Author: Guede Mazaka
Tony bursts into the room and he really, truly looks like he’s about to tear into the locker room and take it to pieces. His eyes shoot around the place and then they see Joe, who’s petrified first with the bang of the door swinging shut behind Tony and second with—well, Jesus. It’s Tony, and lately Joe had been thinking they’d gotten so friendly that they could start with the old married couples, and yet Tony looks like he’s going to break Joe’s neck.
“You!” His arm is thrown out and his finger looks like it could poke holes through Joe—Tony’s not sporty but he’s pretty well in shape—and while he stalks across the room the only thought going through Joe’s head is…
…well, there isn’t one. Joe has no idea what it’s about. He is already raising his hands, and he can feel his face moving into his apology-calm-down-mate expression, but that’s because a few years of handling girls and then of handling wankers who think handling girls is sissified have trained it into him. It’s not because he’s got a clue. “Hey, hey, what’s going on?”
“Why don’t you tell me?” For a moment, it looks as if Tony is about to march right over Joe, but at the last second he swerves. Nearly sends himself into the lockers and he clips his chin on a door. That sends him back a few inches and he stumbles.
Floor’s newly done, Joe remembers. He automatically reaches out to lend a hand, but Tony glowers low beneath his brows, slaps his hand away and stumbles back to balance. Tony, good old friendly Tony, the nicest boy in the neighborhood, has lost his temper. And it’s just about scaring Joe into shitting his pants. Who would’ve thought? Tony?
“You know! You bastard.” It is the first time ever that swear words have passed Tony’s lips. At least, while Joe was around, and Joe was reasonably sure that he saw a looser side of Tony than anyone else with the exception of—
“Jess?” Joe guesses. It’s a wild guess. It’s not even a guess, actually; he was thinking about Tony, and Tony inevitably led to Jess, and then his mouth moved.
So does Tony. He makes an aborted lunge that sends Joe skittering away with huge eyes and arms coming up in front of him just in case. But slowly, because he still can’t believe it’s Tony this upset, and so they don’t swing around fast enough to protect him. Tony, luckily, isn’t actually attacking him yet, but the locker doors seem to be. They bang and scrape Joe till he flails at them, and of course that just makes them recoil into him with twice the force. Finally he gets out of them and falls breathless behind the bench. On the other side, Tony’s still half-crouched like a seething tiger.
“What? What happened? Is she all right?” When he doesn’t get any answer except a harsh look, Joe feels the pit of his stomach invert so he wants to lean over and hang his head. He does lean over and rest his hands on the bench, but he doesn’t hang his head. If he did that, he couldn’t look at Tony, and if he doesn’t look at Tony, then he won’t know what’s going on. “For Christ’s sake, what happened?”
What happens to Tony isn’t really describable. His face goes in a kind of twist around his staring eyes, and part of it’s pulling back and relaxing his lips so his teeth flash, as if he’s literally chewing on the idea of killing Joe. The other parts are him sighing and turning, shuffling on his feet. Looking sharply at Joe and then away, bringing his hands up and dropping them.
Finally everything goes very smooth, and faintly sad like sometimes when they were drinking together and Joe had been turning to laugh only to catch something in how Tony grinned at him. Tony looks at his hands, flops them about as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing with them and then sticks them in his pockets. He looks down at the ground again. “She’s—she’s not hurt. Physically. I just had a call from her, and she was—man, she was crying so hard I could barely understand what she was saying.”
“Is she okay?” Joe asks, rising. And he isn’t halfway up before he smacks the heel of his hand to his forehead. “God, I’m an—of course she’s not, she’s crying—what happened?”
“She…like I said, it was hard to make out. But she kept saying your name, and Jules…”
Joe feels a little chill, but it’s snapped up almost immediately by a whoosh of relief. He’s also irritated because he’d thought that that had been settled ages ago, but at least he knows. “Oh, Jesus. Look, I just…I didn’t even know Jules felt that way till it went completely bollocks. But we dealt with it. I don’t know what’s just happened but it can’t be something I can’t fix.”
Then Joe drops his hand from his face, thinking to see Tony’s face breaking into that broad smile of his, but instead the other man looks even sadder. The relief starts to slip from Joe, tide turning inexplicably like a player coming in through a blind spot and making a quicker-than-the-eye steal. His laughter turns hollow, wisps away and then he’s left only with the rictus of his smile. “Tony?”
“She said…” Tony shakes his head and raises his hands to the ceiling as if praying. But instead of dropping to his knees, he rounds the bench and takes Joe by the shoulders. He closes his eyes and swallows.
“Tony?” The voice Joe uses is cracking and small and, he thinks, hasn’t appeared since he was sitting on the bed in the hospital and the doctor came out to talk to him and his dad about his leg.
Finally Tony meets his eyes again. The other man squeezes Joe’s shoulders, like a pinch before setting a sprain to distract from the pain. “Joe, she said she couldn’t be your girlfriend—to not expect to see her when she comes home for the holidays. She said she couldn’t because of Jules.”
“But…” Joe’s first feeling, as far as he can tell under the numb surprise, is…confusion. Beneath Joe’s feet, the ground is unsteady and he takes a step back, hoping for surer footing, but instead the ground keeps sinking and sinking and finally there’s the hard thud of the bench meeting his arse. He grips Tony’s wrist. “Jules has a boyfriend. You told me so.”
“I know, and I tried to ask what had happened to him, but I couldn’t get an answer out of Jess. She just kept saying I can’t, I can’t.” Tony has come down with Joe and it has to be awkward for him. His legs alone have to be killing him.
And because of that, Joe needs to let him go, but his arm is a steady solid support and God knows Joe needs that. He can’t think—he never was much good at thinking outside of the pitch, and now he’s got a puzzle that he desperately needs to put together but he’s barely got an idea of where to start. What would make Jess say that? He likes her, not Jules. Jules has a boyfriend. Jules had shaken Joe’s hand at the airport, and had looked at him with a little bit of apology in her eyes but nothing of attraction. Instead she’d been fussing over Jess and avoiding her mother’s fussing.
Maybe it is for the best. Joe and Jess haven’t even started, really, and already they’d been running gauntlets on their respective sides of the world. Maybe she’s decided not to keep pushing her parents—who’ve been generous enough already—and maybe she’s found someone better. Maybe Joe’s life will be nicer if it goes back to normal where he isn’t frowning over Indian history books in the bookstores and having Tony explain patiently for the tenth time what the turbans mean. Maybe it’ll be simpler if he goes back to the pitch, his team, and the occasional pick-up in bar without wasting time lingering over a pint with Tony.
Maybe, but first he needs to know what the hell had happened. He pulls at Tony and the other man goes off-balance into Joe’s shoulder. “Look, I don’t care about her—”
--parents and I need to call her. That is what Joe had been going to say before Tony had fallen on him. But Tony had fallen, and it’d been Joe’s fault. So Joe swears, says sorry and starts to push Tony back up.
They get stuck, somehow. Joe’s hands on Tony’s arms, Tony’s eyes fixed somewhere around Joe’s collar and Joe’s on Tony’s mouth.
One breath, just to catch it, and then Joe tried to start what he really meant. “I need to…”
He gets stuck again. His stomach is starting to heave with all the twists he’s put into it. His fingers twist in Tony’s shirt. “Why?”
“I don’t—I’ll find out.” Very slowly, Tony peels off Joe’s fingers and steps back. He paces to the end of the locker room, then comes back to almost but not quite in front of Joe, like now he’s scared. But he can’t be scared of Joe, no matter what his eyes seem to say. Not with the way he’d come in earlier, ready to defend Jess.
Jess. Jess to Tony to Jess. It was a puzzle and Joe was staring at it, and he was beginning to think the pieces were moving by themselves so he’d never get it together.
“I’ll find out,” Tony repeated, backing towards the stairs. “I’ll…see you round.”
“Please,” Joe says. He stands up and starts for Tony, but the other man darts up two steps in one stride so Joe stays put, terrified. “Let me know.”
Because the world as he’d known it had ended. And as long as he didn’t know, there wasn’t any new one into which he could go.