Art by pensnest.
Part 1 Part 2
Lance gets to Joey's house soon after ten, the Monday after the conference. He's bone-tired, from all the boring seminars, three hours of work, the stupid thing with Nick. When he gets there, Joey takes one look at his face and ushers him inside without a word.
"What the hell happened at a damn conference that could be so bad?"
They only get to the question once Lance has a coffee and has spent five happy minutes greeting the dogs. He's sitting on the more comfortable of Joey's two couches, sinking right down, it's so soft, and he doesn't think he ever wants to get up. Hot coffee, a soft place to sit and the dogs nestled against his feet. Heaven.
"Nick was there," Lance admits.
"I thought you knew he was gonna be," Joey said. "You guys are in the same profession, you're bound to run into each other once in a while."
Lance looks at Joey for a long time, trying not to give anything away. He guesses it doesn't work, because Joey says, "Oh, man."
"We ran into each other, we had dinner, and it... well, we..."
"Shit, Lance," Joey says, "you know you're not supposed to fuck your exes. It's in all the women's magazines." Joey leaves a short pause for Lance to laugh, and Lance does, politely. "Was it good?"
"It's Nick, of course it was."
"And are you guys...?"
Lance's eyes widen. "Hell no. Been there, done that, I'm not as dumb as all that."
"Okay, man," Joey says. "So... what do you want to happen now?"
"I don't know," Lance says, because he doesn't. He gestures uselessly with his coffee mug, now half-empty, then takes a swig. "To get laid. With someone who isn't Nick. Someone who thinks I'm hot. There used to be all kinds of guys who thought I was hot."
Joey grins. "So I'm told, dude. You have anyone in mind?"
"Park Guy," is the only name that Lance can come up with, and that's when Kelly appears in the room, hands on her hips.
"You know he's not a real prospect," she says. "Just 'cause he checks you out..."
"He checks me out a lot," Lance reminds her. He knows she's talking sense, though. There's a big difference between checking someone out in the park each morning and wanting to go out on a date. Never mind anything more than that.
Kelly gives him a look. "Still."
Lance takes another hefty swig of his coffee and lets the dregs fall back to the bottom of the mug. "Yeah."
Next morning, Park Guy smiles at Lance. He doesn't do that, not super-serious Park Guy, who will only raise a smile when Lance smiles first. But today, after four days of not seeing each other, Park Guy smiles, and it's enough to make Lance grin.
He almost calls to him across the park, but it's a windy morning and they're so far apart that Park Guy probably wouldn't hear. In any case, the dogs are suddenly bolting in the opposite direction, all fizzy energy this morning, and Lance has to break away from checking Park Guy out to run after them. Crazy dogs.
Friday night, he and Joey go out for a drink, just the boys while Kelly and Bri are having a mother-daughter night. When he comes back with their third beers of the night, Lance sits down and says, "Tell me if I'm a stalker."
"Okay," Joey says.
Lance doesn't say anything more for a minute, just sips his beer and looks at Joey while Joey waits for a response. "Uh huh?" Joey says eventually.
"So he wears this shirt sometimes." Joey nods. "Like - obviously, he wears a bunch of them, different shirts, like he has the same running gear he wears every week, right?" Joey raises one eyebrow. "I see him every day, man, that's not the stalker part."
Joey grins. "Go on."
"He wears this shirt. Like, the others are all plain, he has a couple Lakers shirts, but this one is like, it has a logo on with some writing."
"So I finally figured out what the shirt says, and I... well, I looked it up on the internet."
Joey grins. "Oh, man. You're Googling Park Guy. He must be hot."
Lance ignores that. Park Guy totally is, but right now that's beside the point. "It's this gym over on the other side of town, so I figure he works out there. And... uh, I have the address saved on my computer and I'm thinking about checking it out." He looks at Joey, who's waiting for more. "So am I a stalker?"
"Um..." Joey takes a careful sip of his beer and considers. "Um. I think maybe a little. Are you gonna go?"
"That's what I don't know. I mean, on the one hand, Kelly's right, it's probably not even anything, but on the other..."
"He's hot." Joey cocks his head. "Why not just talk to him in the park one morning?"
Lance stares at Joey for a long moment while he tries to explain.
"It's like... we have a rule," he says eventually. "And the rule is, 'don't talk'. I mean, we can look at each other, we nod and smile, but... no talking."
"That's a fucking weird rule," Joey says.
"Yeah. I know."
For the next few days, Lance experiments. He doesn't break the no-talking rule, but he does push it a little. Saturday morning, he gives Park Guy the kind of friendly wave that they usually only break out on special occasions. Park Guy grins at him and waves back, and Lance considers the experiment a success.
Sunday's experiment doesn't work so great. Lance decides that his mission for the day is to get Park Guy to say hi to his dogs, so he sends them running in the right direction as soon as Park Guy's in sight. Park Guy does his usual trick of stepping back and letting them pass in front of him, though he does turn to look at them when they have. Lance frowns, because Park Guy gets that weird expression on his face, that slight melting-away of the seriousness, and doesn't even look for Lance until the dogs come running back the other way.
Monday, they pass by the duck pond again. The dogs are always leashed for this part nowadays - the ducks make them crazy for some reason - and usually when Park Guy runs past they pull over towards him, always interested in anything living that goes by. Today's no exception, but instead of tugging them away Lance lets them investigate Park Guy's feet for a few seconds, and Park Guy stops. Lance keeps hold of them, ready to get them away if Park Guy looks like he's freaking out, but it doesn't seem like that's going to happen. Instead, Park Guy drops to one knee and pets first one dog, then the other.
"Hey," he says softly. "Hey there."
It's definitely directed at the dogs and not at Lance, but Lance smiles anyway. Lance can definitely hear the faint Southern accent in those words: it's worn almost completely away, but it's there, just a little hint of home. Park Guy glances up at Lance and smiles. They don't say anything, but somehow two seconds of eye contact are better than a whole conversation. When Park Guy drops his eyes, Lance reluctantly tugs the dogs away.
Tuesday, they pass each other at such a distance that no experiment is really possible. Lance waves at Park Guy, though, and Park Guy waves back. Wednesday is better: they pass on the path by the rose bushes, the dogs are off their leashes and rooting under the bushes for God knows what. From his position crouched on the ground, Lance tries his most dangerous experiment. He looks up at Park Guy and runs his eyes up and then down Park Guy's body, lets his face relax into a slow appreciative smile, and meets Park Guy's pretty blue eyes. It's the last and firmest rule before the not talking, the one that says 'be subtle'. Lance figures he's done with subtle.
Park Guy glances away immediately, looking at the ground and then off to his right, away from Lance and the dogs. Lance can still see his face, though, and he's smiling, his eyes glittering. What's even better is that just before he rounds the corner, Park Guy turns his head back towards Lance, still smiling, and returns the appreciative look.
They grin at each other for a long second before Park Guy is gone.
Lance honestly means to stop and talk to Park Guy on Thursday, but the dogs are acting up so much that Lance doesn't get the chance. He barely has time for the usual nod-and-smile before trying to run in two directions at once. By the time he has them both under control again, Park Guy's long gone.
He clearly doesn't have enough work to keep him distracted that morning, because he keeps opening up his bookmarks and bringing up the address of Carson Fitness. Right before lunch, he brings up Google Maps and prints out directions to drive over there, and when he's submitted the latest version of the accounting site and answered all his outstanding email, he gets in his car and puts the printout on the passenger seat. He's not even going in, just going to check out where it is. That's not stalkerish at all.
The directions say it's a twenty-minute drive from his house to Park Guy's gym, but Lance gets stuck in traffic twice, and it's three o'clock and change before he gets there. Outside, he sits in his car for another couple of minutes, looking at the building and wondering idly if he's really going to do this. It seems silly not to. He's come all this way.
It's not a huge building, a two-storey, red brick and squat. There's a stairway up to a glass door with that white-and-red logo painted on it, and through the plate glass windows on the first floor, Lance can see exercise machines, unused. The place seems deserted. Not just the gym, but the whole neighbourhood. It seems a little rougher than where Lance lives by the park, a little less genteel. He can deal with that.
Deserted probably means that Park Guy isn't there. Maybe the gym is even closed - though it's mid-afternoon on a weekday, so Lance can't imagine that it would be. Instead he's sitting here in his car, looking up at the building and trying to talk himself into going in.
No, trying to talk himself out of going in.
Well, he guesses he'd better talk himself one way or the other. Lance takes a deep breath and gets out of the car. He folds the directions up in the pocket of his pants and slowly climbs the stairs. Time to check this place out, even if he's not going to find Park Guy here. And he's not, that's for sure, not if the place is deserted.
Which it totally is.
With a deep breath, Lance pushes open the gym door.
The gym seems deserted inside, too. There's not even anyone at the front desk. Lance lets the door fall shut behind him and crosses the foyer to the desk, peers into the room behind the desk - there's a pool - and says, "Excuse me?"
Lance is all kinds of shocked when Park Guy pops up from behind the desk.
"Can I help you?" he asks, and then does a double-take when he sees Lance. Lance can feel himself staring at Park Guy, open-mouthed, and hear his mother telling him he'll swallow a fly. He shuts his mouth with a little snap.
Lance doesn't know what to say. "Hi," he says, the only word his mouth can form. Park Guy smiles, a soft, pretty smile that takes in his eyes. Lance is speechless all over again.
Lance comes out with some stupid joke about having just moved into the area, and Park Guy seems slightly amused. He only notices after Park Guy has offered his name that he's wearing a nametag on his T-shirt, above and to the left of the Carson Fitness logo. This shirt isn't faded all to hell, and Lance takes a second to re-analyse the running shirt as retired work uniform. Park Guy's name is Justin.
Lance introduces himself reflexively, holding out his hand like he's meeting someone new at a business dinner. Justin holds out his hand to shake Lance's, and the skin of his palm is warm and smooth and dry. Then he grins again and pushes open the door behind him, saying, "Okay, we start with the pool."
Justin gives what seems to be a well-worn sales pitch about the pool. It's Olympic size, they offer such-and-such swimming classes, there's a competitive team that trains here, plus two local high school teams, blah blah. Lance is listening to the words less than Park Guy's voice; he'd put money on those Southern roots.
After the pool, Justin takes Lance downstairs, first shows Lance around the locker room and the showers, then the fitness equipment, weights room, all the various facilities. There are vending machines downstairs too, coffee, cola and sports drinks and water, chocolate and chips and energy bars. All of the equipment seems in decent condition, but it also seems old and kind of shabby, and it certainly doesn't have facilities anything like as good as Lance's current gym. When Justin gives the monthly price, it's actually a shade lower than Lance expected.
It's also fifteen minutes further away from Lance's house than his current place, and that's if the traffic's better than it was this afternoon.
Lance is no stranger to sales pitches himself, and he rates Justin's as pretty good, especially considering the quality of his product. When they sit down at a table near the vending machines with a couple of Cokes, and Justin says, "So, what do you think?" Lance actually considers it for a moment. Then he smiles a little.
"I'm not actually looking for a gym."
Justin takes a sip of his Coke and glances briefly at Lance's body. "I figured. You already work out, huh?"
They're quiet for a moment. Lance runs one finger around the cold surface of his Coke can, wet with condensation. He's wondering if they're going to broach the subject of what Lance is actually doing here. The truth of it is that he put in some work - only a little - to track Justin down, and that was maybe the less logical option when compared with, say, talking to him this morning or the next in the park.
Justin doesn't ask about any of that. Instead he says, "So what do you do?"
"I'm a web designer."
"Ooh, cool!" Justin says.
Lance shakes his head. "Not as cool as it sounds. It's a lot of grunt work, really. But I enjoy it."
"What about you? Is this it, or do you do other stuff when you're not here?"
It turns out that Justin has another job, plus part-time school. It all seems a little full-on, way more than Lance remembers having to do when he was in college - but then he had the support of his parents to see him through. God knows how it would have been if he hadn't.
He doesn't dare ask Justin what about his family. Southern accent, living in California, checking out guys in the park and paying his own way through school - that tells Lance all he need to know, really. Instead he asks Justin's age. Justin's twenty-seven, only a year younger than Lance. Or a year and some, probably, seeing as Lance will be twenty-nine in a couple months.
"Where you from?" he asks.
"Memphis," Justin says, and that and the look on Justin's face confirms what Lance was thinking about Justin's family. "You?"
"Well," Justin says, raising his Coke, "here's to the South, and to getting the hell out of it."
"I'll drink to that," Lance says. He raises his Coke to touch Justin's and takes a sip, wishing for a second that it was beer.
Then again, the last time he indulged in too much beer, it didn't go so well.
Justin has to work, and for that matter so does Lance, so they finish their Cokes and walk back up to the front desk, which is still deserted. Lance goes through the barrier, and turns to say, "Bye."
"Hey," Justin calls as Lance gets to the door. "It was nice. Talking to you and stuff today. We should, uh, do it again."
"You should stop for five minutes tomorrow," Lance says.
Justin grins. "I will."
Lance drives home with a smile on his face, because Justin seems like a sweet guy, good company, and he has such pretty eyes. By the time he gets back, Lance is shaking his head because, man, he's sort of smitten. Who knew Park Guy would turn out so cool?
His concentration isn't any better the rest of the work day. The dogs are agitated, but then the dogs always seem to be good at reflecting Lance's mood back at him - they're usually only restless if he is. He takes them out for their evening walk early, makes sure he gets as much exercise as they do, and feels somewhat better afterwards, less jumpy. He even manages to get some work done that evening, eating a sandwich over the keyboard and fixing various bits of screwed-up code.
The next morning, he jumps out of bed when the dogs wake him, and drinks his coffee so fast that he almost burns his throat. By the time he gets to the park the light is grey and fading up brighter, dawn becoming morning, and the sun is shining full strength when Lance sees Justin running up the path.
Justin is so pretty.
Lance has to stop for a moment, the dogs clamouring at his feet, and watch as Justin runs up the path like a painting come to life. He has more grace than seems likely for someone with such long, skinny legs and such oversized hands and feet, and he moves beautifully, body parts working in perfect harmony.
This time Lance is completely unsubtle about checking Justin out, unsubtle enough that Justin actually stops in his tracks and grins when he's still several feet away from Lance, and it's the most open acknowledgement of this thing between them yet. More open even than the mutual checking-out a couple of days ago. They didn't talk about it yesterday, not even vaguely, they kept to much more neutral topics; but after twenty minutes of talking to Justin, Lance is about ninety-five per cent sure that he's gay.
Justin keeps grinning, approaches at a walk, says, "Hi." It's sort of odd to be talking to him in the park. Lance likes it, though.
"Hi," Lance says. "How you doing?"
"Good," Justin says. "You?"
"Yeah, pretty good."
There. Lance smiles triumphantly: an actual conversation, right here in the park, a solid shattering of that last rule. Now they can move on. He wonders if he should ask Justin out for a drink, or something, or if Justin is honest-to-God too busy with his two jobs and school. Instead of confronting that just now, he rallies the dogs on their leashes and nudges them towards Justin. They rush for him happily, and Justin kneels to pet them.
There's thirty seconds or so when Justin doesn't look up at Lance at all, totally absorbed in communing with the dogs. After that, he does look up. "What are their names?"
"That's Dingo, and that's Foster," Lance says, indicating each dog in turn. Justin turns his attention back to the dogs and greets them by name. They seem to like him a lot, nuzzling and licking at his hands, and he seems to like them right back.
"They're beautiful." Justin ruffles the fur on Dingo's neck, then scratches behind Foster's ears.
"You really like dogs, huh?" Lance says. It's a pretty pointless question, because Justin's love for dogs - well, for these dogs, anyway - is completely obvious. He's expecting a grin out of that, but instead Justin's expression goes sad and sort of far-away.
"My mom," Justin begins. Then he shakes his head and sighs a little, and seems to comfort himself with one hand on each dog. "Yeah, I love dogs. And these guys are adorable."
Lance squats down so he can pet the dogs, too. He scratches underneath Foster's tummy the way that Foster loves, and Justin gets the hint and tries the same thing. Underneath Foster, their fingers briefly touch.
"They're my babies," Lance says.
Justin smiles and bends his head so that Dingo can lick his face. Then he sits back on his haunches, glances at his watch and sighs. "I better go," he says. "Fridays are crazy for me."
"So I can't - uh, you couldn't have a drink with me tonight?"
Justin's grin is blinding for one second before he thinks about it and shakes his head. "Not tonight. I'm working until midnight," he says. "Maybe Monday? I have Mondays free this semester."
"I - crap, I think Monday I'm in meetings all day." Lance sighs himself and gets up. The dogs pull reluctantly away from Justin as Justin does the same. "We'll figure something out."
"For sure." Justin puts out his hand, and Lance smiles wryly as he shakes it. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Justin turns and walks away from Lance along the path. After a few moments, he breaks into a run.
Lance smiles to himself on the way home. The dogs seem restless and excitable, all hyped-up by the little burst of affection from someone new, and Lance thinks of their tendency to act out his feelings when he's trying to ignore them. The way they barked and barked at Nick when Lance was too tired and too hurt to yell at him any more.
Restless and excitable seems to describe him pretty well for the rest of the day.
Friday might be a crazy day for Justin, but it's a slow day for Lance. He manages to clear the decks and send off his last work-related emails before the weekend, then settles in to tidy up the week's accounts, his usual dreary Friday afternoon job. He's done by four-thirty, and shuts down the computer with a little crow of victory.
He drives to Joey and Kelly's and gets a little time watching cartoons with Briahna before the babysitter shows up. She's a cute kid, warm and snuggly, and Lance enjoys the alone time with her before he goes to dinner with the grown-ups.
Briahna hugs him very hard before they leave for the restaurant. Kelly rubs her back fiercely and tells her to be good, Joey hauls her off her feet, and then they're climbing into Joey's car and Bri is holding the babysitter's hand and waving rapidly.
Their reservations are for seven at a place that Joey and Kelly know and have been promising to take Lance to since he moved here almost five months ago. It's a smallish restaurant with a bar attached, and it's called the Inn Between. Lance would smile at the stupid joke if it was the first time he'd heard the name, which it's not.
It's smart-ish inside, not a coat-and-tie place, but button-down shirts and slacks, the waiters in black pants and white shirts. They have to wait to be seated, but not very long - Joey's still parking the car when Lance and Kelly are getting settled in a table by the window. A few minutes later, their waiter glides over with a, "Hi, how you doing tonight?" and it's Justin.
Lance's jaw almost hits the floor before he gets control of himself. Kelly looks from Justin to Lance briefly before saying, "Fine, thanks. You?" and engaging Justin in a brief conversation while Lance stares at him. Justin's eyes keep flicking away from Kelly to look at Lance, and somehow in the middle of all that he manages to have a vaguely coherent dialogue with Kelly during which they decide on beer instead of wine. They get one for Joey too, on the basis that, even though he's driving, he'll bitch if he's not allowed one beer with dinner. Anyway, as long as Bri's not in the car, Kelly's okay with him having one.
Justin smiles at Lance before he goes to the bar with their drinks order, and Lance is together enough to smile back. As soon as he's out of earshot, Kelly leans forward and says, "See, someone like him."
"What?" Lance's attempt at feigning innocence isn't very successful.
"He was totally checking you out."
For some reason, Lance doesn't want to tell Kelly that their waiter is Park Guy. She wouldn't approve of the stalking - of that, Lance is sure - and if he tells her about Justin she'll pump him for the whole story. So all he does is smile and say, "Maybe."
"Definitely," Kelly insists.
Lance looks up to see that Joey's finally coming in, shoving his car keys into his pocket and crossing the restaurant to their table. He picks up his menu, and the conversation turns to what they're going to eat.
Justin keeps catching Lance's eye and smiling, but doesn't strike up a conversation with Lance with Joey and Kelly around. Whether that's because he's being discreet for Lance's sake or because the place is Friday-night busy, Lance isn't completely sure. He's sort of glad that he doesn't have to explain himself to Kelly, though.
Dinner is good; Lance can see why Joey and Kelly keep coming here. Justin's a good waiter, friendly and competent and fast, and Lance wonders if it would be weird to leave him a big tip. He eventually figures on no, because, hell, Justin's good at his job and he deserves to get the benefit of that. Good at both his jobs.
Lance is really glad he only has the one job to be good at.
They're partway through their dinner when Justin comes over to check that everything's okay, and if they want something else to drink. Joey asks for a water, and Lance and Kelly get fresh beers. Lance is the only one who gets a winning smile with his drink, though, and when Justin's gone, even Joey starts to laugh.
"See what I mean?" Kelly says to Joey.
"Totally. Man, that is not subtle."
Lance laughs too, taking a sip of his new beer. He's not sure he wants Justin to be subtle, not any more. They've been doing subtle for months and it's only now they've abandoned it that Lance feels they're getting somewhere. "Well, he seems like a nice guy."
"Based on him waiting our table," Kelly says with a grin. "So you're going to talk to him, right?"
Lance smiles enigmatically. "I'm thinking something might happen with Park Guy," he says.
"Oh, for God's sake, Lance," Kelly says, laughing again. "No way is anything going to happen with him. He's just some guy that you've been mooning over in the park for months, Lance, that's not a real prospect."
Lance shakes his head and takes another forkful of his pasta.
"I'm not kidding," Kelly says. Her eyes are glittering with amusement, but Lance knows that she's not. "You should just go out and sleep with someone. When you're jumping into bed with your ex, it's already way past time for the rebound sex. Okay?"
Lance looks at her very levelly for a second. It stings, because he knows she's right, at least partly; sleeping with Nick was definitely a call for drastic action. But he knows that if their waiter hadn't randomly turned out to be Park Guy, he wouldn't be thinking twice about pursuing him. Twenty minutes over Cokes in an air-conditioned gym, and Lance already has an incorrigible crush.
Justin catches Lance's eye very briefly as he goes past to deal with another of his tables. It's no more than that, but when Lance tears his gaze away, Joey and Kelly are grinning.
Kelly keeps pushing. Mostly she asks innocent questions about Park Guy, and Lance lies, or at least lies by omission. He mentions that they've exchanged a few words, but he doesn't tell her about the abortive attempt to ask Justin on a date, or about his visit to the gym, and he certainly doesn't mention that Park Guy has been waiting on them all night. Eventually, when they're finished with dinner and Justin has just taken their orders for dessert, Kelly says, "Justin, I have a question for you."
"Sure," Justin says.
"You're gay, right?"
Justin blinks in surprise, smiles, glances not-so-subtly at Lance, and says, "Yup."
"Okay, cool," Kelly says, unfazed by asking personal questions of restaurant staff. Lance stares down at his lap in embarrassment. "So I have a hypothetical scenario for you. Say there's this cute guy that you see every day, like, in the park or something."
"Okay," Justin says.
Oh God oh God.
"You have no idea if he's gay or not, but you see him every morning, and you think he checks you out, but you're not sure. You've talked to him a couple of times but" - here she glances at Lance, and so does Justin, who's pressing his lips together, trying not to laugh - "you haven't asked him out and he hasn't said anything about it to you."
"Right." Justin catches Lance's eye for a second, and suddenly Lance wants to laugh, too. He puts his elbows on the table and covers his face.
"So what do you think? Is this going somewhere?"
"Well," Justin says. He sounds surprisingly composed considering that Lance was sure, just a second ago, that he was about to fall over laughing. Amused, but not about to dissolve. "I think it's sort of hard to know what he wants, but you know… if it was me, I think I'd wanna talk to him some more, maybe see if he'd like to hang out with me some time."
Kelly doesn't look at Lance again. If it wasn't Park Guy that she was actually talking to, Lance would be grateful to her for not making it obvious that this is about him. She holds Justin's gaze and says, "What if you're maybe a little shy to talk to him?"
Justin smiles radiantly. "I think… well, maybe he's a little shy, too. Maybe he would really like to talk to me, and then, well, I guess I should talk to him, because who can tell what the other guy's gonna do."
Kelly nods. "Right."
"Plus, if he decides he doesn't want to talk to me, he can always tell me that, right?"
"Of course," Kelly says. If it had been Joey doing the talking, he would have glanced significantly at Lance at this point - in fact, Joey does - but Kelly keeps her eyes on Justin. "Thanks," she says, "I think that settles an argument."
"Cool," Justin says. He glances at Lance, and Lance glances up at him, catching his eye. Justin's smile widens and Lance has to look in the other direction then or give the game away by collapsing into a heap in his seat. "Get you guys anything else?"
"We're good, I think," Joey says.
Kelly says, "I think so," and Lance manages to meet Justin's eye and nod.
How he gets through dessert and then coffee without confessing, Lance has no idea. Kelly does admit, a bit reluctantly, that Justin was on Lance's side. "But he's just a waiter," she protests, "what does he know?"
Lance laughs explosively. "You asked him!"
Kelly looks to Joey for support, and Joey says, "I'm sorry, honey, it's true."
Kelly sighs, but it's good-natured. "I really don't know what to do with either of you."
"Nothing?" Joey says hopefully, and Kelly throws him a look that says he's getting punished tonight.
They've taken a long time over dinner, gotten carried away talking so that it's almost eleven now, and Joey glances at his watch and throws Kelly a look. Kelly nods, their usual brand of silent communication, and says, "We better get the check."
Joey looks around for Justin, who's serving another table, catches his eye. Justin nods and is over a minute later. "Can I get you something else?"
"Just the check, please," Joey says, and Justin goes to get it.
Justin hands it to Joey, but Lance snatches it from Joey's hand almost before Justin's let it go. Justin looks amused and Joey frowns at him. Lance says, "I got it."
"Lance," Kelly says in a warning tone.
"It's my pleasure," Lance says. He pulls out his credit card as Justin takes off to handle another customer, figures out a generous tip, and leaves the card on the dish with the check and a handful of cash. Kelly and Joey finish their drinks in the interval before Justin comes back.
Justin smiles at Lance as he takes the card and pockets the tip. Lance smiles back, trying to convey something in his expression that he hasn't even figured out properly in his head. It's something about the tip and how it could be meant in a million different ways, and how this thing has suddenly gotten complicated, and how he wants to sit with Justin in some place where Justin doesn't have to work. Justin meets his eyes briefly and Lance doesn't know if he gets it or not. Hell, Lance isn't sure he gets it himself, not quite.
Justin comes back a last time with one receipt for Lance to sign and one for him to keep. It's only once Justin is gone and Lance is shoving the receipt into his wallet that he notices something scrawled on the back of it, small, neat letters in black ballpoint. He flips the receipt over and reads two words: 'Stick around?'
"What's that?" Joey says.
Subtly, he hands Joey the receipt. Joey starts to laugh and hands it on to Kelly, who laughs, too. Not subtle at all; he catches Justin watching the scene. Lance joins in, quietly, as he takes the receipt back from Kelly and folds it into his wallet.
"You gonna stay?" Kelly asks.
"Sure," Lance says. Joey looks at him sideways, and Lance says, "I'll call a cab."
"Okay," Joey says.
Joey and Kelly get up, hug Lance and leave. Lance sits there for a moment, wondering what to do, and then leaves the table and takes a seat at the bar.
Lance orders a Jack Daniel's straight up and sips it slowly, already three beers deep and not wanting to get any drunker. The bartender's an older guy, tall and greying at the temples, and he throws Lance a quick unreadable look at one point between customers. Lance stares down into his drink and tries not to attract attention.
A few minutes later, Justin leans over his shoulder and says very softly, "About an hour. That okay?"
"Sure," Lance says. He already knew it'd be around midnight from this morning. "No problem."
Justin pats Lance's shoulder quickly, a gentle, friendly touch. "You want a paper or something? I think I have today's Tribune in my bag."
"I'm good," Lance says, smiling, "go work."
Justin smiles at him, and his fingers brush against Lance's arm as he goes back to work. Lance nurses his whiskey for almost thirty minutes and strikes up a conversation with the dark-haired lady sitting next to him, who's all smiles until Lance makes it clear that he's gay and waiting on someone. Even after that she's friendly enough. Lance buys her a couple of wine spritzers to his one whiskey and listens to her talk about her latest disastrous relationship. He figures she's here looking to meet someone, and it seems to Lance after only a few minutes of conversation like that wouldn't be good for her at all.
At last call, she swills down the last of her second spritzer and takes off. Lance glances at his watch: it's eleven-thirty. There's another half-hour to kill, and Lance orders a second Jack Daniel's, keeping his drinking nice and slow and wondering vaguely what Justin has in mind for after work. Over the next half-hour, customers slowly trickle out of the restaurant, and Lance is aware of Justin and other staff members moving around behind him, clearing tables and taking money while he drinks. There's no one left at the bar for Lance to talk to, so he stares into the amber-coloured liquid in his glass between careful sips, thinking.
Oddly enough, what he's thinking about is Nick. He hasn't thought about Nick in at least a few days, not really; he's worked hard to put the mishap at the conference behind him. It's been a couple of weeks now, and Lance is starting to feel like he wants to be done with it. Really done. To be able to say that the thing with Nick is over, because he's started something new, somewhere different, with somebody else.
It's maybe not the best reason ever to date somebody, but it's what he has. And heck, he likes Justin, likes him a lot. That's a good enough reason for anybody.
At midnight, the lights come up, and Lance throws back the last of his whiskey. "Okay," the bartender says, "time to go home, buddy."
Lance smiles his best professional smile, which is maybe a tiny bit wobbly after three beers and two whiskies. "I'm waiting for Justin," he says.
"Justin!" the bartender yells over Lance's head. "He one o' yours?"
"Yeah," Justin calls back instantly. "Two minutes."
The bartender gets to work closing up, and Lance swivels in his chair to look for Justin. He has a cloth tucked into his pants and is stacking chairs onto tables, quickly and almost effortlessly, though there's something in the quality of his movements that tells Lance Justin's tired. The movements of his arms look a little stiff, and that reminds Lance of days when Justin is pale-faced or has dark rings under his eyes. Weekend mornings, often, which always used to strike Lance as odd.
Now, of course, he knows that Justin gets Mondays off, and it doesn't seems so weird at all.
Justin takes more like five minutes to get done, and then he takes over from the bartender behind the bar. "I'll finish up here," he says.
The bartender trades glances with Justin and smiles. "Have a good night," he says.
As far as Lance can tell, the bartender's the last staff member to leave, apart from Justin. Justin leans on the bar and says, "You want another one of those?"
Lance glances down at his glass and considers briefly. It's Saturday tomorrow, not like he has to work, so fuck it. "Sure."
Justin smiles. "What are you having?"
"JD, please," Lance says.
Justin nods and pours one for Lance and another for himself, no ice in either. Justin lifts his glass, and Lance toasts him before taking a sip. Even after two, the whiskey feels warm in his throat.
"Tennessee whiskey," Justin says softly, glancing down into his glass.
"It's the best."
"Uh huh." Justin knocks his glass against Lance's for the second time, takes another sip. "So how the hell did you know I worked here? I didn't think I said the name of the restaurant."
Lance smiles. "I didn't. Total coincidence, Joey and Kelly have been meaning to bring me here for a while."
"Huh." There's a pause while Justin looks at Lance very seriously, his blue eyes even more intense than they are when he's running. Then he says, "Fate," softly and tentatively, like he's testing out the word.
"Maybe," Lance says, though he's thinking more 'yes' than 'no', and he thinks that shows up in his voice. "Not like yesterday," says with a smile, "that wasn't fate, that was me looking for you."
"I did wonder," Justin says softly. "You… I mean, you work out, obviously, so…"
"Not like you." He can't see Justin's muscles properly under the long-sleeved white shirt, but that broadness is still there, the big hands that Lance thinks are so beautiful, dark hair against pale skin. He keeps his eyes on Justin's hand for a second, long fingers curled around the whiskey glass, then looks up at Justin's face. "You don't mind?"
"That you looked for me?"
"No, I don't mind."
Justin moves the glass from his right hand to his left and inches his right hand forward until his knuckles are brushing against Lance's, against the knuckles of the hand Lance is using to hold his own glass. He says, "I wanted to talk to you. I just - I don't know, it was hard."
Lance smiles and, when Justin makes a move to withdraw his hand, twitches his own, enough movement to prolong the contact. Whiskey splashes in his glass. Justin takes the hint and leaves his hand where it is.
"You work all weekend?" Lance asks.
"Yup," Justin says, making a little face of annoyance. "And you work all week."
"Yeah. Though, I can be flexible, I'm freelance. What about you?"
Still touching Lance's hand, Justin goes through his schedule. It's insane. Twelve hours or more at work both Saturday and Sunday. Monday off, but it's right back to it on Tuesday, though Justin points out that it's Spring Break in a week, so his schedule will be somewhat off because of that - more shifts at work, no class. Lance wonders how he copes with it, week after week for a whole semester, pumping up the work hours when he's on vacation, never taking a real break.
"Man," Lance says, laughing, when they get back around to Friday, "you don't really have time for a boyfriend, do you?"
He means it as a joke, but it obviously hits a nerve, because Justin flinches and pulls his hand away. "Not really," he says, and he looks so hurt and sad that Lance wants to kick himself under the bar. There's a long pause while Justin looks down into his whiskey glass, and then he empties it in one gulp.
"This isn't going to work out, is it?" Justin says.
Lance wants to protest that it still could, but he also doesn't want to add more stress to Justin's life, and he figures that's what he'd be. Yet another thing to fit into an already-crazy life. Too much, maybe, and maybe he was right that Justin doesn't have time for a relationship right now.
"Maybe when you graduate," Lance says, finishing his drink. "I can buy you a drink to celebrate."
"Yeah," Justin says, but he still looks sad.
Lance reaches out, squeezes Justin's hand gently, and says, "I'm gonna call a cab."