The shirt wasn’t anything fancy. Just a piece of army green cotton, and now, in its old days, the hem had a little rip in it, and the colours of the embroidering had faded into a mix of red, green and gold. Still, when Joey pulled the shirt from his closet, he felt strangely relieved, like he was meeting an old friend after a long time, finding the rub of the worn fabric against his skin infinitely comforting.
Joey sighed, smoothing the shirt’s front and closed the closet door. He felt like sitting on the bed, thinking and reminiscing for a while, but it was too late for that, time being closer to three already. He padded down the stairs and headed for the fridge. It was just the guys coming over for dinner, but Joey knew his momma would never forgive if he’d first promised to cook and then flaked out with take-out after all. Not that she would ever find out, but it was the principle of the thing.
It was a nice, bright day, with a wind that felt almost too cool on sun-heated skin. Joey pulled the grill away from the side of the house and to the middle of the patio. He lit up the gas, and went back in the house, getting the plates of steaks and vegetable kebabs from the counter, and brought them out, leaving them by the table next to the grill. He reached down to the cooler and pulled out a bottle of beer from the ice, twisting the cap off and taking a healthy swig. He figured he deserved to be at least a little bit drunk, having to deal with all of the guys in his house on a day off.
Joey was just laying the first steaks on the grill when he heard the car on the driveway around the corner of the house. Judging by the music blasting out of the car it was Chris, and Joey had to brace himself. Things with Chris were fine most of the time, but sometimes, when they were alone, Joey found himself sounding bitter and unhappy and Chris quiet and subdued, and he didn’t like that; he didn’t want things to be weird with someone who used to be his best friend.
It took a moment before Chris came around the corner. To Joey’s surprise Chris was carrying an overnight bag, looking almost sheepish.
“Hey, man.” Joey paused, smiling a little. “What, you movin’ in or something?”
Chris grinned, something about his expression a little off, a bit too sharp. “Why not?” Chris sighed, dropping his bag in the closest chair. “Nah, man. Mom and the girls are visiting and I need a freaking break. I called JC and he has Tony over and Lance has Mike and Lynn’s in town, so-“
“Say no more. You know you’re welcome, man.” Joey smiled, happy to notice he actually meant it. “You know where to put your stuff.”
Chris nodded, taking a beer and plopping down to the lawn chair.
Joey turned the stakes over, humming to himself. He could manage with Chris in the house for a day, especially he would figure out something to do outside the house. It didn’t feel all that good, already trying to get out of spending time with Chris, but Joey had accepted the situation, had tried to move on and deal the best he could. If Chris couldn’t handle that, Chris could stay away.
Joey jumped in his skin when he felt an arm slip around his waist.
“Whatcha cooking?” Chris’ voice was soft in his ear, and made him, after his best effort not to, shudder. He felt Chris drape himself on his back. “Looks good.”
Joey shifted his weight. “Of course it does.” Joey sighed. “What’s with the octopus act, Chris?”
“I can’t hug my best buddy anymore?”
“Sure. Not after months of barely touching him, though.”
“I just thought you wouldn’t get all pissy with me before the guys got here. Y’know, always the peacekeeper.”
Joey carefully shrugged out of Chris’ grip. “You’re funny, Chris. You have that special talent of making the nicest compliments sound like insults.”
Chris’s sound of protest was loud. “C’mon, Joe. Stop being a girl.”
Joey didn’t really like how screechy his voice sounded. “You stop being a bitch!”
“Better bitch than a girl!”
Joey had to laugh. “You’re so fucked up, Chris. More than a couple of screws loose. And don’t let your mom hear you say that.”
Chris grinned. “Unlike you, I don’t tell everything to my mom.”
“Go set the fucking table before I slap you to the moon.”
Lance and JC got to the house just minutes after Justin had arrived. They’d settled to eat out on the patio, when they’d finished their dinner, the sun was setting. Joey had made Chris clear out the table, and had herded the others inside after Justin had started complaining about mosquitoes and JC shivered from the chilly wind and snuggled against his side. Chris had bitched and whined through the few minutes it took him to clean the table, finally slumping on the couch with a cold beer and sigh.
“That was cruel, Joe.”
“Just makin’ you pay for the hotel service. I know I’ll be cleaning after you for three days.”
Joey swore he could see Lance’s ears perking up. “You’re staying at Joe’s?”
“For a few days. Mom and the girls took over the house.”
Lance’s hum was neutral, but he was staring at Joey like he was trying to drill his way into Joey’s head and see his thoughts on the matter. “That’s cool.”
Joey could already feel the tips of ears heating up from all the gossiping Lance would do behind their back.
Justin was nodding. “That’s. Cool. You could’ve stayed at my house, but you know how mom gets.”
“Oh, I know how your mom gets, boy, it’s actually kind of disturb—“
“Tony and Gen are at my house, and what with Michelle hangin—“
“You’ve got to be kidding me, C. She’s still around? You said you broke up with her three weeks ago.”
JC cleared his throat. “We did. But I met her at a club a few days ago and. Yous guys know how it goes.”
“So basically you’re stringing her along for sex.” Justin raised his eyebrow. “You’re a real fucking gentleman, C.”
“She knows what I think about us! We broke up. Right?”
Lance sighed. “When she trashes your house again, don’t come cryin’ to me, C.”
“She won’t trash my house again! And she didn’t the last time, either, she just. Broke a few things.” JC’s tone didn’t sound half as confident he probably thought it did.
Joey twisted open another beer.
After setting the guys on their way, Joey settled back in his chair. Chris was lying on the couch, eyes closed, looking peaceful and comfortable. Joey rubbed his stomach lightly, and looked down at his shirt. The dark red dragon with streaks of gold in its skin seemed to jump out of the cloth in the faint light of the living room.
“That’s a really old shirt. I remember you sleeping in it Germany.”
“We actually slept at some point when we were there?”
Chris gave Joey a wry grin. “I’m just sayin’, it’s old.”
“I know. I thought I lost it for a while, but Justin returned it to me a couple of weeks ago. I guess it didn’t match his closet or something.”
“Hey, colour coordination’s important to a 19-year-old.”
Chris sat up on the couch. “Wanna watch a movie? Play a while?”
“How about going to bed? I know it’s a radical idea.”
Chris grins. “Not tired. Neither are you. You, you’re just trying to get out of hanging out with me.”
Busted. Joey shrugged. “I get to stay up enough on tour.”
“Lies. C’mon. I haven’t seen Star Wars in weeks.” Chris got up and headed downstairs.
Joey stretched long and hard when the movie ended, grin never leaving his face.
“I’m headin’ to bed. I’m starting to feel like I’m a six-year-old on a sugar rush staying up way beyond his bedtime.”
“Welcome to my world.” Chris’ grin was suddenly much too close for comfort. “Joey. Joe.”
Joey felt his breath get stuck in his throat. “Yeah?”
“Don’t go to bed yet?” Chris rested his hand on Joey’s chest, thumb rubbing the pattern on his shirt. “Stay up with me, we’ll eat marshmallows and watch cartoons and—"
Joey reached, carefully wrapping his hand around Chris’s wrist. “Chris. Don’t, I think we should both head to bed. I think you’re a little drunk, and I don’t think—“
Chris’s snort was rude. “I’m not drunk.”
“But I think I am, and—"
“Like last time? I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
“Don’t bring that up, just don’t.” Joey pulled Chris’ hand away, letting his wrist slip from his touch. “Good night.”
Joey woke up slowly to the feeling of something not being quite right. It was barely light out, and the smell of rain had spread into the room from the open window.
Joey yelped loudly, not knowing where which way to move on the bed. “Jesus fuck, Chris, what the hell are you doing?” He sat up on the bed.
“Couldn’t sleep.” Chris sat on the bed, swinging his bare feet in, too, burying them in Joey’s blanket.
“So you thought you’d wake me up, too, you fucker?” Joey shook his head, heart finally slowing down a little. “Go to your own bed, for Christ’s sake. I wanna sleep.”
Chris slid down, snuggling into the bed. “So sleep.”
“What the hell is up with you, Chris? You wanna make things a little bit harder for me again? Since it’s all been so easy? And I can’t sleep with you staring at me.”
Chris’s smile was small, almost sad. “You so can, you’ll sleep anywhere.”
“Anywhere but not with—are you wearing my shirt?”
Joey reached to click the bedside light on, only to be stopped by Chris’s gentle touch.
“Yeah. Only it’s not your shirt, it’s mine.”
Joey snorted. “Right. Look, dude, you want the shirt, take it, it’s an old rag. I just wanna get back to sleep.”
Chris rubbed Joey’s arm lightly. “No, man. It’s my shirt. I bought it in that little store next to our hotel in Munich. I wore it once before you stole it from me. Remember?”
Joey was about to protest, to tell Chris where he’d bought the shirt, but had to stop. He couldn’t remember where the shirt had come from, and Chris didn’t seem like he was lying.
“It’s my shirt, Joey, I remember. I remember you stealing it and wearing and stripping it off when we.”
Joey swallowed. “When we what,” he said, already knowing the answer.
Chris leaned closer, grinning slowly. “I’m not gonna start dirty talking to you if I won’t get anything out of it, Joe.”
“You didn’t want anything out of this, remember? That’s what you told me the last time you slept in this bed. Don’t, I can’t just forget about that.”
Chris’s grin was even closer. “You the only one allowed to make mistakes in this thing, Joe? How about finally forgiving me for that?”
“You never said you wanted to be forgiven. You were here and then you weren’t! I don’t, I know you thought we were just having fun or something, but still, you were being a little shit.”
“And that’s new to you how?”
Chris’s lips grazed the corner of Joey’s mouth.
Joey shivered. “It’s not. I just. I thought you wanted to stop.”
Chris smiled, nipping lightly on Joey’s chin, whispering into his skin. “I don’t, Joe. I don’t want to stop.”
“Stop trying to have sex with me when I’m, like, trying to make sense of things.”
Chris ran his lips along Joey’s neck, and Joey moaned, just the quietest little. “Don’t strain yourself, man. Thinking is a lot of hard work.”
“Shut up.” Joey tilted his head, and pressed his lips against Chris.