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To a Place We Never Kept

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The plan had been hatched at 4:52 in the morning, June 19th, 1994. It was one of those details that Eric remembered for no good reason at all, like the color of Turtle's t-shirt and the fact that Vince had still been wearing his graduation cap.

4:52, and Turtle's smoke rings were drifting up towards the ceiling from where he lay stretched out on the floor. Eric was sprawled out on the couch, watching them trace their lazy paths upwards and burst into nothingness as they came into range of the ceiling fan. He twisted the tassel from Vince's cap through his fingers as he watched, Vince's head leaning heavily against his side.

"Johnny's moving to LA," Vince announced from the floor, nudging Turtle's hip with his toes. "Did I tell you that?"

"Good for Johnny," Turtle replied, squirming out of range of Vince's legs. "I give it six months, tops."

"You're more generous than E," said Vince.

"How long'd you give him?" Turtle asked.

"Three," Eric replied. "You've still got your hat on," he told Vince, tugging on the tassel.

"And you're drunk," Vince replied, tipping his head back and giving Eric his most charming upside-down smile. Eric pinched the back of his neck, and Vince ducked away, grinning. "What?" he asked with an innocent look. "I thought we were playing a game of Let's State the Obvious."

"I always thought you'd be the first one of us to leave, Vince," Turtle said, rolling over onto his stomach and looking at him. "Never figured it'd be Drama."

"Yeah, well, he didn't get the name for nothing. Guy never does anything halfway."

"What about you?" Turtle asked. "How long do you give him?"

Eric couldn't see Vince frowning from where he was, but he could feel it in the way Vince's neck got tight, the way he stiffened just a little. "I'm not taking bets," was all he said, and Eric gave his neck another little squeeze before pulling his hand away.

Turtle nodded, considering. "Pussy," he finally decided, and rolled back over, staring up at the ceiling.

"My mom wants me to go with him," Vince said.

"What?" Eric sat up, knocking Vince's hat off in the process.

"Chill, E." Vince held up a hand. "Not permanently, just to see if I like it. She's been on my case since I told her I want to go into acting. She thinks maybe if I go with him and hate LA, I'll come home a changed man, ready to settle down into a life of accounting or whatever."

"You can go to Queens Community with E," said Turtle. "Become business partners, be the prettiest accountant this side of the Mississippi. And the shortest," he added, glancing at Eric.

"I'm not studying accounting, dipshit," Eric said. "How long would you be gone?" he asked Vince.

"A few weeks, maybe?" Vince guessed.

Eric thought about summer without Vince, long hot afternoons stretching into sticky evenings without having Vince's floor to sprawl out on, all the fans in the house blowing into their faces. He thought about weeks with Turtle, with Dom, with the other guys on the block without Vince there to drag him off just before he got annoyed enough to belt someone in the face. Weeks without Johnny there to supply them with booze, resorting to pinching it from their parents again, sneaking hard-earned dollars into the grimy hands of the guy who worked the stockroom at the liquor store on the corner.

"Sounds great," he said lamely, tipping his head back against the arm of the couch and closing his eyes.

They lapsed into silence, the very beginnings of daylight beginning to peek in around the edges of the curtain. On the floor, Turtle's breath turned slow and even, with just a hint of a snore on each exhale. Eric was halfway into a dream about running through the water from a broken fire hydrant when Vince whispered, jolting him awake.

"I'm not going without you, you know that, right?"

"Hmm?" Eric asked, rolling onto his side.

Vince tilted his head back against the couch, looking up at him. "You really trust me and Johnny to drive across the country on our own?" he asked.

"Not really, no," Eric admitted.

"Anyway, I'm going to have to fly back. You know how I feel about flying, E."

"You've never done it," Eric reminded him.

"Exactly. What if I have a heart attack and die because I have to fly all the way across the country by myself? Then how would you feel?"

"You're eighteen, Vince, you're not going to have a heart attack."

"I could," Vince said. "You don't know." He was quiet for a moment, looking at Eric with his biggest, saddest pleading eyes. "Plus, you owe me."

"I owe you?" Eric asked. "Please, tell me your logic on this one, I'm dying to hear it."

"You're leaving me."

Eric closed his eyes and sighed. It was too late – or too early – to be having this conversation. "I'm going to Queens Community, Vince, I'm not going anywhere."

"Yet," Vince finished. "You're going to finish school and get some job and be gone, and Johnny's already leaving, and then it's just going to be me and Turtle, here on this street, for the rest of our lives. E, this could be it, okay? This could be the last big adventure we ever have. The only big adventure we ever have." The cushions shifted as he climbed up from the floor and settled at the other end of the couch. "I can't do this without you," he said. "I won't. I'll stay here and be miserable all summer, and you'll end up hating me."

"I hate you right now," Eric mumbled into the pillow, stretching out his legs into Vince's lap.

"You don't, you love me," Vince said, pinching Eric's ankle, and Eric kicked him in the side.

"Do you really think I'm going to love you after driving entirely across the country with you?" Eric asked. "Because I'm pretty sure I won't."

"There's only one way to find out," Vince said. When Eric peeked at him, he was smiling just a little, out of the corner of his mouth, a little smile that said he knew he'd gotten Eric's answer as soon as he'd even mentioned a roadtrip.

"Fine, yeah, okay, I'll go," Eric told him, and Vince beamed in a way that made Eric remember why they'd become friends in the first place. "But only because you and Drama wouldn't even make it into Jersey without me."

"We go north on 95, right?" Vince asked. He was still grinning as he leaned his head back against the couch cushions and closed his eyes. "Our last big adventure, E."

"Our first one," Eric corrected him, and fell asleep with Vince's fingers tracing a map of the country against his jeans.

The morning they left, Eric woke to the sound of rocks pinging against Vince's window. Cracking it open, he leaned out into the muggy summer air and glared down at Turtle on the porch.

"What could you possibly want at eight in the morning?" he asked.

"I have four cups of coffee, one bag of Big Jerry's finest, and a guy who is willing to buy that," Turtle said, pointing across the street, where a van was jammed dangerously into a spot a foot and a half too small for it, "when we get to LA, so Drama can get himself a real car."

Eric blinked sleepily at him. "And?" he finally asked.

"And you're not getting any of it unless I get to be your fourth," Turtle told him. He held up one of the coffees, waving it in Eric's direction. "Milk and two sugars," he said. "Come open the fucking door."

Vince was still asleep, hugging a pillow to his chest, face burrowed into his blanket. He grumbled slightly as Eric crawled across the bed to the door, but he didn't wake up, just rolled towards the wall and hid his face more effectively under the covers. "You knew this was going to happen," Eric said to him as he opened the door, and Vince snuffled into the blanket in response.

It was the smell of bacon cooking in the kitchen that finally got Vince downstairs, although not entirely upright. He curled up on the couch and buried his face against Eric's shoulder, fingers wrapped around his coffee cup, guarding it until he was functional enough not to spill it all down his front. In the kitchen, Johnny and Rita were bickering over the best way to make the eggs, and Eric let his head fall back against the couch, listening to their voices get higher and louder as they had their last battle while living under the same roof. "Won't miss that," Vince mumbled against his neck, and Eric smiled at the ceiling.

"Yeah," he said. "You will."

"Johnny's right, Ma," Vince called into the kitchen.

There was silence for a moment in which Eric could practically hear Johnny's smug grin, then their mother yelling back, "Fine, Vincent, you can move to Los Angeles and have your brother cook you breakfast every morning." There was a long pause, the clinking of dishes, and then her head poked around the corner. "I didn't mean that, you know. You stay in California and you're never allowed back in this house, you hear me?"

Vince grumbled into Eric's shirt.

"You hear me, right, Eric?" Rita asked him, and he nodded dutifully. "It's your job to bring one of my boys home with you."

"Dibs on keeping Vince in LA and sending Drama home," Turtle muttered under his breath, but not until Vince's mother had safely disappeared into the kitchen.

It was a breakfast just like any other in the Chase house, except for the way the conversation kept dropping off and lagging at unexpected moments when Rita would daze off, looking at Johnny like she was trying to commit to memory every second of his last meal at home. She quizzed them about their route, and made Eric show her their highlighted map not once, but three times. "You don't want to get lost around here," she said, pointing vaguely to the middle of the country. "I had a cousin, got lost out there and never came home again." She looked pointedly at Vince, then stabbed at the map with her fingernail.

"He didn't get lost, Ma, he married a rancher's daughter," Johnny reminded her, but she waved her hands at him and turned to ask Turtle about that time he'd had a fender bender on his way to school, and was he sure he wasn't going to make that kind of mistake again with her boys in the car? Vince kicked Eric lightly under the table, and Eric gave him a tiny smile over his toast, both of them pointedly refraining from mentioning that the car hadn't been entirely free of her sons that day either.

They packed the van with a minimum of injuries (and Eric maintained that it was Drama's fault the dresser had fallen on Turtle's foot, not his), and Johnny and Rita haggled over dividing up the dishes, Rita automatically claiming everything that was still drying in the rack, and sneakily adding things to the pile while Johnny wasn't looking. It was finally Turtle coming in from outside and saying "ice cream truck, guys!" that got Johnny out of the kitchen.

They stood in the living room for a moment or two, peering out the window, until finally it was Johnny who reached into his pocket, pulled out a few crumpled dollars, and asked "for old time's sake?"

They sat on the porch and ate their ice cream, the four of them, just like they had every summer since they were six. Eric leaned back against Vince's knees and licked the tiny trickle of vanilla that made its way down between his knuckles, watching the kids across the street playing soccer with trashcans as their goalposts. "Think they have ice cream trucks in California?" Johnny asked wistfully.

"It's summer for like ten months out of the year, Drama," Turtle said. "I think they have ice cream trucks, yeah."

"They don't have our ice cream truck, though," Vince added, and he and Johnny toasted each other with their empty sticks.

"If you boys want to miss the midday traffic, you'd better leave soon," Rita called out the window, and Johnny drooped a little, staring at his popsicle stick and reading the printed joke over and over. "I'm gonna…" he eventually said, waving at the door, and the others nodded, Vince slapping him on the back as he stood.

"How long before we assume she tied you up in the basement and send in the troops?" Eric asked.

"That's my mother you're talking about, E," Drama said, kicking his shoulder lightly, and Eric ducked away.

"Yeah, that's my point," he said, but he raised his ice cream in salute as Johnny disappeared into the house.

"Man, I can't wait to do that," Turtle said, tossing his stick into the street. "Get out of my ma's, go do something."

"You say that now," said Vince, "but you'll see, you'll be worse than Johnny."

"Will not," Turtle objected, frowning. "You don't have to live with my ma. Anyway, you'll be next, I bet."

Vince just shook his head, smiling a little, and clapped Eric on the back. "Well, my mom will just have to adopt the two of you, then," he said.

"It's cute, it's like he thinks she hasn't already," Eric said to Turtle, and Turtle snorted.

They sat quietly until Johnny got back, watching the game across the street, Turtle stretching out over the stairs and tipping his face back to catch the sun. If Johnny's face was a little red when he took his place next to Vince, no one mentioned it, and Vince patted him on the back, then took Turtle's hat and jumped to his feet, jostling Eric down a step.

"What the fuck, Vin?" Turtle said, and Eric grumbled his agreement.

"You heard the lady," Vince said, nudging Turtle with his toes. "Let's get this show on the road."

"You be careful with my boys, you hear me, Eric? Turtle?" their mom said, poking her head out the door, and both of them nodded seriously.

"We will, Rita," Eric assured her, and climbed to his feet to let her hug him. She pulled Vince to her next, taking Turtle's hat off his head and tossing it back to him, then saying something low and quiet beside Vince's ear that none of the others could hear. Then she clung to Johnny one last time, and all but pushed him down the stairs after the others.

"You boys call when you get to California," she said.

"Yeah, we'll send you a postcard, Ma," Vince replied, and winked over his shoulder at her before she could reply.

She shook her head and waved from the porch as they climbed in, Turtle driving, Johnny shotgun, Eric and Vince and the colorcoded map sharing the back. The van gave a few sputters as Turtle started it up, then lurched as he pulled off their spot on the curb, and then they were on their way, Rita waving from the front porch and Johnny leaning out the window to wave back as they drove away from their street, and towards everything else.

It was an hour into their trip, and all Eric could see when he peered around Turtle was a sea of brakelights stretched out over the Jersey Turnpike.

Johnny reached over Turtle and leaned on the horn. "Yeah, that's gonna help, Drama," Eric told him.

"It's like these people have never heard of forward motion," Johnny said sulkily. "They're going to throw off all of E's carefully executed plans, and then where will we be? Stuck on the roadside in the middle of Kansas a week and a half from now, when I'm supposed to be auditioning for Pacific Blue, that's where."

"Relax, Johnny," Vince said, patting him on the shoulder over the seat. "E's got plenty of backup plans. Right?" he asked, turning to Eric.

Eric shrugged, waving the map at Vince. "The whole country's made of backup plans," he said, which, once he said it, didn't sound entirely reassuring. "Anyway, we're not even going through Kansas," he added.

There was a hollow thunk as Johnny's head hit the dashboard. "We're doomed," he said to his shoes.

"Think of it this way, Drama," Turtle said, smacking the back of Johnny's head lightly, "you could be making this trip by yourself."

"Keep your eyes on the road," Johnny grumbled, but when he picked his head back up, he was scowling slightly less, and turned around to make a peace offering of M&Ms to Eric a few minutes later.

They passed an accident an exit after that, and by the time they pulled onto 80, the traffic had let up. Johnny and Turtle had the windows rolled down, and Eric closed his eyes as the wind rushed in around the front seats, sending Vince's hair flying in all directions. He stayed like that for a while, head tipped back against the seat, the air cooling his face, until Vince stage whispered "E's sleeping" to the front seat.

"No I'm not," Eric said, and Turtle snickered, locking eyes with him in the rearview mirror.

"Sure, E," he said. "A few miles out of the city and you're already passing out on us. Some company you're going to be."

"Better not pull that when it's your turn to drive," Vince said, and when Eric rolled his head to look at him, Vince was smiling at him, arm tossed up on the seat between them, looking like he was just about to ruffle Eric's hair.

Eric gave him a warning look and shifted a little closer to the window. "What about your turn to drive?" he asked. "Oh, that's right, you failed your driving test and never bothered taking it again. Some help you're going to be."

"Why do you think I brought you guys?" he asked. "You were my contribution to the cause. I wasn't going to make Johnny drive the whole way."

"Thanks, little bro," said Johnny. "Although I could do without these two being smartasses all the way to California," he added.

"Sorry, Drama, that's just what happens when your ass is naturally smarter than everyone else's ass," Turtle said apologetically.

"We can invest in some duct tape at the next rest stop," Vince suggested.

"Or I could wait til you pussies all head into the bathroom and take my van to California by myself," Turtle said.

Eric laughed. "What would you do in LA, Turtle?"

"Do better business than Drama could ever do with those one-time TV guest spots he does," Turtle said indignantly. "Sorry, Drama. What? I know a guy," he added when Eric met his eyes skeptically in the mirror.

"There will be no dealing in illegal substances when you're under my roof, Turtle," Johnny said, turning to point at Turtle in what he clearly thought to be a menacing fashion. "I am a legitimate actor, and I’m moving to LA on legitimate acting business. None of your funny stuff, hear me?"

"That mean you don't want any from the bag I stashed under Vince's seat?" Turtle asked, and Johnny took his finger back, frowning.

"I didn't mean there'd be no partaking," he qualified. "Just no selling."

"Deal," Turtle said, reaching over to shake. Johnny pointedly ignored his hand and gestured towards the wheel until Turtle put both hands back on it.

"You weren't such a 'legitimate actor' a few months ago when you were still selling in the high school parking lot," Eric commented.

"I've grown as a person since then, E," Johnny said, and Eric and Vince exchanged a smirk. "Anyway, I'll have you know that a good portion of this trip is being financed from the proceeds from that venture," he added.

"Oh yeah, Drama, you're the picture of legitimacy," Eric said.

"You just wait, E," said Johnny. "Someday I'm going to win an Oscar, and you'll be the only one I won't thank."

"That'll show him," said Vince. He stretched a leg across the seat and nudged Eric's knee with his toes. When Eric looked over, he mouthed I'll thank you first.

Eric scooted across the seat and said quietly "What happened to you and Turtle growing old on the block?"

Vince shrugged. "It's summer, the sun is shining, and we're on our way to Los Angeles, E. A guy can't have a little optimism?"

"Sure he can, Vince," said Eric, watching the trees whip by outside the window. "Sure he can."

"Hey, E," Turtle said over the sound of the wind, and Eric leaned forward into the front seat. "How long til we can stop for the night?"

Eric checked the clock, and his map, and shrugged. "Another eight and a half hours or so," he said.

There was silence in the front seat for a moment or two. "Who's up for a piss break?" Johnny asked, and Eric dropped his face into his hands.

This was going to be the longest few days of his life.

They were an hour and a half into Ohio and Eric was driving when Vince tugged on his sleeve and said "Pull over."

It was dark, a few hours past sunset, and Turtle was asleep in the backseat. Beside him, Johnny was slurping away on what was left of his shake from dinner. Vince had spent the past few miles with his head mostly out the window, looking up at the sky, and Eric had spent that time deciding that these were all pretty good indications that he should be stopping to look for a hotel in the next town.

But "pull over here," said Vince, and Eric rolled his eyes.

"You just went at dinner, you can't hold it til we find a hotel?" he asked.

"No, it's not—I don't have to piss, E," Vince told him, and stared at him until Eric sighed and steered the van off the road onto the dusty shoulder.

"What?" he demanded, and Turtle echoed him from the back, kicking Eric's seat as he jolted awake.

"Hotel?" he mumbled, and Eric shook his head.

"Not yet." He turned to Vince. "What's up?" he asked.

"C'mere," said Vince, and climbed out of the van. Eric and Johnny exchanged a look, then followed him out into the muggy night air, leaving Turtle curled up in the backseat by himself.

"If this is the part where you kill us, your planning could use some work. That guy at the gas station a few miles back definitely saw all of us together," Eric said. "Also, I could take you."

"Me too, bro," said Johnny, and Vince laughed.

"Shh," he said, reaching out to cover Johnny's mouth with his hand, and Eric began to wonder if the beer Johnny had bought him at the diner had been a good idea. "Just, look, okay?" He tipped his head back and stared up at the sky. "Tell me one place in Queens where you can see that."

Eric and Johnny dutifully looked up. There were stars dotting every inch of the night sky, hundreds—thousands—more than they could ever dream of seeing back home. When they were little, Vince and Eric had spent nights on Eric's roof over the summer, camping out, making s'mores downstairs over the stove and stretching out on sleeping bags to connect the dots of the stars, creating constellations that existed nowhere else on earth.

Vince climbed up over the front of the van and stretched out on top of it. "Isn't this better than finding a motel?" he asked, and Eric thought wistfully of sleep for a moment, before looking at Vince, sprawled out there against the roof of the van, his brilliant smile visible even in the dark.

"Yeah," Eric said, "I guess it is."

He was lying on the hood of the van with his head pillowed against Vince's shoes when Turtle finally joined them, wrapped in a blanket, holding a lit joint up for Vince to take from his fingers. "We gonna find a hotel, or are we gonna fucking sit out here and look at the stars all night?" he asked, coming to lean against the grill beside Eric's legs.

"We're gonna fucking sit here and look at the stars, Turtle," Johnny said from where he was stretched out in the grass, and Turtle made a small noise of assent.

"Okay," he agreed, took the smoke back from Vince, and climbed up onto the hood beside Eric, head against the windshield, hair rumpled from sleep. "What do you think, E?" he said. "Sky any different here than it is back home?"

Under his head, Vince's sneaker moved a little, and Eric smiled up at the stars as Turtle passed him the joint. "No different," he said, "just a little clearer."

Eric woke the next morning to Vince's knee in his back and the sound of Johnny singing in the shower.

"I'm gonna fucking staple his mouth shut," Turtle grumbled, climbing up into Johnny's bed from his spot on the floor, and pulled a pillow down over his ears. Vince was still asleep, head on Eric's pillow, and his breath tickled Eric's neck uncomfortably until Eric squirmed away from him, balancing precariously close to the edge of the bed.

"Rise and shine, fellow travelers," Johnny said, emerging from the bathroom and vigorously toweling his hair.

"There will be no shining," mumbled the Turtle-shaped lump on the other bed, and Johnny threw his towel at the pillow.

"Oh, I believe there will be," Johnny corrected him, and dragged open the heavy curtains, bright and painful sunlight flooding the room. Eric tossed an arm over his eyes and Turtle burrowed a little further into his blanket cave. "We have a long day of roadtripping ahead of us. Through…" he peeked out the window and shrugged. "Wherever it is that we are."

"Ohio," Eric supplied, and Vince twitched awake beside him.

"Jesus, Johnny," he mumbled, rolling over and burying his face into the pillow. He'd lost his shirt sometime after the lights went out, and was now stretched out half naked, blankets tossed off of him and onto Eric's side of the bed. One hand reached out and grabbed the sheet, tugging it away from Eric and dragging it over his shoulders. "Blanket thief," he mumbled into his pillow.

"You—" Eric began, but gave up halfway through the word, because arguing with Vince rarely did any good, especially this early in the morning. Instead, he rolled out of bed, pushed all of the sheets into a pile on top of Vince, and padded to the bathroom. The mirror over the sink was fogged over, and he stood in front of it for a few minutes, splashing water on his face, brushing his teeth, staring blankly at the vague outline of his reflection. Eventually Turtle banged on the door—"I gotta piss, E, hurry the fuck up"—and he climbed into the shower, washing quickly under water that didn't get much warmer than the air in the room.

He came out shivering, towel wrapped around his shoulders, and Turtle made a beeline past him, slamming the door. Vince was still stretched out on the bed, but the blankets were piled up next to him and his eyes were open, half watching the local news that Johnny had put on.

"Thirteen cows escaped from their pasture last night, E," he said, waving at the tv. "We've been informed that if we see a cow on the road, we're supposed to stop and let it pass. And not, you know. Drive directly into it. It's a good thing the helpful people on the news are here to tell us things like that, because I know a city boy like you might think that a cow is just worth more points than a pedestrian if you hit it."

"Definitely less points," Eric said, dropping to the bed and toweling his hair. "They move slower."

"Bigger target too," Johnny added.

"And this is why you never passed your driving test," Eric told Vince.

It was a while later that they finally got on the road, Johnny cheerfully taking the driver's seat, the rest of them blearily clutching cups of coffee while they stared out at the early morning sun lighting up the middle of the country as they made their way westward.

"Everything's so big here," Vince said, leaning over Eric to look out his window, and Eric nodded.

"Long way from Queens," he agreed, and Vince smiled so genuinely at that thought that Eric couldn't help but feel an answering smile creep across his own face as he turned back to watch the roadside roll by.

They were an hour and a half from the big blue X on the map where they were supposed to stop for the night when the skies opened. Eric was half asleep in the back, and it wasn't the sound that woke him, but the feeling. The car slid just a little to the left as they hydroplaned through a puddle, and Johnny cursed under his breath. Beside him, Turtle looked worried, and it made Eric wonder how long the rain had been going on, how long he'd been out.

Vince was still asleep, curled up next to him with his head resting just beside Eric's leg. His hair was frizzing in the heat and humidity, three times bigger than it had been back in New York, and Eric curled a piece of it around his finger absent-mindedly as he stared out the window, watching dark clouds roll across the empty expanse of nothing.

It was the first clap of thunder that woke Vince, and he reached out for Eric before he even opened his eyes. "E, what—" he said, and cut himself off as he sat up, dazed and tired, looking no older than he'd been the day they first met. "Where are we?" he asked instead, looking out the window, where the road gave him no clues.

"Somewhere in Nebraska," Eric told him, and twisted to the side as Vince reached for his pocket, batting Vince's hands away. "You can ask, you know," he said, and pulled out the map.

"Where's the fun in that?" Vince asked, giving him a devious smile. He took the map out of Eric's hands and spread it out over the back of Turtle's seat. "We're here?" he asked, pointing to a spot near the Iowa border.

"Here," Eric corrected him, pointing further on, closer to where he'd drawn the X.

"No, we're here," Johnny said, pointing to the road, and then grasped the wheel tightly again. "And we're going to be there," he nodded towards the edge of the road where it sloped down into a field made entirely of mud, "if you keep distracting me."

"I'm not distracting you, I'm talking to E," Vince said, but he looked at the map quietly for the next few minutes, then folded it back up and leaned across the seat to tuck it back into Eric's pocket.

The next clap of thunder was deafening, and the van shook beneath them. Turtle picked up his feet and tucked them up onto the dashboard, as if he was afraid his sneakers were going to split apart. Vince craned his neck, peering up out of the window at the clouds rolling overhead. "Looks like the end of the world up there," he said quietly. The van swerved slightly, and he straightened up, peering over Turtle's shoulder, looking concerned.

"You okay, Drama?" Eric asked.

"Yeah, E, I'm fucking fantastic," Johnny replied. His nose was practically touching the steering wheel.

"I meant, did you want me to drive?" he pressed.

"I can't see more than a foot in front of me, you really think you can do any better?" Johnny asked. "You can't even see over the steering wheel without sitting on a phone book." Turtle snorted, and even Vince was smirking a little when Eric looked over at him.

"Fine," he said, holding up his hands. "Get us all killed."

"Shut the fuck up, asshole," Turtle said, not looking back at him, eyes intent on the road. "Here, Drama, there's an exit coming up in a mile," he said, pointing at a sign as they passed it. "We can pull off there, see if we can find a hotel for the night."

Vince looked dubiously at Eric's pocket. "What about…" he began, but Eric cut him off.

"Turtle's right," he said. "With the roads this bad, we shouldn't risk the van. We just might get to Vegas later than we planned, that's all. We were going to stay a few days anyway, we won't miss out on anything."

"You just want him to take back calling you an asshole," Vince said.

"You're still an asshole, E," Turtle confirmed. "But now you're an asshole who happens to be right."

Eric shrugged. "I'll take it," he said, and watched out the window as Johnny pulled off onto the exit and the highway slowly faded behind them under a curtain of rain.

"Two rooms," Turtle said as Johnny pulled into a spot under a motel sign that filled the car with sickly green light. "Do not even try to argue with me on this," he added, turning to hold up a warning finger in Eric's face. "This fucker" he jerked a thumb in Johnny's direction, "made me sleep on the floor last night because he said I was kicking him, and I have been sitting in a car for ten hours today. I am getting a mattress tonight."

"Nine and a half," Eric said, but he didn't argue about the rooms. He was too tired and too hungry and too sick of pretending to be everyone's parent. Fuck it, if Turtle ran out of money before they got home, they'd just leave him with Johnny.

"It's slowing down," Vince commented, and Johnny groaned, not picking his head up from where he'd dropped it on the steering wheel.

"If any of you try to tell me to get back on the highway, you're going to end up living in this motel," he told them.

"Actually, I was going to say that there's a diner right down there," Vince said, pointing out his window. "I bet they have burgers, Johnny. And shakes, and fries, and maybe even waffles."

Johnny picked his head up and peered past Turtle at the diner sign. "I could go for a good waffle right about now," he said.

Eric's stomach rumbled. Lunch had been a bag full of junk food from a gas station in Ohio, and while it had seemed like a good idea at the time, chips and Hostess cupcakes were not doing them a lot of good six hours later. "Fuck yes," he agreed, and peered up at the sky dubiously for a moment or two before opening his door. "I'll go book the rooms," he said, climbing out stiffly. "Meet you guys there."

It was only sprinkling lightly on him by the time he emerged from the motel office, and it actually felt refreshing, soft pinpoints of dampness settling against his skin and his clothes. The air was still sharp and crackling, the clouds still ominous overhead, but for the moment, there was a stillness on the road, broken only by his footsteps as he splashed through the puddles on his way to the diner.

"It's too quiet here," he said as he settled into a booth next to Vince. The seat was torn and squeaky, and he could feel it in the springs when Vince stretched his legs out under the table.

"City boy," Johnny said derisively, and Eric would have pointed out that he had no high ground to stand on if the waitress hadn't come over and set four thick foamy floats down in front of them.

"I ordered for you," Vince said, and Eric mumbled his thanks around a straw and a mouthful of sweet, cold deliciousness.

"I'll give you boys a few minutes to decide on food," the waitress said, and disappeared back into the kitchen.

Turtle whistled softly. "Damn, E, you might end up having to sleep on the floor in our room tonight," he said.

"What? Why?"

"Did you see the looks she was giving Vince?"

"E was too distracted by the prospect of ice cream," Johnny said.

Vince was a little pink when Eric looked at him. "I have no idea what they're talking about," he said, grinning slyly.

"Right," Eric said. "I call not floor," he said to Turtle and Johnny.

"E," said Vince, sounding mock scandalized. "Eric, E. I would never turn you out of your own room." He put his arm around Eric's shoulders and pulled him close. "We're in this together, remember? A guys' trip, the four of us." He paused. "I mean, if anything, I'd have the decency to go back to her place. Who wants to fuck on a motel bed anyway?"

Eric ducked out from under Vince's arm, laughing. "What are you going to do when we hit LA?" he asked. "You'll wear out your dick in a week and a half."

"That's the beauty of California," Vince told him. "They've got doctors out there who will just give you a new one."

"Hey, maybe they can give you one that's person-sized, E," Johnny suggested.

"Hey, maybe they can give you a face transplant so you'll actually make it as an actor, Drama," Eric replied. He paused. "No, never mind, that won't work. You still won't have any talent."

Vince kicked Eric under the table and Johnny beamed at him. "Thanks, little bro."

"Forget LA," said Turtle, "what are we going to do with Vince in Vegas?"

"Do with me?" Vince asked. "What am I, some kind of liability?"

"Well, kind of, Vince," Turtle told him. "I mean, with you around being all pretty, how are the rest of us supposed to expect to get any?"

"You forget, young Turtle, what the beauty of Vegas is," Johnny said.

"What's that?" Turtle asked.

"In Vegas, you can pay for it."

The waitress interrupted any further discussion by coming up with a little notepad in her hand. "What can I get you boys?" she asked, and Turtle snickered.

"Depends, honey, you from Nevada?"

She smiled uncertainly, glancing at Vince, and Eric broke in. "Ignore him," he said, and ordered, smiling apologetically. "You're a jackass," he said when she walked away, and Vince frowned at Turtle.

"You ruin my chances here, and you're sleeping in the van the rest of the way," he said.

Johnny shook his head sadly. "You're out of luck, bro," he said. She might be flirting with you, but that's not a cheap ring she's got on."

"Oh please," said Turtle. "She's a diner waitress in Buttfuck, Indiana—"

"Nebraska," corrected Eric.

"Wherever. Something tells me she doesn't have some millionaire husband waiting for her at home."

"But she does have a husband, Vince, and while I appreciate and admire your initiative, there are some lines a man just does not cross," Johnny said.

"You cross that line three times a month, Drama," Eric said.

"He said a man, E," Turtle pointed out.

"Admit it, Johnny, you're just jealous she's not flirting with you," Vince said, stretching out his arms across the back of the seat.

"You guys are babies to the ways of the world," Johnny said wisely. "I just don't want to see my little brother taken advantage of."

"That's sweet," said Vince. "But don't worry about me. I've got E to look out for me." He dropped his arm off the seat and squeezed Eric against his side. "Right, E?"

"Sorry, Vince, I'm pretty sure you don't pay me enough to rescue you from the clutches of every roadside diner waitress who wants to get her hands on you."

"I'm pretty sure I don't pay you at all."

"There's your first problem, right there," Eric told him.

Vince pulled his arm back and frowned. "Are you saying I have to pay you to be friends with me? You don't love me enough to do it for free?" He gave Eric his best puppy dog eyes, and Eric sighed.

"Being friends with E is like being in Vegas," said Turtle. "Best in the world, but you've got to pay for that shit."

"And pay, and pay, and pay," Vince added, and Eric socked him in the arm.

"Fuck you guys, whose graduation money is buying beds for you all to sleep in tonight? Oh, that's right, mine," he said.

"Yeah, thank your uncle Marty for us next time you see him," Turtle said, raising his glass in a toast, and Eric grimaced.

"Yeah, I'm pretty sure my mom would have me killed if I ever mentioned to any of my aunts and uncles what I'm spending their presents on. She wants them all to have the illusion that they're each paying off just a tiny piece of my student loans. Investing in my future and all that."

"This is an investment in your future," said Vince, putting his arm back over Eric's shoulders.

"It's an investment in your future," Eric corrected him.

Vince gave him a tiny smile and ducked his head close to Eric's. "Same thing," he said quietly, and then grinned up over Eric's head as the waitress reappeared, balancing four plates.

It was just as she was setting the last plate on the table (Johnny's, a waffle covered in a mountain of strawberries and whipped cream) that the lights flickered and went out. All five of them peered out the window into the darkness, where the next clap of lightning illuminated a parking lot caught in a downpour that was striking with renewed fury.

"Well, shit," Turtle said eloquently.

The waitress held up her hands helplessly. "At least your food's done," she ventured. "I'll go find some candles and flashlights. You're welcome to finish and hope the rain dies down again so you can get back to the hotel." She peered upwards, frowning. "I wouldn't count on it, though," she said.

They ate their food in the unnatural quiet that fell over a place when all of the machinery had stopped. There were a handful of regulars at the other end of the restaurant, clustered around a booth and the end of the bar, all of them sitting comfortably in the dark and drinking their coffee while they continued their conversations, the waitress loitering against the next table over and dropping in comments every so often. The pounding of the rain on the roof nearly drowned out their words, garbling them like a radio drifting between stations, so Eric could only pick up a few words here and there. He ate slowly by the flickering dim light of candles and camping lanterns, watching the lightning as it streaked across the sky outside.

"You're right, E," Turtle said as he settled his fork onto his empty plate and leaned back against the squeaky seats.

"I'm right about a lot of things," Eric said, punctuated by the crash of thunder. "What this time?"

"It's too quiet here."

"I like it," Vince decided, face so close to the windowpane it was nearly pressed against it. "It's different."

Turtle peered out miserably. "It's wet," he said.

The waitress came over to collect their plates and their check, and stood looking outside with them for a few minutes. "At least you aren't dealing with tornadoes," she said reassuringly, and Johnny looked up at her, a little panicked.

"You don't get tornadoes here, do you?"

"Sure," she said. "Haven't heard anything about any tonight, but then," she waved at the radio, silent and dark on the shelf behind the bar, "I guess that probably doesn't mean much."

Johnny looked horrified, and Eric kicked him under the table. "Breathe, Drama," he said. "All we have to do is get back to the hotel."

"And then what, E?" He craned his neck to stare up at the sky past Turtle. "Did that dingy little motel really look like it could stand up against the ravages of Mother Nature?"

"Well, it looks like it's survived for about eight hundred years in that spot, so the chances are pretty good it'll make it one more night," Eric pointed out, standing up and stretching. Johnny followed him, still casting dubious looks at the clouds, and the waitress said a quick goodbye and gave Vince a last little smile before heading back over to the regulars.

He opened his arms and made a don't you love me? face as she walked away, and Turtle laughed, pushing him towards the door.

"Denied!" he said as they ducked outside under the awning, and Johnny looked like he was trying very hard not to gloat too.

"Tough break, bro," he said. "Married girls. Nothing but trouble." He stared up into the clouds. "Should have brought the van," he said.

"Didn't," Eric remarked succinctly. He handed Johnny the key to one of the rooms. "Number six, on the end. Good luck," he said.

Turtle and Johnny exchanged looks. "First man to the door gets the remote," Turtle said, and took off running, Johnny right on his heels, yelling about how he was the one with the key.

Vince leaned back against the wall of the diner and shook his head. He stretched out a hand into the rain, watching the water bounce off it. Above them, thunder rolled ominously. He took a step out from under their shelter, then another, the rain washing down over him, plastering his hair to his head in seconds, his shirt turning three shades darker and six times clingier than it had been inside. He tipped his head back and grinned.

"C'mere, E," he said over his shoulder. Eric stayed where he was, watching as Vince was lit up by a bolt of lightning flashing across the sky.

"You're a crazy person," he said, laughing.

"Maybe," Vince agreed, "but I'm two steps closer to bed than you are." He reached out and grabbed Eric's arms, and Eric let him pull him away from the wall, into the rush of water. He was drenched in seconds, rain soaking down the back of his shirt, trickling down his face, dragging his jeans lower on his hips.

"Fuck this," he said, and took off at a run, his sneakers slapping wetly at the pavement, sending waves shooting up over the street from each puddle he hit. Vince kept pace with him, passing him easily, ducking under a tree halfway to the hotel and panting, laughing, water dripping down into his mouth. Eric slowed to a jog, then paused next to the tree, looking up worriedly.

"I'm pretty sure Johnny would kill me dead if I let you get hit by lightning," he said.

Vince waved up at the tree. "Hey, I'm taller than you. This is taller than me," he replied.

"Jesus, Vince, didn't your ma ever tell you under a tree was the worst place to be in a thunderstorm?"

Vince shrugged. "I grew up in Queens," he reminded him. "When is a tree ever the tallest thing around?"

"Yeah, so did I. Doesn't make me a fucking idiot," Eric said, and grabbed Vince's arm, pulling at him until he stumbled away from the tree, laughing.

"You don't know how to have any fun," Vince said, refusing to run, walking slowly through the rain beside Eric.

"Any definition of fun that involves getting hit by lightning is different from mine," Eric told him, stopping to open the van and get their bags from the back. He glanced at the hotel. "I wonder if Turtle and Drama figured out yet that racing for the remote doesn't do them any good when the power's out."

Vince laughed. "Maybe they're just pointing it at the tv, trying to make things happen."

"Or pointing it at each other," Eric said. "I wouldn't mind putting either one of them on pause every once in a while."

"Can we fast forward to being dry?" asked Vince, looking longingly at the hotel door, raindrops carving sad tracks down his face.

Eric stuffed Vince's bag into his hands and pulled the hotel key out of his pocket. "Sure," he agreed, and ran for the room next to Turtle and Johnny's. His fingers were slick with rain and he fumbled the key against the lock, once, twice, before Vince took it from him and unlocked the door with quick, steady hands. He pushed the door open, then settled a hand against Eric's back and walked into him until Eric moved into the pitch darkness of the room. The door swung shut behind them, and Eric was struck suddenly by how loud the rain had been when they were standing in it. Here, under the roof, there was a dull pounding above their heads, but the room itself was quiet, cool with the lingering effect of air conditioning

Vince stayed close to his back, keeping hold of him in the darkness. There was a charge to the air that had nothing to do with the lightning static, and Eric was reminded sharply of those nights on his roof when they were kids, just them in the darkness with their sleeping bags and flashlights, huddled on the ground and telling stories about the stars.

Vince leaned over Eric's shoulder to toss his bag onto one of the beds, and Eric could hear the grin in his voice when he spoke. "Should have gone and gotten a smoke from Turtle."

"You still could," Eric reminded him, waving at the door.

Vince shook his head, hair brushing against the back of Eric's neck at the movement. "I'm wet enough, thanks," he said, pressing up against Eric's back to illustrate, their shirts sticking uncomfortably together.

"So I see," said Eric dryly, ducking out of Vince's grasp. Vince shook his head like a dog, rain droplets splattering all over Eric, and Eric darted out of the way of the bedspreads. "That's your bed now," he said, and Vince just laughed, coming after him and rubbing his soaking wet hair against Eric's shoulder. "Cut it the fuck out," Eric told him, pushing him away.

Vince grinned. "What's it matter? You look like you just climbed out of a pool anyway," he said, tugging at Eric's t-shirt to demonstrate. "That damn Irish skin of yours, you're probably going to shrivel up and disappear," he added, grabbing Eric's hand and trying to look at it in the darkness, making sure he was still there.

Eric smacked him lightly in the side of the head instead, and Vince let out something halfway between a laugh and a yell, pushing Eric back into the wall. Eric pushed back, and then they were wrestling, grappling across the room, their clothes soaked and heavy, slowing their movements, hands slipping and sticking awkwardly through rainwater on skin, both of them off balance and exhausted, wired from sugar and adrenaline and too many hours on the road.

It was Vince who tripped on Eric's bag and stumbled backwards onto the bed, and Eric wasted no time landing beside him, all tiny fists and compact muscle, pinning him back against the bedspread and only getting a little bruised in the process. He declared victory by sitting back on Vince's knees triumphantly, and raised his hands over his head. "Your champion, ladies and gentlemen," Vince declared, admitting defeat gracefully, and promptly leaned forward, tickled Eric's side, and tipped him easily off as Eric squirmed indignantly.

"You fucking cheat," he said, kicking out at Vince as he climbed over him, and Vince settled down over Eric's hips, laughing.

"I don't remember you establishing any rules," he said, leaning down close enough that Eric could see him, even in the darkness. "It's your own fault that anything's fair game." His hand was still against Eric's side, now lying flat against his skin where his shirt had ridden up. Lightning flashed around the windowshade, illuminating Vince around the edges, all angles and corners and damp unruly hair. He was smiling down at Eric, not the ridiculous grin he'd had before, but a different smile, one that gave Eric only the tiniest hint of warning before he was leaning down, pressing their mouths together with more enthusiasm than skill. It was sloppy, a little desperate, his lips still slick and wet with rain, and his hair was dripping down onto Eric's face, the drops trickling uncomfortably down towards his ears.

He almost pushed Vince off, laughed, started wrestling again, but then Vince shifted, settling against him, and he pulled back for a moment, caught his breath and looked down at Eric without a hint of that smile at all, quiet and serious and wanting. He leaned back down, but didn't kiss Eric again, not right away. Instead, he pressed his face into the crook of Eric's neck, licking the rainwater there, biting just the tiniest bit at the muscles stretched under Eric's skin, making him squirm a little. When he leaned in towards Eric's mouth again, it was Eric who kissed him, reaching up to tangle his fingers into Vince's hair and tug him forwards. This time, it was like the first time all over again, twelve, on the roof, tasting faintly of beer, their mouths fitting together like they had been made for this.

It had been a long time since they had done this when there was time to enjoy it, years of girls and parties and half-remembered makeouts in hallways, basements, backseats of cars. Vince kissed differently, more confident, more demanding, but his hands hadn't changed. They'd been touching Eric for over a decade, casual and easy, and the way they slid up his body from his hips still made him shiver. One of his hands came to rest over Eric's jaw, fingers stretched out flat over his throat, pressing below his ear. He tilted Eric's head, kissed him deeper, more thoroughly, and Eric could feel Vince getting hard against him through their pants. He pushed his hips up off the bed a little, rubbing up against Vince, and Vince made a noise into his mouth, quiet and half formed.

It was frantic, messy, the air too hot, their clothes too wet and heavy, both of them breathless and overtired and missing this. The sound of Vince breathing was harsh next to Eric's ear in the unnatural quiet of the room, and Eric could barely see him, the outline of a shadow, the tiniest hint of a predatory smile in a quick flash of lightning. He found his way by touch, by sound, the way that Vince's hips jerked forward as Eric bit down on his lip, the quick gasp when Eric tucked his fingers into Vince's back pocket, set the rhythm of his movements.

He knew when Vince was close to coming by the ragged unsteady motion of his hips, and he dragged it out, shifting under him, changing the angle, teasing Vince until he dropped his head to Eric's shoulder and said "E," helplessly. From there, it was easy, just realigning themselves a tiny bit, a few rolls upwards with his hips, and Vince was coming, quiet but for a quick exhalation of breath against the fabric of Eric's shirt.

He waited for the weight of an exhausted post-orgasm Vince to slump down against him, but instead he felt Vince crawl down the bed, his hands quick and only a little unsteady at the button of Eric's pants. He lifted his hips off the bed as Vince tugged his pants down and off, kicking to help, freeing his legs from the clingy soaked denim. "Just…let me…" Vince said quietly in the darkness, and then his hand was pressing against Eric's boxers. It was nothing they hadn't done before, jerking each other off in the darkness, on nights when they were camping out in the basement, or sharing a mattress that squeaked when they leaned the wrong way. But this time they were sober, they were thousands of miles from home, and Vince's fingers knew exactly what they were doing as they reached into Eric's boxers and slid rhythmically over his cock.

He tipped his head back against the pillows and stared up into the darkness. He'd seen Vince jerk off before, knew the slight twist of his wrist, the brush of his thumb over the tip, knew that those were the things that would make him close his eyes, bite his lips, forget that Eric was even in the room. Just that thought was enough to make Eric do the same, sinking his teeth into the corner of his mouth to keep quiet. He pushed his feet against the bed and pressed up into Vince's touch instead, and Vince slid his other hand over Eric's hip, holding him to the bed.

His eyes snapped open when he felt Vince's breath against his cock. "Vince, Jesus, you—" was all he managed before Vince leaned forward and sucked lightly, carefully, and from that point on it was all Eric could do to keep himself from fucking his mouth. He reached down instead, pressed his own hand over Vince's on his hip, gripping bruises into his fingers. Vince's mouth was hot, wet, and lost its hesitation after the first few moments, sucking hard and rhythmically, his hair dripping against Eric's skin as he moved.

Eric let out a tangled jumble of curses as he came, muffled halfway through by Vince reaching up and covering his mouth, a few fingers slipping in for Eric to bite down on and silence himself. He slid off Eric's cock and made a satisfied noise, crawling up the bed and collapsing next to him. His hand stayed resting on Eric's face, thumb absently tracing over his bottom lip until Eric lifted his head enough to bite it, in warning this time. Vince laughed a little, voice unrecognizably low, and settled more comfortably against Eric's side. Here was lazy post-orgasm Vince, Eric thought through a sudden fog of exhaustion, and he fell asleep there with Vince curled up heavily on his shoulder.

He wasn't sure how much later it was that he woke to the feeling of Vince pushing him out of bed. "What the fuck?" he demanded, rolling over to kick Vince away from him.

"Bed's wet," said Vince sleepily, climbing over Eric and standing between the beds, stripping off his shirt, then his pants and boxers. He faceplanted onto the other bed, then wiggled around until his head was on the pillows. "C'mon," he said, the sound half swallowed up by the pillowcase.

Eric almost stayed where he was, just because it was too late, or too early, and he was too tired to move. But his shirt was still on, it was sticking to him uncomfortably where Vince had been lying on it, and the bedspread under him squelched damply when he moved. He sighed deeply, then sat up, dragging his shirt over his head. He barely stood between the beds, just leaned on the floor enough to topple over next to Vince, and he fell asleep a second time to the feeling of Vince's arm settling warm and dry across his chest. This time, he slept through the night, and he didn't dream.He woke in the morning to the sound of Johnny pounding on their door and yelling, but instead of getting up to answer it, he crawled under the covers and pulled them up over his head. He shivered, feeling the bed dip as Vince rolled over next to him. The air conditioning had kicked on in the night, and they'd both fallen asleep on top of the covers, naked and damp, their pillows soaked from their hair. If neither of them ended up getting pneumonia in California, it was going to be a miracle.

"Fuck off, Drama!" he yelled at the door, and the knocking stopped, only to be replaced a moment later by the phone next to Eric's head starting to ring. Vince climbed over him to get it, and stayed there, draped over Eric's side like another layer of blankets as he answered.

"Vegas is waiting, baby!" Eric could hear Turtle saying over the phone.

"Vegas can wait a little longer," Vince told him. "Baby," he added dryly, and hung up. His voice was lower and rougher than it usually was, and Eric was already imagining the bag full of cough drops and cold syrups Johnny was going to buy for him once he heard him. Better that than him finding out the truth, Eric reasoned, and felt his face flush at the memory. Vince shifted around on top of him, then tugged at the edge of the blanket and peeked in. "Morning, E," he said, grinning at him upside down, and Eric couldn't help but laugh.

"Get off me, I've gotta piss," he said, kicking Vince through the sheets.

"Kinky," Vince said, but rolled off, taking the blankets with him, curling up into a blanket burrito on the other side of the bed. "Fuck, it's cold," he said, voice muffled by the fabric.

Eric took a hot shower, leaning against the wall and half dozing off again, letting the water soak into his aching muscles. When he came out, wrapped in a towel, Vince was half dressed and Johnny was standing in the doorway, yelling instructions to Turtle, who was trying to make some sense out of what they had in the front seats of the van. Eric scooped up his clothes from the floor and dumped them on the bed, rummaging through his bag for a pair of pants that wasn't entirely soaked.

"Better not have left the map in that pocket of yours, E," Johnny said from the doorway.

Eric reached into his pants and pulled out a soggy piece of paper, stained through with neon colors. "Oops?" he ventured.

"Nice one, E," said Turtle from around Johnny.

"Some navigator you are," Johnny added, frowning.

"It's fine," Eric told them, smoothing the map out over the bedspread. Vince came up behind him, wrapped in a blanket, and pressed against his back to look over his shoulder. The writing was still mostly legible, and the ink marking out their path had only smeared a little. The paper was folded and creased and felt like it would shred to pieces in the littlest breeze, but it was still intact, could still get them where they were going. "See? Just a little wrinkled. Just like you, Drama."

"None of that," Johnny said, and stole the towel from around Eric's waist, slapping him on the ass with it.

"Hey!" Eric yelped, and ducked into the bathroom, grabbing a random assortment of clothes from his bag.

"Nothing we haven't seen before," called Vince, and Eric watched himself turn red in the mirror. Vince peeked around the doorframe a second later, still shirtless, and knelt down to look through the clothes piled on the floor. "What?" he asked when Eric gave him a look as he pulled a soft blue t-shirt over his head. "I brought the wrong bag from the car. Everything in this one's pretty gross."

"Like that's ever stopped you before," said Eric, but after he gathered up his clothes, he pushed Vince out of the room with a hand on his back, feeling the heat of Vince's skin through the worn fabric.

"Just for this," Turtle said, holding up the pathetic map, "you're driving." Eric held out his hand for the keys, and Johnny handed them over, eyeing Vince.

"New shirt, bro?" he asked.

"Kinda, yeah," Vince agreed, telling Eric with a glance that Eric was never going to get it back.

"Looks good," Johnny told him. "Brings out your eyes."

"Jesus, Drama, when did you turn into a woman?" Turtle asked, following him out the door.

"Caring for your appearance is a vital part in learning how to get a woman, young Turtle," Johnny told him, and Turtle rolled his eyes. "You really think you're going to get any California pussy in that getup? Keep dreaming, kid. Keep dreaming."

Vince called shotgun and they piled into the car, Turtle and Johnny snickering as Eric rolled the seat forward so he could reach the pedals. "Westward, ho!" said Johnny, pointing past Eric out the windshield, and Turtle laughed some more.

"I don't know that I'd call E a ho, Johnny," said Vince. "An escort, maybe, but I don't think I'd let a ho drive me around."

"Oh, like there's a difference," said Turtle, and Vince winked at Eric as Johnny and Turtle started debating the merits of different classes of prostitutes in the backseat.

"One more day and a half," Eric said under his breath, and watched the way Vince was grinning as he reached for the radio and effectively drowned out the peanut gallery in the backseat.

"I am in need of a beer," Johnny announced a few miles from where Eric had been planning to stop for the night.

"Pull off and find a bar at the next exit, Drama. We can find a hotel and crash for the night too," Eric said, leaning forward between the seats.

"Try and find somewhere that looks like they don't card," added Vince from beside Eric.

"Jesus, Vince, how does a guy like you survive without a good fake?" Eric asked him.

"With a smile like that? Who's gonna card him?" Turtle asked.

Eric looked over at Vince, and he demonstrated. Eric laughed a little. "Yeah, okay," he agreed. "The rest of us aren't quite so lucky."

"Doesn't help when you can't see over the bar without a stepstool," Johnny added.

"We'll just be sure to hang out near you, Drama," Eric said. "Bet you haven't been carded in ten years, with that face."

"I will have you know that this face is not a day older than twenty-three," said Johnny indignantly.

Eric laughed. "You forget that Turtle and I were invited to every birthday party you ever had when we were kids," he said. "Twenty-three, my ass."

"One more comment," Johnny said, looking at Eric in the rearview mirror, "and I get you kids thrown out of any bar we go to." Turtle opened his mouth to say something, and Johnny turned his glare on him. "Do you really think you sound like you're from Indiana, Turtle? Because that's what it says on your license." That shut Turtle up, and they all sat in silence, listening to the faint static buzz of the radio, as Johnny pulled off the highway and onto the main road of a town. "Here," he decided, pulling into what looked like a sports bar with a decent number of cars in the parking lot.

"Oh man, I want fries," Turtle said as they climbed out of the car and were assaulted by the smell of fried food. Eric's stomach rumbled loudly.

Vince laughed, slinging an arm around his shoulders. "Turtle, I thought when I told you that you could get an E, you promised to walk him and feed him. Sounds like you're falling down on the job."

"Hey, you can lead an Eric to burgers, but you can't make him eat," Turtle said.

Eric rolled his eyes. "Those weren't burgers, they were cow patties," he said.

Turtle shrugged at Vince. "What can I do, man? The guy's a cretin who doesn't appreciate a good piece of meat. It's out of my hands."

Vince smirked, so Eric beat him to the joke. "Yeah, and we all know you can't resist a piece of meat, Turtle, good or otherwise" he said, and ducked into the bar before Turtle could reply.

It was busy, a baseball game playing on the TVs behind the bar, but not too loud, not so crowded that they couldn't get a table in the corner. Johnny went to get a pitcher of beer, Turtle made a beeline for the bathroom, and Vince and Eric leaned over a pair of menus, intent on ordering every delicious awful fried thing on the list.

"I just want to eat forever," Vince said, staring at the menu like it was the order list for pay-per-view porn.

"Yeah, I'm sure your stomach would thank you for that," Eric said, reaching out to pat Vince just above the waistline of his jeans, and Vince ducked away, laughing.

"One of everything," he told the waitress, with feeling, and she laughed and looked at Eric for confirmation.

"One of these," he qualified, pointing at the menu. "And this, and…this." She nodded, and asked for anything to drink, but before Eric could answer, Johnny was barreling past her with a pitcher brimming with beer, four glasses wobbling precariously in his hands.

"We're all set on that front for now," he told her, and she nodded at him, then disappeared back into the kitchen. Vince descended on the beer like he'd been wandering the desert for days, and Eric wasn't far behind him. It was cold, foamy, a little weaker than they were used to, but good, so good after days on the road with nothing to sustain them but rest stops and diner food.

"To California girls!" said Turtle, taking his seat next to Eric and raising his glass over his head, and it was only too easy for the others to join him, downing their glasses in a few seconds.

Eric tipped his seat back against the wall and waited for their food, getting pleasantly buzzed on the beer, watching the tv half-heartedly, more interested in the intricate game Turtle and Vince started devising across the table, that involved three straw wrappers, a shot glass, and sixteen toothpicks. "Be our ref, E," Vince asked him, but he laughed and waved him off, settling back and being a spectator instead. "If you're not going to ref, you better be betting on me," Vince qualified as he twisted a straw wrapper around three of Turtle's toothpicks, and Eric nodded dutifully.

"Don't I always?" he asked, and Vince's grin in his direction was diverted by the arrival of the food. He watched Vince grinning at a plate of mozzarella sticks instead, and couldn't help but laugh, leaning against Johnny just a little, just because he was standing there beside Eric's chair, not because he was feeling the effects of the beer at all.

It was Johnny who noticed the guy at the next table first, while Eric was still leaning a little against his side, picking at the corner of a plate of nachos, and Eric nearly fell over when he wandered away towards the guy's table. "Hey, come look at this stuff," he said a few minutes later, in Turtle's direction, but since Turtle and Vince were still playing their game, it was Eric who leaned in to peek over Johnny's shoulder.

The guy was drawing across a scattering of napkins on his table, an elaborate landscape that stretched from in front of him to the other side of the table, where a girl was sitting, watching the passage of his pen and sipping on a vodka cranberry. She was cute, wholesome looking, and smiled at Eric over Johnny's shoulder as he watched the guy draw.

"Damn," Turtle said when he finally started paying attention, and the artist glanced up, smiled at him a little.

"You like?" he asked, and passed one fully covered napkin over towards Turtle, who took it, turning it upside down, inspecting it every which way.

"This stuff could be worth some money someday," he said, aside to Vince, and Vince stuck his straw wrapper into Turtle's glass as an apparent declaration of victory, then peered at the guy's pictures.

"Nice," was his assessment, and it was followed shortly by an offer to share their pitcher. The guy took him up on it, introduced himself as Max, the girl as Chelsea, and kept drawing, doodling Vince into one of the pictures and then handing that napkin off to him.

"Do you make any money off of this?" Johnny asked him eventually, and Max laughed, holding up his beer.

"Just this," he said, and then jumped a little as Chelsea kicked him under the table. "Okay, yeah, sometimes I do," he admitted.

"You sell your stuff?" asked Vince, interested and Max looked at him, considering for a moment or two, then reached out to grab his hand and pull it towards him.

"In a manner of speaking," he said, and inspected Vince's hand for a long moment or two, twisting Vince's arm this way and that, then started to draw on it, tracing lines up his forearm, into the inner curve of his elbow, doodling designs up towards where Eric's shirt sleeve was still covering his shoulder.

When he seemed to have finished to his satisfaction, he leaned back, inspecting his work. "Looks good," he said. "You should get one, you have the skin for it."

"You're a tattoo artist?" Eric asked, his voice going embarrassingly squeaky at the end of the question, and Max gave him a long, appraising look.

"I am, yeah," he finally said. "I don't know if I could do anything for you, though." He paused, looking Eric up and down. "I think I'd have to see you with fewer clothes," he finally decided, and Vince laughed, tracing a finger over the lines Max had left on his arm. "You’re from out of town," Max noted, looking them up and down, and Johnny nodded.

"I'm moving to LA," he said, because when you were Johnny Chase, that was the important part of any equation.

Max nodded. "Coming from…?" he asked.

"Queens," Turtle said, at the same time Vince replied "New York," and Max grinned, looked between them, nodding like he'd come to some kind of decision.

"You should come back with me," he said, making a motion towards the door as if that explained where he meant. "I've got room for you all, drinks, I'll call some people and have them over." His eyes traveled over his work on Vince's arm. "Maybe you'll wake up in the morning and want it for real," he said, with just a hint of hope in his voice.

Vince flinched, and Eric reached out and touched his back, just lightly, unseen by anyone else. He relaxed a little, managing to smile back at Max. "I doubt it," he admitted. "Needles," he added with a shudder at Max's inquisitive look.

"Ah." The answer was flat, without judgment, and Max waved the waitress over to pay off his tab anyway, then stood by their table, waiting for them to do the same. Eric exchanged glances with Johnny around Max, and shrugged. Chelsea leaned over towards Max, whispering in his ear, and he laughed, eyes traveling over them all like challenge. Vince was already signaling for the check as Chelsea started gathering up Max's pictures from their table. Max leaned in front of Eric, picking at their mozzarella sticks, and E looked carefully at the tattoos winding up his arm, disappearing into his shirt where his sleeves were rolled up over his forearm. Max saw him looking and gave a half smile, baring his arm a little more.

"They yours?" Eric asked.

Max smirked. "Yeah, I did them one-handed," he said dryly. Eric gave him a withering look. "Okay, yeah, my boy did them," Max answered. "But they're my design."

"They're amazing," Vince said, leaning over Eric to touch them unabashedly, and Max let him, resting his elbow against the table. "Do they mean something?"

"They mean everything," said Max, taking his arm back. "If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many novels do you think can fit onto the human body?"

He crossed over to talk to Johnny and the waitress before Vince could answer, and Vince took a swallow of his beer, then cleared his throat, embarrassed. "Guess that was a stupid question," he said.

Eric shrugged, tipping his head back against the wall as he swallowed down the rest of his drink. "Guess so," he agreed needlessly, and turned to watch Turtle trying to explain their new game to Chelsea. Vince brightened at that, and leaned over the table to point out when Turtle was getting things wrong. Eric poured himself another beer, finishing off the pitcher, and watched Johnny and Max hanging around the cash register while the waitress rang them out. She and Max flirted easily, comfortably, with the familiarity of people who had been doing this all their lives, meaning nothing by it. Johnny was more pointed in his intentions, leaning over the counter towards her, saying something that made her laugh and Max glance over at Eric with an is he serious? expression.

"Ah, the mating rituals of the desperate Queens boy," said Vince, draping himself against Eric's back and stealing the beer from his hand. "See how skilllessly he stalks his prey, ever outmatched by his native opponent."

Across the table, Chelsea laughed. "Oh, trust me, Max isn't the competition you think he is," she assured Vince. "He's already had everyone in this town he could possibly want. It's out-of-towners who have to look out for him." She gave them all an appraising look and shrugged. "Although maybe not you guys. Max has a type."

"What, we're not good enough for this town's high standards?" asked Vince, grinning at her winningly.

Her smile included both of them as she replied, "Well, I wouldn't say that." It was Turtle who she turned to next, though, using his shoulder to pull herself up from the table and sliding her arm around his waist to steer him towards the door. Vince and Eric finished off their beer and followed them, emerging into the warm night air to find Turtle and Max lighting up by the van.

"I'm down that way," Max said, pointing off to the right, and they followed, passing the joint companionably between them as they walked. The town was quiet, the road lit dimly by streetlamps, and as they crossed an intersection, Eric watched the way their faces turned colors in the traffic lights.

"You relaxing yet?" Turtle asked, dropping back to walk beside him.

"Is that was this is about?" Eric asked. "Getting me to relax?" He took the offered joint from Turtle's fingers.

"Nah, it was about Drama needing a beer, just like he said. You've just been kinda no fun since we left," Turtle said, shrugging. "You don't have to try to make everything work all the time, you know. Sometimes shit gets fucked up. That's when the real adventures happen. You've just got to roll with it," Turtle advised him.

"I can roll," Eric told him, and Turtle laughed.

"You really can't, man," he said. He waved ahead, at where Max and Chelsea were leading them down the street. "If you just need to get laid, I can back off Chelsea. If you want," he said, only a little reluctantly.

"Wow, that's a real generous offer, Turtle, especially since she's barely even looked at you," Eric said with a laugh. Turtle looked a little hurt, so Eric clapped him on the back. "I don't need to get laid," he said. "Or, I mean, I do, because who doesn't? But I'm good. You can go after Chelsea all you want. Just don't be disappointed when you end up whacking it on the couch tonight."

"You don't think she's fucking Max, do you?" Turtle asked, watching as Max unlocked a door next to a tattoo shop on the corner that led to a flight of stairs.

"No," said Eric, watching Max hold the door for Chelsea. "I just think you're crazy if you actually expect to close with Vince around."

"Oh, please, what's he got that I don't?" Turtle asked, and Eric actually had to pause and hang onto the railing, he was laughing so hard.

"What's so funny?" asked Vince, coming up behind him and giving him a push up the stairs. Eric just waved at Turtle, then at Vince, and laughed some more. "Aww, E's got the giggles!" Vince announced as they entered Max's apartment.

Max's smile was only a little mocking as he pressed a drink into Eric's hand, saying, "I know how to fix that."

"Oh really?" said Vince, leering exaggeratedly, and Max laughed at him, handing him a drink too. "I think you'll have to get him drunker than that," Vince advised him.

"Give him yours, Vince. Everybody knows you don't have to be drunk to hook up with dudes," said Turtle.

Eric sat down on the couch, and Chelsea perched on the arm beside him, leaning over to talk low beside his ear. "How full of shit is Turtle?" she asked, and Eric grinned.

"About Vince?" he asked. "Pretty full of shit."

"And about everything else?" she asked.

He laughed. "Almost entirely," he said. Vince caught his eyes from across the room, glancing at Chelsea and raising an eyebrow. Chelsea laughed and made a show of putting her arm around Eric's shoulders, leaning down to whisper to him again, her hair falling over their faces and hiding them from view. When she pulled back, Vince was laughing with Johnny in the doorway. Turtle and Max were ignoring them entirely, Turtle already rifling through Max's Nintendo games and judging his selection. It was no different from being back home, really, smoking and drinking in Turtle's basement, and maybe Turtle was right. Maybe Eric was starting to relax for the first time since they got onto the road. There was nothing to coordinate here, no one to keep out of trouble, and he let himself sink back against the couch cushions, lean his head against Chelsea's side.

Turtle and Max ended up stretched out on the floor, controllers in hands, and Johnny and Eric started up a complicated drinking game, turning them into a two-man cheering section. More of Max's friends showed up, the apartment slowly filling with people, and by the time Johnny wandered off to chat up a group of girls in the kitchen, Chelsea had replaced Max dueling Turtle on the floor, and Eric was officially drunk.

"Turtle getting his ass kicked by a girl?" Vince asked, sitting on the floor and leaning back against Eric's legs.

"No more than Drama is," Eric said, nodding towards the kitchen, where Johnny was standing in front of a dark-haired girl with the expression of a guy who had just been viciously shot down.

"Poor Johnny," Vince said with feeling. He watched Turtle and Chelsea on the floor for a moment or two, both of them sharing a drink between rounds, bickering good-naturedly. "Look at our little Turtle, though, all grown up. Think we're going to have to leave him here?"

Eric grinned. "Only place in the country he can get a girl to look at him, we just might."

"What about you?" Vince asked.

Eric shrugged. "What about me?"

"Just going to sit here in the corner all night? There are girls in the kitchen, you know. The kind that might not abandon you for Turtle," he added.

"Chelsea didn't abandon me," Eric said. "She's just playing a game."

"Got that right," Vince said darkly. Eric nudged Vince's head hard with his knee until Vince looked up at him. He shrugged apologetically and gave Eric his drink as a peace offering. "I'm just saying," he said, climbing to his feet, stretching, and collapsing onto the couch in the tiny space between Eric and the arm. "Nobody fucks with my boys. That right, Johnny?" he called into the kitchen, and Johnny called back some indistinct reply, already engaged in conversation with a tall blonde.

Turtle won the game narrowly, and Max kicked him off the tv to put in a movie. Most of the party migrated into the living room, settling onto the floor, the chairs, talking and laughing and spilling and leaning against each other in the way of people who had been partying together all their lives. Johnny ended up in the corner making out with the blonde, and Turtle gave him an indiscreet thumbs up as he made his way across the room to collapse next to Eric on the couch.

"A gentleman would have let her win," Vince said once Chelsea was in earshot, and she rolled her eyes at him, squeezing onto the couch between Turtle and Eric.

"Clearly you've never met your friend here," she said. "Let me introduce you. Vince, this is Turtle. He doesn't know the meaning of the word gentleman."

"Ouch," said Turtle, clutching his chest.

"E's a gentleman," said Vince helpfully, beaming at them both, then turned to watch the movie as Eric felt himself going red.

"Would you have let me win?" she asked Eric quietly, and he shrugged, knowing that there was a right answer, but not quite sure what it was.

On the other side of her, Turtle laughed. "He wouldn't have to," he said. "You'd kick his ass in about ten seconds flat."

Eric shrugged and nodded. "That's probably true," he admitted.

"Good," she said. "I wouldn't want the kind of guy who'd let me win," she added, louder, directed at Vince. This time it was his turn to go red, exchanging glances with Eric.

"Score one for the little guy," said Max, settling onto the arm of the couch beside Turtle. Chelsea rolled her eyes at him, but settled in against Eric's side to watch the movie, resting her head against his shoulder. He watched for a while, mostly just staring at the screen while being utterly distracted by the way her chest was pressing against him, but eventually his eyes started to feel heavy and he started blinking and missing huge chunks of storyline. He fell asleep with his cheek resting against the top of her head, her hair tickling his skin.

The room was dark when he woke up, the movie off, half the people gone. The rest of them were stretched out on the floor in various states of contact and undress. Max had disappeared, presumably to his room, and Turtle had taken over the recliner, fast asleep and snoring. Vince had his arm over Eric's shoulders, and Eric's fingers were tangled into the front of his shirt – Eric's shirt – so tightly it hurt when he stretched them out, smoothed the fabric back down. When he rolled over, Chelsea was sitting up, awake, looking at him in the darkness.

"Oh," he said intelligently, blinking to make his eyes focus a little better. "Oh!" he added a second later, and sat up, Vince's arm falling away. Vince grumbled in his sleep, but then shifted against the couch cushions, tucking his legs up, and quieted again. "I. Um," Eric said, and ran out of things to say.

She smiled, a little stiffly, waved a hand. "It's cool," she said. "Guess he makes a better pillow than I do."

"It's not—" Eric said, and then stopped, because he wasn't sure what it was, let alone what it wasn't.

"Hey, you know, I meant it when I said I didn't want a gentleman," she said. "Don't bother." He glanced at Turtle, and she laughed. "I also don't really want anyone who's only in town for half a day," she added. "So don't get your hopes up for him either." She nodded towards Johnny, sprawled out on the floor with his blonde. "At least one of your guys got lucky," she said. "And someday when he's a movie star, we can all say we partied with him, way back when."

"Yeah, someday," Eric repeated. "When Johnny Chase is a movie star." He couldn't help but laugh at the thought of that, and Chelsea smiled back, looking more like the smile he'd seen from her earlier in the night.

"I'm going to head home," she said, swinging her feet down onto the floor. "Work in the morning," she added, at Eric's look. "Or, well," she peeked at the faint light starting to filter in around the windowshades. "I guess it is morning." She leaned in and kissed him, quickly and lightly, then pulled back and smiled. "Nice to know you, Eric Murphy," she said. "Good luck in LA. To all of you," she added, glancing at the others. "Something tells me you'll need it."

He sat awake for a long time after she left, staring as the edges of the window got lighter and lighter, and eventually fell asleep curled against the far end of the couch, not touching Vince at all.

Eric was sitting on the curb when Vince got back from the coffee shop, a tray of cups balancing precariously in his hands. "I got one for Max," he said, sitting down next to Eric and gesturing up at the tattoo shop behind them. "I figured it was the least we could do."

They had woken up that morning to a note from Max saying he was downstairs at the shop, and they were welcome to stay as long as they wanted. "That's nice," said Johnny, "but Vegas," he added as if he expected the others to disagree. No one did. He and Turtle had headed back to the bar to get the van, and Eric was waiting for them, watching the early morning cars making their way up and down the streets of town.

"You going to bring it in to him, or you going to look at it?" Eric asked, taking his own coffee out of the tray.

"I think I'm going to look at it," Vince said, glancing warily over his shoulder at the door to the shop.

Eric grinned into his cup. "What, do you think needles are just going to spontaneously spring out of the walls the second you go in?" he asked, and Vince flinched.

"Well now that you've put the idea in my head," he said accusingly, and Eric held up his hands, innocence and apology all at once.

"I can take it," he said, holding his hand out for the coffee, but Vince was distracted already, sitting there on the curb and staring at the pictures covering the windows.

"I want one, is the thing. If I was ever going to get one, if it was ever something I did, it'd be now, you know?" He shrugged, seeming to encompass the town, the highway beyond, Eric, Turtle and Johnny, all of it. "It'd be this."

"Go buy a sharpie and have Max draw on you some more," Eric said, waving a hand at the lines that were still twisting their way up Vince's arm. "You'll regret it less if you ever have to do nude scenes." Vince glanced at him sideways, and Eric flushed. "Just, you know," he added, "hypothetically."

"Of course," Vince said, grinning, and nudged Eric's shoe with his own. He sighed, sobering. "You're right, though. I didn't even think of that." He leaned against Eric's side. "See, this is why I need you," he said. "You always think of that stuff."

"The boring stuff, yeah, that's what I'm good for," Eric agreed, and Vince kicked him again, harder this time.

"That," he said, "and other things."

Eric shook his head at Vince in fond exasperation. "Come on," he said, standing and offering Vince a hand up.

Vince looked at it dubiously. "Come on where?" he asked.

"You're going to give Max his coffee," Eric told him.

"And then?"

"What, you think I'm going to convince you to get a tattoo?" Eric asked. "I'm not. Not only is it a bad idea, the last thing I want to deal with is you having nightmares about needles for the rest of the trip."

"Then what does that smile mean?" Vince asked.

"What smile?" Eric asked. "There's no smile." He pulled Vince to his feet, then leaned over and handed him the tray of coffees.

"Oh, there so is," Vince objected, pointing at Eric's face.

Eric shrugged. Vince knew him too well. "Look, if you're too much of a pussy to get a tattoo on this trip, then someone else is just going to have to do it for you." He swallowed down the last of his coffee and threw the cup away in a barrel on the sidewalk, looking up at the windows full of art in front of him.

"E…" Vince said, and couldn't seem to figure out where to go after that.

Eric turned and grinned at him. "Our last big adventure, right?" he asked.

"I thought you didn't believe that," said Vince, completely incapable of hiding an answering smile.

"I don't," Eric said, and he walked into the shop.

"Who's got five?" Vince asked, looking over his shoulder at Eric, backlit by the main floor of the MGM Grand. Eric fished into his pockets absently, busy trying to look around and take everything in at once.

"Keep your eyes in, E," said Johnny, slapping his hands onto Eric's shoulders and steering him towards the tables. "It's Vegas, it's not going anywhere."

Eric held up a five dollar bill, and Johnny took it from him, heading for the nearest table. "It's my turn," he said when Vince objected. "Anyway, none of you would be anywhere near here if it wasn't for me."

"He's got a point, Vince," Eric said, shrugging, and Vince let out a put-upon sigh as he leaned over Eric's shoulder to watch.

"Five on red," Johnny said, slapping the bill down on the table, and the ball rolled, rattling familiarly and comfortably around the wheel as they watched. Vince's arm draped across Eric's chest, fingers teasing at the edge of the bandage lying flat under his shirt. Together, they held their breath.

The ball clattered into place. "Black fifteen," called the dealer, and Vince flinched, letting out a disappointed hiss beside Eric's ear.

Turtle shook his head, turning away from the table. "Should have let you do it, Vince," he said.

Vince shrugged, giving Eric's shoulders a squeeze. "It's cool," he said. "This is Vegas, not AC. The old rules don't apply here." He clapped Johnny on the back and headed towards the rest of the floor. "Come on, E," he said, and waited until Eric caught up with him. "Doesn't mean anything," he said reassuringly, slinging an arm around Eric's shoulders.

Eric nodded, leaned against Vince's side, and chose to believe him.

They sat beside each other in the car and said nothing.

Johnny was driving, his face stony, eyes on the road, and Turtle was pretending to be asleep beside him. His eyes were closed, head against the window, but his fingers still tapped absently along with the music every once in a while as Eric watched.

He watched Turtle because he didn't want to look at Vince. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see him, curled miserably against the door, eyes fixed and unfocused as they stared out at the highway. "How much?" Eric had asked quietly, coming up beside Turtle at the table, and Turtle's eyes had been huge and worried when he turned to look at him.

"Too much," he'd replied. "All of it, I think."

In the end, it was Johnny who got Vince to leave the casino, and only because Eric made him understand they weren't going to be able to pay for the second night in their hotel. "I can win it back," Vince insisted to Eric as Johnny led him to the door. "You believe me, right, E?"

He was still smiling winningly, a little uncertainly, and Eric wanted to, he really did, but instead he said, "I really can't afford to right now," and looked away, not quite quick enough. It was hours later, and he still couldn't get Vince's stricken expression out of his mind.

He watched the hills roll by outside, the powerlines, the overpasses, all of them fading gradually into purples and blues as the sun set ahead of them. "Crazy, isn't it?" Turtle asked, looking back at Eric, the first thing any of them had said since they got in the van.

"Sun sets in the west, Turtle," Eric replied. "It's not magic."

"The west, yeah," agreed Turtle. He waved ahead of them. "There it is. West." He shrugged. "It's a little like magic."

"Magic, right," Eric agreed. "Magic and five days on the road."

"That's the problem with you, E, you have no poetry in your soul," Johnny told him.

"Oh, yeah, Drama, and you're just made of poetry," Eric said, laughing a little.

"Fucking right I am," Johnny agreed.

Eric felt something bumping against him, and turned to find Vince's legs curled up onto the seat, feet nudging Eric's thigh. "Sorry, guys," he said, his voice low, definitely not loud enough for Johnny and Turtle to hear him.

Eric held his gaze, losing all desire to laugh. They looked at each other there across the seat for a long while, like they were kids again having a staring contest. Vince was calm, waiting, and it was Eric who looked away first. He turned towards the window, and instead caught Johnny's eyes staring at him in the rearview mirror.

"All right, that's it," Johnny said, and the van swerved two lanes over into the breakdown lane and screeched to a halt.

"Jesus, Johnny," Vince said, hanging onto the back of Turtle's seat, and Johnny unbuckled himself, spun around to point a finger into Vince's face.

"You," he said, and Vince flinched back, his expression offended and stubborn. "You fucked up, little bro."

The van rocked as trucks roared by in the right lane. Turtle grabbed onto the dashboard and said, "Drama," warningly.

"No," Johnny said, turning to Turtle next. "We are about fifteen minutes outside of the city where I am going to become a star, and there is not a chance I am letting any of you get an inch closer to my new home with all this negative energy around you. I swear to god, I will catch a cab and leave all of you to sleep here in this van for the rest of forever. This is not how Johnny Chase is going to enter LA." He turned to Vince, and waited.

Vince sighed, glanced at Eric, then looked back at Johnny and nodded. "I fucked up," he agreed. "I'm sorry. I'll make it up to you – all," he added, clapping Turtle on the back over the seat. "I promise."

"You better," Johnny said, "because you guys now don't have any money to fly home with."

Vince nodded, looking a little sick, and curled into a tighter ball against the window. "I know," he said.

"Good," Johnny said, and leaned forward to bump fists with Vince. "Love you, baby bro," he said. Vince's expression relaxed, just a little. "As for you," Johnny said, turning to Eric, "stop being a dick."

"Me?" Eric began, fingers curling into fists, but it was a glance at Turtle that made him stop. He wasn't even looking at Eric, he was looking at Vince, peeking around the edge of his seat, and he looked so concerned that Eric had to follow his gaze. It was hard to believe that this Vince was even the same guy they had left Queens with, he looked so defeated.

"E," he said, holding his hands out in an apology, a plea, and Eric sighed.

"You are fucking lucky you're so pretty," he said, and Vince's face split into a hesitant smile. Eric shook his head, laughing finally. "Fuck you, man," he said, and pulled Vince to him, because he'd never been able to deny him anything for very long.

"Good man," Johnny said approvingly, and started up the van again. "And now, onward!"

Vince stayed close to Eric as they made their way into the city, leaning forward every so often to talk to Johnny and Turtle, mostly just relaxing back against the seat, grinning out the windows, the excitement of their trip finally catching back up to him. "We're here, E," he said. "We made it. Turtle and his van, and Johnny and his career," bracketed in air quotes, "and you and your color-coded maps. Look at us," he said, and spread his arms out as if something had changed since they crossed into California, as if they weren't just four tired boys from Queens with nothing to their names but an equally tired van.

Eric wondered, looking at him in the dim light of the California freeway, how he'd ever been able to convince himself – even for a second – that he wouldn't believe in every single thing Vincent Chase ever did.

"Hey, Drama," he called from the backseat as Johnny drove straight past the exit to his apartment, but Johnny waved him off.

"It's our first night in California, E," he said. "If you think I’m not going to see the Pacific, you're a crazy person." The traffic was slow going, each car on every side of them jammed with people, and they spent some time people watching, until it got too dark to see inside clearly. Then they just rolled down all the windows, Turtle lit a cigarette, and they drove in companionable quiet toward the coast, with the warm breeze and the familiar smell of smoke drifting through the car.

They pulled into a parking lot along the shore just as the first fireworks went off. "What…" Eric said, and then stopped, leaning against the back of Johnny's seat and seeing the smile that Johnny shot him in the rearview mirror.

"So concerned with where we were that you forgot when we were, didn't you?" he asked, and climbed out of the van, Vince and Turtle following after him.

Eric laughed, shaking his head, then climbed out after Vince and crawled up onto the roof of the van. "Happy Independence Day, Johnny," Vince said, slapping his brother on the back, and he sprawled back against the van, head in Eric's lap, while Turtle leaned against the hood.

"It is, isn't it?" Johnny agreed, and Eric smiled, leaned back, and watched as all of their faces changed colors under the lights.

"Why do you need somebody to go to your audition with you, anyway, Drama?" Turtle asked, lounging back against the couch. "Need someone to hold your hand?"

"You're just mad he asked Vince instead of you," Eric said, taking the chips off Turtle's lap and sticking his hand in the bag.

Johnny gave Turtle a withering look. "To be my guy, Turtle. This is Los Angeles. Everybody has a guy."

"I can be your guy," Turtle said.

Johnny looked him up and down. "No, you can't," he replied. "What do you say, Vince? Think Hollywood is ready for the Chase brothers?"

Vince beamed. "I'm in, Johnny," he said, hitting the brim of Turtle's hat as he passed him. He proceeded to spend the next forty-five minutes trying on different outfits and scrutinizing himself in the mirror, occasionally asking Eric for opinions. Eric eventually gave up and started making noncommittal noises when it became clear that Vince wasn't actually paying much attention to what he said at all. Instead, he turned his attention to watching his tiny electronic boxer getting its ass kicked by Turtle's on the tv.

"You're just never going to get any better at this, are you?" Turtle asked gleefully, pummeling Eric's boxer into the mat.

"Signs point to no," Vince said, sinking down onto the couch next to Eric. "I think I'm going to go with the blue," he said. He looked down at himself, then looked at Eric. "What do you think, E?"

"Hmm," Eric said vaguely, and tried valiantly to mount a comeback.

"Ouch," Vince said, wincing at the carnage that followed.

Eric sighed and turned away from the tv, sweeping his eyes over Vince. "You look fine," he said. "Anyway, you're going for Drama, remember? Not for yourself."

"Yeah, sure, I know," Vince said in a voice that made Eric give him a pointed look.

"You're here to support your brother," he reiterated. "Not steal jobs out from under him."

Turtle snickered. "Right, like Vince could steal anything from Drama."

Vince squeezed Eric's shoulders and took the controller from him, waiting for Turtle to start up the next round. "I'm in this for Johnny," he assured Eric, doing a decent job of holding Turtle off. "What's wrong with wanting to look good?"

"Nothing, Vin," said Turtle, giving his fighter a vicious punch to the face. "Nothing at all."

"So, do I?" Vince asked, sneaking a glance at Eric out of the corner of his eye, smirking. "Fine, really? That the best you can do?"

Eric gave him a once over and shrugged. "I could start composing sonnets, but I'm pretty sure that's not the impression you want to make on LA," he said.

Vince elbowed Turtle in the side. "Always does what's best for me," he said with a nod in Eric's direction. Turtle made a distracted noise, then finished off Vince's fighter with a few quick shots.

"And you say I'm bad," Eric said, taking his controller back.

"You are," Vince and Turtle said together.

"Don't you have an audition to get to?" Eric asked, pushing Vince off the couch.

"I'd tell you to wish me luck, boys," Johnny said, coming in from his bedroom, "but knowing you, you actually would."

"Break a leg, Drama," Eric said.

"Or break two," Turtle suggested, saluting him with the Nintendo remote.

"Be nice to me, Turtle," Johnny said, pointing at him. "I'm the only person in this house earning any money."

"Maybe earning money," Turtle clarified, and Johnny kept pointing at him menacingly as Vince pushed him out the door.

"Have fun, guys," Eric called, waving as the door shut behind them.

He and Turtle stared at the paused tv for a minute or two. "We're a little fucked, aren't we?" Turtle asked.

"We are, yeah," Eric agreed. "Rematch?"

"For money?" Turtle asked hopefully, and Eric snorted.

"For chips," he said, holding the bag away from Turtle.

"Hey, I bought those chips!" Turtle objected, and launched himself across the couch to win them back.

By the time Vince and Johnny got back, they had exhausted all of their amusement with the Nintendo, played way too many games of cards, and Eric was flipping idly through Johnny's three fuzzy tv stations while Turtle sprawled out on the floor, smoking and watching the ceiling fan like he used to do back home.

"You guys are pathetic," Johnny told them as he came in.

"It's too hot to move," Turtle said from the floor. "You have got to go buy an air conditioner if you get this gig, Drama."

"How'd it go?" Eric asked, muting the tv, and Vince beamed as he sunk down into the couch next to him.

"He killed it," he said.

"How would you know?" Turtle asked. "They probably didn't even let you in the room."

"I can feel it," Vince said, shrugging. He leaned back into the couch cushions with a satisfied smile. "Things are looking up for the Chase brothers." He threw an arm over the back of the sofa, and when Eric turned to look at him, he looked happier and more relaxed than he had since they'd arrived in LA.

"Better be," Turtle said, "because there's not much more down."

"Hey," Johnny said to him, leaning over to take the joint from his fingers. He inhaled, passed it to Vince, and waved at the window expansively. "We're in the greatest city in the world—"

"Except New York," Turtle qualified quickly.

"The greatest city in the world except New York," Johnny allowed, "we've got a decent apartment, a van to get around in, enough junk food from the road to last us a lifetime, and I just put in a stellar performance for the guys at Pacific Blue." He kicked Turtle lightly in the side. "Things are not that bad." He paused on his way to the kitchen. "Also, you better sell that van soon, motherfucker. Johnny Chase, tv star, is not going to be seen driving around in that thing for much longer."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm on it," Turtle agreed, and pointedly didn't move an inch.

"So, how'd it really go?" Eric asked quietly as Johnny disappeared into the kitchen.

Vince let his arm fall off the back of the couch and onto Eric's shoulders. "We're going to be fine, E," he said, which wasn't really an answer, but the grin he gave Eric was so wide and uncomplicated that Eric couldn't help but smile back.

Turtle sat up suddenly. "You found a girl, didn't you?" he demanded.

Eric was about to laugh at him, but Vince turned pink. "Wait, you did?" Eric asked, and Vince pulled his arm back, ducking away and laughing.

"I might have been left in the waiting room for a long time," he said. "Maybe I got lonely."

Eric looked at him for a long moment, and Vince was smiling back, his eyes crinkling just a little mysteriously. "You're full of shit," Eric decided, and Vince laughed.

"Maybe, maybe not," he said, but when Turtle disappeared into the kitchen to interrogate Johnny about Vince's interactions with the other people at the audition, he stretched out on the couch and settled his head into Eric's lap.

"You didn't," Eric decided, and Vince smiled up at him.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" he asked, and took the remote from Eric, flipping through the channels on the tv like he was going to make a good show appear with the power of his mind.

"What do you guys want for dinner?" Johnny called from the kitchen. "Ramen or other Ramen?"

"Thai," said Eric, and when Johnny and Turtle's heads appeared in the kitchen door, he waved a few bills at them. "Found it in my pants from the night of the thunderstorm," he said. "How about checking out that place on the corner?"

"Eric Murphy, you are my hero," Turtle said fervently. Eric smiled and tipped his head back against the couch, content to listen to the other guys fight over what they were going to order. Johnny might be right, he decided, draping his arm more comfortably over Vince's chest. Maybe things were starting to look up for the boys from Queens.

"Drama, quit being such a mom," Turtle said as Johnny looked anxiously out the window for the third time in ten minutes.

"I can't help it," Johnny said. "My baby bro is out there, in the big city, all by himself."

"You say that like Vince has never left the house on his own in his life," Eric said, rolling his eyes. "He's a big boy, Drama."

Johnny looked at Eric pointedly. "He kind of hasn't, E. When is he ever without one of you guys?"

Eric and Turtle exchanged a look and shrugged at each other. "Point," Eric conceded.

"Are you sure he didn't say anything about where he was going?" Johnny asked, and they both shook their heads. "This is the second time he's done this this week," he reminded them.

"Yeah, and last time he came home perfectly fine, grinning like his face was gonna fall off," Turtle said. "He's fine, Drama, relax. He's probably just off getting laid somewhere." He pushed an envelope of money across the table at Johnny. "And when he gets back we get to go buy you a new car," he added.

"Thanks, Turtle, but no," Johnny said, looking sadly down at the money. "I think Ma would have me killed if she found out that I'd gotten money and hadn't sent you boys home."

Turtle looked distressed. "But that's your money, Drama," he said. "Look, I know some guys. I can ask around, get us some work that'll pay us under the table."

"You're gonna work, Turtle?" Eric asked, exchanging glances with Johnny and laughing.

"I can work," Turtle said indignantly. "I do stuff for my uncle Ronnie all the time," he reminded them.

"It's cute that you think that's work," said Johnny.

"Says the actor," Turtle replied.

"Guys, relax," said Vince from the doorway. "Nobody has to get a job." He stepped into the kitchen and dropped a pile of bills onto the table. "It's not quite enough to get us home," he qualified. "But if Johnny can spot us a little from the van money, we can pay him back once we get jobs back home." They all looked from the money to Vince, then back again. He laughed. "What? I've got skills, you guys."

"Vince, it's sweet that you'd sell your body for us—" Turtle began, and Vince reached over to knock the hat off his head before he could finish.

"I got a gig, all right?" he said, looking faintly embarrassed. "I didn't meet a girl at Johnny's audition, Turtle. Or, well, I did, but it was for business, not sex. She was interested in me for this ad she was doing."

"You did an ad?" Eric asked, feeling his face splitting into a grin.

"It was just for Vick's, nothing glamorous," Vince said quickly. "But yeah," he said, grinning back at Eric. "I got paid. To act."

Turtle and Johnny went for Vince at the same time, scooping him up and whirling him around the kitchen. He was laughing when they put him down, right in front of Eric, and they stood there grinning stupidly at each other for a few seconds before Johnny clapped them both on the back. "This calls for a celebration!" he said, waving around the van money, and he and Turtle started arguing about where they should go.

"I can do this," Vince said to Eric quietly, a little dazed.

"I know," said Eric, his face hurting from beaming so hard.

"You always knew," Vince said, a little accusingly, throwing his arm around Eric's shoulders, and Eric shrugged.

"Of course I did. I'm the smart one, remember?" He ducked out from under Vince's arm. "You didn't tell me," he added, a little hurt.

Vince turned pink. "I didn't want you guys to know," he said, "if it didn't work out. If I told you, it was real, you know?"

"Yeah," Eric said, then punched Vince in the arm. "It is real now," he said, "so don't do it again."

"Don't worry," Vince said, "you'll get to know every detail of my career, even the ones you don't want to."

"Awesome," Eric said dryly.

Vince shrugged. "That's what you get for being the smart one," he said. "So, hey, don't I get any say in this?" he asked, turning to Turtle and Johnny, and Eric stood there for a minute, watching Vince, trying to commit him to memory exactly as he was right now, halfway between Vince from next door, the kid who made a tin can phone from his bedroom to Eric's, and Vincent Chase, legitimate actor. Then Vince was pulling him over, ruffling his hair, his smile no different now than it had been all those years ago.

"What's your vote, E?" he asked, and Eric leaned against his side, shrugging.

"I go where you go," he said, not interested in getting into a debate with Turtle and Drama.

"That's right," Vince said, "you do," and he gave Eric a movie star smile.

They flew home three days later, watching the sunset fade behind them as the plane turned east and carried them home. Johnny drove them to the airport in his new car and hugged Vince for a long time at the gate, the two of them having some kind of intense conversation while Eric and Turtle argued over who got the window seat and who got the aisle.

It wasn't until they were on the plane and Turtle had tuned them out with his Walkman that Vince turned to Eric and said, "I could have stayed, you know."

"I know," Eric said, watching the city lights fade under the clouds below them.

"I mean, Johnny asked me to," he said, and Eric nodded.

"I figured." He didn't look at Vince as he asked, "Why didn't you?"

"Because when I come back, you're going to come with me."

That made Eric look at him. "I'm going to school, Vince. I have to get a job."

"I know," Vince said. "But eventually."

Eric shook his head, smiling fondly. "How are you so sure?"

"I just know," Vince said, smiling back. "Maybe not even right away, with you being all educated and employed and stuff. But sooner or later, I'm going to need you, and you're going to fly across the country for me."

Eric snorted. "Keep dreaming," he said, but Vince just kept looking at him with that same smile.

"We're going to do this, E," he said, and his voice was so sure that Eric couldn't help but believe him, just a little.

Vince fell asleep against Eric shortly after that, and Eric stayed awake, watching the ground rolling westward below them as they flew back towards reality. Vince shifted in his sleep, curling his fingers into Eric's shirt, and he settled back to sleep with his hand pressing just over where the fresh lines of the tattoo were marked against Eric's skin. Somehow, the warmth of his hand through the fabric and the heavy weight of Vince's head against his shoulder made it feel easier to hang on to a little bit of the dream, for just a little longer.

Just until they landed.