He was afraid.
Afraid of what, he didn't know. He hadn't given it that much thought. He preferred not to, normally. It was just a constant presence in the back of his mind, the back of his being. He thought if he ignored it long enough, it might go away. It never did, but he still thought it might.
Joey scanned the dark club, sipping on his third beer. It was a slow night, in that regard, but he figured it was probably for the best. There, in the middle of the dance floor, was what he was looking for. Chris. Grinding up against some nameless woman like there wasn't a crowd of a hundred around them. Joey shook his head. It was the same as the last city, and the city before that. He would bring her back to the hotel, and before dawn anyone who might be in the hallway would see her slipping quietly out of his room, maybe a little smile on her face, maybe a little frown, always down to the elevators without a word.
Not that Joey could ever say anything to him about it, because they all did it. Maybe some more than others, but they were all guilty. It was the way Chris was doing it that bothered Joey. Or maybe it was the timing. In Europe, in their early days, Chris had picked up his share of women, but he was never one for the illicit one-night stand. They'd dance a little too close in the club, and maybe there'd be some heavy petting or sometimes even a blow job in the back of a dark booth, but it usually ended there. Not always, but usually. Even then, he'd gone weeks between pickups, sometimes.
After Dani – she sounded so important when you put it that way, but, Joey supposed, she was important – Chris had changed. He looked his age and acted it more, too. He joked less and brooded more. Upset from the breakup, they all thought. He also started picking up more women. Filling the void, they all thought. There had been a brief respite during Michelle – she wasn't important enough to warrant her own "before" and "after" – but it didn't change, in the long run.
Joey watched now as Chris left the club, the tall brunette draped on his arm like a scarf, probably too drunk to stand on her own, bodyguard following discreetly. Joey turned back to his beer and sighed. He knew how it would end.
He was afraid to see.
Dani had told him why she was leaving, when she did. She told him what she saw that he didn't see. That he refused to see.
She was wrong. She had to be. They all had to be. Because he couldn't see it. Wouldn't. Not any more.
Lance slid into the booth across from Joey. "What's up with Chris lately?" he shouted above the music.
"Chris?" Joey looked over to Lance, then returned his eyes to where they'd been. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Uh-huh." Lance followed Joey's gaze across the club. "And is that why you've been watching him all night?" Joey flushed and focused on the drink in his hands. "Right. So what is it?"
Joey shook his head. "I don't know. Why don't you ask Justin or JC? They share a bus with him."
"Yeah, and they're the most observant people around. You've known him longest, you know him best." Lance looked like he was going to add something else, but he kept his last observation to himself. "Just talk to him, okay?"
Joey stared hard at Lance a moment, but the younger man wouldn't give in. "All right," Joey sighed. "I'll talk to him."
Chris followed Joey into his hotel room, shut the door behind him, and looked at the other man expectantly. Joey paced a short track between the bed and the window. He had asked Chris in here to talk to him after breakfast... now what?
"Yeah. I... uh... I just wanted to check, to see, y'know, make sure you're doing okay. You're all right?"
Chris laughed, a little uneasy. "Yeah, I'm fine. Is that all you wanted?"
"No, I mean, yeah.... Well... Lately, whenever we go out... I've been worried about you. The guys, they're all worried." Chris frowned at him, and he took a deep breath. "Bringing a different chick back to your room every night..."
"Is that what this is about?"
"It's not like you."
Chris scoffed. "And you're really one to talk."
"That's me. This is you." When Chris didn't say anything, he pressed. "Come on, man. What's going on?"
"It's..." Chris sighed looked down at his feet. "There's an... anniversary... today. It's always a little harder around those times."
Joey nodded. That was something he could certainly understand. But it wasn't quite right, either. "This has been going on longer than just a couple weeks, Chris. More than a couple months even. It's like you've been trying to prove something."
Chris looked over at him sharply. 'That's exactly what it is,' Joey thought, but then the moment was gone.
"I'm okay, Joe, really," Chris said, lowering his eyes again. "Just blowing off some steam. Okay?"
Joey looked at him until he finally met his eyes. "Okay," he replied.
Chris nodded as if to add another "okay" to the mix, then smiled and moved to go.
This reminded Joey of a certain day just over two years ago. He didn't suppose the others remembered it quite as vividly as he did. They had all taken the news that he was bi so in stride, but it was a pretty momentous day for him, so it was one that stayed fresh in his mind. When he told his family, there was a moment of shocked silence, then his mother had smiled fondly and said "That's wonderful dear. Can you pass me the garlic bread please?" When he told his other family, there was the same silence, then Justin laughed and said "Of course! Why would the playah narrow his playin' field?" Joey had bristled a bit at that, then decided it was essentially true, even if those weren't his motivations. Chris had smiled and nodded, clapping him on the shoulder as he left the room along with the others.
It was the same smile and nod he saw today when Chris left the room. He looked like he meant it, both times. Was that flicker of something else in his eyes something that had been there the first time? Joey was surprised to realize that he didn't remember.
Chris hadn't lied. It was an anniversary, of sorts. Just not of their meeting, or their first date, or the first time they'd each said "I love you". It was the anniversary of when she told him what she saw. They'd stayed together a little while longer after that, while he tried to prove her wrong. She said he'd only proved her more right. He didn't see it. Each year on that day, he tried to prove it again.
He sat at the bar and looked around the club. He saw men and women talking, dancing, laughing, leaving together. Except it wasn't like the club last night, or the night before. This time it was men leaning into men at the bar; women pressing against women on the dance floor. He was different than all of them. He had to be.
He turned to ask the bartender for another one, and when he turned back there was a body before him. Young, slim, pretty brown hair and sparkling hazel eyes.
"You look like you could use some company," the boy said.
Chris looked him up and down, then looked away.
The boy leaned in, resting a hand high on Chris' thigh. He whispered in his ear. "I know how to keep a secret."
Warm hand; warm breath. Chris looked him over again. Not a boy, really; the lights and shadows of the club had shaved a few years off his first impression. Chris slid off the stool, saying "Come on," before turning and walking to the door, not bothering to look behind him to see if the man was following.
He was afraid to remember.
Sometimes he couldn't help it, though. When he was asleep, his dreams betrayed what he tried so carefully to keep hidden. Some nights were worse than others.
Little faggot. Pansy. Tell us how you really like it, gay boy.
He spun around, looking for a way out. Sea of hard, cruel faces. Arms lashed out. Words tore. One face, the worst one of all. The one that had said he loved him.
Run home to mommy, fucking queer.
Chris awoke with a start, throwing off the covers. The space beside him was empty, as it had been when he'd gone to sleep the night before. Not when he'd gone to bed, though. He went to the bathroom, splashed some cold water on his face, and stared at his reflection. 'Who are you trying to kid?' the haggard face sneered at him.
Another city, another show. They had a long road ahead of them to the next stop, so no time for clubs or afterparties that night. Straight onto the busses and away they went.
Chris hopped the stairs to his bus and stopped when he brushed through the curtain. Blinked. Joey looked up from his spot sprawled across the couch.
"Oh, hey. JC wanted to switch for awhile, he and Lance are working on something. You mind?"
Chris blinked again. "No. Uh, no, course not." He continued up the bus, tossing his bag in the back before crawling into his own bunk.
A few minutes later he could hear Justin come on, rapping a random beatbox pattern that changed as he made it up. Joey's voice joined with his, laughing. Chris rolled over and tried to block the sounds. The rumbling of the bus underneath him helped.
Joey awoke from a troubled slumber. He looked around, confused. The wall was on the wrong side. He inhaled. Colognes, soaps, all familiar, but different. No animal smells either. Memory came to his sleep-addled brain. He was on the other bus. He chuckled to himself. A foreign hotel room every night didn't phase his sleep patterns, but this was too familiar to be different.
He got up to pour himself a glass of water, and on his way back to the bunks he noticed a form on the couch. Sleeping, but not soundly.
Chris murmured and shifted, the book that had been splayed open on his chest dropping to the floor with a thunk. Joey winced, but the sound didn't wake Chris. Joey moved closer and bent over him. Chris turned his head towards Joey and cried out, the half-shout of someone caught in a nightmare. Joey frowned at the lines of pain and fright on his friend's face. 'You're supposed to be peaceful when you sleep,' he thought. Without realizing his actions, he reached out and smoothed Chris' forehead gently.
Chris started at the touch and sat up, his eyes wide and darting about the room.
"Shh, it's just me, I'm sorry I woke you..." Joey wrapped his arms around the shaking man, and when Chris pulled away he tightened his grip. "It's just me, you're okay, it's Joey..." He rubbed Chris' back in soothing motions, and he eventually felt Chris relax into the embrace. "Bad dreams?"
Chris only nodded against him.
"Wanna tell me about them?"
"It's okay, you don't have to..."
Joey kept moving his hand along Chris' back, and when Chris angled his head slightly, Joey pressed his lips to Chris' temple. It was meant as a soothing gesture – he'd done it dozens of times before to all the guys – but when Chris stiffened and pulled away again, he let him go this time.
"I'm sorry, I..."
Chris rose from the couch and darted for the bunks, keeping his eyes low.
"Chris, I didn't mean...." Joey heard the metal curtain rings slide shut against a bunk. He let out a low growl, then returned to his own bunk – 'not your bunk, it's different' – for a few more restless hours.
Chris lay back, staring at the paneling above him. Tell him about the dream? He'd wanted to, but he didn't dare. He had never told anyone.
'It's just me, just Joey...' The words echoed through his mind. Just. Only. But it was too much.
He was afraid to want.
When he wanted something, he either got it or he didn't. If he didn't get it, there was pain. If he did get it, it was taken away from him, and then there was more pain. Sometimes it was wrong to have had it in the first place. It would be easier if he could just stop wanting.
Chris watched the photographer from across the room, directing his subject. Sit here, move there, look this way. Fold your arms across your chest. He watched him go from goofy to flirting in a heartbeat. He shut his eyes against the images.
That was worse. In his mind's eye, he found himself the subject of those gentle eyes; the warm hands, strong arms. He cursed and jumped to his feet, practically running from the room. He needed to get away. Just... away.
The photographer looked up from his camera. "Okay, you're done. Now it's time for group shots." He moved across the studio, waving his arms. "Group shots, everyone! Let's get it together..." He looked around and frowned. "There are only four of you. Why are there only four? One of you is missing. Where is he?"
"Where'd Chris go?" Lance asked, looking at the others, who all shrugged. He looked back at the photographer and shrugged himself.
"Well, would somebody please find him? We can't do group shots with only four. Someone..." He waved at a wardrobe girl nearby. "You. Go look for number five."
"I'll go." Joey stepped forward. "I'll find him. Be right back."
He wandered up and down a couple of hallways, finally finding the missing member in a small coffee room.
"Hey, where'd you go?"
Chris looked up from his fascinating hands. "Right here." He shrugged and tried to look nonchalant.
"Oh, well... we need you."
Chris' breath caught for a moment, then he seemed to shake himself out of whatever it was. He rose from his seat, brushing past Joey on his way to the door.
"Chris..." Joey stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, everything's fine." He looked down at Joey's hand, which was quickly removed. He kept walking, headed back for the studio ahead of his friend.
Chris' mind screamed at him as he walked away, but what else could he have said? 'No everything's not okay, I want someone and it's driving me insane. Who? Oh, you might know him better than you think, Joe.' It wasn't that he was worried his feelings wouldn't be returned. He'd been through enough rejection in his life, one more wouldn't destroy him completely. No, as a matter of fact, he was fairly sure they would be returned. He'd been sure of it for awhile now. And that was the problem. Wasn't it?
He was afraid to love.
The first person he ever loved, truly loved, betrayed him. Instead of standing up for him, for Them, he joined the voices on the other side, pretended he'd never been on his side, Their side, in the first place. How quickly the voices forget who the enemy is when the enemy speaks just like they do.
The second person he ever loved made him remember the first, when he only wanted to forget. Which he supposed was just as much of a betrayal as the first.
He wasn't sure he wanted to know what would happen with the third, but he thought he would find out soon.
JC and Lance were still collaborating on some project together, and Joey was finding it easier to sleep in the strange bunk with all the different smells and noises. Some nights, though, some things still kept him awake. Thunks and murmurings from the bunk below him had awoken him last night, as they did many nights.
He sat across the breakfast table from Justin, satisfied that he could hear the Playstation going quite loudly in the back room.
The young man grunted and looked up from his cereal.
"Has Chris always had nightmares like this?"
"Hm." Joey frowned and started to get up, but Justin stopped him.
"Wait..." He put his spoon down in his bowl and thought for a moment. "No, not always. Huh. Seems like it." He shook his head and thought some more. "It's been a long time, though. They getting worse?"
Joey shrugged. "They seem bad to me."
Justin shook his head again and went back to his cereal. "JC's usually the one to notice 'em, not me. I sleep too solid. I guess he's just workin' through shit in his head."
"Yeah, I guess so. Thanks, Justin."
Another grunt was his only reply, but he was on his way to the back of the bus by then anyway.
He found Chris sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, Playstation controller in hand. Joey sat on the couch behind him, watching quietly until the little man on the screen went up in a ball of flames and Chris threw the controller down with a shout of frustration.
"It's hard to concentrate when you're not sleeping, isn't it?"
Chris threw him a look over his shoulder, but Joey ignored the warning.
"Chris, I know you keep saying everything's okay, but... something's obviously bothering you."
Chris said nothing, only sat next to Joey on the couch, resting his elbows on his knees with his head bowed.
"It might make you feel better to talk about it." Still nothing. Joey sighed. "I just hate seeing you this way."
Chris laughed, but it was a short, unhappy sound. "Trust me, I hate feeling this way."
'Finally, an opening,' Joey thought. "So why don't you do something about it?"
"I.... I can't...."
"Sure you can. How hard can it be?"
"Joey, you don't understand."
Chris ran his hands through his hair and sighed deeply. Joey moved over on the couch and wrapped his arms around his friend.
"Hey, come on, it can't be that bad. It'll be okay. Whatever it is, it'll all turn out okay."
They sat quietly for a few moments, Joey rocking Chris slowly. This time, when Chris turned his head slightly, Joey turned his away. He felt like he was finally getting somewhere, he didn't want to scare him off again. But this time was different. He felt a pair of warm lips pressed to the corner of his mouth. He tilted his face, to look down, to ask... why? what? It didn't matter, because those lips were now on his own. Gentle. Unsure. But there.
When Chris pulled back slightly, Joey found his voice, though words took longer to come.
"Wh... h... th..." The longer he stumbled, the more fell into place. Finally... "How long?"
Chris sighed again, though this time it sounded like one of release. "Forever. Since the beginning."
"Why didn't you say something sooner?"
A dozen different answers ran through Chris' mind, fighting to be heard. He chose the one that seemed to explain them all.
"I was afraid."
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