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Chris had been given the job of cooking for the apartment, since he was the only one out of its four inhabitants that could boast of more than one edible item in his cooking repertoire. In exchange, however, Joey took out the trash and recycling, JC made sure the bathrooms stayed clean and Lance vacuumed and dusted everywhere else. The arrangement worked out well, since Lance and JC were neat freaks -- as far as college-age males normally went -- and Joey's responsibilities only required him to do something once a week.

Chris, Lance and JC all worked nine-to-fives that sometimes went longer but for the most part could be relied upon to have them home by six, figuring the train ride back to the apartment, which was far uptown Manhattan, at 151st. JC was interning with a think-tank housed in a converted warehouse in TriBeCa, and Lance was working as an entry-level employee with a technology engineering firm in Chelsea. Chris had a PR internship in the heart of the financial district, so they all had a bit of a commute. Joey was closer to the apartment, interning with a theater on the upper West Side, but his job could pull him away at any and all hours.

It didn't surprise Chris anymore to feel Joey climbing in bed at two or three in the morning, smelling strongly of sawdust, paint, and the leftovers of whatever Chris had whipped up that evening. The smell never kept Chris from making love to Joey before the late-comer had even settled, rolling over onto Joey's chest and pinning him to the sheets, placing a hand carefully over Joey's mouth. JC and Lance needed their sleep.

In the last week of their respective internships, Joey came home later than usual and Chris responded the way he always did, but once he had Joey trapped he stayed still, his eyes catching Joey's. "Are you any more ready than I am to give this up?"

Joey knew Chris wasn't talking about the apartment that the four of them and their piddly salaries were barely paying for, even with the help of the extra money Joey's dad was throwing into the pot. "Babe, if this summer had been seven years long I wouldn't be ready to give this up."

The two had been able to visit each other nearly once a month over the past year, with the proximity of Yale and NYU and semi-regular vacations, but once a month was a far cry from every day, day in and day out, like they had gotten used to at Thoreau, and being allowed to live together all three months of summer, while fantastic, seemed to just rub this fact in as the time came to a close.

Chris lowered himself onto Joey. "Think I could transfer at semester?"

"Probably," Joey conceded, "but I would be forced to kill you. And AJ and Brian would probably both hunt me down after the fact and kill me, not only for killing you, but for tempting you away from them and then killing you."

"Those two are pretty tenacious," Chris agreed.

"I'm visiting the asshole of Connecticut," as Joey fondly referred to New Haven, "in the middle of October."

"A month and a half a way." Chris knew he was being whiny, but it was two in the morning and he was having to give up his boyfriend of nearly three years in a week. Again. He felt justified.

"I'm going to sleep, Chris." Despite the annoyance in his voice, Joey rolled over so that Chris fell onto the mattress and wrapped himself tightly around the smaller man.

Chris tried to make himself tinier, to fit better inside Joey's grasp. It was as much a physical apology as anything else. Joey sighed into Chris's neck. "Me too, Chris. But if I keep thinking about it, I'll stick myself in the train seat next to you and forget all about Tisch and my friends and well…the world beyond you."

Chris knew he was telling the truth as he responded, "I'm sure we wouldn’t want that." He could tell by Joey's snort that his tone of voice had been less sincere than his actual intent.

*

AJ and Brian were there to meet Chris at the train station when he got back into New Haven. They had a third guy with them, someone Chris didn't recognize.

Brian scurried over to give Chris a big hug, "Hey!" AJ settled for taking Chris's bag from him, "Missed you." Chris grunted in return, respecting AJ's need to be manly.

Brian finally let go of Chris and turned to the newcomer. "Chris, this is my cousin Kevin. He transferred up from Vanderbilt."

"Because they suck," AJ politely informed Chris.

Chris shook Kevin's hand, "Well, glad you could be somewhere that doesn't suck."

"I suppose that's yet to be determined," Kevin's words should have been offensive, but his smile belied their bite.

Chris shrugged, mildly charmed in spite of himself. "Guess so. How long ago did you get here?"

"Brian made the drive back up with me last week, we helped each other unpack."

Chris's eyes held a gleam of interest. "You have a car?"

AJ snorted. "You could call it that, if you really really wanted to."

Brian smacked his boyfriend's arm just hard enough to earn himself a glare. Brian glared back, "Be nice."

Chris laughed. AJ had some of the worst bark accompanied by the least bite of anyone he knew. "I really missed you guys."

"How was the summer of luuurve?" Brian wanted to know.

"Too short, the same way I imagine yours was too long." Brian had gone home to Kentucky over the summer to help one of his cousins run her day camp while AJ had gone home to Orlando and volunteered with an organization that helped Latinos get jobs. Every time Chris had spoken to either one of them they had moaned, each in their own way, about missing the other person.

"Way, way too long," AJ clarified.

They had reached Kevin's car by now, and Chris, who had seen a lot in the way of clunkers, had to admit that AJ had a point. Brian must have seen the look on his face because he whispered, "His dad bought it for him used and they fixed it up together."

Chris knew there was more, something Brian wasn't saying, but it got him to keep from mentioning anything, instead asking, "Is there somewhere to put my bags?"

Somehow, the four of them and Chris's bags managed to fit in the tiny sedan with one bumper missing, only one door that still opened and a rear stop light made red with red cellophane. It took a while for the car to start, and Chris noticed Kevin's patience with it, the way he didn't yell or mutter or even scowl, just waited, pressing evenly on the gas. Chris had known enough people in his life to understand that patience was not a particularly normal trait and that it was one to be valued. It was part of what made him such good friends with JC.

Chris smiled when the car finally responded, loud and alive. Scrunched up next to him in the back was AJ, who muttered, "Duct tape and prayers keeping this thing together," but didn't say it loud enough for Kevin to hear. Brian seemed to know, shifting slightly in his seat so that he could smile at AJ. Chris thought Brian's face probably looked impossibly similar to the way his did when Joey did something that made Chris fall in love with Joey all over again. Chris sat back as much as he could and made a note to laugh about the car with Joey when they got to talk that week.

*

Joey caught Chris up on all the Fatone-news when he called to make sure Chris had made it safely.

Nick had arrived ahead of Joey, showing up early at the apartment that Howie had stayed in all summer, subletting the space until Nick and Joey came back for the school year. This was a surprise, since Nick wasn't supposed to be back from his home in small-town upstate New York until a few days after Joey took the trip of over a hundred blocks down into the West Village. Nick had answered the door at Joey's knock, grabbing his bags and setting them down before engulfing Joey in a bear hug, nearly lifting him off the ground. "It's so good to see you!" Nick exclaimed, like it was a surprise that Joey had actually shown up to co-inhabit the apartment.

"You too, kid," Joey agreed. Nick was the same year in college, but a year younger than him, since his parents had placed him in kindergarten early. Nick never said anything, but Joey suspected the move had mostly been to get him out of their hair. He had been less than thrilled about having to go back home for the summer, and if it hadn't been for his younger siblings, Joey doubted Nick would have. As far as Joey could tell, though, Nick went a step or three above and beyond being the greatest big brother ever to live. Still, he wasn't terribly surprised to see Nick back earlier than planned. "You been here long?"

"A couple of days. Howie and I had our last phone call, and I missed him like hell, so I thought fuck it, and had BJ drive me out to the train station. Mom and Dad were pissed when I called from the city to say bye. I was supposed to take care of a couple of things around the house before I left." Nick didn't look repentant in the least. Rather, Joey suspected the glint in Nick's eye was that of having succeeded in undermining his parents.

Howie padded out of the bedroom that he and Nick were sharing, since there were two of them. Joey was getting the converted 'den' area.

"Hey," Howie approached Joey and gave him a quick hug. Howie and Joey had seen each other intermittently throughout the summer, so this wasn't as much of a reunion for the two of them. "Glad you're here. I've been airing out your room." He motioned toward all the open windows. "The guy that stayed here this summer had a bit of a habit." Howie pretended to suck smoke out of an invisible cigarette and then went cross-eyed as if stoned.

Joey winced, "How'd that work out for you?"

Howie rubbed the back of his neck, "Eh, he was generally on time with the rent and he didn't try to kill me, so, all things being equal…"

Joey smiled, "Yeah."

"The place I was with over the summer, they offered me a real job when I get my papers," Howie announced. Nick didn’t squeal or jump or do anything, so Joey suspected he had already been told.

"Yeah? That's great, D," Joey told his friend sincerely.

Howie had worked building sets for an off-off Broadway theater over the summer. He was graduating with a BA in technical theater in December and was slightly apprehensive over the thought of not being in school, having gone to college straight from high school and stayed there for five and a half years. "They pay for shit, but I had a great time, the people were awesome, y'know? And I'd get to stay here."

Joey suspected it was probably more the latter fact that was making Howie lean toward this job, rather than some of the others he'd gotten offered, mostly on the west coast. Nick jumped in, "At least until I'm done."

This confirmed Joey's belief, since Nick was majoring in Marine Biology and had made it no secret that his deepest desire was to work out west. Joey let himself be bitter at the fact that Howie and Nick had that kind of mobility, that option of staying near to each other even though it wasn't the optimal situation. He let go of the emotion in the face of Nick leaning down a little to kiss Howie, murmuring something that Joey couldn't hear, something that made Howie stop breathing for just the briefest of seconds.

Joey described it to Chris on the phone, wrapping up his summary of life in the twenty four hours since they'd parted. Chris told him, "I know how Howie felt."

*

AJ had acquired a cat over the summer. It was a mix of Egyptian shorthair and something else, Brian placed the other half of its parentage strictly in the rodent category. It was ugly and mischievous, but it was also soft and very affectionate with AJ. AJ had a weakness for things that needed love and things that were willing to love him. Most of the time, Chris thought this summed up the entirety of the reasoning behind AJ and Brian's relationship.

When Chris walked down the hall and up the flight of stairs it took to reach AJ and Brian's double, the first thing he heard, still some distance away from the open door was, "I swear, Aje, if that cat puts one more scratch in the wall, you're the one paying the fines. All of them."

"Chalupa!" AJ scolded, prying the cat from the doorpost where it had jumped and dug its claws in the wall for leverage.

Chris watched the scene unfolding before him, having reached the door by this point. "You named her Chalupa?"

AJ shrugged. "It fit. How's the unpacking going?"

"It's done."

Brian looked up from his boxes with raised eyebrows. "You had barely started when we came by earlier."

"I pack light." Chris noticed that AJ was completely unpacked as well. Chris and AJ had been drawn to each other in a way that only two poor kids in the middle of a few thousand rich kids could be. AJ had been standoffish at first, even knowing that Chris had some insight of what he was dealing with, but unwilling to so easily give up the grudge toward everyone that being actively queer and proudly Latino on top of piss poor had built up in him over the years.

Brian had broken through AJ's defenses even faster than Chris. Brian was solidly middle class but also openly gay and devoutly Christian all at once. In the year that Chris had known Brian, Chris had had yet to see Brian get fed up with other people's assumptions about him. Brian was impossibly patient with people, always willing to explain the way he saw things in another way that might get someone to agree with him, and even more willing to allow people to disagree with him -- so long as they didn't try to force their way of living onto him. Brian had decided he liked AJ in orientation week and hadn't let go of the idea even in the months afterwards, when AJ would spend hours at a time trying to repel Brian or, eventually, try and convince Brian that the two of them weren't a good idea.

Brian's patience paid off, and by Christmas break he had won himself a rather devoted boyfriend. AJ didn't do anything half-way.

Chris sometimes found them formidable as a team. They both held strongly to their beliefs and were people of actions more than words. Their loyalty to each other and to their friends reminded him of the more quiet, easy-going pairing of Lance and JC, whom Chris still considered to be two of his closest friends in the world. Even when Chris was feeling carried along by the current that was AJ and Brian, he never felt threatened by that force. Mainly, he figured they were good people to have on his side.

Still, watching Brian tentatively try to make peace with Chalupa for AJ's sake, Chris remembered that sometimes all the two of them served to do was make him miss Joey more than ever.

*

Joey was talking about a girl named Meghan and had been for roughly ten minutes. Chris was sure that in another ten minutes he would know the street Meghan had grown up on, the length of Meghan's hair to the quarter inch and how many children she wanted to have after she had achieved her goal of directing at least one Tony Award Winning Broadway play. A play, not a musical, because Meghan was evidently very intent on tiny moments within acting and, according to her, there weren't as many of those in musicals.

Chris interjected, "I like musicals. They're never boring."

Joey rolled right on, telling him about the idea that Meghan had come up with for the project they were working on in Lighting Design 201. Chris knew that Joey, who had very little use for the technical aspects of theater but needed at least nine hours of technical coursework for his degree, had only bypassed 101 because back when he was a freshman in high school, he had blown one of Thoreau's main lighting techs for a month and a half, and Joey actually listened when the people he was having sex with talked.

Meghan, though, was evidently a gift from the heavens in all areas concerning technical theater and had come up with a lighting plan that would literally catapult her into stardom from the moment their project was shown, not to mention garnering them both an A. Chris managed, "Who knew blue gels could be so revolutionary?"

Joey was quiet for a second. "You okay? You're being a bitch."

"Nice of you to notice," Chris bit out.

"Seriously, what crawled up your ass and died? You need help getting it out?"

"You offering?" Chris saw a light at the end of the tunnel.

"No, I was thinking I'd call Brian and tell him to come assist you," Joey dashed it.

Chris hung up. He wouldn't have if this had been the first conversation to be dominated by the mere existence of Meghan. Or even the second. He knew, because he'd been perfectly interested, if a little jealous, in what Joey had had to say about Meghan during both of those conversations. But this was the third.

Chris was frustrated; more with himself than with Joey. It wasn't like he hadn't known this would happen, even after Joey had come out to his parents to be with Chris and subsequently stayed with Chris through a year's worth of long distance phone calls and relatively scant visits, Chris had known that there would come a girl who Joey liked just enough to realize how much easier his life would be with her.

None of this made it any easier for Chris to want to let go. It pissed him off that his more pragmatic side always found a way to shut itself off right when he most needed it.

The phone rang and Chris considered not getting it. He wanted to let it ring, start Joey on the path to where he would be ready to tell Chris what he was really thinking about this girl. He reached over and picked up the receiver. "Brian wasn't home?"

"This is stupid, I don’t even know what we're fighting about." Joey sounded hurt. Chris felt like the whale hunters that JC was always talking about. Cruel and selfish.

"It's nothing. I just…have a lot of shit going on."

Joey was silent for a long time and Chris knew he suspected something. All he said when he finally spoke though, was, "You can tell me what's up. I'll listen."

Chris knew that. Joey would listen, but Chris doubted Joey would hear. "Nah, just school stuff, it's boring. Have you heard from the wonder-duo of late?"

Joey filled Chris in on the composition JC was writing and Lance's letter of protest over the cancellation of 'Firefly' and Chris filed the problem of the Modern Miracle Known As Meghan away for later.

*

Chris was pretty sure that Kevin had arranged for the two of them to be the only people in a two person room out of gratitude. Pity was also a possibility, but Chris preferred to think it was the former.

Which suited Chris just fine, because if someone had asked him a week earlier where he was going to be the weekend before midterms, Chris's answer would not have been, "Marching to protest drilling in the Arctic circle." It wasn't exactly that Chris didn't care what happened to the planet he inhabited, but he wouldn't have called it one of his passions.

It was Kevin's passion. Kevin, the well-spoken, too-smart-for-his-own-good polysci major was out to save the green world, one protest march at a time. Normally he had enough people to go on them; Yale's campus had a decent activist base to draw from. The timing of this march had been bad for almost everyone though, and he'd had fewer people than he needed to even justify renting a van his first several tries. Which was when he started recruiting friends. Brian and AJ both turned him down flat, Brian with apologies but the firm insistence that he could not duck out on his study groups. AJ had protests of his own to organize. They sent him to Chris.

Chris fought for a bit, but Kevin was headed to law school with the specific intent of learning how to out-argue people. Chris gave in while he still felt himself to be ahead with a slightly sulky: "I swear to fuck, Richardson, if I even get a B on one of my mids, I will go out and personally shoot all the wildlife in Kentucky."

It was that threat that had Kevin peering into their hotel room at two in the morning, cautiously inquiring, "How's the studying going?"

Chris glanced up. "Your…jackrabbits, or whatever it is you guys watch from your porches'll be fine."

Kevin snorted. "Good to know, I'm sure." He sat down at the edge of the bed that Chris was sprawled over, and rumpled Chris's hair. "You should get some sleep. The bus leaves early tomorrow so that those of us who aren't quite so conscientious can get back and pretend like we're actually processing anything through the sheer exhaustion."

Chris sat up on the bed, his spine cracking in relief. "Mm, maybe in a bit, I set a stopping place for myself and there's a couple of more-" Chris shut up at the first taste of Kevin's mouth, warm and sharp, like he had taken a couple of sips of someone else's gin, maybe. Joey, Chris tried to scream, Joey, Joey, Joey…is going to leave me for Meghan. Chris wasn't entirely sure where the last part came from. It made him stop breathing for a second, but Kevin just wound an arm around Chris's midriff and licked playfully at Chris's upper lip.

Chris licked back. Somewhere in the middle of sucking Kevin off, when Chris's brain was so mutinous as to try and interrupt on the proceedings, Chris realized with no hint of uncertainty that he was willfully destroying his relationship with the person who made life seem like a truly worthwhile pursuit of his time.

He hoped Meghan made Joey as happy as it sounded like when Joey talked about her, that this wasn't all for nothing. Kevin had an edge of sweetness to him and Chris tried not to gag as he swallowed.

*

Joey was working on a monologue for one of his drama midterms when the phone rang. Nick threw it to Joey, "It's for you. Sounds good so far."

Joey snorted at both statements, but pressed talk. "Hello?"

"Joey?"

Joey stuck his tongue out at Nick, "It is for me."

Nick grinned and pointed at himself. "Psychic."

"Yeah, yeah." Joey wandered into his room and shut the door behind him. "Hey sexy. Midterms got you as fried as me?"

"Um, yeah, something like that." Chris sounded distracted, "Listen, Joey, we have to talk."

Chris was Joey's first true significant other, but Joey had lived vicariously enough through Janine to know that those words were never, ever a good sign. "What's wrong? You sound kinda freaked."

"Remember Kevin, the new guy I told you about?"

Joey had to dig around in his memory. "Oh, right. Brian's cousin, good looking polysci psycho-environmental boy? He helped pick you up, right? I didn't know you guys hung out."

"We…don't. Not really. I mean, we see each other, 'cuz of Brian and all, but I wouldn't call him a friend, or anything."

"Did he do something, Chris? What's going on?" Joey tried valiantly not to freak out.

"So, I went to that protest this weekend, the one to stop drilling as a favor to him. Brian and AJ were both busy and I felt bad for him."

"Right," Joey vaguely remembered having thought that Chris was crazy, leaving the weekend before his midterms. "That was sweet of you."

"I slept with him." They were both silent for a second and Chris amended, "Um. After the protest."

Joey somehow managed to take a breath. "What?"

"I…it'd been awhile, you know, and I guess things haven't been that great between us and well, I just-"

"What do you mean, things haven't been that great between us?" Joey walked to his bed and then tripped and collapsed onto it, misjudging the distance between his legs and the edge. "Things have been fine between us, Chris, I don't know what the fuck you're-"

"Oh, so you're telling me that you haven't been thinking about the Divine Miss Meghan every time we pretend to have phone sex with each other?" Chris was seething.

"Are you fucking insane?" Joey shouted, "She's a girl, Chris!! G-I-R-L. I couldn't get it up for her with a tank of Viagra to help me out. And even if I could, I'm with you. Unlike some people in this conversation, I don't screw around on my boyfriend!"

"You keep telling yourself that. You keep telling yourself that while you spend every spare second of your time with her and write odes to the splendor that is she. The only reason you get to claim you don't screw around, was because I did it first. Well, I'll make it easy for you. We're over. Now you can do whatever you want." Chris snarled quietly. It sounded…off to Joey, but he didn't have a chance to ask about it, since the next second there was a click. Joey waited, unable to move, for the dial tone.

The operator was speaking to Joey when a hand closed over his and took the phone from him, shutting it off. Howie sat down on one side of Joey and Nick claimed the other. Howie inquired softly, "Babe?"

Joey curled up into himself, ignoring the fact that he kicked Nick in the process. "Oh shit. Shit, shit, shit."

Nick didn't seem inclined to point out Joey's transgression. "Joey, hey, what happened?"

Joey closed his eyes. "He broke up with me. Fuck. It's not…How could he-"

Howie laid down on the bed and spooned up behind Joey. Joey felt Nick get off the bed, but didn’t have the energy or desire to look up and see where he had gone. He returned quickly enough with a pill and a glass of water. Howie sat Joey up, "Swallow."

Joey obeyed without question and let whatever he had taken pull him willingly into sleep.

*

Chris conceded to opening his door because he knew when to admit defeat and the person on the other side had been knocking for nearly an hour. He swung the door open in what he hoped was a dramatic gesture and growled, "For fuck's sake, what?!" before he even realized who he was looking at. Then he blinked several times in succession, rubbed his eyes and considered the fact that he might have lost some important marbles right along with Joey.

Lance rolled his eyes. "We're really here Chris. Are you gonna let us in? Because really, we had better plans for fall break than swollen knuckles from banging on our asshole friend's door for an hour."

Chris stepped back. Lance and JC walked in and set down one carry-on a piece. JC approached Chris and folded him in a hug before Chris could fight him off. Once he was being hugged, Chris didn't have the willpower to push JC away. Not when he could have sworn he would never see JC or Lance ever again. After all, they had been Joey's friends well before Chris had ever come into the picture.

Chris had cheated on Joey. Broken his heart. He would've thought they had trained down just to yell at him, but JC was hugging him, and didn't seem to plan on letting go anytime soon. Chris managed to mutter, "What are you doing here?"

"You weren't answering your phone," JC told him, like that was a good enough reason to cancel all the vacation plans he had with his boyfriend and come to the armpit of Connecticut instead.

Lance, whose job often included finishing JC's thoughts so that the rest of the world could understand him, clarified: "So we called Joey. Who's a total mess. If I were you, I'd avoid Nick Carter for the rest of your life, because he sounds really pissed and I've seen pictures. He could step on you and not know it."

"Howie's not so mad," JC told him soothingly. "Just a little perplexed. Like us."

"What's to be perplexed about?" Chris's tongue tasted bitter against the roof of his mouth. "I cheated. I slept with someone who wasn't my boyfriend. End of story."

"Maybe," Lance was willing to give him that. "Maybe not."

"We called Brian and AJ." JC kept the numbers of all his friends' closest friends and family in case of emergency. "And they said you wouldn’t come out of your room and they weren't sure if you were eating, oh, and that Kevin feels like a complete shit and Brian totally bitched him out and there was probably something more going on here than it looked like because the sum of the parts wasn't adding to a whole."

Chris found it in himself to gently push JC away. "Math geek." There was no scorn in the epitaph.

"Kind of sexy, isn’t it?" Lance's voice was low, the way it got when he expected people to agree with him, regardless of their true opinion.

JC redirected the conversation. "Chris. You've gotta talk to Joey. So you made a mistake. I saw Kevin on the way up here. We ran into Brian and Kevin was with him. Trust me, anyone could make a mistake like that. Joey'll get over it, but you have to call him."

Chris returned to the bed and sat down. He was surprised when Lance sat beside him and placed a hand on his knee. Lance wasn't the most openly affectionate person. Chris went for his most convincing I'm-telling-the-truth voice. "It wasn't a mistake, guys."

Lance laughed, a harsh bark that was anything but mirthful. "Does this have anything to do with that girl Joey was freaking out about?"

"See, you know then." Chris was relieved, he didn't really want to talk about her.

"Oh, we know." JC was smiling. JC rarely smiled cruelly. Chris hadn't even suspected he knew how. "We talked to her. She was over when we called Joey. She's making sure he doesn’t flunk his midterms, with help from the Carter-Dorough faction."

"Good." Chris swallowed hard. "I'm glad…things are gonna work out for him."

"Her boyfriend seems really nice too." JC was grinning now.

Chris bit his tongue and yelped. "Boyfriend?!"

"He's visiting from…" Lance had a very specific expression for when there was something he couldn't quite remember, "McGill, I wanna say. Really nice. Totally calm about hanging in an apartment with a bunch of gay boys for practically his whole break."

"But that's not really the point." JC sat down on the floor and folded himself into a rather intricate pretzel. "The point is that Joey hadn't even considered that Meghan might be what someone, and more particularly, he could think of as girlfriend material. Mostly he rambled about how she reminds him of Justin in that overeager, little-sibling-syndrome kind of way."

"Justin? Ju?" Justin was a guy and the thought of Joey sleeping with him made Chris want to deep fry his own eyeballs. It was…incestuous. "He thinks of Meghan like that?" Which, now that Chris was thinking about it, made a lot of sense. The pride in Joey's voice when he had told Chris about the things she accomplished had never once sounded lascivious. "But. But she's perfect for him."

Lance smacked his forehead with his palm. "Newsflash, dickwad. You're perfect for him."

It'd been a while since Chris had last eaten, but he felt an insane desire to throw up. "Oh shit."

"I'll second that," JC said.

"Oh shit." Chris slid off the edge of the bed. "I…I can't…Kevin. Oh shit."

"I think we've established that." Lance joined the two others on the floor.

JC held Chris's face between his hands, forcing Chris to look at him. "When's your last midterm?"

"It was yesterday." The last time Chris had left his room.

"Good," JC let go of Chris's face, but maintained eye contact. "AJ has a protest thing going on in, of all places, New York, this weekend. We're all gonna hitch a ride with some fabulously active Latino queers and go fix things with a certain someone in the city."

Chris started, "I don't know if I-"

"We had plane tickets to my place in the Keys, Christopher," Lance's tone brooked no room for opposition. "You can. And you will."

"Right." Chris wished that JC and Lance were somewhere sunny, naked with each other right at that moment. If only to assuage his conscience over the fact that, actually, he was so very very glad to have them with him.

*

It took the efforts of AJ, Brian, JC and Lance combined to get Chris off the bus and up the stairs to Joey's apartment. Once at the door, AJ reached the hand that wasn't holding Chalupa -- whom he had brought along mostly to annoy Brian -- out to knock, but Chris's hand came up, holding AJ's wrist in a surprisingly tight grip.

"Chris. Chris," AJ shook his arm, "let go."

"I did this for a reason," Chris reminded them all.

"Yeah, because my cousin's hot and kinda slutty when he's had a few," Brian responded. "Um. Don’t tell him I said that."

"No, because-" Chris started.

Lance broke in, "Because you have serious mental problems. And you and Joey communicate for shit."

JC gently pried Chris's fingers loose and smiled at AJ's look of gratitude. "He's gonna forgive you, babe. He will because it's what's best for him. You want that for him, right? That's why you did this."

"This isn't some kind of mathematical proof to work through, you can't just logic your way out-"

Brian took advantage of Chris's momentary distraction to knock loudly on the door. Chris glared at him. "I hate you."

"Okay," Brian agreed easily.

The door opened to reveal a girl with brown hair pinned back from her face in uneven clumps, wearing a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt that both looked like they'd had a long, messy affair with a can of paint at some point. "Hello."

"Meghan?" Lance guessed.

"You have one up on me," she held out her hand, "You are?"

"Lance, we talked on the phone." He shook her hand.

"Oh." She stepped out of the way so that the five of them could come inside. She scanned each of their faces, saving Chris for last. "You're Chris."

"You're Meghan," he told her, feeling stupid.

"You need to go promise him all the material wealth that your future holds along with your first born. Then say sorry about eighty four gajillion and a half times." Her eyes softened from murderous to contemplative. "A blowjob probably wouldn't hurt either."

Chris almost laughed before he caught himself. "Which door is it?"

"The last one before the bathroom."

Chris started walking past her and she caught his arm, holding him still. "Even if I'd wanted to be, I would never have had a prayer of being what you are to him. When you come out of there…I was hoping we could start again, have this not be between us."

Chris looked into her eyes, deep brown and as honest as the rest of her. "I'd…yeah. After."

She let go of him. "Get going."

Chris walked the length of the short hallway to the room and raised his hand to knock. He thought better of it and lowered his arm. He spoke through the thin wood of the door. "There…are some things I need to say, Joe. Let me in. Please."

He waited for several moments, opening his mouth to begin a litany of begging, when the door opened and Chris was confronted with an incredibly pissed off Joey.

*

"Get the fuck out of my apartment."

Chris swallowed, and considered retracing his steps, but he figured his choices at this point rested between being killed by Joey or mauled by the Daring Duo of Chalupa and Meghan. Given the decision, he shook his head. "No. I'm sorry. I can't."

"The fuck you can't, turn your skanky ass around, walk it to my front door and please, please let it get hit on the way out." Joey's teeth managed to stay clenched through the entire order.

"Chalupa'd get me before I even made it out of the hallway. You're just gonna have to let me stay."

Joey was momentarily distracted. "Chalupa?"

"AJ's cat. The one that does flips if you wave string over its head." Chris had spent hours being impressed by that particular trick.

"Right. Fine, I'll remove your body in the morning, just go."

Chris would have, at that point, if Joey hadn't sounded perilously close to crying; he knew an advantage when he saw one. "Every time you told me something about Meghan, all I could think about was how your mom's face would look if you told her you wanted to get married."

"You're weren't dating my mother," Joey ground out.

"No, but I was dating someone who cared a hell of a lot about her opinion." Chris felt that, tempting though it was, now was not the time to be out and out calling Joey a mama's boy.

Joey sighed, but he stood aside from the doorway, allowing Chris into the room. "I can't spend my life being your self-esteem."

"I know that." Chris stood by the window, so that he would have somewhere that wasn't Joey's face to look, if the need arose. "I…know."

"And you can't spend your life thinking that doing something to hurt me is going to fix everything." Joey bit his lip.

Chris pressed a hand to the base of his throat, where it felt like he had swallowed a knife. "I'm so sorry. It wasn't even…I couldn't think of anything but you."

"That doesn’t change…you're not forgiven, Chris."

Chris shut his lips tightly, so as not to throw up. When the urge had passed, he opened them just enough to say, "Okay. I understand."

"No, I doubt you do." Joey moved toward where Chris was standing.

Chris stood still, despite the abject fear that part of him would break irreparably were Joey to touch him. Joey put a hand on his cheek. "I want us back. But things have got to change."

Chris didn't move, more afraid to dislodge Joey's hand than he had been of its touch the second before. "How?"

"I need you to trust me."

Chris frowned. "I would think-"

"I do trust you. I trust you to do what's best for me. Now I need you to trust me when I tell you that what's best for me is you, and that I don't want or need anything else, don't think I'm ever going to. We got into this not because I didn't trust you, but because you second-guess everything I tell you based on your perception of yourself. If that's not gonna change, then we're over, and I'm going to take my hand away, and you're going to walk out of my apartment." Joey's breath was coming in heavy spurts.

"Please don't. Take your hand away." Chris hooked a finger in one of his belt loops to keep himself from trapping Joey's hand. He had to trust that Joey would listen to him. Believe that he could do what Joey asked of him.

Joey's eyes closed, and he did take his hand away, but only to pull Chris into a hug. Chris unhooked his finger and wrapped his arms around Joey tightly, but not tightly enough that Joey couldn't get out. He had to trust Joey to want to stay.

*

Chalupa was perched atop AJ's lap and making a sound that on other cats would have been a purr, but for her could only be described as the dying grunts of a Peugeot. The conversation between Nick, Howie, AJ, Brian, Meghan, Meghan's boyfriend, Trevor, Lance, and JC, had halted when Chris and Joey emerged from their confinement in Joey's room, making her rumbles even more apparent. Joey broke the pseudo-silence with, "Nice…cat."

Brian corrected him. "Werecat."

AJ glared at both of them. He ran a hand over the length of Chalupa's body. "Ignore them. Brian's jealous and Joey's boyfriend sucks."

Joey raised an eyebrow at Chris. "Nice friends you've got."

Chris wasn't really in the mood to piss even one more person off. "She can do flips."

Joey's, "So you've told me," was drowned out by JC's, "Really? Can I see? Or is it one of those random things, that she does when she thinks nobody's watching?"

With a surprised glance at Chris, who had stopped defending Chalupa after the third time he had found scratch marks on his wall where no cat should technically be able to reach, AJ got up and rustled through his bag for the string toy he had packed to keep her occupied. He pulled it out and spent the next half hour playing with Chalupa and holding the fascination of Lance, JC, Meghan and Nick.

Brian did some reading, Howie left to go to work, Trevor humored Meghan, and Joey and Chris escaped to the kitchen. Chris did some careful snooping. "You're well-stocked." It was surprising. Nick had evidently been raised on anything that could be eaten after three minutes of radio heat waves and a telling beep, and neither Howie nor Joey's mothers had passed on their knowledge of the ways of the oven and stove to their sons. Last time Chris had visited, there had been a bag of shredded cheese, two eggs and a two liter bottle of Coke in the refrigerator. The cabinets hadn't fared much better.

"Meghan's as much of a disaster in the kitchen as I am, and Trevor insisted on cooking for her while he was in town. I pitched in for the groceries so that he would make enough for me and the roomies while he was at it."

"Have you eaten any of it?" Chris looked up and down Joey's frame. A little over a week of having diminished appetite hadn't stripped him completely of his body weight, but it was noticeable enough.

"About as much as it looks like you have."

Chris didn't answer. The last time he'd looked in a mirror had reminded him of the months him and his mom and his baby sisters had lived in their car and existed on other people's trash. It wasn't something he wanted to see. "Think Trevor would mind if I made something?"

"I bought the groceries," Joey said. "And it’s my kitchen. At least a third of it is. As long as you share I don't think the guys are gonna say anything."

Chris found the largest pot in the kitchen and filled it half-full of water. He set it atop the stove burner he had flipped to the high setting, poured a little bit of vegetable oil in, and set the top on it. He pulled out the two packs of shell pasta he had found in his tentative explorations and set them aside for when the water boiled.

He grabbed the jar of Dijon, the milk, the sour cream, a stick of butter, and the bag of sharp cheddar from the refrigerator, along with an onion. He pulled a bag of flour from the 'baking' cabinet that consisted mostly of flour, sugar and a bottle of imported vanilla flavoring. From the ledge above the stove, he plucked the powdered garlic and pepper. He sliced at the onion carefully, concentrating fully on the task at hand, its step by step nature.

Joey figured him out pretty quickly. "You didn't come up here to ignore me for the sake of my culinary well-being all weekend."

"I'm stuck for what to say here." Chris pushed the discarded onion skin into the trash. "Do you have a casserole? Or at least a glass cooking tray?"

Joey rifled through one of the cabinets and came out with something suitable. He handed it to Chris. "This good enough? Tell me about your midterms."

"I don't suppose you have any worcestire sauce?" Chris wasn't all that disappointed by Joey's motion of negation. "I don’t remember most of them, which is probably a bad sign. I was kicking Macro's ass last time I checked, though, so I'm probably fine there, and I doubt I could have done badly enough to fuck up my grade in Music History. The real sketchiness is gonna be that sociology course. You?"

"I was pretty lucky. Meghan and I had finished our presentation for Lighting before you called, and she held my hand through it, so I'm sure that was fine. That Greek Civ class that I'm taking to fulfill some requirements is probably gonna be ugly. But my scene for Drama went smoothly enough. The people I was working with were damn good."

Chris checked to see if the water was boiling yet. "They say it's the major GPA that really counts. If you even plan on doing the whole grad school thing." Chris and Joey both knew that Chris planned on continuing on for at least an MBA, if not something even more advanced. Joey, on the other hand, was content to remain unsure about his future for the time being.

"Still don’t know. Still think that the only thing I'll wanna do after this is be around you."

Chris nearly dropped the lid that he had removed from the pot. He set it down and poured both packages of shells into the boiling water. "I should probably think about going to school in a big city, huh? Somewhere that you can actually act in."

Joey got up to find where Trevor had hidden the colander after its last use and put it in the sink. "Think about going to school where they offer you money. Let me worry about my career."

"I'm just saying, it's not like going to UCLA or Columbia would be lowering my standards, or anything." Chris cut a large chunk of butter off the stick, letting the knife rest between the two pieces. "This is…okay. This is why I can't trust you."

"Because I'm spontaneous and somewhat irresponsible?" Joey suggested.

"No. Because you're like, I dunno, Santa Claus, or something. Too good to be true. And my mom taught me not to believe in shit like that." Chris stirred furiously at the pasta, separating the shells that wanted to stick together.

"Oh Jesus, Chris." Joey sounded irritated. "I let you believe I was using you for sex for the large part of our first year together because I was too chicken shit to tell my parents and then I drove you away by talking incessantly about a woman even though I know damn well you still have issues stemming from my issues. Honestly, I'm hardly Mr. Perfect."

Chris flipped the heat off and dumped the pasta into the colander. Steam so thick it obscured Joey rose from the sink. "Mr. Perfect Enough, then. It makes me want you to meet someone with those same initials, y'know? I can't help it. It's genetic or something."

"Genetic fuckheadedness? Dude, I've met your mom, not even. This is your own shit, okay?"

Chris sprinkled a little more of the vegetable oil into the glass pan and spread it around evenly. He transferred the chunk of butter into the pot that had been full of water the moment before and set it back on the still-hot stove. "Okay. I just need you to understand where I'm coming from."

"I understand that you worry about me. I worry about you, too. Not about the same things, but it's worry. But you have to stop letting that worry press you into doing stupid things."

Chris added the onions to the pot and stirred them around until they glistened transparently. He poured some milk and a little bit of flour into the pot and stirred until everything thickened nicely. He scooped the sour cream out of the container and added it to the mix.

"Chris."

"I'm not ignoring you." He turned the heat on low, adding the cheddar and Dijon.

"You’re not exactly paying attention to me, either."

Chris flipped the oven on to preheat before shaking the colander free of any excess water and adding the noodles to the cheese mixture. "I'm a bit freaked out here. You need me to do something that I have never in my nineteen years known myself to do and yet I honestly want to do it. I want you around. I want to ignore the voice in my head that says that's selfish of me, really. I just think I've proven myself to be shit at doing that."

"Baby."

Chris closed his eyes, stirring blind. He didn't want to cry into their dinner.

"You're allowed mistakes."

Chris shook too much garlic powder into the pot in his distraction. He added the pepper with more caution. "I wouldn't forgive me if I were you."

"You would in a second. You'd forgive me, you’d let me go, you'd do anything you thought I needed. I can… I can take care of your needs as much as you can mine."

Chris poured the noodles into the glass pan and spread them out evenly. He rummaged through the cabinet where they kept the bread and came out with a bag of croutons. He checked the expiration date before crunching the still-sealed contents under his hand. He opened the bag and poured out enough to cover the length of the noodles. "Maybe I just proved I can't take care of yours."

"You proved you're not exactly sure what mine are. Which only means we need to communicate better."

Chris opened the oven and slid the pan inside. He closed it firmly and glanced at his watch. "I'm never sure I'm saying the right things."

"Keep talking. The truth always comes out eventually."

The oven was warm at Chris's back. He stepped out of the heat to lean against Joey. "I know so many words."

*

Joey took Lance, JC and Chris to a restaurant in Chinatown that Chris highly suspected pretended to be permanently closed every time the FDA came around to poke at things. After the first bite, he decided he didn't really care. The food was good.

The four of them decided to hang around Chinatown a bit afterward, since Lance wanted to see about getting some anime bootlegs and JC was determined to enjoy being back in the city, since it had replaced the Florida Keys as his chosen vacation destination.

While Lance was haggling with one of the shopkeepers over a dubbed version of something that hadn't yet been imported stateside, JC told Chris, "Joe and I wanna go check out the t-shirt shop across the street. There's some cool stuff. You wanna come with?"

Chris was busy being impressed with Lance's complete disregard of the obvious language barrier. "Nah, we'll meet up with you. Just stay there, okay?"

"Sure." JC grinned. "He'll get what he wants. He's patient enough to wait just about anything out."

It turned out JC was right, which didn't really surprise Chris. JC knew people and it would have been weird if his boyfriend had been one of the few exceptions to that rule. Lance used a little bit of silence, a few arguments filled with monosyllabic words, and a lot of waiting. He walked out of the store with six tapes at only a slightly higher price than he had originally asked, and evidently a lower one than he had actually expected to pay.

Chris told Lance where the other two had skipped off to and was heading in that direction when Lance stopped him. "JC said what he said about me waiting things out for a reason, Chris."

Chris wondered momentarily if Lance had super-hearing and possibly other super-powers that he was hiding from all the world except JC.

Lance evidently knew what he was thinking. "I just pay more attention when he's around. And I pay attention in general, so…"

Chris added telepathy to the list of Lance's secret abilities.

"I chased him. Did you know that? That was why I was so worried about him leaving me when he went to college. I still wasn't sure I had him at that point, even though I should have known."

Chris twisted his mouth. "I thought… You're so quiet."

Lance laughed. "I was quieter then. But just as determined. And he was the most gorgeous human being I'd ever met. Joey and him stopped sleeping together midway through my sophomore year because Joey was all freaked out at the thought of them becoming something more than Orgasm Friends. JC was, I dunno, different at that point. He believed too much of what his father was always telling him about himself and not enough of what people who really cared told him. Most of the guys at school thought he was stuck up because he was too insecure to really approach people even in friendship. I was lucky that Joe liked the shy ones and kind of adopted C and me from the beginning, or I doubt we would have ever met."

"So what'd you do?" Chris wondered if maybe this was the kind of conversation where he was supposed to let the initiator do all the talking, if these things were too private to even be asked about in a prompting manner, but Lance kept speaking, so he figured the misstep wasn't so terrible.

"I went to all his rehearsals and concerts, listened when he managed to open up about his paintings, invited him to watch TV shows in the lounge with me, gave him some of the chocolate from my care packages when he looked like he needed it, and waited."

"And it worked?"

"Kind of," Lance admitted. "You weren't there at the beginning of my junior year, but C showed back up at school that year with some pretty serious bruising. Nowhere that anybody could see it, but when I came up to give him a welcome back hug, he wouldn't let me touch him."

Chris winced. JC was the second most touchy-feely person he knew. Right after Joey.

"Yeah. So, I mean, hi, science geek here, I pestered him about it until he 'fessed up. Then I fed him a couple of antihistamines and several Tylenol and made him do pretty much nothing but sleep and eat for the three days until classes started. And when he woke up he looked at me and actually told me, in all seriousness, that I didn't have to take care of him like that."

Chris snorted. He doubted anyone could see JC in pain and not feel the instinct to take care of him. "What did you say?"

"I just shook my head. I think he understood, though, because he sent me this really cool 'Buffy' card with Xander on the front and he had made a word bubble that asked 'how long have I been oblivious?' Then he said yes when I asked him to go with me to the next movie night even though neither of us really had any interest in seeing what Thoreau had brought in."

"The making out is better that way anyway," Chris replied solemnly.

"Definitely. My point is that, even after we'd been together for quite some time, I routinely had these episodes where I'd worry that he'd wake up and realize that he was worth so much more than he thought and so much more than me and he'd move on. And until he finally started to understand just how wrong his father was about him, he always worried that I would figure out how worthless he was and find someone else. But he got better and I figured out that we deserve each other because, among other things, we know how to fix each other and make each other better than before. Consistently."

Chris sighed. "My whole life, I've had to work that much harder than the people I was around to get the things that I wanted or needed. With him, I never have to work hard. I just have to sit there and be the person I am. I can’t get used to it. I keep trying to work harder, sure that that will make things work out in the end and it always just fucks things up, but I never learn."

"You can though, Chris. You can both learn, you two have that ability when it comes to each other. You just need to start using it. Next time, preferably before everything goes to shit." Lance flicked Chris's arm.

Chris rubbed at his arm and mock scowled at Lance. "You’re gonna ruin all my fun."

"I'm sure."

*

AJ and Brian weren't back from the protest when Lance, JC, Joey and Chris got back. Howie was at work and Nick was out with some friends. There was a note from Meghan on the door: "Joe, Trev and I went back to my place. I love you, but privacy, man. It's a beautiful thing. Thanks for paying for me to eat. Have lots of messy sex for me and tell AJ to give Chalupa a kiss. See you in class, Meg."

Joey laughed at the note as he took it off the door and let them all into the apartment. He kissed JC on the cheek and shook Lance by the back of his neck before informing them, "I'm going to go take Meghan's advice," and herding Chris back into his room.

Joey closed the door behind them and whispered, "I get my way tonight," and Chris let him have his way. For three hours.

After which Chris announced, "I'm really, really hungry."

Joey groaned. "Food means moving."

Chris agreed that Joey had a point. He was still really hungry. "Stay here."

Chris was gone and back shortly, with a Tupperware container of potato salad, some heated spicy chicken legs, two granny smith apples and a fork for them to share. Since he had gone and gotten the food, he allowed himself first taste of the potato salad. "Oh, hey. Trevor can cook."

"Yeah, yeah he can. Give me the fork, little man."

"Just for that-"

Chris broke off as Joey gently squeezed one of his balls and took the fork from him in his moment of shocked pleasure. When he came back to himself he glared, "Cheater."

"All's fair, baby." Joey took a bit of the salad on the fork and fed it to Chris. He took a bite for himself and chewed thoughtfully. "I have an idea."

"Finally figured out the answer to world hunger?" Chris wanted to know.

"Sadly, no. But maybe to us."

"Not really so universally helpful, but I'll take what I can get."

Joey handed the fork back to Chris and took a bite of his apple. He swallowed before speaking. "I know you weren't exactly planning on going home for Christmas-"

"Not exactly planning in the 'can in no way, shape or form afford it unless I sell my liver' type of not exactly planning."

"Shut up, Chris."

Chris took a chicken leg and did as he was told.

"I'm giving us both a Christmas present. We're going back to your mom's for the holiday. And before you say anything, you don't have the right to refuse at this moment in time and I already talked to my mom, she's fine with it, in fact, she's thrilled. She gets to see me all the time anyway, and four people fit better than five at the beach house, which is where they're off to." Joey took another bite of the apple.

Chris set the now-bare bone of the leg back on the plate. "How is this going to fix us?"

"I haven't finished yet. Then, at spring break, I'm giving you a…an Easter present. You're coming home with me. I checked, your week of break somehow actually corresponds with mine, so we're fine. I already talked to my mom about this as well, and she's thrilled."

"You realize I need to ask my mom about the two of us coming home for Christmas? I mean, we don't exactly have the palace that you're used to." Chris stiffened slightly.

Joey put a hand over Chris's. "I had my mom call and ask if Bev would be willing to keep me while they were vacationing. Bev said it wouldn't be a problem so my mom insisted on paying for you to come home as well. After all, it wouldn’t make any sense for it to just be me, right?"

Chris was very still. "You're a surprisingly tricky man sometimes."

"If it will get me what I need, yes," Joey didn’t hesitate to respond.

"I don't understand how this is going to fix us," Chris admitted.

"Well, it's not exactly a cure all." Joey took his hand away and grabbed a chicken leg. "What it does do is allow you to really understand that I don't care who you are in terms of your sex or your socioeconomic level or any of those stupid stupid things that you can't seem to get it into your head don’t matter to me. At all. And I figure that's a step in the right direction."

Chris couldn't really argue with that logic. "You better get my mom a really nice Christmas present."

Joey blinked. "I got her you."

"Something better," Chris insisted.

"I don’t know anything like that." Joey fed Chris another mouthful of potato salad to shut him up.

*

JC and Lance trained back to Boston out of Grand Central the Saturday before classes started, so it was AJ and Brian's responsibility to drag Chris away from Joey Sunday morning and get him back on the bus. They managed, but not without some kicking and screaming and a few threats to their lineage. The last didn't bother either of them as they somewhat doubted they had to worry about passing on the line. Eventually, Joey helped out, distracting Chris by kissing him until he was out the door and then running back inside to lock it before Chris could follow. Chris muttered, "I hate him," and walked dejectedly behind AJ and Brian, down to a busload of student activists high off their week away from school.

Brian seated Chris at a window seat and then sat next to him. Chris's voice bounced off the window and back to Brian, "You can go sit with your boyfriend. I'm not going to self-destruct and blow the bus up, or anything."

For that, AJ sat on Chris's lap. "We're sorry we had to make you leave. Even Chalupa's sorry, she was actually conciliatory toward Brian this morning. Just ask."

"She was," Brian's eyes were dark blue and serious. Concerned.

"You're fucking heavy," was all Chris managed.

"Brian never complains," AJ argued.

"Brian is too post-coital to complain, bitch."

AJ ruffled Chris's hair. "There's the Chris I know."

Chris leaned sideways into Brian, bringing AJ with him. "I already miss him."

"Two months," Brian and AJ said in tandem.

Chris hooked an arm around AJ's waist. "I owe you guys."

"You don’t owe us nothing," AJ said softly. AJ took debt very seriously, both that which he owed and that which was owed to him. "All we did was give you some space on a bus, Chris."

Chris tried to explain how that felt like more than he deserved right then, but nothing came out. "Yeah, well."

AJ stood up and stumbled over Brian, out into the aisle. "I'm gonna go argue about what we accomplished this weekend."

Brian leaned up for a kiss and got one. "Visibility is important."

"And we're both the patron saint of lost causes, I know." AJ moved to the back of the bus.

Brian pushed the arm separating him and Chris out of the way. "He gets discouraged with surprising ease for someone who's been fighting an uphill battle his entire life."

Chris could sympathize. "He keeps going though."

"It's easier when you have someone to keep your perspective for you."

"True."

Brian kissed Chris's forehead. Chris thought it would have been odd had it been anyone else, but Brian had paternal instincts the size of his heart, which Chris had not yet seen neither beginning nor end to. "You and Joey are gonna be fine. You're meant for each other. So much so that you've grown to where right now, you need perspective outside the two of you. You're too close to provide it for each other."

"You're gonna be my perspective?"

"Me and Aje. At the very least, we're gonna be your friends." Brian shifted so that Chris could prop himself up comfortably against Brian's chest.

It took Chris a long time to answer, "Okay."

Brian squeezed his shoulder. "Get some sleep."

Chris's, "okay," came much more quickly.

*

Chris ran into Kevin, not literally, nearly a month later, despite his best attempts to avoid the man for the rest of his college career. Chris was studying at a café table when he heard someone take the seat across from him. Somewhat surprised -- people usually at least asked if he was alone before just up and commandeering the free space -- he looked up. "Oh. Hi."

Kevin didn't waste any time. "You've been avoiding me. It makes it extremely difficult for me to apologize in person, which is really the only way to apologize for seducing someone when you're drunk and screwing up their really fantastic three year relationship."

Chris shut his book. "I didn’t exactly push you away."

"Brian says you had your own reasons for that." Kevin looked down at the table for a minute. "It doesn't really matter, though, I started it. And I knew better. I mean, maybe that knowing was a little bit blurred at the time, what with the being drunk and all, but I still knew I was doing something wrong. And I'm sorry for that. I would offer to tell your boy all of this, but I don't know if that would make things worse or better. Brian says you guys are working stuff out on your own."

"Brian seems to be saying a lot."

Kevin took a sip of his drink. "I asked. He told me what he felt was okay to tell me. It's not a betrayal."

Chris thought Kevin was an unlikely person to be deciding what constituted a betrayal in his case or not. All the same, Chris believed him. "I appreciate the offer… and the apology, but I think the fixing's mostly on me at this point."

"Be that as it may," Kevin leaned back in his chair, "the offer's standing."

Chris eyed him warily. "You're not gonna be nice and Southern like your cousin and get while the getting's good, are you?"

"Brian's nice. I'm just Southern. And I like you. You and Brian and AJ are three of the only people on this campus who have any clue what the word 'reality' means in practice rather than theory."

Chris frowned. "I was thinking you bought into all that. I mean, you're Ferocious Political Activist Boy."

"Nice way of saying hippie," Kevin complimented him. "But I shower regularly. I have two causes: the environment, because I grew up near a lot of farmers whose lands were destroyed by the effect of coal-mining on everything in the area, and keeping arts education in the schools, because music was the best part of my day from pre-k to high school and I hate thinking that other kids might not get that outlet."

"It seems like more," Chris admitted.

"Sometimes for me too. It gets overwhelming. That's why I picked polysci though. I'm hoping to have enough influence to concentrate on one project and make things happen at some point." Kevin shrugged. "Right now I'm mostly just shouting at anyone who will listen."

"My cause is getting myself through school." Chris wasn't sure if he wanted this disclaimer of selfishness to drive Kevin away or not. He was enjoying the conversation in spite of himself. It was hard to find other students with some kind of concept of reality on campus.

"Brian seems to think it's getting a job that will keep your mom and your sisters comfortable and fed so long as they can't do it on their own." Kevin didn't even bat an eyelash.

"He might have me there."

Kevin smiled. "Look, Brian and AJ are taking me out to dinner next week, since I was too busy organizing the March on DC during my birthday. Come with us."

Chris hesitated.

"I'm bringing Kristin, a girl from my American Identities class. She's a self-mocking history major, you'll like her." Kevin stood up, slinging his bag over his shoulder. "Come to my delayed birthday celebration. As a friend."

Chris relented. "Joey tells me you can never have too many of those."

*

Winter break came more quickly than Chris thought should technically be possible, with the number of days between it and fall break being what it was. Nonetheless, before he strictly felt comfortable, he was reviewing notes on the American family and the sometimes twisted logic of macroeconomics and working very carefully to maintain the GPA necessary to keep his scholarship.

The day before finals started, Brian, AJ, Kevin and Kristin stole Chris from his room and forced him to go out and have cheap Mexican with them. Chris protested that he couldn't be out too late until AJ smacked him upside the head and forced him to look at everyone around the table: "See anyone who doesn’t have a scholarship to keep?"

Chris had the grace to blush. "Okay, but no alcohol." Kevin and AJ both had fake IDs, and the five of them came into this place often enough that the staff didn't even blink when the two of them ordered for everyone else at the table.

"No shit." Brian had the tolerance of a four year old. Chris laughed at that, and allowed himself to have a good time.

A week later, Kevin, still being the only one of them with a car, dropped Chris off at the airport. AJ had left two days before since he had more papers than finals. Kevin was driving him, Brian and Kristin back to Kentucky for the holiday. As he told Chris, "It's not like, a serious commitment statement or anything, she just doesn't get along with her folks."

At the airport, Chris climbed out of the car and grabbed his bag. He stuck his head in the window, "Thanks, Kev. Be careful driving back, get your oil checked and all that shit."

"Go," Kevin said, rolling the window up, "go mother Joey."

Chris pulled his head out of the way of the glass and stuck his tongue out at Kevin before turning around and walking into the airport. His flight wasn't long, but it was all he could do to sit still for all of it, to not run over the five year-old ahead of him in his haste to deboard.

Molly, Kate, Emily, Taylor, his mom and Joey were all waiting for him when he managed to finally walk off the plane. Joey had gotten in the day before. Chris took one look at the near to twin expressions of mischief on Bev and Joey's faces and knew that he had made a mistake in allowing Joey any time alone with her. The thought didn't worry him for too long, as it was much more important that he scoop Taylor up and tickle her until she couldn't stand even when he set her down.

He left her slumped at his feet. "You've grown," he accused.

She smiled up at him, proudly. "Four inches."

"Geez, mom, what are you feeding her?" Chris pulled Molly in close and hugged her until she squeaked before moving on to do the same to Emily and Kate.

"Well, now that you're gone-"

"Yeah, yeah," Chris smiled and turned around to hug Bev. "I missed you."

Bev kissed his head. "Over a year is too long, Christopher. We'll be needing to figure out a way around this."

"I know mom."

Before he was ready to let go, Bev pushed him out of her arms. "There's someone over there who misses you too."

Chris didn't step to where Joey could touch him. "If I hug you-"

"I know," Joey said. "Let's go home," he suggested, but his eyes pleaded with Bev to get them out of there.

The bus ride was torturous. Chris put Molly in between himself and Joey so that he wouldn't ravish Joey on the floor, exposing them to all kind of bacteria and scandalizing the working class of Pittsburgh. Emily won the fight for which sister got to sit on his other side, and she filled him in on everything that was going on in her life. By the end of the bus ride, Chris had managed to pay enough attention to know that Emily liked taking machines apart and fixing them, had become a high fantasy addict and was dating a boy that Chris was pretty sure he already disliked.

With Chris gone, Molly and Kate both working part time jobs and Emily freelancing around the neighborhood as a techie, Bev had been able to move them all into an apartment. It wasn't fancy, all the same, Chris's only comment when they stepped inside was, "Man, you didn’t tell me you were renting the Taj Mahal." Which it was, in comparison to some of the places he had lived as a kid.

Molly led him to the room he was sharing with her and Kate while he was at home and then tactfully shut the door after herself, leaving him and Joey alone. Chris didn't waste time, his mouth on Joey's even before he heard the tiny "click" of the latch.

It was like being back at Thoreau, with thin walls and a possible audience. Joey fucked Chris over the side of the bed, cautious of creaking hinges, and Chris screamed into the comforter. When they were done, Chris slumped to the floor and Joey removed the condoms he had miraculously managed to get onto both of them in their haste.

"Hi." Chris waved weakly.

"Hi."

If he could have, Chris would have come again from the post-coital sound of Joey's voice. For once he was glad of his own body's limitations. Joey tucked Chris back into his pants. "We should probably go spend some time with your family."

"Kate's totally crushing on you," Chris informed him. She had practically thrown Taylor across the bus in order to sit next to Joey.

Joey grinned. "She's great. Did you know she wrote a paper on misogyny in 'All's Well That Ends Well'? I totally wrote that paper when I was in high school."

"Great. Two drama queens in one tiny apartment." Chris did his best to sound put upon.

Joey shoved at him. "Actually, she wants to be a Women's Studies major. And you supported my choice to be a drama queen, so don't start with me now."

Chris leaned in for a kiss. "No starting?"

Joey considered and then kissed back, "Well, maybe. But just this once."

*

Joey's "room" was the TV area. Chris, who had lived with Joey for two years and a summer, was surprised to find the area immaculate. Joey wasn't exactly a slob, but he'd been raised with someone to clean up after him. Luckily, he had also been raised to be considerate of the people who had to clean up after him.

Joey washed dishes after meals and helped with laundry and did everything he could to make the presence of one more body less of a burden. Chris finally told him, "You gotta stop. My mom's starting to love you more than she loves me."

Joey grinned until he recognized the note of actual worry beneath the humor. "You're being stupid. I suppose you think I'm gonna start loving your mom more than I love you just because she cooks better."

Put that way, Chris did feel kind of stupid. Still, "Things are better now that I'm gone." He looked pointedly around the apartment. "No more trailers. And there's food, for the most part." Chris knew the reason there was so much right now was that Phyllis had insisted on paying for Joey's room and board and sent an amount that was outrageous, but not enough so to be insulting.

Joey sighed. "Chris, for the day that I was here before you, all she and the girls could talk about was you. Every other sentence, man. Sometimes more. They would take having to go back to a trailer in a second if it meant you were gonna be around." Joey sat down nearly on top of Chris on the sofa. There was plenty of room for both of them to sit without crushing each other. Joey ignored it. "I would live in a trailer if it meant having you around. A trailer with five girls and no heat in the winter."

"You have the freedom to say that because the experience lies well beyond your conception of the world." Chris's words lacked conviction, he didn't trust Joey not to prove it to him. Chris thought not trusting Joey in that way might be okay. Before Joey could argue, Chris cut him off, "Me too. I would do that for you."

"Duh, babe. What I need to hear is that you would fight for me. That you would go on my arm to 'debutant' functions and glare at all the women who might think to take me away from you, no matter how charming they might seem."

Chris thought of Meghan, with her large brown eyes and quick way of speaking so that the words jumbled together and yet made a kind of poetic sense. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth.

"Yeah, okay. Not today." Joey slid off the half of Chris's lap that he had been occupying, slinging his arm around Chris's shoulders to let him know it was okay.

Chris collapsed his chest so that Joey could squeeze tighter. "Let me wash the dishes tonight."

Joey pretended to consider it. "What do I get out of it?"

Chris slanted his eyes. "Use your imagination."

*

Brian called to wish them both a merry Christmas. "And Kev says hi and merry Christmas as well, but he doesn't get to talk because the phone card was my present."

Chris asked him, "What are you doing wasting your minutes on us? Is AJ over at someone else's place?"

"I already called him. I have five hundred minutes. Don't worry, I only plan on using about thirty on you."

Chris still thought it was kind of sweet, but he gave his best, "Well, fine," for the cause.

"How're you and Joey?" Brian, at times, was a little too straightforward for his own good.

"Why, we're both having a lovely Christmas, and you?"

Joey mouthed, "be nice." Chris made a face. "We're fine, good. Okay."

"Which one of the three?"

"We're fine, he's good, I'm okay. I think," Chris added the last for safety.

Brian accepted this. "How's the family? Did you say hi to your mom for me?"

"Yes, I did. Jesus. You've never even met her, Bri."

"Could you find another swear word of choice?"

"Not in my current location," Chris responded honestly. Thinking to get his own back on, he asked, "So, Kristin and Kevin saying their vows yet?"

"Tomorrow, why, you wanna fly down?"

"Funny," he actually thought it kind of was, but wasn't going to admit that. "Seriously, how's it going for them?"

"Kevin's mom adores Kris. Like, I honestly think she would adopt her if it wouldn't mean making Kevin's chances of marrying her very weird. And as far as I can tell they haven't started to piss each other off yet. A week from now will be almost two months since their first date and that's some kind of a record for Kevin. He's hard to please."

The thought, not that hard crossed Chris's mind, but he kept his mouth shut. Instead he pretended like Joey wasn't sitting nearly on top of him, listening to one side of his and Brian's conversation. "Joey was a little like that."

"Joey was denying his sexuality, it's different Chris."

Well, yes. "He stopped for me." His tone made how much he still had a hard time accepting that evident. "He's stayed with me this whole week. Instead of going to paradise with his family."

"He loves you."

Chris knew that, knew it like he knew his name. It was understanding it that always brought him up short. He listened to Brian's voice though, Brian who thought lying was a sin and who only lied when AJ obviously wanted something complimentary said about Chalupa. He felt Joey's arm around his shoulders, warm in spite of the chill of the underheated apartment. "I'm…I'm gonna prove to." Chris stopped, realizing what word needed to come next. "I'm going to prove to myself that I deserve him." Not Joey. Joey knew.

"Sounds like a plan."

Chris, to his surprise, had to agree.

*

Bev and Molly pooled their money and took the other three girls out to a movie and ice cream the last night that Chris and Joey were in town so that they could "have some time alone together."

The two of them did just that, making love on the living room floor. They showered together and cleaned up before being intruded upon. Chris made hot chocolate for everyone and they all stayed up, even Taylor, whose bedtime was normally ten at the latest, until well past midnight.

Taylor dropped off first. Emily made noise about going to bed at the same time so that she wouldn't have to disturb Taylor when she climbed in, but Taylor was a heavy sleeper and Emily was yawning through all her explanations. Kate and Molly bowed out soon after, leaving Bev alone with Joey and Chris. Joey knew how to make a graceful exit and did so, leaving Chris to talk with his mom.

She dropped into the chair next to him. "Hey stranger."

He huffed. "No kidding."

"We miss you so much, Chris."

"Not even close to as much as I miss you. I mean, just proportionally, you only have one person to miss, while I-"

She flicked his arm. "Shut up. Send'em off to school and they become total upstarts on you."

"At least we know somebody else's money is going toward something."

"Yeah, yeah." Bev pursed her lips. "Look, I'm gonna be a mom here, for a second, and you're just gonna have to put up with it."

Chris raised an eyebrow, but stayed silent.

"Right after I got pregnant with you, a whole bunch of people told me to get an abortion. My parents wanted me to, your dad's parents, some teachers that I was close with, pretty much everyone. But I stood my ground and told people that you were a part of me and I didn't feel that destroying that part of me was the right decision in my case. I basically told the world to go fuck itself in order to have you."

Bev took a deep breath. "I know your childhood wasn't ideal, and I…I wish more than anything that it could have been." She held up her hand to stall Chris as he attempted to interrupt. "But I loved you more than life itself and I think you turned out amazing. I don’t regret my decision for a second, ever, and I hope you don’t either."

"Of course not," Chris mumbled.

"Sometimes, Chris, when the world doesn't believe in something that you know is right, you have to fight for it anyway. Do you understand?"

"I'm afraid-" Chris started.

"I was scared mindless that I'd be the world's worst mother. But I knew you belonged to me and that I loved you and I was pretty sure that would be enough. And I was right."

"I'm not sure he belongs to me."

"Baby. I've had children with five men and not once did I belong to or with any of them the way Joey does you. He's yours from tip to toe. Now you've just gotta tell the world to shove off."

Chris closed in to hug his mom, hoping to soak up some of her faith in him through osmosis.

*

Chris had one new message on the voicemail the school provided him with for his room. It was from Justin. "I hate you. You and Joey. What the fuck? I don't get to hear about anything that's going on until Joey doesn't show up in New York for Christmas and I call Lance and JC to see if they know what's going on and have to hear about it from a third party? If you don't call within ten minutes of getting this message, our friendship is over. Do you hear me Kirkpatrick? Ov-" A beep cut off what Chris was assumed was the last of the rant.

Chris consulted the sheet of emergency phone numbers he kept tacked up on the cork board above his desk. Justin's was fourth on the list. The phone rang twice.

"Hello?"

"I don’t have a lot of time on this card," Chris told him.

"Let me call you back." Justin hung up. It took less than thirty seconds for the phone to ring again. "Seriously, Chris. I yelled at Joey too. That shit is not cool. I mean, who do you think was the first to know when I broke up with Hope and when I started dating Stasia? And then you guys go and have the melodrama of the century and I get left out of the phone chain. Not okay-"

Chris broke in, sensing that Justin was only getting himself worked up. "I'm sorry, J. I wasn't really calling much of anyone at the time. The only reason AJ and Brian even knew is because they live down the hall from me and Kevin, the guy I…well, he's Brian's cousin."

"Oh."

"And I don't think Joey would have said anything if the UberCouple of the decade hadn't called at the moment that they did. They have good timing, we know this."

"True," Justin agreed, if somewhat reluctantly. "Look, I just. I'm like, still in high school. And all of you are in college. And…"

Chris winced. "It's not like that."

"It feels that way." Justin's voice was small.

Chris didn't ask him to speak up. "It's just because we're selfish fucks who forget how to use a telephone. Really, I promise. And it won't happen again. You know Joey and I are gonna be in New York over spring break, right?"

"Yeah, yours is later than mine, but I'll be there for the first weekend. Joey and I made plans for the three of us to hang out. If you don't like it, you don't have to come along." Justin sounded petulant, though Chris thought he was probably trying for casual sarcasm.

"Oh good, I'll just hang out with Phyllis that afternoon."

"Dick," Justin spluttered.

"Takes one to know one."

"Oh yeah, that's mature."

Chris laughed. "From you, that's almost a compliment. Did you get all your apps in?"

"All seven." Justin's voice conveyed his preening.

Chris knew the feeling. "UCLA, UNC and Duke still in the lead?"

"Definitely. Basketball, man. Even if I'm not a starter, y'know?"

Chris wasn't sure he did, passion like that wasn't something he had ever allowed himself time to cultivate. Until Joey. That thought made him say, "Yeah. I do. Good luck. And tell me when you find out."

"I dunno, man. I feel a little payback might only be fair."

"Whatever, you're gonna be screaming it from Thoreau's rooftops when you find out. It'll get to me. One way or another."

Justin laughed. "Yeah, I might as well call you, I guess."

"Might as well."

"I was going to anyway, y'know."

Chris took a second to remind himself forcefully that he deserved friends like Justin. He left off at that, not dealing with anything that involved Joey. "Yeah. I know."

*

AJ and Brian decided to have a combined birthday party. Kevin told Chris, "They just don't want anybody bothering them on their actual birthdays."

Chris thought he was probably right, but didn't put up too much of a fight, as one birthday party was cheaper than two. January and February were excruciatingly expensive between AJ, Brian, Justin and, of course, Joey. Chris figured he ought to send Nick a card as well, since he knew Nick and Howie had both done their share of work in making sure that Joey wouldn't turn him out on the streets when he had come to apologize.

He bought AJ a red vinyl cat collar and Brian a book of guitar music. Brian was trying to teach himself to play on the guitar his older brother had given him over Christmas. AJ said he was pretty good, but AJ could be biased about such things, and nobody else had heard a note. Still, Chris figured having something to play couldn't hurt the endeavor.

The party was pretty large. Chris could tell most of them were Brian's friends, which didn't surprise him. AJ was harder to get to know and tougher to appreciate. It made Chris happy, like AJ showed him something he didn't let just anyone see.

Kevin got drunk at the party. Not falling down drunk, but at least as drunk as he had been that night at the hotel. Chris didn't know much of anyone there, Brian and AJ ran in distinctly different circles than he, so his options were to hang out with the hosts themselves, Kevin and Kristin, or a be a wallflower. The first option seemed a little ridiculous. The party was for them and they could hardly want Chris peering over their shoulders all night long. Chris didn't exactly feel comfortable around a drunk Kevin, so he chose the last option.

It was going pretty well for him -- the club had been AJ's pick, and it had good music -- until Kristin caught him at it and sat next to him. "Feeling antisocial?"

Chris shrugged. "Not really my crowd."

"You could hang out with us," Kristin enunciated each word, as if speaking to a child.

Chris didn't look at her. "Um. That's okay."

"Do I smell?"

This caught Chris's attention, he looked up, into her narrowed eyes. "It's not you. It's, well, Kevin-"

"Oh, yeah, I forgot about that. That would be kind of weird wouldn't it?"

Chris let go of a breath he hadn't known he was holding, glad she knew. "Kind of, yeah."

"Look, he's got me to distract him, I promise I'll keep his hands to me and himself. My word good enough for you?" Kristin stuck out a hand.

Chris shook on it and followed her through the crowd of people to where she had left Kevin. He was still there, which was good, because Chris seriously doubted they'd be able to find him in the throng. Kevin grinned up at Kristin. "You succeeded."

"I always succeed, Richardson, it would do you well to remember it."

Kevin rolled his eyes, but asked Chris, "She's pretty beautiful, isn't she?"

Chris wasn't really any kind of expert in attractive women, but he knew Kristin was beautiful in the same way he knew it about his sisters. "Oh yeah, that she is."

Kristin smacked both of them on their arms. She glared at Chris. "Are you drunk, too?"

Chris shook his head. He couldn't afford enough alcohol at this place to get him drunk. "I have to be drunk to find you beautiful? I'm not the type who sleeps with women when inebriated, just so you know."

Kristin laughed. Kevin thought about it for a second and followed suit. Chris was glad for Kevin's silence. There were some things that just didn't need to be said. Kevin pulled Kristin into his lap and whispered something into her ear that made her turn and kiss him briefly.

Kevin started a conversation about something stupid his cousin had done earlier in the week. Chris listened to his words and didn't worry about anything else.

*

JC and Lance called from the Keys on their spring break. Lance asked, conversationally, "How's the weather?"

Chris grunted, "Fuckhead."

JC clucked. "Boys."

"Why are we on the phone? Don't you two have better things to do with your vacation? I mean, I know, my allure is almost irresistibly strong, but really, you abandoned the Keys for me once already, I think you should just give it a shot. You might like it."

"Actually, we just wanted to see if a ménage a trios would work over the phone." JC's tone suggested that he was dead serious, and since Chris put very few things past JC, he went silent until Lance rescued him.

Sort of. "No, no. It was more that we needed a rest between bouts. You know how it is."

Chris laid his head down on his desk and sealed his lips tightly together.

"Chris?" JC seemed unsure if he was still there. "We're just kidding. Both of us are fully-clothed. Well, in wetsuits. We went jet-skiing this morning. I suck at it."

That didn't surprise Chris. Unless it was music or math, JC could lose his concentration pretty quickly. "I'm jealous." He had been jealous before, about the sex, but it felt dangerous to mention that.

"How're midterms going?" Lance wanted to know, and Chris could sense that they were heading back in the direction that Lance and JC had originally intended the conversation to go.

"Not horribly. I'm not sure how pretty my American Post-War Narrative class is gonna be. I like the class, the professor's awesome, I just don't think my brain really works in the way it needs to for it. It's only to get the credit requirement out of the way, though, so as long as it doesn't completely fuck my GPA and therefore scholarship, which I kinda doubt, it'll be fine."

"I hate credit requirements," JC informed him solemnly.

It was one of JC's only complaints about college. Chris was sympathetic, "I know."

"Chris."

"Lance." Chris wasn't sure if Lance had been starting to say something or just getting his attention. He was willing to bet it was a bit of both.

"Joey's really excited about next week." Lance's words were cautious.

"So am I," Chris informed him, every bit as carefully. "I get to see Justin, too."

"Tell him hi for us," JC chimed in.

"Will do."

"Do you…where are you with the Joey situation?" Lance sounded like he'd rather be eating nails then asking that question.

Chris didn't really want to answer, either, but he did. "I'm trying not to anticipate too much. I'm trying to wait and see what New York brings at me. I'm trying to believe that I made a mistake in October -- not the sleeping with Kevin part of the mistake, which is obvious, the believing I had to do it part. I'm getting close on that last one, I'm pretty sure. Joey called and talked about Meghan to me the other night for the first time since and I didn't even… I mean, it was just cool, to hear about his friend, right?"

Lance spoke up first. "Fair enough. Just keep going in that direction, okay?"

JC added, "We'll be back in the dorms on Sunday. You can call us in the evening or anytime that week if you need anything. You do have the number?"

Chris tried to stop himself from rolling his eyes before remembering that JC couldn't see him. "Yeah, Jace, I've got it. I've got all my important numbers written down. We'll be fine." Chris paused. "But I do appreciate the call."

"Make us proud," Lance deadpanned. JC shouted a goodbye over a giggle right as the click sounded.

Chris didn't want to know.

*

Janine and Phyllis were waiting for Chris at baggage claim in LaGuardia. Phyllis ambushed him with a hug, squeezing him until he couldn't help but squeak. Upon being set free, he gasped, "Hello, Mrs. Fatone."

She turned stern eyes on him. He corrected himself. "Phyllis." They had this discussion, albeit generally more verbally, every time they spoke.

Janine grinned at the exchange and gave Chris a hug of her own, with a kiss on the cheek to match. "Hey sexy. Joey's taxi got stuck in traffic on the way home. He's probably there now, but if we had waited we would've been late coming to get you."

Chris grabbed his bag off the baggage carousel and followed the two women to the car. He was silent for most of the ride home, letting Janine fill him in on her post-collegiate adventures, living at home and working for the non-profit sector at slave wages. Phyllis told him all about her work with the local P-FLAG chapter and her attempts to get Joe Sr. involved.

Forty-five minutes later, Phyllis parked the car in the building's garage. Chris made himself hop out of the car and get his bag at a normal pace, not wanting to seem too eager. Joey's family never made him feel gauche, but he made himself feel like it around them.

The elevator ride up and the time it took for Janine to unlock the front door was sheer torture. Chris nearly crashed straight into Joey when the door finally opened, Joey having come to open it from the inside. Chris dropped his bags and burrowed into Joey. Phyllis and Janine snuck past, Phyllis ruffling Chris's hair as she went.

"'Bout time!" A familiar voice shouted from down the hall.

Chris peeked to the side of Joey's torso. "What are you doing here?"

"That's appreciation for you," Justin pouted. "You haven't seen me in what, ten months, and all I get is, 'what are you doing here?' Fine, I can leave."

Chris reached out as Justin tried to make a dramatic exit right past where they were still huddled in a hug and pulled him into the embrace. "Hi."

Justin wrapped arms that seemed to just keep getting longer around the both of them. "I missed you, punk."

"Oh, I'm the punk?" Chris snorted. "Whose fault was it that we haven't seen each other in ten months, huh? Mr. No-I-Can't-Live-With-You-This-Summer-I-Have-To-Go-Be-A-
Hotshot-At-Basketball."

"Jealous, shorty?" Justin pulled back to posture a bit.

"You wish."

Joey laughed. "Are you two gonna finish up, or should I go get something to hold the piss in?"

Chris punched Joey playfully in his gut. "You missed this."

"Oh yes. In fact, this is what I came home for, to watch my boyfriend and my best friend snark at each other all weekend. You pinned it, man." He leaned down and kissed Chris before switching subjects. "You remember Britney, the girl I told you Justin was good friends with?"

Chris recalled her vaguely, mostly because, "The lesbian, right?"

"She has other things to recommend her, y'know."

Chris found it amusing that Justin tended to sound more like a prep school kid when he was annoyed or pissed off. "I wasn't trying to suggest she didn't, I just don't really know much else about her."

"Well, you're gonna," Joey told him. "She's having a party this weekend. She got into a program, she's gonna study dance with the Royal English Ballet all of next year. It's a really prestigious program, she stands a major chance of getting a place with a company at the end of the year. It's gonna be a lot of people I grew up with and a lot of the kids she goes to school with at Fine Arts."

Chris didn't think this was a conscious test on Joey's part, but he also knew Joey recognized it for the opportunity that it was. "Um. Is it fancy?"

"Are you kidding?" Justin smirked. "Britney pass up a chance to get all girly? Right."

"I don’t have anything to wear." Chris felt like a girl, but he wasn't going to a party on someone else's home turf in the wrong attire.

"We have all of tomorrow to go shopping-" Joey started.

"You're not buying me a suit." Chris finished.

"Then you can go in jeans," Joey said casually, as though he absolutely didn't care.

Chris realized he probably didn't and relented. "Fine, but when I'm rich and powerful, I get to dress you."

"Don't agree to that," Justin warned.

Joey stuck out his hand and shook on it.

*

Britney rushed over to greet them the moment she spotted Justin and Joey walk into the party. She threw herself into Justin's arms, seemingly unaware that she was wearing a custom made evening gown. Justin twirled her before handing her over to Joey for his turn. When Joey set her down, she was flushed, but almost immediately regained a poise that would have told Chris she was a dancer, even without previous knowledge of that fact. She held out her hand, and a brunette with impossibly high cheekbones and eyes the same color brown as Britney's took it, joining their circle. "Joey, Justin, this is Darcy." Britney colored in a way that gave Darcy's relationship to her away without saying a word. "She's a dancer with the ABC."

Darcy held her free hand out. "Justin? Joey?"

"Oh!" Britney smacked her palm against her forehead lightly. "You must be Chris. Justin's told me all about you. He says you've got game and he like, never says that about anyone, well, except Stasia, and between you and me, I think he's talking about a different type of game altogether with her."

Darcy bit her lower lip. Chris realized he was probably supposed to have that kind of discretion. Instead he chuckled and said, "I got nothing on you girl. He goes to the ballet for you."

Justin grumbled at both of them. Joey clapped a hand over Justin's shoulder. "Wanna get some food before your reputation can be further destroyed?"

"Who's catering?" He looked suspiciously at Britney.

She rolled her eyes. "Justin. My mother planned this thing. Somewhere that holds up the Timberlake standard, I'm sure."

"Ah, so it has at least the consistency of rubber foam," Chris commented.

Darcy actually laughed at that. Britney gave him an approving look, "At least. Go eat, chat, I have to be a hostess. I'll catch up with you boys later."

Joey kissed her cheek and Darcy's hand before moving away. Chris nodded at both girls and followed Joey, leaving Justin a few minutes to whine at Britney about how far away she was going to be. Joey put a hand to Chris's lower back. "Easy, no?"

"It would probably be hard for Britney to be the one throwing stones. Alphabet girl at her side, and all," Chris pointed out.

"Alphabet- Oh. ABC. American Ballet Company," Joey clarified.

"I figured as much." Chris had puzzled out the last two words from context clues.

Joey changed the subject. "You look hot. That suit was a good choice."

"This old thing?" Chris quipped. The suit was a monochrome blue-gray with an art deco tie that came just shy of being ostentatious. It sat on Chris's tiny frame well.

"Keep it up and I'll have you on the table that's currently housing the ice-cream bar. Flat surface and hot fudge all in one convenient location."

Chris swallowed, regaining equilibrium. "Ouch."

"I'd let it cool first." Joey took a second to think. "Maybe." He began working his way down the line, putting enough food to feed three people and their families on his plate. Chris followed after, taking only slightly smaller portions.

"Joey?" A tall boy with light blond hair stood across the buffet from them. "Is that you, man?"

"Matt?" Joey asked. The blond smiled. Joey stuck a hand across the table and shook the newcomer's. He turned to Chris. "Chris, this is Matt Morrigan. Our fathers work at the same firm, we grew up practically living together." He focused his attention back to Matt. "What have you been doing with yourself, man?"

"School, what else? Dartmouth. Pre-law."

Matt's tone, the way it suggested that Joey probably already knew all this and was just asking to be pleasant, crawled up Chris's spine uncomfortably. Joey evidently hadn't noticed as he continued on, "Still playing soccer? You were totally gonna go pro when we were kids."

"Nah," Matt waved a hand dismissively. "The team up at Dartmouth is a different crowd than I really prefer to run with. What about you?"

"I'm at Tisch." Joey shrugged, "Still local."

"I'd heard a rumor that you'd picked that over Columbia, but I hadn't given any credence to it. What did your parents say?"

Joey's eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. "They were proud of me."

Matt's smile was wide. Chris found his teeth to be unnaturally white. "Yes, of course they were. Well, then, if that rumor was correct, I suppose the others must be as well. You've taken to batting for the other team?" He sniffed. "It's fine of course, but I think it's rather gauche to bring it into the open like this," he eyed Chris before continuing, "I mean, really, do you think anyone can take Britney seriously whilst she's flashing her little trophy girlfriend around? And hers is a Bussell."

Joey gripped Chris's shoulder with a bruising tightness. "I doubt Britney cares how seriously a boy who's living a life made up of his father's money and his mother's expectations takes her. Especially seeing as how the REB is taking her quite seriously. And as far as my 'taste' in 'flashing' my boyfriend of three and a half years around at a party full of people who are supposed to be my friends, well, I think it's fantastic."

"I turned Dartmouth down," Chris informed Matt conversationally. "They offered me a nice package, but Yale offered me a nicer one. They weren't as concerned with making sure there was room for everyone whose parents had gone there before them. You said something about the ice cream bar, babe?" Chris raised an eyebrow at Joey.

"With hot fudge sauce," Joey agreed. They both headed in that direction, leaving Matt to gape behind them.

Half way there, Chris asked, "We are gonna eat dinner first, right? I mean, we were just getting him riled up, yeah?"

"Oh yeah, but I wanna reach the ice cream bar, just to have the chance to surreptitiously turn around and watch him act like a fish washed ashore."

"You've been living with a marine biology student for too long." Chris picked up an ice cream bowl with the hand that wasn't holding his plate and turned slightly. He caught sight of Matt. "But that is a really good description."

Joey spooned hot fudge sauce into the bottom of Chris's bowl.

*

Justin's flight back was late Sunday evening, so Joey took them all to the theater that Howie worked at Sunday afternoon for a matinee. The show itself was unimpressive at best, but Chris recognized the originality and efficiency in the sets that Howie had helped design.

Nick had stayed in town for the break. Chris remembered Joey mentioning that Nick's relationship with his family was complicated. Nick met up with them after the show in one of the Village dives that he and Howie used as a place of cheap sustenance and decent atmosphere on a regular basis. He dropped into the empty chair next to Howie and kissed his boyfriend. "Hey babe. How'd the show go?"

Howie pointed out the large root beer he had ordered for Nick. "Only two major catastrophes."

Nick held up a hand for a high-five. "Things are getting better all the time."

Joey tugged at a lock of Nick's hair. "Hey. Nick, this is Justin. Justin, Nick."

Nick offered his hand over the length of the table and Justin shook it. "You study whales, right?"

"Kind of," Nick beamed. He loved being asked about his area of study. "My main concentration is actually sharks. When I go to grad school I'm gonna narrow it down even more, focusing on a particular family that has only been found in waters in Central and North America, but I actually think they're closely related to another branch that tends to inhabit the southeast coast of Asia."

Justin blinked at the flood of information, but his only comment was, "Cool, man. Good luck with that."

A waiter came to the table and took their orders before Joey could puff himself up and regale them all with tales of last evening's adventures. Chris sat with his head down for most of it, while Justin interrupted with things like, "dude, Morrigan was always a momma's boy," and "niiiice."

Howie's eyes sparked at the whole chocolate fudge part of the story and Chris, out of respect, forced his mind not to wander to where it wanted to. There was something about the contrast of Nick and Howie, light and dark, big and small, that did things to Chris's brain. He put a hand on Joey's knee under the table and squeezed, willing his hand to stay just where it was.

Nick didn't have much to say about the whole thing, allowing Justin and Howie to keep up a running commentary. Instead, he looked with consideration at Chris, as Howie was saying something about a friend of his who had dropped out of Dartmouth, "because it sucked." Chris, aware that he was being watched but not wanting to alarm Nick, waited a bit before locking eyes with Nick.

Nick stared for a few more seconds before smiling. Chris smiled back instinctively. Nick had the kind of smile that could make a dead person smile back.

Later, when they were getting up to leave, it occurred to Chris that in the few times that he had seen Nick after 'The Kevin Incident', this was the first time Nick had smiled at him. The realization had him smiling more easily than even actually being on the receiving end of the smile.

*

"Justin heard from Britney that mostly, Morrigan's just peeved because she turned him down," Joey gossiped to Chris a few days after the party. They were in bed together, Chris having curled up next to him the minute the door shut for a fourth time, indicating everyone else was gone.

Chris snickered. "Smart girl."

"Definitely." Joey insinuated his hand beneath Chris's t-shirt, stroking lazily at the soft skin of Chris's stomach. "You were awesome, though, really. I forgot to tell you."

"More pissed than awesome, really."

Joey's nails scraped lightly over the skin he had been caressing. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why were you pissed?"

Chris considered the answer to be obvious until he thought about it. "I guess… I guess because he was insulting your right to choose who you wanted to be. And you've fought too hard for that."

"There was a time when you thought I couldn't fight for that," Joey pointed out.

"Yeah, well, there was a time when I was stupid. Many times, actually."

Joey cupped his hand over Chris's hip and turned him slightly so that they were facing. "I fought because of you. You're what makes choosing worth the…suckiness it causes sometimes. Morrigan didn't insult my right to choose any more so than you did by not bothering to actually ask what was going on with me and Meghan, rather than just assuming."

"I know," Chris bit out. He buried his face in Joey's chest. "I know. Maybe that was part of why I was so pissed. Morrigan was just in the way, y'know?"

"But you did what you did because you felt it was right, right? I mean, that wasn't some kind of odd male posturing issue on your part?" Joey tipped Chris's chin up to where his face could be seen.

Chris flickered his eyes in a quick expression of negation. "I'll always believe in your right to choose. I may have questioned your choices for a moment, and I may have done something incredibly stupid in that moment, but I wasn't suggesting by my actions that you shouldn't have the right to choose."

Joey let Chris's head drop back to his chest. "I guess I can see that."

Chris put his mouth directly over where Joey's heart was beating in a regulated, strong rhythm. "I'm glad you keep choosing me."

*

Joey took Chris to a pre-season Yankee's game the day before he had to leave for Yale. It was chilly, but the sun was out and Chris was stoked, having never been to a professional baseball game before. They had tried several times over the summer, but conflicting schedules hadn't allowed for it.

Joey had whistled "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" and given Chris the tickets the afternoon previous while they were on the subway. Chris had made them get off at the next station so that he could take Joey into the bathroom and make out in a stall for half an hour. He waited until they got home to do anything else. Making out in a public stall was all well and good, but blowjobs required clean floors.

Their seats were down at the bottom, nearly on the field, and Joey kept a finger hooked in Chris's belt loop for the first inning, making sure the smaller man didn't hop the partition and go join the action. Chris finally settled enough for Joey to ask, "You want something to eat?"

Chris was hardly one to turn down free food. He stayed, cheering the home team, shouting the words to the songs that came on, jumping up whenever a foul flew into the stands, while Joey went and got them food.

When Joey came back, both hands carrying trays of hot dogs, nachos and lemonade, Chris took his without looking away from the field and mentioned amiably, "I love you."

Joey grinned, "You're easy."

"Well, yes, but no," Chris turned his head to look at Joey, "that was me saying 'I love you'. The way I haven't said it in awhile."

Joey dipped a nacho. "Not to put a damper on this, but we're in the middle of a frickin' baseball park, Chris."

"History, man." Chris balanced his tray on his knees and shook a finger at Joey. "Doomed to repeat itself. Baseball parks and ice hockey parking lots. Besides," he glanced at the crowd around them, looking distinctly unimpressed, "I could take these guys. For you."

Joey stared pointedly at the man behind Chris, easily six feet tall.

"Well, I could try to take these guys," Chris amended.

Joey snorted. "I love you too."

"I won't…" Chris watched a fly ball arch through the air and straight into the mitt of a left-fielder. "I won’t do that again. What I did. I promise."

It was the visiting team's third out and several boys ran onto the field, cleaning the triangle while the teams organized themselves. "How can you promise?"

"You know later, at Britney's party? When you and Justin ran off to go talk to someone and left me to have some quality time with the girls?" Chris worked to sound annoyed for effect. "Anyway, Brit's mom came over and introduced a guy, um…I don’t remember his name. He was pretty hot, though."

Joey glared.

Chris reassured him, "Nobody's as hot as you, oh paragon of manliness. The point is, he was a pretty nice guy, I mean, down to earth and had stuff going for him and definitely A-list, if the look on Mrs. Spear's face had anything to do with it."

"Brit didn't even notice, did she?"

"She might've." Chris made Joey wait a second, setting his food tray underneath his chair. "If she'd been able to take her eyes off of Darcy. The Almighty Himself could've walked in that room and she would've greeted him like the perfect hostess and turned back to hear what her girlfriend had to say."

"I know the feeling."

Chris ignored him. "And I kept thinking that the look on her face when she would laugh at something Darcy said or ask her what she thought about something was really familiar. I couldn't place it until we got in the cab to go home and I made that crack about Justin's mojo and you had the exact same look on your face."

Joey smiled.

"Yup, that's the look," Chris joked. He sobered. "So I promise."

"Good enough for me." Joey turned his gaze back to the game. "You always are."

The hitter cracked a home run. Chris leapt up to cheer.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile