nsync in black and white

Fiction by Pen . . . . . not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment


written for Ephemera, just because

Chris awoke with his heart pounding in his chest like an twenty-one gun salute in overdrive. Something loud had woken him, and something—something was clattering down his roof and making enough noise to wake the dead. More than enough noise to wake a weary wordsmith who didn't actually have to get up until… hell, three hours from now.

But was there someone on his roof?

"You're early, Fatso!" he yelled towards the ceiling. "Fucking Santa Claus, never around when you want him, now he's fussocking about on my roof at five in the morning." When he and the girls were little they'd never bothered to leave a mince pie and a carrot for the reindeer. There weren't any spare mince pies, for one thing, and for another, they knew exactly where their meagre presents came from. Mum did her best, but she'd had enough trouble keeping them clothed and fed without spending a non-existent fortune on toys. Chris was still a little bit bitter about Christmas. Though he did like to spoil his niece and nephews, now that he could.

Meanwhile, it was only the beginning of October, and there might be someone on his roof. Shoving his feet into his trainers he groped beside the bedside table for the shillelagh he'd brought back from his holiday in Ireland three, four—wait, was it six years ago? How time does fly when you're getting old.

Chris certainly felt old, wrapped in a dressing gown while the wind howled outside. But if there was someone on his roof, he should probably give them the fright of their lives.

He shuffled downstairs, belting the dressing gown as he went. Best not to break his neck on the stairs, all things considered. Hauled his duffel coat over the fetching ensemble and cautiously eased the front door open, careful to set the latch. He did not want to spend the rest of the small hours shivering to death in the street.

There did not appear to be anybody on the roof. He looked along the row of tiny terraced houses. With the orange glow of street lights shining down on the trees, his little street looked like a theatre set, like something out of a pantomime. Then the wind gusted again, and he reeled. "Shit!" Okay, not burglars, just the wind. Something must have blown off, he'd have a look in the morning. Probably just a loose tile.

Muttering to himself, Chris went back to his lonely bed.


By morning the wind had died down. The street was not strewn with tree corpses—so, not as bad as the Great Storm of '87 which had blown down half the trees in Southern England when he was a teenager—except, hell.

Chris stared at his roof. There was a hole where there should have been a bunch of tiles. And a couple of ridge tiles missing, maybe three. Shit. He should have had them repaired last year, but when the snow hadn't done any visible damage he'd thought he'd got away with it.

He clambered unwillingly into the tiny, junk-filled loft, but he didn't need to pick his way across the beams to see that daylight was streaming in through the hole.

Thank God he didn't have to stick to office hours. He got himself downstairs and put the kettle on. Might as well have a cuppa while he phoned every roof repair company in the Yellow Pages and pleaded with them . There was no chance in this universe that he was going to get up a ladder and repair it himself. Chris did not do roofs.


"You are a beautiful sight," Chris unfortunately said out loud when he answered the door to the guy with the grin. He hurried to explain that anyone with ladders and a van that said "Fatone & Son Roofing Services" on the side would have been a beautiful sight right now. The guy's grin just got bigger.

"All hands to the pump today," Fatone, or possibly & Son, explained. "I'm Joey. You caught me just in time." That was the same cheerful voice that had answered the phone. Chris had pleaded very hard for priority help, mentioning his own phobia of heights (not a fear, a phobia, totally different) as the reason why he needed help fast, and Joey had promised to fit him in at the end of the day. Chris had been cynical about this—he'd been stung by workmen before—but apparently, miracles did sometimes happen. This particular miracle was going to cost him a fortune.

"Nice to meet you," Chris said, extending a hand. "Uh, you can see the problem from there?"

"It's not too bad," Joey said, peering upwards. "Shouldn't take long."

Are you real? Chris thought. Surely builders and their ilk were supposed to suck in their breath and tut and tell you it looked like a very expensive job… "I'll make some tea, shall I?"

Joey really did have a beautiful grin. "Two sugars." A man after Chris's own heart.

Chris took both mugs outside. Joey was just trundling up the ladder with the insouciance of someone who spends half his time too far off the ground. Chris might have felt quite queasy looking at him if the view hadn't been so spectacular. Chris liked his men big and solid, and Joey fit the bill. Perfectly. He must be over six feet, broad shoulders, big hands working deftly with the replacement tiles he'd just carried up there so easily. And, oh, man, the view from here, when Joey stretched a little bit and leaned a little bit and his jeans just—

Chris wasn't actually drooling, but it was close.

No sense fantasising over the nice workman who's mending your house, he told himself. As usual, this had no effect. Chris told himself sensible things all the time, and never took any notice. It was way more fun staring up at Joey's magnificent arse than being sensible, and Chris might be almost forty but he was still capable of having fun.

"Tea's here," he called, and Joey waved briefly, but stayed up on the roof for several minutes. Chris sipped his own tea, and watched Joey's eventual descent with appreciation, but remembered to shift his gaze to the problem roof when Joey reached the ground.

"Hey, that looks a lot better," he said in genuine admiration.

"You never forget this stuff," Joey said, taking the tea and gulping it eagerly. "Mmm, perfect."

"It's got a bit cold, sorry. Should have given you more time."

"No problem. Makes a nice break before I get up there again with the ridges. Wouldn't say no to a hot one when the job's done, though."

"I've got cake," Chris said. "If you've got time…"

"Always got time for cake," Joey said, slapping his own midriff and laughing. "You can probably tell."

Chris laughed with him. "Do I look like I got a problem with that?" he said in his best (terrible) imitation of a Soprano, and leered. Whoops, steady, there.

Joey drained his tea and handed the mug back. "Be about another half hour," he said.

It did actually take a little longer than that, but by the time dusk had well and truly fallen, Chris's roof was waterproof and gap-free once more, Chris had settled the surprisingly reasonable bill, and Joey was sitting in his kitchen with a mug of steaming tea, addressing a piece of home-made ginger cake with gratifying determination. Buster, having inspected the visitor, been patted by a large, gentle hand, and given his due ration of cake, had retreated to his basket and was snoring unmusically.

"This is really good cake," Joey said, thickly. "Did you seriously make it yourself?"

"If I'd known you'd be—uh, here to fix my roof so promptly, I'd have done an apple spice cake. My Mum sends me recipes all the time."

"Really? My mother likes to feed me herself."

"Oh, well, she moved out of London a few years back, so she has to feed me at arms' length these days. She taught me to cook when I was too young to resist. I have four kid sisters, and when we were growing up there wasn't a lot of cash around, so I got very good at lentils and beans and such. And home-made cake is pretty cheap, as treats go."

"Four sisters? No brothers?"

"Scary, right?" Chris grinned, because he wouldn't change a thing. "You?"

"One of each. My brother Steve's actually the '& Son'. I got hauled in today because of the storm, they had so many calls and Dad didn't want to lose the business. I used to work for Dad, but I moved away for a while and after that only went back to it if I was between jobs. What do you do for a living?"

Chris hesitated. Even after all this time it seemed too wonderful a thing to be able to just claim it without being self-deprecating. "I write," he said, and forced himself not to explain that it didn't make him rich, or anything.

"Hah!" Joey sounded delighted. "I print! What do you write?"

"Mostly technical manuals. I mean, that's what pays the bills. And I have a bunch of short stories here and there, and I," Chris tried not to beam, "I have a novel coming out next year. And I'm writing another one. Um. When you say you print—"

"Oh, nothing grand. It's a step or two up from being a copy shop, we do general printing jobs, menus, wedding invitations, posters, the lot. Just up the road, in Brixton, which is why I said I'd do your roof as my last job. My flat's about ten minutes walk from here. But, hey, tell me about your novel!"

So Chris talked about the story, and about how many times he'd rewritten it, and submitted it, and how it had felt like winning the lottery when he finally got a letter that said yes. Joey grinned along with him and made encouraging and excited noises in all the right places. It was great, having the chance to talk about the whole process to someone who wasn't related to him and therefore firmly convinced of his awesomeness, and Chris kept wondering if he was monopolising the conversation too much, but Joey seemed honestly interested, so much so that Chris had to ask if Joey was a writer, too.

"No, no, I don't—well, I tried a while ago but I was rubbish at it. I can write good promotional copy, when we're sending out flyers or writing to customers, and I help out with wording for the customers sometimes, but that's my limit." Chris made encouraging noises this time, and prodded Joey into telling him more about the print shop.

He couldn't figure out whether Joey was just ridiculously friendly, like the gigantic puppy that tried to make friends with every other dog and every human being in Ruskin Park when he took Buster there (Buster was so intimidated it was, well, actually it was really funny, because a pug and an Irish wolfhound trying to exchange doggy greetings were hilarious to watch). Or if there was more—trouble was, Chris had no working gaydar. Nothing. He hadn't even noticed Lance was gay, which in retrospect was… he'd have to dig out his thesaurus to find a word for how ludicrous that was. But Chris had been so very, very wrong on so very many occasions—like that scary time when he'd thought that big, burly blond guy's enthusiasm for the Barbarians was flirting, when it had actually been a hearty discussion of, well, rugby, and it had not turned out very well.

These days, Chris relied on his friends to fix him up. Lance, who was the nosiest person in the world and insisted on knowing about everybody's love life, was always trying to find Chris a partner. At least, he was since Chris and JC had broken up five months ago, because, Lance said, Chris shouldn't have to celebrate his fortieth birthday without someone to love. In fact—

"Oh! Shit, what time is it? Man, I'm sorry to kick you out, but I'm supposed to be—a friend is setting, uh, I'm supposed to meet him at the pub tonight."

Joey looked disappointed. "I was all set to try for more cake," he said, mournfully. He was exactly like a puppy, with those big brown eyes looking all sad and hard done by. Even though he had in fact had three pieces of cake already, and there was none left. "I may have to sneak round during the night to take tiles off your roof."

"No need for sneaking," Chris said. "I welcome your cake-eating capacity. But I ought to have a shower and get into something a bit more respectable. My friend Lance is—he has these intimidating eyebrows, and he's not afraid to use them."

"When you say 'friend', are you and this Lance guy, er…?"

"Oh, fuck, no. Lance and me, we'd kill each other, we'd be like Oscar and Felix. He's the neat freak, by the way. And I'm not his type at all." Chris was uncomfortably aware that he'd outed himself recklessly at this point, but Joey seemed to be cool with the possibility.

"Mixed relationships never work," Joey said. "My ex was always nag—er, telling me to pick up my socks and change my underwear. I suppose," he added, thoughtfully, "it wasn't totally unreasonable. But I don't see anything wrong with having piles of stuff instead of everything tidied away into cupboards, or leaving the washing up to soak."

"Exactly. It's a matter of style," Chris agreed. "Look, I'm sorry, but I think he'll disembowel me with a grapefruit knife if I don't make an effort. It's one of those new pubs with a stupid name and cocktails on the menu and mood lighting, not really a pub at all. The Snail and Cornflakes, or something."

"The Slug and Lettuce." Joey rolled his eyes, which was how Chris felt about it too, really. But when Lance was on a mission there was no sense arguing. "If your friend has grapefruit knives I think you'd better do as you're told. A man who has specialist weapons for dealing with grapefruit is a man to be feared." He got up and leaned over to pat Buster goodbye. "If you ever want anything printed," Joey said, and handed over his own business card.

Lance had gaydar. If Lance were here, he'd know if that was flirty or just salesmanship. Sadly, Lance would be down at the Slug and Lettuce, drinking something trendy with vodka in it and waiting for Chris to show up and disappoint whoever Lance was trying to set him up with. Chris showed Joey out with repeated thanks, and dashed upstairs to make himself respectable.


The Slug and Lettuce was exactly as not-a-real-pub as it sounded, but by some miracle—possibly the fact that Lance lived in Ladbroke Grove and it would take him hours to get down to Brixton on the Tube—Chris, who just had to walk down Coldharbour Lane, was there first. So he ordered the most commonplace beer on the menu and settled into the quietest corner he could find to survey all comers. If Lance showed up with a fabulous young thing in tow, Chris was going to sneak out.

The first familiar face he spotted was not Lance at all, but JC… Chris considered for about five seconds and decided he did not want to spend a few aimless minutes swapping pleasantries with his ex. JC had been and always would be a sweetheart (with a bitchy streak, thank fuck, or they'd never have lasted as long as they did) but Chris just wasn't in the mood. He was really in the mood to go home and bake apple cake and pull a couple of tiles off his roof… nah. Joey was probably just a really good salesman who liked cake. Chris had already spent most of his shower time thinking about things he might need to have printed, of which there were none.

He spotted Lance's entrance at once, as did JC, who greeted him before Lance could even scan the place for signs of Chris. This gave Chris an excellent opportunity to look at the man Lance had brought along.

So, okay, Lance had great taste. No, strictly speaking Lance had great taste when it came to other people's boyfriends, he had terrible taste when it came to picking out his own, just an eternal optimism that kept him smiling at the next vacuous gym-bunny to come along. That guy, though, did not look vacuous. He was tall, which Chris liked. In great shape, which was a bit intimidating—didn't look as though he ate a lot of cake, Chris thought. Mouse brown hair with a hint of curl to it, and the perfect amount of stubble, which Chris distrusted. Ooh, great smile.

Hmm. Not bad, Chris thought, idly shredding his beer mat—no, his coaster. Beer mats were for real pubs.

"Uh, hi. Mind if I join you?"

Chris looked up in astonishment. It was Joey. Wearing a tie! "Hi! I—yeah, sit down. Please." His heart was starting that salute thing again, possibly not twenty-one guns but definitely not its usual routine.

"I thought I should get in first," Joey said. "I mean, I like cake, you like cake, we should… " He burst out laughing. "Oh, fuck, I was going to be suave about this. I practised."

Chris grinned. "We should bake sweet, sweet sponges together, you mean?"

"Well," Joey said, calming down, "I had fun this afternoon. Evening. Whenever it was. So I thought, what if Chris goes to that stupid pub and gets set up with someone else? You could be stuck with someone who'll tidy your socks. I'd never forgive myself."

"I don't think it's going to be a problem," Chris said. "I think my blind date just fell for my ex like the proverbial ton of bricks." By the bar, JC was still holding Smiley Guy's handshake, and Lance was fidgeting.

"Ah, builders' jargon," Joey said, wisely. "We're obviously suited. I mean, do you think?"

"I do think," said Chris. "I also think we should sneak out via the fire exit, because if Lance sees me we could be stuck here all night."

"And I'd definitely rather be slaving over a hot oven," said Joey, with a wink, and a look in his sexy brown eyes that even Chris could not misinterpret as 'salesmanship'.

"In that case, my pretty, let me show you my recipe collection," said Chris, and they ran for the door.


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