nsync in black and white

Disclaimer: this is fiction. We made it up.

Flaming Ninja Waffles

by Lucy, for Megan

Part 1: Ninja Stalker

Curly-Haired Kid was working the night shift again.

It wasn't really fair to call him that, because most days there was a fair dusting of stubble on his chin, and he seemed to periodically shave the hair back to half an inch or so of light brown fuzz. JC had imprinted on his first visit to the diner, though - right after he'd left the hospital, must have been four months back - when his hair was a mop of curls, roughly pulled back with a bandana, and he'd looked for all the world like he was fresh out of high school. So Curly-Haired Kid it was.

With his hair cut short, and his chin unshaven, he looked far closer to his real age, which must be twenty-five or twenty-six. JC watched him work sometimes, during the bad periods, when the coffee tasted like mud and the words wouldn't come. He knew it was his own problem: the coffee was damn good here. The waffles, too, with bacon on the side and maple syrup, Canadian style. He ate so many waffles here it was a wonder he wasn't getting fat.

Tonight had been a good night. JC had really only noticed Curly-Haired Kid because he was calling, "Closing in five," across the counter.

JC was the last customer in the place. His watch read 01:55, he was done with his coffee, he'd finally gotten to the end of that line. Time to go. He stood, dropped a ten and a handful of coins on the counter, and nodded to Curly-Haired Kid, who smiled and said, "Have a good night."

"You, too."

It was raining outside. JC shoved his notebook inside his overcoat and made for his car at speed. Once he'd gotten inside, left leg aching faintly, he pulled out his notebook again and flicked on the overhead light. There was maybe one more stanza to go and then, tweaking aside, he'd be done. He'd forget what he wanted to say by the time he'd driven twenty-five minutes home. The parking lot was almost empty: only three cars beside his.

It took him a little while to get finished, after all, because he had to scribble and strike out, scribble again, move words around, before the last line worked. When he looked up, the bar across the street was letting out, a trio of staggering men making for the blue Civic parked across from JC's Ford. Curly-Haired Kid was locking up at the diner, a backpack slung over one shoulder.

JC turned the key in the ignition. He couldn't hear over the starting groan of the engine, but he clearly saw Curly-Haired Kid stop and turn his head.

" - the fuck's your problem?" Curly was saying.

JC's headlights picked him out clearly on the other side of the lot: facing the Civic, one hand on his hip. JC glanced over to the Civic; the Civic guys were striding across in a V formation, two flunkies playing follow the leader.

"I said," the leader said, "why don't your faggot ass come over here and suck my dick?" Curly wasn't any slip of a thing - taller than JC, broad on the back and shoulders - but this guy was bigger all over, plaid button-down and scruffy jeans, rings on his fingers that looked like they were more designed for damage than decoration. Textbook redneck.

Curly sighed audibly. "I don't know," he said. "Why don't you get one of your buddies to do it?" The words sounded weary and rehearsed, but JC found he had one hand on the door catch, because he knew making a scene from picking a fight. Obviously, Curly didn't.

"Say that to my face," Redneck said, and he was right in Curly's face, staring him down. JC popped the door open half an inch.

"God, are you deaf? Get one of your buddies to do it." Curly shook his head in exasperation, and managed a half-turn away before Redneck grabbed his shoulder, spun him effortlessly and punched him in the face.

By the time Curly hit the gravel with a loud chuff of breath, JC was already out of his car and breaking into a run and, oh yeah, running still hurt. It seemed to take forever for him to get there, and in the intervening time, Curly tried to get up and Redneck kicked him in the stomach, hard. Redneck's flunkies stepped up to join the party.

The ache in JC's leg had blossomed into a sharp pain by the time he reached them, but that could wait. The nearest flunky was standing on Curly's leg, pressing down with almost all his weight. Curly yelled. JC punched the flunky in the back of the head.

The flunky staggered as he turned. He wasn't down, but at least he was off Curly's leg; JC punched him again, once in the stomach, and then kicked him in the groin. The flunky grunted in pain and dropped to his knees, clutching himself, and Redneck turned away from Curly to take JC on.

This wasn't the time to worry about giving anyone a fair fight. JC punched Redneck hard in the throat while he was still turning, and the hands that had been coming up to grab JC were suddenly occupied, clutching at his neck as he drew in a wheezing breath. JC hoped he hadn't crushed the guy's larynx; it would be awkward explaining that to the police. Or his therapist.

The third guy stepped away from Curly without any prompting at all.

"Get the fuck out of here," JC said.

There was a horrible moment when Redneck stared him down, and it occurred to him that he might be in actual danger here. Then Redneck rasped, "C'mon, fellas. They ain't worth it."

JC reserved his sigh of relief until the guys had gotten in their Civic and driven away. When they were gone, he sank down on the gravel next to Curly. His bad leg throbbed with pain.

Curly propped himself up on the flat of one hand, coughed, spat blood onto the gravel, dragged his arm across his mouth. "Thanks," he said in a rough voice. Blood was smeared around his mouth; JC could see where one of Redneck's rings had torn into Curly's lip.

"No problem," JC said. He leaned down to massage his leg, keeping an eye on Curly. Curly looked a little bit green. Considering he'd just been beaten up by three guys, that wasn't too surprising. "What's your name?" he asked.


"I'm JC."

Justin nodded; he was panting, JC noticed, looking at the ground, on his hands and knees now.

"Feel okay?"

"Really fucking dizzy," Justin said, and slumped to the ground.


"Justin. Justin, c'mon, don't pass out on me."

Justin's eyes blinked open, with effort, and he rolled his head until he was looking vaguely at JC. "Is this my car?" he said indistinctly. "'M too sleepy to drive."

"No," JC said. "It's my car. I'm taking you to the hospital."

"Don't need the hospital," Justin slurred. "Just need to sleep."

"No. Listen to me." JC leaned across to the passenger seat and turned Justin's head until their eyes met. "You hit your head, Justin, and I think you have a concussion. That means you can't go to sleep. All right?"

Justin nodded vaguely. "A'righ'."

JC let go of Justin's head, and it thumped back against the head rest. JC put the car into reverse and glanced at Justin once more before backing out of the parking lot. Justin's eyes were open, just a slit, and he was looking straight ahead, the skin around his eyes creased up with determination.

When they hit the road, JC said, "Talk to me. That'll keep you awake."

"Okay," Justin said, sounding slightly more with it. There was a long pause. "I don't know what to talk about."

"Anything. Baseball." He glanced at Justin. Justin smiled faintly.



"Okay," Justin said again, and fell silent. After a few seconds, JC glanced back at him, worried that he was falling asleep, but Justin was looking at JC with half-open eyes.

"How'd you do that?" Justin asked.

"Do what?"

Justin blinked slowly. "Save me and shit. You were like a ninja." Justin made a vague motion with his arms that might have been an attempt at mimicking karate chops.

"No," JC said, smiling a little. "Just training. I used to be in the Army."

"You quit?" Justin's voice was still rough, like he had a sore throat. "Why?"

JC stopped at a red light and glanced at him again. His eyes, completely open now, were very big, dark blue. "I didn't quit," he said. He tapped his left knee lightly. "I was injured, they discharged me."

"Oh." Justin was quiet again as JC put the car back into gear, and stayed quiet for the next minute. Then he suddenly said, "Can you pull over?"

JC looked at Justin again. He looked really, really queasy, lips pressed together. JC pulled to the side of the road, and Justin opened the door, leaned out of the car and threw up twice into the gutter.

There was more silence while Justin got his breath back.

"Better?" JC asked.



Justin settled back into his seat and shut the door. JC glanced at him again, making sure his eyes were open, before he pulled back onto the road and headed for the highway.


JC had to stop twice more on the highway for Justin to throw up, so he figured he'd been right about the concussion. When they finally got to the hospital, Justin insisted he could make it on his own, and got about three steps before he staggered and had to put out one hand to hold himself up on the hood of the car. "Fuck," Justin said.

JC put an arm around Justin's waist. "I'll help you."

Justin put his arm heavily across JC's shoulders, and JC helped him walk into the emergency room.

The ER provided the usual tedium of form-filling and waiting around. Justin spent most of the wait sitting with his elbows on his knees, staring at the floor and just breathing, while JC occasionally patted him on the back and asked if he was okay. After a while, Justin said, "You don't have to sit with me."

JC smiled slightly. "Don't want my company?"

"It's not that. I just. It's three in the morning, man, and you don't even know me. Why you doing this?"

Good question. JC decided to deflect it. "Is there someone you want me to call?" He took a stab in the dark. "Boyfriend?"

Justin smiled wryly and shook his head. Okay, less of a stab in the dark, more of an educated guess. He'd been going to the diner a long time.


"Not really."

"Then I guess I better stay. You're gonna need a ride home later."

Justin lifted his head to look at JC. His eyes seemed even bluer this close. "Thanks," he said. He stared at JC's face for a second. Then: "I mean it. Thanks."

"You're welcome."

JC patted Justin's back again, and Justin dropped his head. A couple of minutes later, Justin was called over by the doctor. JC helped him walk to the cubicle, then let him alone.

He was gone a long time. JC found a copy of yesterday's paper and a cup of very bad coffee and settled into the uncomfortable plastic chair, stretching his bad leg out in front of him. It still ached a bit after the running and the fighting and then the driving so soon after, but it wasn't so bad any more. If he'd done this a month ago, he'd have been in agony.

He was flicking past the obits when someone right beside him said, "Sir?" A woman's voice.

JC looked up. A nurse was standing over him, looking down. Hispanic-looking, late thirties maybe, dark hair tied back in a knot. "Yes?" he said.

"You're here with Mr Timberlake, is that right?"

"Who?" He blinked. "Oh, Justin? Yes."

"Could you come with me, please?"

JC went, leaving the coffee and the paper. Justin was sitting on the bed in the cubicle, and looked up when JC came in.

"What's the damage?" JC asked.

"Bruises," Justin said. "Lots and lots of bruises. And a mild concussion. Otherwise I'm okay."

JC nodded and sat on the bed next to Justin while the doctor explained how to care for a concussion. It was nothing JC didn't know: keep an eye on him while he sleeps, wake him every hour to check he can remember his name, dish out these painkillers here. The doctor put the pack of pills into JC's hand.

JC helped Justin to stand and then walk through the ER and out to the car. He still seemed dizzy and unsteady, which was pretty much par for the course. As soon as they were out of the cubicle, Justin said, "You don't have to do that stuff. Sit with me all night. I'll be fine."

"I can sit with you, or I can call someone," JC said. "I'm not gonna leave you alone."

"I don't get it," Justin said. "How come you're looking out for me?"

JC frowned. The truthful answer sounded strange. He'd been at that diner almost every day for four months now; he knew the waiters' schedules, who made the best coffee, which of the regulars were chatty, and never to order a hot chocolate when Blonde Starlet was making it. If Justin wasn't there it would be... weird.

Instead he said, "Those guys were assholes."

"True," Justin said with a little smile. "You still didn't answer my question."

There was a break in the conversation while JC helped Justin into the car, got into the driver's seat, and started her up. It wasn't until they got onto the road that Justin started to talk again. His voice sound scratchy and ponderous, a little far-away.

"It's so weird," Justin said. "You're there, like, every day I have a shift, you never talk to anyone, just drink coffee and write stuff down in that little notebook. And then I get beat up and you're just there, all, ninja guy." He looked at JC sideways, half-suspicious, but still dazed. "You're not like. Stalking me."

JC looked at him with both eyebrows raised. "No!"

"No? Okay." Seeming satisfied, Justin turned his head to look out the window. JC shook his head and smiled. Concussed people were such fun sometimes.

Justin would be so much better off once he could get some sleep.

"I'm in there most days," JC said. Justin turned to look at him again. "Not just when you're on shift."

"Oh." Justin looked a little disappointed.

JC turned onto the highway. "So where do you live?"


Justin's place was a ten-minute drive from the diner, a first-floor apartment in one of the grand old nineteenth-century houses by the river. JC let out a low whistle when he saw the outside of the house, but Justin smiled and shook his head. "Don't be too impressed."

Inside, Justin's apartment was tiny, one of four on the first floor. The living room was neat, but full of stuff - a battered couch that had probably once been red shoved against one wall, a TV sitting on top of an old wooden unit opposite it, a couple of bookcases standing to the right of the front door. A red plastic crate sat in one corner, and JC could see two basketballs inside.

JC checked his watch. 04:51. What with the waiting at the ER, they'd made pretty good time.

"You want a coffee or something?" Justin asked. He set his backpack on the floor and went to turn right, but JC grabbed his shoulder before he could even take a step.

"Where's the bedroom?" JC asked.

Justin turned to look at him, amused.

"Lie down before you fall down, Justin. I'll take care of the coffee."

Justin looked at him and sighed a little. He looked white with exhaustion. He'd cleaned the blood off his mouth in the car, but the skin around it was slowly reddening, just beginning to bruise. "Thanks. Help yourself to whatever. I mean, breakfast or whatever. Food in the fridge."

JC nodded. "I'm gonna check on you in a few minutes. And I'll wake you in an hour."

"I'll keep my shorts on, then," Justin said. He was already crossing the living room, rubbing the back of his head where it had hit the gravel. JC hadn't noticed before, but his hair was dark with blood; then again, head wounds always did seem to bleed like crazy.

The bedroom door opened and then shut. JC took a moment to set the alarm on his watch for an hour's time, then headed right and found that the bookcases were shielding a tiny kitchenette that was far neater and cleaner than any bachelor's kitchen had the right to be. There was no partition between the kitchenette and the living room, just a line where the threadbare brown carpet was replaced by scuffed black-and-white-check linoleum.

JC stepped through and spent a couple of minutes first hunting for the makings of coffee, then making it. When he was done, he left the coffee on the counter to cool and went into the bedroom.

Thin pre-dawn light was starting to show through flimsy brown drapes. Justin hadn't just kept on his shorts - he'd taken off his shoes, but he was still in the black slacks and green T-shirt that all the waiters at the diner wore. He was totally out of it, sprawled over a double bed that took up most of the room. This room was freakishly neat, too - laundry in a sports bag by the door, no dirty socks or underwear on the floor. There was a small pile of sports magazines on the nightstand, and the bedclothes were tousled underneath Justin, but those were the only signs that the room was really lived in at all.

JC perched on the edge of the bed to watch over Justin.

JC remembered seeing him for the first time, the first day he'd walked into the diner. It had been right after they'd finally discharged him from hospital, the day of his very first out-patient therapy session. He'd still been using the cane, back then, and after fifty minutes of Why do you think that is?, followed by hobbling to his car and the ache in his leg from driving, he had desperately needed coffee. Justin had looked so young, clean-shaven with the bandana and the boyish curls, humming along to some dumb tune on the radio as he worked.

Sleeping, he looked younger still.

JC kicked his own shoes off and stretched his bad leg along the bed to massage it; it was still aching slightly from the night's exertions. Justin rolled over but didn't wake, folding one hand under his head, his breaths coming slow and even, one after the other. Like there was no problem at all.

By the time he remembered about the coffee, it was room temperature, and he had to pour it away.


JC started awake suddenly to the high-pitched bleep of his watch alarm. It took him a minute to remember where he was, drowsing on an unfamiliar couch in an unfamiliar living room. Then he remembered, and levered himself up exhaustedly. His leg protested mildly; he'd hadn't been sleeping in a very comfortable position.


Justin was asleep on his back this time, arms spread out across the bed. JC had spent years sharing barracks with all kinds of different guys, but he'd never seen anyone who was as mobile in his sleep as Justin. Every time he came in to check, he was folded up a different way.

An hour ago, JC had managed to persuade him to undress. He'd kept his shorts on, as promised, and JC had found him a clean but well-worn White Stripes T-shirt to wear instead of his diner uniform.

JC reached over the bed and shook Justin's shoulder gently until he stirred. His eyes fluttered open, and he looked sleepy and groggy, but not so sick as he had a couple of hours before. The bruises around his mouth were fading in, dark red against his pale skin. There were dark circles under his eyes, too.

"Hourly wake-up call," JC said softly. "Who's President?"

Justin turned his head slowly to look at JC. "Hiii. Uh, George Dubya Bush. Asshole." Justin paused, frowning slightly. "Him, not you."

JC smiled. It hadn't been long at all, and Justin seemed to be doing much better. "How you feeling?"

"Fucking exhausted, man," Justin said. He propped himself up on his elbows. "What time is it?"

"Almost eight."

"Ugh." Justin sat up, rubbing his face.

"Just go back to sleep," JC said, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

"No," Justin said. "I have to call..." JC frowned at him. "I'm supposed to be at a. I'm supposed to be working this afternoon."

"Not at the diner." It was a statement, not a question. Justin turned to look at JC, eyebrows raised, and JC shrugged. "I like knowing who's going to be there when I get in."

Justin smiled. "My ninja stalker," he said, and JC dropped his head to hide his answering grin. "I'm gonna call work and grab a shower."

Justin slid off the bed, clapping JC on the shoulder briefly as he did, and walked out of the room. JC sat there for a few seconds, grinning to himself, before getting up and following Justin through to the living room. Justin was leaning against the wall near the kitchenette with the phone to his ear, and he waved vaguely as JC emerged from the bedroom.

JC took the opportunity to piss before Justin hit the shower.

When he was done, he found Justin talking into the phone. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm really sorry man. Nah, don't worry about it, I'll be fine." He sighed into the phone. "No. Not much point, it's not like I got their plates or anything.... Uh huh. See you Saturday, dude. Bye."

Justin hung up and set the phone back on the bookcase, the one that carried CDs and sports trophies and framed photos instead of DVDs and books. He rubbed his hand over his face once and sighed again.

"You okay?"

Justin glanced up at JC. "Yeah. Gonna get that shower." He scrubbed a hand over his hair as he passed JC, and JC went for the kitchenette and more coffee. "Eat if you want," Justin called from behind him.

JC went to the fridge and thought about it, but all Justin seemed to have was eggs and bread and cereal and lots of fresh fruit. There was a smoothie-maker on the counter, which made sense of the fruit, anyway. He gave up and went for more coffee.

Justin took a long time in the shower. By the time he emerged from the bathroom, damp and wrapped in a towel, JC was finishing his coffee on the couch. When he looked up and saw Justin, he almost choked on his coffee.

"Holy shit." he said. "I didn't realize it was that bad." Justin's chest and stomach were a mess of livid-looking red bruises, far darker than the ones on his face.

Justin glanced down at himself. "It looks worse than it is."

"Must hurt like hell."

"Hey." Justin hitched the towel up slightly by one hip. "They checked me out, there's no internal bleeding or anything. I'm gonna be fine."

"Good," JC said, and meant it. This was bad enough; if Justin had been badly hurt he couldn't have forgiven himself. "I just. I wish I'd gotten to you sooner."

"You didn't have to help me at all," Justin pointed out gently. "And you maybe saved my life, you know, so I'm not so worried about being a little bruised up." JC didn't know what to say to that, so he just nodded, to show he understood. Justin stood there awkwardly for a second, then said, "I appreciate it. A lot."

"It was no problem."

"C'mon," Justin said. "You must've had better things to do than stay up with me all night."

He would have gone home and slept, that was for sure. Gotten up late this morning, run a load of laundry, pottered around the apartment, hit the diner around seven or eight and stayed until closing or thereabouts. Not talked to anyone. This was... better.

He was dog-tired, and his leg still ached from kicking that idiot in the groin, and he'd give his life for a decent breakfast and six hours' sleep. For some reason, this was still better.

"Would you believe me if I said, 'not so much'?"

Justin smiled. "I'll take that as a compliment," he said. JC smiled too. "Listen," Justin went on. "I'm gonna go back to sleep. You should get some sleep too, you've been up all night."

JC shook his head. "I'll wake you in an hour."

"And ask me who's President."

"Maybe next time I'll get you to count to ten."

Justin gave JC a thumbs-up and wandered back into the bedroom, shutting the door behind him. JC tipped his head back against the couch, let out a long breath, and shut his eyes.

Then he thought better of it and set the alarm on his watch.


Justin folded his arms. "Really," he said again. "Really really. Probably more okay to drive than you are right now. I've had more sleep."

That was true enough. Sleeping most of the day in bursts of less-than-an-hour really hadn't done anything for JC's brain or motor functions. Still, he had to get home somehow, and Justin was going to need his car.

All in all, Justin had probably had about twelve hours' sleep, and he'd woken up easily every hour to recite whatever random pieces of information JC could think of. He hadn't even bitched about it too much. It was just after seven in the evening, and Justin seemed perfectly all right now - bursting with energy, even. Like a bored little kid.

"You have a concussion, Justin," JC said. "You're probably not okay to drive."

Justin sighed. "I feel pretty much okay. Look, my head doesn't even hurt that much. And it's a ten-minute drive."

"You'll pull over if you feel dizzy?" JC said, looking at him seriously.

"Yes," Justin said. "I really don't wanna die. Look, give me your cell number, if you're worried. I'll text you when I'm home safe."

That was reassuring. And, bruising aside, he looked okay; not nearly as pale as the previous morning, steady on his feet, and sounding far more articulate than JC felt.

"Okay," JC said, relenting. "Let's go."

He gathered his shoes from Justin's bedroom, where he'd left them, and checked his coat pockets twice for wallet and keys before they headed out to his car.

Steady drizzle was falling outside, enough to make JC walk fast to the car. Justin grunted slightly as he folded himself into the passenger seat, and JC looked at him sharply. Justin just shook his head. "Bruises, man."


Once he was in the car and driving, JC actually felt a bit more alert. He was going to have a really early night, all the same. Justin was quiet as JC drove, after his burst of energy back at the apartment, and took a deep breath as they turned into the diner's parking lot.

"Okay?" JC said.

Justin took another deep breath. "Fine," he said. "Yeah. Not so bad." He paused. "Probably good for me, coming right back."

"Yeah, it probably is. You be okay from here?"

"Uh huh." Justin reached for the door, then stopped, glancing at the diner. "Can I buy you a coffee or something? Say thanks?"

"Thanks, but I'm beat. I need to get home."

"Okay," Justin said. "Rain check?"

"Sure thing."

"And thanks again," Justin said. "For everything. Looking after me and stuff. It's a lot to do for a total stranger."

"You're not a total stranger," JC said. "I see you like four times a week."

Justin grinned. "I'm in work day after tomorrow."

"I know," said JC, grinning back.

"Right. You're my ninja stalker."

"Don't start," JC said. He couldn't help but smile.

"See you Friday," Justin said. "And thanks again." He opened the door, stepped out into the rain, and shut the door.

Justin tapped the roof of the car when the door was closed. JC knew exactly what that meant - off you go - but he still waited until Justin had gotten in his car and driven out of the parking lot safely before he took off himself. It wasn't until he was already on the highway that he realized: dammit, he never gave Justin his cell number.

Still. Ninja stalker.

He kept catching himself grinning on the drive home.

Part 2: A Break In The Routine

Thursday seemed to drag on and on and on.

Friday was a full day - physio in the morning, therapist in the afternoon. He even behaved at his therapy session, talked to the therapist about Tuesday night. The fight, the hospital, taking care of Justin. She smiled and said, "Sounds like you made a friend." Then she quizzed him about his social life.

He always got cranky when she did that. Today was no exception, but he found his bad mood was slowly dissolving as he drove from the therapist's office to the diner. By the time he was pulling up in the parking lot, he didn't really feel pissed at all. Faintly nervous, yes. Pissed, no.

No reason to be nervous.

The diner door made its familiar jangling noise when JC opened it, but this time it sounded jarring and weird. Justin was at the counter, stirring coffee, and he looked up as JC shut the door. "Hey! How you doing?"

"Good, thanks." He looked at Justin's face. He hadn't shaved, and a couple of days' stubble was pretty effective at disguising the bruising around his mouth, but JC could still see the mottled purple of his skin under golden-brown hair. "How are you feeling?"

"Better, thanks," Justin said. He smiled, but it seemed weak and reflexive, fake. He pushed the coffee across the counter towards JC. "That's how you like it, right?"

JC tasted it. It wasn't regular coffee from the machine - he'd tried that exactly twice and it was really bland - but an Americano with sugar, the same thing he almost always ordered. "That's perfect," he said, and Justin smiled for real. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," Justin said.

JC smiled at him, took his coffee and settled himself in a booth by the window to write. He felt full of things to say today, but somehow couldn't seem to get to the end of a line without stumbling, and by the end of half an hour he'd filled a page and a half of his little book with crossed-out words. He'd finished his coffee, too, just cold dregs left at the bottom of his cup.

He'd set down his book and was just thinking about ordering more coffee when Justin set a plate of waffles in front of him. "Fresh cup?"

"Uh, I didn't order..."

"I know," Justin said, cutting him off. "I figured you might be hungry. They're on me, man, call it a thank you."

JC looked down at the waffles. He was hungry. "Thank you," he said, looking back up at Justin. "You didn't have to."

"I wanted to," Justin said. "I even gave you extra bacon, because ninjas need their protein. But no extra syrup, because even though you were sweet to me, I'm not that flaming."

"You're not flaming," JC said automatically, and Justin laughed, a hard, sweet sound.

"I really am." He snatched up JC's mug with a smile. "I'll get you some more coffee."

JC smiled too, shook his head, and dug into his waffles as Justin went. They were good, of course. Today was a good day, despite his hectoring physio, and his patronizing therapist, and the crossed-out words in his book: he felt alive, his leg barely hurt, the food tasted good, the air felt almost electric.

He should write that down.

When Justin came back, he was trying not to get syrup on his notebook as he wrote. Justin set a mug of coffee down beside JC's plate and said, "So what are you writing?"

JC looked up at him guiltily, feeling like he'd been caught in the act. Caught in what act, he wasn't totally sure. He wasn't ashamed of the poetry. It was sort of private, though.

"I'm curious," Justin said. He glanced around and sat down opposite JC. "You write in that thing every day. What do you write? Are you, like, making notes on us to send to the government?"

Justin's grin was infectious. "Now I'm a spy?"

"Maybe you are. I guess that means you're not stalking me, huh."

Somehow, JC didn't want to stop being Justin's fake stalker just yet. He said, "Actually, it's poetry."

He wasn't quite sure what reaction he'd expected - laughter, maybe - but he wasn't at all prepared for the reaction he got. Justin grinned enormously, blinding and slightly goofy all at once, and said, "Aw, cool. Can I read something?"

"I. Um." JC blinked. He really didn't want to disappoint Justin. On the other hand, most of what he wrote was so personal, he couldn't imagine Justin getting it. "It's not really for anyone else to see," he said, and that sounded so completely lame. Justin's face fell a little.

"Oh," Justin said. "Well, that's fair enough, I guess." The door jangled, and Justin looked up. An elderly lady and three little kids were scrambling into the booth nearest the door. "I better get back to work."

"Thanks for the coffee," JC called after him. Justin waved his hand, no problem, and JC turned to watch him greet the new customers with a smile.


Justin, JC noticed, was chatty with all the customers, tossing out observations on the weather or the baseball game that was running with the sound off on the TV over the counter. JC was more of a track-and-field kind of guy, but every time Justin sucked in his breath or cheered at the TV, JC craned his neck to check the score. Justin was a Braves fan.

It was June, but it was raining and raining outside, and Justin kept commiserating with tourists over the bad weather for the season. Justin didn't even quit talking during the dinnertime rush, when the diner was packed with tourists and kids and irritable construction workers. Blonde Starlet and Egghead both looked harried, practically running from table to table, but Justin had a smile and a funny line and a few seconds for everyone.

JC mostly kept writing, drank his coffee slow, and didn't bother anyone.

Around ten, when the rush was over, Justin sank down in the seat opposite JC with a plate of pancakes in one hand and a can of Coke in the other. He said, "Hey," popped the Coke open, and dug for something in his pocket.

JC glanced up at him. "Hey."

"I'm on a break," Justin said by way of explanation. He produced a blister-pack of pills, pushed two into his hand, and swilled them down with a mouthful of Coke. "Mind if I eat with you?"

"Of course not."


Justin dug into the pancakes, and ate in silence as JC wrote. He'd started a new poem, something about how awake he felt - but it felt strange to be writing when he was this awake, somehow. He'd only started writing after he came out of the hospital, when things had so often been dull grey and numbed-out.

It felt strange to be writing in someone's presence, too, so he put the notebook firmly down. Justin glanced up at him, chewing, a curious expression on his face.

JC glanced at the pill package that was still on the table. "Your head still bad?"

"I keep getting headaches," Justin said. "It's not too bad. I checked the internet, it said I'd be okay in a few days."

JC smiled. "You probably will. But go see a doctor if you're still getting them in a week."

Justin nodded and took up another forkful of his pancakes.

"Promise me," JC said.

"Mmhuh," Justin said with his mouth full. JC stared at him until he'd swallowed, and Justin said, "Okay, I promise."

JC nodded. "Good."

"You worry about me?" Justin asked, smiling a little. It was a gentle smile, not mocking at all, more like Justin was pleased; but JC had that caught-out feeling again and had to drop his eyes. He stared into his coffee while Justin said, "You really are sweet."

JC didn't have the first clue what to say to that, so he didn't say anything at all. He could feel Justin's eyes on him for a few seconds, almost enough to make his cheeks burn. After that, though, Justin dropped his eyes and went on eating. JC sipped his coffee, trying not to look Justin's way, which was harder than it sounded. His view of the parking lot really wasn't very interesting.

After a while, Justin said, "Am I stopping you from writing?"

"No," JC lied. "I was done for a little bit."

"Okay, good." Justin took another forkful, chewed, swallowed. "Am I annoying you, sitting here?"

"Why would you be annoying me?"

"Well, you never talk to anybody," Justin pointed out. "I figured... I figured, you were so nice to me, maybe all you needed was someone to strike up a conversation. Now I'm thinking, maybe you just wanted to be left alone in the first place. I don't wanna bother you."

"You're not bothering me," JC said. That, at least, was the truth. "It's good to have someone to talk to sometimes," he went on, and felt stupid when he suddenly realized he'd just quoted his therapist, verbatim.

"That's true," Justin said. He looked at JC and smiled. "So I should talk?"

"Yeah," JC said. "Tell me what you do when you're not here."

Justin smiled. "You've been in my apartment. Guess."

JC thought back to Wednesday, dozing on Justin's battered couch, fixing coffee in that disturbingly neat kitchen and drinking it while looking at the contents of Justin's bookshelves. Not many books, but lots of pictures, some trophies, CDs, a few DVDs. "Something to do with sports," he guessed.

Justin grinned. "Good! Ten stalker points. I work for a charity called Sports First, we do a whole lot of sports stuff for disadvantaged kids."

"What's that like?"

So Justin talked. And talked and talked and talked. JC figured he must be good at his job: he was so clearly passionate about it, the coaching he did for basketball and soccer, the two competitive teams he helped with, the dance class he ran. There was a little rant on how, yes, dance was a sport, and no, not just because Justin was gay. JC smiled; he could see Justin as a dancer. He could see Justin as a lot of things.

Justin had finished his pancakes by the time he was done talking. "So," he said, "enough about me. What do you do when you're not here?" He drained his Coke and sat back in his seat. JC frowned, but it was a fair question.

"Not much," he confessed. "Physio for the leg. And I see a therapist. Apart from that... I pretty much come here and write."

"Sounds like it was bad," Justin said soberly. "Whatever happened to you."

JC was quiet a long time before he felt able to say, "Yeah." He could count on the fingers of one hand the people he'd told that: the physio, his therapist, his old CO, his mother. "Yeah, it was pretty bad."

"I'm sorry," Justin said, and it sounded like maybe he actually cared. Justin glanced out of the window, and JC had the sense that he was figuring out what to say next, how to handle this; that made JC feel a little dumb. He'd just opened himself right up to an almost-total stranger, after all.

Justin spent a few seconds staring out at the parking lot, and JC gave him the time to react. Then Justin said, "Are you getting better?"

"Yes," JC said. "Definitely." It was true. Four months ago, he hadn't believed it when the doctors and his therapist and his dad had promised him that time and distance would make a difference, but it was true. They had. Time, distance, treatment, therapy, writing.

Maybe Justin, just a little bit. He felt better today than he had in a long, long time.

"Glad to hear it," Justin said. "You know... God, this sounds really patronizing, but... If there's something I can do, will you let me know?"

"I will. Thanks." He smiled at Justin experimentally, and Justin smiled back. "And you don't sound patronizing." He didn't; he sounded concerned and sincere, which was totally different.

"Good," Justin said. Then he glanced at his watch. "Crap. I have to get back to work."

JC glanced at his own watch as Justin got up. Somehow they'd swallowed up half an hour. "Talk to you later," he said.

"You need another coffee?"

JC opened his mouth, not even able to remember if he'd finished or not, and closed it again. Justin swept up the cup along with the plate and Coke can and said, "Sure you do. I'll be right back."

JC watched him disappear into the kitchen with the crockery, swing doors flapping behind him, then grabbed his notebook and started to write furiously. He was so absorbed in it that when Justin came back with the coffee, he barely even looked up.


From his seat at the window, JC had a good view of Tiny's Bar across the street, a small, squat building that was lit up with blue and pink neon at night. It was the same place that Justin's drunken asshole attackers had come out of on Tuesday night, and as closing time approached, JC kept glancing over at it as drunkards staggered in and out. This wasn't the best neighbourhood to be wandering around in, alone and late at night.

By one-thirty, he was the only customer in the place, and Justin came to JC's booth with a fresh coffee for JC and a Coke for himself. "Hi. How's the writing going?"

"Good," JC said. He'd managed seven pages in three hours; if he kept this up, he was going to need a new notebook.

"Awesome. Mind if I sit?"


"Thanks," Justin said. He sat down, opened his Coke, and took a long drink from it. JC put his book away. "No, no, go ahead and write," Justin said, but somehow it was impossible with Justin sitting right there.

"How's the head?" JC asked instead.

"Not too bad, thanks," Justin said. He glanced out the window at Tiny's, frowned a little, and looked back at his Coke.


Justin took another swig, swallowed, wiped at his mouth delicately. "I do stop you from writing," he said. "You never do when I'm sitting here."

That was true enough. JC took a breath and inclined his head slightly, trying to figure out how best to explain it. "It's hard when there's someone else here," he said eventually.

"I can get that," Justin said. "Want me to go?"

"No. It's probably good for me to take a break."

"Probably, yeah."

There didn't seem to be much to say after that. Justin took another sip of his Coke and JC tasted his coffee. Justin made great coffee, strong and sweet, just how JC liked it, and he smiled as he swallowed. Justin smiled back like making good coffee was a kind of triumph.



"Cool." Justin sat back and held the Coke can against his chest, turning and turning it. It suddenly occurred to JC that Justin's chest and stomach must still be hurting a whole hell of a lot, and he'd been standing and sitting and moving around for almost eight hours without a word of complaint.

"Your chest sore?" he asked.

Justin looked down at himself. "Yeah," he said, and grimaced. "Man, I'm gonna be glad of a hot shower when I get home."

"Try sleeping with a heat pack. Or a hot water bottle."

Justin nodded. "I will. Thanks." He smiled. "Hey, at least I didn't break any ribs. Thanks to you."

JC shook his head. "I'm just glad I was there."

Justin looked down at the table. "Me too," he said in a small voice. "Like, really glad. I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't been."

There was a long silence, until JC said, "It's okay, Justin."

Justin nodded faintly, finished his Coke, and went back to work without another word.

By closing, it had stopped raining. There must have been some silent agreement between them, because 02:00 ticked over to 02:01 on JC's watch, and he sat there scribbling while Justin flicked out the lights in the kitchen, ran some admin thing on the cash register, locked the day's takings away under the counter.

Finally he switched off the TV and the lights over the counter. "Yo, I'm leaving now."

JC looked up. Justin was leaning against the counter with his arms folded, smiling. "C'mon, dude," he said.

JC got up and walked with him to the door, then hovered behind him while Justin locked the door. When he was done, he glanced once over his shoulder towards Tiny's, then looked at JC.

"I'm gonna wait here until you're in your car."

Justin pressed his lips together, holding JC's gaze for just a moment, and nodded. "Thanks."

"No problem."

Justin reached out toward JC with one hand, then let it fall back to his side. Instead, he nodded at JC, just a quick bob of his head, and JC nodded back. Justin patted JC's shoulder quickly, then ran for his car.

True to his word, JC hovered at the diner door until Justin was in his car, until he'd backed out of the lot and driven away. Then, smiling slightly to himself, he clambered into the Ford and started his own journey home.


By late Saturday morning, when JC woke up, it seemed like the weather was finally clearing up for the summer. He drank his first coffee of the day on his balcony, watching the light wind blow puffy white clouds around. When the coffee was done, he sat at his kitchen table and wrote about it, blue skies and summer weather and birds circling overhead.

He didn't bother with the diner that day - the first time he hadn't gone there in weeks. He went for a drive instead, taking advantage of the fact that his leg could stand to be cramped up in a car now for a couple of hours at a stretch, and spent the afternoon playing tourist at the coast. He even struck up a brief conversation with the lady who sold him ice cream. His therapist would probably have said he made another friend.

Justin spent Saturdays working at his other job, not that that had anything to do with anything.

The weather held. JC walked the beach to stretch his legs, and later ate dinner in a restaurant full of families with small children. The little girl at the next table, maybe five or six years old, had spent the day making a collection of pebbles, and she kept running across to JC to show him interesting ones. Her mother came to retrieve her with apologies several times, and each time, JC told her it was okay. It sort of was, although by the seventh identical-looking pebble he could probably have lived without it.

He drove home after dark, flipping stations on the radio until he found something he liked. Stevie Wonder finally saw him home.

Sunday, he woke up to a fairly awe-inspiring cramp in his leg: way too much driving, after all. Massaging it firmly under a hot shower helped a little, as did sitting with the leg stretched out along the couch for a while, hopping impatiently between news channels on the TV. There'd been another suicide bombing on the Gaza Strip. What a surprise.

By noon, two hours after he got up, the leg was pretty much okay. He popped a painkiller as a precaution, though, before going out to the car.

He often didn't get to the diner until early Sunday evening, which meant he didn't tend to catch Justin all weekend; Justin worked the morning shift on Sundays and was out of there by two. Back when he'd just been Curly-Haired Kid, that hadn't mattered. It mattered now, for some reason. Maybe his therapist had been right about making a friend.

Anyway, to hell with routine. He was whistling as he trotted down the stairs from his apartment.

The streets between his apartment and the highway, and the highway itself, were fine, but the road up to the diner itself was clogged with tourists. JC gritted his teeth and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, anything to keep himself from blaring the horn at people who couldn't move any more than he could. Eventually, though, he managed to pull into the packed parking lot. He even found a space.

The only open seat was a spot at the counter, so JC took it. Justin was serving a table in the back, and Bubblegum was serving behind the counter. Her hair was dyed a lurid green this week, and she'd switched back to the silver nose-stud after several weeks of experimenting with various different varieties.

After a minute, she moved toward JC. "Hi, what can I get you?"

"Americano, please. With sugar."

"Comin' up." Bubblegum turned away toward the espresso machine, popping her gum, and JC peered behind him, looking for Justin. Justin caught sight of him just as he was disappearing into the kitchen: he flashed JC a grin, waved his hand, and vanished. JC smiled to himself and took a sip of his coffee. Bubblegum's coffee was nowhere near as good as Justin's.

Justin served up an armful of desserts to the table just behind JC and made a point of clapping JC quickly on the shoulder as he went by. "How you doing?" he asked.

"Good," JC said. Justin squeezed his shoulder and moved over to the booth nearest the door, order pad in hand.

JC was so rarely around for the lunchtime rush that he'd barely even thought about it. Justin was going to be ridiculously busy right up until he was off, so JC pulled out his notebook and flipped to the back page. Slowly - so his handwriting would be legible to someone other than himself - he started to copy out one of his better poems. Something that, thinking about Tuesday night, and Friday, he thought Justin might get, after all. When he was done, he tore the page out, carefully so it wouldn't loosen the binding, folded it, and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket.

He didn't get any more contact from Justin until Justin was done working. Then Justin appeared beside him suddenly, backpack slung over his shoulder, saying, "Hey, ninja dude."

JC looked up. Justin was smiling. "Hey," JC said.

"I really have to run," Justin said apologetically. "Walk me to my car?"


As they left, Bubblegum called something across the diner that JC didn't catch. Justin flipped the bird behind him and pushed the door open with his other hand, then stood back to let JC go through first. JC waited at the door for Justin to catch up, and put his hands in his pockets as Justin fumbled in his own for car keys.

"You don't often come by on a Sunday," Justin pointed out.

"I wanted to say hi," JC said. "And, um." He reached into his inside pocket. "I don't know if you still wanted to read something that I wrote? Maybe not."

Justin turned to him, looking sort of amazed. "No, absolutely, I'd love to. If you wanna show me."

JC pulled the page out of his pocket and offered it to Justin. Justin took it, carefully, and said, "Thank you. I'll read it tonight. Are you around tomorrow?"

"I should be," JC said, knowing for sure that he would be. Possibly at the start of Justin's shift.

"Great. Well, I'll see you then." They'd reached Justin's car. Justin put the poem in his pants pocket and smiled. "I have to get to dance class," he said.

"The one you teach?"

"Yup." Justin reached out his hand and patted JC's shoulder, without hesitating this time. "See you tomorrow."


Justin shrugged off his backpack as he stepped into the car. Smiling, JC stood back and waved him off, and Justin gave him a brilliant grin before driving out of the parking lot and off to his other life.

Part 3: In The Open

Justin worked the night shift on Mondays and didn't start until six. In the morning, JC ran all the errands he could think of—laundry, cleaning, finally changing the blown lightbulb in his desk lamp—twitchily, feeling like he didn't have enough to do. Therapy was at three, and he behaved himself again. Even her questions about Justin didn't put him in a bad mood.

After that, he had two more hours to kill. He drove home and did the usual: showered and changed clothes, fixed a sandwich, ate it over the international news section of the paper. When he'd done the dishes and it was finally time to leave, he felt weirdly nervous again. His hands were balled into fists in his pockets right up until he needed his car keys.

He reached the diner a few minutes before six and drove around the block three times before parking. It wasn't until he was out of the car and shoving his keys in his pocket that he realized that was kind of a strange thing to do: circling the block to avoid showing up before a waiter whose name he hadn't even known a week ago. Was it really that long since he'd made a friend?

JC shook his head as he walked to the diner. He really needed to learn how to do this better.

"Hey, yo! JC!"

JC turned. Justin was running across the lot to catch up with him, backpack slapping against his hip as he ran. "Hi," JC said.

Justin's stubble was a beard now, really; JC couldn't make out the bruises at all underneath it. "Hey." Justin was barely out of breath, falling into step with JC instantly. He slung one arm around JC's shoulders, squeezed lightly, let go, like it was nothing. JC stiffened a little, torn between leaning into the contact and shrugging Justin off, and ended up doing neither; Justin didn't seem to notice. "How's it going?"

"Good," JC said, a totally automatic response. He really had no idea how to figure out how he felt right now.

"Cool." Justin's fingers brushed the back of JC's elbow, and JC turned to look up at him. Justin looked wide-eyed and serious. "Listen - I really wanna talk to you about your poem, but I'm kinda running late. Can we catch up later?"

"Sure we can."

"Awesome," Justin said, grinning suddenly. "Grab a seat," he went on, "I'll bring you some coffee in a few." And he slipped into the diner, holding the door open behind him. JC took hold of the door and followed Justin, and he caught an exclamation from Blonde Starlet that might have been, Finally!, followed by Justin's, "Sorry, sorry, sorry."

Justin went into the kitchen and disappeared from sight. JC found an empty booth towards the back of the diner, one that had a view of the street instead of the parking lot. It still wasn't the most interesting view ever, but moving cars beat stationary ones, when it came to entertainment. Still. He pulled out his notebook and started to write. Nothing big, just a few tentative notes here and there: the difference between moving and standing still.

He didn't look up until a shadow fell across his notebook, startling him. Justin was hovering over him, coffee mug in hand. "Here," Justin said, smiling, and put the mug down by JC's hand.

"Thank you."

"Not a problem, you know that. Get you anything else?"

"No, thanks."

"Not even ninja waffles?"

JC grinned at that. "Maybe later?"

"Fine," Justin said, hands on hips, grinning back, "don't give me an excuse to come back, I don't care."

Suddenly, he wasn't quite sure why, JC was quivering with suppressed laughter, closing his mouth firmly to stop it from spilling out. Justin caught his eye, folded his arms across his chest, then looked at the floor, pressing his twitching lips together, and for some reason that was it. JC snorted, and the laughter pushed its way up his throat and out of his mouth. Justin seemed to buckle, and he ended up perched on the table, holding firmly onto JC's shoulder as JC bent over the table.

Together, they laughed and laughed. Justin leaned forward until his forehead was resting against the top of JC's head, and the hard-and-sweet sound of his laughter flowed right through JC, making his insides tickle with amusement. Yeah; way back in the distant past, but he remembered friendship being like this.

Eventually, the moment passed, and Justin sucked in a wheezing breath to stop himself. JC's own laughter bubbled to a stop, but Justin didn't lift his head for a moment. Into the silence he whispered, "You know I'm coming back anyway, right?" and his voice was soft and intimate. The shiver it sent through JC was almost enough to set him off laughing again, and definitely enough to keep the grin plastered on his face.

Justin straightened slowly and then stood, saying, "Catch you later," in a far more normal voice. He was still grinning as he brushed himself down and took off.

"Get back to work," JC said, swiping playfully at Justin's side as he went by. Justin gasped and jumped aside to avoid JC's hand, just late enough that JC's fingers brushed the top of his hip.

Justin let out a brief laugh. "You won't get me next time!" he called, backing away.

JC crossed his arms on the table and, a second later, dropped his head onto them. He started to laugh again, almost silently this time, and the feeling that went with it, shaky and amused and excited and disturbed, was unfamiliar and beautiful and very, very strange.


During the dinner rush, JC wrote and wrote and wrote. Justin was busy, of course, but every so often he stopped by with fresh coffee for JC and a friendly word or two. In between, JC had somehow gotten into something that was more narrative than poem, something long and flowing that seemed to want to pour out of him all in a rush. He felt almost flooded with it.

It was almost a nasty shock when, after the rush was over, someone tapped him on the shoulder; but then he looked up and it was Justin and that was fine. Justin said, "I'm just about to go on break. You hungry?"

"Um, yeah."

"Ninja waffles?"

JC smiled. "Could I get extra syrup, too?"

"You want flaming ninja waffles?" Justin gave JC his goofy grin, and JC grinned back. Justin shook his head a little. "Comin' right up."

Five minutes later, Justin was back with waffles and coffee for JC, pancakes and Coke for himself. He slid himself into the seat opposite JC without more than a, "Hey," cracked open the Coke, dug for painkillers, and downed two pills with one swallow of Coke.

"How's the head?" JC asked. Justin waggled his hand in the air - so-so - and delved into his pancakes. JC took a forkful of waffles. The extra syrup was really good. Although, hell, if the waffles he'd been eating before weren't fattening, these sure were. He washed the waffles down with a swallow of coffee.

"So," Justin said when his mouthful was done. "Your poem, man."

JC looked up. "Mmm?"

"I'm not much of a... I don't know much about poetry. I really don't. But it was just so. I don't know, so real, does that sound dumb?"

It didn't. JC swallowed and shook his head. "Real?"

"Yeah. Like. Like, I know what you mean." Justin put down his fork carefully and bit his lip, looked away briefly, then down at his plate. "It's like, last week. When those guys went for me..."

Justin fell silent for what felt like a very long time, staring down at his pancakes. JC looked at him, trying to figure it all out. There was a question his therapist kept asking, whenever he went quiet during a session: What's happening now? He wanted to ask that of Justin.

Then Justin said, "It was, it was like that."

JC nodded, unsure how to respond to that.

"The way you wrote it," Justin said, "it's like, in that moment, when it's happening... you're almost, yeah, you're more alive than you've ever been. And that feels. It sounds so fucked-up. But it feels good. And at the same time you're hurting and you're terrified. You know?" He looked up at JC, searching his face, and JC met his eyes. Felt the connection, just for a moment, before Justin's eyes flicked away. "You wrote it, man, so I guess you do."

JC nodded again. "I do." Justin had stopped eating and was looking out the window at the empty street. It was dark outside, and there were no cars driving past, no lights at all until the bright neon sign of a Best Western a few hundred yards over.

Tentatively, JC reached out and touched Justin's wrist. Justin's head snapped up and their eyes met again. "Justin," JC said, "I do."

"Yeah. I know. It's." Justin paused, his eyes back to searching JC's face. "I'm glad, you know? That you get it."

"Me, too," JC said, and meant it.

He took his hand from Justin's wrist, carefully, like it might hurt him. Justin watched the hand move, kept his eyes on it until JC picked up his coffee mug again. Then he glanced down at his plate and started to eat. JC sipped at his coffee and was quiet while Justin chewed.

After a little while, Justin said, "Were you in Iraq?"

"Yes," JC said, and Justin nodded.

"You were injured out there?"


Justin looked out the window for a long moment, then back at JC. "How?"

"It was a car bomb," JC said. Justin kept looking at him, looking and looking with those dark blue eyes. JC swallowed air and said, "Three people died."

"Shit," Justin said.


"I'm really sorry."

JC shook his head, then looked down at the table. He hadn't talked about this, really talked, in a couple of months, not since the day he broke down on the phone to his mom, and he'd really thought he'd gotten it under control. It was disconcerting to find that the old emotions were still there, lurking under the surface. Grief, pain, fear; the friends he missed. "Sorry," he said, though he wasn't sure what he was supposed to be sorry for.

"Hey," Justin said, and it was his turn to reach out for JC's hand. "It's okay. You've been through a lot, man."

JC nodded. Justin's big hand covered his, easily. When he didn't say anything more, Justin squeezed his hand once and then withdrew.

"I guess," Justin said, "I guess I can't really get it. It was so much bigger than what happened to me. But I... if you ever need someone to talk to. Someone that's just a friend, I mean, not a therapist or a doctor or whatever. I'm here."

"Thanks," JC said, looking at him again. He couldn't interpret the expression on Justin's face, except that there was sadness there, and he wasn't sure he wanted to be the cause of that. "I appreciate it."

"You're welcome," Justin said.

JC glanced at Justin one more time, dropped his eyes, and started to eat.


"You know," Justin said as he was clearing their plates at the end of his break, "I'm really glad I met you. Not just because you saved my ass."

JC threw back the last of his coffee. "I'm glad I met you, too," he said. He smiled; Justin snatched the cup from his hand.

"Later, dude," Justin said, balancing the plates in the crook of one elbow so he could pat JC's shoulder with the other hand.

JC spent the rest of the night writing, the same piece. It wasn't running as fast as it had been earlier in the evening, but he kept pushing at it, nudging it when it dried, and it slowly trickled out onto the page, word by word sometimes, but it came. The night felt cozy and companionable: there was no one else in the place by just after twelve, and Justin was moving about in the background, stacking the dishwasher, fixing coffee, singing along to the radio. When Blonde Starlet's shift ended at eleven, Justin had switched off the TV.

Every so often, Justin would prod JC in the shoulder and trade JC's empty coffee mug for a full one, but he otherwise didn't disturb JC's writing until the end of the night.

Two o'clock seemed to roll around faster than normal. JC was vaguely aware that, behind him, Justin was going through the motions of closing up for the night, but he was so absorbed in his narrative that he didn't pay much attention until Justin's voice was right by his ear. "Hey, can you hear me in there?"


"Time to go home, dude."

JC blinked, put his pen and notebook away in the inside pocket of his jacket, and stood up. They walked out of the diner together, walking side by side down the aisle, close enough that they almost touched. Justin held the door for JC again, and JC ducked out into the cool night air and waited while Justin locked the door.

"So," Justin said when he was done. "I've been thinking."


"Yeah. I wondered what you were doing Wednesday." Justin stuck his hands in his pockets as they started to walk across the parking lot.

"Wednesday?" JC asked. "Don't you work?"

Justin nodded. "Yeah. I coach basketball in the afternoon." He took a deep breath and went on, "I wondered if you would maybe wanna come down. Meet the kids, shoot a few hoops, have some fun."

JC swallowed. "Justin, I don't..."

"C'mon," Justin said, stopping so he could turn to look at JC. JC stopped too. "It'd be good for you. And good for the kids, too, I think."

JC thought about it. "How many kids?"

"About twenty, most weeks."

"That's a lot."

Justin pursed his lips. "Yeah, maybe it is. Look... will you at least think about it? Let me know tomorrow for sure?"

"Yeah," JC said. "I will."


Justin leaned forward and hugged JC. Not the casual, one-armed squeeze he'd greeted JC with, but a real hug, wrapping his arms around JC tight and pressing their bodies together. JC lifted one hand to pat Justin's back, awkwardly, and Justin let go and stepped back.

"I'll see you tomorrow, man."

"Yeah, for sure." JC sort of wanted to hug Justin again, properly this time, and for longer, but he repressed the urge. He wasn't sure he was quite there yet. "Have a good night."

"Will do. Drive safe, okay?"

With that, they parted ways, and made for their separate cars.


JC wasn't done writing. When he got home, he sat right down at the kitchen table and wrote until after four. He only noticed how long he'd been doing it because his hand was cramping up, his eyes gritty, his leg aching mildly from sitting, driving, and then sitting some more. Four-thirty, he finally made it to bed.

Tuesday was groceries day. He woke up much later than usual, still yawning in the shower, and drank his morning coffee with his pen in his hand, flicking through the pages he'd written last night. Pages and pages, almost to the end of the notebook. Most of it wasn't bad, even. Before long, he'd looked up at the clock and it was almost three, and he'd better get going if he was going to be in and out of the grocery store and all the way over to the diner by the time Justin got to work at six.

Justin. Next time his therapist said it sounded like he'd made a friend, JC was going to smile and say, Yes, I did. He was oddly proud of himself.

After he'd shopped and unpacked and eaten, he got right in the car; this time, he wasn't going to wait around for Justin to be there already. By the time six o'clock rolled around, he was sitting in the same booth he'd been in the day before, sipping a cup of Egghead's coffee and making notes on his long piece in the new notebook he'd picked up that afternoon. This book was bigger and thicker, heavier, more expensive. He was going to keep writing. Maybe show a couple more things to Justin.

He had his back to the counter, so he only noticed that Justin had gotten in from the sound of his voice, greeting his co-workers cheerily. The kitchen doors swung as Justin disappeared through them, and swung again as he emerged without his backpack, rubbing his hands together. He caught JC's eye as he ducked behind the counter, raising one hand briefly - just a sec - before moving over to help a pretty girl carrying a squalling baby.

They got busy early. JC was finding it hard to concentrate on his writing, glancing up every time Justin hurried by, and Justin seemed to notice every single time, grinning at him, detouring to clap JC on the shoulder when he could. The dinner rush seemed to crawl, on and on, and as much as JC tried to bury himself in his writing, it just didn't work. It probably didn't help that he was powering through the coffees as he wrote, enough buzz from the caffeine to make his head ache.

Finally, ten o'clock came around, and the last of the dinner customers were finally trickling out. Justin was behind the counter with Egghead, taking glasses out of the dishwasher and stacking them on the shelf, half an eye on some reality show on TV. Now it was quiet - just JC and a couple of guys sharing a basket of fries near the door - JC felt less wired and restless. Maybe it had been all the people that had bothered him and not Justin constantly rushing past.

After a few minutes, Justin emerged from behind the counter and hooked his elbow around JC's neck, pressing JC's head briefly against his chest. "Food?"

"Uh... sure," JC said. Justin's hand rubbed briefly against JC's neck before he vanished into the kitchen.

"You got a new book," Justin said when he came back. He sat down, sliding the waffles across to JC, keeping pancakes for himself.

"Yeah," he said. It had felt like a big decision at the time, picking it out and buying it, like he'd decided to keep trying. To keep living, almost. "I'm gonna keep writing." Justin grinned around his mouthful of pancakes.

"That's awesome," Justin said when his mouth wasn't full any more.

They ate together for a couple of minutes, saying nothing, friendly silence. After a little while, Justin said, "Did you think about it?"

"The basketball thing?"



JC shook his head, and Justin looked so disappointed he could hardly bear to follow it up with a no. Instead he said, "I don't know. Convince me."

Justin's grin came back.

"You'll love it," he said. "Fresh air, a little exercise, and there's nothing like working with these kids to get your spirits up. You ever work with kids before?"


"It's like nothin' else."

Justin sure could wax lyrical about the joys of youth work when given the chance. JC sat back, sipping the last of his coffee while Justin talked, but mostly it was Justin's enthusiasm that he let wash over him, not the words. Justin could have been talking about life on the moon, for all JC knew.

"Plus," Justin said eventually, getting serious again, "I think it'd be good for the kids to meet you. Some of them know a lot about violence, you know, from the inside. The way I never can."

"My experience isn't like theirs," JC said.

"No, it's not. But... You might get it. Or get bits of it that I don't get. And that might help some of 'em."

JC nodded.

"Willing to try?"

JC took a deep breath and said, "Okay."

"Awesome," Justin said, grinning, and JC couldn't help but grin too.


After two, when Justin had shut the place down and locked the door, JC walked him partway to his car. Halfway across the lot, Justin stopped in his tracks, looked around him, glanced back at the spot near the diner door where he'd been beaten up. "I just realized," he said to JC. "It's been a week. I made it through a week."

"You did," JC said. He put a gentle hand on the back of Justin's arm, just above his elbow. Proud of him.

"That's stupid, maybe," Justin said.

"No," JC said, "it isn't at all."

Justin looked down at him, his eyes seeming very big in his face. JC stood there for a second, rigid with indecision, then reached up and put his arms around Justin's neck. Justin hugged him back, hard and gratefully, clinging around JC's waist and pressing his face into JC's shoulder. They seemed to stay like that for a long time, crushed together, not saying anything. Then, at last, Justin loosened his grip and drew slowly back.

"You're doing great, Justin," JC said. They were still holding each other loosely; Justin was warm and very solid in his arms.

"Thanks, man." Justin let go all the way and, a little reluctantly, JC dropped his arms back to his sides. "I'll pick you up at two tomorrow, okay?"

"It's a date," JC said, and Justin grinned and reached out for him again. JC leaned into the hug, and Justin's body felt like a wall of muscle against his. The hug was over almost as soon as it had begun, Justin still grinning at him as he stepped back.

"See you then," Justin said.

"You still have my address?"

Justin tapped his pants pocket where he'd put the page from JC's notebook that had JC's address and phone number. "Apartment nineteen, right?"

JC nodded. "Right. Goodnight."

"Night, man."

Justin waved as he backed toward his car, then turned and ran across the parking lot. JC watched him go, get into the car, drive away.

Once he hit the highway, he switched on the radio. The easy listening station he'd liked so much on Saturday night was bugging him now, and he spent half of the drive turning the dial until finally he hit on a station playing Bon Jovi, and sang along, all about how some girl gave love a bad name. He stayed with the old-school rock until he drew up into the parking garage near his apartment with Paul Weller blaring. The neighbourhood was totally silent, and it suddenly felt like he was pulling up outside his parents' place in the middle of the night, music blasting, high on excitement, aged seventeen. He let the song play out before switching off the engine, then went upstairs.

He felt so damn good.

He took the last flight of stairs two at a time, not caring if it hurt his leg, like there was something fizzy and light buzzing through him to counteract the pain. He'd started on the Paul Weller song again, and that song bubbled right up through him until he felt high on it, lost in it, his voice ringing up and down the stairwell until he didn't even really care who he woke. Yeah.

He'd felt like this before. Way back when. Half-stumbling out of his dad's car and collapsing against the garage door, not yet daring to step through into the house, the taste of his very first kiss still warming his lips. He smiled to himself as he turned the key in his front door.

...Oh, wait. Back up a second.

He had the door half-open, one foot inside his apartment, and he was suddenly stopped in his tracks, remembering how Justin's arms had felt around him, firm and comforting. The way Justin's voice could sometimes make him shiver deep inside. Justin's eyes, sparkling with laughter.

He forced himself through the door and shut it behind him with a thump. Then he sank back against it and let it hold him up while he laughed at himself, and at the universe, and at his mother who'd once said to him, These things always happen when you least expect them.

Yeah. He'd felt this way before, all right.

Part 4: No More Standing Still

JC felt good when he woke the next morning. Ridiculously good, something like delight sparking right through him, making him grin against the pillow before he'd even opened his eyes. He'd slept better last night than he had done for weeks, and he didn't remember his dreams. That was a good sign, these days.

After breakfast, he pulled out his notebook and started work on the long narrative thing. He fixed three coffees during the morning, but was so absorbed in his writing that he didn't manage more than a couple of sips out of any of them. When one-thirty rolled around he stirred himself to fix lunch and put the writing aside while he ate it. Justin would be here soon.

He only ate about half of his sandwich, stomach twisted up with nerves, and almost jumped out of his chair when the doorbell buzzed ten minutes early.

Justin was bracing his hands on the doorframe on either side of him when JC opened the door. He grinned and held out his arms to hug JC, and JC hugged back, feeling the pleasure of being squeezed close. Justin's arms tight around his waist, his broad back under JC's hands. "Hey," Justin said.

"Hey yourself."

When they broke apart, JC was grinning too. Justin had shaved, first time since the attack as far as JC could tell, and the bruising around his mouth was slowly fading out, the sickly yellow-green bruises turned when they were finally starting to go. Despite the bruises, he looked sort of great: he was wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt and grey sweatpants, and JC had the opportunity to admire Justin's muscular arms, almost all the way up to his shoulders. JC could probably have looked at him all day.

"Let's go," Justin said. JC grabbed his keys and wallet from the shelf by the door and followed Justin down the three flights of stairs to street level. Justin had parked on the street, and he bounded across to his car, then turned to wait for JC, who was jogging a little to catch up. Not the best for his leg, but never mind. Justin waited for JC before getting into the driver's seat.

JC folded himself into the passenger seat. Justin's car was as neat and clean as his apartment; no surprise there.

"Nice neighbourhood," Justin said as he pulled out onto the street.

"Yeah, it's not bad."

Sports First was a small, grey, single-storey building about twenty minutes from JC's place. Justin parked right by the front door and got a sports bag out of the trunk before showing JC inside.

"So," Justin said, gesturing around the small office, "this is it. Not much, but it's home, so to speak. Have a seat." There was a single desk with an ancient-looking computer, one file cabinet, two chairs, and that was about all there was room for. There was a tiny kitchen in the back, even smaller than Justin's at home: enough space for a sink, a coffee machine, a little fridge and a microwave. Maybe two people could stand up in there, if they didn't mind getting in each other's way.

"You want something to drink?"

JC shook his head. His mouth was a little dry, but not from lack of water. He really had no idea what he was doing here. Twenty kids?

"All right - I've gotta check messages and mail." He checked his watch. JC checked his too, reflexively. 14:10. "Relax, man, we got about an hour."

JC took the seat that wasn't behind the desk. Justin booted up the computer, and sat for a while flipping through mail and scrawling notes with the phone to his ear. The sky outside the office's small window was clear and blue; it looked like there would be good weather for the coaching session.

While Justin worked, JC looked out the window and thought.

So here he was. A week ago - well, a week ago, he'd been dozing on Justin's battered couch, doing something he hadn't imagined even twelve hours before. A week before that - twenty-four hours before that, even - he wouldn't have dreamed of breaking up his little routine like this, of sitting in a cramped office, only feet away from a guy he barely knew and liked a lot. A whole lot. He sure as hell wouldn't have been considering doing something about it, no matter how vaguely, with no matter how little intention of actually following through.

Funny to think that a week ago he'd seen Justin stand in front of him in nothing but a towel, and it was only now that he was starting to wonder how his lips might taste.

"What?" Justin said.


"You're staring at me, dude."

"I am?" He honestly hadn't noticed. "Sorry. Miles away."

Justin smiled. "I can see," he said softly. Then he stood up. "Okay, I'm done here. Wanna go shoot some hoops before the kids arrive?"

JC couldn't actually shoot a basket for shit, but he said, "Sure."

Justin swung his sports bag onto the chair, unselfconsciously shimmied out of his sweatpants, and pulled on a pair of khaki shorts. JC couldn't get much of a view of Justin's legs from behind the desk - just enough to see that they were long and surprisingly skinny, disproportionate with his gigantic feet.

When Justin had his shorts on, he dug in his sports bag and produced another pair. These ones were black. Justin tossed them over the desk to JC. "I figured you might actually fit into a pair of mine. I'm so skinny, most people don't." He smiled. "You don't wanna play ball in those pants, man."

JC picked up the shorts and turned them over in his hand. Justin frowned at him, just a little, confused.

"I have a scar," JC said eventually.

"On your leg?" Justin nodded slowly. "I figured." There was a long silence. JC looked down at the shorts, fingered the soft fabric, and thought about it. "I don't care about that. And the kids won't, either."

JC looked up at him.

"Okay, they might ask about it. But they're not gonna, like, run away screaming. Like I said, a lot of 'em, they've seen this shit already."

"Okay," JC said.

He stood up, and felt very exposed as he unbuttoned his pants, even with Justin pointedly looking the other way. It seemed to take forever to change clothes, stepping on the shorts awkwardly before getting his foot through one leg, but finally he said, "There."

Justin had been facing the door. He turned around, looked JC up and down, and turned his head to look at the scar on JC's leg. JC guessed it wasn't so bad, now that the stitches were gone and it was just a ten-inch red line on the inside of his calf, a metal pin holding the bone together that no one but a metal detector even saw.

"See," Justin said, "I'd barely even notice if I wasn't looking for it." He pulled open the door and held it open with his hip while he grabbed a ball from the top of the file cabinet. "C'mon, dude."


JC really couldn't shoot baskets for shit. He figured Justin was bound to notice after he missed his fifteenth shot or so. At least the last one had bounced precariously on the rim for a moment instead of missing the hoop entirely. Justin laughed, hands on his hips, shaking his head. "You want another free shot?"

JC grinned back. "This really isn't my game."

"Okay, lemme show you how this goes." Justin darted forward, caught the ball under his foot, kicked it up deftly and caught it with both hands. He walked up to JC, offered him the ball. "C'mon."

JC shook his head and took the ball.

"Okay, turn around, face the basket." JC turned. Justin was right behind him, now. "Okay, bend your knees a little. No, just a little. Okay, good. Now take the ball in both hands."

JC did. Justin's hands appeared suddenly on his shoulders, carefully angling and positioning his arms, and JC tried to let him do it without dropping the ball. Justin's hands felt great moving over his body, and this totally wasn't the time to be thinking about that.

"Cool," Justin said at last. "Now, okay, hold onto the ball with just your fingertips, right?"

JC complied. Justin's hands settled on the tops of JC's hips, holding him in place. "Now, you wanna just launch your whole body up," Justin jerked his hands up slightly, "and forward, and let go of the ball at the same time. Got it?"

"Got it." It was going to be sort of distracting to try, though, with Justin's hands on him like this. He kept imagining them sliding over his belly; Justin pulling him close, kissing his neck.

Yeah. Distracting.

"Okay, let's give it a shot."

Justin's hands squeezed. JC launched up and forward, but let the ball go way too soon, and the ball went in the right direction but aimed way too low, bouncing off the pole way, way below the basket. JC laughed and shook his head.

Justin laughed too, taking his hands from JC's waist. "Shit," he said. "Well, I tried, man."

JC grinned, still shaking his head, and went forward to retrieve the ball.

"Oh," Justin said, looking the other way all of a sudden. "Here we go."

JC turned his head to follow Justin's gaze. Five - no, six - teenagers were making their way across the court towards them, chatting quietly to each other. Justin called, "Hey, guys!"

There was a general chorus of greeting. One of them - a black kid almost as tall as Justin - said, "Who's your friend?"

"This is JC," Justin said, clapping him on the back. JC weakly raised one hand. "He's gonna be helping me out today."

"Cool," the kid said.

"'Kay," Justin said, "I gotta get something from my car. Don't maul him or anything, I'll be right back."

Nobody mauled him while Justin was gone. The kid who'd asked who he was introduced himself - Joe - and shook JC's hand. A couple of the other kids said, "Hey." JC asked them how they were doing, they said they were good. After that, Justin was back, a box full of basketballs under one arm, and another group of kids was coming from the other direction.

"Okay," Justin called, "let's get started."


The session turned out a lot better than JC had dared hope. Some of the kids - mostly the newer ones - were almost as hopeless as him, and Justin was a good coach. Somehow he managed to never make anyone feel bad, no matter their level of ability, no matter how hard they found something. The kids liked him, and trusted him, and because of that they seemed to like and trust JC. A couple of them asked how he knew Justin, but no one mentioned the scar on his leg.

They had two hours scheduled from three-fifteen. At five, Justin blew his whistle to stop them practising their passing and said, "Okay. We're gonna have a quick game to finish off. If you're an A, top of the court. If you're a B, bottom of the court. Fifteen minutes, most baskets wins."

JC was a B. The kids seemed to know the drill, tossing their balls back into the box until the only one left on the court was the one Justin was holding. They formed up into their teams and Justin threw in. The Bs got the ball.

The kids were pretty generous with JC, but then at least - after all the practice - he could pass, even if he couldn't shoot. All the running and dribbling made his leg throb faintly, but it was mostly okay. Exercise was good for him, as his physio kept telling him. All he did was catch the ball, pass it on, dart to the other side of the court. It was pretty evenly matched, but the B team seemed to have the edge.

Ten minutes in, JC caught the ball awkwardly as he was staggering backwards, stumbled, and cramp shot up his leg unexpectedly hard. He dropped the ball as he fell, letting out a sharp cry of pain, and the next thing he heard among the kids' shouts was the sharp blare of Justin's whistle. There were kids everywhere, and then Justin was at his side. His leg throbbed angrily as Justin helped him to sit.

"You okay?" Justin asked.

"Yeah." JC reached down to massage over the scar. "Overstretched the leg, I think. I better sit the rest of this out."

"Sure. Hold up, guys." Justin helped JC to his feet, and JC leaned heavily on Justin's shoulder as they walked over to the office. His leg wasn't quite obeying him just now.

Justin helped JC lower himself into the chair behind the desk. "Take it easy," Justin said. "Back in five."


Justin patted JC's shoulder briefly and darted back out to the kids. After a second, the whistle blew, and then JC was listening to the sound of the game outside, the kids shouting and cheering. He leaned down to massage his leg, but didn't manage to make a great impression on the pain before he heard the long whistle that signified the end of the game.

A couple of minutes after that, Justin was back. "How's the leg?" he said as he shut the door.

"Not so bad," JC said. Then, when Justin looked at him seriously, he admitted, "Still hurts a bit." He was still rubbing his leg, firmly as he could, but his arms were starting to burn with the effort and the odd angle.

"C'mere." Justin sank to one knee in front of JC, carefully lifted JC's hands away, and put his own hands around JC's calf. He started to rub, long, slow strokes, gentle but firm, his hands very warm.

JC closed his eyes. "Wow. Where'd you learn to do that?"

"I majored in sports science," Justin said. His voice was low and soothing. "Only two years of college, in the end, but I did a class on sports massage. And, you know, I try to keep in practice."

"You're good."


JC stopped talking after that, letting Justin's hands perform their magic, working slowly up and down JC's calf, soothing the pain away until it was just a dull ache that Justin's hands couldn't do much more about. JC didn't say anything, let it go on even after that, because Justin's skin still felt warm and glorious against his, and if he wasn't going to go for what he wanted, he might as well take what he could get.

He'd only just managed friendship; his first friendship in months. He wasn't sure he could could get to romance, not in one giant leap from here.

Eventually, Justin slowed to a stop. "How's that?"

"Mmm. Much better."


Justin stood, and JC opened his eyes The room, and Justin, took a moment to swim back into focus. "Thanks," JC said.

"My pleasure," Justin said with a grin. He leaned against the filing cabinet. "So. Assuming I didn't cause you permanent damage, there. Are you coming back next week?"

"Next week?" JC felt a bit amazed. He was terrible at basketball.

"Yeah. Like, the kids kept asking me if you were coming back. I said I'd ask you to. So what do you say?" He made an apologetic face. "I guess you'd be, like, a volunteer helper. We got nothin' to pay you with."

"That's." JC smiled and shook his head. "That's okay. I, um, sure, if you'd like me to."

"I'd love it," Justin said, beaming, and JC couldn't help but grin back. Justin made an abortive gesture, like he wanted to punch the air, and said, "That's awesome."

"Yeah," JC said. It sort of was. He had a friend, and a crush, and a volunteer thing. His therapist was going to be so impressed.

Hell, he was pretty impressed.

Justin came to perch on the desk. "So, probably you're gonna need to come down to the office some time and meet the boss. I mean, I recruited you, that's fine, he won't interview you or anything. But there's like, forms and stuff to fill in, if you're gonna do this regular. That okay?"


"It's a pretty good place," Justin said. "I started here as a volunteer, way back when. That was like..." Justin glanced up at the door, counting. "God. Seven years ago?"

"So I guess you like it here," JC said.

"Love it." Justin was grinning at him again. "I really love it."

JC grinned back, not sure what to say, because Justin was looking down at him and their faces were only a few inches apart. Justin was grinning and grinning, and then his smile faded and his eyes searched JC's face for what seemed like a long, long moment.

JC tried to say, What?, but the word stuck in his throat. Then, all of a sudden, Justin ducked his head and kissed JC.

It was a tiny kiss, brief and delicious, and then Justin was straightening again. JC's body responded before his mind could: his lips parted slightly, and he leaned up desperately into the contact. Afterwards, while Justin was looking at him seriously, all JC could think was, He kissed me, he kissed me.

His heart was thundering in his chest.

"Um," Justin said. "It'd kind of help if you said something."

JC opened his mouth to oblige, then closed it again. He needed to ask about a million and one questions. And decide whether to kiss Justin decisively back or run screaming from the room. He was about fifty-fifty on the last one.

When he opened his mouth again, what actually came out was, "How did. How did you even know I was gay?"

"Oh, thank God," Justin said, suddenly beginning to laugh. "I was starting to think I'd gone insane."

JC laughed too. "No. No, you're not insane."

"Awesome." Justin's grin faded back to uncertainty; he bit his lip briefly before saying, "So?"

"So." JC took a breath. Honesty was the best policy, he figured. "I like you. A lot. But I think, I maybe need some time to think about it. This," he said, gesturing between himself and Justin, "it's a lot, all at once."

"I think I'd be good for you," Justin said softly.

"I. Yeah. You already have been, Justin." Honesty again. "You've been such a good friend to me this week."

"I won't stop being your friend just because we're dating," Justin said. "I mean, I can't tell the future, but, you already know all that stuff."

"I do, yeah."

"So it's... It's take a chance or don't. I don't think time's gonna help you make the choice, I honestly don't." He paused. "I mean. Take the time you need, this isn't like, now or never. But I don't think a time out's gonna help you very much."

JC looked at him, earnest and beautiful, his eyes dark blue and intense. It was a lot; Justin was a lot, a lot of energy, a lot of sweetness, a lot of affection. A lot to take on, so much more to get back in return.

He wondered how long he'd been wanting this, in some deep-down place he hadn't been able to hear, and what it had cost him not to be paying attention. Justin's mouth was full, kissable, and JC didn't want to stop here. Didn't want to stand still, not ever again.

He opened his mouth. "I," he said, and that took him down the wrong road. He started again. "Kiss me."

Justin did.


That first real kiss was wonderful, lingering and sweet and soft. Afterwards, Justin seemed reluctant to pull away, keeping one hand resting lightly on the back of JC's neck as they talked, his fingers playing delicately in JC's hair.

JC felt the need to stay close, too, and after a while he slipped an arm around Justin's waist. They talked about the evening to come, and the next few days, and then, in vague and careful terms, the future. Later still, JC's head lolled against Justin's chest. JC didn't feel like making the effort to right himself.

Eventually, Justin sighed and stood up, because he had to do some actual work before they could go. After asking a couple of times if he could help, JC sat back in his chair and watched Justin sort papers into the filing cabinet. When he was done, he pushed the top drawer shut with a victorious grin.

"I'll train you up on all of this sometime," Justin said, gesturing around the office. "Right now I just want to get out of here." As JC got to his feet, Justin bent down to grab his sports bag from the floor and swung in onto his shoulder as he straightened up again.

"Good call," JC said, and took the half-step forward that got him close enough to kiss Justin. Justin made a small noise of surprise and kissed back, his arms sliding around JC's waist.

They held each other briefly before heading out to Justin's car, grinning like a couple of schoolkids. JC almost didn't want to let go of Justin at all, except that they were leaving now, going back somewhere, and Justin had suggested curling up on the couch with takeout and DVDs.

It sounded like a pretty good first date.

"So," Justin said, grinning as he started the car, "your place or mine?" It was the one thing they hadn't quite come to a decision on. JC's apartment was closer; Justin's had the better takeout places.

JC's call, apparently.

"Let's go to my place," he said. He didn't have a whole bunch of DVDs, but they could rent something. Or find a movie on cable. Whatever. After months of doing everything by strict routine, it felt pretty nice to be winging it a little.

"Works for me," said Justin.

When they hit the highway, he slipped a possessive hand onto Justin's knee, well below the cuff of the khaki shorts. The bare skin felt good underneath his hand. Justin glanced at him, smiling, and JC brushed his thumb against Justin's skin lightly, smiling back.

Come Friday, his therapist was going to ask about Justin, and he was going to talk and talk and talk. Hell; he'd talk about Justin even if she didn't ask. He'd tell his physio. This was news. They'd be pleased for him.

Actually. Tomorrow, after he'd gone with Justin back to Sports First, talked to the boss, filled out all the forms, he was going to call his folks and tell them all about his new boyfriend. The story of how they'd met, and drawn closer, what they'd come to mean to each other.

Justin stopped at a red light five minutes from JC's house, and leaned over, hooked his arm around JC's shoulders, kissed his cheek, his ear. Before JC had time to respond, the light was green and both Justin's hands were on the wheel.

Halfway up the stairs to the apartment, Justin reached for JC's hand. JC took it, smiling, and threaded their fingers together after a moment. When, as they turned onto the last flight, Justin stopped and let go of his hand, JC felt disappointed for just a second, until Justin's arm came around his waist, pulling him close.

There was space on the narrow stairwell for two if they snuggled right up, so JC put his arm around Justin and they climbed the rest of the way like that, slowly, step by careful step so they didn't trip over each other.

They were laughing a little by the time they reached JC's door. "Number nineteen," Justin said happily.

"That's me."

His hand trembled a little around the key as he unlocked the door and slowly pushed it open. Justin hovered behind him, smiling but tense with nerves.

"So this is your place," Justin said.

"Yeah." It was so different from Justin's place: neat because he didn't have much stuff, not because it was carefully kept that way. Bare and empty, like his life, half-lived.

He was going to change all that.

JC turned in the doorway, pocketed his keys, and after a second, held out his hand to Justin. Justin took it, his nervous smile blossoming into a grin. Grinning like that, he seemed to glow.

"Come inside," JC said, and he tugged Justin over the threshold and into his arms.


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