by >>Jae

The door opens and Chris looks down quickly at the crossword puzzle in his lap. He's been working on it for an hour and twenty-five minutes now, since five minutes before Justin was supposed to get home. Justin hasn't been gone that long. Three days is nothing to them anymore. After all the years of constant togetherness, their relationship has become a series of swinging doors, entrances and exits, continuous but comforting motion. Chris likes it like that.

He hears Justin drop his bag in the hallway. Justin never comes straight in when he gets back - he checks his messages or calls his mother or plays with the dogs. Last month Chris wandered into the backyard for a smoke and found Justin back two days early from Asia, throwing Cali's ball for her to chase. When he saw Chris he just said, "Hey, baby," and grinned and walked back with him to the house, the dog yipping at their heels. Justin never makes a big fuss when he leaves either. Chris likes it like that, likes that there aren't any tearful goodbyes or fierce reunions. Even after two months on tour, Justin doesn't rush in to Chris because Chris is never waiting. Chris never worries about whether or not Justin is coming back.

Today Justin comes straight in. Today Chris is waiting.

"Hey, baby," Justin says. He sits on the arm of the couch and brushes his mouth against Chris'. Chris smiles briefly and fills in 17 across. Revenant.

"Did you have a good weekend?" Justin says. Chris nods. "What did you do?" Chris waves the crossword puzzle at him and doesn't look up. "What, all weekend?" Justin sounds amused. He picks up a coffee cup from the end table and takes a sip, then spits it back.

"You were drinking that before you left," Chris says.

"I see you didn't clean, anyway." 16 down. Nave. "Was it quiet? Did you get any work done?"

"Yeah, it was pretty quiet. I didn't get much done though. I took the dogs down to the beach yesterday."

"Sounds good," Justin says.

"It was okay. It was quiet." 42 across. Atoll. Justin leans over his shoulder, takes the pen from his fingers and fills in 39 down. He is wrong. Chris doesn't bother to correct it. Justin drops the pen and the paper onto the couch. "How was it?" Chris says.

"It was nice." Justin rubs a hand over the side of his face. "Long, but nice."

"Did you have fun?"

"Not fun exactly, but it was nice. I saw the baby - that was fun."

"How is she?" Chris says.

"Not a baby anymore, hardly. She's almost eight. But she's a looker, man. Gonna be as pretty as her mama."

"I know," Chris says. He has seen Britney's daughter many times, although only on TV and in pictures.

"She's a heller, though. You should have heard her talk. She grows up, she's gonna be trouble."

"Just like her mama," Chris says mildly.

Justin is quiet a moment, then says, "Brit's not so bad."

"No," Chris says. "No, she's not at all." Justin rubs his face again. Chris thinks about picking up his crossword. Instead he says, "Did she seem happy?"

"Oh, she was over the moon. But she always is in the beginning - you know how Brit is."

Chris doesn't, not for the last ten years, but he nods.

"She says hi, by the way."

"Oh," Chris says. He doesn't know what else to say, but Justin looks at him expectantly. "How was - Chad? Did you like him?"

"Thad. I don't know, I was only there for three days and all, and we were always in a crowd. But you know, I think this one might take. He's not in the business, so that's good."

"Yeah," Chris says. "That's good."

"I hope it works out. She's had bad luck. Brit deserves something good, after all this time."

"Yes. Yes, she does."

Justin looks over at him quickly, but Chris means it. Brit deserves something good, after all this time.

"The guys said hi, too."

"I know," Chris says. "You all sounded like you were having a good time when you called."

"We were," Justin says. He traces the outline of an old stain on the back of the couch with one finger. It's faded so much Chris can't see it, but he knows where it is. "They missed you."

"I talk to them every week. We see one of them every couple of months - Joey more than that, since he moved back out here. I don't give them a chance to miss me."

"They missed you," Justin says. He says it softly. Chris knows by his tone of voice that he's not looking for an argument. But even when he doesn't want to fight, Justin won't lie to Chris, he won't agree with Chris when he thinks he's wrong. He'll say it quietly, so that Chris can pretend to ignore it, but he won't let certain things go by. It used to infuriate Chris, back in the beginning, never getting the last word. He doesn't mind it now. He likes knowing that Justin always tells him the truth, now that there are things Justin might be tempted to be kind about. "We missed you."

"I know," Chris says.

"You should have come with me," Justin says with his head down. He runs a hand through his hair. From this angle Chris can see the gray at his temple that's usually hidden in the mass of curls. Justin grew them back a while ago. Chris thought he might shave his head again when he saw the first gray hair, but so far Justin hasn't. He doesn't seem to mind it. Chris has caught him a few times leaning in close to the mirror, studying his hairline, and there was a brief moment two weeks after his birthday when Justin was filling out some form and suddenly said, "I'm thirty years old," and had to sit down and stare at the wall for a while. But aside from that there's been nothing. Chris thinks it might be the result of spending so many years playing catchup, wishing he were older, as old as the rest of them, but Justin truly seems to be aging gracefully.

Chris thinks it would come as no surprise to anyone that he is not. Oh, he's okay with the idea that he's getting older. He's not thrilled about it, but he's okay with it. He's not losing his hair, thank God, and unlike Justin he's not even graying yet. But his glasses get thicker and thicker every year, and he can't walk up a flight of steps without thinking about his knees. Still, his years of fame have made him acutely aware of his own limitations. Spending so much time in the company of gods has made him used to his own mortality.

He is still not used to Justin's. He saw the gray in Justin's hair one night in bed, a week before Justin noticed it, and lay awake until morning. Not because of how Justin looked, of course, on his good days he's sure he's not that shallow, and besides, it's not like he really even sees what Justin looks like anymore, except for the sudden sunbursts of beauty that dazzle him at odd times, Justin waking crumpled and crabby from a midday nap or squinting seriously as he tries to program the dishwasher. No, what Chris found himself thinking that night was something he hadn't allowed himself to think since childhood. The ferocity of the thought was left over from childhood, too.

It's not fair.

Chris has always known that he would grow older, would diminish and even die, but he can keep that thought in the back of his mind. It only scares him briefly, on rare occasions, when he can't catch his breath at the top of a steep hill or when his plane takes off. But the idea that the same thing will happen to Justin, is happening to Justin, makes him deeply uneasy. If that gold can fade, can gray, then anything can happen. There's no fairness anywhere. Chris has known since he was five years old that life wasn't fair to him. But somewhere deep down he always believed that it would be fair to someone. Deep down, he always believed that it would be fair to Justin. He thought sometimes that that was why he loved Justin so recklessly, so terribly.

Chris watches Justin twist a finger absently into the tiny patch of gray and feels a surge of helpless anger and tenderness and a love as reckless and terrible as it has ever been.

Justin looks up and meets his eyes. "You should have come with me," he says.

"J," Chris says. He closes his eyes, then opens them. That surge of tenderness makes him say, "She's more your friend than mine, really." At best this is half a lie; Chris is not sure that what Justin and Britney have left can be called friendship. And he has never been Britney's friend.

"That's not -" Justin says, then stops. He never lies to Chris. "She invited you. She said she wanted you there."

"She doesn't want to see me, Justin." This is not a lie. Chris doesn't blame her. When things were the other way, Chris didn't want to see her. He couldn't help seeing her, but that wasn't her fault.

"Chris." Chris watches Justin try to find something to say. He finally settles on, "That was a long time ago."

It was. Sometimes Chris is shocked by the fact that Justin is as old now as Chris was when it started. Justin is nothing like Chris remembers being at that age. But then, Justin and Chris have never been much alike.

When Chris looks at Justin now, he sees a grown man, neither young nor old. At that age Chris had thought he was old, but now that he's much closer to old he knows how young he truly was. Only someone young could muster the desperate passion and cruelty and courage to do what he had done. He couldn't do it now. Now he'd stop and think, about himself, about other people, about what he was risking, about what he could lose, about who he would hurt.

Not that it had been easy then. It hadn't been. He had barely been able to do it. But he'd thought, then, that he would die if he didn't. He had been very young. Even so, he almost hadn't done it. He'd almost stopped. He wonders now sometimes if he would have dared if he had known what would happen. He knows the answer. The only way he'd been able to steel himself for it had been by reminding himself that he would ruin it, that he would fuck it up, that there was no way it would last. Britney had screamed that at him once, the very last night, JC's hands on her shoulders pulling her back but not before she said it. "The only good thing is that you'll fuck this up, Chris, I know you will, like you do everything, like you always have." Justin had gotten up from the bed where he'd been sitting with his head in his hands and closed the door on her firmly. Even then they had been able to hear her, and for the first time in days the pain that twisted Justin's face had not been for Britney. Chris thought then that her words had named his fate. Now he thinks they sealed it.

When her voice had finally died away, Chris looked at Justin and said quietly, "I will, you know. I always do."

Justin had looked at him and said, just as quietly, "No. No."

Even then Justin had never lied to him.

"It was a long time ago," Chris says. It was.

"It's - nobody blames you. It just happened. It was nobody's fault." Justin believes this, Chris knows. He also knows that it isn't true. He hasn't forgotten what it was like then, what he did. He did it on purpose. He planned it, wanted it, willed it to happen. He'd told himself that he couldn't help it, but even at the time he'd known it wasn't true. He could have stopped. It would have hurt, worse than hell, worse than anything ever had, and it would have kept hurting, but he could have stopped. He didn't. He isn't sorry for that.

"She's over me," Justin says. "Years ago, even. I mean, it's - we laugh about it, now. She's over me." Justin believes this too. Justin has always been himself, always had himself, and it's not surprising that he doesn't know what Chris and Britney and Britney's ex-husbands all know. Justin is a loss you don't get over.

"I just. I wish you'd come, just once. Then you'd see." Justin believes this, and Chris does too. It's because of what he'd see that he stays home. Once he would have jumped at the chance, would have gone with Justin and smiled as Britney squirmed. There had been a sharp place in him once, sharp enough to make Britney bleed. It had been worn down by years of having exactly what he'd always wanted, what he would always want, years of Justin's voice rippling over him, Justin's smile as beautiful and relentless as the sea.

"Nobody thinks about it anymore, except you. Everybody's forgotten. She's forgotten."

"Some things you don't forget," Chris says. He hasn't forgotten that night, Britney's face blotched white and red, her eyes and mouth like open wounds. Justin had flinched when he looked at her. She was ugly, Chris had made her ugly, had stripped even her shining surface away from her. Even then he had thought that that was not the least of his sins.

"Some things leave scars," Chris says.

"Yeah, but Chris," Justin says impatiently. "Scars fade."

This is true. Scars fade. Everything fades. Even Chris. There was a sharp place in him once, but it softened. It had been sharp once with hunger and with triumph, and he had thought about Britney every day and when he did what he felt could only be called hatred. Now the hunger has been fed and the triumph has faded and he only thinks about Britney two or three times a year and when he does all he feels is guilt.

"Everything fades," Chris says sharply, and it does. It does.

Justin looks at Chris, then slides down the arm of the couch to sit sideways in his lap. Chris pushes at him irritably. Justin was too big for this the first time he did it, years ago, and he hasn't gotten any smaller. He seems to think that nothing but the close crush of his body can make Chris stop worrying. It doesn't make Chris stop worrying, it just makes him worry he'll lose an eye to Justin's elbow.

"Not everything," Justin says, his mouth close to Chris' ear. "Not everything."

Justin lays his head on Chris' shoulder and Chris presses his lips to Justin's temple. He can't see the small patch of gray but he knows where it is. He slides his mouth down to Justin's, but Justin puts his fingers over Chris' lips and stops him.

Justin says, "Some things don't fade."

"No," Chris says, "no, you're right. Some things don't."

Chris lies, because some things haven't faded yet.

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