Normal Life

by >>Jae

Chris was leaning against the wall, out of range of the cameras and the crew. He was waiting. People rushed by him, tossing smiles his way but not staying to talk. He wasn't supposed to be there.

Chris had watched narrowly as their PR people told them about the show, part of the week's routine rundown. He had stayed behind as the others filed out, waited until he and Johnny were alone. "I'm going," he had said, and Johnny looked at him.

"You know that's not a good idea, Chris," Johnny had said.

"You can't keep me from going. I don't take orders from anyone now."

"And I'm not giving you orders, Chris. I don't give any of you orders. I just give my opinions, and you make the decisions. And my opinion is that it's a bad idea for you to go."

"I'm going."

"Fine. I'll have arrangements made." Johnny had opened a file on his desk. Chris refused to be dismissed.

"You're going to make a lot of money on this deal, aren't you?" Chris had said. Johnny looked up at him.

"Yes," he said, "I am. And so will he. And so will 'N Sync. And so will you." Johnny had looked steadily at Chris, until Chris dropped his eyes. "You don't want it to happen, Chris, you know how to keep it from happening. Like I said, I don't make the decisions. I make recommendations. What any of you do is up to you."

Remembering that conversation made Chris think almost longingly of Lou. Lou had been a bastard who had tried his best to screw them over and nearly succeeded, but he had been a villain. He had been someone to hate, something to fight. Johnny wouldn't fall into that trap. Johnny had been there, had seen that what they resented most about Lou wasn't the money, although God knows that had been enough. But what had really infuriated them was the way Lou ran their lives - the way he touted Justin and JC as the stars, the way he taunted Lance for being effeminate, the way he commanded Chris to get a girlfriend and Joey to lose his. Johnny had seen them chafe under Lou's control, and Johnny never made that mistake. He laid out their options and he let them choose.

And they chose. Now it wasn't Lou who pushed JC and Justin to the front of photo shoots, who made them do interviews on their own. It wasn't Lou who sent Lance to award shows and premieres with a series of sleek beautiful women while another series of patient beautiful boys waited for him at home. It wasn't Lou who made Joey stop talking about Kelly, first in public and then in private. And it wasn't Lou who kept Chris from asking Justin not to do this show.

They did it to each other now.

That wasn't quite fair, Chris thought. They did it to themselves. They would never do it to each other. But it was so easy, so easy to tell himself that each of the guys was making his own choice, especially when those choices brought money and fame and the sweet soft sop of the status quo. And it was so easy to make the choices himself, so easy to tell himself that he was doing it for the guys. They did to themselves what they would never do to each other.

They never stopped each other, but they never left each other alone with their choices. They shared. JC trailed dutifully after Joey through clubs and bars, making sure he didn't cause any trouble he couldn't buy his way out of and making sure he got home safely. Chris sat with him sometimes, after, when JC was curled into himself on the couch, listening to Joey snore in the next room. Justin kept Lance's lonely vigil with him, every time one of his beautiful boys lost his patience. And Chris was standing here, on his own, watching them tape the show he wouldn't ask Justin not to do.

Chris slouched further down the wall and kept watching. All around him wires tangled, cameras whirred and people circled around the couple in the center. The bright lights turned Britney's living room into a set, made solid walls look made of particleboard, weighted her mother with an unnatural stiffness, as if she were trying to remember her lines. Justin and Britney stood alone in the middle of the room, never venturing out of the ring circumscribed by the hot white beams. Caught in the glare, they glowed almost incandescent as they looked at each other.

One of the grips bumped into Chris and backed away quickly. Chris knew what they were thinking about him, the ones who knew and the ones who guessed. Jealous boyfriend. He keeps the kid on a short leash. The nicer ones glanced at him sympathetically, probably thinking how hard it must be for him to watch Justin and Britney like this, so perfect together. And it was hard, although Chris had never complained and wouldn't start. It was part of the choice he'd made. But it wasn't hard because Justin and Brit were perfect together. Even though they were. Almost.

It would have been easier for everyone if they had been completely wrong for each other, if they had hated each other, if their relationship had been one big lie. Instead it was the truth: they were a dream couple. Childhood sweethearts. Each other's first kiss. They were made for each other. It was clear with every glance that they loved each other. It was the real thing. Almost.

It would have been easier if Brit were a bitch, if Justin were an arrogant asshole. Two careless children using each other for their own convenience - who would care if they hurt themselves in the end? And maybe, Chris thought, maybe they were using each other, but that wasn't all they were doing. Justin wasn't an arrogant asshole, and Britney wasn't a bitch. Chris had more reason to want to hate her than most, and he loved her. He couldn't help it. She was sweet, and funny, and kind, and she liked Chris. The same combination of fierce protectiveness and fierce annoyance that he felt for his sisters marked his feelings for Brit. Sometimes when he heard what people said about her, or saw her in her latest video, he was almost overwhelmed by an urge to sweep her away to some secret compound where she would learn to fix carburetors and listen to Dar Williams and wear clothing that completely covered both her navel and her breasts. He would never tell her that, though, or Justin either. Both of them would be furious at any suggestion that their lives were anything other than what they had chosen. What neither of them would ever understand was that that was what almost broke Chris' heart when he looked at them. He knew it was true.

He watched Justin carefully cross back to the door. Justin walked in, again, and kissed Britney, again. The angle on the last shot hadn't been right. Justin would scoff at the idea that his life was under anyone's control but his own, Chris knew, and Justin was right. At the same time, Justin had made his choice so young, had lived a life so removed from what other people took for granted, what could he even mean when he said it was his choice? Chris had chosen, too, but he had been older, an adult, when he chose. He knew exactly what he had given up. He wasn't sure Justin knew he was giving up anything at all.

Lynn took advantage of a lull in the shoot to walk over to Chris. He watched her navigate the web of wires on the floor, the lights licking at her sides as she skirted the area where they were filming. Lynn leaned against the wall next to him and caught Chris' eye. She smiled at him. Chris knew she'd always liked him. He knew she loved him now. He knew she never even wished things were different anymore. But he watched her watch Justin wrap his arms around Britney, haloed in the hot lights, and just for a moment, he saw her sink into the dream. Perfect polished features beneath a white veil. Christmas dinner at her daughter-in-law's house. Pretty blond grandchildren with clear sweet voices. Then the director said, "Cut," and Justin looked for Chris over Britney's head, and Lynn squeezed Chris' hand and whispered his name before she walked away. It was like the moment before had never happened. Almost.

Chris didn't blame Lynn. He understood that strange sense of unreality, the feeling that if you squinted your eyes, you could see another life laid over the one you knew was real. It seemed so close to the surface, just inches out of reach. He didn't know if it was an illusion conjured by the harsh glare of the lights, or by the harsh hunger of hundreds of magazine editors and record company executives and advertising salesmen. Or maybe it was simply the harsh knowledge that they should be so good together, prince and princess of pop, handsome boy and pretty girl, glittering and glamorous, larger than life. When the light hit just right, when he tilted his head at just the right angle, even Chris could believe in them. Almost. Then the light changed, he looked up, and what he saw was life-size. Justin and Britney walking toward him, holding hands.

As they moved out of the set's dazzle, their skin seemed to lose a vague shimmer and pick up a dim density. Britney let go of Justin's hand and leaned in to kiss Chris' cheek. Both of them were blinking a little, as if they had just awakened from a dream and were still stunned by how vivid it had been. Behind them, the room looked abandoned, the set of a show that had been cancelled. Britney touched Justin's shoulder and turned back, picking her way cautiously through the cords snaking across the floor. They watched her go. Justin was trembling a little when Chris wrapped a hand around his bicep. Justin opened his hand over Chris' chest and pushed, just a little. Chris held his ground, and when Justin felt the firm pressure against his palm, he stopped shaking. That was why Chris was here.

Later, when Justin was spread out beneath him, shuddering and pushing back against him, Chris wondered who had been waiting for Britney, who stroked her skin until she stopped shivering and relaxed back into what passed for her normal life. He almost asked Justin afterward. But Justin's lashes were fluttering slowly into stillness, and his breath was evening out into a steady rhythm, and the desperate scrabble of his fingers over Chris' arms was subsiding. Chris let him sleep.

When Justin woke a little later, he still seemed strangely distracted, still half lost in a dream. Chris put a gentle hand over his hip, and Justin smiled at him. Unlike Chris, who needed room to move when he was angry or upset, Justin liked to be touched, lightly, a soft pressure that reassured him that someone was there.

"You're freaked out, J," Chris said, and Justin shook his head.

"No, I'm not. I'm just. I don't know."

"What is it?"

Justin ducked his head, hiding his face against Chris' chest. That too was strange. Justin liked to look at Chris when they talked. Justin wasn't too articulate usually, and he knew it. He always said he felt like Chris could read whatever he was trying to say in his face more easily than in his words. Chris thought, too, that Justin knew too well how easily Chris could pretend, could cover pain or fear with a laugh and a wry joke. When they talked, Justin liked to see Chris' eyes.

Chris ran a hand over Justin's head, and Justin looked up.

"I'm ungrateful. I know I am, it's just. It's stupid." Chris waited. "I know it's ungrateful."

"What is, Justin?" Chris said.

"I just think sometimes. About what it would be like if things were different."

Chris stiffened, just a little, conscious of Justin's body on top of his. He tilted his head back, just for a moment, conscious of Justin's dark eyes on his. "I know it would be a lot easier if things were," Chris said carefully. "It's not ungrateful to say it. It's just true. I know, we both know that if you and Brit were -"

"No," Justin said. He sounded startled. "No," he said again, and smiled. "That's not what I meant."

"What did you mean?" Chris said.

Justin sighed, and shifted further up the bed so his face was next to Chris' on the pillow. He turned onto his side a little, and Chris' hand slid off his hip. Justin picked it up and put it back in place. "I just wonder. Sometimes I think about what it would be like if nothing had happened after MMC. If we hadn't met then, if the group didn't happen."

"You thinking about your life as an NBA superstar?" Chris said, and Justin smiled briefly.

"No," he said seriously. "I just think. You know, if it hadn't happened. After a while we would've gone back to Memphis maybe, and I would've gone to high school, and I would've had, you know. A normal life."

"And what do you think a normal life is?" Chris said. "Only one Mercedes a year?"

Justin laid his cheek on his arm. His eyes still had a dreamy look in them. "You make fun of me, but I know. I think about it sometimes."

"Okay," Chris said softly. "Tell me what you're thinking. Tell me about your normal life."

Justin's lips curved. He was looking right at Chris, their faces just inches away from each other, but Chris thought he was seeing something else entirely. "I go to college, I think," Justin said. "Yeah. I go to college. State school, but not in Tennessee."

"What, no Harvard?" Chris said.

Justin shook his head. "No, I'm not smart enough, and I don't care too much about school. I do good enough to get into a state school, though. But I want to go a little far from home. I don't really know why, I say I want to be independent and stuff, but I just know I want to be someplace new. It's not so expensive that my folks can't swing it, so I go to, like Alabama maybe, or Mississippi, not too far but not too close either.

"And I like it. I like it, and people like me. I'm friends with my roommate, and we stay up late at night and talk about things, like books, and music, and meaning of life type things. And I don't go out for the basketball team, I tell my dad that I wouldn't ever get to play. And I don't join a frat, either, I say I need to focus on my work for a while first. But that isn't the reason."

"What is the reason?" Chris said.

"I don't know, not at first," Justin said. "I just know that I don't want to. But my roommate, you know, he's kind of arty, I wouldn't have thought I'd like him but I do. And he brings me with him sometimes to parties, introduces me to his friends as his pet jock and I laugh. And then one night we go, and we're hanging out on the porch and there's this guy there. And he's really funny, and he's an art major but he knows a lot about baseball, and we're talking and he brings me another beer and before I know it it's just the two of us out there, leaning against the railing next to each other. And then."

Justin' s voice was low, like he was telling secrets, and Chris' voice instinctively matched it. "And then?"

"And then he kisses me. And there were girls, like, in high school, but this is the first time a guy. Ever. And I never even thought about it before, or I guess I never let myself think about it, and it surprises me. It feels brand new but at the same time it's like I know it. You know?" Justin blushed, just a little. "I like it."

"I bet you do," Chris said, but he was smiling. He couldn't help it. There was a faint rose tint on Justin's cheeks, and his mouth quirked up suddenly and he swiped a thumb roughly over his bottom lip. Even though he was stretched out naked in Chris' bed, he looked a little virginal, a little shy. Chris' hand tightened protectively over Justin's hip.

"And I kiss him back. And we stay out there for a while, and then he asks me if I want to go to his place, and I say yes. And we walk back out through the party, and his hand's almost but not quite on my waist, and my roommate grins at me as we leave. He's got an apartment, because he's older. I freak out a little when we get there, but he's really nice to me, patient, and pretty soon I'm not freaking out anymore."

Justin's flush deepened and his smile widened. "Soon we're hanging out all the time, and we even, like, go on dates and stuff, but we don't call them that. And one night we're at his friend's party, and I'm coming out of the kitchen and I hear someone ask him where his boyfriend is. And I know that it's kind of stupid, and maybe even girly, but it makes me really, really happy." Justin's chin dipped and his lashes fluttered. Chris had to look away for a moment. "Really happy," Justin said.

"This guy," Chris said hoarsely, "his name wouldn't be Chris, by any chance?"

"No," Justin said. When his eyes met Chris' again, they were clear. "Wait," he said softly, and that dreamy film floated back into his gaze.

"I have to go home for the summer, and he stays. I see all my old high school friends, but it's a little weird, you know? And I miss him, and I call him all the time, but he doesn't call me much even at the beginning, and then he calls less and less. I know something's wrong, but it's still a surprise when he tells me it's over. I think my heart is broken."

"Poor baby," Chris murmured.

"I don't want to do anything or see anybody, but I can't tell my mom why I'm so upset. I end up working a lot of hours, taking extra shifts, just so I have something to do to take my mind off it. So before I go back to school, I've got the money for a car. Not a nice one, or even a new one, of course. Just a beat-up old, I don't know, Subaru maybe. Or a Toyota Corolla." Justin said the names like he was tasting them, rolling them in his mouth. He made them sound exotic. "What was that piece of shit you used to drive back in the day?"

"That was a Datsun, baby. And that was no piece of shit. That was a classic."

"Yeah," Justin says. "I get a classic like that." His voice took on a gentle rolling cadence as he continued his story. Chris could tell how long Justin had been thinking about this by the unaccustomed flow of his words. Justin's thoughts usually came out fast and jagged, or slow and stuttering. But now each syllable sounded even and polished, like it had been savored, often and in private, like it had been handled so often the edges were worn down. "I can get around more, with a car. I get a fake ID and I find a couple of bars and I go to them sometimes. I've got a couple of friends now who come with me. I get a job off-campus, at a coffee shop. I drop my business classes and change my major to music. I cut my hair.

"One of my music profs really likes me. I think maybe she's gay too, then she invites me to dinner at her place and I meet her girlfriend and I know. They take me with them to a party they're going to, a lot of older people, not at school but there's a lot of school-type people, professors and stuff there. It makes me kind of shy, but then somebody says something about The Matrix and for the first time all night I have something to say. As soon as I finish this guy, this short older black-haired guy I never noticed before, looks right at me and says, 'You're absolutely, positively, one-hundred percent wrong.'"

"Ah," Chris said, "enter the strange little funny man."

"Enter the strange little funny man," Justin echoed. "And he keeps talking to me, and he's jumping around and he hits some lady by accident because he's waving his hands around, and he makes me laugh really, really hard. And he's yelling something about anime, and people are looking at him funny, and I'm still laughing so hard I can barely hear him, and he calls me Justin. And I haven't told him my name. So I say, 'How do you know who I am?' And he kind of turns red, and looks down, and says he goes to the coffee shop and he heard people say my name. I say that I don't remember him, which looking back isn't the smoothest thing I could have said, but he doesn't get offended. He just sticks out his hand and says, 'I'm Chris.'"

Chris had known it was coming, but something about hearing it finally, hearing his name in that soft longing voice, struck him down deep. He leaned forward and brushed his lips against Justin's. Justin didn't kiss him back, but he didn't pull away.

"I give him a ride home that night because he doesn't have a car, and he talks the whole way there, but he doesn't ask me to come in. I see him all the time at the coffee shop, and he's always hanging out at the counter to talk to me. He's there a lot at strange hours because he doesn't have a regular job. He's a - what do you call it - like, a teacher who's not really part of the college, like, part-time almost?"

"Adjunct," Chris said.

"Yeah, he's an adjunct, but not at my school, at a smaller one nearby. And he's a writer too, he tells me, but when I ask him he won't let me read any of his stuff. I like him a lot. And I think he likes me, cause he's always hanging around me and talking to me and I see him watching me, sometimes, while I'm working. He never asks me out or anything, though, and I don't know why. Then one day he makes this crack about how old he is, how ugly, and he says something about my social life, and I think I know why.

"I ask him if he wants to go with me to hear this band my friend's in, and he gives me these little funny looks while he's saying yes, like he wants to ask if it's a date. But he doesn't, and I don't say anything, because it's kind of fun to see him off balance. That's kind of mean, I guess, but it's just because it seems like he's heard of everything, knows everything, and I like feeling like there's one thing he's not sure of.

"But the joke's on me, because my fake ID's not so great and they let me into the show but won't let me buy drinks. So he goes to get us drinks, and something about that must give him confidence or something because a little later he's standing next to me, and I'm talking to this guy in one of my classes, and I feel his hand on my ass. When I look over at him he's watching the stage like nothing's going on, but he's got this little smile on his face that gives him away. And I'm thinking, well, he moves slow but at least it looks like I'll get laid tonight.

"We go to his apartment afterwards because I'm still living in the dorms, and his place is in a shitty neighborhood but it's pretty nice. But once we get there, he's all wired up again, hopping around like a rabbit or something, talking a mile a minute. I'm sitting on his couch just kind of wondering what the hell's going on. He's not touching me or even really looking at me, and he's babbling about some random shit, and I'm just starting to think maybe he's a virgin or something weird like that, when all of a sudden he sits down next to me and kisses me, hard, and I know whatever his problem is it's not that he's a virgin.

"He kisses me again, and he pushes me back a little so I'm lying on the sofa and he climbs on top of me. He pulls back and just stares at me, just like studies me for a second, and there's this look on his face like I've never seen before, not on anybody. It's hard and intense and almost angry and it's so fucking hot I think I'm gonna die. And he kisses me again, and soon I've got my legs up around his waist and my hands on his back under his shirt and I'm making these little needy noises like I've never made before with anyone. I don't know how it happened; I mean I liked him, I liked him a lot, but I thought he was this funny weird little guy who had it really bad for me. And now I'm not sure at all who he is, and I'm not sure anymore who's in charge.

"Then he rolls off me and stands up, and I sit up at the same time like I'm connected to him by some kind of string or something, and I start to think I know who's in charge. I'm trying to get it together to ask why he stopped, but all I can manage to do is blink, and he grins and puts out a hand and hauls me up. 'Bedroom,' he says, and that's where we go.

"When we get there it's like someone flipped a switch and he's the wired weird shy guy from before. And I think, well, guess I'll get this started again, and I take off my shirt. And he doesn't move, doesn't say anything, so I take off my pants, and everything else. He just looks at me again, the same look from before I think, but I get a better look at it this time and I see something I missed. It's still intense, and angry, and god, it's still hot, but something about it looks like it hurts him. It hurts me, a little, to see it. But I don't want to look away.

"We just stand there for a while, and finally I say, 'It's your turn.' And he nods a little, and his lips twitch for a minute, and he kind of plucks at the hem of his shirt for a minute or two. And then he takes his clothes off. And it's so. God. I don't even know. It's so strange."

"What?" Chris said. "His hideous deformity? His leprosy?"

Justin didn't even bother to respond to that. "It's just. He's so beautiful. He's so fucking beautiful, and I missed it. I missed it for so long. It's amazing. I thought he was - I thought he was so damn funny, and the smartest guy I ever met, but I thought he was just kind of an average looking guy. And. He was. I can't believe I missed it for so long." Justin took a long, shuddering breath. His eyes were shining. "You're so fucking beautiful."

That was all it took, that one pronoun, to make Chris lose it in a way he hadn't since he was a little boy, in a way he hadn't thought he was still capable of. He put one hand over his eyes, one hand over his mouth, and just let it flow through him until he felt Justin's hands over his, gently prying his fingers away from his face. Justin ran a thumb lightly over Chris' eyelids until he opened his eyes.

"Justin," Chris said, but no sound came out. "Justin," he said again, and Justin smiled at him. "That's the best story I've ever heard," he said raggedly.

"It's not over yet," Justin said, and let his hands fall from Chris' face.

"So we. That night. It's like. God, there are no words," Justin said, and Chris smiled at him. Justin flushed and dropped his eyes for a moment. Then he looked back at Chris. "And it's like, after that, I just never leave." Chris laughed. "Well, I mean I leave sometimes, I have class and work and everything, but we hang out together all the time, I'm at his place constantly, and somehow all my stuff, my books and my clothes and my CDs, all gravitate to his apartment. I tell my mom I have a job at school for the summer, and I make noises about finding a sublet until he says, 'You're here all the time anyway. You might as well start paying rent.' And I'd think he really didn't care all that much one way or the other, but I haul the rest of my shit over in my car one day and head off for my shift at work. And when I come home," Justin's lips curved as he said it again, "when I come home, all my stuff's been unpacked and put into the closet and the dresser. He's moved all his clothes over to give me exactly half of the space, even though I don't have enough to take up all that room. But it's my half.

"And it's like that. We don't talk too much. I mean, we talk all the time, but not about. We don't say a lot of sappy stuff. But one night in bed he shows me something he wrote, and I get this fluttery feeling in my stomach, because what if it sucks? And he's all jittery, and he keeps trying to explain things in it to me until I finally tell him to shut up and let me read. And the more I read, the more that fluttery feeling goes away, because it's good. It's good. And he's lying next to me and his leg's shaking against mine, but he can see in my face what I think before I tell him and he goes still.

"I drive us everywhere because he won't buy a car and he buys me a good CD player and criticizes all my music and makes me listen to the Beastie Boys and the Clash. He finds the Backstreet Boys CD I hide beneath the driver's seat and laughs so hard he almost falls out of the car on the highway. I try to explain to him about the harmonies but he's still cackling like a madman and I don't think he's listening. For a solid week he starts laughing every time he sees me and he calls me Nick Carter. I don't play it when he's in the car for the longest time, but one day I forget and put it in and sing along and he just listens and watches me. I catch myself and blush a little because I know it's not cool and I say, 'Sorry, I know you hate that,' but he shakes his head and says it's okay. Later one of their songs comes on the radio and he sings along, and then he tells me I'm ruining his musical taste but he smiles when he says it. And it's good," Justin said. "It's good."

"I tell my mom, on the phone, partly because I'm a big fat coward and partly because I don't want to come home for Christmas without him. And she waits just a little longer than she should before she says, 'All I care about is that you're happy.' She tells me that every time she talks to me, and after a few weeks it even starts to sound like she means it. I tell my dad on the phone too, totally because I'm a big fat coward, and he doesn't take it well and he says. Things. And I cut all my classes for a week and lie on the couch and watch stupid daytime TV and feel really sorry for myself, worse than I've felt in years, but still not absolutely terrible because he's there, and he brings me Cokes and rubs my shoulders and doesn't make me talk about anything.

"After a while my dad calls back and I say we're not talking again, ever, and I hang up without saying goodbye. Before I even let go of the phone, he grabs me and turns me around and he's madder than I've ever seen him, and I've seen him really mad. 'You don't do that,' he says to me, 'you don't throw love away, just because it's not perfect. You don't throw it away,' and he lets go of me and storms out of the house and doesn't come back until late at night. I sit down next to him on the couch and pull his arm around me and say, 'Sorry, I'm sorry.' He doesn't say anything, just sits there and smokes, but after a few cigarettes he relaxes a little and his arm isn't so stiff around my neck and he kisses my temple and my neck. And the next day I talk to my dad, and it isn't great or even really not bad, but he sits next to me and rubs my wrist while I do it, and when I stand up and start to yell he pulls me down into his lap, even though I'm a lot bigger than him, and I can feel his mouth against my shoulder the whole time I'm talking. When I hang up I'm glad I did it, and I tell him so.

"And that's how it goes. We fight some, and we fuck a lot, and everybody in my department knows who he is and when I call his office the secretaries and the TAs all know my voice. It's still, you know, the South, and there are places it's not that smart an idea to kiss in public, and it's not like we're the type to go skipping down the street hand in hand anyway. But sometimes he hooks a finger in my belt loop while we're walking down the street, and every once in a while we go out to dinner and he smiles at me across the table and holds my hand and we don't think about if anyone can see, and we don't care.

"And it's good," Justin said again. "It's good."

"And they live happily ever after," Chris said, but he was smiling. He ran a finger along Justin's jaw and Justin tilted his head toward him, looking earnest and young, so young.

"No," Justin said. "No. I mean, for a while we do. But I've got a temper, and so does he, even though I'm more of a shouter and he gets tight and mean. And I'm so young when we get together, and he's not the most secure guy in the world, and I get kind of freaked out because he's so much smarter than me."

"J, that's not true," Chris said, and Justin grinned a little.

"Shut up," he said, "I can have a really smart pretend boyfriend if I want."

"Probably makes a nice change from the sex god you usually sleep with."

"Oh yeah," Justin said. The smile slid from his lips as he continued. "I'm kind of a flirt when I'm drunk, or really, you know, when I'm sober. And we fight about that, more than anything else. And we always make up after, but it keeps coming up, and we never really settle it, we just kind of ignore it for a while. And then one night we're at a party, and he thinks I'm flirting with some guy, and maybe I am but it's not like he owns me or anything, and maybe he could just ask me to stop instead of getting all sarcastic and bitchy. And he does ask, except not really, he just does this thing he does where he talks at me, and I want to answer him but I can't think how to say what I want to, and by the time I do he's moved on to something else. I'm pissed off now and so I brush him off and he gets mad and leaves. And I think, well, might as well have the game if I've got the name, and I go home with the guy.

"It's pretty grim, although I try really hard to convince myself that I'm enjoying it, and when I go home there's a tight cold knot in my stomach. He's awake and waiting for me when I get there, and we fight. We fight, we fight worse than we ever have, and I tell him that at least I got fucked well for the first time in ages, and he says things to me that I'll remember for years and wake up in a cold sweat at three o'clock in the morning thinking about. And we fight some more, and then we stop, and we try to make up. But we can't really. He can't forgive me for what I did, and I can't forget what he said. And things just get colder and stranger between us, but neither of us will admit it, and he feels brittle in my arms and I turn away from him in bed, and finally I fuck another guy just to get it over with. And that does it, all right. That ends it. I go back to get my stuff, and he looks at me once, that hard angry hurting look, and for a minute I think about throwing myself at his feet and refusing to leave, begging him to let me stay. But I can't." Justin dropped his head onto Chris' shoulder and murmured the last words into his skin. "I can't."

"That's how it ends?" Chris said, his voice rising frantic on the last words. He told himself he was being ridiculous, it was just a story. "That's how it ends?"

"Yeah," Justin said without lifting his head. "Yeah."

"No," Chris said. He put his hand under Justin's chin and looked at him. "No, that's not how it ends."

Justin watched him. "Maybe not," he said, and Chris let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "Maybe not," Justin said again. "Maybe all that stuff happens, and I move into my friend's place and try to get on with my life. But I'm still bruised and stinging from the things he said to me, and I still feel cold and strange, and I thought it would be better to feel lonely by myself instead of with him, but I was wrong. Maybe I get a little drunk and go back home, and maybe I had visions of throwing myself into his arms and everything would be all right again, but they fade away as soon as he opens the door and I see his face. He asks me what I want, and I can't tell him, can't say anything but, 'I can't. It's too much. I can't.' He lets me in, though, and it's still cold and strange but it feels a little better somehow, a little more right, to be there. We're all nervous and overly polite with each other, we keep backing out of rooms when the other one's there, but I don't want to go. We don't talk about it but he puts a pillow and blanket on the couch for me, and I try to sleep there, I really do. But in the middle of the night I think, fuck it, I don't wanna do this anymore, and I go into the bedroom and get into bed with him. I think that if he kicks me out, I won't have to worry about leaving, I'll just curl up on the floor and stay there till I die. But I don't have to worry about that," Justin said, "because he doesn't. He doesn't. He lets me in."

Chris kissed him. This time Justin kissed him back. "Always," Chris said against his lips.

"Maybe that's what happens," Justin said. "Maybe."

"Maybe," Chris echoed. He looked at Justin until Justin twisted a little under his eyes.

"So that's it," Justin said. "That's my normal life." Chris stroked Justin's cheek, and Justin pulled back and laughed, an odd forced chuckle. "I guess it's kind of stupid, though?" he said. "That's not really. I mean, that's not how things. They wouldn't really be like that. Right?"

"Justin," Chris said, and reached out for him again. Justin crossed his arms over his chest and said, "No. I know. I'm just being stupid. Stupid and selfish. Ungrateful."

"You're not - " Chris said, but Justin looked at him and said fiercely, "I have everything I want. Everything." Chris didn't say anything. "I'm just ungrateful."

"No, J -" and Justin propelled himself into Chris, threw an arm around him and pushed his face into Chris' chest.

"I am," Justin said. "I'm ungrateful. I am."

Chris closed his eyes and bit his lip. He rubbed Justin's back gently and put his lips to Justin's head. "Shhh," he said, "shhh."

"I am, I am. I am."

"Okay," Chris said. "Okay."

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