Actions

Work Header

A Passage That Sings

Work Text:

The first thing Zach's aware of is the agonizing glare of sunlight: the next thing is Chris, at his chair next to the bed, feet up on the desk. He's got a paperback open in one hand and a box of Cheerios in the other, and he's watching Zach through those ridiculous plastic-framed glasses. His hair is wet.

"Morning, sweet pea," he says. "I made breakfast," and offers the cereal box. He's wearing an old Berkeley t-shirt, letters faded, holes at the collar.

"Kill yourself," Zach says into the pillow. "Seriously, fuck off."

"How's that tequila treating you?"

"Go play in front of a truck."

"Nice. When did you learn all the words to 'Dreamlover,' by the way?"

Jesus Christ. "What?" Something bad is happening around his pillow. He touches his throbbing head tenderly: yes. His hat – which used to be a pretty nice Goorin Brothers thing, cheap but versatile -- is crushed under his left ear, drooled on. He thinks about trying to get it out from under his head but then that seems really difficult so he doesn't.

"'What' is right. It's you singing Mariah Carey to Zoe, and it's on my phone. Consider that shit sold to TMZ like yesterday."

"Here's a suggestion," Zach says, not very clearly. As wretched as he feels, there's almost definitely worse wretchedness yet to come. He imagines the hangover: a giant bat-monster hovering six inches over his head, waiting to shove its claws into his face as soon as he moves. "Die of pig flu. You ass. Why are you so cheerful?"

"Hangunder."

"That's not a thing."

"Apparently it is." Chris has his public laugh -- a politician's laugh -- but then he's got this weird hoarse bark when he's not On, which is actually preferable. "I was up at seven. I already did most of the crossword, but if you know a four-letter word for 'Transcaucasian capital,' I'll take it."

"'Baku.' Azerbaijan. They did it last week too."

"Fucking Azerbaijan!" says Chris, and bends over to scribble it down.

"I want a glass of water."

"Your wish is my command, Your Drunkesty," says Chris, bowing in the chair. He drops his long legs off the desk, heads for the bathroom. Zach watches his ass, not very covertly. The tiny zip of dopamine set off by the snugness of Chris's jeans might not be able to fix his life, but it's a good start.

Over the hiss of the faucet Zach yells, "Don't get my fucking books wet again."

"Do you realize you're in my room? It's my fucking book."

"What book is it? Do you have drugs? Get me some drugs while you're in there."

He hears the medicine cabinet open and the rattle of pills. "Carver. Collected stories."

Who is this guy? He's like a made-up person. "Really. And how's Creative Writing 101 treating you? Is college super scary? Do you think that cute girl in Freshman Health knows you used to have braces?"

Footsteps beside him; the creak of bedsprings as Chris sits down by his head. Zach could bite his ass, if he could move. He wouldn't, but he could. It would be tempting. "Front all you want: 'Cathedral' still skull-fucks you with its awesomeness," says Chris, shoving the water up to his face. "Every time. Open your mouth."

"Buy me dinner first." Zach pushes himself up onto his elbows, painfully, and takes the cup and the handful of Advil. He's actually going to die, probably. He will die here, in Chris Pine's hotel room in Vancouver. And then J.J. will dig him up and kill him again for necessitating a recast before they could even finish filming pickups on the sequel. The end. He wilts back down to the mattress.

"You're not gonna die," says Chris, uncannily. "Jesus Christ. What a drama queen you are. It's like you've never had a hangover before. By the way, I can't believe you're hating on Raymond Carver. Keep it up and I'm going to read aloud until you cry like a little girl from how hard every single sentence owns your ass."

"I'm not hating on Raymond Carver. I'm hating on you reading Raymond Carver first thing in the morning like that's normal." It's not just Raymond Carver. It's some new thing every day: George Saunders in makeup, Wallace Stevens during breaks, The Sun Also Rises over falafel while they wait for Cho to get off the phone with his wife. He's pretty sure he's seen Chris taking In the Penal Colony into the bathroom.

It's still kind of surprising -- not that he ever thought Chris was dumb. He clearly isn't dumb, he just seemed like the kind of not-dumb that isn't exactly a genius either, a type Zach's a little too familiar with. At the first meeting when they were talking about character it was okay but not exciting, all very basic stuff about Kirk's Self-Construction presented really earnestly, like Chris had invented the word "actualize." At one point it definitely sounded like he said "all intensive purposes," which: nope.

Anyway he was too pretty to be all that smart. Which was all fine, whatever, they could get along; it just wasn't very interesting.

Except then Chris turned out to be a little bit interesting.

"It's not first thing," he's saying now. "I told you, I did the crossword. Incidentally, big talk from the guy who brought Nicomachean Ethics to makeup."

"That was different."

"In what possible way?"

A lot of ways. For one thing, Zach isn't some blue-eyed polo-team-looking golden boy whose I.Q. sheds fifty points every time a pretty girl uncrosses her legs within a thirty-foot radius, not that that should make a difference, but it does.

For another thing Zach doesn't want to live inside Nicomachean Ethics, or anything else. Sure, he can get behind the idea, happiness equals life of purposeful virtue or whatever -- it's great in theory. But that's not the same. He doesn't read books the way Chris does: burrowing down inside them, loving them stupid, dogearing passages and probably writing them down in some secret Moleskine of English-major patheticness. It just doesn't seem to fit with the rest of him, the rest of him being kind of a standard-issue douchebag.

None of this is anything he can explain properly, so he just says, "Please don't read aloud. One, my whole life is a giant headache, so the less you talk the better, and two, Carver loses a lot off the page."

"Slander."

"Facts. It's part of the magic. All that feeling from those asshole narrators of his. Find me a passage that sings and we'll talk." Okay, he's actually feeling better. Maybe he never felt that bad to begin with, maybe it was just one of those things where all you have to fear is fear itself. He extricates the hat, drops it on the floor, tries sitting up. It's bad, but not unbearable. Though he does realize belatedly that he's still wearing his left sneaker. Nice.

"Oh, it's on," says Chris. "I'm gonna sing a passage all over your face. Get ready for it." He flips a page, rubs his mouth absently.

Zach has a split-second flash of fantasy, an old standby. Chris on his knees, eyes dark and electric: that generous mouth wrapped wet-hot around his dick. Except in this version Chris is wearing those dumb glasses, which is weird, and sort of endearing. It might have to be added to the rotation.

"Thanks for the bed, in case I didn't mention," Zach says, watching him. "Where'd you sleep?"

Chris gives him a curious little look. Then he says, "Snuggled with Karl." He flips a page.

"In your dreams."

"Snuggled with you."

"In the rest of your dreams."

"I slept on the floor. That's why there's all those pillows there. Happy now?"

"Exquisitely," Zach says. He isn't sure why he's not making a joke about it: what a beautiful night it was, how special, whether Chris will ask him to prom now, or something about how a gentleman wouldn't have taken advantage. But Chris isn't making the joke either, so.

"So what's this passage?" he says instead. "Go ahead. Thrill me." He pulls his knees up and rests his elbows on them.

"Actually, I don't know. I don't think it's going to have the full impact," Chris says. He rubs the back of his neck, almost self-consciously. "You kind of need the build-up to get how great it is. It's cheap just coming in at the end."

"Told you," Zach says, spreading his hands in a half-shrug. "It loses the magic. Out-English-majored by a theater queen. How's that feel, Berkeley?"

"Suck my dick," Chris says, without rancor. "I poisoned your Advil. Did I say it lost the magic? No, I said it was cheap coming in at the end."

"Whatever," Zach says. "I'm hearing the whine of surrender in your voice."

"This isn't surrender, dude, it's a deferral." Chris closes the book definitively and slides it into the pocket of his jeans. Weirdly disappointing. "I'm gonna spring it on you now when you least expect it. You'll be in the bathroom somewhere and I'll suddenly leap out of the plants like: bam! Carvered."

"I had no idea it was that easy to make you give up."

"Give up? Listen," Chris says, "it's the anticipation that's gonna kill you. Nothing’s ever as interesting once you actually get it. You know you're still wearing one shoe?"

"To keep my toes warm," Zach says. "Obviously."

"I think people like you best because you're so resourceful," Chris says thoughtfully.

 

*

He and Chris didn't actually see each other much, just the two of them, back in real life. (Or what constituted real life in the wake of the first film; even measured by Zach's bent standards, that period of his life was fairly fucking surreal.) They met for drinks or coffee occasionally, almost always with other people. They ran into each other at parties. Zach had people over for beers all the time, and Chris would come on occasion -- Noah, the sap, took to him immediately -- but Zach was always too busy hosting to pay him special attention. They just weren't that close, really.

They did text a lot, though. Like when Zach was on a treadmill next to someone saying ridiculous things, or Maureen Dowd had something extra-inane in the paper, or Chris couldn't remember the words to whatever Phil Collins song was stuck in his head.

Did u know penguins can jump 6ft in the air?, Chris wrote once, around two a.m. on a Tuesday, a couple of months after they finished the press tour on the first film.

Neato! Go to bed. In his dark room the light from the phone was jarring. Noah, who'd been asleep at the end of the bed, made a discontented sound and stiffly stretched out all four legs.

After a few seconds the phone buzzed again. Word penguin is derived from the welsh. Means 'white head' fyi, think about that next time u buy clearasil

I don't buy clearasil- perfect complexion already. Discovery channel is rotting your brain.

What little remains. What are u doing

Actually I'm in the middle of a date.

Dude so stop texting me back. U need date etiquette lessons. Is he ugly or something?

No.

worst date EVER. Put down the phone & be normal or Ill cause a scandal & ruin ur non-relationship

Zach wrote something, he hardly knew what, then erased it. He was trying again -- Naked pictures? -- when the light started to flash.

ZACHARY MY PANTHER I LOVED HOW U TOUCHED ME IN THE BAGEL AISLE THIS MORNING = GAY SEX TORNADO. Then, a few seconds later, WHEN WILL U FLY W/ ME TO MY VILLA IN SANTORINI & EAT RASPBERRY JAM OFF MY ASS

You have so much to learn about what gay sex is not, Zach wrote.

Ill have to drop by your continuing ed classes sometime.

"Who keeps calling?" mumbled Brian, rolling over.

"Some guy I fucked at the gym," Zach said. He was sort of sorry about it, but sometimes you couldn't be okay and be nice, both at once. Sometimes if you weren't mean, if you really tried to be good, you had to admit to yourself you were faking it.

Put up or shut up, he wrote.

The phone buzzed again. ALL IM WEARING IS A FIREMAN HAT & A SEQUINED THONG WITH UR INITIALS ON IT

All Brian said was, "Put him on silent for two goddamn seconds, will you?" and rolled out of bed to pee. He wasn't at all ugly; plus he was a good guy. They both knew what was up.

While Brian was in the bathroom he sent That's nice. Seriously, why are you up watching Nature & sending me obscene messages at 2am? but Chris didn't write back for a couple of days. When he finally did it was about whether or not he should buy a Slanket. So, whatever.

 

*

He doesn't usually injure himself when he drinks but apparently waking-up-in-Chris's-hotel-room days are special, because when he gets back to his own bathroom to shower, he counts five mysterious bruises. (Also three one-dollar bills in his underwear, and half a crumpled-up receipt in his pocket on which someone has scrawled, mysteriously, PORN / NOT PORN? and circled the former.) Two on the outside of the left shin, along the same latitude, as if he banged into something and then backed up and then did it again from a slightly different angle: one on his elbow; one on the inside of his right knee; and one, yellow-green and particularly tender, actually underhis jaw, which probably comes from the hat, somehow.

Zach shaves over it as gingerly as possible, but it throbs mercilessly under the pressure and he hisses a little, wincing in the mirror. He's clean and basically awake now, due in makeup in half an hour, but he still looks monstrous. He rinses the razor off and pokes disconsolately at the bags under one eye.

When was the last time he woke up in a hotel room with no idea how he got there? Ten years ago, at least, for God's sake. Zach is a healthy person. He maintains control. Things have been a little wild for the past couple of years -- which is, okay, an understatement -- and control under these circumstances is important.

Just because you're wrapping a multi-million dollar sequel, he informs himself silently, doesn't give you license to behave like a goddamn Lohan. What's next? Dating girls for attention? Throwing drinks at Hilary Duff? He has goals, god dammit, goals which don't involve any of the behavior he's exhibited this morning.

"Get your shit together," he says aloud, stabbing his finger into the mirror for emphasis. "I'm serious. You're a disgrace right now." His reflection stares back at him. He looks like King Haggard.

"Ugh," Zach says, dropping his finger, and goes to find clothes.

 

*

Chris did invite him over once, but only to help paint his kitchen.

"Is anyone I know going to be there?" Zach asked on the phone. He tossed Noah the tennis ball they'd been involved with all morning and Noah went crashing joyously across the kitchen after it.

Chris hummed across the static. "You know me. I'll be there." He was unexpectedly awkward on the phone, almost nervous. "And Annie Singh -- you knew her at CMU, right? Cho and Kerri might come. Zoe said she'd be there if nothing better was happening. I bet you could talk to her, make sure she shows up. You could carpool. Bikepool."

Noah came skittering back over the tiles, soggy tennis ball clutched in his teeth, and hurled himself rapturously to the floor at Zach's feet, ass-up. "I haven't seen Annie Singh in seriously years," said Zach, skritching around Noah's collar as the dog writhed in ecstatic circles. "I keep forgetting you know her. What's she doing now?" Not that he cared, but it was something to say.

"UCLA Law. So that's probably why you haven't seen her. But so she'll be there; you guys can catch up."

Zach heard the rattle of ice cubes, tinny over the wires. "Are you drinking? What the hell time is it? Don't say 'It's Mocktail Time.'"

"A: What if it is Mocktail Time?" Chris said. "B: It's iced coffee. Are you coming to my party or what?"

"You call this a party, but it's actually just you conning your friends into being your contractors for free," Zach pointed out.

"I'm buying you pizza," Chris said, sounding injured. "There'll be beer. Sounds like a party to me. Besides, you've never seen my apartment."

"Because maybe I don't feel like getting mobbed by the paps at Lamill? Fun as it is to watch you lose your shit every time a flashbulb goes off." Noah butted urgently against his knee, and Zach shifted the phone, murmuring "okay, okay -- we'll go out in a minute."

"You're so mean," said Chris, fondly. "I don't lose my shit. Is that Noah? Izzat Noah? Put me on with him." Like an idiot Zach held the phone up: Noah's ears pricked. "Noaaaah. Who's a good boy? Who's a good boy?" Noah barked, looked eagerly in every direction, sniffed the phone, barked again. "Good boy Noah. Is he the best puppy? He is the best puppy. Zach, pick up again."

"What."

"Seriously, can you come? I have to buy you a special roller if you do. I'm gonna write your name on the handle and everything so nobody else can touch it. In gold pen."

"I don't know," Zach said. "I have a thing Thursday. I'll try."

In the end he didn't. At the last minute he invited Kristen over instead and they watched a couple episodes of Intervention he found on the DVR. They drank some cheap pinot noir, talked shit about her awful new boyfriend. It was nice.

"Stop checking your phone!" Kristen said finally, snatching it away. "Pay attention. Was your man-candy supposed to call you tonight? Which one?"

"All of them," Zach said.

 

*

In makeup Maartje prods the bruise under Zach's jaw, ignoring his yelp of protest, and mutters under her breath in Dutch as she slathers on lavender-tinted concealer.

"If you don't want me to hurt you when you're sober, don't hurt yourself when you are drunk," she says unsympathetically, when Zach can't suppress a slightly louder and more pathetic noise.

"Who says I was drunk?"

"Please," Maartje says, with magnificent scorn. "How else happens a bruise like this?" which is a good point. "I'll tell you how this occurs: you become unconscious and -- wham --" she slams the back of her open hand into her jaw to demonstrate -- "your chin on the bedpost."

"You have this problem all the time, huh," says Zach, which Maartje doesn't dignify with a response, but Chris's eyes catch his in the mirror. Over the top of his paperback he's grinning, the asshole, tongue caught mockingly between his teeth. Today the book is an ancient edition of Breakfast of Champions, spine held together with scotch tape.

"Top five," Zach says. "Writers you'd bang."

Chris quirks an eyebrow. "Different from 'writers you love.'"

"Very different. Hemingway, for instance, would be a bad call on this one."

"Dude," Chris says with dead certainty, "I would let Papa do anything he wanted to my body. Anything. Spank me, diaper me, dress me up as a human badger, I don't give a shit. If you write like that, you get a free sex pass forever with everyone. That's the rules."

"Ten novels packed with impotence, misogyny and general fucked-upedness about sex don't really bode well for you in the sack."

"Sure, but it wouldn't be for me. It would be for the greater good. For literature." Chris examines his reflection, running his tongue over his teeth. Zach swallows whatever he's thinking and pushes it down, down, somewhere beyond retrieval. "Baby, I'd treat him so good he'd be writing cheerful kids' TV pilots in Havana right now."

Baby. "At age 120 or whatever."

"I don't know how to put this in a gentlemanly way," Chris says, obligingly tilting his head so Andrew can contour one cheekbone, "but my sex is kind of magic."

"Wow," says Zach, unable to help grinning at him in the mirror. "Good try, but I guarantee you, if that stone fox Martha Gellhorn couldn't hump the morose out of him, you can't either." Over their heads, Maartje and Andrew exchange an indulgent look.

"Zachary," says Chris, patiently, "you've seen my ass. Right? It's spectacular. So this is a silly conversation. Okay, top five, let's see. Number one is easy: Dorothy Parker. God, there is nothing I wouldn't do to that woman. Meet at the Algonquin, five gin and tonics, we do it in the coatroom, possibly again in the cab, then at her place, she's on top, and even her drunken pillow-talk is like a million times smarter than me -- awesome -- then we do it again in the morning, reverse cowgirl, then she kicks me out without a number. That part's kind of sad. But also, like I said, awesome."

"I was seriously not prepared for this level of detail," Zach says.

"Please contain your arousal for a second," Chris says. "Let's see, number two...Lorrie Moore, circa Birds of America. She'd be really mean to me at the bar, all kind of spiky and vulnerable in a super hot way, and then I'd probably just hang out between her thighs all night, which is fine by me. Number three. Number three...Flannery O'Connor? Would that get too twisted? Man, I'm honestly not sure if that would be amazing or traumatic. Probably both. There would definitely be creepy religious imagery." He considers. "And maybe pegging."

"You know we're just playing Top Five?" Zach points out. "This game isn't called 'Scare Maartje and Andrew with the Freakish Dystopia That Is Your Fantasy Life.'"

"Please, they're fine. Aren't you, Andy?"

"This is so far from the worst conversation we've heard you have," Andrew assures him, "that your concern is kind of cute and hilarious. Head straight. Thank you."

"For myself I don't listen to anything either of you talks about ever," Maartje informs them both, moving to get a better angle on Zach's eyebrows.

"Number four..." Chris thinks for a second. "Gotta be James Baldwin. Definitely. Tender and lyrical and detail-oriented, am I right? But also a very powerful finisher. Not afraid to hold you down and make you feel feelings. I can get into that."

That electric-blue gaze slides sideways to Zach's, the tiniest smirk curling one corner of his mouth. Credit where it's due: Chris is good. Hold you down and make you feel feelings. He knows perfectly well that Zach (and surely Andrew and maybe even Maartje, who is almost definitely human under the flinty stare and platinum bangs) can't stop picturing him –

-- slammed up against the sheets or the wall or who gives a shit, wherever, the fucking floor, panting hot little breaths, that golden body slick and taut, eyes drug-dark, all gorgeous warm surrender –

-- but no. This is just how Chris is, Zach reminds himself: all talk. All he wants is a reaction.

Not that Zach can blame him. A good string-along is a real pleasure, a wine you drink for months. But this kind of fag-stag flirtation, no matter how good Chris is at it, is bush league. It's high school drama-club stuff. Zach doesn't do anything just to gratify somebody else. He's never been into playing the sucker for anyone.

"Great plan," he says, expressionless in spite of the sudden heat prickling all over his skin. "Then you can be the bitch-ass straight boy who blows him off, and the world will probably get a pretty solid novella out of it."

"Number five," Chris mutters, "the all-important number five. Shit. I'm not wasting this on a hatefuck, so, sorry Ayn Rand. Oh, this sucks. There's too many. Garcia Marquez, maybe a little too lugubrious for my taste. Like Kundera, you know -- just trying too hard to get laid. Did we talk about Joyce?"

"'Lugubrious,' really?" says Zach. "Yes I said yes I will yes."

"But I only have room for one more. Joyce would be so all up in his own head. Murakami, maybe? Or Dumas, or, hey, Graham Greene? Shit."

Zach says, "You're not counting poets? No Rilke, no Whitman?"

"Fuck Walt Whitman. You know he'd demand a handjob and then after he got one he'd roll over and go to sleep, and you'd be like 'excuse me?' and he'd be all 'You, too, received a handjob, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.' No, Walter, that's not how handjobs work. Plus, that beard. Oh, hey, Mark Twain--"

"You're dumb," Zach tells him. "There's only one correct answer, and when I tell you you're gonna be so pissed you didn't think of it."

A brief, considering silence. Then, "Shakespeare!" says Chris triumphantly, slapping the counter. "Duh. That's five. Being your slave, what should I do but tend/upon the hours and times of your desire? Epic wild monkey tantra sex is what that would be, and funny, which is key, and can you imagine the dirty talk, it would be insane. With puns!"

"You are filthy," Zach says, showing teeth. "Puns. I like it. But no."

"No?" Chris echoes, incredulous. "You're so wrong. Amazingly wrong. Who's your top five?"

"Two words," says Zach. "Dan Brown." Chris lifts his eyebrows, then starts to cackle. "Dan Brown is my numbers one through five. All of them. I want him to fuck me in rabbity little page-long bursts with a cheap cliffhanger at the end of each, and the cliffhanger is 'god, is he gonna wrap this up yet?' but, no, he doesn't. Mediocre, formulaic sex on a giant pile of money, while that song from Top Gun plays. 'Take My Breath Away.'"

"No no no," Chris interjects. "Dan Brown's booty soundtrack is entirely Gregorian chants. For like seven hours. And what they're chanting is 'Don't Worry Dan Brown, Your Penis Is Adequate' in Latin."

"Remixed by Enya," Zach agrees, covering his mouth as if that'll help him stop grinning like an idiot. "Yes. That's all I want in life, is for that to happen to me. And Tom Hanks is watching from a dark corner."

"Tom Hanks and Ron Howard," Chris suggests. "Dressed in hooded leotards. Rating you on form and technique."

"Stop giggling," says Andrew crossly, clamping a hand on Chris's head. "Stay still. You're like a child."

"I've actually had that dream," Zach says thoughtfully. "We were all in a castle made of waffles, and then I think I won an Oscar. No, I won all the Oscars." It's not that any of this is funny; it's just great how funny Chris finds it, and his doomed attempt at Serious Face. Their eyes meet in the mirror again and Chris lets out a helpless little yip of laughter.

"You guys!" Andrew snaps. "Get it together!"

In Zach's ear Maartje says, in the low private tones that are her most hilariously terrifying, "If you continue to laugh, I will stab you with this pencil. Because of your face moving too much. So it will be an accident but also your own fault."

"I love you, Maartje," Zach says, suddenly overwhelmed with affection. "Do I tell you that enough? You're so scary, it's incredible. I want you to do my makeup for everything -- like when I walk the dog, go to the grocery store, whatever."

"Mijn God. To be honest I would kill myself," Maartje says.

Chris whistles through his teeth like a bomb falling. "Kaboom. Yikes."

Zach risks a sideways glance at him. He's leaning his head back to give Andrew more light, baring his throat. A leftover smile still plays around his mouth.

"What," Andrew says, pushing his hair back to blend, "you're not even gonna ask me to move back to Silver Lake with you and spray-tan your abs every day?"

"I really don't enjoy rejection," Chris says. His eyes don't open, but the grin gets wider. "Dan Brown. Funny shit."

"Don't start again," Zach warns, and then he tells himself, too: Don't start. It seems like good advice for everybody, if maybe a little late.

 

*

Once, during the last shoot, he was hanging out in Chris's trailer waiting to walk over to makeup and trying to read Demian for like the ninth time. Chris was brushing his teeth: when he came out, he spread his arms and said, "Am I decent?"

"Except you have toothpaste on your face," Zach said. "There, by your – yeah."

Chris frowned and thumbed it off. "You sound kinda offended."

"Yeah, I'm deeply affronted by the fact that you don't know how to use a toothbrush." Zach flipped another page he hadn't actually read that carefully.

"Well, I'm deeply affronted by your Madras shorts, but I don't give you shit about it." Chris retreated into the bathroom again and Zach heard the water running. He was just getting back into Hesse when suddenly there was a face shoved two inches from his own, covered in white toothpaste froth except the two crazy eyes, and Chris yelled through a mouthful of Colgate, "Is there something on my face? I feel like I have something on my face!--"

"Oh, my God!" Zach yelped, trying to force his heart rate back down. "What is wrong with you? This is so disgusting, are you kidding me, you sprayed toothpaste in my mouth--"

"Where is it?" Chris demanded, dripping foam all over, pawing at himself. "To the left? On my nose?"

"This shirt is Watanabe, dick," Zach said. "Seriously, what childhood trauma mutilated you into the sad person you are today? It looks like Mr. Bubble blew a wad all over you."

Chris just shook his head. He took Zach's face in both hands, pulled him in swiftly and kissed him on the forehead, leaving a minty splotch. Zach yipped in protest, heaving him off by the shoulders.

"I love you, man," Chris said, looking theatrically hurt under the toothpaste. "I just want to rub my face on your torso a little. Is that so wrong?"

"This is all so repulsive I can't even," Zach said. "You're dead to me." He hunted around the floor for a washcloth, or a Kleenex or anything.

Chris sighed and wandered forlornly back into the bathroom. Then he peered out from behind the door, pulling an awkward little grimace. "Just so you know? You got a little, uh, toothpaste." He tapped his forehead, where the kiss was. "Right about there."

 

*

"Dreamlover come rescue me," Zoe sings as soon as she sees him coming around the corner. "Take me up, take me down..." She dances across the set to him, an adorable little shoulder-bop thing, and whirls him into a brief two-step.

"Don't," Zach begs, halfheartedly attempting to escape. "Come on. Be nice."

"I am nice," Zoe says, expertly dipping herself back like Cyd Charisse and then letting him go. "Don't play like I'm not your favorite. 'Won't you please come around, cause I wanna share forever with you, ba-by...' Have you seen the video?"

"The one on Chris's phone? I'm saving it for a special occasion."

"Yeah, he sent it around." Bastard! "Seriously, ZQ, it's outstanding. I don't care if it was the tequila singing, that was honestly the most beautiful thing anybody's ever done for me." Her stunning, wicked smile flashes up at him. "Pine told us you were a hot mess this morning."

"I was fine!"

"'Crying tears of blood' was his phrase."

"Oh, come on." He still can't remember how he ended up in Chris's room instead of his own. They're only like four doors apart. Over the course of the day he's put most of the evening back together: they were all in Karl's room, mixing his duty-free alcohol in vile combinations. It was just supposed to be a low-key goodbye party for Anton and Emilie, who were going home earlier than the rest of them, but then everything got out of hand.

Tragically, he does remember busting out Mariah Carey, which started as a joke and then got really passionate all of a sudden. Like he seems to recall giving Zoe something very much like a lap dance, and maybe he tried to use the ceiling fan as a prop, like he thought he was in goddamn Newsies, which might account for some of the bruising.

"I never made it back to my room. Did we...were we all in Chris's?"

"Last I saw you, you were complaining about how you knew Chris was hiding kettle chips in his room. Then I said goodnight and you said 'Nooo' and made out with my face for like two minutes. I can't lie, it was all pretty sloppy."

"Kettle chips?" Zach repeats, stupidly.

"He says you stole them and then passed out in his bed." Her eyes widen and she whispers, "Oh god, you guys didn't -- did you wake up naked?"

"Fully dressed and I still had one shoe on," Zach corrects her. "Did I really make out with your face?"

"You did, friend," says Cho, who's been leaning against the wall, talking to Karl and Simon. "And you're lucky my phone was out of batteries, because it was hilarious."

"Did you find my present?" Karl asks, leering.

Which explains the three dollars. "You're a lousy tipper."

Karl shrugs. "It was a lousy dance. You kept falling over."

"Well, I liked it," Zoe says protectively. "I'd like to see you dip it that low, Kiwi."

"Sweetheart, you haven't seen dancing til you've seen The Urban," Karl says, fixing her with a smoldering gaze and wiggling his shoulders repulsively. Zoe recoils.

"Where's Chris?" asks Cho, ignoring the nightmare going down right next to him. "Was he in makeup with you?"

"Calling his sister back," Zach says, smoothing down the front of his costume. "Where's J.J.?"

"Freaking out at Dan about the lighting. Apparently his new stand-ins are too short, or something. It'll be just like yesterday: we'll dick around for hours, and then they'll spend more hours rearranging the seating, and then Pine will walk into scene a couple of times, the end. I hate pickups."

"Oh, come on," Zoe says, frowning at them around Karl's furious gyrations. "I'm sad this week's ending and so are you, Grumpy Pants Cho. You'll miss us. Get over it. Bask in the love."

"Baby girl, you always see right through me," Cho says, face relaxing into a grin.

"Anybody have change for a five?" It's Chris, sauntering up behind Zach and clicking his phone shut. He smells like Tide. "I'm gonna have to put a little something-something in Karl's bra."

"I've got quarters," Simon offers.

"I do accept tips, but don't even think about asking me on a date," Karl says, refocusing his disturbing efforts in Chris's direction.

"No on-set romances," Chris says. "Even for you. Oh, come on, man, don't...that's really...yikes. No, I don't want to touch it, thank you. Zach, dude, in case you're wondering, your dance was superior."

"My milkshake doot doot doo to the thing," Karl sings, "and they're like, whatever they say, damn right, whatever they say."

"Is this a rule," asks Simon, fascinated, "like as soon as you have a certain number of kids, you lose the ability to remember the words to pop songs? All dads have this problem eventually, have you noticed? Listen, Urban, it goes: 'My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they're like, it's better than yours; damn right, it's better than yours; I could teach you, but I'd have to charge.' It's not complex."

"Dammit, Simon, I'm a doctor, not a songstress," Karl says, straightening. "What are the words? 'My milkshake brings...' Do it again."

"My dance was superior, huh," Zach says in an undertone, nudging Chris's shoulder.

"Keep your skirt on," Chris murmurs back. He's standing way too close. "It's barely a compliment. Are you seeing this? The stuff of nightmares." A few feet away, Zoe’s trying to show Karl how to shimmy. It’s not going well.

"I think I tried to do a pole-swing on the ceiling fan," Zach says.

"That is a thing that you did," Chris agrees. "Then you smacked into the bed, then I tried to, uh, detach you from the fan, then you smacked into me. And yet it was still sexier than this."

"Well, I'm a sexy guy," Zach says. He forces himself to stay still, not to give the comment any intonation whatsoever, not joking or flirtatious or anything at all.

"Yeah, call me when you have eyebrows," says Chris, but he doesn't move away.

Zach shrugs. "You have an eyelash, right--" He taps his left cheek.

Chris pats ineffectually at his face. "What, on my --"

"No. Jesus." He licks the pad of his thumb and presses it against Chris's cheekbone, just under the corner of his eye. Chris's lashes flicker. "There."

"Thanks, Mom," Chris says. He gives Zach his brief, private smile.

"—Damn right, it’s better than yours," Karl is saying suddenly, backing his ass directly into Zach’s personal space. "I could teach you but I’d have to charge."

"Oh, yes," Zach says, grateful to turn his attention anywhere but Chris. "Whoof. Pop that booty."

"This is my happy place," Zoe says, watching them complacently.

"Tragic," says Simon.

 

*

The summer after the first movie came out, when Zach was back East, he went to visit Leonard in Boston. Somehow it came up, since they were in Massachussetts anyway, that they should go out to see Chris do the Berkshire Theater Festival. He was Oberon in their Midsummer, and David Strathairn's son in the new Sam Shepard: that one was an East coast premiere.

Chris was good. Of course he was. He was subtle and painful and funny; you couldn't take your eyes off him, especially when he had that awful scene with Strathairn about the dead dog.

Which wasn't shocking. First of all, with a cast like that and Alison Janney playing your waitress girlfriend, it was probably hard not to be really good. And anyway, Chris was a thoughtful, complicated actor; it was just easy to forget it, like it was easy to forget how smart he was.

"Insanity. These people I'm working with -- I mean, David, and Rachel Weisz, and Alison fucking Janney? Last time I was here I played a waiter," Chris said. "Which was easy because I actually was one." They were in a dark booth in back of one of the bars. Re: bars, all available evidence suggested there were only three, and one of them was closed.

"This town is insanity," Zach said, glancing at the bartender, who stared back as if he didn't even care. Nice try, guy. He'd actually dropped a glass when Leonard sauntered over to order his Lagavulin. "It's like Stepford College."

The place was all clear blue skies and leafy patches of shade, cute little churches and ivy-covered brick buildings that radiated Serious Academic Thought. There were about two streets, and the movie theater only had one screen, which just then was showing something in, like, Basque, and there was nowhere to get sushi. On the other hand, their drinks were pretty cheap.

"Well, I like it," said Leonard. He slung an elegant arm across the back of the booth; Zach hoped he'd have half the guy's presence at seventy-whatever. "It feels good to me. The air smells like summer in a perfect world."

Only Leonard could say shit like that and actually sound reasonable. Maybe it had to do with vocal resonance. Chris grinned at him, eyes glinting blue in the low light. "I like it too," he said. "I don't think I'd be a big fan in the winter, but."

"California boy," Zach said, poking Chris's kneecap under the table.

"It's a chronic condition," Chris agreed.

"But also a curable one," Leonard said. "Excuse me, it's Susan--" and he swung himself out of the booth and huddled into a corner with his phone, one long finger plugged into his ear.

"So how are the co-eds?" Zach asked, giving Chris his most wolfish smile.

"Mm," Chris said. He rubbed his wrist absently with his thumb. "Ravishing."

"You don't sound ravished."

"Hey, speaking of awkward segues, Beau's getting married in two weeks," Chris said. He glanced at the ceiling. "Married! I said I'd love to be there, because it's cool and we're friends and I'm just happy that she's happy. So here's my question. Do I have to go, or can I just spend that time doing something more fun? Like I could eat glass, or saw off all my fingers."

"To who?" Zach said. "To whom."

"Because I know? He owns restaurants or whatever the fuck." Chris leaned two sugar packets together to make a little pink shack. Then he flicked them into Zach's lap.

"You're not...hung up about it, though, are you?" Zach said, picking them up. "You guys have broken up a lot. Like, a lot."

It was one of their old jokes, how many times Chris got back together with his old girlfriends, but now Chris didn't laugh. "Jesus, dude, no, I'm not, you know, hung up. It just..." He made a quick, impatient gesture. "It's whatever, man. I don't actually want to talk about it, it's just distracting."

"I mean, if you want to go and press yourself against the window and yell, I'm going to support you, because I'm a good friend and that's what I do," Zach said. "Or are you just fishing for a plus-one? That really depends on where it is. Napa, yes; Vegas, maybe; Burbank, absolutely not."

"No shit," Chris said. He drained his beer and wiped his bottom lip with his thumb. Then he laughed, a little helplessly. "You know what's weird? For some reason I thought you were the person to talk to about...this stuff. You know. Feelings."

"Uh," Zach said. "Have you met me?"

"I know," Chris said. "I know! Obviously I was temporarily insane. You can't even talk about talking about feelings. You still banging that guy Kenneth?"

"He keeps calling," Zach said. "I feel bad about it." Kenneth, one of the people he was seeing at the time, had turned out to be a secret boyfriend guy: he threw one leg over Zach's in the night and liked to look deep into Zach's eyes after they fucked and trace the outline of Zach's cheekbone with his fingers. It was no good. Zach, who preferred to call his own cab after an orgasm, was starting to feel responsible.

"Great," Chris said. "That's exactly how I want people I'm dating to talk about me, too. 'He keeps calling, I feel bad about it.' Don't worry, I'll introduce you to some of the co-eds. There's one named Jason I think you'd be into." He rested his chin on his palm and regarded Zach intently. "You don't really do normal-people relationships, do you? You don't even want to like the people you fuck."

"Sometimes I like them until we fuck," Zach said. "What, and you like them all? They're all your best buddies, right, you call up Audrina and Netty Walden from Paramount and that girl with the barrettes we met at Cha Cha, and you guys all sortez for pancakes together?"

"Dude," Chris said. "That's my curse. Whenever I have sex with somebody I get, uh. In love with them?" He pulled a quick rueful grimace, one corner of his mouth curling down. "Not permanently. Just a little. However, at least that means I'm always still friends with people I've put my dick in. Whereas you -- I don't get this thing of yours, that you do."

"Admittedly," Zach said, watching him, "people I fuck, if they like me too much, they tend to be driven insane, like they become alcoholics, or monks, or marathon runners -- "

"Deviants, basically," said Chris. "You're, like. A succubus." He widened his eyes and made an ooga-booga flutter with his fingers.

"Incubus," Leonard said from above them, re-seating himself next to Zach and stretching his legs out. "Zachary would be an incubus. Succubi are female."

"Ah-ha," Chris said, nodding gratefully at him. "Thank you. Keeping us on track. How's Susan?"

"Perfect," Leonard said, and smiled, like a man with a secret. "My wife is perfect."

Chris looked back at Zach and tilted his head. "See?" he said. "Love's nice."

"Sure, for other people," Zach said.

"Bah," Leonard said, swatting the air good-naturedly. "You're infants. What do you know about anything."

"I know we need more beer," Zach decided.

They were staying in a little motel outside of town and invited Chris back with them to use the pool. Zach and Leonard went straight for the hot tub, but Chris shook his head. "Warm water's better if you swim first."

He unbuttoned his shirt and dropped it on the poolside concrete, muscles flexing across his back: toed off his Chucks and undid the heavy metal buckle of his belt, then wriggled out of his jeans. He didn't have, like, the perfect body -- not that Zach was a gym rat, or even really into that. Chris was just solid, tall and built broad through the arms and thighs. He had a hard V of muscle tracing down into his underwear and a hell of an ass, which counted for a lot. But there was, it could not be denied, a little bit of a belly there. Zach's abs were definitely better.

"My abs are better than yours," Zach said, stroking them with great self-satisfaction.

"By 'better,' do you mean hairier?" Chris raised his arms and dove, breaking the water with a joyful splash: then surfaced, blowing out a plume of wet air and smoothing his soaking hair back. "Because, uh, then, sure." He rolled over to float belly-up in the neon water, relaxed as an otter.

"I had abs once," Leonard said. He had procured from somewhere a packet of expensive cigars and was reclining in the hot tub like a mafioso. "I confess, I do not miss them."

"Does Susan?" Chris asked, grinning.

"Even less than I," Leonard said, returning an even wickeder smile.

Zach was quiet. He watched the sleek pull of Chris's body through the water, the seaweed-waver of his hair. Finally Chris hauled himself out of the pool and splatted over to them, shivering a little. He lowered himself into the hot tub and closed his eyes, letting out a long silent ahh of satisfaction.

"Everything you dreamed of?" Zach asked.

"And more," Chris said, eyes still closed.

On the way back down to Boston the next day Leonard said thoughtfully, "You're not used to being that obvious, are you?"

"Don't make me pull this car over," Zach warned him.

 

*

The thing is, he was going to have to remember eventually. Obviously some part of his brain has been spending a lot of energy trying to protect him, but that was a losing battle; somewhere in the back of his head he might actually have known all day.

It comes back in a vivid awful swoop just as he's starting to fall asleep, and he actually wrenches upright, like a spasming fish, says "Shit!" aloud, and clutches painfully at his own face, as if he could punish himself enough to make it not have happened.

But it did happen. They were in Chris's room, Zach on the floor pouring the greasy salt-and-vinegar remnants from the bottom of the bag into his mouth (and in his memory Chris is dead sober and not participating, which is clearly just his brain being cruel, because Chris was in no way sober and definitely ate at least half of those chips), and Chris, who was sitting on the bed, kicked him gently and said something like: That was quite a dance back there. Or maybe, Can I call you Sugar Pants, Quinto?

"I'm the best at dancing," Zach said, thick-tongued. He dropped the bag and struggled to his feet, clutching the edge of the bed, then the hem of Chris's t-shirt, as if by accident. "The best dancer." He grabbed Chris's unresisting hands, set them on his waist and swayed his hips, dimly aware that it was a mess.

"Okay, okay," Chris said, laughing. "Wow, Bambi Lynne. Can I get some fries with that shake? Next time I'm putting on better music." His hands were big and the palms were hot on Zach's skin. "What do you think, maybe a little Def Leppard? Pour some sugar on me?"

"Whups," Zach said vaguely, and sat down very suddenly right on the edge of the bed. Chris made a warning noise and caught him at the hips before he fell, sliding him easily back onto the mattress. Something shot through him at the firmness of that touch, a sharp sweet ache that erased everything else.

He closed his eyes through a wobbly, world-tilting moment. When he opened them again Chris was there, a little off-kilter, flushed and fond with his hair all sticky-out and one thumb still hooked in Zach's belt loop.

"Hi," said Zach.

"Hi," Chris agreed. "Did you not eat dinner or something? I mean, I dunno, I'm pretty toasted, but I usually am. I've never seen you like this. It's literally unbelievable."

"Don't say literally unless you actually mean literally," said Zach severely, or meant to say, but unfortunately it came out litererly and then, when he tried again, litary-rily.

"See? You can't even make words right now. It's freaking me out."

"You wanna hear words? Exculpate," Zach said. "Fulmination. Apocryphal. Shut up."

"See, now that," Chris said, "is much sexier than the dancing." He slid his fingers free of Zach's jeans, a little slower than necessary.

Zach's head was still lifted and spinning. He said, "God, Pine, how are you so -- " and then he couldn't remember the words he needed, like disingenuous or tease or even liar, any of which would have helped him explain.

But he couldn't explain, so he gave up, and it was like letting go of a cliff, all fear and resignation and relief. Blood rushed up to a roar in his ears as he pushed Chris against the bedframe and slid one hand under his jaw, tilting his head back. He held Chris there, barely gripping the nape of his neck. Chris's breath was warm against his mouth: someone's heart was going wild against his ribs.

For an impossible moment he was pressed against every part of that long body, and Chris was thrillingly still beneath him. Under Zach's fingers the pulse raced in Chris's throat. All either of them had to do was give one inch.

Then Chris blinked, almost a flinch -- and Zach let him go. He sat back, grasping the sheets to steady himself, and let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.

"Well, shit, man," Chris said. His eyes were inscrutable.

Are you fucking with me? Zach wanted to say.

"Gay Chicken," he said instead, and was pleased to hear it come out perfectly, composed and light and a little amused. "You lose."

A short, strange silence. Then Chris said, "Yeah, define 'lose.' "

"Don't be bitter because you can't play the game," Zach said.

Then it was dark, and some time must have passed because Chris was saying, from the floor, "-- your hat's still --"

"'sfine," Zach said. "Shut up."

So now here he is, and that happened, and what is he supposed to do about it?

 

*

He finds Chris the next morning, out in the sun by craft services. He's doing the crossword again, using his knee as a writing pad. How he gets his hands on the New York Timesup here is anyone's guess.

"'Where some sunflowers were painted,'" he says, not looking up as Zach's shadow falls across him. "Five letters, blank-blank-L-E-blank."

"Arles," Zach says. "Van Gogh."

"You're like a robot." Chris fills it in, then shades his eyes to squint up at Zach. "That's awesome how you're standing so I can look directly into the sun, by the way. Thanks. Really considerate."

"Some people would be grateful for the shade." Zach steps aside, letting Chris track him sideways. "You really think you can do a Friday on your own? Nineteen-down is 'Gabors.'"

"I know who they are, I just wasn't there yet," says Chris, scratching it down.

"Are those Ray-Bans prescription?" Zach asks.

"Shut up," Chris says. "Maybe." Sunlight catches the edge of his mouth as he smiles.

Zach eyes him for a moment in disbelief. They've been doing this...whatever it is, this competition or flirtation or friendship, for what feels like forever, and two nights ago the balance shifted decidedly in Chris's favor. And yet here he is – here he has been -- acting like he didn't even notice.

For the first time (and it's astonishing that this is actually the first time the possibility has seemed reasonable to him) he wonders if maybe he's been wrong this whole time; if maybe what he thought was a two-man game is actually just the push-pull of his own neurosis. Maybe Chris is, in fact, a functional human adult, and if he had wanted Zach in anything like a real way, he would have, oh, said so. It's not hard to imagine him sauntering up after a couple of beers, sliding his fingers into Zach's front pockets and saying easily, So listen, I've been considering the options and I'm pretty sure we should bang.

"When's your flight back to L.A.?" Chris is asking. "Taking the two-fifteen today, or are you going tomorrow with J.J.?"

"Today," Zach says, shaking it off and going for the coffee urn. He's not stupid or desperate, he's definitely not hurting for sex, and he knows his shit when it comes to desire. That ought to make him feel better.

"Fantastic," says Chris. "So're Zoe and Karl. I'll sit next to you and eat all your peanuts." He leans forward and taps the back of Zach’s knee with his paper. "Grab me an apple or something?"

Zach tosses him one and snags one for himself. He says, "I need something to read on the plane. Did you pack all your books already?" which is an insane question because of course not. Chris will be packing everything frantically at 12:30 when the cab was supposed to leave twenty minutes ago, yelling Be right out, hang on hang on! a hundred times, and then the hotel will have to mail him half his belongings.

"Buy something in the airport," Chris says. "If I give you one of my books you're just going to make fun of me about it and call me pretentious for hours and it's totally boring. How about '2006 Tony winner Cynthia?' Blank-blank-blank-O-R. Might be O-N."

"You are pretentious. And why can't you just admit that you're a theater nerd and watch the Tonys like the rest of us? It's Cynthia Nixon. O-N."

"Ga-ay," Chris sings. "How come you never invite me to your Tony parties? Maybe then I would watch."

"I only hold them at very fancy bars you've been banned from." Zach settles himself in one of the folding chairs and peels the sticker off his apple.

"From which," Chris says. "From which I have been banned."

"Don't be pedantic," Zach says.

"Sounds so dirty when you say it."

"Everything sounds dirty when I say it." Zach stretches his arms over his head, cracking his spine. "It's a talent."

"What are you doing when you get back?" Chris asks.

Zach shrugs. "Tivo. Unpacking. Trying to make Noah forgive me for forsaking him. Busy evening."

"Steak for Noah," says Chris wisely. "That'll do it."

"Gee, thanks, Cesar Milan," Zach says.

"I have an awesome idea," Chris says. "How about, instead of all that stuff, let's go to dinner. I want some kind of gourmet cheeseburger with like...avocado, and blue cheese and Applewood bacon."

"Are you asking me out?" Zach asks, lifting an eyebrow at him. For an instant he almost regrets it, but Chris just looks at him over his sunglasses and rolls his eyes.

"Of course I am," he says. "I'm gonna bring my own candles to Father's Office just so I can gaze seductively at you in the light of them."

"I don't really date, as you're aware," Zach says. "But if you want I'll blow you in the bathroom and never call you again."

"Jesus," Chris says, with a shocked gust of laughter. "Can you do it while I eat my cheeseburger, because that would be actually the greatest thing that could ever happen to me."

"We'll see," Zach says, just as Karl comes wandering over to the table.

"We'll see what?" Karl asks, deftly stealing Chris's apple.

"If I can get Zach to blow me in the bathroom at Father's Office tonight," Chris says easily, stealing it back. "Wanna come to dinner with us? We're getting serious burgers with fancy cheese."

"Only if I can get in on that action," Karl says. "The sexy bathroom, I mean, but I'll take a burger as well."

So Karl's coming and Zoe wants in too and Chris proposes to call Anton when they land and mentions that Eric’s in town, too, they should just make it a first-film reunion. And Zach's having trouble explaining to himself why he feels so embarrassed -- even, unfairly, pissed.

 

*

That summer night in the hot tub in Massachussets, Chris said, "Top five. Worst dates." There was a fine dew of sweat at the nape of his neck that Zach wanted to lick off. "Leonard, you start."

"Well," Leonard drawled, "she reached into her purse, and pulled out these ears..."

He and Chris both erupted in incredulous horror/delight, calming down only in time to hear Leonard calmly continuing, "...said she wasn't on the pill, but she'd heard cross-breeds were sterile, so...."

"Jesus, no," Chris said, sliding deeper into the water until only his wide, damp-lashed eyes were visible, like a hippo in the Nile.

"Didn't you have a better screening process?" Zach asked, amazed. "I mean, I've been Spock for basically a day and I still know better than to go out with anyone like that. With anyone who even knows where to buy Vulcan Ears."

Leonard shrugged. "She was extremely pretty," he said. "Blonde. And clever, too, social skills aside. I'm a sucker for brains. I really don't regret it for a minute."

Chris scooted back upright and blew out water. "So did you wear the ears?"

Leonard only gave them a small, evil smile, and Chris said "You dog, you," and Zach said, "You could not pay me enough money, Len," and Leonard said, "You just haven't met the right blonde," and Zach said, "Introduce me to Shatner?" and Chris laughed so hard he went into a coughing fit and had to be pounded on the back as he wheezed into the concrete.

"Okay, Quinto," Chris said when he had recovered. "Worst date."

"I thought it was top five."

"I'm modifying the rules to fit the allotted time," Chris said, sensibly.

"Fine." Zach mulled it over for a moment. There were almost too many to choose from.

"You're ridiculous," Chris said into the considering silence. His eyes met Zach's briefly and then slid away to Leonard. "Ridiculous. I've never met anybody so hostile about the people he sleeps with."

"Really?" Leonard said, looking at Zach with interest.

"Really," said Chris. His tone was light. "The way he talks about these guys you'd think they had, like, robbed his house, and then it turns out all they did was commit the cardinal sin of finding him sexually attractive."

"It's a classic -- the Groucho Marx hang-up," Leonard said wisely. "Are you reluctant to be part of a club that would have you as a member?"

"That's absurd," Zach said, a little sharper than he meant. "Any club would be lucky to have me. No, I don't dislike these people because I've slept with them, I dislike them because they're idiots."

"There's a disturbing one-to-one correlation, though," Chris said. He eased his elbows up out of the water and rested them on the tiled edge of the Jacuzzi. "Maybe you need to stop sleeping with idiots."

"If I wanted your advice, I'd pay you $250 an hour for it," Zach said.

"My sister's a therapist, so it's basically the same," Chris said, and steepled his fingers under his chin, wrinkling his brow. "Tell me about your dreams, Zacharias. Have you been visited by a masked man playing the trombone? Do you see yourself floating in a vast and milky ocean?"

"No," Zach said. "You lose. What is that accent supposed to be?"

"Germussian?" Leonard suggested.

"I bet I know your worst date," Chris said, abandoning the therapist thing and leaning back again, all languid and superior. "It's either...let's see. The playwright or the pop star."

"Sounds like the Lady and the Tiger," Leonard said.

"It is so much worse than that," Zach said. The playwright had been the first and last blind date he'd ever consented to: a puffy cadaver of a guy, with bugged-out eyes and a clammy handshake. He called himself a playwright even though he had not yet finished a play, and he asked the waiter in his mournful warble if they had a vegetarian foie gras. When Zach, in desperation, had asked what kind of plays he wrote, he'd said "I don't know if tragedies would be, like, a powerful enough word?" and Zach could only stare at him in amazement. He would have left, but he'd never been able to tear himself away from a train wreck.

"So you must have influences," he'd said, cautiously. "You know. Whose work you would, um. Compare yourself to."

"Well, Samuel Beckett," said the playwright, dolefully. "Except I think he was, like, too optimistic."

"Too optimistic," Zach had repeated. "So --" He cleared his throat, wishing desperately that he could put everyone he knew on speakerphone, because no one would believe this when he told them about it. "So instead of 'You can't go on, I must go on, I'll go on,' you think it should be..." He watched the playwright expectantly, but the guy was extremely focused on tearing his bread into tiny pieces.

"You think it should be, 'I can't go on, I can't go on, I can't go on,'" Zach prompted, digging his fingernails into his leg to repress the hysteria.

"That seems more true to life," the playwright had said, staring at his plate.

"Weird you haven't finished that play yet," Zach had said, pinched with the effort of not actually collapsing in shrieks of laughter. "Waiter?"

The pop star, on the other hand, had asked him out so circuitously that Zach almost wasn't sure whether he was angling for a date or a briefcase full of state secrets. When Zach said yes, he'd been presented with a confidentiality contract of such staggering complexity that, even now, Zach was wary even of thinking about the guy by name. (Even though, when it was presented, the guy had added, "It's not just for me, it's for you too, because I think your career is definitely On The Ups," which, just, what?) The pop star had:

1. taken Zach to an empty restaurant where the waiters introduced themselves by letters of the alphabet;

2. eaten maybe three bites, all of which he spit out into a plastic cup held by his bodyguard, who stood between them all night;

3. told Zach -- after Zach made an innocuous joke about his Plan C being stripping -- that he didn't have the "ideal body type" and also that "waxing would be really critical for you, huh?";

4. in the middle of Zach's meal, which was terrible, suddenly grabbed Zach's hand in a death grip and gazed deep into his eyes and begun passionately to sing his latest hit, which seemed maybe to be about Jesus? while Zach, who by this time was certain the whole thing was an elaborate prank by his brother or Kristen or Ashton Kutcher, tried to retrieve his hand so he could stab himself;

5. and then, after holding the last quavering note for an impossibly long and excruciating time, said, sounding bored, "if you wanna suck my dick, we gotta get back to the limo, because my wife's expecting me home," which must have actually worked on someone, once, was the disturbing part.

"I take it you didn't 'wanna,' " Leonard said. He had the best laugh ever.

"Do you see," Zach asked, a little plaintively, "why I'm not exactly yearning for a long-term relationship? These people are clearly kings of Planet The Worst, but the others have not been, like, exponentially better."

"I don't know where you find them, is all," Chris said. "It's like you deliberately ignore anybody halfway normal."

"Normal is boring," Zach said. "It's not that I ignore them, I just don't tell you about them because they're not as funny."

Chris made a disparaging noise and said "So normal is boring, and interesting is...these fucking guys? Talk about your no-win scenarios."

"Who's your worst date?" Zach asked. "The girl who turned out to be your cousin, or the one who texted Defamer from your bathroom, or..."

"Hey now," said Chris. "LizBaby84 was a nice girl, and that was one of my most glowing reviews. Anyway, I don't believe in worst dates. Just best stories."

"You can't ask a question you won't answer," Zach protested.

"Where have you been? I do that all the time," said Chris.

 

 

*

Later he said, sounding genuinely regretful, "All right, gentlemen, I've got call at some point, so I should probably -- "

"I'll get you a cab," Leonard said, wrapping a towel around his shoulders and heading in to the front desk.

"You were good tonight," Zach said, when he'd gone. "Like, actually really good."

Chris smiled with half his mouth. "Thanks," he said. He hoisted himself out of the water.

"I wanna see your Oberon," Zach said. He watched the sinews in Chris's calves flex as he stooped to pick up his clothes.

"So stay another night," Chris suggested. "It's worth it. When you see this body paint they've got me in, you will actually never stop making fun of me. And then when you see the body paint they've got Titania in, you will never stop being jealous of me. Or you would if you understood the magic of boobs."

"First of all, I contest your assertion. I love boobs. Who doesn't? They're fascinating," Zach said, because it was true. "But secondly, I've got to go back," which was less true. "I've got stuff. In Pittsburgh."

"Oh, please, no you don't," Chris said. He bent to hitch his jeans on, then fixed Zach with a deeply soulful expression. "One more night, give me one more night..."

"No Phil Collins," Zach said, putting a hand on Chris's bare foot and frowning up at him. "My heart can't take it. That's cheating." The water threw strange shimmering vines of light over Chris's pale skin, giving him an unearthly look already: a Fairy King in half-buttoned jeans, with eyes like ghost lights.

"Come on," Chris said, scrubbing a hand through his hair and ruining the effect. "Stay. I'm in a dorm room; we could make it work. I'll get you Elijah Woods's autograph." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"No," Zach said. "I have to go."

"Tarry, rash wanton," Chris said. "Am not I thy lord?"

"Then I must be thy lady," Zach said, "but you're kind of a hoebag, and I'm not sure it's gonna work in the long run." He let go of Chris's foot. "Paraphrase."

"These are the forgeries of jealousy," Chris said, crouching next to him. His knuckles brushed Zach's wet shoulder: it was an accident.

"Not your line," Zach said.

"You seriously know too much for your own good," Chris told him.

"It's your lucky night, Christopher," Leonard called from the door. "They've got a cab already."

Chris coughed and stood. "Well, I – thanks for coming," he said. "Thank you, really, thank you so much. It was awesome to see you guys. Let me know if you stay."

"Goodnight, my boy," Leonard said, hugging him. "Great work tonight. I'm proud to know you."

"Thank you, man," Chris said again, "that's really, just, a huge honor," a fervent edge in his voice. He crouched quickly back down and held out his hand, palm up. Zach slapped it.

Chris said, "Exactly." Then he stood again, tugged his shirt on, said, "Fare thee well, nymphs," picked up his sneakers, and jogged barefoot into the blue summer night.

 

*

On the plane Chris is in top form, bestowing a smile on the flight attendant that makes her blush and fumble his ginger ale, demanding that Zach read aloud to him from the Skymall catalog, making faces at Zoe across the aisle and tying Karl's shoelaces to his chair. For the last hour he dozes, or at least puts on his sunglasses and slumps down in his seat, one long thigh pressed close to Zach's and his shoulder warm against Zach's arm.

And for whatever inexplicable reason Zach is unbearably on edge, strangled with panicky dread. Like he's made a mistake he can't take back, like he's left the stove on or given away his hand: like he's already lost something and just hasn't figured out what it is yet.

Chris sighs, nudges his knee up against Zach's. The book on his lap is Carver's Collected Stories. Half the pages are dogeared.

Why can't he just give Zach a break, for once? Why does he have to make everything so fucking difficult all the time?

 

*

Okay, so, fine. So they text a lot. So Chris is best friends with Zach's dog. So Zach knows what Chris's karaoke songs are -- "Once In A Lifetime," "Thunder Road," or "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," depending -- and his favorite books (numerous), and the people who have broken his heart (numerous), and his lucky t-shirt (singular). So Chris knows how Zach likes his eggs and where his othertattoo is and the time he almost died in an accident on the Jersey Turnpike.

So okay, maybe they are pretty close, even in real life. Too close to have been doing this stupid tango for, what, at least two years? More than two years. More than three.

Fine. So what? Does that admission make anything easier, for anybody? It does not.

The "Fasten Seatbelt" light dings off. Chris makes a little mmph noise, stretches out sleepily, shirt riding up over his hips, and smooshes the heel of his palm into Zach's face, not by accident. "Oops."

"Off," Zach says, delicately entrapping Chris's wrist and holding it away from him. "Bad dog."

"I've got these long dancer's limbs," Chris says pathetically. "I can't help it." He digs his sneaker heel into the back of Zach's ankle. "Ahh. Better."

"You're cruising for a wedgie," Zach says. That strange panic is still riding high and tight in his chest: talking helps him ignore it.

"Promises, promises," Chris says, tugging his shirt back down. "Is it burger time yet?" He pushes down on Zach's thigh to stand up, grunting and flailing, making a whole production.

"Don't touch me," Zach says. "God, you're irritating."

"I'll touch you whenever I want," Chris says. "And howsoever."

Somebody has to do something about it! Somebody! It cannot go on. If only some sensible normal person, like Cho or Zoe, could just take them by the shoulders and push them together like action figures and just get it over with: wouldn't that be better?

 

*

When he gets home he throws his suitcases on the bed while Noah gambols frantically around his ankles, barking and wagging his entire butt and getting so worked up he actually falls over, until Zach finally kneels down and submits to a minute of rapturous licking. "Okay," he mutters, "okay okay. Hi. Hiiii. Yes, baby, I'm glad to see you too. Ack, not in my mouth – who trained you – okay, enough. Good boy," and pushes his damp muzzle away and kisses his weird little ears.

It's hard not to feel better after that – because you can't be as bad a person as you think you are if someone loves you that much, maybe. Which possibly explains why he picks up the phone and calls Ethan, one of the guys he was seeing before he left for Vancouver, the one he knows the most about. Ethan is sort of funny-looking and kind: he holds doors for people: he calls shopkeepers Sir and Ma'am. He likes Scorsese movies and calls his mom daily. He has an inner life, which Zach has, up to now, made a point of ignoring.

"What's up?" Ethan says after just two rings. He sounds breathless, like he's been working out. Probably he has. Ethan works out a lot. "You back? I'm in the middle of something, but I could make it over later."

"Nothing. What? No," Zach says, suddenly frozen. Why did he make this call? What was he thinking? "No, I'm busy tonight, so. I just wanted to ask, uh, how you're doing. Are you doing okay?"

"What, like, today?"

"Sure," Zach says, hating himself. "Today. Like, what did you do. I sat on a plane, for example. It was boring."

A brief pause, and then Ethan says, "Can I call you back in like an hour?"

"Sure, of course," Zach says. He digs the heel of his hand into his eye socket. Of course, yes, this is why he doesn't do this, because he is the worst at it, and anyway how are you supposed to be normal when this kind of bullshit is what you get for trying? "I just, actually, this is really weird, but I just wanted to apologize if I've ever been, I don't know. A dick to you."

"Not to my face," Ethan says, with his short, cheerful laugh. "But listen, Zach, I gotta go, but if you're having some kind of come-to-Jesus moment, you can cut it out. You are a dick. Whatever. It's part of your charm. I'll call you later."

Part of your charm. Oh, is it? Is that what it is?

 

*

On the upside, the burgers are great. And admittedly it's good to see Eric again. Zoe brings her current quasi-boyfriend, who is so unfairly good-looking it's hard to focus on anything he says. He's dark and green-eyed and smoldering and looks like his name should be Tristan or Ferdinand instead of what it is, which is Greg.

"Greg's in I.T.," Zoe says smugly, holding onto his arm.

"Systems analysis really," says Greg, in a voice like red wine. "But I just moved out here and my job doesn't start til December, so I was doing some part-time work with the Geek Squad."

"He defragmented my hard drive," Zoe says, somehow maintaining a straight face.

"I am certain that he did," Chris says blandly, and Greg gets rather becomingly embarrassed and excuses himself.

"Damn, girl," Zach says when he's gone. "Geek Squad, really?"

"Seriously, Zo, I had no idea your life was secretly a porn," Chris says.

"Then you obviously don't know me as well as you think," Zoe says, demurely, and Chris chokes on his beer, recovers, and clinks his glass to hers.

Eric says happily, "All right. So Zoe has the Resplendent Greg—"

"—but has not yet given up the Perfectly Adequate Connor," Zoe adds, folding her hands primly on the table.

"Nor even the Useless Bradley," Zach points out.

"He makes cheesecake from scratch!" Zoe says, like that explains everything. "But, yes, Greg is my favorite."

"Excellent," Eric says. He points to the next at the table. "Anton has –"

"I don't want to talk about it," says Anton, draining his beer.

"Anton has no one," Cho supplies.

"You only get to have sex with one person ever again until you die," Anton retorts. "Don't patronize me."

"Okay, so Anton has either no one, or a very contentious and complicated young-people relationship that would irk the shit out of the rest of us. You're married and boring, I'm married and boring, Simon's married and boring, Karl's married and fascinating--"

"Correct," says Karl with immense self-satisfaction.

"Pine—"

"Various Artists," Chris says. Under the table his knee keeps bumping against Zach's as he moves.

"Chris is a hooker," Eric summarizes. "And Quinto—"

"—Has some harem of perfectly decent guys he's going to tell awful but hilarious stories about?" Zoe says, raising an eyebrow at him.

"Is banging four twinks he doesn't like, and they all think he's their super-special boyfriend," says Anton – a person who, until he stops looking twelve, shouldn't even be allowed to know the word 'twink.'

"Actually got laid while he was in the bathroom earlier," Simon suggests. "Already has something cruel to say about the guy's taste in literature."

"Is that the person I am, really?" Zach demands, a little hurt even though he's laughing.

At least four people say at once, "Yes." Zoe, surprisingly, isn't one of them, and Chris might not be one either; his face is hidden in his glass.

"Quinto Mad Libs," Cho says. "My date was: mean adjective, meaner adjective, devastating five-syllable mean adjective."

"All right, all right," Zach says.

"So, what's the matter with this crew of losers?" Karl asks. "Too young, too old, too good-looking, chew too loudly, don't know what 'indefatigable' means--"

"I am taking a break from hating everybody I sleep with," Zach says. "It's tiring."

"And are you enjoying having no sex at all?" Eric says, to general laughter.

"I am not enjoying it, no," Zach says. "Which is no change from the status quo of my sex life, apparently."

Zoe says, "You can still hate the people I sleep with, if it makes you feel better." Her eyes when she looks at Zach are startlingly compassionate.

"The kind of 'hate them' where I seduce them away from you and make them feed me grapes in a loincloth all day?" Zach asks, conveniently just as Greg reappears from the bathroom.

"Oh, good, hi," Eric says. "We were just talking about whether you'd be susceptible to Zach's manly wiles."

"Um," Greg says. "No thank you?"

"Be cool," Zach says. "It's a compliment. I have fantastic taste. Anyway, I'm temporarily celibate, so your virtue is safe."

"Plus I'll totally beat him up if he tries anything," Zoe says. Greg laughs and kisses her behind the ear, where her hair is pinned up.

"Your taste is terrible, actually," Chris says, so softly only Zach can hear. "If somebody kept going to the same awful restaurant and ordering the same shitty food, and then complaining about it, you wouldn't say he had good taste."

"Flawed analogy," Zach says. "For a number of reasons not worth enumerating. Anyway, I just said I was working on it."

"Hm," Chris says. He scratches absently at the stubble under his jaw. Behind the thick glasses his expression is unreadable.

 

*

They end up at some party one of Zoe's friends is having: either a housewarming or a birthday, Zach isn't sure which. In fact he isn't sure why he's there at all. Chris peels off from the group when he finds the most beautiful girl there, or she finds him: a willowy brunette, inhumanly long golden legs under a fashionably unattractive little dress. He hears her say something about hockey, maybe. Whatever it is Chris laughs, his loud public laugh, eyes crinkling at the corners.

The apartment is nice in a you-wish-this-were-Brooklyn kind of way, and the people are fine, it's all fine, but everyone's happy chatter is unbearable. All Zach wants to do is go home and go to bed early. Maybe wake up by six, hour of yoga, go running, make an egg-white omelet. He finds a quiet hallway upstairs, takes out his phone and googles nearby taxi companies.

He doesn't realize he's not alone until someone says, "Hey."

It's Chris, holding two open Heinekens by the neck. He passes one to Zach and leans nonchalantly against the wall.

"Somehow I sensed I should get two and come up here," Chris says.

"You could sense that I needed a beer," Zach says.

"It's like the Bat Signal," Chris agrees. "Crazy. Do you have a sec?"

"Obviously I'm really busy avoiding everyone," Zach says, pocketing his phone. "That takes a lot of energy. What's up?"

"Uh." Chris laughs, sort of helplessly. "Well, it's – okay, two things, actually. Since when don't you hate the people you sleep with?"

"I mean," Zach says. "I'm trying not to. It's a work in progress. Mostly I still hate them except now I feel guilty about it."

"So that's working out well."

"I think," Zach says carefully, "hating them is my thing, and I've been blaming it on them for being – whatever. But they're just people. Or," reconsidering, "except the playwright, obviously. But mostly they're just people. I'm the one who – well, you know. Obviously there are still oceans of therapy to swim through on this one, so don't ask me anything else about it ever again, how about that."

"Fine," Chris says. "I'll wait til you do your worksheets. The other thing," and Zach wonders as if from a distance how this is going to go, and then Chris grins, that sudden sharp dangerous smile. "I found your prose."

A rush of relief – it almost feels like disappointment – almost knocks Zach over. "You're talking about the Carver? Jesus Christ, Pine, it's been like a day and a half; that was the least dedicated wait-out I've ever –"

"Got sick of waiting," says Chris. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out the battered copy of Collected Stories –of course he's been carrying it around, like a psycho – and starts to flip forward. "I really need to see your face when I prove to you how totally fucking wrong you are about everything."

Something in his tone makes Zach flush hot again, with shame or stupidity or who knows, and suddenly he doesn't care who wins: he just wants to stop feeling like he was put together wrong. He pushes the book down, but gently. His fingers are so close to Chris's it feels like they're burning. "Listen. I'm being a grownup, for two seconds, so – about the other night. The, uh --" he glances up at the ceiling, like there's something up there that could fix everything, like there's any way to fix everything that is wrong in his brain or his heart or wherever, "the Gay Chicken."

Chris refolds his page, sticks the book back in his pocket and lifts an eyebrow infuriatingly.

"I," Zach says. Maybe he could just bash Chris on the head with a beer bottle and throw himself out the window. Maybe comets will fall in the next six seconds and destroy the planet. That would solve a lot of problems. "It was, uh. It was a dick move. I was trying to get a rise out of you. Not in the sexy way. Well, also in the sexy way, but mostly I was just trying to, um. Well. I don't know, really. I was getting sick of your -- high school drama club bullshit, you know. Flirt with the gay guy to show you're so cool and secure. Because it's so validating to make someone obsessed with you."

"Is it?" Chris says, raising both eyebrows now. "You're a mess, dude, are you aware? Sexually. Emotionally. You need therapists for your therapists."

"I know that," Zach snaps. "Do you think I don't...Jesus. Okay, well, I just wanted to apologize, or not apologize but clarify, because I think this whole thing is fucking idiotic, and maybe if we could talk about it like adults it would stop bothering me all the time. So here I am, talking about it, like an adult." He takes a deep, frustrated breath. "Admittedly an adult who keeps a diary with unicorns on it and only speaks English as a fifth language."

"All the time?" Chris echoes. His expression doesn't change.

"Literally," Zach says, trying to smile. "So. Now you know."

"I know not one goddamn thing," Chris corrects him. "I mean, I can surmise. And I think you think you were just really emotionally honest, but actually you just made a lot of gestures. Don't get me wrong, though, that's a big step for you." That nasty frat-boy smirk is curling up one side of his mouth.

"Fuck off," Zach says, actually hating him for a second. "Honest to God, you're the worst person I've ever met. I cannot believe I just completely, like, bared my soul to you, and your response is to make the smuggest face on the planet. I hope you get maimed, seriously."

"I'm still not totally clear on your meaning," Chris says, ignoring him, "but it seems like you're saying you have a giant embarrassing crush on me." He puts down his beer with a decisive clunk.

Oh, God, this is going to be how it goes, isn't it? They're going to be totally honest, only not really, in this tone like they're joking even though they're probably not, and it's going to be just like every other stupid day. It's too much work, the whole thing is too much work. Zach gives up. He says, "Well, there you go. That's it. I'm obsessed with you. Can't explain it. I'm getting your initials tattooed on my ass."

"Ahh," Chris says, a long exhalation.

"You seem really invested in this," Zach says, almost despairingly. "Like, the kind of invested you would only be if you totally like-liked me. Are you gonna get your friends to pass my friends a note?"

Only then Chris moves into Zach's very personal space and says, "That seems a little circuitous, huh?" He takes the beer out of Zach's unresisting grasp and sets it next to his own. "It is ridiculous how complicated – you're seriously impossible. I can't believe you ever get laid."

Zach says, stupidly, "Come on. Don't --"

"What do you want," Chris says, with some irritation, "an affidavit, in triplicate? I like you, asshole. You've known that for years."

In Zach's experience, getting what you want never ends well.

But he touches Chris's hip anyway, as an experiment. The muscles of Chris's stomach tremble under his fingertips. It's an avalanche, a tidal wave. He almost gasps.

"I guessed," he says instead, "that you like me."

He trails his fingers under the hem of Chris's shirt. Chris's body is an anchor. Under Zach's hand he is warm and solid and completely real. And Zach's mouth is just going, without any input from him: "You like a lot of things. Twizzlers. Clogs. Crank, and also the sequel to Crank. Phil Collins. Your taste is questionable."

"Listen, dumbass," Chris says. He tongues his lower lip. "There are a lot of things I will do to gratify your black hole of an ego, but sitting here listing everything I like you more than – that is just not gonna be one of them. I know you're incapable of admitting that you have actual human feelings, so, fine."

He clears his throat and meets Zach's eyes squarely, and it's that familiar look of amused affection, but with something else that Zach's never seen there before: something almost anxious. "The difference is I haven't been waiting two idiot years for Phil Collins to get over his issues and fuck me, all right, you giant man-baby, is that what you want to hear--"

Zach slams them up against the doorframe so hard he almost bites through his own tongue. He runs one hand up over Chris's ribcage, gets the other hand into Chris's hair and a knee between Chris's thighs and kisses the breath out of him, with his eyes wide open. Chris doesn't close his eyes either. He twists up the collar of Zach's shirt in one hand and jerks him in even closer. He's getting hard already and the inside of his mouth is hot and slick and bitter.

Zach palms his cheekbone, the strong line of his jaw, the corner of that lush mouth. He rests a thumb experimentally against Chris's Adam's apple, barely pressing, and Chris's breath catches: then he smiles into Zach's mouth, his teeth slick against Zach's tongue. Zach pulls back, because Chris's smile is so sweet he can't stand not to see it.

"How's that for feelings," he says. He can't come up with anything better.

" 'I would rather have sex with you than with Phil Collins,' " Chris says a little breathlessly. His eyes are impossible. "I did not realize that was gonna be my best pickup line ever."

"Well -- strong words." Zach fumbles for Chris's belt and unbuckles him, the jangle of metal so hurried and good. These can't be Chris's hands pulling his shirt up, Chris's wild heartbeat, Chris's hips canted to him, Chris's dick – God! If Zach can't get everybody naked in the next ten seconds, he's going to tear this fucking house apart. He licks his hand.

"Don't make me regret them," Chris agrees, and then "—aahh! fffuck—"

"What?" Zach says, innocently. He leaves his hand exactly where it is, stroking steadily.

"somewhere—oh, Jesus! somewhere with a door, not ten feet away from, shit--, everyone, would be—ah, Zach, been waiting forever --"

"Okay, Princess," Zach hears himself say. He's right on the edge, and if he stops talking he's going to lose it: either start laughing insanely, or fall the fuck apart or just, fucking, what, burst into tears. "Control yourself."

"Control my—" Chris repeats incredulously, his voice almost breaking. "I'm gonna dickslap you—"

"Maybe later," Zach says, basically at random. He rolls his palm over Chris and Chris sucks in a sharp breath and shivers and grabs his wrist, and his touch is burning hot, and oh God Zach's heart is a freight train and where the fuck is anything, a bathroom, a broom closet, whatever – he gets a grip on Chris's unbuttoned jeans and backs him bodily down the hall to the left where he's pretty sure he saw, yes, a bathroom and he pushes them inside, slams the door and spins Chris roughly into the wall. He kisses the nape of Chris's neck, scrapes his teeth over the knobs of vertebrae above his collar, pushes himself hot and insistent against Chris's ass, and Chris makes a small dark sound of pleasure and turns back around to him.

"I don't wanna fuck you in Zoe's stupid friend's stupid bathroom," he says into Zach's mouth. He gets his hands under Zach's shirt, tracking lines of heat against Zach's shoulders and his back, and Zach can feel that stupid cocky smile curved against his own lips. "And don't give me shit about the semantics and who's fucking whom, meaningless gendered bullshit anyway–"

"You are a talker," Zach says, trying to finish unbuttoning his shirt without taking his hands off Chris for an instant. "Jesus H. Christ. 'Semantics?' I don't usually gag a guy on the first date, but – "

"This is hardly the first date, Zachary," Chris says. "So much for your celibacy, though, huh?" He rounds his shoulders to yank his t-shirt over his head, emerging with his hair rumpled and absurd.

Zach is suddenly defeated by an unfamiliar, dumb, almost painful tenderness. He wants to kiss Chris's eyelids, his temples, the naked junction of his neck and shoulder. He presses his mouth against the rough skin at Chris's jaw instead, and Chris's breath jumps. His hands are busy at Zach's fly.

"These are the worst pants," he's saying. "Where do you buy this hideous crap? I'm going to burn them later."

"Whatever you want, baby," Zach tells him, "whatever you want, absolutely," and he's laughing even though he means it. He rucks Chris's jeans down and takes him in hand again and Chris jolts and swears, then gets Zach's last button undone and spits into his palm and as Chris's fingers close around him Zach shuts his eyes. Lets himself breathe, hard and hot into Chris's neck, and then he's just: here, in this. There's nothing but sweat and skin and the harsh rasp of breath, Chris's body and oh, God, the searing rhythm of Chris's touch building that throbbing burn in him. They rock back against the sink and Chris accidentally bumps the faucet on and yelps in surprise, thunking his wet hand against Zach's jaw. Zach ignores it. He slides his tongue deeper into Chris's mouth and curls his fist around Chris's length. Chris's head falls back: he makes a small, helpless sound that hurtles down an incandescent current through Zach's body, right to the center of him.

He says quietly "fuck, baby. I love this. I love how bad you want it." He smoothes one thumb over Chris's wet lower lip, almost gasping at the heat of it, and pushes his mouth up against Chris's ear and says harshly, like a threat or a promise, "Don't ever shut that mouth unless I shut it for you--"

Chris comes hard, with a bark that gusts past Zach's ear. His grip goes slack. Zach grinds his hips against him and reaches down to jerk himself, lost in Chris's face, his flushed cheeks and swollen mouth: his dark half-dazed eyes. It's different than he imagined. It's better. He gives himself over and stars are bursting behind his eyelids and then the roar wrenches him forward and he bites down on Chris's shoulder and sees white.

He realizes he's got his fingers tangled so tightly in Chris's hair, up against the skull, that he's twisting Chris's head back a little. The aftershocks spark down his synapses, further and further apart, like a dying echo. He loosens his grip. Chris is laughing again, wobbly. He gets his mouth to Zach's: it's not even a kiss, just a close exhausted press, the two of them breathing raggedly into each other's mouths. Zach can hear, as from a very great distance, loud happy voices and the thump of music. The party, going on without them.

After a long time Chris says, "Okay." His voice in the half-darkness is dazed and smug and a little shaky still. "So we're, uh, on the same page about that."

"Shut up," Zach says. He's out of breath, words, excuses, everything. He slaps a hand over Chris's mouth and Chris licks his fingers. "Just. Shh. You ruin everything."

"Mmf mmmh-mm," Chris says. Zach removes his hand and gives him a killing look.

Chris says, "You were very specific about not shutting up, before." The tiny smile curling his swollen mouth turns Zach's body to water.

"I said a lot of things," Zach says, trying to keep up. He kisses Chris's mouth, briefly, to check: it's still real. "Who can keep track?"

"You call somebody a moron and an asshole and a 'giant man-baby,' " Chris continues, as if recording an interesting note for posterity. "They don't usually wanna touch your penis after that."

"I don't play by the rules," Zach says. He can't get enough of Chris's skin under his hands.

"Apparently not," Chris says. "I like that about you." He bites Zach's lower lip. "So – wanna cuddle in the sink?"

"I want," Zach says, tasting the velvet of Chris's ear, "to get you into my bed, get you naked and do criminal things to your body. And then I want to order a pizza."

"Taxi!" Chris yells, out the window.

 

*

As Zach tumbles them into his cool soft bed Chris is breathless and laughing, "You neurotic dumbass, could've been doing this for months –" but he changes his tune pretty fast when Zach pins his hips to the mattress and mouths a kiss against his cock –

and later in the pull and heat when Zach breathes wonderingly into Chris's neck, "I like fucking you – ah, God—" beneath him Chris shudders and makes a dizzy, astonished sound.

 

*

Chris comes out of the bathroom, toweling off his hair. "I will tell you something," he says, shaking water out of one ear, "your way is messy."

"I'm sorry if the cleanup portion of the gay agenda is cutting into your cuddle time, bitch," Zach says. "You wanna be big spoon, or what?" and Chris grins at him and crawls back into the sheets, all damp warm skin and clean smell, and those eyes that are like lightning/morning/summer/sea, whatever, a thousand shitty, embarrassing similes.

Chris says roughly into Zach's mouth "I want to be all the spoons," and Zach says, palming the side of his face, amazed, "whatever the fuck that means, honey, you got it."

The pizza has spinach and peppers and fresh basil and whatever other nonsense Chris insisted on. They eat it sprawled naked across Zach's sheets and watch infomercials and later Chris says "O-kay then" in a businesslike way and clicks off the TV and rolls Zach over and then over again, and Zach pins Chris between his elbows and just looks at him for a minute, helplessly. Then Chris kisses him and his mouth tastes like chewed tomato sauce, gross, and Zach knows probably he's been this happy before but, anyway, he can't imagine when.

 

*

The first thing he's aware of is Chris.

"Hey," Chris says. "I couldn't find any cereal." He's in his boxers and nothing else, all pale skin and long, gorgeous muscle, and he's got that god damn Carver paperback in one hand, thumb already marking a point halfway through. He looks made of sunlight. For an overwhelming instant Zach wants to run.

But then something closes in Chris's face -- a quick, perceptive wariness -- and the urge drains out of him as quickly as it came. In its wake is an unfamiliar silence.

"You have to stop watching me while I sleep," he says eventually, instead of whatever else. He rolls over to see Chris better. "It's a creepy habit of yours. Why are you over there?"

"Where should I be?" Chris says.

Zach can forgive him for that, though. God knows he owes a little forgiveness. "Don't be a pain," he says, unfolding one arm. "Come here."

"Who knew you were this needy," Chris says, but he clambers into the bed anyway, jouncing the mattress. His forearms are hard with sinew and his tongue tastes sweetly of toothpaste. The paperback digs into Zach's shoulder, but it's okay. Everything is okay, actually. Everything is amazing.

"By the way," Chris murmurs, "you wanna hear the Carver, or what." He gets his arm out from behind Zach's shoulder and taps him on the face with the book, like an asshole. "I want you to hear it. And then, you know, rend your garments and pray for forgiveness for not appreciating it."

It's just a book. Chris is almost naked and lazily half-hard and there are other, better things to do.

Maybe. There are, anyway, the things Zach knows.

He says, "Well, are you prepared to totally lose? That's what's going to happen. You're going to lose the magic and then lose this game."

"We'll see," Chris says. He rolls over, and Zach lets out a quick involuntary breath, feeling lost without the weight of him. Then Chris settles his back up against the head of the bed, so one long thigh presses warm against Zach's shoulder. Zach gets a grip on his ankle and the muscles there jump at the touch.

"Let the record show," Chris says, sounding completely unfazed, which is not fair, "that this entire story is a passage that sings, so. Buckled up? Need a synopsis?"

"Blah blah," says Zach, waving a hand. "Emotionally constipated narrator, wife's blind friend barges in, guy tries to describe a cathedral to him. I am actually like twelve times more literate than you are."

"If it makes you feel better," says Chris, grinning at him, and Zach is suddenly grateful that he isn't blind, because Chris is a pleasure to look at, especially when he smiles, especially in the sunlight. He clears his throat – and then stops. He gives Zach a strange, intent look.

"I know," Zach tells him. He rests two fingers on Chris's wrist, on the lucent skin where his pulse runs.

The funny thing is Chris nods, that lovely corner of his mouth pulling into a half-smile. "Okay," he says, and clears his throat again.

" 'Close your eyes now,' the blind man said to me." He has that low hoarse softness in his voice, that morning rasp. "I did it. I closed them just like he said.

" 'Are they closed?' he said. 'Don't fudge.'

" 'They're closed,' I said.

" 'Keep them that way,' he said. He said, 'Don't stop now. Draw.' "

Chris coughs and glances sideways at him. Zach doesn't say anything.

"So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.

"Then he said, 'I think that's it. I think you got it,' he said. 'Take a look. What do you think?'

"But I had my eyes closed. I thought I'd keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do."

Zach realizes that Chris isn't looking at the open book before him. His half-lidded eyes are on something out the window: he knows the passage by heart.

" 'Well?" he said. 'Are you looking?'

"My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn't feel like I was inside anything.

" 'It's really something,' I said."

Zach can hear everything now: the tick of the air conditioning, Noah's quiet breathing in the corner, laughter from the sidewalk outside. He feels strange, dizzy almost, and he can't take his eyes off Chris. Who shuts the book in one hand and grins down at him.

"The End," he says. "Wipe your tears; Carver will do that to you. Did you get owned, or did you get super-owned?"

The sound of his own laugh is surprising and wonderful: it's unlike anything he's heard himself do in what feels like years. "Owned," Zach admits. He feels emptied out, weightless. He pushes up on one elbow and presses a kiss to Chris's shoulder, strokes the line of his throat. He says, "You win," and he means it, if it means anything.