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Fearfully and Wonderfully

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Zach paces back and forth in front of the apartment building, wishing he had been a little more fashionably late. He has the code for the gate, and Patrick told him he could go right up and someone would let him in, but, pathetic as it is, he doesn’t want to go alone. The recurring gauntlet of auditions should by now have cured him of any fear of walking into a room full of strangers, but this is different. This is a group of guys who are his peers, guys he wants to befriend, and all his life he has been little more than chum in the water in situations like these. They might be nice, but they might also smell his fear and rip him to shreds. And in this town, truly nice people are few and far between, so the latter option seems much more likely.

Patrick seems like one of the good ones though, so that’s a hopeful sign. Zach met him at a theater festival about a month back, where they were cast in the same play. They gravitated toward each other pretty much from the start, realizing they were of a similar mind and at similar places in their careers—which was to say, their careers weren’t going much of anywhere at all. One night, after rehearsals were over for the day, they were hanging out in the courtyard outside the dormitories where all the actors were staying, passing a cigarette back and forth because they were too cheap to light a second one, talking about what plans they had next and bitching about life. Patrick mentioned that he and a few friends had come together in an informal acting support group, and he asked Zach if he wanted to join them. Zach practically fell over himself in his rush to agree.

Now, he wonders if it was such a good idea after all. He and Patrick bonded over the fast pace of putting on a play at a festival, and over dissatisfaction with their careers, but it isn’t every day that Zach clicks with someone so easily. This group only has four guys in it, so if Zach doesn’t get along with everyone, it’ll be painful, awkward. Patrick insists that everyone’s cool, but what does that mean? Cool for Patrick doesn’t mean cool for Zach. Patrick is young, handsome, personable. Zach is lanky, awkward, deeply unsure of himself—by all measures much harder to like. There’s a non-zero chance that the night will end in humiliation.

He actually gets his phone out of his pocket with the intent of telling Patrick he’s changed his mind, but before he has a chance to type out a message, Patrick himself appears, half-jogging toward Zach once he spots him from the corner. “Hey,” he says once he reaches Zach’s side, a little out of breath. “Sorry I’m late. Why didn’t you go up?”

“I, uh.” Zach should say something. He should back out now. But it’s harder to do to Patrick’s face, knowing he’ll probably find himself on the receiving end of a reasonable argument he can’t say no to. “I just thought it’d be weird if I showed up the first time without you.”

“Nah, man.” Patrick claps him on the shoulder, then steps around him to punch in the gate code. If he notices Zach’s clear discomfort, he’s ignoring it. “They’re expecting you. They would have welcomed you with open arms.”

Zach finds that very hard to believe, but he follows Patrick through the gate and into the building anyway. It’s too late to turn back now. One flight of stairs, one short hallway, and the door to the apartment appears in front of them, marred with scuff marks and chips in the off-white paint. This isn’t a classy building, but it shouldn’t have to be. Not for their purposes. Still, Zach’s discomfort increases.

As he opens the door, Patrick turns around and puts his finger to his lips. “It’s monologue day,” he whispers, so quiet Zach only barely makes out the words. “Looks like it’s Chris’s turn.” Zach recognizes it, then—the expectant hush in the room. Any actor would recognize it. It’s the silent, electric hum that happens before a scene begins.

A man—Chris, presumably—is standing in the light of a single floor lamp. Blackout curtains have been drawn across the one window at the far end of the room. Two more men are sitting on a sagging couch facing him, and they don’t even glance over when Zach and Patrick move closer—nor do they make any effort to clear off the space next to them, which is littered with scripts and books and sheets of paper. Zach opts for leaning against the wall. Patrick comes to a stop beside him.

Chris begins: “You know why I had no address for three months?”

Zach knows it at once, could recite it by heart. Death of a Salesman. Biff’s fight with Willy. It’s a good choice, a dramatic choice. Needs some serious acting chops not to veer into melodrama.

“I stole a suit in Kansas City and I was jailed. I stole myself out of every good job since high school.”

The guy certainly looks the part, Zach thinks. Clean cut, thin but fit, dark blond hair and eyes blue enough that Zach can see their color even in the low light. He could have been captain of the football team in high school—although, based on stereotype alone, it seems unlikely that he’d be standing on a stage marked off with duct tape in the middle of a run-down apartment reciting Death of a Salesman if that was the case. Still, he’s…well, he has a face that should make it easy to get work in this town.

And if the face doesn’t do it, fuck if his acting chops won’t do the trick. Soon Zach can’t even think about how pretty Chris is, because he’s too captivated by his performance. Between high school and college and community theater, Zach must have seen this scene acted out at least thirty different times, by thirty different people, but he’s never seen it like this, never gotten lost in it like this. Chris starts out defiant, chin jutted into the air. When he talks about looking at the sky and wanting a place to sit and smoke, his voice tinges with longing and regret. And by the time he gets to, “I’m one dollar an hour, Willy!” he’s yelling, red-faced with tears shining in his eyes and hands trembling as they slice through the air. His presence fills the whole room. Zach has a lump in his throat, and he realizes he’s covering his mouth with his hand.

“Pop, I’m nothing! I’m nothing, Pop!”

Zach’s hand falls to his chest where his fingers knead anxiously at his sternum. Next to him, Patrick makes a small, awed sound, and Zach has to choke down the urge to snap at him to hush, annoyed at being pulled out of the scene even for a moment.

“Will you let me go, for Christ’s sake?” Chris is crying in earnest now, his voice broken with half-swallowed sobs. “Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?”

A hush descends, and Zach wills everyone not to move, not to breathe lest they shatter the moment. He wants to let this stretch out as long as he can, so they all have the time to appreciate what they just witnessed. Because once they turn on the lights and pull back the curtains, the real world is going to rush in and wash all the magic away. Zach never wants to move, wants to stand there forever and watch Chris stand there, haloed in lamplight, his chest heaving from all he put into that scene.

“Jesus, Chris.” It’s one of the men from the couch who says it—and like some switch has been flipped, Chris’s shoulders slump and his mouth splits into a wide grin that crinkles the corners of his eyes.

“That wasn’t bad, right?” Chris asks, swiping at his wet cheeks with the back of his hand as he walks to the opposite wall to slap at a light switch. A bank of lights comes on in the kitchenette near the door.

“Not bad?” Patrick says incredulously. “Give me a break. I’m not going to follow that, by the way.”

“I say no one should follow it,” says the other guy on the couch. Then he stands up and raises a hand to Zach in greeting. “Zach, right? I’m Babar.”

Zach nods and forces a smile, then shifts his gaze to the last guy who, by process of elimination, must be Reid. “Welcome, Zach,” Reid says, grinning. “Please don’t be scared off by that stunning performance. Chris isn’t normally that intimidatingly good.”

“Hey!” Chris protests. He’s started back across the room to where Zach and Patrick are standing, and suddenly Zach has the urge to run.

“Reid’s just being honest,” Patrick says, pushing off the wall to clap Chris on the shoulder when he comes to a stop in front of them. “Do we need to put on your Princess movie to prove it?”

Chris winces. “Please, no. Also, let’s see you maintain a phony English accent for a whole movie, huh?” Before Patrick can respond, Chris turns his attention on Zach and holds out his hand. “Hey! Welcome! I’m Chris.”

Zach wishes he could fold himself up accordion-style or phase through the wall. His face must showing every bit of the awe he feels. “Uh, hi,” he stammers. He realizes belatedly that his own eyes are wet. How mortifying. Maybe it would be best if he dropped dead on the spot, instead of just disappearing. And as if the visible tears aren’t bad enough, he makes the mistake of swiping hastily at his eyes right before he is forced to extend the same hand to shake Chris’s. Great. Smooth. Good job, Zach. “That was…I mean, you were…”

“Thanks, man,” Chris says, saving him from having to finish that sentence. If he notices how damp Zach’s hand is—with tears and nervous sweat—it doesn’t show on his face. “Seriously though, these guys are right. That was just a fluke. Sometimes the stars align, you know?” He waves his free hand toward the ceiling, as if they could all see the stars shining down at them. His other hand is still clutching Zach’s, his grip firm, his hand warm and dry and…distressingly large.

“Right. Stars,” Zach says eloquently. “I mean, yeah. I guess.”

Chris arches an eyebrow at him and finally releases his hand, and Zach shoves it in his pocket before he can do something stupid like wipe it off on his shirt or punch himself in the face.

“Okay,” Babar breaks in before Chris has a chance to say anything else or Zach has a chance to embarrass himself further. “I say we order a pizza or something. I’m starving.”

Chris brightens and starts digging in his pocket. “I’ve got it! And I’m buying.” He jabs a finger at Patrick him. “Don’t even try to argue.”

Patrick puts his hands up in surrender, then looks at Zach and rolls his eyes, but Chris has already turned away.

“I think he has Domino’s on speed dial,” Babar says, shaking his head.

While Chris is busy with his phone call, the other three guys enlist Zach’s help in rearranging the furniture. They move the floor lamp closer to the wall, pull the coffee table made of wooden pallets back into the center of the room in front of the couch, and bring a couple chairs in from the other room. It gives Zach a good chance to get the lay of the land. The rehearsal space is a shabby apartment that consists mainly of one long room with scarred wooden floors and the barest hint of a kitchen. Only one wall contains windows, which makes it feel like a cave, even with the lights on and the curtains pulled back. Down a short hallway off the main room, there is one tiny bedroom and a run-down bathroom with chipped tile floors and a rust-stained shower. All of it would be far more depressing if anyone was living here full time. Patrick made it clear that while each of them have crashed in the place for some length of time—and occasionally spend the night after having one too many beers—no one officially lives in it. It’s strictly for Grimy Corp business.

“Why do you call yourselves the Grimy Corp?” Zach had asked at the time, and Patrick had answered, “You’ll know when you see the place.” Well, now Zach knows. ‘Grimy’ is the only word for it.

Not that he’s judging. His own apartment is hardly fit for a king, and he commends these guys for having the get-up-and-go required to put together their own acting group. A grimy rehearsal space is better than no rehearsal space at all.

Once all the furniture is back in order and Chris wanders over, the interrogation begins. The guys want to know what Zach’s education and acting credits are, and after he’s mumbled his way through his resume, he dutifully asks them about theirs in turn. It’s a relief to find out they’re all in just about the same situation he is, mostly unable to find anything better than one-off TV spots and the occasional short theater run to get them by. Chris is the only lucky one among them. He has already been in two whole movies, one of them with Julie Andrews. And on top of that, he has a couple more coming out next year. Zach is incredulous.

“Lindsay Lohan?” he says, eyes wide with disbelief. “What was that like?”

Chris grimaces. “It was about what you would expect.”

“He had a thousand-yard stare the whole time he was filming,” Patrick adds. “Poor guy. I mean, if that’s the price to pay for being in more movies, maybe we should all count ourselves lucky.”

Chris, who is sitting next to Patrick on the couch, rolls his eyes and gives him a shove. “Okay, it was bad, but it wasn’t that bad.”

“It sounds like you’re doing pretty well then,” Zach says, the ill-advised words rolling out of his mouth before he can stop them. “What do you need a group like this for?”

“What?” Chris lets out an incredulous laugh and throws his arm around Patrick’s shoulder. “These are my bros. We’ve been friends since before I landed my first movie. I’m not going to deprive them from my presence now.”

“Translation:” Babar says, “he loves us too much and would miss us if he was forced to rub elbows with A-listers all the time.”

Zach nods in understanding—because he does understand now, and feels stupid for not getting it sooner. He can see it in the way Patrick doesn’t shrug off Chris’s arm and the way Babar and Reid are looking at him fondly. He can see it in the way Chris looks back at them, grinning his eye-crinkling grin. These guys aren’t just a random collection of actors who come together once or twice a week to give each other pointers. There is affection coming off of them in waves. They are comfortable with each other. They care about each other.

And they invited Zach to join them; that’s the real miracle here. This is something that’s been hard to find since he came to LA. Genuine community. A support system. Two things he needs even more than a job right now. They could still decide they hate him and kick him out, but Zach is trying—trying—not to think too much about that now.

“So what do I have to do?” he asks. “Audition? Prepare a monologue for you guys?”

They all look at each other, smiling like Zach just said something funny. “No, Zach,” Chris says. “Patrick likes you, so you’re in. One of us vouching for you is all you need.”

It’s a wonder Zach doesn’t embarrass himself by crying all over again. He feels like he’s spent he last decade or more of his life fighting and clawing for every scrap of recognition he can get, begging to be seen as worthy by a community that has a gatekeeper around every turn. Even though this is really nothing in the grand scheme of things, just four guys sitting in a dingy apartment pledging to lend creative energy to each other, it somehow means more than he can say to have them welcome him just like that, with no hoops to jump through, no hazing, no prerequisite humiliation.

“Thanks,” he says quietly, looking down at his hands. “Seriously, thank you.”

———

Two days after Zach’s first visit to the apartment, Patrick swings by his place to give him a key and tells him that he can hang out there any time, not just during their weekly meetings. “It’s a great place to clear your head,” Patrick says. “Sometimes I think there’s something magic about it.” It’s hard to imagine any magic in such a run-down place, but Zach nods and smiles anyway, and cradles the key in his hand like it’s a treasure.

The first time he decides to drop by the Grimy Corp Headquarters on his own, it’s empty, and he spends a couple hours there letting the atmosphere sink into his bones while he flips through the collections of plays that live in a bookshelf next to the window, sometimes reading lines aloud to himself. The second time he goes, it’s because Patrick texted them all and told them to meet him to give him pointers for an upcoming audition. Patrick reads through his prepared monologue over and over and over again, and the rest of them give him notes on it until it’s well past midnight and they’re all tired and frustrated and ready to go home—yet everyone still manages to summon smiles when bidding each other good night.

The third time Zach shows up, Chris is the only one there.

“Oh,” Zach says, stopping in his tracks a couple steps in the door. “I hope I’m not…uh…”

Chris is sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning back against the couch, with a book in his lap. He looks up at Zach and grins, beckons him over. “Don’t be silly. I don’t own the place.”

“I don’t want to interrupt,” Zach insists. But really it’s being alone with Chris that worries him. The memory of Chris’s monologue is still fresh in his mind, and if he knows himself at all, he knows his feelings of admiration for the guy could easily grow into a full-blown crush with barely any more nudging. He’s spent less than five hours total in Chris’s presence so far, but that’s been enough to find out that Chris’s talent comes with a heaping side of intelligence, humility, and ingenuousness. And that’s to say nothing of his smile. Or his eyes. Or his face in general. So, yeah. Dangerous. This is dangerous.

“You’re not interrupting anything.” Chris flips his book shut and gets to his feet. “Actually, I’m glad you’re here. I was hoping someone would show up.”

And just like that, Zach gives up on the urge to turn tail and run. He starts shrugging off his jacket instead. “You need help with something?”

“Only if you don’t have anything pressing.”

Zach doesn’t, which is how he ends up spending the rest of the afternoon laughing his ass off while Chris reads lines to him in a stilted hillbilly patois. Somehow Chris has landed a role as a neo-Nazi hitman in a move called Smokin’ Aces, and he’s having trouble perfecting his redneck accent. He’s not having trouble perfecting any other part of it though, that’s for sure. It should be near impossible to imagine clean-cut, painfully pretty Chris Pine as a strung-out hick, but he really goes for it, putting his all into every single line, and it puts Zach in stitches. The third time he has to beg Chris to stop so he can catch his breath and wipe tears from the corner of his eyes, he gasps out, “How did you end up getting this role?”

Chris looks pleased with himself. His eyes are glinting like Zach’s hysterical laughter is the best reaction he could have hoped for, and like he could do this all night if he had to. “I was tired of getting cast as the romantic lead in all those insipid rom-coms,” he says with a shrug. “I told my agent I needed something different, and this is about as different as it gets.”

“You can say that again.” Zach looks him up and down, trying to imagine him tatted up and missing teeth. “Why the hate for romantic leads though? Isn’t that how all the best leading men get their start?”

Chris lowers his gaze and runs his thumb along the edge of the script. “It’s just not how I see myself, I guess. Those roles are…I don’t know. They don’t seem to require anything of me. I get cast because I look the part, not because anyone really cares if I can act.”

“Could be worse,” Zach says, gesturing at himself. “You could be typecast as Generic Gay Guy.”

That earns him a sharp look, and for a second he panics, wondering if he made a mistake. Sometimes he forgets how reckless it is to out himself to another actor. Most of his friends already know, but if the wrong person finds out you’re gay in this town, it can kill your career before it even starts.

Luckily, Chris’s expression soon melts into a smile, and he reaches out to give Zach’s arm a friendly squeeze. “Yeah. I’m sorry, man,” he says, and Zach is surprised at the genuine sympathy in his voice. Even more surprised when he clears his throat nervously and adds, “To be honest, I worry about that too.”

Zach blinks, shakes his head. “You—?”

“Well, not in the same way, I guess. I’m bi.” He rushes through the words, like he doesn’t say them out loud much. “But I’m sure if anyone found out, they’d label me as gay anyway, since that’s usually the way these things go. It’s just one more way this business can beat you down, right? They’ll pick you apart any way they can. Reduce you down to some flat caricature of yourself.” He reaches up and rubs at the back of his neck. “I just don’t want to give anyone the chance to trap me in a box made of stupid cliches.”

Zach is speechless. He can feel himself gaping, but he can’t seem to get his expression to return to neutral. When Chris looks up and catches him staring, he snorts.

“So you thought I was just a pretty face too, huh?”

“No,” Zach says automatically. Heat starts to rise into his cheeks. “I mean…well, not just a pretty face. I got to see how good you are at your craft right away.”

“That monologue you mean? That was nothing.” Chris taps a finger against his script and grins. “This is where the talent comes in.”

Zach’s head is still spinning, but he manages a chuckle. It’s a lot to take in all at once. The fact that Chris is bi. The impassioned speech about subverting Hollywood stereotypes that has Zach thinking he should have a conversation with his own agent soon. And above all else, the knowledge that Chris is even more dangerously likable than he originally thought. Zach is going to have to be extra careful not to get in over his head—assuming he isn’t in over his head already.

“Alright, hot shot,” he says, trying hard to sound normal, unfazed. “Why don’t you give me those last few lines again then? A little more trailer trash and a little less Georgia Peach this time.”

Chris sticks out his tongue, but then picks up the script again and slips back into his hillbilly persona. Zach tries to give notes between side-splitting bouts of laughter, but the hours still slip by like water through a sieve, too fast; and when they finally have to call it a night and Chris steps out of the apartment ahead of him, calling a reminder to lock up over his shoulder, Zach realizes he hasn’t had that much fun with another person in as long as he can remember.

———

Even after that day, Chris doesn’t immediately become a fixture in Zach’s life. Zach manages to land himself a job, a minor character—Generic Gay Guy, unfortunately—in Tori Spelling’s new show So NoTORIous, and soon after that, Chris heads off to Lake Tahoe to film Smokin’ Aces. This is what happens in show business. People get busy and don’t have time to build deeper relationships. Zach reminds himself on the daily that he doesn’t know Chris well enough to miss him. It’s technically true, but it doesn’t explain how often Chris is in his thoughts anyway.

He does grow closer to the other guys in Chris’s absence. His filming schedule keeps him busy until the wee hours some nights, but the role is small enough that he doesn’t have to be on set every day, and he spends more and more of that downtime at Grimy Corp HQ. It gives him energy, being there. It makes him feel inspired.

Reid, ever diligent and ambitious, has begun to put together plans to produce a play, and Babar is helping out and, as subtly as he can, angling to star in it. Patrick spends most nights perched in a chair in the corner, scribbling things down on a yellow legal pad. Bits of a screenplay, he says, and every now and then he reads lines aloud to get feedback. Privately, Zach thinks it’s not very good, and glancing around the room, he can tell Reid and Babar probably agree, but he wouldn’t dream of recommending Patrick give it up. Practice makes perfect, after all, and there’s something about the atmosphere of the run-down apartment that makes anything seem possible. How many great artists got their start in a place like this? How many came from humble beginnings and went on to land themselves a place in the history books?

There are still days, whole weeks even, when Zach worries the guys don’t really like him, they’ve only come to tolerate his presence. But then there are nights when they’ve all put their work away and are sitting around, eating pizza and drinking beer and talking about their craft, and Zach feels like he really has found his tribe. He has other friends in the business, but there’s something different about these guys, this Grimy Corp. They take themselves seriously, but not too seriously. Their ambitions are genuine, not thrust upon them by the competitive Hollywood culture around them. Truthfully, Zach has a lot to learn from them. He doesn’t think he’s quite transcended the need to be adored. He’s not sure he’s even capable of it. But they make him want to try.

The only thing he finds truly difficult to get used to is the razzing. In the past, when guys who look like Reid and Babar and Patrick made fun of him, they weren’t trying to get him to laugh at himself. They weren’t laughing with him. They were setting him up to get pushed into a locker or socked in the stomach. It’s hard—nearly impossible at first—to remind himself that these new friends of his don’t wish him that kind of ill will. This is just how they communicate.

“Think I can convince Chris to take a part in this play?” Reid asks one night, tapping his pencil against the edge of his script.

“You kidding me?” Babar says. “He’s a big shot now. He’s got scenes with the likes of Ben Affleck. We’ll be lucky if he still remembers us when he gets back from Tahoe.”

Patrick joins in without hesitation. “Even if he did, his head’s probably too big for him to get through the door by now. We’d have to find a new apartment.”

“I think it’s nice,” Zach says tentatively. “His success, I mean. He deserves it.”

“Puh-lease.” Babar tosses a balled up piece of paper at Zach, and it bounces harmlessly off his head. “You’re not fooling us, Sasan. You’re as jealous as we are. Or are you happy playing gay sidekicks to D-list actresses?”

Zach would take it harder if they weren’t teasing him in the same conversation in which they tore up Chris. Because he knows how much they love Chris. He can see it in their faces when they talk about him. He can hear it in their voices, in the way none of their jabs have any true heft to them. They are proud of him, and even if they don’t have that depth of feeling for Zach yet, it stings much less to know that he’s in good company.

“Fine, you caught me,” Zach says, allowing himself to smile. “I hate his guts. Let’s bar the door when he gets back.”

But Zach doesn’t even find out Chris is back in LA until they run into each other out of the blue. It’s early morning, and Zach has made the stroll down the street to the the local coffee shop in hopes that some fresh air and caffeine will jump-start his energy level. He’s just putting out his hand to open the door when someone scoots around him and gets there first. Before he can work up a head of frustration, a voice says, “Zach,” and Zach turns to find himself staring into familiar blue eyes.

Chris must have just finished up a run, because he’s sweaty and breathing hard, his t-shirt clinging to his chest. He reaches up to push his hair off his forehead, making it stick up in spikes, then motions for Zach to go ahead of him into the shop, obviously eager to get out of the heat and into the air-conditioning. Zach skitters past him inside, then lingers, trying to come up with something to say. They haven’t spoken in weeks—not really. Zach exchanged phone numbers with all the Grimy Corp guys on the first day he met them, and every now and then he would get a text from Chris, a polite How’s the show going? or some tidbit from Chris’s own filming adventures, but none of it really sparked much of a conversation. Zach couldn’t help but feel like it was just obligation that made Chris reach out to him, so he kept his answers short, not wanting to waste too much of Chris’s time. And Chris never pushed too hard, so it was easy for Zach to assume he was right.

Now, he’s at a loss, but Chris doesn’t seem in a hurry to jump into small talk anyway—possibly in part because his chest is still heaving in attempt to catch his breath. He puts a friendly hand on Zach’s elbow, nudging him toward the line, and they head over in tandem. When Chris’s arm drops back to his side, Zach still feels the impression of his fingertips.

“I think there are probably better places to go for your post-run hydration,” Zach says at last, hoping he sounds quippy rather than overly eager to break the silence.

Chris scoffs, swiping his forearm across his forehead. “Nuh-uh. I’ve earned this. Gatorade is for the weak.” Zach laughs, and it makes him grin, like he’s proud of himself. “Do you come here a lot?”

“Yeah,” Zach says. “I live just around the corner.”

“Hey, me too.” Chris thumps him on the shoulder. Is he extra tactile right now, or is Zach just hyper-aware of him? “We must be neighbors.”

It’s a wonder they haven’t run into each other here before, Zach thinks. Or maybe they have, back before they knew each other. Maybe Chris would blend into the background if Zach didn’t already know how he lights up in the spotlight. Then again…Zach’s gaze catches on a bead of sweat as it rolls down his neck and disappears under the collar of his shirt, and Chris catches him staring and smiles, his eyes crinkling. Then again, Zach amends, maybe not.

“Yeah, umm.” Zach rattles off his address, and Chris nods and answers with his own, and sure enough, their apartments are within a ten minute walk of each other. Under normal circumstances, that would make Zach giddy with excitement. In a city where traffic is a nightmare and parking is worse, it’s a relief any time he finds that he’s within walking distance of something or someone, but in this case, he doesn’t know how to react. Does this mean they might see more of each other? And is that a good thing?

Chris seems to have no such hesitation. “You busy after this? Want to come back to my place and hang?”

Zach is helpless. A “yeah, sure” comes out of his mouth before he even has time to think about it, and his head is still buzzing by the time they’ve ordered their coffee, exited the shop, and walked the handful of blocks to Chris’s apartment complex. They make small talk along the way, Chris rambling about his last few days in Tahoe, the wrap party, the difficulty of readjusting to life at home and the hope that he’ll find his next job soon. He asks Zach what he’s been up to, but Zach doesn’t have much to say. At least, it doesn’t feel like he does. Nothing interesting, anyway. Chris can make anything sound interesting, even his coffee order, but Zach fears he’s the opposite; even details Chris might care about, like stories from his current set, would sound boring coming out of his mouth somehow.

Before he knows it, they’re walking through Chris’s door. Chris tosses his keys down on a table by the door and waves Zach in. “Make yourself at home. I’m going to grab a quick shower, if you don’t mind.”

“Go for it,” Zach says. He feels like a perv for taking one last deep breath as Chris walks by him, inhaling the strong smell of him, sweat and salt and deodorant working overtime, things that should be off-putting but instead make his chest constrict with desire. It’s a relief when Chris disappears down the hall and Zach can collect himself again.

He can’t resist the opportunity to look around, see what new information he can glean about Chris based on his living conditions. The kitchen is spotless in a way that suggests it’s rarely used rather than regularly cleaned. Beyond it, the dining area and living room are also pristine, but mostly because there’s not much to them. Chris has a slouchy couch, a couple of packed bookcases, a small dining table with four chairs, and a television sitting on top of a squat hutch. There is an abstract art print above the couch—something that could easily have come from a Pier 1—and an artificial tree in a pot in the corner, but otherwise the place is pretty bare. A true bachelor pad, except without any dirty dishes in the sink or empty beer cans littering the coffee table. It may only be this clean because Chris has been away, but Zach gets the feeling that isn’t the case. Chris doesn’t come across as fastidious, but he does seem simple, the kind of person who just doesn’t keep a lot of extraneous crap around or generate much mess in his day-to-day life.

Zach wishes he were that kind of person too, but he’s always been one to hoard things—childhood keepsakes, souvenirs, various knick-knacks that catch his eye. And books, of course. He takes comfort in the fact that, looking at Chris’s bookcases, they have this in common.

When Chris emerges from the bedroom, damp and clean-smelling with his workout clothes traded for worn jeans and a t-shirt, Zach has made himself comfortable on the couch and is finishing the dregs of his coffee.

“This is a nice place,” he says, because his mom taught him to be polite and he hadn’t remembered to say it when he first walked in the door.

Chris snorts and shakes his head. “If you say so. I keep meaning to, like, decorate, but I don’t really know where to begin.”

“You mean that feature film money isn’t enough for you to hire an interior decorator?” Zach asks.

That surprises a laugh out of Chris. He waves a dismissive hand at Zach as he turns and heads for the kitchen. “You’d be surprised how little studios are willing to shell out for a no-name.” Zach hears the sound of the fridge opening. “Can I get you anything? Water?”

“No, I’m good.”

Chris returns with a glass of water in one hand and sets it down on the coffee table before dropping himself onto the couch next to Zach, pulling one leg up so he can face him. He’s a little closer than Zach would have liked, but Zach can’t exactly shift away. He settles for keeping his elbows pulled in tight to his body.

“So,” Chris says, propping his elbow on the back of the couch and his chin in his hand, “tell me about yourself.”

Zach gapes, then chuckles, sure he’s missing some joke. “What?”

“The other guys have had weeks to get to know you, and I haven’t.” Chris shrugs one shoulder, as if it should be obvious. As if taking a genuine interest in others isn’t a rare trait. And Zach can tell it is genuine. “Where’d you grow up? Where’d you go to school? How did you get into acting?”

Chris’s hand balls into a fist and he presses his cheek into it, his eyes meeting Zach’s unflinchingly and with candid attentiveness. It’s heady, having Chris focused on him like this. It would be heady to have anyone focus on him like this, but those bright blue eyes, that perfect face—all of it adds up to Zach’s mouth going dry and his palms starting to sweat. This is ridiculous, he thinks. Chris is trying to be friendly, and Zach is reacting like a schoolgirl with a crush. He needs to put a lid on this before it gets any worse. They can be friends. He can be friends with someone like Chris.

He opens his mouth and begins to speak.