There was an angry metallic scrape followed by a dull heavy thud as Joey smacked his hand against his forehead. "I'm sorry," Justin said as he threw his door open.
"Justin!" Joey said, and Justin turned back in time to see Joey set the emergency brake.
"I'm sorry," Justin said again as he and Joey got out of the car to study the damage.
"I'll give you this," Joey said, "you managed to hit the only car in the lot crappier than the one we're driving."
"It's stuck," Justin whispered in horror as he poked at the sharp edge where their bumper was wedged into the side of the other car. "Joey, they're stuck together."
"I told you to watch your blind spot."
"I was trying! But I couldn't see, because it's my blind spot!"
"That's why you don't just use the mirrors," Joey said. He straightened up and patted the other car lightly, as if it were a spooked animal. "Run inside the store and see if the owner's there."
The sound of the bell jingling as Justin pushed the door open made him wince. "Does the blue Chevy belong to anyone?" he called, loud enough to be heard throughout the small store. He winced again at the tremor in his voice.
Nobody answered. Justin looked out the window and watched Joey put his shoulder against their car and lift it, just an inch or two, just high enough so he could shove it clear of the other car. "Does that guy belong to anyone?" an older woman in the aisle behind Justin said, and her friend laughed. Then she said to Justin, "Don't worry, honey -- it doesn't look too bad."
Outside Joey was rubbing his hands together thoughtfully. When Justin joined him Joey patted the dented car again. "No luck?" Joey said, and Justin shook his head. "Well, don't look so tragic. We'll leave a note, because that's what people do, but you are so not the worst trouble this piece of shit's seen recently."
Joey leaned against their car to write a note on a piece of napkin Justin had found in his pocket. "Wait," Justin said as he peered over Joey's shoulder, "shouldn't it be from me, not you? I mean, it's my fault."
"How old are you?" Joey said, and Justin looked down at his shoes. "Yeah," Joey said. "Besides, it's nobody's fault. It was an accident."
Justin got in the car while Joey tucked his note under the other car's windshield. Suddenly Justin's door opened again and Joey loomed over him, both hands on the roof of the car and the sun shining behind him like a halo. "You're in the wrong seat, dumbass," Joey said.
"You want me to drive again?" Justin said. "But I --"
"I don't know how you think we're gonna get home if you don't." Joey poked his shoulder and grinned. "Shift over."
Justin slid into the driver's seat and Joey sat back, buckling his seat belt and then pretending to test it until Justin said, "Ha ha ha."
"Don't sweat it, Just. It could happen to anyone," Joey said as Justin pulled out of the parking lot. He messed up Justin's hair and Justin knocked his hand away. "Keep an eye on the road, though, all right? It could happen to anyone once. Twice means you don't know the fuck what you're doing."
"What if it happens three times?" Justin said, although he kept his eyes obediently on the road in front of him.
"If it happens a third time," Joey said, "nobody's gonna believe it was an accident."
"This is gonna hurt," Lance said as he knelt between Justin's legs.
Justin bunched his fists in the sheets until he felt the cotton tight against his knuckles. "You don't have to sound so happy about -- ow, ow, fuck, ow!"
"I told you," Lance said. He dabbed relentlessly at the cut on Justin's lip.
"Yeah, well, you don't have to sound so happy about that either." Justin pushed the towel away from his face. "All right, that's fine, it's not like I'm going to get gangrene and they'll have to amputate my mouth."
"If only," Lance said. "What's wrong with you? Why'd you have to stop his fist with your face? They like to take pictures of that, you know."
"It's not like I meant to. Besides," Justin said, and it was strangely satisfying to hear Lance whisper, "fuck, Justin," when he pulled up his shirt, "it wasn't only my face."
Lance traced a finger over the bruises already turning purple on Justin's stomach. Justin held his breath and didn't flinch under Lance's hand. There was something strangely satisfying about that, too, about the way Lance's fingers trembled while Justin didn't move, even when Lance pushed down hard on Justin's rib cage.
"Well, nothing's -- nothing's broken," Lance said finally, and Justin smiled at the sound of his voice. Lately Lance had perfected the art of seeming grown-up, like he was a lot more than a year older than Justin, and even though it hurt to smile Justin didn't mind. It was nice to see Lance looking uncertain for a change.
Suddenly Lance stood up and walked briskly to the bathroom. He came back with a towel full of ice, which he threw at Justin. "Hold that on your stomach," Lance said. "Or maybe you should try and hold it against your brain. That's probably the most fucked-up part of you."
"Fuck you, Lance," Justin said. "I don't need a lecture from you."
"No? Well then, why don't you go find JC or Joey -- or Chris -- and let them patch you up?" Justin didn't say anything, but he pulled his shirt up again and held the makeshift ice pack against his skin, hissing at the cold. "Yeah, that's what I thought," Lance said. "You just sit here and listen to my lecture."
"It's not like I did it on purpose," Justin said.
"You know better than to go somewhere like that," Lance said. "You're not stupid -- here, give me that." He took the towel from Justin's hand and knelt in front of Justin again, pressing the towel firmly against Justin's abdomen. "What did you think was going to happen?"
"I didn't know," Justin said, more softly than he'd meant to. He scuffed a hand over his mouth until Lance reached up and grabbed his wrist.
"You're going to start bleeding again," Lance said, but his voice was softer too.
"It wasn't like -- I thought he was, that guy, I thought he wanted ..." Justin licked the corner of his mouth until he tasted blood, raw and sharp. Lance rubbed his thumb against the inside of Justin's wrist and looked past Justin's shoulder. "I thought it was going to be different than what it was, okay? I didn't know, but now I do, and I know you're going to say I should be fucking ashamed of myself --"
"That's not what I'm going to say," Lance said, looking Justin in the face. "That'll never be what I'm going to say to you."
Justin looked down at Lance's hand over his own wrist. "I'm sorry," he said finally.
"It's not your fault," Lance said. "Don't be sorry, just -- "
"What?" Justin said.
"You didn't have to go there," Lance said.
Justin kept his eyes on Lance's hand and his own until he thought Lance must have looked away. But when he looked up, Lance was still watching him. "I'm sorry," Justin said finally, again.
Lance stood up quickly, letting go of Justin's wrist and the icepack at the same time. "I think you're gonna live," he said, and for a moment his voice trembled like his fingers against Justin's bruise. "You should go get some sleep, though. And you should probably figure out how you're going to explain this tomorrow."
"Oh, fuck," Justin said. He brushed his thumb over his cut lip again. This time Lance didn't pull his hand away. "I guess I could just say I was really drunk when I came in and I tripped in the dark."
"Sure," Lance said. He picked the wet towel up off the bed and walked toward the bathroom. "You'll look a lot better by morning. They'll believe you."
Justin could put up with a lot, but he was damned if he'd put up with another three days of this. When he slammed into JC's room, JC didn't even look up, and that only pissed Justin off more, because he knew JC was doing it on purpose, just to make sure Justin knew exactly how hard JC wasn't listening to him.
"You think this is a fucking punishment?" Justin shouted. JC was sitting cross-legged on the floor at the foot of the bed, his bare feet pale against the red carpet. "Let me tell you, people have been begging me to tell them my secret so they can get you to stop talking to them too. I think I'm gonna write a book."
JC looked up slowly, his eyes climbing the length of Justin's body and then back down. He hummed a little to himself. The awful thing about knowing someone so long, Justin thought, was that you could know, absolutely one hundred percent know that they were pushing your buttons on purpose, but even with that knowledge your buttons still ended up pushed. "What do you want from me?" Justin yelled, as loudly as he could.
Almost before Justin knew what was going on JC was on his feet and crowding Justin back against the wall. JC had gotten mellow right around the time Justin had gotten taller, and Justin was still surprised by how big JC seemed when he had Justin pushed up against a wall. "There's nothing I want from you," JC said, one hand hard in the middle of Justin's chest, and Justin couldn't imagine that JC would hit him but he couldn't imagine what it was that JC was going to do, either.
What JC did was step back until he sat down suddenly on the edge of the bed. Justin stayed against the wall like JC was still holding him there.
"I told you I was sorry," Justin said.
JC nodded, shortly, but didn't say anything.
"It isn't true," Justin said quietly. "You know I didn't mean it. It just slipped out."
"Both those things can't be true," JC said. "It's always the truth that just slips out."
Justin bit his lip and looked down.
"You know what I always thought about you?" JC said in the same even tone. Justin looked up at that, looked right at JC and squared his shoulders and waited. What he'd said had been shitty, he knew that, and he didn't deserve three days of the silent treatment but he deserved something, after all. "Even when you were just a little kid, I always thought you were brave. Guess that's something you grew out of," JC said. A small smile brightened his face, like he'd just remembered something wonderful. "Another thing you grew out of."
"What, you think I'm scared? Of you?" JC smiled again, and Justin didn't look away. He deserved it for saying something that was so clearly what JC had wanted to make him say. "Look," Justin said, taking a deep breath. "I told you I'm sorry, and I am. I really am sorry."
"Really?" JC said. He looked down at his nails. "How interesting."
"C, come on," Justin said, and JC sighed. "Look --"
"No," JC said without even looking up, and Justin knew what he was going to say even before he said it, he knew what he was going to say and he knew he shouldn't and he didn't even care because JC was making him, JC knew he couldn't take being ignored and he was doing it on purpose and so Justin didn't even care.
"Look, I'm sorry," Justin said. "I'm sorry that I have fucking options, I'm sorry that I have fucking opportunities and a fucking career, a whole fucking life ahead of me, I'm sorry that people want me and they don't want --"
Justin bit down hard on his last word, and at least, he thought desperately, at least he'd swallowed it before JC was up in his face again, his hand pinning Justin back against the wall. Then JC smiled at him again, and Justin knew it didn't matter that he'd stopped, or why. He knew what he'd said, and what he'd been about to say, and he knew what he deserved. He squared his shoulders and looked right at JC. Whatever JC asked him next, Justin was going to tell him the truth.
"Are you?" JC asked, and Justin blinked. "Are you sorry?"
"No," Justin said, and JC kissed him, easy as an indrawn breath. Then he stepped back and picked up his room keycard from the table. Justin stayed where he was.
"I never thought you were afraid of me," JC said, and walked barefoot out of the room. Justin stayed where he was.
Justin leaned out of the car and looked at the long line of stalled traffic. He let his hand brush over the steering wheel but resisted the urge to honk. He'd never tell anyone, but deep down he thought it was kind of crazy that there weren't special roads for famous people, where you wouldn't have to wait with everyone else. There were private planes and private clubs and private islands, so he didn't see why no one had invented private highways.
The thin dull shriek of an ambulance rose and then fell away quickly, leaving a moment of somber quiet in its wake. Justin squeezed his eyes shut and vowed to do something very down to earth later, like making his own bed or something. Then he looked at the unmoving line of cars in front of him and picked up his phone.
There was no answer the first time, and Justin didn't leave a message. For a second he thought of calling someone else, then he dialed again. "I'm coming over," he said, and tossed his phone onto the passenger seat. Then he edged out onto the shoulder and made a tight U-turn, driving back the way he'd come in a hail of angry honking.
At the door Justin paused for a second, then let himself in without knocking. He yelled, "Hey," as he walked through the living room. No one answered. Upstairs the door to Chris' bedroom was cracked open, but Chris didn't turn when Justin pushed through it. "Hey," Justin said again, more quietly, and kicked off his shoes and crawled into bed next to Chris. Chris rolled over but didn't say anything. For a moment Justin thought maybe it was just too early, but then Chris wrapped one hand around Justin's bicep and pressed him onto his back and Justin thought that it was never too early.
"So didn't you leave already?" Chris said eventually, one hand still curled around Justin's arm like he thought Justin would float right off the bed if he let go. Justin felt a little like he might, at that.
"Yeah, but I came back."
"I noticed," Chris said. "Is the world ending? Why aren't you at the studio?"
"I don't know, there was traffic, and --" Justin smiled at the look on Chris' face. "I don't know why I even try to lie to you. Look, don't laugh, but there was this thing --"
"I guarantee you I'm going to be laughing in about five seconds."
"No, it's just -- there was an accident on the highway, and I thought -- I just wanted to see you."
As promised, Chris laughed, his mouth against Justin's arm, and it wasn't his normal laugh but sharper, shorter, the laugh he only used when he was laughing at his own jokes. Justin knew that it said something very disturbing about himself that that laugh made him hard.
"So accidents make you think of me, huh?"
"Not -- I mean, not in a sexy way." Chris looked down and Justin laughed. "I mean, I didn't -- it's just, there was an accident, and the ambulance came so you know it was kind of bad and I just, you know, I was sitting there in traffic and I suddenly thought, you know, well, here I am and I'd rather be with someone that I -- with you. So yeah," Justin laughed again, "I guess accidents do make me think of you."
Chris said slowly, "Well, I guess it figures."
"Why?" Justin said, and a second too late he remembered that he'd decided the last time, and the time before that and the time before that, that he was never going to ask that again.
Chris' thumb rubbed in a rough circle against Justin's arm. "What do you think this is, kiddo, except a slow motion car wreck?"
"You think we --" Justin swallowed and started again. "You think this is an accident?"
"I've seen what it looks like when you do things on purpose, J."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You know," Chris said, his thumb still moving on Justin's skin. Justin wanted to shake it off but he settled for shaking his head instead. "When you do something on purpose, it's a fucking knockout, every time. And you and me -- well."
"What?" Justin said. He brushed Chris' hand away and Chris let him. "You and me what?"
"Well, we're not a knockout, are we?" Chris said. Justin didn't answer. "I don't know what you think we're doing, J. It just seems like every once in a while, your heart and your, I don't know, your sense of fucking nostalgia crash into each other and you end up back here."
"It's not nostalgia," Justin whispered, and then he said it again, louder, even though he knew Chris had heard him. "It's not nostalgia."
When Chris turned over onto his back Justin followed him. "So, what, you're just the victim here?"
"Hell, no, kiddo," Chris said. "I'm no victim. Every time I jump in front of the fucking car. Doesn't mean it doesn't hurt when it hits me, though."
"So why do you do it?"
"I don't know. I guess sometimes I just miss the taste of blood in my mouth."
"Bullshit," Justin said, pushing at Chris angrily. "Bullshit, you don't -- nobody misses that."
"J," Chris said, "look, I'm really not -- I'm not saying it's your fault."
"It is," Justin said. "It is my fault, and your fault, and I'm not sorry and neither are you --"
"You're not sorry, are you?" Justin said relentlessly.
Chris caught his breath but he didn't look away.
"Maybe you're just afraid," Justin said, "of what it looks like when I do something on purpose."
"Should I be?" Chris said sharply, his face suddenly tight. Justin didn't say anything, and Chris laughed, not the way he'd laughed before but softer, more like a sigh. "Yeah," Chris said. "You know, I should probably be ashamed of how long it takes me, but you've gotta give me this -- eventually I see my way clear."
"You're blinder than anyone," Justin said, and Chris flinched like he'd been stung. Justin was glad. He reached out and grabbed Chris' hand, lying warm in the sheets. He wrapped Chris' fingers carefully around his own bicep again. When Justin let go, Chris didn't.
"This isn't an accident," Justin said.