Art by pensnest.
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Justin's life sucks.
This, driving home Friday night with a single glass of whiskey warming his stomach, is Justin's considered opinion. He was so close with Park Guy - Lance - and then, dammit, he had to turn out to be this sensible guy who saw Justin's life for what it is. A crazy mess that doesn't need any more craziness in it. Justin guesses it's for the best, really, and he'll certainly be reminding Lance about that drink come June, but…
Fuck it. Justin's really mad about this. It's three years since he had a real date, another year before that since he had sex, and he's sick of being single and lonely and of having nothing in his life but work and school and more god damned work. He can't wait for May, because in a way it feels like his real life's been on hold for seven years, and he wants to pick up the threads again. He'll start with Lance. A real life, with a little bit of romance in it.
Chris is still up when he gets home. The front door closes more loudly than usual behind him, and Chris's voice calls from the living room: "Late for you."
"Yeah," Justin calls back, heading right for the stairs. "And I have an early start tomorrow, so I better crash." It's no earlier than a normal Saturday, but Justin really doesn't want to talk to Chris right now.
He guesses he really is mad, because when he goes to shower the bathroom door slams shut behind him.
He's still mad when he wakes up the next morning. Mad at himself, mostly, but also sort of mad at the world for making him think that he could have something good and then taking it away at the last possible moment. He drives to the park and runs fast with his head down, trying to beat the anger out through his feet. It doesn't really work, and when he sees Lance towards the end of his run it's still anger he feels, but more than that, too. He's tired of things always getting fucked up.
"Hey," Lance says. The dogs are nowhere to be seen, and Justin glances around to look for them, confused. Then he sees them snuffling for something under the bushes and relaxes.
"Hey," Justin says. He doesn't know how to go on. "How you doing?" is what comes out.
Lance nods, says, "Fine, you?" and, man, this is awkward.
"I'm good," Justin says, an innocuous lie.
There's a long silence while they do nothing but look at each other. Justin sighs a little, because at this point, when they got so close and then decided against it for some stupid reason that still won't go away no matter how stupid it is.
Well, what the hell is left to say?
"How are the dogs?" Justin asks.
Lance smiles. "They're having a good time, I think."
"Cool." Justin glances at his watch; it's almost eight, and he has a fairly early start today at the gym. "I better get going."
"See you tomorrow."
Justin turns and runs up the path and it's almost like nothing happened at all. Except that he's still pissed about it, and he feels the anger burning his stomach worse than the whiskey did last night. He's tired of it. Tired of it all.
He's just so damn tired.
Britney comes to the restaurant on Saturday night, has a couple of cocktails and then hangs out with him and Chris when Justin's shift is done at ten. It's Chris - predictably again - who asks Justin the inevitable question.
Justin smiles. "Nothin'."
"Nothin', my ass," Chris says harshly. "You were upset last night, and you're still upset now. I've known you seven years, kiddo, you can't hide anything from me."
It's almost as long as anyone has known Justin out here, though JC has Chris beat out by about seven months.
No fooling Chris, though, that much is true. Justin sighs. "Yeah. Uh. I talked to Park Guy."
"Park Guy?" Britney asks, and it takes ten minutes to fill her in on the story so far, up to Thursday and Lance's surprise visit to the gym. She grins when Justin tells her that Lance tracked him down, and Justin grins too, despite himself, because that one little fact still makes him feel pretty good.
"Okay," she says, "so Park Guy shows up at the gym, then what?"
"We talked some," Justin says. "Had a Coke. He's - he's nice, and kind of funny, you know, and he's from the South, too, and we got along pretty well. It was cool." He smiles at the memory of sitting downstairs in the gym's meagre rest area, tapping his Coke can against Lance's, drinking to getting the hell out of the Bible Belt. "Then he showed up at the restaurant last night, and…"
"And?" Britney says instantly.
"I'm guessing this is the part that wasn't so good," Chris says.
Justin shifts around in his seat. "No - no - most of the night was great. I mean, I served his table, him and a couple of friends of his, and then they took off and he stuck around and had a drink with me after closing and that was, that was really great." He sighs. "And after that…"
Justin pauses to take a long drink from his beer can and slumps back on the couch, tired of the story now.
"And what?" Brit asks impatiently.
"I don't have any free time," Justin says sadly.
Chris snorts. "What kind of an excuse is that?"
"It's not an excuse!" Justin protests. "It's true!"
Chris just shakes his head.
"Justin, nobody has the time," Britney says gently. "You make time, that's the point."
Justin shakes his head, because he couldn't make the time even if he tried. There'd be late nights and early mornings and that'd be about it. Lance is a good guy and he deserves so much more than that, more time and attention than Justin has to give him.
He spends the rest of the night trying to explain this to Chris and Brit, but they won't listen.
Another day, another awkward morning talking to Lance briefly at the park. He spends Sunday wishing that Lance would show up at the gym in the morning, or at the restaurant that night, and say he doesn't care how little time Justin has to spare. It's a stupid fantasy, and thinking about it only makes Justin miserable, but he can't seem to get it out of his head.
The restaurant closes early on a Sunday night, and he's out of there and on the way home by eleven. When he gets in the door, he doesn't feel at all like sleeping, so he sits up and watches the end of Apocalypse Now with Chris. It's not until the credits are rolling that Chris says to him, "You really are being an idiot about this."
"Like you don't know."
Justin does, of course. He sighs. Chris reaches over to the table next to the couch and hands Justin a beer. This is Chris's time-honoured method of offering comfort: he'll hand you a beer, maybe a cigarette if you smoke, and listen to whatever you have to say. It took Justin a long while to get used to it, and he wonders how - if - Chris adapts it for the teenagers he works with at the project. Maybe he just hands them a beer, too.
"I just don't see a way around it."
"It's like Britney said," Chris says gently. "You make time for it. Study at his place, sleep there when you can, whatever it takes. Hang with him." Justin looks at him, then looks down to open the beer. "I'm not saying it'll be all that exciting while you're this busy, but I bet you can make it work."
"I don't know," Justin says. He doesn't have the greatest track record with making things work. The last real relationship he had - with 'real' being defined as 'more than two weeks' - was JC, and look how that turned out. Not good. Not good at all.
Well, he guesses they're still friends after seven years, so it can't have been all that bad.
And this is where being friends with Chris gets him. Analysing and re-analysing every little bit of his life until it all makes no sense in his head. Maybe this part never did, though. He sighs again. He's been sighing all day. Man, he's so fucking tired of having nothing work. Or maybe he's just tired. Monday tomorrow.
He takes a sip of the beer and says, "I really don't."
"You should give yourself more credit," Chris says.
Justin looks at Chris - the look says 'shut up' - and drinks more of his beer.
He goes to the park on Monday, because that's his routine. For once in his life, he actually has time to talk to Lance, but the meetings Lance thought he had turned out to be real, so Lance is in a rush. "I'm sorry, man, I have to be in San Francisco at nine."
"It's cool," Justin says, and leaves him alone.
He usually relishes Mondays - it's so nice to have a day off - but this Monday seems long and boring. He gets a whole bunch of homework done in the morning, and that afternoon, calls JC and then drives over to San Francisco to meet him. They get coffee from Starbucks and drink it walking along the beach. It reminds Justin a little of when they used to date, when they would do this at night, walking along the beach hand in hand.
They're not holding hands now, of course, and pretty soon the topic of conversation gets around to Lance.
It takes a little while to tell the whole story, and then JC tosses his coffee cup in the trash and says, "So you just blew him off?"
"I - "
"He calls a cab and you just let him go? How long did he wait?"
Justin looks at JC. "About twenty minutes. It was - " He sighs. "It was really fucking awkward."
"I'll bet," JC says. He's quiet for a minute, and Justin looks out at the sea, slate-grey under thick fog. It's so cold today.
"You talk to him since?" JC asks.
"Yeah," Justin says. "Like, every morning in the park. We don't always have a whole lot of time, but... we say hi."
"That's an improvement."
Justin smiles. "Yes."
"I think - if I was the other guy?"
JC stops there until Justin says, "Uh huh."
"I'd think you weren't interested in me. I'd think that was the real reason."
"That's not how it is," Justin says.
JC reaches out to pat Justin's shoulder. "I know, man," he says, "but it's not because of your damned schedule, either. You're scared."
"You're used to getting hurt," JC says.
Justin doesn't know what to say to that, so he looks straight ahead, not to his left at JC or to his right at the ocean, until JC goes on.
"Part of that's my fault. I hurt you. But you were already expecting it since long before we started dating. And that's not me being mean, dude, it's how it is, that's all. Something went wrong for you one time and you keep thinking it's gonna go wrong again, so - it does. You need to think different."
That hurts, and now Justin does look out at the ocean again, swallowing something that's burning his throat. "I don't think I can," he says eventually.
"Of course you can," JC says softly. His hand comes to rest on Justin's shoulder again, gentle and reassuring this time. Justin turns his head to look. "He seems like a nice guy. He likes you. No reason that it shouldn't work out."
"It's all so fucked up," Justin says softly.
JC squeezes his shoulder, nods, takes his hand away.
JC walks Justin back to his car, and Justin gets back to the apartment a few minutes before Chris. By the time Chris walks in the door, Justin has showered and changed clothes and is fixing dinner.
"You have the night off," Chris points out. "You should call Park Guy."
"I don't have his number." This is true, and Justin doesn't feel like hanging out in the park in the cold and waiting to see if Lance turns up for an evening walk. That's scary behaviour and it probably wouldn't pay off. Instead he flips over the hamburgers under the grill.
Chris hands him a beer, which is code that Chris thinks he probably needs to talk.
So over dinner, Justin goes through it all again, getting through two beers as he does. The beer, Justin has to confess, is a pretty good strategy of Chris's, because it does loosen him up and get the words flowing, somehow gets him thinking things that he wouldn't allow himself to think otherwise. After years living with Chris, Justin isn't actually sure if it's the beer or Chris's manner that has that effect on him, but it's useful, either way.
The story sounds weird and sad when Justin tells it, and each time Chris asks him a question, it sounds less like Justin doesn't have time for Lance and more like he's just scared. Like he ran away from this at the first opportunity, convinced that, just like everything else he touches, this would turn to shit as soon as he started to rely on it.
Fuck. Maybe JC was right, after all.
When he was a kid, he was his mother's golden boy, and everything seemed to go right for him, every damn time. Sometimes he really wants to know what happened to those days. Except that he already does: he turned out to be who he is, and his mom didn't like it, and that was pretty much that. He misses being someone she liked.
But he'd miss being himself, too.
"You really think I could make this work?" he asks Chris. It's late at night now, they've been talking for hours and Justin's throat is raw from it.
"I do," Chris says. Justin wonders what makes Chris think that. He's never seen first-hand the train-wreck that happens whenever Justin gets in a relationship, though he's probably heard the Justin-and-JC story a hundred times from both sides. And he's heard all about the disaster that was Trace, the first time Justin's life went really badly wrong. So Justin guesses Chris knows almost as well as anyone.
"I think you and JC aren't well-suited to each other," Chris says, as if reading Justin's mind. "Never were. This guy… I don't know, I haven't met him, but it sounds like a different deal."
It is a different deal. It feels completely different from anything that's gone before. Justin suddenly feels completely weird, alive with hope, and scared out of his skin, too. He takes a long swallow of his beer, finishing it, and sets the can on the table.
"I'm gonna go to bed," Justin says, and gets up to clear the empty beer cans away.
"Okay," says Chris.
Justin hits the park on Tuesday morning with a renewed sense of purpose. There's still a big part of him that thinks this won't work out, but - maybe Chris and JC are right, and he should try. Yesterday still feels half-crazy in his head, like he got this whole new impression of the core of fear that lives inside him. Sits there, cold and heavy, running his life.
He's tired of it. Tired of being scared of disappointing everyone - he long ago gave up on his mom, but he could disappoint Cameron, or one of the managers at the restaurant, or JC or Christina or Chris, and that would be bad. Or Lance; that'd be worse, somehow, even though they barely know one another. Maybe because they barely know one another, and in Justin's head that means he has more chance to disappoint.
That's what's running through Justin's head as he starts his morning run. It starts to rain halfway through his first lap, drops of water hitting the surface of the duckpond hard like bullets, cold and sharp against Justin's neck. He hasn't seen Lance yet, but he's keeping an eye out; every time he glances up to look for Lance, cold water trickles into Justin's eyes.
He sees the dogs first: Foster, then Dingo, and finally Lance, who's waiting for them to come running back to him. Run they do, and Justin stops to watch as Lance squats to pet them. He's surprised by a sudden twinge of mixed feelings, like it's a family scene that he's not really a part of. Like seeing Christina with her son. A second later, Lance looks up, sees Justin watching, and smiles.
"Hey," Justin calls, jogging over towards Lance. The grass is damp, and squishes under his feet as he goes. "How you doing?"
Lance smiles. "Pretty good," he says, and he takes a moment to look Justin up and down as he stands up. "You're insane. Aren't you cold?"
"Uh..." Justin looks down at himself. His running gear is damp but not soaked through; the rain's pretty cold, yeah. "A little," he confesses.
"Why don't you wear more clothes when it's wet?"
"It's not so bad when I'm running."
"Then shouldn't you be...?" Lance gestures vaguely. Justin smiles.
"I wanted to say hi."
The dogs come snuffling around Justin's feet then, so Justin drops to one knee to say hi to them, to. "Hey, boys," he says. Foster nuzzles Justin's face happily. Dingo licks at his knee. All of a sudden Justin's grinning, because even though they smell kind of doggy and wet, it's all warm affection and dogs don't judge you and they don't know how to bitch. Justin pets them happily, scratching and rubbing them and figuring out what they like.
"I swear," Lance says with a laugh, "you like my dogs more than you like me."
Justin looks up sharply. "I - um - that's not - that's - no."
"Hey," Lance says, dropping down to one knee, too. He's smiling. "Hey, that was a joke." He reaches out to pet Dingo, and his fingers brush against Justin's over Dingo's damp fur. Justin's first instinct is to move his hand away, but he thinks better of it, remembering how they kept contact while they drank their whiskeys on Friday night.
"Sorry," Justin says, dropping his eyes.
"Nothin' to be sorry for."
"I do really like the dogs," Justin says, a little sheepishly. "But - not more than you."
Lance moves his hand; not very far, but enough so that his fingers are resting on top of Justin's now, instead of brushing up against them. "I thought you didn't want this."
"That's not it at all!" Justin says hurriedly. "I'd like to - I'd like to see you. Sometime, you know, not in the park. I'd like to hang out. I just... I wish I had more time."
"Whatever you have is cool," Lance says. His hand squeeze Justin's briefly. "My house is like five minutes away. You wanna come dry off or something?"
"I - man, I'd love to, but - " Justin checks his watch. "Crap. I have school in an hour, and..."
Lance smiles. "Don't sweat it. Try again sometime?"
"I'm free tomorrow night."
"That sounds good to me."
Lance gets up, and so does Justin. Justin says, "I'll - you want my number?"
"Sure," Lance says, and pulls out his cellphone. Justin's is in his glove compartment, so he rattles off the number and tells Lance to text him. Lance nods, taps at his phone, and pockets it. "There," he says. "See you tomorrow."
Justin smiles at him one last time and turns to run back towards his car.
Lance's text has already come through by the time Justin gets back to his car and digs the cell out of his glove compartment. He fires off a quick response before setting off for Berkeley, and when he gets to campus, discovers that his morning math class is cancelled. The professor's sick - again.
It's doubly annoying that class is cancelled today. The normal reason is that Justin hates playing catch-up and when the professor misses a class it means twice the workload next time; considering it's Spring Break next week, that means that in two weeks' time, he's going to have a crazy amount of studying to do. The less-normal reason is that, if he'd known about this two hours ago, he could have stayed in Oakland and spent the morning with Lance.
Instead of kicking around campus all morning, he decides to call Christina and pay a surprise visit. She's a lot less flexible about being able to visit Justin since Max was born - which, considering what tiny babies are like, isn't that surprising - and what with Justin's schedule, they don't see each other that much these days.
She sounds happy to be visited when he calls, though. He shows up on her doorstep just after nine-fifteen and she opens the door and thrusts a howling Max into his arms.
"Hi," he says, blinking.
"Hi." She looks harried and exhausted. Justin closes the door gently behind him and jogs Max gently. He's red-faced and bawling and Justin's not much good with babies, so all he does is cradle the kid against his chest and make soft shushing noises while Christina turns around and makes for the bathroom. She shuts the door loudly.
Justin sits down on the couch, still jogging Max, trying to calm him down without a lot of success. Five minutes later, Christina comes out of the bathroom, pushing her hair off her face and looking not-much-but-a-little-bit better. She plucks Max out of Justin's arms. "Gotta change his diaper."
Justin stands automatically. "You want me to do it?"
"That's okay," she says with a weak smile. "I'm just gonna change him and try to put him down, okay? Then I'm all yours."
Justin nods and takes a seat, because getting in Christina's way when she's stressing out is never a good idea.
The baby's crying stops shortly after Christina steps back into the bathroom. When she comes out again a few minutes later, he's quiet and alert and all clean-smelling and adorable. Justin smiles, and she hands the baby to him again.
"You're such a sap," she says, smiling.
"He's cute. Shut up."
"Yeah, like this, he's cute."
Christina lets Justin cuddle Max briefly, then disappears behind him into what used to be the spare room and is now Max's nursery. While she's putting him down, Justin gets up and makes coffee for the two of them, then while the coffee is percolating, washes some of Christina's dishes.
"Hey, stop that," she says when she comes into the kitchen, but he's pretty much done. He pours her a coffee, and she says, "Thank you."
"It's cool," he says.
They end up sitting on the couch and talking: mostly catching up, Christina telling Justin all the latest baby news, stuff about Jordan and how Britney was over last week and she seems to be doing better. Justin agrees: Brit seemed good at the weekend when they talked. She's seeing her kids once a week, and Justin knows that isn't enough, but it's something.
It's not until it's almost time for him to go that Christina says, "So JC called me yesterday. And he told me I should call you and talk some sense into you."
Justin blinks. "Huh?"
"You're being an idiot about 'Park Guy', apparently? I have no idea what he's talking about."
Christina isn't in the loop on Lance, so Justin has to explain, and when he's done, she says, "Ohhh. Yeah, JC's right."
"Actually, we talked this morning. And we're maybe gonna hang out tomorrow."
Christina grins. "Then I don't need to give you the lecture." She reaches out to pat his knee. Justin smiles and checks his watch, then sighs, because he has to get back to campus for his afternoon classes.
He hugs Christina at the door, and just as they're saying goodbye, Max starts crying in the nursery. Christina gives Justin a quick kiss on the cheek and dashes back into the apartment, leaving Justin to close the door as he leaves.
Wednesday morning, Justin finds himself leaping out of bed when his alarm rings and running for the shower. He's twitchy with maybe nerves or maybe excitement or maybe both, and he stays in the shower for way too long and then has to dash for his car if he's going to make it in and out of the park on time.
His morning run isn't that great as exercise because he's mostly looking for Lance. It's two laps before Justin sees him - Lance first, and then he almost trips over Dingo, and stops, grinning at Lance from a distance. Dingo pelts towards Lance, and Lance crouches to scoop Dingo up onto his shoulder. Dingo squirms in protest, and after a second Lance lets him jump to the floor.
"Lance!" Justin calls, and Lance raises his hand in a wave. Justin jogs over towards him.
"Mornin'," Lance says easily. Dingo tears off into the undergrowth; a second later, Foster emerges from it and comes yapping around Lance's legs. Lance drops to pet him, and Justin hovers nervously for a second.
"C'mon, it's okay," Lance says.
Justin squats to say hello to Foster, and Foster greets Justin by licking at his hand.
"So," Justin says after a few seconds. "Tonight...?"
"Tonight," Lance says in a decisive tone. "Where're you at? Gym or restaurant?"
"Gym," Justin says. "I'm off at six."
"So I'll come get you?"
Justin blinks. "Uh... at the gym?"
"If you like."
"I'd kind of like to run home and shower first. If that's cool."
"Sure," Lance says. "Then I'll pick you up at home. Seven-thirty?"
"Okay. Uh, I guess you'll need my address."
Lance nods. Their hands meet on Foster's neck, just for a brief second before Foster shakes them both free and goes running off again. Justin is left squatting on the ground, holding two of Lance's fingers between two of his own.
"This is a date, right?" Lance says. "I'm not getting my signals totally mixed."
"You're not at all." Justin's grinning suddenly.
"Awesome. So maybe text me your address?"
"Absolutely. Um - " Justin stands, letting go of Lance's fingers a little reluctantly, and Lance straightens up with him. "It's not that easy to find..."
"I have Google Maps," Lance says.
"Cool. But - call me if you get lost, I can give you directions."
Lance nods. When Justin glances guiltily behind him, Lance reaches out to brush his fingers against the back of Justin's hand. "Time to go?"
"Yeah," Justin says regretfully.
"Get out of here," Lance says. "I'll see you tonight."
Justin has a really good day at the gym. It's pretty quiet all morning, so he manages to fight his way through some math problems and finish checking through the history paper that's due tomorrow. He doesn't find any spelling errors or horribly wrong facts, thank God.
"You're in a good mood," Cameron points out as she comes back from lunch. He's leaning on the desk with a half-eaten summer tomato sandwich in front of him and his book open at the last and thorniest math problem. Technically, he's on a break, but there was no one to cover the desk while Cameron was out.
He looks up at her. "I have a date tonight," he says, and she grins.
"Did hell freeze over?"
"Screw you," he says, grinning. "Can I get out of here now?"
She nods and sighs loudly, and he grabs his stuff and heads for the break room. Over lunch he manages to get through the last math problem - though, ow, his brain hurts afterwards - and satisfies himself that, yes, the history paper really is done. Both of them go back in his bag and he uses the last fifteen minutes lifting weights with one of the regulars spotting him.
The afternoon crawls by. He gets a text from Lance just after four, which says nothing but, 'found it! see you later', and that makes him smile. He literally runs to his car at six, through the first spatters of a rainstorm that starts in earnest when he's about halfway home. Chris is there when he gets home, and he gets as far as, "Hey, kid - " before Justin cuts him off.
"I have a date, I gotta get ready," Justin says.
"Oh!" One of Chris's eyebrows goes up, and he waves his hand vaguely at the stairs. Justin bolts.
He takes a long, long shower and spends a good ten minutes staring into his wardrobe, wrapped in his ratty towel, before making a decision. He ends up in the one pair of almost-smart slacks he owns that aren't restaurant uniform, a blue button-down, and an ancient pair of Converse that don't look too bad with the slacks because they're not all white. What with one thing and another, it's after seven by the time he comes downstairs again and sets himself on the couch. He switches on the TV, thinking there must be something on to distract him until Lance gets here.
"Want a beer?" Chris asks.
"And I take it you'll eat out," Chris says.
"Uh... or I'll grab something when I get in," Justin says. They didn't actually make any plans at all about what they do tonight. There's a dumb commercial on the TV, which Justin thinks is for jeans, but he's not completely sure.
Chris throws himself onto the couch next to Justin and opens his mouth.
"Just be myself, right?" Justin says, and Chris smiles and shrugs.
Lance is five minutes early. Justin's first thought when the doorbell rings is that he wants to change his whole outfit. The shoes are way too old - much better to wear his newest sneakers - and his the button-down shirt is really too big for him, something he picked up from Goodwill one time when JC was taking him to a party.
He brushes down the shirt nervously and goes to the door. Lance is wearing a butto-down himself: black, or maybe very dark grey, and it makes those pretty green eyes seem almost luminous. Justin smiles and says, "Hi."
"Hi." There's a pause while Lance looks him up and down. "You look great."
"Thanks. You, too."
Justin's forgotten how to do this. It's so long since he's had a date. He says, "You wanna - ?" and waves behind him vaguely, but Lance just smiles and shakes his head.
"C'mon, let's go."
Justin grabs his jacket and moves to leave. Chris must have a sixth sense about these things, because he calls, "See you later," from the kitchen.
Guiltily, Justin turns and shouts, "Bye," over his shoulder.
"Who was that?" Lance asks over his shoulder as they walk out to the car.
"Chris. My landlord."
Lance has a big black SUV. Justin climbs into the passenger seat: it's much nicer than his own car, which is a Ford, a blue Escort that's been in California about twice as long as Justin. The SUV is very clean inside, and Lance smiles at Justin briefly before starting the engine.
"Did you have somewhere in mind?" Lance asks as they turn off of Justin's street.
Justin blinks. He'd thought about going out for a coffee, but that was before this turned into a Date, capital D, and he dressed up and Lance came to get him. He flounders a bit. "I... uh..."
Lance grins. "Cool, we can wing it. You hungry?"
It's a great night. They end up at a Chinese place about ten minutes' drive from the apartment, and over dinner Lance talks about his job and what he thinks of Oakland and, eventually, the inevitable asshole ex. Lance is such a nice guy, honest and warm and funny, and by the time they're done eating, Justin's reached the stage where he's smiling and smiling and smiling. Lance is doing much the same.
They get fortune cookies with the check, which Lance insists on paying. Lance opens his first, pulls out the strip of paper and reads aloud: "Soon life will become interesting." He grins. "I'd say it already did," he says, and Justin grins back.
Justin opens his, reads it, and - ouch. He stares at the fortune for several long seconds before Lance says, "What?"
"Just - a little close to the bone," Justin says, and takes a breath before reading it to Lance. "Excuses are easy to manufacture, and hard to sell."
"You don't seem like the excuses type," Lance says.
"Huh. You'd be surprised."
Justin leaves the pieces of cookie on his plate when the leave the restaurant, but sticks the slip of paper with the fortune on in his pocket. They get as far as getting back into the SUV, and Lance starts it up, then says, "Where now? C'mon, I'm new in town, you gotta show me the sights."
"How long have you been here?"
"Uh, five months."
Justin smiles. "Then I guess you've been to the ice-cream place near the park?"
Lance shakes his head, and Justin raises one eyebrow. He guesses that it's not really ice-cream weather; but on the other hand, Lance has a six-year-old god-daughter, and he hasn't ever taken her for ice-cream five minutes from where he lives? "Okay," Justin says, and directs Lance as he drives.
Justin pays for the ice-cream and they sit in a booth by the window as they eat it. This time it's Justin's turn to talk. Lance starts by asking him the million-dollar question - what he wants to do when college is done - and from there they end up talking about Justin's love of sports and new people and what he likes and doesn't like about the jobs he does right now. Justin's a people person, no doubt about it, but he could do without running around the restaurant night after night.
"I've thought about being a personal trainer," he says, "but it's like, I really should have thought about that before I went to college. It's another whole course and I just don't have the money right now."
Lance nods. "That kinda sucks."
"Yeah. And I'm so close to graduating now. I just have no idea what I'm gonna do with my degree."
"Yeah," Lance says, smiling, "I remember feeling like that. You get there eventually."
"You really like what you do, don't you?"
Justin wants to reach out and take Lance's hand across the table, but doesn't dare. It's so strange somehow, sitting here and eating ice-cream with a nice, hot guy, talking about his life. Thinking that this might actually be something, something that - something that Justin can maybe take away with him when they're apart. He already feels like there's this warm space between them. The start of something.
Also, when Lance licks chocolate sauce off of his fingers, it's kind of hot.
By the time Lance drives Justin home, it's almost midnight. Justin feels almost bold enough to invite Lance in, but not quite; instead, he sits right where he is for a moment, feeling that fortune burning a hole in his pocket. Excuses, excuses. He wants more than this, more than the sitting in the car and blandly saying 'goodnight' after tonight. Every time he looks at Lance he wants to smile.
"So," Lance says, and the air's suddenly filled with tension as it hasn't been all night.
"So." Justin glances at Lance and then down into his lap. "It's kinda... late."
"Yeah, it is."
And that is maddening somehow, that Lance isn't pushing him, is waiting to see what he does. Justin wonders if Lance wants to be invited in or wants to be allowed to go home. He says, "I - I had a really fantastic time."
"Me too," Lance says. Some expression crosses Lance's face, but only very briefly; not nearly enough time for Justin to read it. Relief or disappointment look much the same when you only catch them for a quarter of a second. "So, um. Do you want to do this again?"
"Yes. Absolutely. Tomorrow?"
"Aren't you working?"
"I could meet you for a late drink or something. I'm done with the gym at ten."
"Okay, then." Lance smiles. "Well, I'll call you."
There's more silence. Justin opens his door, and turns to get out. Then, on the spur of them moment, he turns again, to kiss Lance goodnight. Lance starts a little, but Justin's lips meet Lance's dead-on, and there's one brief beautiful second when they're kissing. It's a chaste, quick kiss, nothing hot and heavy, but Justin instantly wants more, and he wonders how long he could get away with sitting in the car and making out. There's an awkward moment - just one - before Justin kisses Lance again.
This time it lasts a little longer, enough time for Lance to take Justin by the shoulders, for Justin to part his lips slightly. The moment after that second kiss isn't awkward at all, but filled with that same warmth that Justin felt between them in the ice-cream place earlier. He smiles, and Lance smiles too.
"I'll see you in the morning," Justin says.
"Yeah." Lance reaches out for Justin's hand as he steps out of the car, squeezes it once, and lets go when Justin's feet hit the floor.
Lance comes to pick Justin up from the gym at ten the following night. It's closing time - only Justin is there, waiting for the last few straggling customers before he locks up - and Lance just saunters through the door, and takes a seat by the reception desk. Justin says, "Hey," smiles, and gets on with his shut-down routine.
Two little kisses, and Justin feels like he's taken some feel-good wonder-drug - which is good, because that compensates for the almost-total lack of sleep. He can't stop smiling as he says goodnight to the very last regular, swings his bag over his shoulder, and ushers Lance out the door. Lance hovers behind him while he locks it, not saying anything at all. They spoke in the park this morning, and twice on the phone, and they've been texting back and forth all day. There's homework in Justin's bag that hasn't been touched.
That last guy seems to take forever to leave. Justin's watching out of the corner of his eye as he pulls down the shutters and fastens the padlocks, and the guy is hovering by his Buick, talking on the phone. It's only when Justin's finally shoving the rusty keys into his backpack that the guy gets into his car and drives away, and by the time Justin's bag is closed again, the parking lot is empty. Justin ducks his head and kisses Lance hello.
They draw out the kiss a little longer than last night's goodbye. "Hi," Lance says. His accent's briefly gone thick enough that it's almost a drawl. "How was your day?"
It's such a boyfriend-type question that Justin has to smile. "You were talking to me for most of it." Lance keeps looking at him, a half-questioning look. "So, pretty good."
"Yeah, pretty good, too."
"So what do you wanna do?"
They discussed eating together, but Justin's dinner break is only a half-hour, so they both already ate tonight. "Coffee and dessert?" Lance suggests.
There's a diner down the street. It's pretty scuzzy, but Justin's had coffee there a million times in the last six years, and nothing bad's ever happened to him there. He's even been there on a date before, way back in the mists of time, and didn't get anything worse than a dirty look. So that's where they wind up.
"Decaf?" Lance suggests, glancing behind Justin to the clock, and Justin nods. Friday's his earliest morning, he doesn't need to be up all night on a caffeine buzz.
They order pie, too. Apple for Justin - "You're a traditionalist," Lance says with a smirk - and peach for Lance. It's a long time since Justin's done this with anyone, just sitting with them and talking over coffee, a quiet, low-key sort of date. The last person he did this with was... probably JC. Or Chris, but that doesn't count.
The lack of sleep starts to catch up with him before he's finished his pie, and all of a sudden he's scrubbing at his face and yawning into his coffee, hardly able to keep his eyes open. He has to stop to yawn in the middle of a sentence about Al Green, and cuts himself off to say, "Sorry, man, it's not you."
"Long day?" Lance asks.
"I... didn't really sleep so good." Justin smiles sheepishly. Lance smiles too. "Look, I should probably..."
"Do you wanna come to my place?" Lance says suddenly. Justin blinks. "Just to sleep, if you want. I - you look beat, maybe you shouldn't drive."
"I'm gonna need my car tomorrow," Justin says. He's - tempted, but apprehension's pulling hard at his throat, making him want to pull back. He shouldn't sound like he doesn't want this. He does. "I mean, I'd like to, but - "
Lance nods and looks down at his plate. "Sure."
They walk back to Justin's car in silence. It's not the comfortable kind; Justin feels it prickling down his back, like Lance made an advance and Justin rejected it, and what now? Where are they at? They stop a few feet from the car door. "Well," Lance says.
"Well." Justin takes a big breath. "I'll see you in the morning, right?"
"If that's what you want." Lance is frowning a little. "So I guess what I'm saying is - it's up to you."
"I wanna see you," Justin says without hesitation.
Lance sighs. "Then why are we dancing around this?" he asks. "Justin, I feel like - it's two steps forward and one step back with you. You seem like you want this, and then you push me away, and. I like you. A lot. There."
That word makes the whole statement sound defiant, almost angry, and Justin tries not to flinch. He hates when people are mad at him.
"I like you too," he says. "A lot, a hell of a lot. But - but - it's been a long time for me. And I'm a little overwhelmed at the moment, with school and work and everything, and I'm scared, a little. I don't wanna fuck this up."
Lance lets out a little breath, like he's trying not to sigh a second time but not quite managing it. "I just finished a four-year relationship that ended in disaster," he says. "You think I'm not scared of fucking this up?"
"I guess," Justin says, trying to smile. He's not sure it really comes off.
"Look. Think about it," Lance says. "If it's too much, and you don't want it, I understand. Like, call me when you graduate, or something. But if you do - I'm here, and I like you, and I really hope that's enough."
"More than," Justin says fervently.
"So tell me in the morning."
Justin leans forward and kisses Lance suddenly, without even checking if anyone is around to see. Lance is still against him for a second or two, and then thrusts his tongue into Justin's mouth hungrily. It's nothing like the kisses they've had before. There's heat in it. Passion. Sex.
When they break apart, they're both panting.
"I'm telling you now," Justin says.
"Yeah," Lance says, "but I want you to be sure." He kisses Justin again, quicker and softer and lighter, his lips dancing over Justin's briefly, and then they're gone.
"Think about it," Lance says seriously, and then he's gone, too.
Justin goes to the park Friday morning, but doesn't really run, at least not like he normally does. Romance is pretty bad for his morning routine. He jogs down past the duck pond and then stops to look for Lance. Lance is nowhere to be seen, so Justin strolls across the park until he finds a seat. He waits.
It starts to rain a couple of minutes later, slow, cold drops that seem determined to run under Justin's shirt. The rain's falling harder by the time Lance shows five minutes later, and Justin gets up automatically. The dogs are trailing behind Lance, but for once, Justin doesn't really pay much attention to them. Their eyes meet at a distance - Justin thinks for a second of the first time they looked at each other, months ago now - and Justin smiles. Nervously.
"Hi," he calls. The rain really is cold, trickling down into the small of his back, making him shiver.
"Hi," Lance says, and stops about a yard from Justin. It's a lot more distance than Justin wants between them right now. "How you doing?"
"So there was really nothing to think about," Justin says hurriedly, before they can do any more small talk. "I just - look, I was scared, I'm an idiot, I don't want this to go wrong, and - I figure the only reason I don't want it to go wrong is I do want it to go right. I want this to work." He stops to breathe, and Lance is looking at him, and the expression on his face says he's faintly amused. "I want there to be a you and me. And you're laughing at me."
"I'm not," Lance says, but he grins. "I'm laughing at us." He takes a step towards Justin, and then another, and then they're standing close enough to touch. "I want it to go right, too. So what I'm saying is, stop running away from me."
"I'm not running now," Justin says.
"I can see."
Justin smiles and bends his head towards Lance. There's one very awkward moment where Justin's not at all sure if Lance is going to suddenly pull away, and then their mouths are too close not to kiss and it's like a magnet. Their lips touch, Lance's mouth is moist and soft, stubble scratches gently against Justin's face, and Justin completely forgets that he was ever cold.
It lasts only a couple of seconds before Justin pulls back to figure out what's next. What's next, though is that Lance leans up to kiss Justin, hungrily, his hand clamping around the back of Justin's neck. This time, Lance's lips part beneath Justin's, and they kiss open-mouthed. It's so fucking long since Justin's kissed anyone with tongue, but - it's like riding a bike, apparently. Lance's hand slides up over Justin's hair, palm cradling the curve of Justin's skull, and Justin puts his own hands on Lance's waist. Lance really does work out: his body is firm and toned and muscular under the raincoat.
They're interrupted by a loud wolf-whistle across the park. They break apart, laughing, and Justin turns to look for the source of the sound. It's one of the other runners he sees every day, the one with the music player and the sad eyes. Her headphones are hanging around her neck, and she's smiling.
The rest of Friday is long long long. It actually seems to go even slower when, at eleven, Lance shows up at the restaurant, settles himself in front of the bar and asks Howie, who's covering Kevin's shift tonight, for a drink. Howie pours Lance a Jack and Justin has to force his attention back to his customers.
Midnight takes forever to come around.
Finally, though, it's time for Lance to throw back the last of his whiskey Justin to grab his stuff. Howie practically pushes the two of them out the door and promises to cover for Justin, even though Justin was supposed to lock up tonight. Howie is the king of covering people, Justin thinks as he thanks Howie for the fiftieth time.
As soon as they're out of sight of the door, Lance pushes Justin up against the building and kisses him, a quick-but-violent kiss. Justin doesn't even really care that his shoulder-blades jar against the restaurant wall or that it's raining again in a quick rhythm all around them. Lance's tongue is hot and fierce and Justin reaches down with one hand to squeeze Lance's ass.
"Hi," Lance says.
That's really all the words they need. It crosses Justin's mind that they ought to take their own cars back to Lance's place, or wherever they're going tonight, 'cause he'll need his car in the morning, but Lance holds Justin's wrist almost-bruisingly hard and says, "I'm gonna drive you to work in the morning."
"Okay," Justin says.
Lance lives in one of the big, old houses near the park. Too big for one person, Justin thinks: he must rattle around in this place like a penny in a tin can. He doesn't have much time for more thinking, though, or any time for talking at all, because Lance shuts the door behind them and then shoves Justin up against it for another kiss. Justin has just decided that he approves of Lance's habit of pushing him up against things to be kissed when Lance shoves his hand down Justin's pants. Justin approves of that even more.
"Upstairs?" Lance says. There's a breathless edge to his voice. His eyes are beautiful.
"Whatever you want," Justin says, and from the grin on Lance's face, that's the right answer.
The mid-morning sunlight is filtered through pale-coloured drapes, but it still seems pretty bright to Justin. He opens his eyes reluctantly, squinting, and is as pleased as he was the last two mornings to discover that it wasn't a dream. He really is naked and sweating gently next to Park Guy. One of Lance's legs is thrown over his in sleep, or at least the same sort of half-sleep that Justin's been in for maybe ten minutes or maybe an hour. The sheets aren't really thrown over them, more tangled up with their limbs in a way that covers some parts of them and leaves others naked. Justin is warm enough not to care.
Best of all, it's Monday, and Justin doesn't have anywhere to be today.
As Justin slowly turns his head, Lance's lifts, his eyes blinking sleepily. "Hey, Park Guy," Lance says.
"Park Guy?" Justin says, smiling.
"Yeah. Like, guy in the park. You know."
"I know. That's what I called you."
"Huh," Lance says, in a dazed voice, and then he begins to laugh. Justin takes the opportunity to run one hand through Lance's hair, feeling his face might split open, he's grinning so hard. Lance kisses him, still laughing, and Justin scoots down afterwards to rest his head on Lance's shoulder. Lance's skin is warm and a little damp and smells faintly musky, and that's what Justin wants right now. It's the perfect next step, after a morning that was sleepy kissing, walking the dogs, breakfast, sex. In a little while, Justin's going to get up and shower and shave, maybe do some studying while Lance deals with whatever work absolutely needs to get done today.
Justin didn't bother picking up more restaurant shifts this week. He sort of wishes he'd been able to take a real vacation this week, nothing at the gym or restaurant at all, but he can't afford that. Working a normal week with no classes to attend, though? That, his pocketbook might just about be able to take. And it sure feels like a vacation. The first he's had in years.
Lance is fantastic in bed.
"Fate," Lance says, resting his chin on the top of Justin's head. "Maybe, anyway. What do you think?"
Fate. Maybe. Justin smiles, nuzzles Lance's chest, and doesn't say anything at all.