old enough to drink and staggering home drunk are two entirely different things."
And that's apparently unanswerable, or maybe it's Ben, who touches Michael's hand, getting his attention, and Ethan's being taken from the table with no clear idea when he agreed to this. A single stumble, though, and a strong arm goes around him, catching him before he falls.
"Okay?" Ted asks, like he actually cares, and Ethan almost laughs. No, I'm not okay, I haven't *been* okay, my life is a fucking *mess*, Jesus, weren't you at that table? But he doesn't say that, because Ted's coaxing him with gentle hands, and God, he likes that.
Needs it, even, and he lets Ted lead because there's nothing else to do.
"It's okay, honey," Emmett whispers to him, giving his elbow a gentler squeeze. "Go with Teddy and Blake. They'll make sure you get home safe and sound."
"The safe and sound is negotiable," Ted quips awkwardly as he leads Ethan toward the door. "Especially if he tosses his cookies in my car."
Outside, it's cold, and Ethan shudders at the change, pulling his coat closer, Ted and Blake scanning the street. "I think I parked--fuck. Blake."
Ted moves, even Blake moves, but they're not fast enough, not to stop this, and Ethan watches as feet away, Justin goes down on Brian in the alley. Anyone could stop and see, anyone would *know*, and God, he'd never do that to Justin. He'd never have asked that.
"Christ," he hears himself whisper, and Ted's pulling at his arm and Blake is saying something, but what the fuck do they matter?
Bare fingers sift through Justin's hair, tightening, guiding, and Ethan
*remembers* what it feels like to have that perfect mouth tight around his cock, that wet tongue, those soft lips. Remembers how Justin looked up at him, holding his eyes, making him see everything. Justin's long fingers, braced on Brian's thighs, tighten, and Brian tenses, and fuck, the *sounds*.
Brian smiles as he comes, hazel eyes open and watching, and the dark head turns slow and easy, drowsy from orgasm, and it's like he knew Ethan was watching, knew he'd see this, though it's impossible. It's impossible, unlikely, fucking *ridiculous*, but it feels like it, it sounds like it, and Ethan believes it. Brian holds his gaze, sharp smile and glazed eyes, even as he pulls Justin up, taking that swollen mouth in a hard kiss, and Ethan tastes Beam all over again, bitter and sharp on the back of his tongue, numbing his lips. Brian's unique message to anyone that looks and once touched. You may have had him once, but I always will.
Ethan turns and just makes it to the gutter before he throws up.