Summary: Excuses are easy to manufacture, harder to sell.
Warnings: Boybands, RPF.
Also: Enormous thanks are due to the following people: llamabitchyo and trumpeterofdoom for hand-holding of the highest quality, epicflailer for the squeefulest cheerleading in the world ("the Davids" are all for you, babe!) and phaballa for an awesome beta (if it's still not American enough, it's not your fault!)
Illustrations are by the utterly fabulous pensnest, included here at her request. There is one for each section. If you have feedback specific to the artwork, feel free to leave it here (I will forward them) or leave comments on the illustrations themselves, which are on Pen's Photobucket account.
This is how it starts.
Justin's at work. Specifically, he's rooting around under the counter for a can of Coke he knows he put there earlier on. He needs caffeine, especially since he had three hours of sleep and during the dead middle of the afternoon he has a history paper he's supposed to be working on. Slavery, economics and the civil war. More fun than Justin knows how to handle.
He's going to be so glad this summer when he finally graduates.
So he's at work, rooting around under the counter for that can of Coke, when he hears the door open and shut, the usual tinny jangle that's going to be constant and bugging the shit out of him in about four hours' time. By now, Justin knows exactly how much time he has between the jingle-thunk of the door shutting and the customer making it to the desk. After six and a half years working the front desk at the gym, it's become a fine art.
...two, one. Justin stays under the counter for one more second, knowing he's invisible from the other side.
"Excuse me?" says a voice. A deep voice, low and smooth, trace of a Southern accent, though a pretty different Southern than the one he grew up with. Alabama? Mississippi? Louisiana? Justin's been in California nine years now, give or take; he's not so much an expert on the South any more.
He pops up from behind the counter and says, "Can I help you?" and it's Park Guy.
Park Guy - shorter than Justin, medium-brown hair, green eyes, dazzling white smile - looks almost as startled as Justin feels. They've seen each other just about every morning for three months now, they've said exactly two words to each other, and this is so completely random. Justin puts on his most professional face, and wonders if Park Guy can see through it.
There's a moment of silence. Then Park Guy says, "Hi," and Justin smiles.
That's not how it starts, of course.
Hard to know where it did start, exactly.
There was a time - childhood, pretty much - when everything in Justin's life seemed to go right. He grew up in Tennessee, and though he knows it's not really true, he remembers it like it was warm all the time, skies blue, the light golden. Things were like that until the summer after he turned fifteen, when it seemed like he suddenly woke up and saw the stormclouds on the horizon.
Everything was pretty fucked-up after that.
So he left Tennessee just as soon as he could - the day after his eighteenth birthday, he climbed into his car and drove clear across the country. Three days of bad radio, junk food and sleeping in his car later, he was in Sacramento. He still has fond memories of that car, a very beat-up red Honda Civic, though it died on him a year and a half later and he was eating ramen for three months paying for its replacement.
Since then, he's tried LA, San Diego, and San Francisco. None of them quite worked out for him - though he got his GED in San Francisco, and that was where he met JC, so he guesses that episode of his life wasn't all bad. He lives in Oakland now, and has for almost seven years. By contrast with the other cities he's tried, it's working out for him just fine. It's cheaper to live than Berkeley, where he goes to school, and far cheaper than San Francisco, which despite his educational achievements and the good people was an exercise in not being able to afford to eat. So by virtue of having two jobs, and a really forgiving landlord, he can just about make rent, food and gas most months.
So he goes to work, goes to school, goes to his other work, writes papers under the counter at the gym when it's quiet, and that's his life. He gets free use of the equipment at the gym and free meals at the restaurant, so he's toned and he eats pretty healthy, and a few months from now he'll finish his degree and then he'll be... something. He'll have a degree, anyway, and then he guesses he needs to figure out what he wants to do with it.
His life doesn't even include Park Guy, not really. Park Guy's just... scenery, something nice for Justin to look at when he's on his morning run. It's been three months, more or less, and they nod at each other each morning now, and sometimes Park Guy will smile. It's a nice smile, and when Park Guy smiles Justin remembers it for the rest of the day. Park Guy has two dogs, really beautiful ones, and Justin's jealous; even if he could afford a pet, he hasn't lived anywhere since he moved out here that would let him keep one. He misses his mom's dogs almost as much as he misses his mom herself. Not that missing her does him a whole lot of good.
What all that means is, with Park Guy standing right in front of him, Justin doesn't have the first idea what to do except smile. Park Guy smiles back, and it's not just a nice smile, actually. It's gorgeous. Justin smiles harder, and he manages to get out the word, "Hi." A whole syllable. He feels like a dork.
"Hi," Park Guy says again. "So. Um." Two syllables. That's progress. "Can I - uh, how can I help?"
"Well," Park Guy says.
Justin sees Park Guy for the first time on a surprisingly cold Sunday in December. The weather report said it might get as low as 47 this morning, but it's windy, too, and Justin figures it might even be a little lower than that with the wind factored in. He's going faster than usual on his morning run to keep warm, head down, when a mid-size dog dashes across his path, startling him.
It's a few yards ahead of him, going by so fast that there's no danger he'll trip over it, but he stops anyway. After the first dog comes another one, just the same: Justin isn't totally sure on the breed, but they're beautiful dogs, longish-haired, brown and white. He stares after them for a second, and after the dogs comes a guy, running, shouting after them. Justin doesn't have time to get more than a fleeting impression of him: a good four or five inches smaller than Justin, trim and compact, just a flash of unshaven chin as he goes by. He's wearing a blue and white sweatshirt and snug track pants that show off what turns out to be quite a fine ass. Justin stays still for another second, long enough to admire it.
The guy makes a half-turn to glance apologetically at Justin before continuing to pelt after his dogs. Their eyes meet, and Justin gives him a one-shouldered shrug before running on. He's cold.
The next day, it's the dogs that Justin recognizes, not the guy. He runs more or less the same route every day, two circuits of the park, maybe three if it's a Thursday or he's feeling energetic. They come bounding across his path again at just about the same spot, and Justin stops again to let first one and then the other go by. He's expecting to see the guy with the nice ass again, and glances to his right to look for him, but he's not there. Justin sighs - a little bit of ogling never makes his day go worse - and starts off again, glancing behind him to see where the dogs went. The guy from yesterday is squatting on the ground to pet them. He looks up at exactly the moment that Justin looks back, and Justin meets his eyes again, at a distance, for no more than a second. The guy nods quickly. Justin nods in return and keeps running.
It's three weeks before Christmas and the weather's getting worse. It's bad enough getting up in the dark most mornings, and if he has to go running in the grey dawn light it really shouldn't rain, too. But rain it does, every morning for the next five days. Justin feels justified in bitching, if only to himself, because his sneakers are starting to leak, and he can't afford new ones for at least another couple of months. The park tends to empty out when it rains, so Justin's surprised to see the guy with the dogs every single morning, dressed in a raincoat and a waterproof hat. He's even out on the fourth day, when the rain's so torrential that it plasters Justin's running clothes to him in minutes. The guy stops in his tracks to stare at Justin like he's crazy.
Justin, who wears the same running gear no matter what the weather, shakes his head and runs on. He's shivering by the time he gets back to his car, though, and pretty damn glad that he remembered to bring a towel along with his change of clothes today. He grimaces as he pulls off his wet socks and dries his feet.
December gets crazy about then, as December always does; there's term papers to turn in, and so many Christmas parties at the restaurant that they're constantly begging him to work extra shifts. At least the gym is pretty quiet, as exercise routines get dropped to make way for all the Christmas preparations. Justin uses the quiet times to write his paper on Dickens - the last literature class he'll ever have to take, halle-fucking-luiah - and, when there's absolutely nobody around, he sometimes takes a swim in the pool. He still sees the guy with the dogs every morning, and if he's lucky, gets to check out that ass for a second. Mostly, though, they just nod to each other.
It's around this time, crazy pre-Christmas time, that he mentions the guy to someone for the first time. Quite why, he isn't sure, except that seeing that guy and his dogs has somehow, over the past couple of weeks, become a fixture. There are other regular morning people in the park, of course - the old lady who sits by the duck pond, the gaggle of kids who walk through it to school every weekday, the girl with the music player and the sad eyes - but the guy with the dogs is the one that Justin finds himself watching out for. It's those beautiful dogs, he thinks, or the equally beautiful ass, or the fact that the guy nods to Justin every day. It's just a little bit of human contact. Something like that.
The first person he tells is Chris, predictably. Just as predictably, that's a mistake.
"So you have a crush on a guy from the park," Chris says when Justin is done talking about his day. Chris has this infuriating habit of taking the least important thing out of a long list of things you were talking about and making it into something. This time, in among the bitching about schoolwork and the stupid temporary staff at the restaurant who don't know anything, he made a single small comment about the guy with the dogs and Chris has managed to weave it into this whole big thing. Ten questions and fourteen knowing looks later, Chris has jumped to the conclusion that Justin has a crush.
Justin totally doesn't have a crush. He doesn't even know the guy. He just sees him every day, that's all; don't you have to talk to someone to get a crush on him?
"I do not," he says.
"Do so," Chris teases. "You and Park Guy. It's the romance of the century."
Justin rolls his eyes, and Chris continues to tease him for the rest of the night. Chris is a fantastic landlord, but sometimes he's a really annoying friend.
Most of the time, though, Chris is a good friend, too. Seven years in Oakland, and Justin still qualifies for 'the waifs and strays Christmas', as Chris calls it. Justin never knows whether to be ashamed that he needs it or grateful that Chris keeps doing it every year. Either way, his first two Christmases in California were a lot lonelier.
This year, it's him and JC, Christina and Britney, and a couple of kids Justin's never seen before who come to stay a couple of days before Christmas and eat the food Chris gives them like they might not eat again for a year. Justin wonders if they're project kids, and if so, what Chris's boss thinks of what he does for them. Justin doesn't begrudge it: he supposes they're the same as he once was. The same as he still is, Chris might say. Kids that can't go home.
So that's how come Justin's still in Oakland on Christmas morning, taking his regular run through the park at the regular time. It's still pitch dark when he leaves the house, everyone asleep, but by the time he gets back Chris will be up and making coffee and dragging people out of bed for a rowdy Christmas breakfast. This will be about the last time he gets to himself for two days.
He saw Park Guy yesterday, and guessed that Park Guy must be crazy, taking an afternoon flight home on Christmas Eve: Justin's never done it, he's been back to Tennessee exactly once and once was more than enough, thank you, but he knows from friends and co-workers that the airports are hell the day before Christmas. The guy shouts after his dogs in a Southern accent, and sometimes wears an Ole Miss sweatshirt, so Justin assumes the guy's family is way out of town. He's sure as hell not expecting to see him today, strolling up the path, dogs leashed, as Justin rounds the corner by the duck pond. Justin stops in his tracks, mouth open.
Park Guy smiles at him, the first time, and the dogs investigate Justin's ankles as Justin smiles back. Park Guy gives a sharp tug on the leashes, pulling the dogs away from Justin, and says, "Merry Christmas," as he walks by. The Southern accent's not very strong, but it's there, reminding Justin of childhood. Church music, heated arguments, making out with Trace. He's gone years without hearing a Southern accent that's not Britney's, and Brit's has faded almost as far as his own, is so familiar that it doesn't make him homesick any more.
"Merry Christmas," Justin says. Park Guy passes him, dogs barking at something interesting they see a little further down the way. The ducks, maybe. Justin starts running again, taking a last glance over his shoulder at the dogs and, surreptitiously, Park Guy's ass.
Those are the first words they say to each other. And, for a long time, the last.
Christmas is pretty much what Justin expects. By the time Justin gets back from his run, JC and Britney and Chris are already up, and the kids Chris brought over a couple of days ago are emerging. Justin doesn't know much about them - just that they're both called David, which is nice and confusing, and only one of them is actually young enough to be from the project. The older David's only a couple of years younger than Justin.
Chris makes his traditional Christmas breakfast - very heavy on sugar and coffee at first, though he will eventually serve up just about every breakfast food you can think of - and spends the morning feeding the five of them up. Justin eats cautiously, because after all they'll be stuffed with food again this evening when Chris brings the turkey out, and watches the others.
Christina's coming over for dinner, mostly because she's been part of Chris's Christmases since long before Justin moved to Oakland. She's married now, and extremely pregnant, and it's a long time since she really qualified as a 'waif and stray'. She's bringing her husband Jordan along, though, and Jordan's a nice guy.
The Davids, as Chris calls them, stuff their faces, and that's something Justin has noticed a few times since they came to stay a couple of days back. JC asks them how they met Chris, and the younger David - he looks very young, still-in-high-school young - gets started on their life story. It sounds edited, but then Justin's listened to a lot of life stories around this kitchen table, and they always start off edited. If you've had a rough life, you're not exactly primed to trust total strangers. Not even if they're Chris.
Chris joins in the conversation, prodding first the younger David, and then the older, to give up more details, making sure JC's more careful with his questions than he normally would be. They're homeless; Chris met the older one on the street a couple of days ago, begging for money, and apparently he was feeling benevolent because he made older-David the same offer he'd made Justin all those years ago. Two weeks rent-free.
The story makes Justin smile, because it took them two days of debate to finally call Chris and accept. He remembers spending an awful long time deliberating himself. It just seemed too good to be true.
Brit is quiet, sitting next to Justin and eating slowly. She's hardly said a word so far today, and when Justin turns to ask her if she's okay, she just makes a non-commital humming noise and leans into his shoulder.
Christina arrives around lunchtime, complete with husband, gifts, and giant belly. Once she's there, the conversation predictably turns to babies, which Justin thinks is... kind of mean to Brit, actually. He can't blame Christina, though, who's excited about having her kid. He can't believe the baby's going to be here in less than a month.
Britney does pretty good, actually, and gets quite animated talking with Christina about birth plans and diapers and all kinds of other stuff that, to Justin, seems too gross to even think about. It's only much later that she goes quiet again, once the conversation has moved on to Christina quizzing JC about his new job. Justin slips his arm around her shoulders after a few minutes, and that seems to help some.
After a light lunch, they do gifts. The Davids don't really take part, except that Chris gives them a case of beer. Justin has, as usual, clubbed together with the rest of the strays to get Chris a decent gift, and it's Christina who bought and wrapped it and brought it over. It's a barbecue, to replace the one that died last summer. Chris is touched enough that he goes quite for a whole thirty seconds.
Justin's haul is pretty good this year. JC gives him a book on career choice, and there's a sweet note in the card about graduation. Justin thinks it's a bit premature - he has a whole semester to pass yet - but he hugs JC and smiles anyway. Britney gives him another Lakers shirt, a bit of a tradition between them by now, and Christina's gift is a boxed set of Prison Break. He hugs her for that, because he almost never catches it live, and he's totally planning a marathon as soon as he has a free day. Wentworth is fucking hot.
Chris hands over his gift last of all with a grin. It's a big, not-very-heavy box, and Justin opens it to find the sneakers he's been planning to buy now for two months. They're not quite the newest Nikes, they've been out about a year, but he's been saving for them since October and Chris knew that, and - he looks up at Chris, who's smiling. "Read the card," Chris says.
Justin rips open the envelope and does as he's told. It says: 'Now will you shut up? Merry Christmas. -Chris'
Justin laughs and throws his arms around Chris's neck, pinning him briefly to the floor. When he gets up, the Davids are looking half-shocked, but JC and Brit and Christina and even Jordan are laughing.
Britney's gifts are next, and Justin is the first to put his parcel into her small hands. It's just a piece of costume jewellery, but she likes it enough to kiss him on the cheek.
Christmas dinner is a feast. Chris is pretty equal-opportunities about who gets to help out in the kitchen, making sure everybody gets their chance to help prepare vegetables and baste the turkey. They sit down at the table at seven and dig in.
Over dinner, the conversation turns back to the Davids. They're new blood, so it's pretty much a given. It starts for real, though, when Chris spots them holding hands under the table. "Oh, don't be shy," he says, "I'm the only straight guy in the building."
Everybody laughs. Then Jordan says, "Hey, excuse me," and they all laugh harder.
After that, the Davids seem to relax a lot, and the whole table gets a much less edited version of their combined life story. It sounds a lot like Justin's own story, or JC's, and Justin gets a bitter taste in his mouth, thinking about how close he came to homeless himself before he met Chris. When they're done, the younger one says, "Aren't you all bored of hearing us talk about ourselves by now?"
Chris gives younger-David the look that Justin still finds completely unreadable. "Everybody has a story," he says.
"What's yours?" younger-David asks.
Justin tunes out most of Chris's story because he knows it by heart. Moved out here from Nowheresville, Pennsylvania, when he was still a teenager; studied psychology until he couldn't afford it any more; went to work at the project fifteen years ago and never looked back. Since then he's become a sort of weird beacon of hope in the Bay Area, short and cranky and funny and sometimes even cruel, but never for no reason. Justin's lived in Chris's house now for almost seven years - seven years, come March - and even when one of them's being ornery, he loves Chris like a brother.
They storytelling makes its way around the table, but what with crackers and dessert and the dishes and a hundred and one far more interesting tangents, they don't get around to Justin's story until they're all sitting in the living room with cans of the Davids' beer. It's younger-David who's doing the asking, and he turns to look at Justin over his can of Coke - he doesn't drink - and says, "What about you?"
He's so fucking young. Seventeen, was the latest version of his age, but Justin could believe he's a year or two younger than that without too much trouble. It's funny, because older-David's not very much younger than Justin or Brit, and they're so clearly crazy about each other, and... Justin wonders, is all. How in the hell they ever found each other and knew it was right. 'Cause Justin can't really ever imagine falling for a guy who's maybe seventeen.
"Um," Justin says eloquently.
David keeps looking at him, holding the Coke one-handed between his knees, his other hand resting companionably on the other David's thigh. So Justin explains, and it's slow and faltering, though he's told his story a million times over the years, and it's well-worn now, tattered and frayed around the edges. He starts where he always does, with Trace and the grand romantic disaster that was the summer of 1996. When he gets to the part about his mother walking in on them, David - the one that's probably-not-seventeen - half-laughs, half-winces.
"Did you stay friends?" younger-David asks. "With that Trace guy?"
"Kinda," Justin says. "I mean, we didn't talk until like, that Christmas, really. But we did talk again." He sets his own beer on the carpet by his feet; it's almost empty. "He's married now."
"Ouch," older-David says. Justin smiles weakly.
There's a silence. Justin picks up his beer and downs the last of it in one big swallow. "So I got out," he said.
Younger-David, who probably got out himself not so long ago, nods knowingly. "Right then?"
"When I was eighteen," Justin says.
Younger-David's eyes go wide. "Gosh, how did you wait that long? Three years."
"Two and a bit," Justin corrects him. "And it - it wasn't so bad. I mean, my mom was... but she didn't tell my dad, my stepdad, I mean, and nobody was abusing me or anything, so... it wasn't so bad."
Younger-David nods, because that's where their experiences diverge, really.
"The worst part," Justin says, "was being a... a disappointment. My mom was, she was disappointed in me. Always will be, I guess."
"Just 'cause you're gay?" younger-David says. Justin nods. He knows David understands, because man, isn't that why they're all sitting on Chris's floor? Not because they're gay, but because they were a disappointment. Or worse. "That sucks," David goes on, and it's not shock, but sympathy.
"Well," Britney pipes up. She's been sitting next to Justin since they moved rooms, but has hardly said a word since she finished her own story over dinner. "We're not disappointed in you. Not one bit."
She throws one arm around his shoulders. Justin hugs her back. JC says, "Damn right," and kicks Justin's foot amicably from his spot on the floor. Christina's half-asleep on the other couch, slumped against Jordan's shoulder, but she raises her hand in a lazy thumbs-up.
Justin squeezes Britney and she shifts comfortably against Justin. "Look at you," she says against his shoulder. "College and all. Graduating. I could never do that."
Justin puts his other arm around her. Brit's life sucks: she was a welfare mom, until her asshole ex sued for custody of her kids earlier this year and won. She gets to see them, and she's trying - damn, but she's trying - but she doesn't have health insurance and MedicAid won't pay for the medication she needs to treat her bipolar disorder. And with an untreated mental illness and not even a high school diploma, her chances of getting a job that'll give her insurance are pretty slim.
Brit hauls herself up and plops down in Justin's lap. He settles his arms around her waist and rests her chin on his shoulder, and wonders how different this scene might be if he was straight.
She seems to read his mind, because she asks him, "Why are you gay?"
"Oh man," he says, "if I knew that..."
"It's so disappointing," she says. It's a joke, and she laughs and slaps his knee drunkenly to prove it. Justin laughs along obediently, but it stings, all the same.
As is traditional with a Chris-sponsored Christmas, they go to bed pretty damn late, long after the storytelling has dissolved into random drunken conversation and a haphazard selection of movies. It's 2.30am and then some by the time Justin hits the sack.
The Davids have the bedroom next to Justin, and now that they've been outed by Chris they're apparently quite happy to have loud Christmas sex in the early hours of the morning. Justin never understands people who get hot listening to somebody else have sex, because this is definitely not sexy, definitely not, except - okay, maybe a little bit. Justin finally jerks off in a 4am shower, twenty minutes after the sleepy pillow-talk sounds have finally gone quiet. It's the only time he thinks about Park Guy all holiday.
He sleeps very late the day after Christmas, and doesn't go for his run until almost lunchtime. Park Guy isn't there, which isn't a big surprise. When he gets back, JC's in the middle of offering Brit a ride home; Justin's just in time to hug her goodbye.
Two days later, older-David throws a tiny birthday party for younger-David. There's a bottle of very cheap wine, and when Justin realizes what's going on he goes out to supplement it with some Coke and a card. Younger-David hugs him when he hands the card over, which is pretty weird, but sort of okay, too.
"Now I really am seventeen," he says sheepishly, and Chris and Justin both laugh.
There's not much of the old year left by then. Justin's New Year's Eve is spent working at the restaurant, catering for a big party, rushed off his feet. When he gets home, well after two, Chris, David and David are still up, laughing over something, and they shout, "Happy New Year!" in chorus when Justin walks through the door. Justin smiles at them and drinks one beer before he goes to bed.
The Davids stay their two weeks and then move on. A few days later, younger-David calls to say that his boyfriend's gotten a job in Sacramento; Chris wishes them luck and tells them to call him if they need anything. Like most of Chris's other temporary tenants, they probably won't be heard from again.
Justin wishes them well.
School doesn't start again for three weeks after the New Year, a week after Christina's baby is born. Justin takes the opportunity to work some extra shifts at the restaurant, saving up for books and the emergencies that will no doubt crop up as soon as his schedule gets hectic again. The morning routine stays, though it seems to rain more in the first two weeks of January than it did the whole of December, and he's constantly spreading his running gear over the radiator in the gym's break room to dry. Cameron hates when he does that, but it's either that or let them go mouldy in his bag, so Cameron can kiss his ass.
Park Guy continues to exercise his dogs at the same time as Justin runs, and Justin continues to check out his ass whenever he can. It's not a big thing, just appreciating the scenery - like he enjoys running past the tulip beds in spring. The scenery is even better when Park Guy smiles at him, a wide and dazzling smile that transforms his whole face, making Justin smile back. It's a face that Justin's slowly getting to know: Park Guy has very light green eyes, a pleasingly square jaw under his usual dusting of stubble, brown hair that's long enough to spike. Justin likes seeing him.
He normally stays over with Christina for a night before classes start, the point being to get all his paperwork in before driving back to Oakland for work. This time around she has a week-old baby, though, so he figures on getting up really early that Monday morning; but Christina calls on the Friday night and insists he come over Sunday. She makes Jordan call for take-out, and pay for it, and Justin spends the evening catching up with Christina and falling hoplelessly in love with little Max.
It's weird the next morning, though. He goes for a run around campus before turning in his paperwork, and keeps looking for Park Guy, even though he's in the wrong city and he's not even in a park. His brain is so screwed-up sometimes.
School starts, life gets that little bit crazier but it goes on. Justin gets embroiled in history and math and his final electives, a heavy load of classes for his last semester. He doesn't want to have to do another summer session if he can possibly help it. Pretty soon he's back to dashing from work to school to work again, barely seeing Chris or any of his other friends, just about managing to hang with JC sometimes on his day off. His day off is Monday this semester, and often he needs to reserve it for actual studying, but every now and then he drives over to San Francisco and drinks coffee with JC, maybe listens to him play a set or two after. Last semester their schedules clashed horribly and Justin hardly saw JC at all.
He gets a night off on Wednesdays, too - no restaurant, no school, and he's done at the gym by six. Chris takes an unhealthy interest in Justin's personal life, and sometimes on Wednesday nights he invites friends of Justin's over for dinner. So it's not a big shock, one Wednesday night in mid-February, when Justin crashes through the front door to find JC lounging on the couch and Chris making hamburgers for dinner. Justin lets his bag fall to the floor with a loud thump and, over the weird-sounding music that's playing, says, "Hey."
"Hey, man," JC says, smiling, and Justin crosses the room to fall down next to him on the couch.
"So how's Park Guy?" Chris asks.
Chris asks this occasionally, and Justin always blows him off. They're eating at the table in the kitchen, hamburgers and fries and salad, when Chris asks this time. Justin rolls his eyes and says, "Fine, I guess."
"Still see him every day?" Chris asks.
Justin glares at Chris. JC turns to look at Justin, a forkful of salad halfway to his mouth, lively with curiosity. "Park Guy?" he says. "Who's that?"
"Nobody." Justin wants to sink into the floor then and there. Damn Chris.
"On behalf of Park Guy, I'm insulted," Chris says with a snort. To JC, he carries on: "Park Guy is Justin's crush."
"Ooh," JC says.
"No he's not," Justin protests.
"Oh, he totally is."
"Chris, he isn't. I don't have a crush on him." Justin sighs, and turns to JC, because JC is still staring at him as if he wants to know. "He's just this guy. I see him in the park sometimes, I go running, he walks his dogs. He's kind of cute, but that's all. I don't even know him."
"Have you even talked to him?" JC asks. "No. Well. We said 'Merry Christmas' one time."
Chris gasps with mock offence. "You never told me that!"
"You should totally talk to him," JC says. "I mean, if he's cute, what's the problem?"
"I don't even know if he's gay," Justin says, which is probably a mistake - after all, didn't he just say that he doesn't have a crush? Which he doesn't, anyway, you can't have a crush on a guy you've never even really spoken to. Doesn't make any sense. All they do is nod to each other every morning, it's not exactly a deep and meaningful relationship. Although Justin does like his dogs.
"So what's the problem with finding out?" asks JC.
JC stays the night, insisting that he'll join Justin for his run the following morning. JC's easy to fool, though: Justin simply doesn't follow through on his promise to wake JC, leaving a note for Chris to kick JC off the couch in time that he won't be late for work. He revels in not being forced to talk to Park Guy, and for the first time, he's the first one to smile. Park Guy smiles back at him - no, he grins. They're some distance apart today, the dogs running into the bushes after something, and the guy raises his hand to Justin. Justin waves back and keeps running, but he keeps smiling for a good couple of minutes after Park Guy is out of sight.
Justin has school all morning on a Thursday, then works at the gym until closing. JC's waiting on the couch again when he gets back, arms folded, and Justin drops his bag quietly this time, stands in the hallway just looking at JC until JC says something.
"You bailed on me," JC says in the teasing tone he only uses when he's really mad. Justin figured that one out somewhere towards the end of the disastrous five months that they dated, and it's bugged him ever since, the way you can only tell that JC's serious because it sounds for all the world like he's kidding. Justin loves JC a lot, but JC's not an easy guy.
Justin sits on the couch next to JC. Chris isn't there tonight - out working at the project, Justin guesses - so the apartment is empty apart from the two of them and the fish across the room, swimming back and forth in their tank over and over. When he's sitting down, he looks straight ahead and doesn't say anything for the longest time. He can feel JC beside him, thrumming like a plucked guitar string, waiting for an explanation.
It reminds Justin of his mom, the way JC's silence can say more than a million words all strung together.
Justin takes a deep breath and tries to figure out how to explain. JC's going to assume that Justin didn't want his company, but that's not it. It's this tiny little thing with Park Guy that in his hectic life, all work-school-work and negotiating Chris and Cameron and running from place to place, is sometimes the only thing that feels like it's really his. It's private, and he doesn't want to share. JC, who shares everything, from gossiping with Chris about his latest conquests to writing songs about rimming, won't get that.
Eventually, he lets the deep breath out in a sigh. The only thing he can think of to say is, "I'm not like you, C," and that doesn't seem like enough to Justin.
But JC sits there for a whole minute, like he's absorbing Justin's words. Then he says, "Okay."
JC's not so easily fooled the next morning. When Justin comes downstairs, dressed for his run, JC's awake, sitting up on the couch and pulling on a pair of sneakers. Justin blinks at the light and says, "Hi."
"Morning," JC says.
There's a moment of silence. Justin shoulders his bag, jerks his head towards the door, and says, "Coming?"
JC gets up without a word and follows Justin to his car. It's not until they've driven halfway to the park that JC says anything. Justin's stopped at a red light, and JC's staring out the window on the passenger side, though there's not really anything at all to see. "I won't make you talk to him," JC says. "I just wanna see him."
Justin nods and starts the car moving again. It's five more minutes to the park. Justin parks in his usual spot and gets started. JC keeps up pretty well; Justin only has to slow his regular pace a little, which is good. Justin has a tight schedule on a Friday morning, because he has to be at the gym by eight-thirty, his earliest start of the week.
Park Guy's dogs are barking at the ducks again this morning, and Park Guy himself is crouched on the ground between them, one hand on the back of each dog. Justin glances at him, not sure if Park Guy will even notice him today; but hey, the crouching position and the tight jeans combine to give Justin a really nice view of that ass. Happy day.
Park Guy does notice, in fact. He looks up and around, sees Justin, and there's a moment where he looks from Justin to JC to Justin again. Then he raises one eyebrow, a questioning look, and the question he's asking is so clear that it almost breaks their implied rule, the rule that says 'don't talk', and for a moment Justin isn't sure how to respond. JC seems to have noticed but, thank God, hasn't made a comment, so Justin holds Park Guy's gaze.
When he senses that JC's looking elsewhere for a moment, Justin gives a tiny shake of his head and wonders if that's enough. He's answered when Park Guy smiles at him. He smiles back, not a reflex this time, wondering if he really had that totally silent conversation or if he just imagined it.
The next second, Park Guy has turned back to his dogs and Justin and JC are running on, not looking behind them. It's only when Park Guy's out of sight and well out of earshot that JC say in a low voice, "Was that him?"
"Yeah," Justin says.
Justin inclines his head, a mild agreement, and smiles to himself for the rest of the run.
There's four straight days at the beginning of March when Justin doesn't see Park Guy at all. It starts on a Friday, Justin's crazy day, and he runs a third circuit of the park at high speed before accepting that, no, Park Guy really isn't here. It's pretty stupid to do that on a Friday when he has to be at the gym so early, and he breaks the speed limit twice on the way to work. He's cranky for the rest of the day.
Saturday and Sunday are the same, but at least his schedule is less hectic on the weekends. It's still weird, though, three circuits of the park each day, no dogs and no Park Guy. He's not there Monday, either. Justin starts to wonder if that's it, no more Park Guy at all, and then Tuesday morning one of the dogs comes out of nowhere right under Justin's feet and almost trips him up. He jumps back and stops, waits for the other dog to streak by, and then looks around. Park Guy's strolling after them, looking blithely unconcerned. Justin grins at him.
When Park Guy grins back, Justin almost breaks their silence to ask where the hell he's been, but it's - no. He gets as far as opening his mouth, then shuts it again, because it's an intrusion into Park Guy's life, and they have some kind of mutual aqreement not to do that. When he missed a day, staying over in Berkeley for the final phase of registration, Park Guy didn't ask him anything, just raised his eyebrows, smiled, and nodded. They may not know a damn thing about each other, but they have a system, and it works.
Park Guy gives Justin a little wave as he runs on. Justin raises his hand in response.
Things get back to normal after that. Justin keeps to his routine, work and school and work, and a week later hits middle-of-the-semester burnout, the same feeling he always gets a couple of months into classes where it's just non-stop and, fuck, he needs a break. Thank God, it'll be Spring Break in a couple of weeks' time, which means things will be less crazy for five whole days. That means extra shifts at the restaurant and catching up on studying, of course, but at least it's a change. He's keeping an eye on mid-May, the end of the semester, freedom.
"You're doing pretty good," Chris says when he explains all this over dinner one night. "You've been doing this how long now? Seven years?"
"Just about." Fourteen semesters, six summer sessions, and he's almost ready to get his degree. Justin thinks back to March 2001, showing up at Chris's door on a recommendation from JC. He'd been kicked out of the apartment in San Francisco, unable to make rent three months straight, so he was back to basics, everything he owned crammed into his car. When he talked to JC, he made it sound like it was freedom, and he'd been ready to pick up and try somewhere else - Las Vegas, Phoenix, Seattle - but JC said, call this number first, and on the other end of the line was Chris. Chris, who'd just asked Justin if he needed a place to stay, given him brisk but clear directions, and hung up the phone. Seven years ago. Justin thinks he's probably Chris's longest-standing tenant.
"That's really pretty good. Takes most people a lot longer." Chris shakes a dollop of ketchup out onto his plate and dips one of his fries. "Looking forward to Spring Break?"
Justin grins. "Totally."
"You're gonna take a break this time, right, instead of working through? Seriously, kid, you need a vacation."
Justin sighs. He can't afford a vacation and Chris knows it. In a few months, maybe, he'll have a real job and his own apartment rather than one of the three spare rooms in Chris's. Then he can start thinking about it. What he says is, "I'm taking some more shifts at the restaurant, putting some money by." There's tuition to think of, too. He gets a loan, but Berkeley's not a cheap school, and eventually he has to pay the loan back.
Sometimes he thinks this is never, ever going to stop.
It's a week and a half before Spring Break, a Thursday, and after class Justin comes to the gym and works until they close. Theoretically there's time for lunch in between class and work, but that's a theory that doesn't take into account the traffic getting out of Berkeley, or the traffic getting back into Oakland, so Justin buys a sandwich from the campus cafeteria and eats in his car. He also buys four cans of Coke, enough to get him through the day despite the lack of sleep last night, which is what happens when Chris invites Britney over as well as JC and Justin forgets to look at the clock until well after three.
Justin's tired, and he has this paper to work on, and he's worried about his car, which has started making weird noises that Justin doesn't recognize except for thinking that they maybe sound expensive. So it's not the best day in the world, except that then Park Guy walks through the door, and it's so random, and completely weird. Justin is sort of happy about it.
"Well," Park Guy says, and he leans forward on the counter. "I had this whole line prepared about how I just moved into the area, but I guess I'm busted."
Justin grins. "I guess you are. You want the tour?"
"Sure. That'd be great."
Justin leans to his side and buzzes Park Guy through the barrier. He's done this tour a million times, showing potential customers around the gym, and he prides himself on having a good sales pitch, and a good hit rate. It's why Cameron keeps him here even though he dries his running gear on the break room radiators and does his schoolwork on the front desk. He's good at his job, all of it, and this is a part that some of the other staff members hate. Justin doesn't: he likes people, he likes new people especially, it's all good. At least he's pretty sure that Park Guy, unlike some of the muscular regulars with no sense of self-preservation, won't call him names.
"My name's Justin," Justin says, though it's written on his nametag and he's pretty sure Park Guy can read. "Welcome to Carson Fitness." Park Guy walks through the barrier, and Justin comes out from behind the desk, and then they're standing next to each other. Park Guy's smallish, but he looks pretty fit, and Justin figures he works out already. Huh.
"I'm Lance," Park Guy says. "Lance Bass."
Justin shakes Lance's hand.
Part 2 Part 3 Part 4