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Better Way For Me to Say

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Chris isn’t sure when he realized he was in love with his best friend. Yes, his life is that much of a cliché. It isn’t like he keeps some kind of detailed account that describes in eloquent passages the evolution of his feelings toward Zach from acquaintances, to co-stars, to best friends and that stage just beyond definition. The realization hit him arbitrarily one day while they were doing nothing more than hanging out the way they have hundreds of times before.

From what Chris remembers, neither of them looked their best, lying around on his old couch in jeans that had seen better days, and t-shirts so faded from wear that the designs were no longer all there. Chris hadn’t shaved for a couple of days so his face was rough against Zach’s when they hugged hello. Halfway through the movie Chris recalls glancing to his left to look at Zach (Chris didn’t think too much about why he suddenly felt the need to look at Zach until later revelations), and decided quite randomly that he wouldn’t care if the rest of his days were spent with Zach exactly like this.

Naturally, Chris was a little perturbed by that. Not so much the falling-for-another-man, that was old news; both he and Zach aware of the fact. They discussed it once; late one evening after filming was done, more than a little drunk. Zach approached the topic, and he did it almost timidly, checking that Chris was open-minded about it. Chris had made a small admission of his own in return, confessing that he wasn’t quite as straight as the world at large believed. Beauty, after all, was beauty—no matter the gender. After that, neither Zach nor he ever addressed it again, but there was an understanding between them.

Now, so far down the line, that talk months ago should have set the groundwork for the conversation Chris wanted to have presently. If he could just summon the courage to bring up the subject with Zach. He wishes he were a smooth lothario—the type of man who has the natural ability to convey all the charm he’s been told many times he possesses in a seductive manner, and let the object of his affections know just how special they were, how loved.

That isn’t Chris. The cool he prides himself on, the ability to use words intelligently and informatively, disappears in the face of that, and he’s an awkward high-school dork once more. He can’t walk straight up to Zach and explain the mess of emotion in his head and in his heart, not in any way that’s understandable.

So Chris keeps it to himself.

And it works—right until Zoe arranges a night out for them all. They haven’t been together as a group for a long time—too long, Chris agrees when Zoe calls him to confirm his presence. And if he gets to spend the whole night with Zach, drinking and laughing and being them again, then so much the better.

*

The night doesn’t go as expected. In his excitement to see Zach properly, Chris somehow forgot that he isn’t a happy drunk. Unlike Zach; a couple of strong beverages and he doesn’t care who he dances shamelessly with on the dance floor—Chris himself has been on the receiving end of such a show. Which is why, halfway through the night, Chris finds himself sat at the bar beside Karl rather than at the table with everyone else, staring mournfully into his drink and sighing routinely every few minutes.

“For crying out loud,” Chris hears Karl say finally. “What the fuck is the matter with you?”

“I’m in love with Zach and have yet to tell him.” Chris slumps to rest his head on Karl’s shoulder. He looks out from beneath his eyelashes to find Karl staring down at him, his expression bemused. “Do you think I should tell him?”

Not only is Chris a morose drunk; he’s also ridiculously candid, prone to a number of memorable and emotional outbursts. Thank his lucky stars that it wasn’t in front of Zach.

Chris thinks it’s perfectly justifiable for him to believe that Karl is channeling McCoy when the only response his current predicament gets is: “Dammit, Chris, I’m an actor, not a relationship counselor. What is with you people?” He then proceeds to explain that he’s too old for all this school-yard do you think he likes me? What should I do? crap and would Chris kindly go and bug someone else so he could get well and drunk?

Really, the similarities are so uncanny that Chris wonders if Karl will take it one step further and start coming up with a few inventive nicknames for Zach. He doesn’t, much to Chris’ disappointment. Instead Karl reaches out an arm, pushes Chris away, the same way a small child would an annoying sibling, and returns his attention to the glass before him on the bar.

Feeling both dejected and slightly drunk (the shame follows later, once the alcohol has dissipated), Chris heads back to the table where John has launched into another amusing childhood anecdote that they all seem to get a kick out of—something about knowing that they weren’t as different in high school as they believed they were, that this group of misfits and outcasts found comfort and company in one another. He slides into the booth beside Zoe, returning the curious quirk of Zach’s eyebrow over his glass with a charming grin.

Zoe bumps their shoulders together and makes some joke about Chris looking like he was just rejected by the love of his life. Chris’ reply of, “I was only talking to Karl,” is met with Anton and John laughing drunkenly about the Captain’s unrequited love for his Doctor; Zoe soon joins in, and Chris honestly wants to have them all marooned on some God-forsaken ice-cube.

Zach catches his eye, smiles reassuringly, and gestures to the door with his head. Turning his back on the laughter from the table and Karl shaking his head from across the bar, Chris follows Zach outside. The ground seems suddenly uneven; Chris stumbles and is quickly caught by Zach.

“You really drank a lot tonight.”

Chris allows himself to be led in the direction of the parking lot, Zach’s arm around his back like a cast-iron support, preventing him from an untimely meeting with the ground. “Not really,” Chris protests. “I think the ground moved back there.”

Zach laughs, low and rich in Chris’ ear. “I don’t think it did, Chris. Come on, I’ll drive you home.”

“Didn’t you drink?”

They reach Zach’s car. Chris feels Zach push him to rest gently against the side of the car, one hand on his chest to keep him in place, while the other opens the door. Deep down somewhere, Chris recognizes how nice the contact is, how much he wants Zach to never stop touching him. “I saw you hitting the alcohol pretty hard so I switched to soda. One of us in there had to be sober enough in there to get your ass home in one piece.”

Chris vaguely registers Zach settling him into the passenger seat and fastening his seatbelt. The door shuts as softly as possible. He rests his forehead against the window, breath misting the glass when he utters, “That’s sweet, Z. You’re a sweet guy, anyone ever tell you that?”

Zach laughs again as his own door closes and the car rumbles to life around them. “No, Chris. And I’m sure that by tomorrow you’ll have forgotten you ever claimed such a thing.”

“Maybe,” Chris agrees. “Doesn’t change that it’s true.” His eyes—too heavy to fight with any longer—fall shut. Something warm tenderly touches his cheek, but it’s gone before Chris can decide what it is. He pretends it was Zach and lets the motion of the car rock him to sleep.

*

He happens to talk to his mom next. She’s always been a reliable fountain of knowledge, instinctively knowing precisely what Chris needs to hear to assuage his worry. Any dilemma that plagued him as a child or a teenager and Gwynne had the solution—sometimes before Chris had even articulated his woes properly to her. Advice from her is bound to be helpful.

With that in mind, Chris starts on the sandwich Zach made him before he left earlier and calls her. The sandwich was just one of Zach’s hangover cures, made to follow the cold glass of water and two aspirin by his bed this morning and the fresh pot of coffee Chris came across upon dragging his uncooperative body from his room. Evidence of Zach staying on the couch last night was no surprise—it’s happened before and will again—but everything he did before leaving to alleviate Chris’ punishment for drinking so much were pleasant discoveries.

He sent a text while drinking that first rejuvenating cup of coffee that the extra effort was unnecessary but appreciated all the same; Zach doesn’t need to know that Chris wishes he had that all the time—that it’s a tempting notion to repeat drinking until the room spins dangerously just to have Zach close every night, taking care of him, being with him.

As he waits for the phone to connect, Chris reflects that perhaps his mom should have been his first port of call. He can only surmise that all the alcohol he imbibed, coupled with his proximity to Zach all night short-circuited any rational thought and sent him to Karl, hoping that he’d solve Chris’ problems. And all he got in return was a grouchy response. It isn’t like Chris has bugged Karl about it a hundred times before—did Karl need to act like he had?

The moment he hears his mom’s voice, Chris instantly feels calmer (and slightly ashamed for behaving so melodramatically in Karl’s company). He pushes his half-eaten sandwich away while they speak and returns her greeting warmly.

They exchange small talk—what Chris is up to right now with work; an amusing conversation she had with Katie; gossip that’s floating around the neighborhood—before Gwynne cuts professionally through all of that and asks what’s troubling her boy. Telling her is different than telling Karl—whether it’s because she isn’t working her way toward a sizeable hangover or simply because she’s his mom, Chris can’t be sure. The words roll off his tongue easier than with Karl at any rate—no alcohol is needed to loosen his lips—and hang in the air, waiting there for Gwynne to do with them what she will.

He trusts they won’t be wielded dangerously like weapons to hurt him; a lot of time has passed since he and his mom had a conversation of this nature, but he doesn’t believe that her acceptance has changed at all. To Chris it feels like five long and painful minutes that pass by. Each tick of the clock sees him grow more and more restless, making him squirm in his seat at the prolonged silence on the other end of the line.

“Mom?” he finally dares to venture.

Gwynne lets out a noise that can only be described as a coo or some other nonsensical expression of joy. It’s a sound Chris has heard a million times directed at his young nephew whenever he does something dubbed “adorable” by all the women nearby (and once by his dad, which Robert still denies). Quite frankly, it’s a little disconcerting to have it aimed at Chris himself.

Chris’ protests that it isn’t adorable or cute or any other decidedly saccharine synonym she wants to use, that it’s serious, mom, and real, and I need your advice are drowned out by her launching into a fairytale-like telling of how she knew that Chris’ dad was The One and how perfect it is that Chris has found the same.

Chris hangs up mid sentence because there are some things about his parents’ flawless marriage that he has no desire of being in the know about. But just wait until Katie starts teasing him mercilessly in that big-sisterly way of hers; it’s only fair that she has her share of mentally scarring information.

Seconds later, the phone begins to ring. Chris eyes it warily and ignores it, convinced it’ll be his mom with more stories. The machine picks up and Zach’s voice fills the room. Chris’ stomach twists both pleasurably and pathetically at the sound.

Here’s a tip, Christopher: that repetitive, annoying ringing noise will stop sooner if you answer your phone.” Zach pauses and promptly laughs. “Avoiding someone? Your sister? Your mom?” Another pause. “It’s not Karl, is it? Chris, pick up the phone because I know you’re there. I didn’t leave that long ago. If you don’t, I’m going to clog up your whole machine with my stirring rendition of the Oxford Dictionary.”

The message cuts off; Chris shakes his head fondly and finishes the remains of his lunch. His temples begin to throb more and more with every bite, so he decides to crash on the couch to take the edge off it. While he’s occupied with rearranging cushions and pulling the throw from the back of the couch, his machine picks up again.

I warned you, Chris,” Zach tells him. “Okay, from the top: aardvark. A badger-sized African mammal—

*

Chris instantly dismisses the idea of calling Katie for advice. He has very strong suspicions that any conversation with her will sound eerily like the one with their mom and he can’t take it twice in one day. Mom can tell Katie and the two of them can gossip without involving Chris. No, he figures if anybody can help—and not scar or chastise him in some way—it’s Liam.

Liam and he have gone without communicating for longer than Chris would like due to other commitments, but they’ve known each other for years, gone through most things two people can go through together and they’ve always been straight with one another. Perhaps not the most suitable choice of words here, Chris amends in his head, but it’s true. Liam has always maintained that blunt honesty is the only way to go.

Knowing this, Chris dives straight in with, “I’m in love with Zach,” when Liam answers the phone.

“Zach?” Liam echoes. “Spock to your Kirk?”

“Yes,” Chris says, tone heavily implying the ‘do I know any other Zach’s, you idiot?’ Although, to be fair to Liam, Chris did blurt it out without so much as a ‘hey, help me out with my emotional crisis, won’t you?’

It must be some kind of karmic retribution because Liam does to Chris exactly what Chris did to his mom: he hangs up the phone.

Chris stares at the call ended on the display, shocked. He never took his friend for a homophobe. Chris takes comfort in the fact that maybe Liam needs time to deal with it. Chris did after all. Still, he hopes Liam will come around.

*

It’s purely by accident that Chris runs into Zoe at a coffee shop a week and a half after their night out. They chat for a bit while they wait to be served, catching up on the little that’s happened in their lives since they were last together, and then continue their conversation once seated. Things are going nicely—two friends talking, and Chris, for once, not thinking about Zach—right until Zoe makes an off-hand comment about something Zach said.

Wonderful.

Zoe must read something in Chris’ face he doesn’t realize he’s showing because she puts her cup down and rests her chin on a palm. “Oh, goody,” she says. Her fingers drum against the side of her face, black nail-polish flashing as they move. “Is it my turn to listen to your teenage-like angst about Zach?”

Well, Chris didn’t sit down with that as his intent, but as Zoe offered— Chris shrugs, thinks what the hell? and jumps right in. “Everybody else has been useless.”

“And you assume a woman will have all the answers?”

Chris gives her a scornful look. “I called my mom, Zoe, she wasn’t quite the cornucopia of knowledge I expected. I’m asking you because you’re in a committed relationship. You got past the awkward more-than-friends, not-quite-anything-else stage and arrived at a stable point.”

Zoe softens her expression. “Chris, there are no rules to follow or secret tricks that get you what you want faster. You can’t tell me you’ve gone through life thinking that there are. You’ve been in love before.”

“Never with my best friend. Things are different with Zach.”

“Then you should do whatever feels right. Although with the way you’ve behaved lately, there’s only one method I can suggest.”

Zoe pulls a pen from within her bag and begins to draw on the napkin. Chris squints to make it out, but he’s thwarted when Zoe catches him and uses her hand to shield it. Moments later, she slides the napkin across the table and tucks her pen away.

Chris takes one look at her suggestion and crumples the napkin. “Hilarious, Zoe. I’m thrilled my problems are amusing to you.”

Zoe rolls her eyes, picking up her cup. “Stop being such a child. I thought that you could just save any long, elaborate and probably theatrical speech you planned and give Zach that. He can tick the box that applies and you’ll know if he likes you too.” Zoe smiles around her coffee; it’s so infectious that Chris has to fight twice as hard to maintain his ire.

“Come on,” Zoe coaxes. “Lighten up. You’re tormenting yourself for no reason—you’re imagining a problem where there isn’t one.”

Fine, he’ll concede that particular point. “I do seem to have a flair for the dramatic lately.”

“Not to mention those bouts of ignorance you seem prone to,” Zoe mutters, just loud enough for Chris to hear. “Maybe you should talk to someone about that.”

“Like who?”

“Like Zach,” she tells him. “Seriously, Chris, I feel like this conversation is going round in meaningless circles. Have we actually succeeded in doing anything other than give me a headache?”

Chris flicks the napkin at her—brilliant plan and all. “Yes. We established that I’m a teenage girl with a crush on some heartthrob movie star when I’m around Zach, and you’re a vindictive woman who takes joy in teasing me about it.”

Zoe smiles widely. “When you put it like that…”

*

When Joe called Chris to ask if he could drop by the studio to have a few shots taken, Chris imagines he didn’t anticipate the afternoon being so counter-productive. Chris must have posed a hundred different ways, tried on twice as many outfits, and still Joe has no usable material. The pictures are mostly fine, at least to Chris’ untrained eye, but there are some where his discomfort is palpable. Tense shoulders and forced smiles that divert horribly from Joe’s natural gift with a camera.

The last few pictures are probably worse.

For the past ten minutes Joe’s assistant, Harriet, has been in control of things while Joe dealt with a phone call. Her temper has frayed gradually with every do-over and right now, Chris can tell she holds nothing but contempt for him.

He gets her consternation. Chris understands how perfectly ironic it is for an actor to be camera-phobic. Making a living the way he wants is reliant on standing in that particular spotlight, yet on film it’s completely different. He’s supported by a cast of other people, all directing the focus away from him. A photo-shoot like this, Chris is alone, exposed, and the constant scrutiny (“turn this way, Chris—” “maybe we should dress him in that shirt instead—” “what about if we do this—”) makes him want to crawl out of his skin and be somebody else. Somebody collected, somebody confident, someone like—

“Zach!” Chris snaps out of his thoughts at the sound of Joe’s voice. “Good to see you, kid.”

Zach grins in response and hugs his brother. “I figured I’d crash the party. Can’t let Chris monopolize the camera, can I?”

Still half attached to Zach, Joe turns to Chris, who’s trying to hide the asinine grin that’s covering his face at Zach’s arrival. “Okay. Chris, you can take a break. We’ll do a couple shots of Zach, do a couple of you together, and then back to you. That work for you?”

Chris nods, eternally grateful, and quickly removes his person from the reach of the camera—and Harriet’s unyielding glare—retreating to the other side of the studio, where a pot of coffee waits. The first swallow settles Chris’ nerves enough for him to turn around and appear slightly less of a basket case than he feels when Zach approaches him. Zach steals his cup and winces at the sip he takes.

“How that makes you feel better, I’ll never understand. Seems more likely to rot your brain than convince it you’re calm.”

Apparently neither of the Quinto brothers is capable of subtlety; the reason for Zach’s presence—who and why—are blindingly apparent. “Here to rescue the damsel in distress, Prince Charming?”

“You forgot ‘Dashing’ and ‘Intellectual’.”

Chris shakes his head, ignoring Zach’s egotistical addendum. “Did Joe call to tell you I was screwing up his shoot and that you needed to come and sort me out as soon as possible?”

More serious now, Zach replies, “I figured that a friendly face would help you ease up on yourself, Chris. Joe isn’t concerned that he’s not getting anything; he’s concerned that he’s stressing you out for no reason. Today was supposed to be a bit of fun; something extra for his portfolio, and an opportunity for you.”

Zach hands Chris’ cup back with another grimace. “The last thing either of us want is you OD’ing on that swill you’re drinking, so if you don’t want to do this—”

“Zach, stop being such a drama queen, all right? Prince Charming—” Zach smiles here, eyebrows raised like he expects Chris to add his other adjectives. Like hell Chris will. “—isn’t meant to be so dramatic. Go have your picture taken, and stop fussing.”

“I thought it was Prince Charming’s job to fuss about his charge, Princess?”

“You know, I think we’ve exhausted that metaphor.” Chris gestures a hand in the direction of the camera. “Will you go show off for the camera now, please? I know that you’re dying to show me how it’s done.”

Zach’s mock bow causes a chuckle to break free of Chris’ mouth despite his hardest efforts to keep it suppressed. He finishes his coffee while Zach exchanges a few words with Joe before saying something to Harriet that makes her blush as red as Chris has ever seen. Far more professionally than Chris behaved, Zach takes up his first position and the studio is filled with flash after flash, punctuated with Harriet’s words of encouragement.

Chris is envious of Zach—only for a moment in all its irrational glory, and then it’s gone. The way he’s able to stand in front of the camera and look amazing so effortlessly is truly baffling. Zach, self-confessed high school loser, unerringly like Chris yet with one difference: Zach has evidently conquered it. He’s moved beyond that period of uncertainty and turned himself into an intense, confident guy. Chris is still wracked with laughable teenage insecurities.

It’s a rare occurrence that Zach’s presence magnifies Chris’ anxiety rather than soothes it. So much for Joe’s plan of getting someone in to calm me down.

Unnoticed, Joe sidles up to Chris and speaks directly into his ear. “Christopher, you are a terrible actor.”

“I’m not sure what kind of reverse psychology you’re employing, but generally, insulting someone’s livelihood isn’t the most proficient way to get them to relax to the point where you can take their picture,” Chris replies. “It’s common sense, really.”

“And I’m not sure what you’re trying to pull, Chris. You’re far from an idiot—you know what I’m talking about.”

“I really don’t.” A lie, obviously, but Chris surmises that his mom will forgive him breaking the promise he made when he was seven or eight to do no such thing. Joe knowing about his feelings toward Zach will lead to Zach knowing about Chris’ feelings, and right now he isn’t ready for that.

Joe, however, has no such ideas about believing the falsehood. “Need me to spell it out for you? Fair enough. I’m talking about the noticeable crush you have on my charming little brother. You haven’t looked anywhere else since the second he arrived.”

Chris scoffs. “That’s ridiculous.”

He feels Joe shrug beside him. “Except for one thing.”

“What?”

Zach, as if attuned to the fact that Chris and Joe are talking about him, looks away from the camera and blesses Chris with a smile so welcoming and warm that, if not for Joe standing so close, Chris would probably have melted.

Joe leans in so that his words breeze by Chris’ cheek; cool against the tell-tale blush that Chris can feel there, probably just as bright as Harriet’s was. “You’re still looking. And,” Joe goes on, “you know the best part? He knows that you’re looking.”

*

Two days later, quite out of the blue, Liam shows up at Chris’ apartment. When Chris opens the door, he’s there holding a six-pack, face looking precisely the way it did when he made up his mind to ask Jessica Smith, the most popular girl in school, to prom. Chris doesn’t hold high hopes for this conversation, because that particular exchange was painful for all involved.

Liam drinks a whole beer and starts on another before he sits back comfortably on the couch and addresses the elephant in the room. “So I realized something: you’re in love with Zach.”

“Brilliant deductive reasoning there, Sherlock.” Chris swipes a cushion from the couch and flings it at Liam, who wisely shields his beer from the blow—not that another spill on Chris’ couch will matter; it’s so old. “I told you, you didn’t realize.”

“What I mean is,” Liam clarifies, “I see it. Don’t know why I didn’t see it before. You’re always gushing about him. And you should see the way you look at him. You might as well have the words ‘love-sick sap’ tattooed on your forehead.”

Chris makes a face. “I don’t gush.”

“Trust me, Chris, you do. Jesus, you sound like Kim did when she made me watch Heroes.” Liam rolls his eyes; it suddenly occurs to Chris how much people have done that around him lately—the action is really beginning to frustrate him. “Three guesses why. You two have a lot in common.” Chris remains quiet, still stung over the ‘gushing’ comment. “Why Zach?”

“What?” Chris’ eyes narrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Liam holds up a conciliatory palm “No offense, man. I’m curious. Didn’t you ask me the same about Kim once?”

“I was best man, you asked me to help write your wedding vows.”

“Look at this as practice for yours.”

Chris takes a sip of his beer, letting that thought play out in his head for a fanciful moment. “I haven’t told him yet—and if I do, you have no idea how he’s going to react—and you already have us getting married?” Chris nudges Liam’s foot with his toes. “What happened to your freak out? You hung up on me.”

“I got over it.” Liam shrugs. “Look, Chris, I know that you and Zach are tight now, but you and I are still close, right? We're still—at the risk of sounding like a kid—best friends?”

“Of course.”

“'Of course'?” Liam repeats, surprised “I ask if we're still BFF and that's all you have?”

“You want me to make you a friendship bracelet?” Chris grins.

The cushion Chris threw at Liam sails back toward him; the soft projectile thwacks him gently in the face. “Shut up, smart-ass.”

“Then get to your point. Yes, we're still best friends. Just because I have Zach, don't feel I don't love you anymore,” Chris tells him.

“I hope you mean that platonically. I'm married, and I think one guy is enough for you to be concerned with right now—” Liam stops quickly when he sees the look in his Chris’ eye, clearly tired of his prevarication.

“My best friend’s in love,” Liam says seriously. “I could care less who it’s with, as long you’re happy and Zach treats you right.”

“Again, presuming that Zach wants me like that.”

“Chris, the world can see he wants you like that. And you pining—” Liam pauses to grin stupidly at his own unintentional pun; Chris shakes his head, unimpressed— “You pining after him is completely pointless. Zach knows how you feel, he knows how he feels—he’s waiting for you to play catch up here.”

Liam’s words seem to strike a familiar chord deep within Chris, like he’s heard them before, although not so bluntly. “You think?”

“I think it’s time to suck it up and go get your man.” Liam holds up his beer. Chris clinks the necks of their bottles together and then takes a drink.

“Maybe you’re right.”

Liam fixes him with a hard look. “Chris, you’re my friend, but if you fret about this for much longer, I’m going to kill you. And this is just a guess, but I’m thinking that there are a few other people who wouldn’t argue if I did.”

Liam’s words sound more like a promise than a friendly threat meant to encourage so Chris doesn’t press the issue any further.

*

As fate would have it, Zach calls an hour after Liam leaves, inviting Chris over for pizza and a movie. Were Chris more suspicious, he’d think that somehow Liam got a hold of Zach’s number and convinced him to charm Chris into confessing over food and the lure of an evening spent on the couch with Zach.

He arrives at Zach’s place with an assortment of snacks in preparation for the possibility the pizza isn’t enough. The door opens and Chris is quickly relieved of his offering and pulled inside following an unexpected, yet not unwanted, hug.

“What was that about?” Chris asks, following Zach to the living room, where the pizza is laid out already beside the beer and the DVD player is set up. Chris casts his jacket over the arm of the chair and settles on the couch.

Zach empties the bag of snacks, throwing out a distracted, “What was what about? Damn,” Zach says, giving Chris no time to answer. “Forgot the napkins. Back in a second.” Zach brushes Chris’ leg as he passes, fingers skimming the length of his arm.

“Never mind,” Chris calls. He kicks off his shoes, making sure they won’t be a tripping hazard. They’re friends. Friends hug and touch and spend quiet nights in just like this. Chris is reading too much into it as usual—his paranoia about Liam earlier hasn’t helped matters.

On the coffee table, peeking out from the debris of food is the spine of a book that makes him laugh softly to himself: the dictionary. Moving various items aside, Chris is able to run a hand over the cover, remembering message after message still saved on his machine of Zach reading from it. Far from it being the warning to make Chris pick up as Zach intended, Chris actually fell asleep to the sound—simply imagining Zach shaping the words and doing it to reach him.

Zach returns with the napkins and a couple of glasses. “I can’t believe you read me the dictionary.”

“I didn’t have any Dickens to hand,” Zach says. He sets his cargo down and sits down himself. Chris is all too aware that Zach is closer than normal. There’s no space between them at all, not a bit.

It’s easier to ignore that. “But you had the dictionary?”

“I played Scrabble with Joe the night before we went out. He tried to cheat; I needed damning evidence to verify him as such. I didn’t want to resort to calling my mom and tattling on him—thought that would be too juvenile.”

“That’s very mature of you.” Chris’ grin falters. “You uh— You didn’t really believe I was upset over Karl did you?”

Zach’s expression is incredulous. “Who do you take me for, Chris? It was a joke, I understood that.”

Chris was hoping that was true; he couldn’t be sure because of what Zach said on that message, asking him if he was avoiding Karl. God, he wants to kick himself. Hard. He should have known Zach was messing with him.

“So you knew that I wasn’t confessing my love for Karl?”

“Of course I knew.” Zach says nothing further, so Chris mistakenly thinks the conversation is done with. His assumption is only enforced when Zach hands him a glass and starts the movie.

They barely make it beyond the opening titles when Zach speaks. “I know a lot of things about you, Chris. I know you eat salted popcorn because that way Katie won’t steal it. I know that you read more than one book at a time because you have the habit of putting one down somewhere and starting another. I know that when you’re sick you watch old black and white movies because you did it with your mom as a kid.”

Chris swallows as Zach continues. All these insignificant facts about him seem so intimate when Zach lists them. The only consolation is that Zach isn’t looking at him as he talks—it’d be too much, Chris knows it.

“I know that you sometimes daydream that you stayed in school because hiding behind that smile all the time in front of the world gets hard.” Zach turns to stare Chris right in the eye, genuinely puzzled and maybe a little hurt. “And I know that, for weeks, you’ve talked to everyone about the two of us, but you haven’t talked to me yet. I figured that I’d be the first when you worked it out.”

Chris used to believe that the worst feeling he would ever experience was that awful and illogical awkwardness he felt in front of the camera. Had this conversation never taken place, he would have believed that until his last breath. Now he knows that feeling doesn’t compare to this one: being rendered speechless because of Zach.

He remains frozen on the couch, not saying a word, because everything flying through his mind right now is so childish, he’s mortified that they exist. Things like, ‘I don’t think of you like that, honest, so don’t hate me’ and ‘who revealed my most personal secret to you?’ are surpassed only by ‘maybe I do like you like that, but it’ll go away—it’s a stupid crush.’

Zach switches the movie off (like either of them are paying attention to it now anyway) and takes the glass from Chris’ lax fingers. “No one told me, Chris, so stop wondering who whispered in my ear. I worked it out for myself.”

“When?” Not the most original question, but at least Chris keeps his dignity asking it.

“When you were talking to Karl, funnily enough.”

Chris palms the back of his neck uncomfortably. “I’m not quite sure what possessed me to talk to Karl.” Or anyone else really. Like Zach said, he should have been the first. “So what gave me away? I wasn’t wearing my ‘I heart Zach’ t-shirt, was I?”

Zach laughs. “Karl had the same look on his face that he did when I was talking to him about you. And I knew exactly what Joe was saying the second he went over to you. I kind of suspected before this all happened, but that was confirmation.”

“I’m sorry if you thought I was hiding this from you. I mean, I was. But I didn’t do it because I was ashamed or something equally awful. Either way, I did a terrible job of hiding it. Your brother told me as much.”

“Be thankful it was him and not my mom,” Zach says. “She was trying to meddle long before Joe ever dreamed of it. Left me a message after the interviews started showing—something along the lines of, ‘Zachary, if you’re going to make eyes at that boy on camera you should at least have the decency to let him meet your mother.’”

Chris shakes his head with a laugh. He hasn’t had the pleasure of meeting Zach’s mom, but after hearing about her so much, Chris can imagine her saying precisely that.

“Did you learn anything from your think tank?” Zach asks.

“Yeah.” Chris nods. “That I should have talked to you sooner. And that my mom thinks we’re adorable.”

“I know. She called to congratulate us on getting together and to invite us to dinner when we were free.”

“What did you tell her?”

“I told her that her son was a little slow, but if I got my way she’d have us both at her table sooner than she thought.”

Zach was sitting very close before, however, throughout this conversation it feels to Chris like he’s only getting nearer. They’ve never had a proper concept of personal space around each other, but now Chris can read something else into it. “Does getting your way involve kissing me? Just out of curiosity, you understand.”

“It was in my original plans. Then I realized that we were moving forward at your pace, so I thought it best to wait and let you—” Chris presses his fingertips against Zach’s lips.

“If you don’t shut up and kiss me, you’re going to have to call my mom and tell her that she’s going to be waiting a very long time for us to—” Zach mimics Chris, stemming the flow of words effectively with his own fingertips. To an observer they’d probably look ridiculous: sitting thigh-to-thigh, hands on one another’s mouths and staring into each others eyes.

Zach’s eyes have always been, at least to Chris, the most expressive part of his face. Right now, he’s blown away by the multitude of emotions he sees there, all mixed up and bleeding into one—an amalgamation of love and lust, want and need, all bubbling and swirling barely below the surface. How has Zach kept this hidden for so long?

More importantly: how has Chris been ignorant for so long? All he had to do was look at Zach, really look, and he would have seen what everybody has told him all along.

The dam finally breaks and Zach surges forward, moving them both until Chris is pressed into the couch. Rather than the rough contact Chris expects, Zach’s lips meet his passionately. Fiercely also, yet underneath that there’s a kind of tenderness he’s unused to. And Zach’s hands— God, Chris has never been held in such a way. One hand cradles his face with care that suggests Chris is fragile or to stop something shattering deep within him (what he can’t conceive of), while the other rests reassuringly on his side. Chris' own hands twitch uncertainly, undecided where they should be.

He’s dreamed of this for so long, thought about what it would be like, how he’d feel, yet now it’s actually happening it’s like he’s waiting for the fantasy to end—just as before. However, it doesn’t take long for Chris to gain enough confidence to trail his finger tips across Zach’s back, pull him closer and seek more of the delicious contact his body is craving, and kiss back with everything that he has. Chris pours all he has into the kiss, every bit of love and need and wantyoutobemine, just as Zach is.

Gradually, their kiss adopts a slower pace, becoming an exchange of shorter, more teasing kisses, although no less enjoyable. Zach separates them enough so that they can meet each others eye once more. Now that his mind is no longer engaged with absorbing every second of their encounter, every touch and sensation, it occurs to Chris that he's essentially being pressed into the couch by Zach, bodies so close that he can feel each and every inhale and exhale of Zach’s perfectly alternate to his own. Recurring fantasies of this particular moment aside, in the actual aftermath Chris can't help but find it strange.

Zach frowns. Chris freezes, worried now that Zach is misreading his introspective silence for something else.

“If you're experiencing any sudden regret, then it's only polite to say so that I can back away and invent some implausible excuse for us to use,” Zach says, pulling back a fraction. His casual tone belies the undercurrent of emotion that simmers beneath. Every inch of Zach's body is betraying him to Chris right now, whispering that Zach's indifference is anything but, and urging Chris to set things right before this slips away.

Chris loosens the grip on Zach’s shirt that he bunched up between his fingers out of fear of him pulling away completely. “I don't regret it. I was just… thinking. This is all so—” Chris struggles to select an appropriate word— “weird.” He resists thumping his head against the arm of the couch behind him; that isn’t what he meant at all and now Zach really is trying to pull away.

“If it’s weird then maybe we shouldn’t bother.”

Chris tightens his hold again, keen to keep Zach close and allow him to explain. “I didn’t mean this was weird—us kissing—I meant that what’s weird is that this isn’t weird. It’s— Oh, my God.” He winces as his head impacts the couch none-to-gently. An extensive vocabulary and the best he can come up with is weird? Weird, followed by a mindless diatribe that likely has Zach reevaluating his whole thing.

“Is that your inelegant way of saying that you thought this would change things between us? And maybe not a change for the better?”

Chris refrains nodding emphatically in agreement; how did he get so lucky to be blessed with a man who knows him so well? “Yeah. I guess that was my biggest concern: that we’d change too much to accommodate whatever we turned into. I thought if we added a romantic aspect to our relationship, we’d lose all we were before.”

It seemed so terrifying before, an occurrence Chris couldn’t handle at all; said aloud it sounds rather ridiculous, childish even. Chris chuckles deprecatingly. “I sound completely stupid.”

Zach looks steadily at him for a moment, thumb tracing torturous lines up and down the side of Chris’ neck. Chris gladly suffers it, and will for however long it lasts as long as it means that Zach is staying. “Not stupid. I’ve always seen this as an extension of what we already are. We’d still drive each other crazy and talk and be us, only there’d be waking up together and secretly having ridiculous pet names and kissing whenever we wanted.”

Zach demonstrates the last part—much to Chris’ pleasure; he could kiss Zach forever—and then grins. “Also, there’d be orgasms, obviously. A definite improvement to our relationship before.”

“Zachary Quinto,” Chris laughs (and Chris likes to think he laughs because of amusement, not relief). “You are one classy guy, never let anyone tell you different.” Zach shrugs modestly. A familiar look crosses his face—one Chris knows preludes some form of sarcastic repartee. Right now, there are better things to do so Chris cups Zach’s nape in his palm and tugs him forward to kiss him once more.

*

As it turns out, the person he wanted to tell the most, and paradoxically the person he was most hesitant about telling, is the person he doesn’t have to. When Chris shares that thought with Zach one day, months after they began being them, Zach simply laughs.

“Of course you didn’t,” Zach tells him as they’re waiting on the doorstep of the Pine household, their hands together, fingers interlaced. “You just like to do everything the hard way.” Later on in bed, wrapped up in blankets and each other, when Chris is on the cusp of sleep, Zach whispers seriously into the dark, “I’d say you were worth the wait, though.”

Chris settles back into the warmth of Zach’s body, and the two of them sleep.

*