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Joe doesn’t come to work or answer his phone for two days after it comes out, the longest any of the cast would dare hold up production, and not nearly as long as David thinks he would hide out if it were details of his own private life that had been dragged out for public consumption.

But there it was, a handful of careless words thrown out to a magazine reporter, and when Joe shows up on set his ring finger is bare and everything goes quiet, so quiet, until he leaves the room, and even then they glance around uneasily because deep down, they’d all expected him to make them feel better about the whole thing. David follows Joe halfway to his trailer before his brain catches up to what he’s doing and his feet slow on the pavement, coming to a reluctant stop as the door closes behind Joe’s slumped shoulders.

It’s not that bad, he wants to say, but everything is so fresh that it feels that bad, and Joe doesn’t say much of anything to anyone until a few days after, when he passes by the corner table where David has a map of the U.S. spread out before him. David can feel his hesitation, but Joe’s inherent curiosity wins out over this new unsuitable air of shame, and he stops.

“What’s that?” he asks, his eyes fixed on the map, and straying nowhere near David.

David swirls his orange highlighter in the air. “I’m planning a road trip,” he says as though it’s no big deal at all, as though his throat isn’t filling up with the tangle of encouraging platitudes he’s been trying to avoid for the past week.

“Nice,” Joe murmurs, and casts a wistful look toward the trail of carefully placed dots.

“It’s still in the planning stages,” he says. “Any suggestions?”

Joe glances around first, and then goes back to David’s map, rubs his thumb across the empty expanse between California and Colorado. “You don’t want to miss the desert driving,” he says. “Some people don’t like it, but I do. Plus, Vegas.”

“Vegas, eh?” David says, watching Joe’s fingers move restlessly over the lines and contours, cities vanishing then reappearing in the pass of his hand. “The shirt off your back, bright lights, dancing girls and Elvis on every corner. Sounds enchanting.”

“No.” Joe’s fingers close into a fist. “Sounds like somewhere you could forget yourself.”

David can’t take his eyes off the brand-new strip of pale bare skin, oddly vulnerable, leaving Joe more exposed than if he’d been standing there naked. A hundred things that he could say, that he should say, but they’re all lost somewhere in the miles between what he knows and all the things he doesn’t. Instead, he surprises even himself.

“You drive the desert stretch, I at least get to pick the music.”

Joe says nothing —shit, David thinks, I should have just gone with I’m sorry—and then he smiles, bright and genuine, sheer relief bleeding heat through David’s chest.

“That’s totally not the way the Winchesters do it,” he says, and just like that, it’s decided.

*

On the morning they’re slated to leave, David is only half-certain Joe will show up. Sure, they’ve been talking about it, but it’s one thing for David to offer himself up as a distraction for the final two weeks before hiatus, and another thing for Joe to pull up an hour before dawn and climb out of his car with a small canvas duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

David doesn’t remember why he’d set their departure so early, only that every trip he’d taken as a kid had started off in darkness while the rest of the city slept. It had always felt like a getaway, and this is the same, his foot heavy on the accelerator as though if anyone were to find them out before they hit city limits, they would prevent him—them—from leaving.

The car’s interior is dark when the dome light goes off, everything shadowed with a bluish hue, and fragrant with coffee when Joe pops open the top of the travel cup he’d picked up on his way to David’s. It’s quiet; the lively banter of two morning DJs a murmur beneath the engine and the rustle of Joe’s windbreaker as he settles in.

“Prepare to navigate.” David hands over the atlas, which Joe folds into a tube that he tucks between the seat and the middle console.

“Don’t you have GPS navigation?”

Please,” David says as he pulls out of the driveway, his headlights sweeping across a half dozen dark, sleeping houses in the process. “We’re doing this the old fashioned way, with crappy motels and bad coffee and maps that refuse to fold up correctly.”

“I’ll do my best,” Joe says. David finds out later that Joe is terrible with maps, and that he is a nocturnal creature, always wide awake next to David, the ever-changing colours of his eyes catching the light of each oncoming car as he blinks out at the road. For most of the first day he sleeps curled in toward the door with his head tilted against the window. When he wakes, his hair is pressed flat on one side of his head.

When David stops for gas, Joe wanders inside and David finds him a few minutes later, browsing a selection of cheap plastic sunglasses displayed on a crooked rotating rack. He turns them over carefully in his hands, inspecting each of them while David waits, watching from the back aisle where Red Bull and Pepsi chill in a glass refrigerator.


He watches Joe study his own reflection as he tries a pair with the same gray-green tint as his eyes, and then another, black and concealing. David can’t see behind them, but whatever Joe sees makes him give his reflection a decisive nod before he takes them to up to the cash register and pays with a crumpled twenty from his jeans pocket.

***

They’ve never said it outright, but the idea had been escape; a flight from the things that hold Joe’s tongue for so many miles. Instead, they’ve brought it with them, and David is half-crazy with not talking about it by the time they cross from Washington into Oregon. Eventually, he’ll want to shake Joe, will probably say something too sharp-edged and regret it afterwards, but right now he can feel how tightly Joe is holding himself together, and how the silence keeps it all from falling apart.

David doesn’t want to see Joe fall apart. He can’t even imagine it, really; Joe has always been so relaxed about everything; happy with himself and everyone else; affectionate without revealing anything at all, much less weakness. It doesn’t seem to accomplish anything, for David to drive the path they’ve marked out on their map while Joe sits behind his impenetrable glasses, but David knows it can’t last forever, and there’s a lot of road ahead of them.

Somewhere around the middle of Oregon, the day begins to fade into a shadowy, purpled horizon. Joe seems to soften with the darkness, and for miles he seems to hover on the edge of a decision, on the verge of breaking the silence by saying something, finally, but when he finally does speak, it’s a terse “I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry about everything,” as though he’s fucked up the world, with his hand rubbing so ruthlessly at his face that David almost wishes he hadn’t said anything at all.

“You have nothing to be sorry about,” David says carefully, with a quick glance over at Joe. “I mean it. Everyone is entitled to a past; you haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Tell it to everybody else,” Joe says. His words are tinged with bitterness, but beneath that there is a wash of relief, warm and unexpected.

You tell it to everybody else!” David retorts, but that’s going to have to wait, because they’re cutting a straight line south, building momentum with every mile, and to hell with the rest of it.


***

The restaurant is nothing special, just a diner, a counter and a row of stools upholstered with the same dated orange vinyl as the faded booths. It smells of grease and ketchup, and David is suddenly starving. From the bored waitresses to the slow-turning ceiling fan, it’s exactly like all the places Joe and David had said they would eat when they were finally loose on the road.

When the waitress asks, David replies “Smoking” as quickly as possible and pushes past Joe to follow her toward their table.

“I didn’t know you smoked,” Joe says lightly, as he picks up his menu.

David likes being able to pull out the pack, to put it on the table along with his lucky yellow lighter. The simple thrill of it travels up his spine in a shiver of pleasure, and he sighs happily as he feels the smooth paper between his fingers. “Well,” he says as he lifts the cigarette to his mouth, “I guess there are a lot of things we don’t know about each other.” It’s not meant as an accusation, but he belatedly realises that Joe might take it as one. “Anyway,” he hurries on. “I’m a hobbyist; not to be confused with an actual smoker.”

“Right,” Joe says from behind his menu. “I’m getting the pancakes.”

“Sounds good. A nice, non-judgmental food,” David says, watching Joe’s thumb move along the column of breakfast items. When he puts down the menu, David looks away and exhales two weeks worth of stress in a cloud of smoke.

***

They stop for showers more than for a need for rest. Joe says he can drive all night, and David doesn’t doubt it, but if he doesn’t sleep in a bed for at least a few hours, his back twinges for the entire next day. They get separate rooms in a motel right off the exit ramp, and the next morning Joe brings black coffee and waits while David shuffles around his room, trying to remember where he put his pants.

Joe hasn’t shaved since yesterday, a dark growth of beard spread evenly across his jaw, so David takes his cue, and after his shower just rubs a towel over his head and wears the same jeans from yesterday. Once they’re on the road, Joe sleeps off and on for hours. David wonders what he’d done all night instead of sleeping, and in a moment of guilty prescience, he realises that maybe an empty motel room isn’t the best thing for Joe right now.

They drift through hundreds of miles before Joe wakes up enough to talk, to look out at the road and make idle conversation about the towns they pass through. David likes it when Joe is like this; newly awakened and soft around the edges; unguarded in a way that changes the car into a secret between the two of them. And he likes the way Joe says things like “wanna take this exit?” and then settles in as though the turn of the wheel brings some deep satisfaction, and sometimes sings along to the radio in a monotone mumble, tapping out the rhythm on his knees. It should be annoying, but it’s not, because it’s better than the silence of the first couple days.

They’ve swung all the way over to Idaho and then back, and are nearly to the Oregon coast when Joe squints into the late afternoon sun and says, “Can we stop here?”

David is immediately suspicious of the gravel lot lined with campers and RVs, but he turns into the driveway and parks.

“I hope we’re here because you have to use the restroom,” David says as they climb out of the car, but Joe just takes his sunglasses out of his pocket and puts them on, intentionally jaunty, and heads toward the building where he’s met by a guy with a clipboard, who shakes Joe’s hand and starts pointing around and talking, while Joe nods as though he likes what the guy is saying.

Sleepy in the warm autumn afternoon, David leans with his back against the car and listens to the sound of cars flying past on the highway.

When he opens his eyes a few minutes later, Joe is coming toward him, but David is too warm and content to move, and watches through half-closed eyes; Joe’s familiar walk, the sound of his feet crunching on gravel, and the line of his mouth, curved up at one side.

David watches while Joe unfolds the brochure and looks over the selection of RVs, tents and camping packages. He’s left with an uneasy feeling; camping leaves so much quiet, nothing like the car, where there’s music and traffic and road noise to fill in the empty spaces. When Joe gets close enough, David sees words like “waterproof family dome tent” and “cook kit”, and there’s no reason on earth that any man should look so happy about a Coleman lantern when there are millions of hotels with perfectly good electricity.

“You can’t be serious,” David says, but the heat of the car has bled into his shoulders and he can’t be bothered to raise himself up and make a fuss. Everything has a surreal edge; the bright sky and the bite of sharp, tiny rocks against the soles of his shoes, and beneath all that, the quiet rhythm of Joe’s voice reading from the pamphlet.

“We’ve got a few days,” Joe says. His posture mimics David’s until he turns to the side, his elbow on the roof of the car as he faces David, who shuts his eyes again. All the travelling—or maybe it’s something else—has leeched his motivation to do anything but submit himself to one creature comfort after another; greasy diner french fries; a hot drag of nicotine; riding shotgun, shirt untucked, hair growing long.

“Don’t expect me to be any help,” David says. “And if there’s a bear, he’s entirely your responsibility.”

“Deal,” Joe says. The car dips for a moment as he pushes himself off, and David continues to doze, the sound of Joe’s footsteps shuffling back and forth at the edge of his consciousness.

***

It’s dark by the time they finish setting up camp, and while Joe works on building a fire, David digs their jackets out of the back seat; Joe’s faded green army jacket and his own black fleece pullover. Joe has set up a couple cushiony folding chairs, far more comfortable than David had expected, and David settles in with a bottle of bourbon tucked into his lap. The bourbon had been plucked from the top shelf of a liquor store where two college-aged boys had stared at them and whispered behind the dessert liqueur aisle while Joe had smiled in a convincingly flippant manner and ducked out to the parking lot.

David isn’t fooled. Those boys had undone the slow days of progress, and even as he settles into the seat next to David, the dark woods at their backs, Joe is silent and standoffish.

David twists the cap off the bourbon and takes a small sip, than another. It tastes of cocktail parties and business deals, and here they are, hidden beneath a wild treeline of Myrtlewoods. “Good,” he says on a cough, and hands it over to Joe, who takes a long, fearless swig and wipes his mouth with the edge of his sleeve.

“I should be used to it now,” Joe says, staring at the fire, so self-deprecating that David doesn’t need to ask what he’s talking about. “It was the same back in Vancouver; everybody’s faces…God.”

“They were shocked. We were shocked.”

Joe shrugs and hands the bottle back to David. “I’ve never had so many people looking at me in my life.”

“You’re an actor; people look at you all the time, and you love it.”

“Yeah, well…” Joe rubs at the dark stubble on his jaw and clicks his tongue thoughtfully. “Not like that.” David immediately thinks of all the ways he has seen people look at Joe; admiration, longing, open lust.

“Then it’s a good thing you’re not as famous as me,” David says, just before he lets another mouthful slide over his tongue. For the first time since they started this trip, he’s not deliberating over his words, and it feels good; free; more reckless than the situation warrants.

Joe notices; David can see the hesitation in the slow press of his lips before he says, “Famous in Canada doesn’t count,” thank God, not becoming morose but playing.

“A lot of things count in Canada,” David says, tipping the bottle back one last time before he hands it over to Joe, who squints suspiciously for a second before he takes the bottle.

“Tell me about it,” he says, his tone entirely too cynical, but then he takes a good long swig and breathes out a contented sigh.

“Okay, so everyone back home gets completely flustered when they see you coming because they can’t stop imagining you naked. I suppose that counts for a lot.” Sucking cock, naked sucking cock, or maybe having it done to him—no one knows the details, only the disgrace, which makes it worse by fuelling their greedy imagination. David doesn’t need to know.

“Everyone,” Joe says, a vague question, and pokes at the fire with a stick.

“Everyone.” It’s true; everyone; Torri and Jason and all the people you’d expect would be a little curious, but then there’s an endless list of people David had thought would have more shame than to stare so blatantly; writers, producers, guest stars who ought to have been focusing on their own work, and the worst part was how it had been allowed, how Joe had looked down and away, and then retreated to his trailer while the rumours had spread unchecked.

“Even you?” Joe says, and the sucker-punch is in the way he looks right at David and at the same time takes the bottle, the sudden shock of contact like a brief, wordless reward.

“I’m above all that,” David says automatically, even though he hadn’t been, not at first. Not until he’d been on set long enough to see the wrong in how the whole thing had played out, and since then he’s been as obsessed as the rest of them, only he wants to erase that blank expression from Joe’s face, while the others just want to know where he did what, and how.

He waits for a reply, but Joe is drinking with his eyes shut, face tipped up toward the sky.

***


“You know what?” David hears himself saying later, much later, when the fire is low and the ground is cold and hard beneath his ass. Joe’s shoulder, on the other hand, is a warm weight against his own. “I am a smoker. I mean, on the inside, where it counts.”

“Society,” Joe says knowingly. The bottle sits forgotten between his thighs, half-empty.

That’s exactly it, David thinks with a surge of indignation. “Bastards,” he growls, his throat gravelly from fatigue and strong booze. He clamps his lips shut when his unlit cigarette nearly falls to the ground.

“But,” Joe says as he produces a lighter from his pocket, “Lucky for us, there’s no society around here.”

“Mmm, give.” David swipes half-heartedly at the lighter, but Joe bats David’s hands away.

“Here, let me,” he says, and David’s hands are so bourbon-slow that he leans in and lets Joe coax the lighter into flame.

“Thanks,” David says on a long, delicious exhale, and then, before he can think about it, “You smell like outdoors.”

Joe curves his body backwards into a long stretch, his arms straining against the sleeves of his t-shirt. When he’s done, he relaxes even closer into David, too close to look at one another, just sitting together and sharing warmth. “What’s wrong with outdoors?”

There’s not a thing wrong with the hardwood smoke and crisp bay leaf scent, heavy in the air. It smells even better on Joe’s skin, which reminds David of the river swirling off just a few hundred yards; wet and earthy and alive. It’s not bad; it’s just that on set, Joe is after-shave and clean cotton t-shirts. This is different, and, David suspects with a strange thrill that has nothing to do with the bourbon, more like the person underneath the t-shirts and low-slung jeans. “Nothing yet,” David assures him. “I’m withholding judgment until I’ve fully experienced the tent.”

“Tents are cool.”

”But beds are comfortable,” David says, thinking a little wistfully of some vague hotel bed that should rightfully be his. Vacation is meant to be champagne and Egyptian cotton sheets, but when he drags himself out of the tent the next morning, the cold dewy air feels wonderful against his throbbing head, and only campfire-brewed coffee could be strong enough to deal with his queasy stomach. Joe is crouched beside the newly lit fire, his hair dishevelled in a less deliberate way than usual, and when he looks up at David, there’s some difference that David doesn’t pinpoint until later, when Joe is knee-deep in the river and waving to Rodney on the shore: the difference is in his unprotected posture and the absence of the shame which has shadowed his face since they’d set out.

David waves back and sits down hard, this resting stop’s sky as endless as the road.

***

The waitress behind the counter looks like the rest of the diner— pale and washed-out, a little worn at the edges. She barely glances up as they walk in, then vanishes through a tired-sounding swing door. David slides into a booth, wincing at the clammy feel of the cracked vinyl beneath his fingertips.

“Well,” Joe says, a polite, pained smile fixed firmly in place, “this is certainly—authentic.”

“Can’t complain about the service—“

“—if there isn’t any,” Joe finishes, peeling a menu off the sticky tabletop with some effort. “So the saying goes. Are we really planning to actually consume food here?”

“I’ll hold your hand while they pump your stomach later,” David says, plucking it from Joe’s fingers. “It’s what a friend would do.”

“A friend wouldn’t have brought me here in the first place,” Joe points out, but he’s grinning, big and bright, and David knows it’s all okay. They’ve fallen into an easy rhythm, just the two of them and the open road, never quite knowing exactly where they’ll be twenty-four hours from now. David’s once-carefully plotted lines on the map are becoming smeared and blurred, almost forgotten in places, a strange kind of freedom found on the back roads through the endless little towns that spill colour into their days.

Another resigned sigh of the swing door, and the waitress is by their table, one hip cocked, order pad in hand. “Ready?” she asks, and David nods, but she’s not looking at him at all. She’s looking at Joe, and of course she is, David thinks, because he’s never known a woman not to, and this one is no exception.

“Sure,” Joe says, tipping his head a little, reading her nametag, “Dawn,” and then there’s that smile, the one that always gets him just what he wants, and David knows he’s the only one who notices it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. Dawn’s oblivious of course, no longer pale, but flushed and maybe a little giddy as she writes down Joe’s order, probably dotting her i’s with flustered little hearts.

“Just the pancakes for me, “David says finally, even though she hasn’t asked, hasn’t even looked his way. It’s kind of hilarious, really, or it should be—the deliberate tilt of her neck as she laughs at something Joe’s said, the way she reaches down to touch his shoulder when he thanks her—but there’s something small and cold sitting in David’s belly, threatening to spread and twist his smile into something else entirely.

“Friendly type,” Joe says, one eyebrow raised, murmured low as she walks back to the kitchen, a little extra sway in her hips. David just nods and bites back all the words that threaten to spill unchecked from his lips, because it’s nothing. Nothing at all— simply someone else newly bewitched by Joe’s soft mouth and lazy charm, and David can't help but understand just how she feels.

*

“You okay?” Joe asks as they walk back to the car, across an unsealed parking lot, pale blue sky and a slow haze of heat.

The pancakes sit like stones in David’s stomach, and his palms itch with something that feels a lot like frustration. He scrubs them on his thighs, then digs in his pocket for the keys. “I’m fine.” He won’t meet Joe’s eyes, because it suddenly seems like everything he feels is right there on his face for the world to see. “You’re up for driving, yeah?”

“Sure,” Joe says, an edge of concern under his words, and in that second, David hates himself. This trip isn’t about him, and yet right now, he can’t focus on anything else but his own ridiculousness. He slips on some sunglasses and climbs into the passenger seat, busying himself with unfolding the map, even though he’s starting to suspect he knows exactly where this road is taking them.

Joe’s hands on the wheel are calm and sure, his mouth curved into a carefree grin as pulls out onto the highway, singing along to the radio. David spends the next seventy-five miles with his eyes closed, carefully not thinking about anything.

*


David wakes with a start, his face pressed awkwardly against the passenger window, a dull ache in his neck that tells him he’s been asleep for at least a couple of hours. The car is parked outside a small cluster of stores, and through the windscreen, he can see Joe standing at a payphone, receiver tucked between chin and shoulder as he writes something down on a piece of paper.

A phonecall, nothing weird about that, but David knows Joe’s cellphone is sitting in the back seat, plenty of charge left on the battery. Maybe there’s no signal around here, he thinks, but a quick glance over his shoulder puts paid to that line of reasoning, three bars showing on the screen, as if to taunt him.

Maybe Joe just wants some privacy, and he guesses that’s perfectly reasonable, given that they’ve been in each other’s space constantly for almost two weeks now. Maybe he was just being considerate and didn’t want to wake David up. Maybe—

“Move on, Hewlett,” he mutters, gingerly massaging his neck, rolling his head from side to side and wincing at the inevitable crack. No headache, thankfully, but he’d happily kill for some coffee.

Joe’s still writing, nodding and smiling to whoever’s on the other end of the line, and David can’t help but be a little amused by the pointlessness of both actions, despite the slow curl of unease that sits high in his chest. When Joe hangs the phone up a moment later, David quickly looks away, without really knowing why, other than a vague feeling that there are some things it’s probably better not to see.

*


“Can you believe this place?” Joe says, as he negotiates them through the endless rush hour traffic. David supposes that it’s always some kind of rush hour around here, a steady pulse of cars and people flowing through the city like lifeblood. It’s such a contrast to the wide open spaces they’ve travelled through up until now, and for a moment, something catches in his throat, as if his body has forgotten how to breathe. He’s startled into immobility, but the city seems to light Joe up from the inside, like he’s just coming awake after a long sleep, a kind of self-inflicted exile that he’s suddenly shaken off. David has spent this whole trip watching Joe; now he’s the one being watched, as though Joe has built the city from nothing and wants to see David’s reaction.

“Ready?” he asks as he eases the car through the slow-moving traffic.

“For what?” David’s hip hurts from sleeping on the ground, his neck hurts from sleeping in the car, and he’s sore in general over Joe’s sudden rejuvenation after one lousy encounter with a washed-out waitress.

“For Vegas,” Joe says, leaning toward the dashboard. He cranes his neck to see the full height of the hotels which stretch all the way up to the sky. “For this,” he says as he steers the car left, into a parking garage flanked by a pair of immaculately dressed valets.

The garage is cool and dark, but when they step out of the elevator and into the hotel, the chandeliers reflect from the marble floors, and then again on the mirrored walls, an endless gleaming echo of light. “Pretty nice,” David says, even though he has a feeling you need to book reservations at a place like this at least a month in advance.

Together, they wander through the lobby and toward the gilded reception desk. “We’ll need better clothes,” Joe says, rubbing a hand over his stubble.

“We’ll need a room,” David says, deciding then and there that he can’t spend another night in a sleeping bag or riding shotgun. He looks longingly at the plush sofas in the sitting area, firm thick cushions that look a thousand times more comfortable than anything he’s seen lately. “Oh God, a Jacuzzi,” he whimpers, “and room service,” while Joe smiles fondly and hands over his drivers license and credit card to the receptionist, whose fingers fly over the keyboard before he hands Joe a folded brochure with two keycards inside.

“Ready?” Joe says again, the same tone from the car, only his eyebrows are crooked, teasing, and it takes David a few seconds to go from wistful resentment to orgasmic ecstasy over the smooth keycard Joe slides into his hand.

“I never want to leave,” David says, in love with the air conditioning, the polished interior, the high ceilings and the accommodating bellhops.

“Yeah.” Joe claps David on the back, guiding him back toward the garage. “I figured you’d probably hold a grudge over the camping unless I made it up to you.”

Warm and flushed beneath Joe’s arm, David obediently follows. “You’re absolutely right, of course. I’ve been thinking up ways to torture you all day, but a little room service can go a long way toward getting on my good side.”

“We work together; I know all about your good side,” Joe says wryly, and David isn’t sure what that means, but it feels like something private, suffused with affection, so he lets it slide.


*


They play the slots for a while, a rhythmic jangle that works its way under David’s skin a little more with every spin of the reels, with every sip of the whiskey in his hand, until everything starts to blur together in a soft, warm haze. Joe’s a couple of machines down in the same row, colours shifting over his skin when David glances over at him. He’s smiling, the lines of his body loose and relaxed, unaware and unguarded in a way that makes David ache for something he can’t quite find words for.

“Hey,” he says, wandering over and perching on a vacant stool, carefully setting his glass down, “made your fortune yet?”

Joe shakes his head with a wry grin. “I’m already fifty bucks down. You?”

“Ha.” David screws up his nose in mock-disgust. “Seventy-five.”

“Right.” Joe stands up, reaching over to tug gently at David’s necktie, a brush of warm fingers against his throat for a brief moment. No more than a couple of seconds, but David feels himself flush with a strange heat, a little light-headed under the thousands of tiny coloured bulbs that seem to float above them. “Follow me,” Joe says, half-whispered, like it’s some kind of secret between the two of them in this magical, gilded place, filled with no end of glamorous strangers.

David follows— of course he does, because he’s realising just how difficult it’s becoming to refuse Joe anything – as Joe navigates with ease through the room, slipping past people with no more than a soft murmur and a brilliant smile. When they stop, it’s by a Roulette table and Joe slides gracefully into an empty seat, like it was always meant to be.

“You don’t mind?”

He looks so eager, so excited, there’s no way David could mind, so he shakes his head, finding a gap in the small crowd, fitting himself in amongst the perfumed women, the men in carefully-pressed shirts.

The croupier places a stack of chips in front of Joe, little red and white circles he plays with absently, twirling them between his fingers, tapping them lightly on the green tabletop as he picks his numbers. He’s frowning a little, a look of concentration David knows only too well. What he doesn’t know so well are the ins and outs of roulette itself, somewhat baffled by the array of numbers, but for Joe, it all seems to be second-nature.

The wheel turns endlessly, a soft clacking marked by a mingled chorus of cheers and groans when it slows, a sound that washes over him as David watches the faces around the table. Another drink in his hand, brought by a waiter who calls him, “sir” and vanishes into the crowd when David’s not looking, and it doesn’t matter when it spills over his fingers, his elbow jarred by the man next to him as the wheel slows from yet another spin. He licks the alcohol from his skin, feels it burn bright against his tongue. A dark-haired woman sits to Joe’s left, bright eyes and a crooked smile, long red-tipped nails as she slides her chips into place. She laughs, dark and smoky, when the wheel glides to a halt on the numbers covered in red and white, dipping her head to say something David can’t quite hear.

Whatever it is, Joe’s smiling, and when she lifts a hand to his mouth, the look he gives David before kissing her palm tips the world sideways in a slow, glittering buzz.

David steps back into the crowd, letting it swallow him as heat and confusion swell in his belly, his chest. He can feel the whiskey in his blood, taste it when he runs his tongue over the roof of his mouth, finding his way to the blackjack table as if in some kind of dream. Over the next hour, he loses money hand over fist, barely aware of anything until Joe’s suddenly behind him, shirtsleeves rolled up and his jacket loosely draped over one arm.

“C’mon,” he says softly, fingers on David’s elbow, guiding him up stairs that seem to stretch on forever, a warm, solid weight holding him upright when all David really wants to do is drift away.


*


“This isn’t so bad,” David says, forehead pressed to the balcony window, his fingers finding the smooth lapel of his suit jacket and stroking it just to hear the silk whispering against his skin. “This isn’t so bad at all.”

He’s drunk just enough not to care that his wallet is five hundred bucks lighter, or that tomorrow he’ll have to wear sunglasses or risk his head exploding messily all over the pavement. Everything is soft and smeared and blurry, he’s warm all over and he could stay here forever like this, the city spread out beneath him like some living, breathing carpet of light. His reflection is smiling, and David smiles back as he shrugs the jacket off, letting it fall to the floor. The shirt buttons at his throat are next, undone with whiskey-slow fingers.

“Told you,” Joe says from somewhere behind him, a vague shape close by his shoulder in the glass, their two pale ghosts floating high above the thousands of colours flickering endlessly below.

Told you,” David mimics around a grin, and anything else he might have said is lost when he feels warm fingers pressed to the base of his spine. Barely there, not much more than a vague sense of motion, drawing small circles against his shirt, slow and deliberate. In the window before him, Joe’s face is a mirage of ever-shifting lines and shadows, giving David no clues, no cue as to what’s expected of him. Strange heat simmers low in his belly with each and every touch, mixing with something darker, some distant sense of inevitability about what’s happening here in this lowlit room twelve floors above a city that never stops moving. David closes his eyes and lets his head fall back against the solid line of Joe’s shoulder before he can really think about it, slow-burning arousal making him a little dizzy and a lot reckless. Smoke and whiskey and Joe’s skin, so very warm, and he should say something, he knows, he should move, he should—

“I should get some sleep.” Joe, spoken close enough for David to feel the breath on his skin, and for a long moment, neither of them moves. Joe’s fingers slow their careful circles, then stop completely, the end of something marked by a shiver that passes through them both. The briefest of touches at the back of his neck, soft, warm, like a carefully-placed kiss, and just the possibility that that is exactly what it is has David’s mind folding in on itself like some slow-collapsing house of cards. He waits, not even really knowing why, counting in his head, numbers tumbling behind his eyes like reels on a slot machine, each and every one adding up to a gamble he’s not willing to take. Not yet.

When he opens his eyes again, Joe has gone, his ghost slipping back into the darkness that still presses against the window, leaving nothing but his own reflection drifting out there alone above the restless sea of lights.


*

The smell of bacon drifts into his awareness and David’s stomach rolls alarmingly, but after a moment of uncertainty, he’s quite sure it’s merely hunger-related and nothing more urgent. He takes his time sitting upright, just to be sure, and when he finally rolls over with a soft grunt, Joe’s sprawled on the bed opposite, loosely wrapped in a white robe, jaw shadowed with soft morning stubble and dark hair askew, smiling over at him like the Cheshire Cat.

“Bathroom,” David manages, the word a mouthful of gravel falling from his tongue. He half-slides, half-falls off the bed in a superbly ungraceful way, thick hotel carpet beneath his bare feet and Joe’s low chuckle of amusement following him out of the room. With a closed door between them, David thinks of a half-dozen brilliant comebacks to Joe’s smug smirk, but the moment’s well and truly passed. He rubs a hand over his head, willing his brain to kick into gear. A couple of splashes of ice-cold water over his face seem to help, even if the reflection staring back at him in the mirror looks mostly a little bemused and a lot hungover.

Joe’s still grinning when he emerges a few moments later, and David cheerfully flips him the finger as he shuffles past on the way back to his insanely comfortable bed.

“Breakfast,” Joe announces, peace offerings of coffee in one hand and a plate of bacon and eggs in the other, like he’s conjured them up out of nowhere-- and David supposes he just might have, until he sees the room service menu tangled in the covers of Joe’s bed. He takes them both from Joe with a grin, and settles back against his pillows, absolutely starving. He rolls his neck gingerly-- his head feels okay, maybe a little muzzy and tender, and he appears to have slept in most of his clothes, but--

Oh. The sudden memory of fingertips pressed against his spine, of shadows and light, of breath and warm skin, and David can feel himself flush, a wild heat that spreads along his chest and comes to settle low in his belly. He glances quickly over at Joe-- Joe whose face remains perfectly guileless as he crunches the last of a rasher of bacon with a low hum of pleasure. “S’good,” he says, swallowing the mouthful before licking his fingers clean, one by one.

To his horror, David finds himself staring, utterly transfixed, as if it’s some bad porno unfolding before his eyes and not just Joe devouring the contents of his plate. The coffee in his hand is his only saving grace, the desperate gulp he takes burning all the way down his throat, but it’s the blessed distraction he needs to snap out of whatever trance he’s fallen into. Eyes watering, throat still aflame, he busies himself with setting the cup down safely on the bedside table, then takes a bite of eggs.

Joe’s right, it is good, just what he needs to settle his stomach and help clear his head, and as for the rest, well-- he’ll deal with that later. If he’s honest, David’s not even sure what really happened— the previous evening crystal clear until around the fifth whisky, everything else after that vague and hopelessly blurred around the edges. For now, that will have to be enough, even though there’s an itch at the base of his spine telling him otherwise, and a tightness in his chest that says he’s nothing but a liar.

It all feels so strangely intimate, the two of them in such close quarters as this, Joe’s quiet humming as he studies the newspaper, the soft rustle of cotton sheets as he shifts to get more comfortable. They’ve spent early mornings together before, David knows, eaten countless breakfasts in cramped roadhouse booths knee-to-knee, unshaven and sleepy-eyed, but never once has it been exactly like this, so much skin and breath and an awareness of some brand-new thing that rests just barely below the surface of it all.

“You gonna eat that?” Newspaper crumples under Joe’s hip as he leans over to skilfully snag the one remaining piece of bacon from David’s plate, holding it aloft. “Last chance to change your mind before it vanishes forever.” He opens his mouth, waggling his tongue obscenely, and David can’t help but laugh.

“Isn’t that usually my line?”

Joe pauses, as if he’s considering it. “I suspect we’re starting to merge into one entity,” he says, after a moment, all mock-seriousness. “All this time spent together, it’s a natural progression. Pretty soon, you’re gonna find yourself unable to resist the New York Times, and with hair that looks like mine all the time, and not just first thing in the morning.” The bacon vanishes, gone in two mouthfuls, followed by a self-satisfied grin.

“Why are you so cheerful this morning?” David’s honestly curious, asking despite the hazy recollection that still rests just under his ribcage, tantalisingly beyond his reach. Asking before he thinks about it, really, so he counters with, “It’s both disturbing and unnatural. Cut it out.”

He’s expecting an equally flippant answer, something smart-ass from Joe, any one of a hundred good-natured barbs they’ve traded back and forth over the past few weeks. It’s what they do, what they’re good at: banter, safe and known, ground they’ve covered time and time again, a routine in the familiar. This time, though, Joe stays quiet, no snappy comeback; the silence adding weight to the words he finally does speak.

“It’s time I stopped running away,” he says, holding David’s gaze, steady and sure and more certain than he’s sounded in a very long time.

*

David runs the shower as hot as he can handle, standing under the steady flow with his head tipped back, the water scalding his tongue as if in a kind of punishment for all the things he hasn’t said.

“Good for you,” was what he had said to Joe, finally, the only thing he could think of to say, before making his excuses and retreating to the bathroom. A closed door doesn’t really give him all that much breathing space, but right now, he thinks, it’s everything. He’s glad Joe’s had this, this —epiphany, he supposes—that he’s finally relaxing and letting what happened fall by the wayside. It should make David happy, he knows, because that very thing was the whole point of this trip.

Was. The word rolls around in his head, taunting him, until he has no choice but to admit it sounds hollow and untrue, even unspoken. Somewhere along the way, David knows things changed for him, got weirdly complicated, and he was even okay with that, he was dealing—until last night happened and the world tilted sideways right underneath his feet.

“Fuck,” he mutters softly into the clouds of steam, closing his eyes against the now all-too-familiar rush of memory, Joe’s fingers at the small of his back, the smell of his skin, the dizzying closeness of him, and all the while, city lights dancing ceaselessly just beyond them both. Whether it’s real or not-real, he doesn’t know and right now, he doesn’t care anymore, because maybe whatever it was will have to be enough.

Hands slip over his chest, brush his nipples, stroke across his thighs, but they’re his own, and David keeps his eyes closed because it’s easier this way to pretend that it means nothing. Easier to blame it on the expensive cotton sheets, the plush carpet, the luxury of a soft hotel bed after countless nights in cheap motels, and a hundred excuses for the way his cock curves hotly into his hand, thick and full, the tip already slick and tight beneath his fingers. The cool kiss of tile against his forehead as he leans into the shower wall, and short, urgent strokes that pull his breath out in tiny, incremental hitches he feels vibrate all the way along his spine. He spreads his legs a little wider, rolling his hips as he fucks his hand, letting everything spread over him in rolling waves of heat that build in intensity with every thrust. He slows for a moment, but it’s only to brace himself more solidly against the wall, biting into the soft skin of his forearm to keep from making a noise as his body shudders and his hips jerk helplessly forward, bright pulses of pleasure all over his fingers and belly that wash away without a trace.

*


They walk the strip later that afternoon, everything an endless riot of noise and neon, colour and glitz everywhere David looks. It's like a sudden exhale after a long-held breath, and his skin begins to feel too tight and too small, as if some balance he was unaware of until now is slowly tilting the ground beneath his feet. If Joe would show some sign of discomfort, David might not be quite so edgy, but Joe is busy playing the part of the typical tourist, his steps quick and light on the sidewalk, eyes open to everything the city has to offer. It's like last night had never happened, and as the day drags on, the afternoon sun filling in all the dark spaces, David begins to doubt that it had been anything more than something that had crept up, unbidden, from the places he's usually so good at avoiding.

 

*

David wakes off and on, the sound of thunder shaking him from sleep every few minutes, but it’s not until the flimsy motel walls shake with a crack that can’t be further than a couple blocks away that he sits up and pulls back the curtains, still half asleep. The sound of rain is vicious against the window, and the sky has a grayish tint that’s all wrong for this time of morning. When his eyes fall shut, the jagged patterns of lightning flash against his eyelids until he forces himself to grope for the remote on the nightstand.

“Severe thunderstorms, tornado watch, high winds and hail and flooding,” he says, squinting at the weather channel. “Are you hearing this?”

“Let’s just stay,” Joe mumbles into his pillow, and that’s all David needs to crawl back under the covers with a grateful sigh.

When he wakes again, Joe is watching TV, his head propped on his elbows at the foot of his bed. The channels click by methodically, Joe’s bare feet thumping restlessly at the pillows, the wind moaning in frustration as it tries to push its way through the flimsy architecture. David can feel the force of the storm against the wall, but the room is cosy, and, done in oranges and browns right down to the chocolate coloured carpet.

“I guess a tornado touched down ten miles south of us,” Joe says, but he sounds a little excited beneath the morning gravel in his throat. David can’t look away from the pale flash of ankle and the place where Joe’s sweatpants have ridden up, smooth skin giving way to the dark hair of his muscled calf.

“Great,” David says, annoyed with Joe and the weather and himself. “Was that a Waffle House across the way?”

Joe lifts up and looks over at him, eye contact across just a couple feet of space, both of them tangled in their own sheets, and even through his irritation, David lets himself think about what it would be like if there were only one bed; shared heat and playful nudging and Joe’s leg half bare beneath the covers.

“I’m just saying.” He makes himself sit up and look at something other than Joe’s lazy sprawl. “It’s freezing in here,” he says when the chilly air hits his arms. “Turn off the air conditioner, already.”

“Too humid,” Joe says, and flops onto his back. “Were you serious? Because I could actually go for some waffles.”


“Yeah,” David says, “Give me five minutes. And keep an eye on the weather.”

***

They drive the hundred meters to the Waffle House. It’s not raining, but the sky is black and still, which annoys David even further and puts an extra bounce in Joe’s step. A man pushing forty shouldn’t be so excited about the aspect of danger, but something in David seems to have been trained to take pleasure in Joe’s easy contentment, so David sits in the nearly empty restaurant and chain smokes while Joe talks with his mouth full and the sky hangs above them in a silent threat.

They take advantage of the break in weather and drag the contents of the backseat into the motel room; plastic bags of souvenirs; the leather case of toiletries neither of them have been putting to much use; the tangle of ipods and blackberries and cell phone chargers which have been hidden under Joe’s leather jacket this whole time. 29 missed calls, David reads on the display, before he puts it all down in a pile on the dresser. He’d caught up with everyone in Vegas a few days ago, or—hell, maybe it had been longer; he’s starting to lose track, to measure days in the slow stretching of his self-control, and right now he just wants to spend the day in bed watching bad TV maybe wallowing in his complete inability to know what he wants, much less to get it.

Joe brings in the last load, toes off his shoes, and then crawls onto David’s bed. “What are we watching?” he asks. Normally, David keeps as tight a rein over the television control as he does over the radio, but he already knows there’s nothing on, so he hands over the remote and lies back.

They lie there for hours, through a six-pack of beer and four miniature bags of potato chips from the vending machine, through more thunder and lightning, and a few bloodless arguments about what they’re watching on television.

The images flicker across the screen, only marginally interesting, until Joe switches to some cheesy evening soap where a dominatrix stalks angrily through a mansion, her stilettos clicking on the marble floor. “Nice,” David snorts, but Joe’s eyes flicker with interest from beneath a serious brow, and everything from the movements of his hands to the dip of his chin is familiar to David: Joe likes this, likes it a lot.

“That?” he blurts, and takes another look at what’s on the screen, because really? That?

Joe exhales a sheepish laugh and presses his face into the bedspread for a second before shrugging. “What?” he says. “I like it. It’s…” he gestures at the woman, who snaps her whip at nothing. “Hot.”

“Hardly.” David rolls his eyes, but there’s a truth somewhere in the situation that he rolls around on his tongue for a few minutes before he says, “Although, I did get a little turned on when we had to wear those leather collars.”

Joe sits up slowly, folding his limbs gracefully around his body, his eyebrows high. “Really?”

It’s embarrassing, but David can’t imagine he’s the only one. He’d spent all day looking at Joe with a thin strap of leather wrapped around his stubbled throat, and everyone had been on edge that day, long moments of discomfort and bursts of nervous laughter. “Yes,” he says, and Joe nods thoughtfully, his fingers scratching at the bedspread, before he clears his throat and says, “Yeah, I guess it was kind of hot. Or, when Rachel had to wear that white—“

“Oh yeah,” David says fondly. It had eventually been cut from the tape, and wardrobe had been thoroughly scolded, but he can’t help but smile at the memory of Rachel’s dark nipples, big and perfectly symmetrical through the transparent fabric of her halter. “But that’s not weird—tits, everybody likes tits.”

“Okay.” Joe smiles, a good sport, and charmingly abashed when he says, “At the doctor, I get hard when they palpate my stomach.”

David pretends to consider it.

Really hard,” Joe adds.

“That’s pretty weird,” David says, dragging his words out with scepticism even though he finds it mostly intriguing: Joe in an examining room, and hard beneath his paper gown. A few weeks ago it would have surprised him, but ever since Vegas David has felt in tune with the cautiously-drawn contours of Joe’s sexuality, qualities that Joe seems barely aware of but make his posture seem suggestive, his low-pitched chuckle sound so filthy that a confused splotch of heat rolls aimlessly through David’s belly every time he hears it.

“Your turn,” Joe says, and it happens again with the soft lilt of his voice, like a rub of warm skin across David’s arms, his hair standing on end for no reason at all.

“I…” He shouldn’t, but he is, he can feel the words fluttering at the back of his throat; some banished fantasy in ecstasies over its sudden return to the surface. There’s one moment where David’s mind goes quiet, the perfect opportunity to back out, but with nothing compelling him other than the truth of it, he says, “When you went to your knees for the Wraith queen.”

There’s a press of anxiety on his chest that doesn’t ease until Joe says, “Seriously?” in a dazed tone, and David sees that mixed in with Joe’s wariness, his narrowed eyes and rigid posture, is something softer, a slow acceptance that says he’s flattered, too.

“Yeah,” David says, with no idea why he’s telling Joe this, or why his own voice sounds so thick and strange. “I know you were going for unbearable agony but it came off a little like-“ he stops himself suddenly; he’s probably reached the limits of this game.

“Like what?” Joe says, shifting back to lie on his stomach. David looks at the way the t-shirt stretches across Joe’s shoulders and remembers the arc of his body as he’d knelt, broadcasting helpless pleasure without even knowing it.

“Like it was good,” he says. “Really good.” It’s an understatement, but he doesn’t know how to articulate the rest of it, his fascination with seeing Joe submit like that, because Joe doesn’t do vulnerability in his acting any more than he does in real life. “Anyway,” he says, waving his hand and trying not to squirm under Joe’s dark-eyed scrutiny, “It was, I noticed you.”

And that’s the gist of it; he’d noticed Joe then, has been noticing him for a while, and this is the first time he’s really allowed himself to think about the way Joe had gone to his knees, his body jerking as it absorbed the impact, the heave and twitch of his chest, the shape of his mouth in a silent gasp.

Joe watches him for a few minutes but David can’t read him, can’t tell whether the tilt of his head is interest or something that might make David sorry he’d said anything. The game seems to have ended with his confession, and Joe is quiet and restless over on his bed until he clicks off the TV a while later and says good night.

David can’t sleep. Instead, he lies awake, unsettled in so many ways, while the rain pours against the roof and the air conditioner hums at their window. After a while, Joe gets up and turns off the bathroom light. He pauses between the two beds as he returns, and David doesn’t know why he lies perfectly still and steadies his breathing until Joe crawls back into his own bed. He can’t explain his own behaviour any more than he can explain the unusual repeated rustling of Joe’s covers, when usually Joe is usually the first to sleep, but when the air conditioner rattles to a stop and exposes Joe’s shaky exhalation, David knows.

He thinks he knows. It’s hard to tell, with his pulse suddenly throbbing in his ears, but he knows all of Joe’s sleepy nighttime sounds and this isn’t one of them, that rapid rush of breath across his lips. There are a few slow movements beneath Joe’s covers, and then it stops.

“David?” Joe whispers, and David presses his face into his pillow because Joe doesn’t really want him to answer; he wants proof that David is asleep, so he can keep on…doing whatever he’s doing.

Which David is pretty sure he’s figured out.

The rain is still going strong, so he has to strain to hear anything, but every once in a while he recognises the sound of skin on skin—Joe’s skin, his hand, it has to be—and David sighs into his pillow as heat surges between his legs, fuelled by something he can only barely hear and can’t see at all. It’s ridiculous, as ridiculous as his preoccupation with Joe on his knees, for him to listen to this, to imagine Joe’s grasping fist when he ought to be trying to block it out.

Everything goes still and silent for a long moment where David wonders if Joe has found him out, and then a new sound reaches David’s ears, a sound that sparks straight down his spine in a delicious pulse of sensation, a slicking sound that means Joe’s put something wet on himself—oh, God—a slow liquid glide that’s barely audible. As though it’s in on what’s happening, David’s body provides a hot leaking response, until the tip of his cock is smearing wet into the sheets, and it probably doesn’t matter that his breathing feels so out of control because even over that he can hear a sound catch in Joe’s throat, low and luxurious, like he’s not in any hurry but is happy to enjoy the long smooth strokes until he gets there.

David feels anything but unhurried. He can’t believe Joe is doing this here, but he knows that Joe would never do it if he thought David were aware of him, which makes a frustrated sound well up in David’s own throat because that makes it even more…whatever, exciting, if he’s being honest with himself, which he’s desperately trying not to be. So he remains so still that he aches, his sheets hot and damp beneath him, while Joe brings himself to a languorous climax with just a soft gasp as evidence.

When Joe finally falls asleep, David is still laying face-down, his hips pressed into the mattress, and churning with resentment over the distance between the two double beds.

***

The next morning, Joe’s eyes pass over the space between them just as David’s pass over a bottle of lotion that sits on the bedside table. If he’d had a moment to think, he would’ve rolled out of bed or looked somewhere else, but his gaze snaps right to Joe’s face, and he’s caught there for one precarious moment before Joe’s face relaxes into a satisfied smirk.

“You can have first shower,” Joe says, an offer suddenly loaded with meaning.

“Thanks,” David snaps to cover how flustered he feels, and takes a two minute shower just to make a point.


***


***

The storm seems to have brought in a major change in weather, and outside, David can see his breath when he stops to pump gas. The sun gleams blindingly against the pumpkins and harvest vegetables displayed on every doorstep—including the gas station, which David finds odd, since they’re not for sale—but the air is cold, and he makes sure as many vents as possible are pointing towards him when he gets back in the car and cranks up the heat.

“Hey, that one’s mine,” Joe says, but doesn’t do anything to move it back. “I’ll let it slide this once,” he says into the top of his coffee, and of course he’s all loose and chipper this morning, because he’d gotten off last night, while David is still bound by a tight band of frustration.

“You’re a paragon of generosity,” David says. He’s the one with cold hands, after all, and Joe has been sipping hot coffee the whole time David had been running around checking the tires and filling up with gas.

“Maybe we should go back to Vegas. You were a lot more relaxed there,” Joe says, his words stepping carefully around David’s bad temper, but he doesn’t get it because Vegas is the whole problem; up until Vegas, David had been perfectly fine. Content. He’d been content with what he’d had, but now he can’t stop thinking about Joe’s light touch at the back of his neck, and how impossible it seems to go back to that room where everything had been wide open and full of possibilities that David can’t even now begin to consider, because he still can’t get over how easily Joe had unfolded for him.

Now, though, Joe is closed up tight—not entirely, because last night he’d been stripped down by the allure of sex, and maybe everything is fine, but the problem is that David can’t even tell, anymore. He just wants to know whether it’s still okay to lean drowsily into Joe’s shoulder, or to talk about the original reason behind this trip, and deep down he feels that the answer he might be no, which means that he’s caught in a claustrophobic tangle of irrational anger.

And last night hadn’t helped.

“Vegas is seven states back. And I’m not—I’m not relaxed, okay? Radio, please.” David pretends to concern himself with the windshield wiper settings while Joe sorts through their CDs and holds them up for approval.

“I’m just saying,” Joe says after David rejects the fourth album in a row. “The Midwest makes you cranky.”

I’m cranky because of you, David wants to say, but there’s no good explanation, so he checks his mirrors and pulls out of the gas station with Joe uselessly holding the map at his side.

***

The games start in Indiana. Neither of them are prepared for the cold, so they first deal out gas-pumping and ice-scraping by rock, paper scissors, then by material barter, and then by a combination of both. David wins complete control of the radio—although that had been just a matter of time—for leaving a warm motel bed for takeout, and grudgingly surrenders his stainless steel travel mug for the privilege of not getting out to put air in the right rear tire. It’s another way to make the day more interesting, until he misjudges both his stamina and the distance to the next motel they end up at a rest stop in the middle of the night, and still ten miles to go.

“I can’t go on,” David moans. His head is heavy with fatigue, his eyes blurred and dry, and beside him, Joe is curled up against the window.

“You can do it,” Joe says, his voice muffled by his jacket sleeve. “I’ll give you twenty bucks if you do it.”

“I’ll give you the ‘If you don’t ski, don’t bother’ shirt I picked up in Colorado.”

Joe pauses, a faint sign of interest, and then says, “I’ll get your coffee for the next three days.”

“You already do that,” David says as a glow of smug satisfaction flares up in his chest and then dies out almost immediately. He’s too tired for even that.

“Right.”

A few headlights go past, and David nearly dozes off before he’s jerked out of sleep by Joe’s next offer. “I’ll crack your back like Jason does.”

“Please. No one can crack my back like Jason,” and it’s true; Jason, with his controlled strength and big, friendly hands, has missed his calling as a chiropractor.

“Okay, yeah. But I can, I’ll give you a massage.”

David snaps back to awareness just like that. “I’ll give you one,” he says too quickly.

Joe shifts in the seat and rubs his hands over his face. When he takes his hands away, his eyes are puffy and bloodshot. “I guess I can go a few more miles,” he says, and David counts off ten mile markers from the passenger seat with the distinct feeling that he’s lost this round.

***

They don’t even turn on the TV; David just drags to the furthest bed and starts stripping. Everyone loves to tease David for being finicky, but Joe is the one with a routine for undressing: watch, belt, t-shirt, jeans. Everything is placed on the dresser, while David’s belongings lie in a crumpled heap between their two beds; David knows this even in the dark, just as he knows that he can crawl into bed without showering, and Joe will lock up: lights off, deadbolt turned, the curtains tugged across every inch of window.

For as tired as he’d been, David wakes early, everything still dark except for the pale yellow glow bleeding out from the edges of the curtain. He’s too restless to go back to sleep, and he’s not sure if it’s the pull of the road or too much caffeine, but it’s familiar, these days, that relentless dissatisfaction in every limb. The sheets are cool against his legs as he rolls onto his side, and there’s another surprise, Joe is already awake—only barely so—lying on his belly and blinking blearily at David from where his head rests in the cradle of his arms.

“Hey,” he says, morning-hoarse and sporting a week’s worth of growth all across his jaw. It’s appallingly dirty, like some kind of unwashed mountain man, but seeing him like this is intimate in a way that makes David draw the covers uneasily up to his chest, because he knows better than to allow all this exposure between them, with Joe’s own covers pushed down to his waist, all pale bare skin up to his underarms—even more exposure, a thatch of dark hair that David isn’t sure he’s ever seen.

“Hey,” David says. “You’re up early.”

A rough chuckle as Joe rubs his cheek against his arms, slow and sleepy. “Not exactly up yet. But if you are, I wouldn’t say no to that massage.”

“Sure,” David says. “Sure,” but he isn’t sure at all, especially not with Joe’s eyes on him the entire time, glinting out from beneath his eyelashes, watching his response so closely that David doesn’t do anything but stare back for a long time. Then, finally, another “Sure,” and this time his legs actually swing over the edge of the bed and move him toward Joe.

Joe’s legs are tangled in the bedclothes until he kicks them off, leaving David to settle gingerly onto the backs of his thighs. He’s the one who wanted this, after all, had gone out of his way to make sure this happened, only he hadn’t known that Joe would be in bed rather than on it. There’s a difference, which is defined by the scent of slept-in covers: Joe’s warm skin and faded piney traces of hair gel and deodorant. It’s one of only a handful of times he’s been this close, and definitely the only time he’s spread his palms over Joe’s shoulder blades and pressed down to feel the resistance of muscle.

It surprises him that Joe would want this first thing in the morning, would just roll over and let David kneel in his crumpled sheets with the lights off and the morning held at bay by the heavy motel drapes, but he’s been unpredictable ever since he’d shown up on set trailing rumours, so maybe it shouldn’t surprise David. Maybe what really surprises David is his own lack of resistance, how his hands move across Joe’s skin as though he owes him something more than the price of riding shotgun for ten miles.

Joe’s back is long and smooth—or maybe it just seems long because the bare skin goes down and down to the low-riding waistband of Joe’s underwear—and shaped by all kinds of interesting muscles that David doesn’t have himself. David follows the path of Joe’s spine with long hard strokes until he settles in more fully, resting more of his weight on Joe’s thighs. He’s seen Joe in the gym; the women like to tease him about his biceps, trailing their fingers up under his sleeve until he flexes for them, both pleased and abashed all at once. David’s never touched, but that doesn’t mean he’s never looked, never watched Joe and Jason in a tangle of limbs, arms straining, feet skidding out in search of traction. But today it’s perfectly all right to fit his hands over Joe’s biceps and rub with short, gentle motions, and Joe even flexes a couple times, a move that makes David’s belly flutter with a nervous thrill.

It’s awkward in a way he can’t explain, the way he can feel every shift of Joe’s body beneath him. He catches himself trying to breathe silently, as though his very breath might give away the tremble in his hands that he pushes through so Joe can’t feel anything but steady, methodical pressure. Slowly, he traces firm patterns over Joe’s upper and middle back, until he finally glances down at the dip at the base of Joe’s spine.

He’s been avoiding this for a reason, and that reason is the damp drag of David’s fingertips through that dip and lower, to the flat expanse half-covered by Joe’s waistband. With that move, David’s face goes hot with the realisation that he’s touching Joe in places normally hidden beneath his clothes, and this piece of skin in particular, beneath his underwear. He pauses, wants to ask if it’s okay, if it feels good, but he’s afraid he might sound strange, so instead he uses two unsteady fingers to rub a slow path across Joe’s waist. Beneath his fingertips are bone and muscle, and with the sudden awareness that he’s not giving a very good massage, he curves both hands around Joe’s sides, his thumbs digging in deep at the base of his spine.

The silence is driving him crazy. He shouldn’t have gone so long without speaking, but now it’s too late, and what would he say? He’s so busy obsessing over how to break the silence that he almost doesn’t notice the subtle flex of Joe’s hips. It’s barely noticeable, just the muscle beneath David’s hands drawing up tight, and over before David can read it as anything more than a flinch.

But then it happens again. David’s eyes are downcast this time, so he sees everything tighten up right beneath his hands, undeniably deliberate, and what knocks the air right out of his lungs is that Joe’s ass had been the force behind it, and God, it’s first thing in the morning and Joe’s had someone’s hands all over him for ten minutes; it’s not a mystery what’s going on between Joe and the mattress. What’s going on isn’t a mystery, David thinks as he mindlessly keeps touching Joe’s skin and watches another slow, subtle push of his hips against the bed, he just hadn’t thought Joe would be so obvious about it. He must be pretty desperate, David supposes, and he’s rapidly finding himself in the same situation as he gathers a hysterical bundle of excuses from the back of his mind—it’s all the touching, it’s been a long time, but none of them ring true except the one centred in a window in Vegas and Joe’s whiskey breath on his skin.

It’s an accident that he rubs his palm hard against the base of Joe’s spine at the moment everything is flexed up tight, but he can feel the difference, the interruption in the rhythm and the ripple that goes through Joe’s body to David’s hands. The second time it’s more deliberate; he follows Joe’s lead and continues the massage, fingertips just above Joe’s waistband and palms against the curve of Joe’s ass, just enough pressure to feel that ripple again. He doesn’t know how Joe can stand it so slow and easy, because he knows what the added pressure is doing to Joe, what they’re doing together, now. If it were him, he’d have given up the pretence of the massage and would already be humping the bed, desperate to get off. As it is, he’s hard inside his boxers; sympathy for Joe, that’s all it is.

He’s given up trying to disguise his heavy breathing. Joe’s back is broad and tense across the shoulders, and he looks so naked to David, the bare nape of his neck and his ass flexing in David’s hands, and David isn’t a patient man, he can’t stand the waiting, so on the next pass he puts his weight into it, grinds down with both hands in a way that has nothing to do with anything but giving Joe’s hardon a ride against the mattress.

David has all but forgotten about the silence, which is broken when Joe buries his face in his pillow and makes a sound like he’s dying—or coming, a thought that terrifies David as much as it makes his cock leak a wet patch onto his underwear. David is still trying to figure out where this massage derailed when Joe rolls over, and he doesn’t know what he’d expected, but a shock of hot blood makes a sudden frantic rush through every part of David’s body when he sees Joe’s red, sweaty face and the front of his boxers pushed down in front to reveal his erection, hard and wet at the tip.

“I…” He’d been helping Joe masturbate, practically the same as a hand job, and whatever he says can’t do anything to change that—and he doesn’t want to, not when Joe throws one leg to the side and rubs the head of his cock until it’s slick and shiny, while David stares from between his legs. “I don’t want to wait,” he blurts. It’s not what he meant to say, but he wants to be on Joe right now, but you don’t just lie down on your friend’s naked cock unless you’re really sure, and David isn’t sure about anything right now.

“Then don’t,” Joe says roughly, with only a touch of uncertainty in his face as he watches David and touches himself at the same time. Then his thighs fall open, drawing up just enough to be a clear invitation, and David pulls his underwear all the way off, making Joe laugh and moan at the same time, a half-nervous sound that David interrupts with the easy fit of his mouth over Joe’s parted lips.


Kissing Joe is exactly how he’d imagined; deep and thorough, and the technique is terribly out of proportion with the wanting, but that just adds to the ache between David’s legs, knowing that Joe isn’t thinking about form or composure or anything but what they’re doing. Joe’s body is similarly clumsy—or desperate, because that’s what David recognises in this whole thing—hips squirming against David’s, his tongue going deeper with every pass.

Eventually, it’s clear that all the squirming has a purpose, because in the next shift of Joe’s hips, his cock is brought right up against the place where David is touching his belly, and then Joe’s hand is in there, tangling with David’s. In response, his fingers curl into a fist, but with a small sound against David’s mouth, Joe pries his hand open and presses his cock into the soft curve there, a solid line of heat that fits tightly into David’s palm when he closes his hand.

“Take it. Jerk me off,” Joe breathes into his neck with wet, well-kissed lips, and David can’t help but oblige; he’d unthinkingly begun a slow, steady stroke the second he’d wrapped his hand around it. And it’s easy to do, with Joe making low sounds of approval, his hands dragging out rough trails of pleasure on David’s skin. He lets Joe’s responses guide him, and when his kisses take on a frantic edge, David tightens his fist and gives Joe long, hard strokes until Joe’s mouth goes slack and lush and he falls apart in a shuddering mess.

Joe revels in the aftershocks, pushing into David’s slippery hand and clinging tight until the pleasure has unspooled into a shivery thread. By then, his leg is hooked over the back of David’s knee, holding him close, because apparently Joe knows exactly what he wants, and all his stretches of introspection are his way of weighing things, waiting for the right time. With the urgency gone, his mouth drifts down David’s throat at an unhurried pace; slow, self-indulgent suction on every trigger David’s got, so all David can do is arch his neck for more and push against Joe until he’s swollen and wet against Joe’s belly, and so close he can’t stop himself from saying, “Please.”

“What do you want?” Joe asks, his leg tightening around David’s. “Are you close?” His teeth graze David’s earlobe, a soft brush of tongue that hollows him out with its sharp edge of pleasure, and yes, the answer is yes, but he doesn’t get the chance to say so because then Joe slides both hands down over the slope of David’s ass and pulls him in hard, with a rough “How’s this, you like this?” and David’s stomach bottoms out as he tumbles into an orgasm that goes on and on until he’s holding on to Joe just as hard as he’s being held, and when it’s all over there’s an embarrassing tremble to his thighs and he’s smeared Joe’s come into the sheets.

“Yes, I liked that,” David mumbles into Joe’s pillow, a smile tugging at his lips, and then pulls himself up for one more kiss, this time without the filter of arousal, although he can still feel that there, still in his blood, in his head, where he carries the things that make him want this so badly. His hands brace against the mattress on either side of Joe’s chest, while Joe’s hands cradle David’s face. He can feel the scrape of his stubble against Joe’s palms as they slide their tongues together until David’s arms begin to ache and he collapses next to Joe.

“Oh God,” he says, staring at the ceiling, hot and sticky, his skin still pulsing with vague traces of pleasure. “I can’t believe we just did that.” He wants to do it again.

“Yeah?” A glance over at Joe reveals that Joe is still half-interested, hair damp at his temples and flush with colour all down his throat. His belly is wet all over.

“Yeah. I mean, are you- do you…”

“Shh,” Joe says, his eyes falling shut. “It’s too early for that.” And it’s disgusting, the way he pulls the covers up and uses the sheet to wipe himself off, but disgusting in a way that sends a shot of warmth through David’s midsection, so he takes his half of the covers and rearranges his pillow. It only takes a few minutes to find sleep.

***


A private motel room doesn’t make a smooth translation to the real world. It’s one thing when David rolls over the morning after and wants to feel the warm skin on Joe’s back—he just slides his hand under the covers to make it happen—but it’s another thing entirely to walk the aisle of a 7-11 the next day with a proper amount of space between the snug fit of Joe’s jeans and his own empty fingers. Just because Joe had turned to him in a dark motel room doesn’t mean he wants David’s touch on his thigh on a long stretch of highway…or maybe it does, and maybe he just doesn’t know how to ask.

“Your hair is starting to curl,” Joe says, just before the Colorado border. He’s been giving David surreptitious little glances for the past hour, in between sips of black gas station coffee.

“It does that,” David says, going for casual while his skin prickles all over from the close attention. “When it gets long enough, which I guess it has, and—“

“I like it.” The lightest of touches on the back of his neck stops the nervous babble in its tracks, and it’s all David can do to keep from driving them over the centre line. It’s like a jolt of electricity flaring through him from head to toe, coaxed along by Joe’s careful, clever fingers, the hint of a smile playing on his lips when David risks a quick sidelong glance.

“Joe—“

“Pull over,” Joe says, after a beat, nothing unusual in the request except for the way his voice sounds, rough with something David recognises from those long hours before dawn.

“Too much coffee?” he asks absently, though he knows that’s not it, that’s not it at all, even as he’s turning the wheel and coasting the car to a gradual stop somewhere just beyond the highway. The engine idles for a moment and then stops, and David can hear the motor ticking softly as it starts to cool, a strange counterpoint to his own heartbeat. He unfastens his seatbelt with unsteady hands, and beside him, Joe does the same. A cluster of flame-coloured trees separates them from the road, barely any traffic and nothing for miles except endless sky and the space between them.

A space that vanishes in the curve of Joe’s hand against his arm, pulling him closer and David lets himself be drawn in willingly, a flood of bright understanding leaving him more than a little light-headed. Joe’s fingers are tangled in his hair, and his mouth opens for David, teeth and tongue and slow, unhurried kisses, pausing only to move into the back seat, both of them flushed and damp.

They move like underwater things in the late afternoon light, and David is giddy with this still-new blanket permission to touch Joe in all the places he’s only ever thought about before: his throat, his wrist, the soft warm curve of belly under his t-shirt. Joe seems just as amazed by David, placing careful kisses in the hollow of his collarbone, murmuring softly against his neck as they move slowly, deliberately, against each other, brand-new rules measured out in the shift of thighs, the giving and taking of pleasure.


*

“We should just drive forever,” David says much later, when the sky is stained ink-blue, the last of the setting sun not much more than a shimmer just above the horizon, a scattered handful of stars already drifting above them. “Keep on going until we run out of highway.”

“Or gas,” Joe says, sleepy-slow from where he lies, curled against the curve of David’s hip, his head on David’s shoulder, a warm, comfortable weight in the half-light.

“Ha, ha.” David’s fingers find Joe’s, and he twines them together, a tiny thrill racing through him that it’s so easy, so allowed, to do exactly that. “Apparently I hooked up with a funny guy.”

Joe’s response is a low chuckle that ends in a soft moan when David dips his head and bites gently into the soft underside of his jaw, desire tightening his belly, everything else suddenly nowhere near as important as what’s happening right now.


*

“Let’s find a desert,” Joe says while the windshield wipers spread icy slush across the window. “Someplace where it’s dry, where we can go outside and do something.”

“Everything I want to do is indoors,” David says, and slides his hand up the inside of Joe’s thigh just in case he missed the point.

“Mmm, yeah,” Joe says absently. He spreads his legs, knees splayed widely apart on the seat, and David had just been kidding, but he can’t help himself from cupping between them, his whole hand over Joe’s crotch, fingertips wedged against the heat further back. “God.” Joe shudders and pushes into it, and when David tries to put his hand back on the wheel, he covers David’s hand with his own and keeps him there.

It’s such a bad idea to do this while he’s driving, but he doesn’t care, especially not when he feels the shift of Joe’s erection against his hand, a warm, solid shape through his jeans that gets him half-crazed sounds from Joe when he squeezes and rubs his thumb across the swell of the head. “Okay, I, uh-“ David stares at the road, at the tracks of pavement that show through the light covering of snow. “Later,” he says as he reluctantly pulls his hand out from under Joe’s. “I promise, when we stop I’m going to-“ He doesn’t finish, because there’s a difference between doing it and actually saying it out loud.

“What are you going to do?” Joe asks, sounding faintly hopeful, which is ridiculous because at the moment there’s nothing David wouldn’t do to him, for him.

“I’m going to put some gas in the tank, have a smoke, and then stop at the closest motel.”

Joe pops the glove box open and pulls out a map. It takes up his whole side of the front seat when it’s open all the way, his finger following the roads as he looks. When David returns to the car after filling up and buying a pack of smokes from the gas station, he’s still turning the map every which way, frowning at the indecipherable squiggles and shapes. Joe is so literal, he’s better with words than symbols, and even better with his hands. The same confused splotch of heat appears in David’s belly, except there’s a softer edge to the glow this time, and he knows what it means: it means he likes Joe, likes the way he kisses, how he’s no good with the map, and how he keeps a world of thought hidden behind such a casual smile.

David climbs back into the car and plucks the map from Joe’s hands. He presses a light kiss on Joe’s lips as he tosses the map into the back seat, and says, “We don’t need that anymore.”

“Oh yeah? Why not?” Joe smiles against his mouth, a lively buzz of happiness humming between them until David can’t determine its origin, only that they’re both at ease, when a few weeks ago he hadn’t known if Joe would ever let his guard down again.

“Because we’re already where we need to be,” David says, and when Joe huffs out a small, amused laugh, David just fits his key into the ignition.

They’re both still smiling when they take the southbound exit.