If Jude’s honest, he’s still not sure why he ran. No one saw them. No one was chasing, but something about Max’s energy had him following. From day one.
There’s a big dinner, a family dinner, once all the people and police have gone.
They eat, drink, and are generally merry. It feels like before, better than before, all thoughts of separating are gone. Without saying, it’s understood that none of them are going away again.
Prudence giggles a lot and hugs Jude even more.
“I’m so glad you’re back,” she whispers each time.
“Glad to be back,” he says, every time, his voice rising the more he drinks.
He’s shouting it out to the streets of New York by the end of the night, or the beginning of the morning, depending on how you look at it.
Max shouts along with him.
That first night with Max, it set the precedent for what Jude expected life in America to be: fun, exciting, unexpected, and free. Words to describe the man himself.
When Jude wakes, he does so with eyes closed and counts to ten. If it wasn’t real, if it was all just a dream, if he drank himself into a hallucination – count to ten, and he’s ready to face it.
He opens his eyes.
“What the hell are you doing, man?” Max stands in the doorway, one of Sadie’s printed tops hanging open to his waist.
Jude smiles at him, closes his eyes because shit, he hasn’t been this hung over in a long time, and kicks at the sheets on the bed.
“Just making sure this was all real,” Jude says with a smile. The bed dips and he opens his eyes. Max lays beside him, back against the headboard, coffee in his hand. He spreads the sheets around his legs and lowers his eyes to Jude.
“Of all the things in the world to dream up, what sane person would choose to dream up this place?” Max asks around a sip.
Jude shifts himself to match Max’s position, legs tucked in. He grabs the cup from Max’s hand and smiles around the rim. “Never said I was in my right mind.”
“Hey,” Max says, snatching his cup back. “I’m the fucked up one here, okay? You, you’re the one who takes care of me.”
“Oh, is that what I am?” Jude asks.
Max nods. “It’s your turn.” He shifts under the sheets. “Lucy’s been doing it for far too long. And to be honest, she’s kind of driving me nuts.”
Jude reclaims the cup. “What’s it pay?”
Max glances at him. “You get to spend all your time with me. What more do you want?”
Jude laughs. “So much more.”
The day Jude sold his first drawing, the day he got his first bit of money – which he subsequently spent on clothes and booze for Max since Max wouldn’t accept the cash – was also the day he knew he wouldn’t be going back to Liverpool. He had found himself a home, and it wasn’t there.
Three days past before Max brings it up.
They’re sitting on the roof, backs against stone and cigarettes between lips. If Jude concentrates, stares at Max enough, he can tune out the traffic and pretend they’re at Princeton again.
“When are you going to get rid of that thing on your face?”
Max lifts his lip, causing his mustache to rub against his nose. “When are you going to get back with my sister?”
The traffic seeps back in, and Jude turns away. He shakes his head.
“Come on, man,” Max says. “I know you want to. I know she wants to. So.” He makes faces until Jude laughs. “Come on. Why haven’t you two crazy kids worked it out?”
“You don’t understand,” Jude says. “It was different.” He stares down at his hands, once again smudged with charcoal and color. “Everything fell apart when you left.”
“But now I’m back,” Max says, louder than necessary. He nudges Jude. “So what’s the problem?”
Jude smiles at him, takes a long drag from his cigarette and blows the smoke in Max’s face. “That is the problem.”
The week before Max left, he stuck to Jude like glue. Not just figuratively. His arm never left Jude’s shoulder, his face frequently pressed into Jude’s neck.
At the time, Jude thought it might have been fear, Max needing Jude to ground him. Now, he wonders if it might have been an assurance, a way to imprint himself on Jude. To make sure he wasn’t – couldn’t be – forgotten.
Max spends a lot of time talking to Lucy about Jude. Jude will find them together, in the kitchen, his and Max’s bedroom, at the club – but the moment he hears his name spoken, he backs away, returns to where he came from to wait for Max to find him.
It’s never too long after.
Max never brings it up, never asks Jude what he asks Lucy. Why. Why not. What the hell is wrong with you two. Don’t you love her (him).
Jude’s glad; he doesn’t have any answers.
The day Max left, deported, whatever – only Jude and Lucy accompanied him to the bus depot. The others had wanted to, but Jude knew Max and Lucy needed this moment alone.
As for Jude’s presence – well, he’s a selfish bastard and Max is his best friend.
Max hugged Lucy, looked like someone else in his army greens and without the androgyny his hair provided. He whispered something Jude wasn’t close enough to hear, and Lucy laughed through her tears when she pulled away.
There was a moment, a moment where Jude stared at Max and Max stared at the bus he’d soon board, when Jude thought he wouldn’t get his chance. Then his arms were full of Max, and Jude knew. Despite the imposed physical changes, he was the same; felt the same; still smelled like sweat and smoke and too clean for the life they lived.
“You’ll be fine, yeah?” Jude said.
“You think?” Max asked.
Jude’s grip tightened. “You better.”
Max pulled away, a jester’s grin on his face. “Or what, you’ll come get me?”
Jude, he didn’t hesitate. He cupped Max’s face in his hands and said, “You bet your skinny ass I will.” And he meant it. In that moment, he really meant it.
The call came for boarding and Max looked back, as much as he can with his face in Jude’s hands. “That’s me.”
That grin returned and Max nodded at Lucy before looking back at Jude. “Look after her.”
Jude was halfway to a nod when Max’s lips connected with his. Just for a moment, not even long enough to notice, really. Then he was gone.
Jude and Max frequently sleep in the same bed. They might say it’s because of the limited space (they’ve acquired a few more bodies in the past couple of months). Maybe it’s because they are the only two awake in the end, the others, with more job stability and responsibility, always passed out before them. Maybe it’s because almost everyone else has someone to sleep with. Perhaps they’ve missed each other that much.
Maybe it’s all those things.
Still, Jude doesn’t know why lately he can’t sleep – literally can’t – without his fingers united with Max’s.
Everything fell apart when Max left. Everything. Sadie and JoJo, him and Lucy. And through it all, all Jude wanted was Max. Like a kid who needed his mum after he scrapped his knee, but can’t say so because of the teasing that’d come. Jude just wanted Max.
He rides with Max sometimes. Sits beside him in that yellow cab while Max screams and curses the hundreds of drivers in his way, astonishing the upper crust, amusing the lower. Jude acts as a buffer; keeps Max calm enough that he doesn’t take out his misplaced anger on the customers. Draws portraits (and charging a small fee) for those who might not want to leave a tip because of Max’s behavior, charming those who might not no matter how Max acts.
Max doesn’t even notice, most of the time. Only when a passenger refuses the art and it ends up discarded in his front seat.
“How come you never draw me?” Max asks, holding up the sketch of a redhead who had refused – though she did so after writing her number in the upper left corner.
“I see you every day,” Jude says. He snatches the picture back; he’s not going to call, but it’s good work. “Why would I need to?”
“You saw Lucy every day I was gone, and I know you drew her,” Max says. He toes off his boots and drops onto the bed before pulling at his shirt. “Am I not pretty enough or something?”
“No, you’re not.” It takes great effort for Jude not to smile at the look Max gives him.
“Fuck you,” Max says after more moments than Jude expects. “I’m fucking beautiful.”
“Maybe without that thing on your face,” Jude says. He shrugs. “But right now, the way you look? Not appealing to me in the slightest.”
Max walks up to Jude, presses against his side wearing just boxers and socks. “You wish you could get this, man.” He smacks Jude’s ass before ambling out of the room. The bathroom door slams a moment later.
All the strawberries were Max. Jude didn’t know at first, didn’t realize maybe. After Lucy left, after he tore apart every picture of her, inspired by her – he couldn’t bring himself to destroy the strawberries.
In that dank and dirty cell, awaiting deportation, he thought, Max won’t see his pictures. He won’t see what I think of him. How no amount of violence, “no one and no gun,” was going to wipe him out. Nothing can destroy that abundance of life that Max has. Not fully, anyway.
Christmas Eve comes.
Jude does his best to keep Max away from the alcohol, until dinnertime. There’s too much of it around then. He doesn’t stop Max from drinking, just keeps his own to a minimum. The others notice, look to Jude for answers. Jude shakes his head, and tries to say “I’ll handle it” without words.
Max rambles, talking about everything and anything except what’s immediately bothering him and the things that have been bothering him for some time. He talks about Sadie and JoJo, how good they are together (“really fucking good. Sadie, don’t – don’t fucking fuck it up again, okay?”) and Prudence’s choice in partners (“is flexibility a requirement after Rita the Contortionist?”).
Lucy tries to quiet him, noticing what he doesn’t – that his mouth is driving people away even when they know he doesn’t mean it.
“Luce, Luce,” Max says, words elongating on his slurs. He wraps himself around her, holds her tight, too tight if the distressed look on her face is any indication. “Why aren’t you and Jude together? Huh? Why aren’t you married and knocked up by now?”
“Max, let me go,” Lucy says. She looks to Jude, eyes wide. He shrugs.
“Max, let her go,” he says, but doesn’t make any move closer. It’s enough to catch Max’s attention.
Lucy sighs and shoves at Max, who gives easier than expected, sprawling on the floor. He yells from there, deep and guttural. “Why can’t you two just fuck and make up already?”
Lucy shakes her head. It was never been officiated, but it’s understood that Max is Jude’s responsibility now.
Max watches her go, eyes rolling back into his head as he follows her walk away until the door to her room slams shut. His head lulls back so he can stare at Jude again. “Finally,” he says. “Alone at last.”
Jude laughs and stands over him, legs straddling his waist. “I hope you don’t think I’m carrying you to the room.”
Max pushes himself up onto his elbows. “Of course you are.” That jester’s grin appears. “You love me.”
“I hate you,” Jude says. He squats to wrap his arms under Max’s arms and hauls the man up.
Liverpool’s the same, which is the most disappointing thing about Jude’s return. Same streets, same people, same old shit.
Before Max left, he and Jude had taken a trip down to Princeton, just to imagine how different things could have been. Not as good they decided, despite the circumstances at the time. Still, Jude had been amazed at the differences since he had last been there. Different people, different colors in the trees, in the way the light reflected off the buildings; even Max’s friends had gone. It had been fantastic.
Liverpool’s not like that. It’s not, and that’s all Jude’s been about to think of for weeks when he gets the letter from Max. Not the first, not the last or the longest, but the most important.
Not the same without you. Sadie’s starting her own label and wouldn’t you know it, she needs an artist to design the logo. Wish we had one of those here.
Jude mails a painting of a strawberry the same day he files the application for his visa.
Christmas morning, Max and Lucy leave for some holiday tradition Jude’s not a part of. He celebrates with the rest, unwraps the art supplies and canvases he expected but feels no less grateful for. He helps Sadie with breakfast, does most of the work since she can’t stop singing carols and dancing around the kitchen long enough to watch the stove. He cuddles with Prudence on the couch and they exchange stories with JoJo about Christmases past.
Jude wonders about Max’s stories.
They show up again sometime around midday, Lucy apologizing while passing out gifts. Max does the same, without the apologizing and with a scarf tied tight around his face, only his eyes visible. He doesn’t wait for everyone to open their gifts, only grabs Jude’s sleeve with a “come on, Judy.”
He closes their bedroom door after flinging Jude forward so he lands on the bed, momentum against him.
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” Jude says with a laugh. “Where’s my gift?”
“Greedy,” Max says. He takes off his coat, throws it beside Jude and pulls the stool Jude uses sometimes from underneath his drawing table. He sits in front of Jude, removes his hat and asks, “You ready?”
Max unwinds the scarf slowly and when, when it’s fully uncoiled, smiles at Jude.
“You shaved your mustache,” Jude says.
Max runs his fingers over the smooth skin above his lip, down to his chin. “I shaved my mustache for you. I mean, I figure you’ve got enough crayons and paper to last a lifetime. Why not give you something that means something, you know?”
Jude scoffs, but he smiles. “I would have preferred the art supplies.”
Max rolls his eyes and claps his hands together. “Okay. Where’s mine?”
Jude reaches down, but then stops. “Is this really my gift? Because I’m not sure you deserve yours if all I get is more of your face.”
“My now beautiful face,” Max says. He shoves Jude, lightly, but Jude goes with it and slouches back against the bed. “You know you love it.”
Jude sighs, put out but not really, and smiles. “Fine. But I expect something much better for my birthday.” He reaches underneath the bed.
“When is your birthday, anyway?” Max asks.
When Jude is right side again, Max seems closer but it might just be Jude. Jude hands him the cylinder. Max takes it, stares for a moment at it then at Jude.
“You complain about my gift and all you did was draw me a picture?”
“If you don’t want it –“ Jude’s hands wrap around the base before Max yanks it away, standing and walking a few steps away. Jude stays on the bed, watches Max slip the drawing out and unravel it. Max’s eyes sweep across the parchment, eyes catching every once in a while.
“This first one looks like me when I was six,” he says.
Jude nods. “Seven. Lucy got me a picture.”
It’s a collection of portraits, Max at three different stages: as a child, when Jude met him, and before he left – at his best.
Max looks up. “What’s with the strawberry in the corner? Is that gonna be your signature or something?”
Jude shakes his head. “Nah, that’s you, too. Symbolism, it’s called.”
Max smirks. “So I’m big, red, and juicy?”
Jude rolls his eyes and stands. “If you knew anything about art, you’d know it’s much more than that.”
Max rolls the paper and replaces it in the canister carefully. “You mean the way the strawberry is more green than red, but the red encompasses it to the point that the green is almost nonexistent?” He places the canister on the desk. “Pissing off every professor at Princeton means taking a lot of classes, even art once or three times.”
“And I thought that was just your tendency for hyperbole,” Jude says with a laugh. Max hasn’t said whether he likes it.
Max turns to him, smile in place. He does look better, more like himself now. More like the person Jude came back for.
“What did you know about my tendencies? You’d only just met me.”
“Well, I’m an excellent judge of character,” Jude says.
The end of the statement is muffled against Max’s neck, his body wrapped around Jude’s in a tight embrace.
They stay like that, in their room arms holding onto to each other, grabbing on for something that maybe is only now returning, for who knows how long. Jude doesn’t. He knows he won’t let go until Max does.
A tight squeeze and Max does, or at least he pulls back enough for Jude to see his face. “I love it, you know that right? I love it.”
Jude nods. “Good.” His hands slide around to Max’s front and up until they’re full of Max’s cheeks and chin. Not as smooth as they look, still a little rough. Like the boy himself.
“I like mine, too, I think.” He nods, rubs his hands back and forth across the newly revealed skin. “Yeah, I do.”
Max kisses him, surges forward until their lips touch and Jude’s hands have no choice but to slide into his hair. He hadn’t been expecting it, but he’s not surprised so he kisses back. Presses closer to Max to get closer, to keep them together. Their tongues touch and Jude moans and Max presses harder against him and into him.
Laughter filters through from the living room and they break apart, breathing heavy. Max smiles – not a jester, just Max – and claps Jude on the back. “Come on, man. Let’s show ‘em what I got you.”