The Secret Marriage
may you one day carry me home
"And it was designed by Robert Trent Jones, which I know means nothing to you losers but trust me, that means it's good. And there's great surfing, and the rooms open right onto the beach --"
"The rooms?" Joey said. "You mean you're not sharing?"
"Joe," Lance said. He squeezed Joey's calf, which was resting across his lap.
"Why would we share?" Justin said. "I mean, what if I, you know, hook up with somebody?" He threw a pencil at Joey when he laughed. "What? It's been known to happen. Or, or Chris could."
"Yeah," Joey said. He looked at Lance and they both smiled. "Right."
"What?" Justin said.
"Then stop grinning at each other like idiots. Assholes."
"Well," Lance said, "it just seems a little strange that you'd have separate rooms on this big honeymoon trip you're planning."
"What?" Justin said. "This big what trip?"
Joey laughed. "See," he said to Lance, "see, I told you. He's fucking clueless. And Kirkpatrick's worse. I told you we'd have to say something."
"Wait," Justin said slowly. "This isn't a big -- it's just a vacation. Chris and me are just going on a vacation. That's all. There's nothing going on. Nothing."
"Sure," Joey said. "Yet."
"I mean, we were just kind of wondering," Lance said, "if maybe this fabulous room right on the beach --"
"Rooms," Joey said.
"Oh, excuse me. We were thinking maybe these rooms on the beach happened to feature, oh, I don't know, an old-fashioned bathtub big enough for two."
"And maybe one or two or twenty-six vanilla scented candles," Joey said. "A little Al Green on the boombox."
"Let me be the one you come running to," Lance sang.
"No!" Justin said. "Why? Why would you think that?"
"It's just, you've been talking and talking about this whole trip, and it just sounds, I don't know. Kind of. Romantic," Joey said.
"We're going to golf," Justin said. "We'll be golfing. God, if that's your idea of romantic, no wonder Kelly's always yelling at you." Joey shrugged. "And Lance. I can't believe you think golfing is romantic."
"Well, maybe Chris' idea of romantic," Lance said. "But it's not so much the golf, it's the way you talk about the golf."
"I like golf," Justin said.
"Yeah, well, you like golf, but you love this trip. You should hear yourself talk about it. 'Me and Chris are gonna play golf and me and Chris are gonna surf and Chris heard about this place where you can rent bikes and go all over the island and then me and Chris are gonna walk hand in hand on the beach in the moonlight and then me and Chris are gonna make mad passionate love down on the --'"
"Shut up!" Justin said. "So I'm excited about the trip. So what? I mean, me and Chris are friends, we're gonna have a great time, that's all. That's what friends do."
"Sure," Joey said. "You and Chris are friends. Good friends. Real good friends."
"Real, real, real good friends," Lance said.
"We are!" Justin said. "So are you guys."
"Sure, we're friends," Joey said. "Good friends. Best friends." Lance wrapped a hand around Joey's ankle and shook it playfully. "But we're not like you guys. You guys have your own little language and your jokes and, I don't know, your own secret handshake."
"We don't --" Justin started to say, and then stopped. He and Chris did have a secret handshake, but they just made it up one day when they were bored and hadn't used it in years. "You guys have your own jokes and stuff too."
"It's different," Joey said. "And you guys spend all your time together --"
"So do you!"
"It's different," Joey said. "How many times a day did Chris call you when you were in the studio?"
"Not a lot," Justin said. "Never more than three. Except that one time when he -- shut up!"
"Exactly," Lance said.
"You shut up too," Justin said. "So we like to do stuff together. So we like to hang out. So we like to talk to each other. We're friends."
"And you're always hanging all over each other," Joey said. Justin looked pointedly at Joey's legs, draped over Lance's lap. Joey sat up and laughed. "It's different," he said.
"How?" Justin said.
"It just is," Joey said. "It is," he said again when Justin scowled at him. "Ask anybody. Everybody thinks you two are, you know."
"Joe," Lance said.
"Look," Justin said. "We like to hang out together, we like the same stuff, sometimes we touch each other. Not that way," he said sharply when Lance chuckled. "So that means we're, what, madly in love with each other?"
"Well, don't say it like it's a death sentence," Lance said.
"All we're saying," Joey said, "is the two of you are already together twenty-four seven, nobody's closer than the two of you, nobody in the universe, you hang all over each other and you somehow manage not to mind the nine hundred annoying habits you've got between the two of you. You're already married, kid. All we're saying is, maybe you should get a little play out of it." Joey's phone rang and he answered it. "Oh, hey, Kel," he said, standing up and walking toward the door. "Oh, nothing. Just hanging out with Lance and Mrs. Kirkpatrick here." He laughed as Justin threw a book at him.
Lance was quiet for a minute. Then he leaned in and tapped Justin's knee. "I'm not saying," he said when Justin looked up. "I'm just saying."
"Fine," Justin snapped. "And now you've said it, and you're done."
"J," Lance said. "Don't be like that. Come on. Look, we shouldn't have said it all joking like that, but we might never have said anything otherwise, and I'm glad we did. It was time for somebody to." When Justin didn't say anything, Lance sighed. "Come on. Are you saying you've never thought about it?"
"Never," Justin said. It was true.
"Well, maybe you should," Lance said. "I mean, you guys are just. You're made for each other."
"We're friends," Justin said. "Friends. Good friends, best friends, yeah, but friends. I don't know why you of all people can't understand that. You and Joey."
"It's different with me and Joey," Lance said.
"You both keep saying that," Justin said. "How? How?" Lance didn't say anything. "Come on, Lance. How is it different?"
"It's different," Lance said evenly, "because Joey is straight."
"Oh," Justin said. "Oh."
"Yeah," Lance said. "Oh." He got up and headed for the door. "Have fun on your trip," he said.
"All right," Justin said. "I'll tell you, but you have to promise that you won't, like, take this the wrong way."
"See now, that's like asking someone to promise they won't get mad. You might as well just say, Chris, you're gonna take this the wrong way, but please pretend you're not, cause I don't want to --"
"Chris," Justin said. Chris looked at him.
"Okay," Chris said. He sat up.
"Joey and Lance," Justin said and stopped. Chris looked at him patiently. "Joey and Lance, um, said something." Justin stopped again.
"J," Chris said, "I took my Prozac this morning, so my attention span's good for at least fifty words." He patted Justin's chest. "Come on, spill."
"Joey and Lance think that I'm, kind of, secretly in love with you. Like, unconsciously secretly in love with you. And you're, um, with me. Too."
Chris didn't say anything for a minute. Justin watched him intently. Then Chris shook his head and laughed a little and said, "Fucking Fatone, man."
"Yeah," Justin said. "Fucking Fatone." But his voice sounded different than Chris' had, shakier, and Chris sighed and ran a hand through his hair and leaned back against Justin's bent knees. He looked down at Justin. Justin looked back.
"J," he said. "J J J J J."
"You know it's not true. How the hell can it bother you when you know it's not true?"
"I know," Justin said, but his voice was still shaky.
"J," Chris said again. He tilted his head back and studied the sky for a moment, then looked back down at Justin. "Look, I'm a bright boy. I know shit. And whether or not I'm in love with somebody is just the type of shit I pride myself on knowing. And I'm not in love with you. And you don't really seem like you've been pining after me. Right?" Justin didn't say anything. Chris rapped him sharply on the chest. "Right?"
"Jesus Christ," Justin said as he knocked Chris' hand off his chest. His voice was steady again. "Right."
"Right," Chris said happily. He slid off Justin and stood up. "Biker chicks?"
"Biker chicks," Justin said. Chris reached a hand down to him and Justin pulled himself up.
"Listen," Chris said softly. "Joey's just all domestically blissful right now, and he wants everyone else to be. It's the Fatone way -- they want to feed everybody and then pair them off. They'll never be happy until we're all fat and married."
Justin laughed. "I know."
Chris shoved Justin toward the house, then ran his hand up Justin's back and cupped the back of his neck. "It's not us, J," he said. "Forget about it."
"You just saw me yesterday," Justin said, but he laughed. He dropped into the chair next to Chris and said, "Hey." Chris was drinking Scotch, and Justin knew what that meant. Chris only drank Scotch when he was miserable, and it just made him meaner.
Chris lurched into him and said loudly, "I hate this bar."
"Yeah, well," Justin said. He didn't point out that from what Joey had said, Chris picked out the bar. Justin hated the place too. While Justin could appreciate a cheap dive where nobody knew them and nobody bothered them, this place was an expensive dive where everybody knew them and pretended not to. The bartender lifted his eyebrows at Chris' remark and made a production out of checking Justin's ID before surrendering his beer. "You wanna go somewhere else?"
"No," Chris said. "I hate it here. I want to stay all night." He ordered another round.
"You sure you want another?" Justin said.
"Would I have ordered it if I didn't?"
"Fine," Justin said. "I just don't think you really look like you need another, but --"
"Hey!" Chris called to the bartender. "Make it a double."
"Whatever," Justin said. "You're gonna be fucked tomorrow, but you do whatever you want."
"Thank you for your permission," Chris said. Joey laughed. "What?"
"God, you guys even fight like you're married," Joey said.
"Joe," Justin said. "Not tonight, okay?"
"No, I just mean, I think I've had that exact conversation with Kel like nine million times." Chris flipped him off. "No," Joey said. His voice softened and his eyes grew serious. "No, I been meaning to talk to you guys. For real, you know?"
"Joey," Justin said. "Not now, all right?"
"Yeah," Joey said. "Yeah, now." Justin groaned inwardly, then figured the other two were drunk enough that he could groan out loud, so he did. Joey ignored him and put his hands on the table and leaned in. "You guys, you know, you're my friends and I'm just saying this because I love you and I want you to be happy."
"We're happy," Justin said fervently. "We're very happy."
"I personally am ecstatic," Chris said. He downed his drink in two gulps and ordered another.
"Listen," Joey said, and his voice was so sweetly stubborn that Justin wanted to cry. "Sure, you know, sure you're happy, but I just think that you could be, you know, even happier. I just -- I can see how you guys are, and I don't know if it's just like, you know, you know how they say you're always the last to know, or if you're scared or, or I don't know. But I see how you guys are, what you guys are, and I just want you to. Too."
"We're friends, Joey," Justin said. "We're friends."
"Sure you are," Joey said. "I know. But I just think, you know, that you could be something else. Something more."
"More?" Chris said sharply, and Justin put his head in his hands. It wasn't fair that everyone else got to be drunk for this conversation. "What's more?"
"Well, I mean, you know," Joey said, waving his hands around vaguely. "You know, more."
"No," Chris said. "No, I don't know, Joey. What the hell is there more than what me and J have? You tell me."
"I just think it could be so much more if you'd only --"
"If I'd only what?" Chris said. "Fuck him?" Justin flinched, and Chris' voice grew gentler. "He knows everything about me, Joey," Chris said, "everything, the ugliest things, the things I don't even tell myself, he knows. And I know him. So you tell me, what more is there, what else could we possibly find?"
"I know," Joey said again, "I know, you're close, you're so close. But see, you're, like, proving my point for me. I don't know, all the words are stupid, but sometimes they're real, you know? Like, I don't know, soulmates. I know, I know, you hate that kind of shit, but it's true sometimes. It is. And when you're with somebody like that, I mean really with them, well, there's nothing better in the world, I'm telling you. Nothing."
"How would you know?" Chris said.
"Chris," Justin said angrily.
"Shut up," Chris said.
"Yeah, that's a touching display of our friendship," Justin said. It worked. Chris looked at him and grinned briefly and when he turned back to Joey, his voice was softer.
"Look, I'm sorry, Joe," he said. "But I'm sick of people telling us what we should be doing when nobody knows what it's like. Our friendship, man, it's --"
"Look, I know friendship," Joey said, "and that's not what you guys have."
"You don't know friendship."
"I do," Joey said. "Me and Lance --"
"Oh, you and Lance," Chris sneered.
"Chris, shut up," Justin said.
Only someone as fundamentally nice as Joey was would still be trying to talk to Chris reasonably. For the first time in his life, Justin wished Joey wasn't so nice. "Chris," Joey said steadily, "I know that me and Lance aren't like you guys. That's my point."
"Yeah," Chris said, "that's my point too." Justin hoped that Joey wouldn't pick up on the implication in Chris' voice. But Joey had known Chris as long as Justin had. His eyes narrowed.
"What do you mean?" Joey said.
"I mean," Chris said slowly, "you don't know the first thing about Lance."
"Chris, shut the fuck up," Justin said. "I mean it."
"No, J," Joey said. "What do you mean, Chris? I know Lance."
"You don't know the first thing about him."
"I can't even take you seriously," Joey said, "cause that's so stupid."
"You know all the other things about him, maybe. But not the first thing."
"Chris, shut the fuck up right now," Justin said desperately. But it was too late. Joey was drunk, but he had never been stupid.
"What do you mean by that?" Joey said again.
"What do you think I mean?" Chris said. He tilted his chin defiantly and met Joey's eyes. Joey looked back at him.
Justin looked down at the table. He looked back up when Joey said quietly, "I was only trying to help you, man."
"Yeah, well, spare me your help."
"I will," Joey said. "I will."
"Joey," Justin said.
"Sorry, J," Joey said, and walked out.
Justin looked at Chris. "What the fuck did you think you were doing? What's wrong with you?"
"Oh, fuck," Chris said. "Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck." He banged his head on the table with every word.
The bartender appeared and said silkily, "Did you need another round here?" Chris growled at him, and he scurried back behind the bar.
"I'm so fucking pissed at you, I can't even tell you," Justin said.
"Fuck," Chris said. "Oh, fuck, I didn't say it, did I? Tell me I didn't say it." Justin didn't say anything. "God fucking damn it, what's my fucking problem? Damn it, why the fuck can't I ever think?"
"I don't know," Justin said, "it sounded to me like you thought that through real well."
"Oh, fuck, J, I know. I know, I'm a bastard, and I'm so fucking drunk, and he'd been on me all night, all these subtle little hints that were about as subtle as a semi, and I told him not to call you but he had to, and -- oh, god damn it, there's no excuse. I can't believe I fucking did that. And to Joey, of all people. Fuck."
"I don't know that Joey's your main worry there," Justin said.
"What?" Chris looked up at him, and then turned white. "Oh fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck fuck fuck," and he started to beat his head against the table again.
"Don't do that," Justin said, and slid his hand across the table. Chris let his forehead rest in Justin's palm.
"J, J, J, what the hell am I gonna do?"
"I don't know," Justin said. Chris' skin was warm and sweaty against his fingers.
"I guess, fuck, I could go after him. He's not gonna be able to get a hold of Lance tonight, and I could, I don't know. Tell him I'm just a fucking miserable drunk and the world's biggest asshole and none of it was true. But fuck, he's not going to believe me, is he?"
"Oh, I think he'll believe you're a miserable drunk and the world's biggest asshole. I think we all pretty much believe that."
"J," Chris said. He lifted his head and looked at Justin.
"No," Justin said quietly. "The other part, he just -- he knows you. He's not gonna believe you."
"Fuck," Chris said. "J, what am I gonna do?"
"He'll believe me," Justin said.
Chris looked at him blankly for a moment. "What are you --"
"He won't believe you, but he'll believe me," Justin said. "He knows I never - he knows I wouldn't lie to him."
"J," Chris said. Justin stood up. "Where are you going?"
"Where do you think?" Justin said.
"J," Chris said. "I don't think you --"
"What else are we gonna do?" Justin said. Chris didn't say anything. "Okay then," Justin said quietly.
He put on his jacket and went to lie to Joey.
When Justin got home Chris was sitting on the couch waiting for him. "It's cool," Justin said. "He's good. He believed me."
"That's good," Chris said. Justin sat down on the couch next to him and took off his shoes. "J, I'm so fucking sorry, I can't say."
"Don't," Justin said. "It's just. There's one thing." He tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Chris do the same thing. "You got so pissed at him, and I know you're drunk and all but I was just thinking. Um. Why do you think you did that?"
"I told him why," Chris said.
"Cause he was insulting us?" Justin said, eyes still on the ceiling. "I didn't really -- he wasn't, you know. He was just saying, you know, he didn't understand. I mean, you know, it's hard for him to get that we're just friends --"
"I hate that fucking phrase so much," Chris said. "Just friends. Anytime I hear somebody say that, I think, that poor bastard must never have had a true friend in his life, he says just friends like it's nothing. Like friendship -- like that's ever just anything. It makes me so fucking angry."
"Well, I don't know, if they never had a real friend, that's kind of sad, you know? Maybe you should just be sad for them."
"That's why you're a better person than me, J," Chris said. "Me, it pisses me off. It's just, I don't mean Joey, I know he loves Lance, and us, and C, he knows. But some people, man, they just shouldn't get to have the word in their mouths, you know? They make it so fucking cheap."
"Okay," Justin said. "It's just -- I don't know. You got so mad, and I thought maybe. I don't know, it hit a nerve or something."
"He said that to you, right? Fucking Fatone."
"Yeah, you don't really get to say that about him. Not to me, not for a while."
"I know," Chris said. "J, I'm so sorry."
"I know. Just don't say that."
"I'm sorry," Chris said again. "I wish I hadn't -- I don't deserve you."
"We're friends," Justin said. "It's not about deserving." He patted Chris' leg, and Chris slid down the couch and put his head in Justin's lap. "Besides, you know, you do."
Chris smiled up at him. "I'm gonna sleep here tonight," he said.
"Yeah, I wasn't really gonna drive you back to your place," Justin said.
"No, I mean, right here. On the couch."
"All right. There's like four perfectly good beds upstairs, but you do whatever you want."
"I will," Chris said. He twisted restlessly on the couch. "You suck as a pillow, though. Bony ass lap."
"Yeah, well, get up and I'll go get you a real one. I'm nice that way."
"Too lazy," Chris said, closing his eyes. "I'm just gonna sleep here."
"Yeah, well, I'm not," Justin said. But he sat there and waited until Chris was asleep before he slipped out from beneath him. He untied Chris' shoes and took them off, then found a blanket and pillow for him. As Justin was easing the pillow under his head, Chris woke with a start and grabbed Justin's arm, looking around him wildly. "S'okay," Justin said quietly. "You're okay, you're home." Chris closed his eyes again.
"Baby," she said in a calmer voice, "there's no excuse for calling this late in a non-emergency unless you're at least four time zones away." He listened as she moved into another room to keep from waking up his dad. "Okay," she said. "What's wrong?"
"I said nothing was wrong."
"I can hear it in your voice. Besides, it's four-thirty in the morning. Something better be wrong." Justin laughed a little. "Baby, what is it?"
"I don't, um." Justin closed his eyes. "Um, you know Chris?"
"I think you might have mentioned him once or twice. Short guy, thinks he's funny?"
"Ha," Justin said weakly. "So, um, me and Chris. We, um, here's the thing. Some people, um, Joey mainly, and Lance, and they say other people think, but I don't know, I mean, they were only trying to, I don't know, be helpful I guess, cause I guess sometimes people don't see things maybe?"
"Baby," his mom said, "are you drunk?"
"No," he said, "no, I only had one beer and that was like a long time ago."
"Justin, just tell me what's wrong."
"They said that me and Chris are in love. With each other."
"Oh," his mother said. "Oh."
"So, um, what do you think?"
"I think," she said slowly, "I think that whatever makes you happy is just fine with me." Justin didn't say anything. "And you know I adore Chris, and --"
"Oh God," he said, "you think it too!"
"Baby, what? What do I think?"
"You think -- you think Chris makes me happy."
"Well, yes," Justin said. "But, I mean, you think I'm in love with him."
"Justin," his mother said in her Lord-grant-me-patience voice, "isn't that what you called to tell me?"
"No," he said. "God, no."
"Then what are we talking about?"
Justin sighed and started over again from the beginning. When he stopped, there was a silence. "Momma?" he said finally.
"I'm here, baby."
"So. Do you -- um, do you think I'm in love with him?"
"Justin," she said. "That's not something I can answer for you."
"I'm not," he said. "I'm not."
"All right," she said.
"It's just --"
"All right," she said, and waited. She was his mother.
"What if I never -- what if there's never anybody closer than him? I mean, there hasn't been, and I mean. I can't imagine anybody being. And what if I never meet anybody who is? What if it's just, you know, me and him?"
"What if it is?"
"I just always thought. I mean, if you asked me who I was gonna, I was gonna marry, I would've said someone who's that. But I'm not -- with him, I don't think I am, Momma, I really don't think so."
"Well, there you go," she said gently.
"There was something Joey said. He said that he knew friendship, and what we had -- wasn't."
"Well, I'm sure that Joey was trying --"
"He was right," Justin said. "I mean, not the way he thought, but. I have other friends, all the guys, and it's just. That's friendship, and me and Chris, it isn't like that. It's deeper. It's more like -- something else." Justin paused, and then said desperately, "It's more."
His mother was quiet for so long that Justin whispered, "Momma?"
She sighed. "Justin," she said, "there are all kinds of ways of being -- well, of being married. There's only one kind we're supposed to want, but it's not the only kind."
"I don't know," Justin said.
"No, baby," she said. "I don't know, but you know. You're the only one who does."
Justin closed his eyes at the sound of her voice, so familiar and so far away from him. "I want to go home," he said suddenly, and the shiver in his voice made him think of all the other times he'd said that to her, huddled over the phone in the middle of the night.
"You can always come home," his mother said, just like she had so many times before. "If that's what you really want."
"I don't know what I want," Justin said.
"Maybe," she said quietly, "maybe you should find out."
Finally Justin got out of bed and did what he had always done, all those times when he had wanted to go home and didn't, when he had wanted something and couldn't name it. He found Chris deeply asleep, one arm hanging off the edge of the couch. Justin sat on the floor and tipped his head back against the cushion. His hair brushed against Chris' stomach. Chris stirred and murmured something, then turned onto his side. His arm fell across Justin's shoulder. Justin closed his eyes.
He wasn't really surprised when his path took him to JC's door. JC didn't look surprised to see him, either, even though Justin had to drop two boxes of cereal and a plate and slam three cabinet doors by accident before JC woke up and came down.
JC walked up behind Justin as he stood at the refrigerator, wondering what kind of noise a carton of juice would make hitting the floor. He took the juice out of Justin's hands and poured them each a glass. He picked up the cereal and the plate and shut the cabinet doors. Then he sat down at the table and drank his juice.
Justin sat next to him and drank his juice, too. He thought about waiting until JC said something, but when JC thought there was something wrong, he never said anything. He just sat next to you and did something sneaky like drink juice and hum to himself a little until you cracked under the strain. Justin thought that if the band thing ever blew up, JC could get a job interrogating people for the CIA.
Finally the juice drinking and the humming got to him and Justin closed his eyes and said, "Do you think I'm in love with Chris?"
"No," JC said. "No, I don't."
That was fast. Justin opened his eyes. "You don't?"
"No," JC said. He drank his juice.
"Oh," Justin said. He drank his juice. "Then why -- why do you think somebody would say I was?"
"Why would you care if they did?" JC said quietly.
"Oh," Justin said. He was out of juice.
"I don't think you are," JC said.
"I think maybe it would be easier if you were."
"Easier for who?"
"Easier for everybody," JC said.
"Well, I don't care if it's easier for everybody --"
"Easier for you."
"Oh," Justin said. He stood up. "I think -- I have to go home now. Thanks for the juice."
At home Chris was standing in front of the kitchen sink in his boxers staring at a glass of water. "I know with my mind it will make me feel better," he said without looking up, "but my body is telling me that after last night, I should never drink anything ever again."
"Drink it," Justin said, and Chris closed his eyes and drank.
When he was done, Chris turned around and said, "Where'd you go?"
"For a run." Justin hoisted himself up onto the counter. "I ended up at C's."
"He was up?"
"Yeah," Justin said. Well, he was. Eventually. "We had juice."
"Juice, huh?" Justin nodded. "What did you tell him?" Justin looked away.
Chris leaned against the counter right next to Justin. "J," he said.
"I know," Justin said.
"I know," Justin said. He really thought he did.
Justin had heard the story six times from a variety of people, but CleoTyne -- CT to her friends, and of course Justin was a friend, she knew it as soon as she saw him, he was her kind of folks -- had a rich bluesy voice and a thick luscious accent, so he didn't mind hearing it again. Besides, Justin had had a couple of beers in the hour he'd been at the party, and he was buzzed enough that he wasn't really listening, was just watching the sway of CT's long braids, amber and chocolate, twisting around and around as she talked.
Suddenly there was a hand on the small of his back as Chris said low, into his ear, "I'm gonna get out of here. I'll send the car back, all right?"
"No," Justin said, just as low. "No, I'll be another fifteen minutes, tops. Wait for me."
"All right," Chris said, and CT smiled at him before he turned away.
"Sorry," Justin said.
"Oh, no," CT said, "I know how it is." She grinned again. "When did y'all get together?"
"Oh, God, long time ago," Justin said. "You never heard this story? Almost eight years now -- I was fourteen when we started."
"Oh," CT said. She pulled one of her braids into her mouth and chewed on it. "Oh, I didn't realize you were. Oh. Well. It's great the way it worked out for you."
"Yeah, yeah, it's great. I mean, I never dreamed. But you know, we've been really lucky."
"That's so great. I'm so jealous!" She leaned in closer to him and put her hand on his chest. "I mean, when I'm on tour my boyfriend can only fly out like once a month, and I miss him so much. It must be so nice not to have to worry about that."
"What?" Justin said.
"I just mean, having somebody there all the time." CT looked up at him. "I mean, I didn't mean to sound. God, I know you have stuff to worry about. It must be really hard for the two of you, not to be able to really be --"
"No," Justin said sharply. Her hand fell from his chest. "There's no two of us." He tried to make his voice sound normal. "We're friends."
CT blinked up at him, then blushed and put her hand up to her mouth. "Oh God," she said. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," Justin said. Her apologetic voice floated after him as he made his way toward the door.
Out in the limo Chris was smoking up. As Justin slid in next to him, Chris passed him the joint and turned his head away at the same time. It was an old habit Chris picked up in Germany, looking away when Justin smoked, like if he didn't see then he didn't know and he could honestly tell Justin's mom he wasn't corrupting her baby. "Didn't think you'd make it back here," Chris said.
"I said I would."
"Yeah," Chris said. "That was a pretty girl."
"So why did you make it back here?"
"Just wasn't feeling it, I guess," Justin said. "Plus, she had a boyfriend."
"Oh," Chris said.
"Plus, she thought I had a boyfriend." Justin looked over at him. "You wanna guess who she thought that was?"
Chris looked at him blankly for a minute, then started to laugh. "Fucking Fatone," he said. "What, he's got an advance team now?"
Justin didn't smile. "No," he said, "looks like Joey's not the only one who sees it."
Chris stopped laughing. "J," he said, and then stopped. He ran a hand through his hair. "What'd she say to you?"
"Nothing," Justin said. "I mean, she wasn't, like, nasty or anything. She was just -- I didn't know what she was talking about at first. After you left, she was all, when did y'all get together, and I thought she meant the band --"
"J," Chris said, and he was laughing again, "J, you didn't --"
"I didn't know!" Justin said. "I wasn't thinking --"
"I mean, about that! Why would I think about that?"
"So she asked, and you told her, what?"
"The truth, you child molester," Justin said, and he was starting to smile a little too.
"Oh, god," Chris moaned, "she thinks I'm the gay R. Kelly." Chris took another hit off the joint and then started laughing again, harder, leaning forward and grabbing the seat in front of him. Justin had always loved to see Chris laugh, because he gave into it wholeheartedly, hooting breathlessly and holding his sides, falling to the floor and shaking with it. It was the one thing Chris could never resist, the one thing he let down his guard for.
The one thing besides Justin.
"Chris," Justin said, and Chris looked over at him, a smile still curving the corners of his lips. Justin kissed him.
Chris pulled away and his smile was gone, as if Justin had stolen it from him. "J," Chris said in the voice he'd used long ago when Justin nagged, "no."
Justin wasn't fourteen anymore. "Yes," he said.
"Justin," Chris said, "you're drunk. I am --"
"But that's not why," Justin said. "I'm not that drunk."
"J," Chris said, and it was his normal voice, "don't."
"I want to," Justin started to say, and then stopped. Instead he said quietly, "Maybe everybody's right. Maybe we're the last to know. Maybe we should, you know."
"Justin, there's no -- this isn't the type of thing there's shoulds about. There aren't any rules, like if we don't follow them we'll be in trouble."
"I know. But I was thinking ..."
"That I can't stop thinking about it. You know, I keep wondering about it. If it." Justin took a deep breath. "I can't stop."
Chris looked at him. "It'll change things."
"They're already changed," Justin said. Chris winced when he said it, but Justin didn't stop. "I'll always be thinking about what might have been, you know, if we don't. I already am. I can't stop."
"Wait," Chris said. "Wait." He put the heels of his hands against his eyes and dug his fingers into his hair. Justin watched him. "Christ," he said. "Why can't anything important ever happen when I'm sober?" Finally Chris took his hands away from his face and looked at Justin. "J," Chris said seriously, "are you sure?"
"I can't stop," Justin said.
"What if this -- what if it doesn't work out the way you think it will? What if it wrecks us?"
Just the thought of it tempted Justin to take everything he'd said back, to live with the might have beens. But something about the way Chris' voice flicked out 'wrecks', quick and vicious as a snakebite, reminded him of the way Chris had coached him for interviews in the days of the lawsuit, throwing out questions that made Justin gasp and yell and get up and pace around the room. Chris hadn't relented, even when Justin was near tears, until Justin could answer the questions coolly, until he could listen to the cruelest insults with calm eyes and a steady smile. Justin never needed the lessons; they won the lawsuit and NSA came out and everyone loved them. And even the people who didn't never came up with questions as smart and spiteful as the ones Chris imagined.
"Nothing could," Justin said, smiling steadily at Chris. "Nothing will."
"I don't know," Chris said.
"I do," Justin said.
"J, are you sure you can't just -- I mean, give yourself a little time. You're sure you can't stop thinking about it?"
"No," Justin said. "Can you?"
"I never said I was thinking about it," Chris said sharply.
"Can you really stop?"
Chris put his hand over his face again. Justin watched and waited. There was something tugging at the corners of his mind, something simmering deep inside him, bone deep, but anticipation sang so loudly and sweetly in his veins that he ignored everything else. Finally Chris said, "Not tonight. You're drunk and I'm high and no -- not tonight."
"I don't wanna wait," Justin said.
"Tomorrow night. If we're gonna do it, we should do it right." Chris hesitated, then said, "J? You're sure?"
"I know," Chris said. "Tomorrow night, okay?"
"Okay," Justin said.
They rode the rest of the way home quietly, sharing another joint. Justin didn't know what Chris was thinking. He didn't ask.
When the day finally dragged to an end, Justin drove to the address Chris had given him. They had a keycard at the desk for him and he let himself into the suite. Chris was waiting for him. There was something strange about the way Chris was standing in the middle of the room, but then he smiled, and it was Chris waiting for him and it wasn't strange at all. "J," he said, and Justin crossed the room and kissed him.
Chris tasted like whiskey and something else, something sweeter, and his lips felt just like any guy's, a little rougher than a girl's, and Justin didn't know why that surprised him but it did. Chris put his hands on Justin's shoulders and mumbled, "Wait, slow down," but Justin had been waiting for this all day, and maybe longer, he wasn't sure, and anyway there was no reason to wait anymore. Chris laughed and gave in and pulled Justin to the bed.
It was strange, but it was the first time and first times were always strange. Justin had never been crazy about one night stands -- he knew he'd probably have to turn in his guy card (or his balls, he could hear Chris saying in a thousand late night discussions), but he had always liked monogamy, liked sex better the more he knew someone, the more they knew him. But this wasn't strange the way first times usually were, the awkwardness of learning someone else's body, of signaling his own desires. He knew exactly what Chris liked. He had heard it many, many times in drunken bull sessions and sleepless nights of travel. And Justin knew Chris would know just what he wanted.
When Justin started pushing at the hem of his own T-shirt, baring his skin for Chris' hands, Chris lay back and said hoarsely, "Go ahead. Take it off." Justin sat back on his heels and stripped off his shirt, then lifted up to unbutton his pants. He could hear Chris' voice in his head, another late night on the bus and they were drinking tequila, he could remember it, could remember the taste in his mouth and the look on Chris' face as he told him about a boyfriend from college. "I just -- it was lots of times, but I remember it as one, just the way he took off his clothes for me. Not putting on a show, acting like a stripper, you know how if you ask somebody they do, but just. He didn't hurry, either, he knew I was watching and he just let me and there's nothing like that, it's something you only get when you've been sleeping with someone for a while, the way he wasn't in a rush or embarrassed or showing off, but just, you know, the way he didn't even really think about me looking at him because of course I would, I had so many times. I'd seen him. I knew him."
It was the first time, but it wasn't, because they had seen each other naked so many times, although never like this, but still, Justin didn't rush, he wasn't embarrassed, he didn't show off. Chris saw him. Chris knew him.
And Justin knew Chris, knew to slide back up Chris' body and kiss him and grab at Chris' clothes until they were a tangled mess around his legs and arms and Chris had to squirm out of them. And then they were naked and Chris pulled Justin on top of him and kissed him, his hands moving down Justin's back, over his ass. Justin had told Chris once, drunk on beer on his patio on a spring night, that he and Britney had done nothing but kiss one night, nothing but kiss until Justin came and the intensity of it had almost scared him. Chris knew that, Justin had told him, but Justin thought, oh no, not tonight, and slid easily down Chris' body.
He felt Chris shiver under him as his lips moved gently down toward Chris' stomach. Nothing more than a kiss and a lick around his nipples; he could remember Chris saying drunkenly (a bottle of Southern Comfort that night), "I know it works for some people, but I'm always like, I don't want to be rude but it ain't gonna happen, honey, all the good stuff's down lower." Justin smiled at the memory and then he was at the good stuff.
Chris' hand slid down into Justin's hair and tugged, just a little, not enough to hurt exactly, just a constant pressure. Just the way Justin liked it. Justin mouthed the inside of Chris' thigh and moaned. He heard Chris do the same. He knew Chris liked that.
He knew what Chris liked, and Chris knew what he liked, but it was still strange. Justin couldn't understand it. It wasn't first time strange. His body was sparking with pleasure, his blood simmering beneath his skin in a warm familiar way. But while his body was enjoying it, Justin couldn't quite surrender to it, the way he had always been able to before. There was a voice in his head, telling him what to do, what Chris liked, reminding him always how he knew. How Chris knew. And beyond that there was another voice, or maybe not a voice exactly, something deeper, almost in his bones. Justin could tell something was there, something long and low like a moan, but he didn't know what it was. Then Chris' hand tangled in his hair, pulling up sharply, and Justin followed.
Chris kissed him, one hand still in his hair, the other on his ass, kissed him and kissed him until Justin was writhing helplessly against him. Chris liked begging, Justin remembered that (tequila again, and Justin wished he could stop remembering but he couldn't), "Fuck, J, you should've heard him, coming apart like a whore, it was fucking amazing," and Justin lifted his head and Chris' mouth slid automatically to the sweet spot at the base of his neck. "Please, Chris, please, fuck me, please, I can't, I want, please --"
"Easy, baby," Chris said, and he shoved Justin onto the bed on his belly. He knew what Justin liked. He put his mouth on Justin's back until Justin was pleading loudly, grasping desperately at the sheets, and then his fingers twisted inside and Justin was swearing (vodka).
It was strange and it shouldn't have been, Justin loved this, was loving this, but his mind still prompted him, even as his body moved instinctively his mind whispered, "pull your knees up that night in Vegas whiskey Chris likes" and Justin groaned loudly, trying to drown out that voice and the other, just beyond it. "Yeah," Chris said, "yeah," and the strange edge behind it made Justin wonder what exactly Chris was trying not to hear.
Chris thrust into him, harder, faster, and Justin pushed back, and then they were moving too hard and fast for his mind to keep up and maybe that was the secret, maybe that was the key, maybe it was strange until you found this, this, and Justin threw his head back and said, "Chris, Chris." Chris slapped his ass sharply, once and then again, and Justin remembered a night in Germany, drunk not on alcohol but on terror and shame and on a new humming satisfaction buried beneath it, remembered going to Chris' room late, blushing and barely able to tell Chris what a pervert he was. Chris had coaxed it out of him and Justin had wanted to die when Chris put a hand over his smile and said, "J, do you know what vanilla means?" But Chris had made him feel better, Chris always made him feel better, and then Chris slapped his ass again and he came.
Justin could feel Chris' weight on his back, hot and sweat-slick, and he thought, don't say anything, don't kiss him, Chris doesn't like that right after, and he wished more than anything that he hadn't thought that, that he didn't know that. Chris rolled off and Justin lay still. He heard Chris sigh, and then Chris pulled Justin onto his chest and ran a hand through his hair. Chris closed his eyes and Justin did too. When they had both had their eyes closed for a while, each breathing regularly and evenly, Justin rolled slowly to his side, slipping out of Chris' arms. He felt Chris turn, too, the other way. They both lay there. They knew each other too well to believe the other was asleep.
Justin lay in the dark and listened to Chris breathe. His body had stopped buzzing with pleasure, and finally, finally he had stopped thinking about things Chris had told him, things he had told Chris. He wished he hadn't. Now he could hear that other voice, that one moaning from deep inside him, bone deep, and he knew what it was saying.
Chris. Chris. Chris.
"J," Chris said, "J, don't, you don't --"
Justin got up and ran to the bathroom. He turned the shower on and stood there, his forehead against the tile. That bone deep voice was moaning again, still.
Chris. Chris. Chris. Chris. Chris.
He heard the glass door slide open and he knew it must be Chris. For the first time since he'd met Chris he didn't want to see him, and he shut his eyes tightly against that thought. He braced himself for Chris to step behind him, kiss his neck, run light fingers down his body. But Chris just wrapped a hand around Justin' bicep and yanked, pulling Justin out of the shower. "C'mere," he said, and sat on the floor against the bathroom wall. He didn't let go of Justin until he sat down too, still soaking wet and naked. Chris was wearing sweatpants. Justin was dripping all over him.
"It's all right," Chris said, "don't worry about it, it'll be all right." He put an arm around Justin's shoulders and tugged until Justin was leaning against him. Justin was still shaking. Chris jerked a towel off the rack and tossed it over Justin. Justin huddled under it.
"Why?" he said finally, when his teeth stopped chattering enough to let him. "Why? I wanted -- I wanted."
"What was it you wanted?" Chris said.
Justin thought a lot of things, but none of them seemed true enough to say.
"Yeah," Chris said. "I think maybe that's why."
"But why?" Justin said again, like a baby, like an idiot, like everything he wouldn't let himself be in front of anyone but Chris.
"I don't know," Chris said. "But just -- no. No."
"But why?" Justin said again. He could say it again, as many times as he needed to, because it was Chris.
"Sometimes there's not a why, J," Chris said. "Sometimes there's just a no."
"Oh," Justin said. There was a silence. Justin said, "Oh," again, to break it.
Chris looked at him. "J, we've got all this between us, more than anybody else has. More maybe than anybody has a right to have. We're friends and I, I meant what I said to Joe, you know? Nothing's more than that, more than us, and pretty much everything is less."
"I know," Justin said, but he couldn't keep the shiver out of his voice.
"I don't know, J," Chris said. "Maybe it's -- maybe we're just not supposed to have too much. Maybe everybody gets a certain amount of good stuff, and that's all they get, right? If you use it up in one place, you don't have any left for anything else."
"That's not fair," Justin said, and then bit his lip. Not because it wasn't true, but because that wasn't something he ever said to Chris. Chris knew already what wasn't fair. Justin didn't like to tell him.
Justin tried smiling a little. "What," he said, looking at Chris' downcast eyes, "because I'm rich and famous, I don't get to be in love with you? That sucks. What if I quit the band?
Chris laughed and said, "No, that's not --"
"I know," Justin said. Then, because he couldn't help it, he said, "I wish --"
"I don't," Chris said fiercely. Justin looked at him. "I don't. I mean it. I wouldn't trade anything -- anything -- for what we have. I can't think of anything that I'd want more. I can't think of anything that would be more."
"But -- what if we could -- last night -"
"You've been in love, J, and so have I. Was it like we are? Was it anything like that, really?"
"No. But what if it could be --"
"See, that's the thing. Maybe it can't. Maybe we're trying to make one thing into another. We're trying to have more, but really what we'll have is less."
"Do you believe that?" Justin said.
"I don't know," Chris said finally. Justin looked down. "But I know what I do believe -- and that's that there's nothing better than you and me, J. I believe that."
Justin looked at him. "Me too," he said. "Me too."
Justin leaned into Chris' side and stared at the blue tile on the floor. He thought that he would never forget what it looked like and he thought that he never wanted to see it again, and he realized why Chris brought him here the night before. Not to suit Justin's romantic tastes, do it right, although maybe that was part of it. But the real reason was so they wouldn't have to have this conversation in his bathroom, or in Chris', or in any room where they'd want to be ever again. Justin was flooded with love for Chris suddenly, so strong and full he thought he might not be able to bear it.
"You wanna put some pants on, go get something to eat?" Chris said, and Justin knew he would be able to bear it, then and always.
"Wanna finish my shower."
"Okay," Chris said, standing up and walking toward the door, "you get all squeaky clean and then you can buy me breakfast.
"Kirkpatrick, now how did I know that somehow I'd wind up picking up the check?"
Chris turned and looked at him. "You know me too well," he said.
"I know you," Justin said. "I know you."
"Why should I, when I have such a handy chauffeur?" Chris shut the door and sat back. "Take me home, Jeeves."
They were in Justin's den turning on the playstation before Justin realized he had never even thought about driving Chris to his own place.
He sat down next to Chris, leaning lightly against him. Chris slouched against Justin's side. His weight was warm and so familiar and once Justin felt it, he felt like he was truly home.
"So you know what Wednesday is?" Chris said.
"It's when we're supposed to leave on your super duper fabulous tropical golf extravaganza."
"Oh," Justin said. "Oh. Do you -- do you still wanna go?"
"I don't know," Chris said. He lay on his back and looked around Justin's room. "It's kind of nice to be home, you know?" He slid over so his head touched Justin's leg. Justin sat back and braced himself on his hands so he could see Chris' face.
"We can stay here," Justin said. "I'm happy at home."
"Although it does sound like a pretty fucking incredible trip," Chris said. "It seems a shame to waste it. Tell me again who designed the golf course?"
written as part of Sandy the Younger's Ryan Adams songfic challenge