You just have to get used to it. That's what you tell yourself.
It's only been months (and months and months) now, after all, and you're the one with the most to get used to. You're the one on the bus with them every day. You're the one who sees them.
Not that there's much to see. There was that one time, on the kitchen table, but they were drunk, and sorry after. They apologized to you, together and separately, Chris completely sincere for once, and Justin scrubbed the table down with bleach. You told them you didn't mind, but you don't think they believed you.
They should have. You don't mind. What they're apologizing for isn't what you have to get used to. What you have to get used to isn't their fault. You offered once, in the beginning, to move to Lance and Joey's bus. It was new then, not just to you but to them, and sharper, and you thought maybe it would be a relief to have some distance from it. You asked Chris about it. You didn't have the heart, or the courage, to ask Justin. You were surprised at how adamantly Chris refused. You were a little relieved as well, although you only let yourself think about that when you start to feel sorry for yourself. But you were mostly surprised. That was just because it was the beginning, though. You wouldn't be surprised now. You know how hard they try to be considerate. They are careful in a way you never would have believed them capable of. If it were you, you'd be a lot less discreet. And unlike either of them, you are by nature a rather private person. A quiet person. But this is Chris, and Justin.
This is Chris and Justin.
At night you can hear them sneak out of their bunks, quietly, when they think you're asleep. Later they will bicker and shout over a video game, and laugh at you when you stumble out crossly to yell at them. But this one thing they do quietly. Not silently; through the wall you can hear Chris grunt, Justin gasp, bodies moving against each other. It wouldn't be enough to wake you, if you were asleep. They get louder sometimes, just for a second, Justin's moan swelling for a moment before it's muffled. Even that wouldn't be enough to wake you if you were asleep, instead of awake in your bunk with your hand on your cock, wondering if Chris covered Justin's mouth with his own, or with his hand, wondering what Chris did to make Justin sound like that.
On the mornings after, you sleep late if you can manage it. If not, you make sure to hide your yawns. They look guilty when they think they've kept you up. They eye each other, shuffle a little, start to say something to you and then stop. Justin gave you a new CD player and headphones out of the blue one day. He stammered when you asked him why, until you figured it out and just said, "Thank you."
You use their gift sometimes, although you feel a little pinch each time you do. They're not the ones who should feel guilty. You make sure to put the headphones on when you know it's starting. You've learned to feel more than see the change when it comes. They climb all over each other, scuffle and argue, pull each other to the ground. They do it every day, but you've learned to tell the difference. They wrestle on the floor, rolling over until they bang into the couch right next to your feet. You turn your eyes away now, but there have been enough times when you didn't that you know what it looks like. You could see it with your eyes closed, if you tried. You don't try. You can see it anyway.
You make sure to fit the headphones over your ears as they walk by you on their way back to the bunks. They smile at you as they pass. You smile back. You curl into the couch once they're gone, your back to the room, your face crushed into the cushions. Through the wall you can hear them murmur to each other. It's never loud enough for you to make out the words, but you always know who's speaking. You know their voices as well as your own. Better than your own, because sometimes when you hear your own voice on an answering machine or a TV show you don't recognize it at first. There's an echo to it that strikes you oddly, a note that sounds unfamiliar. The journey from your mind to the world outside changes your voice in some subtle way. You're not sure if it draws something out of your voice, or adds something to it, you just know it's somehow not the same as it sounds inside your head. Chris and Justin's voices are the same, though, always, whether you hear them inside your head or through a flimsy wall. You try to think about why that might be. You try to think about a lot of things to keep your mind off the murmur rising through the wall and the ache rising in your throat.
It never really works.
When the murmur subsides into silence, you reach down and push the play button on your new CD player. You lie on the couch and listen to the empty machine try and fail to catch on something. You press play again and again, until it beeps angrily at you. Then you open the lid and close it again. You listen as the player spins on nothing. You can't hear another sound.
Justin comes out and sits with you after, stretching until his stomach shows beneath his faded T-shirt, curls still shining from the shower. He lays himself over you carelessly, draping your arms around his chest and tangling his legs in yours until he's comfortable. He never asks if you mind. You don't. You've held Justin like this for a long time, for years, forever, and it never hurts you to do it. He rests one hand gently at the base of your throat and you don't feel an ache at all.
You asked him once why he didn't stay in his bunk, with Chris, and he flushed a little and said, "He says I keep him up." You can see why. Justin likes to talk on these lazy, languid afternoons, his voice slow and soaked in the accent he's never quite been able to shake. There's something comforting in his leisurely, looping rhythms. He makes up stories about the people you've seen on your travels, the woman behind the register at the 7-11 you stopped at yesterday, the man who helped your bus driver change a flat tire on the side of the interstate two months ago. He tells easy, elaborate tales of mistaken identity and tragedy averted at the last minute and long-lost lovers arriving just in the nick of time. No one in Justin's stories ever works forty hours a week at a dead-end job and goes home and watches TV every night. His imagination can accommodate anything except the ordinary.
Justin falls asleep while your waitress from last week, a truly miserable woman, is still worrying about her daughter who ran away to the big city. You don't mind. You can guess what happens. All Justin's stories have happy endings. You shift a little beneath Justin's warm, familiar weight, and run a hand down between the couch cushions where you've hidden the CD player. You still have your headphones on. You press play again and again in the silence, until the futile whirring lulls you to sleep.
You wake up looking straight into Chris' eyes. He is leaning against the doorway looking at Justin, still asleep with his head tucked beneath your chin. His gaze slides up to you and he grins at you easily. "Sleepy boys," he says softly, and you grin back at him just as easily.
Justin stirs against you and mumbles, "Hey," into your shoulder. Then he sits up and blinks happily at Chris. "Morning," he says.
Chris laughs. "Evening."
They smile at each other, and a familiar ache rises in your throat.
That night you don't go back to your bunk. You're going to stay on the couch, you say. Chris ruffles your hair as he and Justin pass you on their way to bed. When they're gone, you put on your headphones and let emptiness hiss and flutter in your head while you wait for sleep to come. The batteries run down first. You tell yourself Justin's stories to help fill the silence. They don't really help.
You have to get used to it, you know.
Sometimes, it's just not that easy.
You feel guilty about JC for a long time before you realize it.
You've never been too good at thinking about what you're feeling, something that Justin and Dani and a short list of others have all told you with varying mixtures of amusement and anger and regret in their voices. You have no problem identifying their emotions. Other people are easy. It's yourself you don't like to look at.
You thought you resented JC at first. That made sense. Resentment was exactly the type of mean petty emotion you were used to having, and you and Justin were just starting. It seemed like every time you put a hand on Justin, JC was always there, pointedly looking away and smiling awkwardly and being so tolerant and understanding that you wanted to punch him in the face. You thought you did a good job of hiding it, until Justin dragged you into the back of the bus one day, past JC who was sitting on the couch of course, and said, "What the hell is your problem?"
You mumbled and said nothing and said nothing again but nastier and got angry at the fact that you had to have this fight in whispers because JC was right out there. Justin wanted you to apologize, but you refused. Justin insisted. It ended with you promising grudgingly to be nicer to JC, because you knew you were wrong although you didn't want to admit it. Justin went to sleep off his sulk, and you wandered out to the kitchen, past JC who was flipping through a magazine and pretending not to have heard what had just gone on fifteen feet from him. You thought you were keeping your new promise by not grabbing the magazine and smacking him with it. You weren't sure Justin would agree.
You drifted back to the bunks and watched Justin sleep. The angry lines on his face had already slipped away, and you knew that when he woke he'd be easy and smiling again. That was how it worked, how it had to work with you. Justin would shift to accommodate you, just like Dani had. He'd lose just a little bit of himself every time he did it, until finally he'd lose the thing that made him want you.
You went to apologize to JC.
He looked up, startled, when you sat next to him. Before you could say anything he said quietly, "I was thinking. I could move to the other bus. If you want."
"C, no," you said without stopping to think about why. "I wouldn't banish you to the bus where fun goes to die." JC smiled at you weakly, and you felt a familiar pang. That wasn't resentment at all, you thought. "It's just. We've all just got to get used to it." JC nodded obediently, and you knew what it was you were feeling.
You've been feeling guilty about JC for a long time now. It's easier not to lash out now that you know why you want to. It's not his fault, after all; it's nobody's fault. And you do your best to be fair. You know you'd be behaving a lot worse than JC is if you were stuck on a bus being ignored by your friends all day. You try harder, too, because JC's not like you. It's just so easy to ignore JC.
You don't say anything when Justin slips out of your bunk in the afternoons almost as soon as you've closed your eyes. He's not good at telling when you're really asleep. It's easy to fool him, mostly because it never occurs to him that you'd try to. You actually do sleep, most days, after he leaves you. When you can't, you pull the curtain and lie in the dark and tell yourself that at least right now you don't have to feel guilty about JC.
Once when you couldn't sleep you got up and followed Justin. He looked back at you but didn't say anything. JC bit his lip when he saw you, but he didn't say anything either. You sat in the armchair and watched Justin tangle himself in JC. You closed your eyes and listened to Justin talk. He sounded a little different than he usually did, although there was something very familiar about the difference. It took you a minute to figure out who he reminded you of. You smiled when you realized it was JC. It was only natural, after all, to pick up words and intonations like that when you spent so much time with someone. You still used phrases you had learned from Dani. You didn't even realize it half the time.
Justin fell asleep halfway through a boring, convoluted story about the long-missing wife of the guy who pumped your gas that morning. You looked at JC and said, "Guess we'll never know how that one ends, huh?"
"I'm sure it ends happily," JC said. "All Justin's stories have happy endings."
You smiled at each other. It was a conspirator's smile. No one had worked harder than you and JC to make sure all Justin's endings would be happy.
JC dropped his eyes, but you kept looking at him. Then Justin sighed and clutched at JC's shirt. You felt a hot flare of guilt and went back to your bunk.
Now you let Justin go alone. Even if you can't sleep, you don't get up until you're sure both Justin and JC are asleep. Then you stand in the doorway and watch them, Justin cradled against JC's body, one hand cupped at the base of JC's throat like he's holding something there.
Most days Justin wakes up first and slides out of JC's arms to join you. But today JC stirs before Justin. When he opens his eyes, you smile at him and mumble something. He smiles back at you, his grin slow and sleepy, his eyes wide and warm. Then Justin sits up laughing and golden, and you feel a hot lick of desire. Your eyes slide back to JC for a moment, and the desire is still there. You wonder suddenly just exactly what it is you've been feeling guilty about.
Justin looks back at JC, who has his head down and a hand clasped around his throat, and then at you. You meet Justin's eyes. You're surprised by what you see there. It leaves you breathless, and something else. You're against optimism on principle, but your principles have abandoned you, and there is nothing but this light soft springtime feeling to take their place. You're not sure what to call it. Justin would know, you think as you watch him smile and smile at you. You think you might ask him.
Maybe, you think as you look into Justin's shining eyes, maybe it's just that easy.
JC was your first kiss.
No one knows that. Not even JC.
It was at a birthday party for one of the kids on MMC. They were almost always boring and stupid, those parties; there was such a big age range, and half the kids hated the other half. Everyone always went anyway. No one wanted to be the one who didn't go. You were wandering through the rooms, looking for JC, when you heard his voice, louder and rougher than you'd ever heard it. You followed it and found him sitting on the floor in a circle with some of the older kids. There were two bottles in the room, one in the center of the circle and the other in JC's hand.
"Justin," JC said, still really loudly, "you wanna play?" He took another swig from the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Tony took the bottle from him and shook his head at you. You didn't know what they were playing, but you knew you weren't allowed. No one minded the older kids drinking, but they'd get in trouble if they let you have some. You thought they might let you stay and watch, though. Everyone liked you. And JC liked you, and everyone liked JC more.
You walked over to the couch, and when no one said anything to you, you sat down. JC smiled at you. One of the girls reached into the center of the circle and spun the bottle around.
They spun the bottle, and kissed, and drank some more. It got kind of boring. A lot of people drifted back out to the party. You thought a couple of times that you'd leave too, see what else was happening, but you never did. You pulled your legs up until you were sitting cross-legged and kept watching.
It was JC's turn, and the bottle pointed to the girl sitting right in front of you. She was one of the oldest kids, the smartest one everybody said, but she wasn't very pretty. JC crawled across the circle and kissed her lightly. When he pulled away, you could see his mouth, red and wet and still a little open.
"Justin," JC said, and your eyes jerked up from his mouth, "you want a kiss?" Before you could say anything, he leaned in and put one hand on your knee, the other on your cheek. He was flushed and really, really drunk. You thought it must be a joke, and you opened your mouth to laugh. JC kissed you.
You reached out to push him away, but your fingers hooked under his and held his hand up to your cheek. Your mouth was open under his, and you could feel his tongue moving against yours. And then suddenly he wasn't there anymore, but sprawled on the carpet with Tony's arm hooked around his chest and a wide smile on his face. You looked around the circle at the older kids. There were only a couple left in the room. They looked back, and you realized your mouth was still open. You swiped your hand across your mouth because you thought you were supposed to.
"Jesus, C, what do you think you're doing?" Tony said.
"Wasn't fair," JC said. "Everyone else got a kiss."
"Yeah, well, your fair's gonna get us all fired," Tony said, half-laughing, half-angry. He yanked JC to his feet and reached down for the bottle. "Think we better move this party," he said, and everyone was moving suddenly. You sat on the couch with your fingers against your lips and watched. Everyone left. No one said anything to you.
A few minutes later, the girl JC had kissed came back in. She took your hand, the one that was still resting against your mouth, and tugged you toward the door. "Come on," she said. "Everyone's leaving." You followed.
Just before you left the room, she stopped and turned to you. "Listen," she said quietly, "he's really drunk. No one's gonna tell him about this. And he won't remember."
He was. No one did. He didn't.
You know he's not pretending. They ask you all the time about your first kiss, and JC's eyes never flicker toward you when you answer. He never blinks when you say, "Britney." He thinks it's the truth.
Everyone thinks it's the truth but Chris. After the first time they asked you about it for a magazine, he caught you standing outside the hotel room where you'd all been interviewed. JC passed by you easily, touching the small of your back lightly as he moved past you. When everyone else left, Chris put a hand on your arm and held you against the wall. "What is it, J?" he said, and you told him it wasn't true. Even back then, before everything, you never lied to Chris. Chris nodded, and waited for you to say something else. You didn't. He didn't ask.
That was a long time ago. Things are different now. Now there's Chris, and Chris is - they don't make words for what Chris is to you. And JC is still JC, just JC, and you've always known all the words for what JC is. You've gotten used to it, the faint imprint of JC's lips you carry on your own, almost but not quite erased by every kiss since. You wouldn't change the past if you could.
The past isn't what you want to change.
You're not sure what it is you want until one day on the bus. You leave Chris sleeping, same as always, and wrap yourself up in JC. You always feel a little bad about the way you leave JC alone. You put your head against his chest and spread your hand out at the base of his throat. You've seen him put his own hand there sometimes, when he thinks you're wrapped up in Chris, rub his clenched fist there and swallow and swallow. You're not sure what he keeps there, but you know it hurts him. You whisper to him while he traces circles along your back. You only tell him stories with happy endings. He's like Chris; he already knows enough sad ones. You let your voice slow and soften. You let your eyes close, hoping the weight of your sleep will drag him down with you.
Chris' voice wakes you, just like it does every morning. But when you sit up, the room is dark. Chris laughs at you, then smiles when you stop blinking and look at him. You smile back. His eyes leave you and you glance back in time to see something flicker over JC's face. You see him raise his hand to his throat. You turn away again and see something soft and surprised in Chris' eyes. He doesn't look away when he meets your gaze.
You know what you want to change.
When you go to bed that night, you feel the same familiar twist when you leave JC on the couch. Chris touches his hair as you walk by. JC doesn't raise his head. He's already looking for his CD player. But when you pause just inside the door, you see him touch his throat gently, the way you touch a bruise when you're not sure just how sore it is.
You lie in your bunk, Chris half on top of you in the cramped space, and you can't sleep. You can't stop thinking about JC, curled on the other side of the wall with his headphones on. Your hand comes up to cover your own lips. Chris yawns and shifts against you. He hates being kept awake, and you start to apologize, but he shakes his head and links his fingers through yours. His knuckles are rougher than your own against your mouth.
"I know," he murmurs. You look at his eyes, and there is something soft and surprised in them again. You think he does.
"Chris," you say.
He drops his head and kisses your shoulder. "I don't. It might not be the way you think it will," he says. He doesn't look up, but he doesn't take his hand away. You smile. It's not going to happen right away, you know. He can't even look at you when he says it now. But that's okay. You've already been waiting a long time. You can wait some more. You know it's going to happen.
You know it's just that easy.