~ ~ ~ ~
And a gift, though small, is precious.
Homer, The Iliad
~ ~ ~ ~
20 - cold
He had started his day before it was light, dressing in the gloom and shivering in the hotel's inadequate heating, as he'd been doing for months. There had been interviews, and an in-store appearance, three four-song shows, and crammed between one of those and the taping of another radio interview they had found time to present him with a sadly lopsided but delicious little cake, topped with two large candles, each in the shape of an X, roman numerals for 20. They sang happy birthday to him in perfect harmony and sat in respectful silence as he pondered his wish before blowing out the flames. Lance presented him with a German greeting card that none of them could read, but that they'd all signed anyway, and had made up very funny possible translations for. Justin looked across the table at him, all bright eyes and shining teeth because Justin never seemed to be tired, or cold, and asked him what had he wished for? And later that night Chris and Joey had taken him to a club and bought him drinks even though they didn't have any money to spend, and he'd pretended to be far more drunk than he really was, because Chris sent every penny he could spare home to his Mom and Joey needed his allowance to buy extra food because he was always hungry. But maybe it was because he hadn't eaten much that day except birthday cake, and maybe it was because the alcohol in Germany was stronger, but he was drunk, way drunk, and needed to lay down so desperately that getting back to his frigid hotel room was a relief.
He still had most of his clothes on as he lay shivering on the lumpy mattress, waiting for enough warmth to generate under the thin blankets so he would stop shaking and fall asleep. And it was so dark, and so late, and he was drunk and cold and a million miles away his pretty girlfriend was cheating on him, and a million more miles away his family was just starting the morning of his birthday and by the time they called it would be the day after for him, and he closed his eyes as the alcohol rolled in his stomach, and prayed that the room would stop spinning so he could sleep.
He was more than halfway there, still shivering and waiting for his feet to thaw out but starting to hear the blare of the city as a dreamy white noise when he felt warmth, delicious heat slide under the covers behind him, and as an arm wrapped warmly around his waist he thought fuzzily that it was the first stages of a promising drunken dream. A soft voice whispered in his ear, "what'd you wish for, C?" and he knew you weren't supposed to tell but it was already starting to come true so he whispered back "just, not to be cold . . ." There was a body of steaming, luxurious warmth and smooth, soft skin, with hands that slid slowly down his sweat pants and cupped his ass and stroked his cock, with more enthusiasm than knowledge. Heat splintered down his spine, making him gasp, followed by a tingling warmth that didn't quite reach his frozen toes but it was enough, it was more than enough. He stretched enough to feel that dizzying heat steal forward to twine legs rough with hair around his, and it was warm, exquisitely warm like he hadn't felt in what seemed like months now, and it should've been enough. But he'd been cold for so long and lonely enough to wish there was more to go along with the stroking, soothing hands and then there was, a mouth gliding across and then opening wetly against the side of his neck and breathing moistly in his ear as his toes started to curl, and his hips pistoned as the warm hands stroked and cupped and it took almost no time at all for the spinning world to turn white. He held his breath until he gasped for air, muscles straining, and then collapsed bonelessly with a small groan. He eased back, leaning against the exquisite warmth, finally deliciously warm and relaxed with a soothing voice whispering nonsense in his ear and warm hands stroking his bare back. Sleep came like a fist to the jaw and he went under without a fight.
He woke alone, with a stomach ache and a hangover and a crustiness on his abdomen that made him grimace. He was the last one to stumble in to the bright breakfast room, Joey and Chris squinting companionably at him from their respective hangovers. Lance smiled sympathetically as he handed him three aspirin with his bagel, and he looked carefully at Justin when he sat down across the table from him. Justin scowled at him over his cereal just like always, his blue eyes blurry with sleep, and everything was like it had always been.
~ ~ ~ ~
22 - alone
The third time he wouldn't admit to himself that he was hoping, but he was.
There was no time during this tour, no time for a day off or a weekend away or even a leisurely dinner, and between promotions and appearances and concerts there was simply no time, and so he told his girlfriend not to bother flying out, she'd just have to turn around and leave again and there was no time to spend with her anyway. There was a very quick dinner and a birthday cake squeezed in between sound check and the radio interview two hours before the show, this time with twenty-two tiny red candles on a chocolate multi-layered cake with raspberry filling and creamy frosting, and it said "happy birthday spazz!" on it in loopy curlicue writing, and for a moment he didn't feel so isolated as they crowded around him, hugging him and holding on to him hard, and Chris put his tongue in his ear to make him shriek and Joey threw him over his shoulder and carried him up and down the hallways of the venue, inviting all the crew members to give him his birthday spankings while he laughed helplessly. Lance lit the candles and smiled at him as he hesitated before blowing them out, and Justin sat close enough for him to feel the warmth radiating from his body, watching with bright eyes and asking him what he'd wished for, grinning brilliantly when JC reminded him that telling would make it not come true.
There was nothing like the spectacular bone-deep exhaustion that crashed into you when the performance adrenaline wore off, he could already feel it starting to stagger through his limbs and he could only hope that he was close enough to his bunk on the bus so that someone wouldn't have to carry him there when it hit. Chris broke open a new bottle of tequila to help him sleep, and they all did shots in mismatched little glasses that had been collected from little convenience stores all over the continent. Joey carefully showed Justin how to suck the lime juice and salt off the plump part of his hand before throwing the shot into his mouth, and laughed at Justin's earnest face as he sucked diligently at his hand and tossed back the shot like a pro. But then he coughed until his eyes watered, and Joey had pounded him on the back before pushing Justin away, saying that was enough for him. Nobody had to show Lance how but he stopped himself after two, expressing solidarity with Justin, and they wandered off to their bunks while the other three said "just one more" eight more times each, and Joey and Chris sang happy birthday to him again before stumbling into their respective bunks.
The curtain shut out all but the brightest of the street lamps flashing through the tinted windows and sliding behind his tequila-soaked eyelids, and as the bus settled into silence he wrapped his solitude around him and thought tiredly that this birthday was almost over and he couldn't remember what he had wished for.
He hadn't been asleep for long, or maybe he had been for awhile because he could dimly hear both Joey and Chris snoring from their bunks down the hall and theirs were the closest to his. The low hum of the bus motor almost obscured the soft voice whispering "what'd you wish for, C?" in his ear, and he tried to answer but the tequila and the exhaustion prevented his mouth from working properly and he could only whimper as he felt the warm body nestle into his side. Soft hands stroked easily down his chest and over his stomach, and a moist and heated tongue laved a slow path up the side of his neck and he gasped and tried to open his eyes but they'd left the city and there were no lights, and with the curtain closed tight the darkness was complete and he couldn't tell if his eyes were open or closed.
Warm breath that scented faintly of lime and tequila and mint toothpaste drifted over his cheek before moist lips settled firmly on his, and a warm tongue slid lazily into his mouth as he gasped, and the voice whispered again, faintly over the sound of the bus motor, "what'd you wish for?" But the mouth didn't wait for his answer, already gnawing gently on the point of his chin before moving slowly and steadily down the other side of his neck, and his head fell back and his eyes rolled under his heavy lids as a tongue flicked gently at his already hardened left nipple, and he wrapped his hands around silky smooth shoulders as he breathed, "not to be alone."
And he thought he felt the head shake no as it moved lower, slipping under his nerveless hands, breathing moist heat on his stomach, making the muscles underneath clench with tension, making him shiver with need. Large, warm hands wrapped firmly around his hips, sliding his shorts down and holding him still though his ass clenched and his hips begged to roll. His legs were spread gently and a smooth, heated weight settled between them, coaxing his ankles up and around until they crossed together over a lean, slightly damp back. There was a brief hesitation and he lifted his neck, strained to look, to see, but one of the hands pushed him back down before spreading, huge and heavy, over his lower abdomen and the moist, slick warmth sliding slowly down his cock made it impossible to lift his head again. The sucking sounds were so faint over the hum of the motor and the low throb of the rubber wheels on the pavement but they were just loud enough, just enough to provide a visual on the back of his eyelids as the mouth moved lazily up and down, tongue swirling easily around the achingly hard tip as if it had all the time in the world. He whimpered a little as he felt one hand spread hard and possessively over the tight muscles of his stomach and the other moved down to work languidly in the darker space deep between his legs, making his thighs clench hard around the body positioned between them. He was gasping for air in the stuffy little bunk, there was a roaring in his ears and bright lights splintered behind his eyes and he needed this to be over, desperately needed to finish this but he didn't want it ever, ever to end and he fought it until his own body rebelled against exhaustion and loneliness and tequila, twisting and tightening against his will, spurting hard into incredible heat and soothing moisture and he relaxed finally against the mattress in a breathless heap.
And it was too warm in the cramped little bunk and they were both too sweaty to be comfortable but as he was pulled firmly and wrapped securely into long, sinewy arms, his head cradled on a solid, damp shoulder, and as he slid his arms around the firm and silky waist, it didn't matter at all.
~ ~ ~ ~
25 - not fade away
The sixth time he admitted that he was hoping, but only to himself and only when he was alone.
This tour was simply brutal, and so huge and unwieldy and overwhelming, and even their occasional days off were not days off, there was an overwhelming amount of press and promotion, and the damage control from having the release of the new CD pushed back until the tour was almost half over ate up their time. It should have been easier, their staff had increased by more than 400%, and it should have taken the worst of the load off. But they were so huge now, there were so many eyes on them.
His birthday was, as usual, right smack in the middle of the tour, and there was no time, really, there was never any time, but it was Lance who insisted that they take the evening off, go to a real restaurant and celebrate properly. The cake had been simply huge, a gigantic sheet of a cake decorated with an amazingly detailed miniature of the popodyssey stage, complete with little figures lined up on the catwalk. It said "Happy Birthday JC!" in multicolored block letters, had 25 candles placed cunningly on the miniature stage to imitate little pyro blasts. It was probably the best cake money could buy, would easily feed the hundred or so people in the room, and JC had the bleak thought that it would be as tasteless as sawdust.
He looked around the posh Japanese restaurant that had been privately rented for this event, and sighed into his umpteenth cup of sake. All these people who had been invited to this "close friends only" little birthday party. He didn't know two-thirds of them, recognized others only by sight. Was it possible to feel this alone in a crowded room full of peopled gathered for the sole reason of celebrating his birth?
Scattered among the crowd was Joey, holding court with half his extended family and assorted hangers-on. Chris was in an opposite corner, doing some hard drinking with a large group of their crew members. Lance, smiling his slick smile at the room in general and the group around him in particular even while he continued to talk on his cell phone. Justin was nowhere in sight, although he'd been there during dinner, at a separate table, watching him carefully but too far away to talk to. He finished his sake and looked around for another one, and it was provided by a waiter whose job probably depended on his ability to read minds.
One more shot of sake and he could almost see and feel the winds of change swirling around him. And he had trained himself to think that they were inevitable, they were good, they were important, and he'd created more than a few of those stirs himself, in his own quiet way. Of course they were huge now, they'd gone from a small, independently owned shop to a giant global corporation with a chain store in every city, there were plans in place that would deal with every possible direction the music-buying public might go, they had the finest management and public relations departments that money could buy, and the machine pretty much ran itself. Or would, for the short amount of time they were talking about taking off. A hiatus, a few months, no more than six. Maybe eight.
"Look, you know I don't like Japanese food," she said, nudging him sharply for what was probably the fourth time, and he shrugged, having run out of options for making her happy. "I'm going to get out of here, find some real food somewhere." She looked at him challengingly, her perfectly shaped eyebrows raised slightly, and he was again at a loss to provide her with an answer that would satisfy her. She waited expectantly for a moment, then looked away, reaching for her purse, her long hair shielding her face and he said, "uhm, look, I'll walk you out, okay?" She nodded, unsmiling, and he felt the same sort of helplessness that had characterized almost every dealing he'd had with her and with everyone around him for the last six months.
He waited with her in the foyer of the restaurant as one of the security guards brought a car around, swaying slightly and wishing he hadn't had quite so much, or perhaps a great deal more, sake. If he wasn't seeing triple images of her maybe he could think of something to say, but even the process of trying to come up with something to erase that frown from her pretty face exhausted him. He could hear rain, hard rain and thunder quite close from the other side of the door, and he was trying to formulate a thought to go along with that when she turned suddenly to him.
"JC. Maybe this isn't the best time, but you and I . . . ah, this isn't working out, and I don't know about you, but I'm getting really tired of trying . . ." she broke off as he blinked hard, trying to consolidate the multiple visions in front of him into one woman. He opened his mouth to answer, to say something, but she shook her head violently and he stopped, his mouth gaping like a fish. She was breaking up with him, and all he could really think was wow, was she really doing this on his birthday?
She apparently was. She was saying something about packing and getting a flight out immediately, tonight, and did she just say something about taking a break? Breaks, hiatuses, lots of that going around these days. She was making crying noises but he didn't see any real tears, or anything genuinely regretful in her eyes. Instead he saw things like the ungodly expensive earrings he'd bought her for her birthday last year, and the handbag on her arm that would cost a month's salary for one of their crew members. She'd flown out here from the west coast to celebrate his birthday with him, but he'd paid for her ticket and he was pretty sure she hadn't even brought him a gift. Not even a real smile, or a convincing performance that she'd enjoyed being here. And something deep in him broke a little because he thought he had loved her once, loved her very much, but it seemed so long ago, something that had happened to someone else like so many things seemed to these days, and he couldn't dredge up tears that would show her that he cared still. It seemed too much like every other unreal thing that had happened around him in the last part of this year.
He tried to say something, to apologize, but what came out was "do you have an umbrella?" and she laughed a little as she wiped at her eyes and opened the door to the heavy rain. She looked back at him once more, outlined against pouring rain and a hard flash of lightning that backlit her silhouette like a horror movie heroine for a moment, then the door closed behind her and he was alone in the suddenly dark foyer. He looked back down the hallway, toward the party, then again at the dark front door. Had she ever really been there at all? He was breathing hard, like he'd just sprinted up the catwalk from the satellite stage to the main, but he hadn't moved. It didn't seem real.
He turned carefully to make his way back down the tastefully decorated hallway, and the men's room was just as tastefully decorated as the lobby and the private dining areas, and he'd really had too much to drink because he had to brace one hand against the wall over the urinal to keep himself upright and he was really, really glad that the room smelled and looked so clean, or touching that wall would've freaked him out. He lingered as he washed his hands, his thoughts rolling slowly around ideas of breaks and hiatuses and being on his own and what that would and could mean. But it was his birthday and there a huge roomful of people to celebrate with, and had he imagined the familiar figure at the entrance to the private room at the end of the hallway, waiting for him? He was still breathing unsteadily and he felt weak with what he dimly recognized as anticipation when he heard someone enter the room behind him, because it was his birthday and that had come to mean certain things to him. There was a particularly loud boom of thunder and the lights abruptly went out, and he swayed and would have fallen, disoriented in the suddenly pitch dark room, but hands fastened on his shoulders, pulling him against a strong familiar body, holding him tightly as he reeled.
"C. What'd you wish for?" the voice whispered silkily in his ear, and he wanted to answer, to put into words the nameless anxieties that clawed at him, but he couldn't because his mouth was full of smooth, cool skin that tasted slightly salty and slightly sweet, and the hands on his shoulders slid up the sides of his neck, over his head and smoothing over his hair before diving underneath, scraping lightly over his scalp. There was an immediate grinding passion that obliterated whatever remaining vocal abilities he possessed, and he groaned as he felt himself coaxed, stumbling, into the handicapped stall at the far end of the dark restroom.
That lush mouth was pressing fervently to his forehead, his eyelids, his left ear, and finally his mouth, their tongues tangling desperately for a minute before he was set firmly away by hands that trembled a little, that continued to stroke his chest and waist even as they kept him at a slight distance, close enough to feel the warmth but too far away to taste it, and he stifled an expletive as the voice whispered again, "c'mon, C, what did you wish for?"
The sake tangled hard with the emotions crowding his throat, and he could barely whisper his answer as the hands drew him, almost against their own will, back into strong arms and his own hands found purchase in the loose waistband of custom fitted designer jeans. He twisted inside the soft cloth, feeling smooth skin and nothing else beneath the denim and he fought to give voice to the fears that choked at him. "It's all changing. Everything . . . I just want things to not fall apart . . ."
Then he had in his hand the gorgeous satin weight of a smooth and round ass as it shimmied out of the designer jeans, the very contour of which had driven him to distraction in his dreams and he dove his left hand down to the join the right as that mouth took possession of his again, the tongue swirling around his and licking nastily at the corners of his mouth, and he shuddered as he felt his own pants being unbuttoned, unzipped, loosened and dropped. The darkness spun around him and pinpointed on their harsh breathing and the friction of their cocks, his own still covered by his briefs, grinding deliciously together. His hands were frantic, desperate and grasping on the uncovered body before him and he was only dimly aware of his briefs being rolled down his legs to join the hobbling confines of his pants around his knees, the snap of latex and the smooth feel of it as shaking fingers rolled over his painfully engorged cock.
The darkness was complete as his hands scrabbled over the suddenly presented smooth length of spine and gripped hard around lean hips. He felt himself breathless and afraid, his senses reeling, and he pressed his open mouth to the back curved below him, scraping his teeth down the vertebrae and feeling the long, elegant muscles brace, and then he clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut, moaning almost silently as he went in, felt himself slide slowly into that perfect pulsating opening. He hesitated, panting harshly as the room spun and the scents and sensations threatened to overwhelm, rolled his head back and tried to focus on something in the absolute darkness, but there was a low groan, a whispered "c'mon, JC, c'mon" as he was nudged, coaxed, and even that slight friction was too much and he could not hold back, leaning forward to brace one hand on a smoothly flexed hip and wrapping the other around the warm, pulsing cock on the other side. Sweat dripped from his forehead but he could not see it land as he squirmed and rocked, delirious with a desperate craving and rising ecstasy, and the sudden warm liquid pulsing over his hand and the voice gasping words of love and need was more than enough to send him over the edge.
He might have passed out, the darkness was that complete, but now the fluorescent lights flickered on and steadied and he realized he was alone in the handicapped stall of a very posh restroom, leaning breathless against a very clean wall, and there was water running in the sink outside, and then Justin was there, helping him clean up, zip up, button up, smiling at him in gentle amusement and saying "you always get so wasted on your birthdays, man . . ." and he wondered as he was led back to his party if this was maybe just one more thing that wasn't really happening to him.
~ ~ ~ ~
26 - what you wish for
The seventh time he would've maybe admitted it out loud, but there was nobody there to hear.
For the first time in longer than he could remember, he was without the people closest to him on this day. It had been an odd feeling, a different one, and he'd savored it in a fascinated, almost morbid way, trying it out to see if he liked this feeling or not. There had been telephone calls from Joey and Lance that he hadn't answered and emails from them that he hadn't opened. There had been an animation art exhibit that he'd attended on this day only because his schedule the rest of the week had been too full to fit in, and there would be more messages mocking his choice of a birthday activity when word of that got out. Chris had taken him to dinner the previous weekend and promised him a special gift when he returned from his private travels in France, the next time they saw each other, which probably wouldn't be until the very end of the month or even later. Justin had parted from him on Sunday night after an award show with a casual wave, and a smile, and a "don't get too wasted on your birthday, huh?" as he winked and climbed into the car that would take him to the airport and to the opposite coast for yet another awards show. As far as he knew, Justin was still in Miami.
But none of that mattered, really, that's what this hiatus was for, for all of them to make sure that they could live apart from each other, that they could function alone and they all were doing that very well. They were all achievers, and of course they were all performing well at whatever they chose to spend their time doing. Mostly it felt right.
Today there had been a leisurely dinner with those he privately referred to as his west coast friends, and a generous slice of cheesecake with a single candle that had been brought to the table while the west coast friends and restaurant staff sang an abbreviated version of Happy Birthday to him. He'd smiled and thanked them all, but he hated cheesecake, always had, so he didn't know how this one tasted.
He was 26 and his birthday had been over for a few hours now. He was absolutely sober, and he was wide awake and sitting up in his bed, leaning against the headboard. He was in his own house and he was not cold because he could control the temperature, and he was alone only because he wished to be, and the room was brilliantly but softly lit with the glow of the moon through strategically placed skylights, illuminating every detail. This time, if he had the chance, he would say out loud that he was hoping as he waited. He continued to hope as the hours ticked on and he wasn't really surprised when he heard his automatic garage door open and close, the scrape of a key and a door opening deep inside the house, and the faint electronic beeps of the alarm being disabled and reset.
And then he was there, in the doorway and he stopped when he saw him wide awake and waiting, and he asked the question that JC had been waiting for years to answer. "I wished for you," he said, and Justin smiled like the sunrise on a perfectly clear day and said, "I thought you'd never ask."