Art by pensnest.
For Lance Bass, it starts in Orlando, Florida, on a warm September evening.
He's done working for the day and is about to head out to the store: they need milk and bread, and a handful of other things if Lance is going to cook dinner. It's his turn.
Nick's already home, watching the tube with one dog on each side of him, and Lance calls over his shoulder as he grabs his keys from the hook by the door. "You need anything?"
There's a silence long enough that Lance thinks Nick hasn't heard him. 'Nick?" he says.
"Lance," Nick says, and his voice sounds strangely heavy. Nick's looking at him seriously, and he says, "I'm not coming with you."
"To the store?" Lance didn't expect him to.
That's way too big for Lance to process all at once. Nick not coming? They've bought - well, Lance has bought - a house, they've talked about their careers, Nick's looking for a job out there. They have all these plans for November.
"I don't understand," Lance says blankly, because he doesn't. What in the hell could make Nick want to stay in Florida when they've been planning this move now for almost a year?
Nick is quiet for what seems like a long time.
"There's someone else," he says, and the words fall into the pit of Lance's stomach like pieces of lead.
A month later, Lance has dinner with Joey and Kelly. It's his first night in Oakland. It's been way too long; the last time he was out here was to buy the house, a good four months back, and it's sucked, the last five years, his best friend living on the other side of the country. There was a time, not so long ago, when Lance thought he'd never have any reason to leave Florida.
Now he's a resident of the great state of California and Joey is hugging him hard in the porch of his pretty California house.
Briahna is right behind Joey, and she holds her arms out for a great big little-girl hug. Lance squats down to squeeze her, then swings her up onto his hip, though she's really too big to be carried like that now. She's six years old and gorgeous, with Joey's mischievous eyes and winning smile, and Kelly's sound unshakeable confidence. Lance loves his goddaughter. She throws her arms around his waist, laughing, and Lance staggers a few steps into the house before letting her drop gently to the ground. Briahna grabs his hand.
"Kelly?" he calls.
Joey passes Lance with a quick squeeze of the shoulder, headed for the kitchen, and Briahna tugs on his hand with both of hers, pulling him in the same direction. Lance goes, and Kelly emerges from the kitchen with a dish towel folded over one arm. Joey passes her, disappearing into the kitchen, and Kelly opens her arms for a hug. There's a fantastic smell coming from the kitchen, tomatoes and beef and cheese, and Lance wonders what Joey's cooking.
"How are ya, honey?" Kelly asks Lance as she pulls back from the hug. Briahna darts into the kitchen after her dad, and Lance can immediately hear rapid-fire yammering coming from in there, Joey and Bri talking together.
"Just fine," Lance says. Now he's here, in Joey and Kelly's warm house with his friends and their adorable kid, that's true. He wasn't so keen on the apartment this morning, so very empty in grey October fog. It'll be much better once his house is ready and the dogs get here.
"Really?" Kelly examines his face carefully, and Lance is careful to put on his best 'yes I'm fine' expression. After a moment she nods firmly. "Good. Come have a beer."
The weather's not really good enough for them to sit outside, so he and Kelly sit in the dining room. They drink beers and talk for a while as Joey cooks. After a few minutes, Briahna joins them with a glass of milk and sits up at the dining table to tell Lance all about the new guinea pig at school and the picture she made for her mom. Then Lance is led into the kitchen to examine the picture, which is taped to the fridge - Joey shoos them theatrically - and up to Briahna's bedroom to examine her awesome collection of Disney toys and Barbie dolls. That takes a good ten minutes, and by the time Briahna's done taking Lance through the main attractions, Joey's yelling up the stairs that dinner's ready.
Dinner is lasagne, Fatone-style, lots of garlic bread and red wine. Joey presents the dish with a flourish and serves it at the table, with accompanying silly voices to make Briahna giggle. Lance laughs too, and so does Kelly, and eventually Joey gives in, abandoning his terrible impression of Shrek to collapse against the table with his hand against his forehead. Kelly leaps up and takes over with the lasagne, a seamless transition.
"So how was the move?" Joey asks once he's sat down and they're eating.
Lance finishes his mouthful before answering. "Not so bad," he says. He's sort of thinking he should have waited the month until the new house was ready, but every minute he spends in the Orlando place with Nick feels like a year. It was worth getting out now, even without the dogs, even with his belongings boxed up in the hallway of his temporary apartment, most of which he won't unpack. It's annoying and twice as expensive doing it this way, but Lance can afford it and he doesn't care.
"You have everything you need?" Kelly says.
It's the last weekend in October and the house is decorated for Halloween. The conversation soon goes that way, too: Briahna's excited about trick-or-treating around the neighbourhood, and she's already picked out her costume. She's going to be a witch, with a big hat and a long black cape. Joey even bought her a toy cat to sit on her shoulder. "My familiar," she says, pronouncing the word slowly like it's a new one on her. Joey laughs.
After Briahna's gone to bed, the grown-ups sit in the living room and talk some more. It's not like he doesn't talk to them, but after five years on opposite sides of the country there's still a lot of catching up to do. Lance missed being able to drive across town to see Joey, instead of fly across a continent; it's nice to be able to do that again. After a while, Kelly gets up and leaves the room, and Joey sets down his beer and assumes his serious face.
"So how are things really?" Joey asks.
"Honestly, not so bad."
"Really?" Joey looks at him hard. It's the first really piercing look of the night, but not the last. When Joey gets serious, he doesn't go back.
"Yes, really." Lance takes a swig of his beer. "Look - okay, I'm pretty pissed at Nick, but I'm fine. I'm not gonna suddenly show up on your doorstep in a trembling heap or anything. I'm not going to pieces."
Joey keeps looking at him, a hard, long, considering look, and says, "That's what worries me."
By the end of the night, Lance has had a few too many beers to drive home. Joey sends him off to the spare room, and Lance wakes earlier than the family the next morning: seven-thirty, just about sunrise. He has a pounding headache, which doesn't surprise him. After a long, hot shower and two mugs of strong coffee, Briahna is up, and she drags him to watch a bunch of loud cartoons that make his head ache even worse. Bri snuggles up next to him, though, so on balance he doesn't mind. Kelly wanders into the room half an hour later, pushing her hair out of her eyes with a yawn. She nods to Lance on the couch. "Breakfast?" "Thanks," Lance says, glancing up. "Uh... give you a hand?" She shakes her head. "Bri, come help me," she says, holding out her hand. Briahna goes.
It's Saturday morning. Lance has errands to run and groceries to buy, so after breakfast he makes his excuses and leaves. The apartment's pretty crappy really, two rooms and the bathroom, and with the boxes piled everywhere, there's really not that much space for Lance. It was the cheapest he could find at short notice, though; it wasn't like he had time to apartment-hunt properly. Just sign a very short-term lease and pay whatever deposit the landlord asked.
He gets home with groceries and other necessities around eleven and spends the rest of the morning and some of the afternoon hauling boxes until he has enough space to live. Some things have to be unpacked right away: clothes, pots, some essential books, the computer. Most of the rest of it can wait. It's not a bad day, and by the end of it Lance is set up for work and making a relatively nutritious dinner for one. The move's gone pretty well, he thinks.
That night, Nick calls. Lance talks to him for ten uncomfortable minutes, and when he hangs up, his buoyant mood is gone.
The house isn't ready for another month. On the first Monday in December, Lance moves in at last. He's all set up for work by the end of the day, though unpacking properly's going to take him weeks. That weekend, Nick shows up with the dogs. Lance takes him out to dinner in San Francisco, a thank you for taking care of them for a month, and they spend most of the evening sitting in silence over plates of cooling pasta. Nick drinks a bottle and a half of wine by himself and is the first person to throw up in Lance's newly-decorated downstairs bathroom.
The following day, the dogs wake Lance at dawn, barking and scratching at the front door to be let out. Lance staggers out of bed, pulls on the nearest clean clothes - old sweats - and takes the dogs to the park across the street, leaving Nick out cold on the couch.
It's a big park, better than the one in Orlando where he and Nick used to take them once upon a time. Lance bets it's beautiful in summer. It's cold this morning, though, and there's a brisk wind that cuts through Lance's sweatshirt, making him shiver. Lance lets the dogs off the leash and they go wild, flying across the park like they haven't had a good run for days. Lance wonders if Nick's been exercising them properly.
The dogs have a great time, and so does Lance. They seem really excited about the new park and the new place, like they're completely over all the travelling they had to do - they were cranky dogs yesterday, for sure. They do almost kill some poor jogger with biceps to die for, and Lance opens his mouth to apologize, but the guy just shrugs and takes off. Apparently his neighbours in Oakland aren't so friendly as his old neighbours back in Florida.
When Lance gets home, Nick's awake and groaning with a hangover. Lance drives him to the airport, and there's the same stony silence in the car that there was over dinner last night. Lance is totally prepared to be glad to see Nick go, and then Nick turns to him as he's leaving and says, "Lance, I really am sorry about what happened."
Lance blinks hard. Nick's said he's sorry about a million times since they broke up, and Lance thought he was immune to it. Or over the worst of it, at least. Apparently not, because his throat's tightening up suddenly and he's not sure at all what to say.
There's a silence that seems to stretch on forever but is probably only a few seconds.
"I'm sorry too," Lance says. "But... it happened."
"Yeah, it did." Nick looks away for a second, then back to meet Lance's eyes. He looks so sad, and there's a second where Lance wants to tell him that it's okay, none of it matters, they can try again. But it's not okay, and it does matter. Lance knows that. The time when trying again was an option is long, long gone.
"I'll see you," Lance says.
Nick gets on his plane. Lance calls Joey on his way back to the car, and an hour later Joey's sitting on his couch, drinking his beer, and listening for the forty-ninth time to the whole sorry story.
The dogs are just about as crazy the next day, but after a night of getting tanked with Joey, Lance isn't feeling half as energetic. It's Monday, so the park is populated by different people from the weekend-morning crowd: there's more schoolkids and people headed to work, less birdwatchers and kite-flyers. The dog-walkers remain the same, though, and Lance sees a couple of the same runners, too. He nods at the people he's seen before, and some of them nod back, so Lance feels a little more hopeful about the friendliness of the citizens of California.
Work's starting to pick up at last, the result of a solid month of making calls and building contacts and attending stuffy dinners with friends-of-friends who know people who know people. It's almost the part of Lance's job that he likes least, but it's not so bad; he prefers it to doing his books, anyway. He'd just rather be in his studio at home doing the actual work instead of spending half his time looking for it.
That's the nature of being out on your own, though. He had to do the same thing when he moved to Orlando from Jackson all those years ago.
The next day he almost doesn't go out - it's raining - but the dogs pitch a fit scrabbling at the door and he gives in pretty quickly. A good thing, too, because it rains non-stop for almost a week. Lance wears a raincoat and a hat. The park gets quiet on rainy mornings, just Lance, a few other hardy dog-walkers, and a couple of the real fitness freaks. Lance doesn't mind: particularly when he passes the guy with the biceps whose running shorts and basketball shirt are clinging to him in the rain. Lance had half-expected good pecs and abs to go with those arms and shoulders, but... wow. One particularly wet morning, Lance stares so long and hard that he's certain the guy had to notice.
There's a few people that Lance nods to regularly, but the runner is the only one that Lance sees without fail every day, rain or shine. He's one of the ones to nod back, too, and Lance feels a little like they've made contact. If he wasn't so embarrassed about blatantly checking out the guy's body, he might even stop and say hello one day.
Lance gets into a routine. He has to change his gym, because the one that was convenient for the apartment is a twenty-minute drive from the house, and his regular grocery store. He'll walk the dogs early in the morning, get some exercise, then walk home for breakfast and a shower. He starts work at eight-thirty sharp, eats lunch when he remembers, switches off the computer at six. The evenings are his, and he usually takes the dogs for another run around the park before dinner. Sometimes he hangs with Joey and Kelly in the evenings, sometimes has dinner with clients or consultation meetings, but most nights it's just him and the dogs, and Lance likes that just fine. He's discovering that he doesn't mind being on his own.
After four years of Nick being there every time he turned around, he had kind of figured he would.
Lance isn't going back to Mississippi for Christmas. The break-up is still raw enough that he doesn't really want to sit in his mom's dining room and have her advise him to settle down with a nice girl. He visits, now and then, but Christmas really isn't the time. Not this Christmas, anyhow.
He intends to spend Christmas in his house alone - just him and the dogs - but once Joey and Kelly get wind of that, they're not having it. Joey insists, and when Joey's run out of steam, Kelly takes over the battle. It takes two weeks for them to wear him down, but three days before Christmas, he finally caves. Briahna's the secret weapon.
Joey's invited himself and the rest of the family over for dinner, and Briahna's sitting on a stool at the breakfast bar while Lance cooks: roast chicken, nice and simple. She's drawing a picture and talking to him at the same time, and Lance keeps peering over her shoulder to see what she's doing. There's a big Christmas tree and four figures standing around it.
"What are you drawing?" Lance asks when he's put the vegetables on to steam.
"Christmas," she says, grinning. She's excited about it, and she's drawn so many ornaments onto the Christmas tree that if it was real it'd probably fall over. "That's Mommy, and that's Daddy, and that's me, and that's you. You're coming to our house, right?"
She turns to him, all big eyes and bigger grin, and Lance sighs.
"Yeah," he says. Briahna squeals with delight and hugs him, then runs through to the living room where Joey and Kelly are sitting, yelling at high speed. There's warm laughter from the other room, and Lance smiles to himself and shakes his head. Against Bri, he never stands a chance.
It only occurs to him as they're leaving that Joey - or Kelly, more likely - might have set the whole thing up. Briahna has already run out to the car, and Lance is holding the door open to tell Joey and Kelly goodbye.
"Did you tell her to say that stuff to me?" he asks.
"What stuff?" Joey asks, wearing his most innocent expression. Kelly chuckles quietly.
"The Christmas stuff," Lance says.
"Nope," Kelly says. "We just told her that you're coming for Christmas, that's all. She was excited."
"But I - "
"You are now," Kelly points out.
Lance covers his face with one hand. If this was a game, he's been beat.
Christmas Eve is deathly quiet in the park. It's worse than a rainy day - Lance guesses most people are off work or home for the holidays already. It's just Lance, a handful of other dog-walkers, and two of the fitness freaks. The guy with the great body is one of them.
Christmas morning's even quieter. Lance resisted the allure of staying over at Joey and Kelly's on Christmas Eve, deciding instead to drive over for breakfast in the morning. He's taking the dogs, though they really need their exercise first.
It's totally deserted: Lance guesses everyone sleeps in on Christmas, even dogs. Apart from Lance's runner, apparently, who appears from nowhere by the duck pond, way before Lance usually sees him. He stops dead when he sees Lance, gaping. Lance notices, not for the first time, that his runner has a really pretty mouth. He looks totally stunned.
Lance can't stop, because the runner is just about the only living thing that the dogs have seen all morning, and they're tugging towards him. He doesn't seem concerned that they are sniffing at his feet, looking instead at Lance like he has two heads. Lance hauls his dogs away from the poor guy and says, "Merry Christmas."
The runner still looks stunned. "Merry Christmas," he says, and he sounds it, too. He has a trace of a Southern accent, so faint that Lance half-thinks he imagined it. The dogs are barking at the ducks now, dragging Lance forward again on their leashes, so Lance keeps moving. The runner takes off again, and out of the corner of his eye, Lance sees him glance backward, eyes flicking briefly down to take Lance in.
Lance doesn't turn around, but he smiles to himself. Was that the runner with the great body, checking him out?
Lance waits until Briahna's absorbed in playing with her new presents before he brings it up with Joey. He's helping Joey out with dinner, or rather leaning against the kitchen doorframe and sipping a beer while Joey chops potatoes. "So there's this guy in the park," Lance begins.
Joey is concentrating on his cooking and doesn't look up. "Uh huh?"
"Like... he's sort of..."
"Hot guy in the park," Joey clarifies, still not looking up.
"Yeah. He's a runner. Or at least, he runs every morning, I guess he does other stuff with his day. Anyway - I saw him this morning."
"Yup," Joey says absently, and then it seems to register and he does look up. "Christmas Day, he was running? Man, that's dedication."
Lance smiles and takes another sip of his beer. "Yeah. So. We saw each other, and we wished each other a Merry Christmas, and I'm pretty sure he was checking me out."
"Cool." Joey's back to focusing on his potatoes, but Lance knows he's listening really. "So?"
"So. I'm wondering if it's too soon or if I should say hi."
"Too soon for him?" Joey asks, looking up again to fix Lance with a very serious stare. "Or too soon for you?"
"I'm not sure," Lance says. "Either."
"Don't rush it, man," is Joey's advice.
Kelly doesn't agree when Joey brings it up after dinner. "You totally deserve to get laid," she says; and that's Kelly, always right to the point. "I know Nick hurt you pretty bad, and I don't want you to get hurt again. But you never know, you might find you have something in common. Get back on the horse, that's what I say."
"You think?" Joey looks across the table at Kelly. "I just - I wonder if it's not too soon, y'know?"
"It's not like I'm saying I wanna buy a house with the guy or anything," Lance says, glancing at Joey. "Just say hello to him."
"Hello is probably non-threatening," Joey says. "But what do you actually want out of this?"
Lance isn't sure of the answer to that. Kelly and Joey debate the topic some more - mostly over Lance's head - and eventually Joey talks Kelly around that maybe Lance should show some caution when it comes to his runner. The fact that Lance thinks of the guy as 'his runner' makes Lance think he's gotten way too attached to this whole thing already. So maybe Joey's right.
Later that night, after Nick's predictable drunken phone call from Florida, Lance is even less sure what to do. One thing's for certain, though; he's glad he doesn't have to deal with Nick's crazy family any more. Sounds like Nick's having a hell of a time, and not in the good way.
He stays up late with Joey and Kelly, long after Briahna has been sent to bed, talking about Nick and his runner and how, man, it's only been three months but he's so god damn frustrated. Joey nods sagely, though thanks to Kelly he hasn't gone more than a couple of weeks without sex in fourteen years.
"So go get laid," Kelly says. She glances at Joey, who's pretty drunk by now, waving his beer bottle erratically through the air and smiling very vaguely; he's in no state to pick up the argument. "For you, that shouldn't be hard. What about Park Guy?"
"Park Guy," Joey says drunkenly. He glances at Kelly and smiles, because they have that semi-telepathic thing going on that some long-standing couples do. Lance and Nick always seemed to end up at cross-purposes when they tried that."The guy in the park. Park Guy."
Kelly grins at Joey.
Now that he's finally caught on, it's pretty obvious that Park Guy is checking Lance out. Lance notices him the day before New Year, craning his neck around to look after they've passed each other, and again the following day. But he never does get around to saying hello.
According to the information Lance looked up on the internet, January is Oakland's wettest month, and the weather bears that out. Lance's raincoat and hat get a lot of use. Lance doesn't mind the wet weather at all, because on the wettest days he gets a great view of Park Guy's shirt plastered against those attractively chiselled abs. It's almost a disappointment when the weather starts to clear up later in the month.
Work gets so busy in January that Lance doesn't get the chance to work out for almost the whole month. When he finally gets back to the gym, he's so exhausted and so embarrassed after half an hour that he swears to himself he's going to make time for it at least twice a week. The resolution sticks, maybe because he's wondering if Park Guy only dates guys with bodies as fantastic as his own.
Park Guy is tall: as tall as Joey, or maybe even an inch taller. Lance thinks he's built slighter than Joey, though, because despite those broad and muscular shoulders he still comes off as a skinny guy. He shaves his head, so close that it's hard to even tell what colour his hair is; but there's usually stubble on his chin and neck, fuzzy dark-golden-brown, and Lance figures that they share the habit of shaving after their morning visit to the park. He has blue eyes that seem to sparkle when he smiles, which isn't often enough - only when Lance smiles first. He seems like a serious person, or at least he's serious about running: head down, looking at the path ahead, big hands in fists by his sides, jaw set. Sometimes when he sees Lance his expression changes slightly. Not a smile, but a softening, that pretty mouth opening slightly. He has long eyelashes.
He always runs in the same gear, no matter what the weather. Shorts, basketball shirt, white sneakers. Lance noticed that he was given a new pair for Christmas, or bought new ones over the holidays; they were beat-up and greyish before, and they're clean and new-looking now.
Lance quickly gets to know the different shirts that Park Guy wears. There's two different Lakers shirts, one plain black, one white, one grey, one blue. The last one is faded to hell: it's white, may once have been grey, with a circular logo on the front. In the circle is some writing in the kind of pink that was probably red originally, though Lance would have to squint to read it.
He does squint sometimes, though it's rare that he can see Park Guy's front, and Park Guy wouldn't notice Lance peering to read his shirt. In the last week of January, he finally gets the second word. Fitness.
It takes another five days for Park Guy to wear the shirt again, by which time it's the beginning of February. They happen to pass pretty close to each other that day, right by the duck pond where the path is narrowest, and Lance smiles at Park Guy and squints again, trying for that first word. Carlton? Carson? Then Park Guy steps aside to let a loud bunch of schoolkids pass, and Lance takes the opportunity to step aside next to him. It's Carson.
Carson Fitness. Definitely.
It takes him another three days to Google the phrase.
He gets six hundred thousand hits, sighs, and gets right back to work designing a web site for a large local accounting firm. He's working closely with a bunch of senior execs who don't know what they're talking about, so it's the usual round of trying to find ways to implement their suggestions without making the site a disaster in terms of aesthetics and usability. Not for the first time, he seriously considers refusing to take creative suggestions from anyone over the age of thirty-five.
Ten minutes later, he hits up Google again and adds 'oakland' to his search terms.
That gets results. Carson Fitness is a gym on the other side of town. They don't have their own site - the business-savvy side of Lance instantly wonders if they want one - but they're referenced on several local-services sites and Lance figures that makes sense. An upper body like that doesn't come from running, so Park Guy must work out there.
Interesting information that Lance is never going to use. He already knew Park Guy was a fitness freak, and this confirms it.
He sees Park Guy at a distance the next day, wearing the black shirt, and thinks about striking up a conversation. Park Guy always seems so focused, totally absorbed in the running, that Lance sort of thinks he'd be offended if he was stopped for a conversation. He doesn't want to start off on the wrong foot. Lance puts it out of his mind, and it's not until the weekend, when Park Guy checks out his ass more blatantly than ever, that it occurs to him again.
It's weird how it's started to feel almost like a relationship without having exchanged more than those two words on Christmas Day. And like all relationships, it has its rules. They don't talk, or approach each other, and though they're both allowed to look it always stays on the down-low; like, Lance can notice Park Guy looking at his ass, but if he lets on that he's noticed, the game's up. He wonders if Park Guy notices when Lance checks out his arms or his abs or - one day in early January when it was really wet - his package. To the casual observer, anyway, it looks like Park Guy has the traditional accessory for his big feet.
It's also weird how he keeps thinking of this like something's bound to happen. It's not like Lance doesn't know that just because some guy checks you out doesn't mean he's gay. He's had plenty of uncomfortable experience with that - starting with Joey, the one guy in drama club at college who was totally straight. So it's not like, even if they talked, and even if they turned out to have something in common apart from their nearest park, Lance would be guaranteed to get laid out of it. He's not really sure that's what he wants, anyway, and yet it seems like some part of him has just assumed that Park Guy's his. Boyfriend waiting to happen.
Lance spends a lot of time trying to talk himself out of this.
"Lance, we have to find you a man," Kelly announces.
It's three days until Valentine's Day and, no, Lance doesn't have a date. Instead, he's having dinner with Joey and Kelly, his surrogate family, while Briahna sleeps over with a school friend. He sighs and shakes his head firmly.
"I'm doing fine, Kel."
"I'm not saying you aren't," Kelly says. "But you'd be doing better if we could find you somebody. It'd be good for you. Plus, you need a rebound fuck, after Nick. How long's it been, now?"
Four months, two weeks and five days. Lance shrugs and says, "A while, I guess."
Joey arrives with fresh beers for all three of them and says, "What's been a while?"
"Me and Nick," Lance says.
"Since Lance had sex," Kelly says.
Joey says, "Ohhhh," and slides Lance his beer. "What, we're matchmaking for Lance, now?"
"No," Lance says.
"Yes," Kelly disagrees.
Joey, thank God, still thinks it's too soon for Lance, or something like that, anyway. He passes Kelly her beer and says, "C'mon, Kel, I'm pretty sure Lance can find his own dates."
Kelly rolls her eyes and keeps talking. She even has someone in mind, but Lance really doesn't want to date this guy that Kelly knows from work, no matter how nice he seems or how he really likes Southern accents. It takes him almost half an hour, but he eventually talks Kelly out of it; at least out of that one. It's going to be a long night.
"I still think you need to get laid," Kelly says.
"Kelly, if I need to get laid, I can get in my car and drive to San Francisco. It's not a big problem. I'm just not feeling the need right now."
"I'm not saying jump in with both feet and get your heart broken," she says. "Just... you know. Have some fun."
"Look. I'm fine."
Joey pitches in, like he hasn't been on Lance's side all night; Lance feels sort of betrayed. "We're not saying you're not. I'm just saying you could do with a little " - Joey waggles his eyebrows - "recreation. Know what I'm saying?"
"Yes, I know what you're saying," Lance says flatly. "I'm just disagreeing with it. I'm not in desperate need of sex." He talks slowly and carefully, like Joey is a small child who otherwise won't understand.
In reponse, Joey laughs, a long, dirty laugh. "Sure you are," he says, "you just don't know it."
On Valentine's Day, Park Guy has a running partner.
Lance has been fine with being single now for four and a half months. More than that. Valentine's Day is the one day that it hits home, though, and it really bites: this time last year, he was planning a weekend away with Nick, figuring out exactly how much time he could afford to spend not working. Today, he's up early as usual with the dogs, and even Park Guy is with somebody. Ouch.
Park Guy comes up with path with his partner - tallish, brown hair, nice legs - and Lance doesn't quite know where to look for a minute. The dogs are making a noise at the ducks, so he focuses his attention on quieting them down until Park Guy's suddenly coming up behind him, the noise of his feet on the muddy path doubled. Two of them. Lance glances up, from Park Guy to Park Guy's friend, and almost asks the question. Then he decides against it.
Park Guy doesn't stop running, but he keeps looking at Lance for a long moment. Lance thinks that it's longer than they've ever looked at each other before, and it's almost uncomfortable, and then just as Park Guy's moving past, he shakes his head. After that he turns his head to the front and keeps running, his partner beside him, almost in perfect step.
Lance sits back on his haunches. Well. What the fuck did that mean?
Joey, Kelly and Bri come over for lunch on Sunday, and Lance mentions it to Joey after lunch when Kelly and Bri are doing the dishes. Joey listens to the whole story, in as much detail as Lance remembers, and then shakes his head, baffled. "I don't know, man. You know, normally, I'd say, 'women', but..."
Lance smiles. "Guys are a mystery too."
"Huh," Joey says. "That's disappointing. I'd have thought that was one of the advantages of being gay."
"You'd think," Lance says, laughing.
Park Guy remains a mystery, too. The running partner doesn't come back; Park Guy's on his own the next day, and every other day until the end of February, a solitary figure making his circuit of the park. Lance thinks that's weird. He wonders if it was a one-night thing, or a one true love that didn't work out. Maybe just a friend, Lance has no idea.
The end of February comes. Lance looks at the address for Carson Fitness again, and before he knows it, he's saved that page as a bookmark. There's a phone number, and a much clearer version of the logo that Lance recognizes from Park Guy's shirt. He's never going there, but it's good to have the information, just in case.
The second weekend of March, there's a web conference in San Diego. Lance flies out on the Thursday night, sending the dogs to stay with Joey and Kelly for the weekend. Briahna's adorably excited about getting to take care of the dogs for four whole days and Joey promises her she can help to walk them every morning before school.
The one disadvantage of the conference is that Nick's there too, which is the bad part of dating someone in the same profession. Nick's not a web designer, but a web programmer, which as he'll tell anyone who asks, is more to do with coding and less to do with making shit look pretty. When they were together, that would be about the time that Lance threw him a dirty look.
Lance hits San Diego around four in the afternoon and gets a cab to the hotel. It's all taking place in one venue, which means the conference is plush and well-catered but damned expensive. The hotel's a high-rise, and Lance's double room is on the twelfth floor.
It's a long time since they've even talked - January - and longer since they saw each other, that awkward weekend in December when Nick brought the dogs. Lance spends almost three days trying to avoid him, but is foiled on Saturday evening when they're stuck in an elevator together all the way from twelfth to the first floor.
Until seventh, there are three other people in the elevator, which gives Lance an excuse not to talk. It's more awkward when they get out, but Lance keeps his eye firmly on the floor numbers ticking down until Nick says, "Hey."
"Hey," Lance says, not turning to look at him.
"How you doing?"
"Glad to hear it."
There's more silence until they get to the first floor, which seems like a hell of a long time to Lance. As they're stepping out - Lance hangs back to let Nick go first - Nick turns and says, "You wanna have dinner with me tomorrow night?"
Lance takes a deep breath. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."
"I'm not either," Nick says. "You want to anyway?"
There's a long silence. Lance steps out of the way to let a couple of people get into the elevator, and looks at Nick, who's staring at him long and hard. Eventually, Lance says, "Sure."
Lance is right about dinner with Nick being a bad idea.
It's not a bad meal or a bad night. It's a chance to remember all the reasons that Lance liked Nick in the first place: he's sweet-natured, funny, good company. Great in bed. But it's bad that Lance wakes up next to Nick on Monday morning, and he sits up with a headache that has nothing to do with any alcohol from the night before. He's naked, and so is Nick, and it's not like he doesn't remember what happened.
At least he's in his own hotel room. Lance orders room service that majors on coffee and takes a long shower, listening and listening in the hope that he'll hear Nick leaving before he has to leave the bathroom. Eventually, though, the water runs cold, and he pulls on a bathrobe and walks back into the bedroom to find Nick sitting on the bed and drinking coffee black and unsweetened.
He gives Lance that look like a puppy that thinks it's about to be kicked.
Lance sighs and sits on the other side of the bed, as far away from Nick as he can manage, and tries to remember that Nick is not always this person. This is the same Nick who cheated on him, who fought with him over every detail in the drawn-out mess that was their break-up, who couldn't even muster up an apology for four and a half weeks after Lance found out.
"This was a really fucking terrible idea," Lance says as gently as he can.
They fall silent. Lance gets up and fetches himself coffee and toast from the room service tray, then sits back down. He eats and drinks while Nick finishes his coffee, and neither of them says anything at all. When he's done with the coffee, Nick goes to the bathroom for a shower, comes out, gathers his clothes, dresses. It's not until he's leaving that he says something else.
"Can I call you?"
Lance thinks about it.
Part 3 Part 4