AJ took one look at the list of teams and thought, "Right. Breathing is what we're going to work on for a few moments. Just a few."
A few turned out to be more like ten. When he thought he could handle himself without sounding like he was having lung failure, he pulled his phone out and called Kevin. Predictably, despite it having been over a year since the last time AJ had seriously needed anything, Kevin answered on the first ring. "Aje?"
"Howie called you, right? That I got in?"
"Golf charity function. South Carolina somewhere. Kids with cancer, right?"
AJ wished he could remember where the hell Kevin was right at that moment. He always felt more grounded knowing the location he had called, in addition to the person. "Yeah, right. They pre-planned the teams."
"Are you okay? You sound kinda panicky." Kevin's tone became more even, as though he could compensate for AJ's apparent state of mind.
"Chris is on my team."
"Chris… Oh, Chris." By which it was obvious that Kevin meant, "oh, shit," but Kevin reserved his curses for when he felt they would be most useful. AJ had been in too many situations wherein Kevin felt the liberty to let fly.
"Chris," AJ agreed, with no small depth of feeling.
"Have you guys even talked since-"
Since Chris had seriously flaked out on AJ during the early stages of AJ's alcoholism in which they had been dating, but both too busy doing their own thing to really be any good at it. Being that this was the case, it had of course ended badly, with AJ saying things that he couldn't remember but knew that he shouldn't have said and Chris continuously publicly dropping hints that AJ was an asshole whenever given the chance in the years since. "Not in any way that matters, no."
"And there's no way to get this fixed?"
There probably would have been, but AJ was already late to the festivities, having had to fly out to Florida and deal with Nick, who was handling family issues, yet again, before coming. It was a last minute emergency thing that AJ hadn't planned on, and as it was, he had paid for a night in a hotel where he hadn't even stayed. "Not without coming off like a real asshole. This is probably the last place I need to be doing that."
"Aje," Kevin said his name cautiously, and AJ knew it was a warning. "Did you ever apologize to him?"
AJ had meant to, seriously meant to, but his whole recovery period had been somewhat messed up by the need to finish the tour and Chris had been one of the many issues that had gotten glossed over. "Do you really think this is the place to do that?"
Kevin sighed. "A whole day of nothing but caddying in between golf holes and waiting for other people to finish hitting? There are worse circumstances I could think up. Plus, he likes golfing, it'll probably put him in a better mood."
"So that I can go and ruin it for him."
"It only made things worse in the beginning, babe."
Sometimes AJ was pretty sure that all Chris and him had were beginnings and endings. AJ knew it was only in the middle that things got better. Then again, Kevin was calling him babe, and Kevin reserved pet names the way he did swearing. "Okay. Okay."
"Call me if you need anything. I'll tell Howie to keep his phone on too."
AJ held back a laugh. Nick may have needed that reminder, Brian definitely did, Howie was the one who had taught them all to use their cell phones. "Thanks Kev."
AJ hung up and looked out at the finely manicured course. At least the weather was nice.
AJ met up with his team twenty minutes before tee time. There were publicity shots and AJ had to introduce himself to the two people who weren't Chris. One was evidently a baseball player and the other a screenwriter. AJ made small talk for a little while with each of them before girding his loins, turning toward the golf cart and saying, "Hi."
Chris, politely, said, "Hi," back.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know-" AJ gestured with his hands. It wasn't the apology he'd meant to make.
"Me neither," Chris said. "I can see if we can get it changed."
It was surprisingly peaceable given the reception AJ had been expecting. "I'm good with it if you are."
Chris just shrugged. "I'm driving. I already squared it away with the other two."
Of the very little that AJ did remember from his time with Chris, one of the things was Chris's need to be in control. He wasn't obsessive or cruel about it, actually, he was pretty upfront and sane about the whole thing, but it was still one of the qualities that stood out most about Chris. At the time, AJ had been spinning out of control and hadn't wanted anything that would hold him back from that. Now it seemed a bit comforting. AJ said, "Sounds good. Think they'll fight me for shotgun?"
Whatever he'd said must have been funny, because Chris laughed. Then he shared the joke. "Are you kidding? Haven't you noticed? They're avoiding us like boybandism is a plague and standing too close will infect them."
AJ remembered when things like that used to make him mad. Somewhere along the way, he'd gotten too old to care what other people thought about the best experiences and people in his life. "Their loss."
Chris nodded. Looking away from AJ, he said, "You look good."
AJ accepted the compliment as it was meant. "Getting off shit that's eating away at major organs up to and including your brain will do that for a person." He didn't stop to think. "I was a shit to you and I should have called and said this earlier but you didn't deserve it and I'm sorry."
Chris shrugged. "Your brain was being eaten."
"It was still my brain, and don't act like it doesn't matter, because I've heard the shit you say about me, all right? So I know."
"Do we have to be doing this right now?"
"If I don’t you'll find a way never to be near enough to me again that I can even try."
Chris glared. AJ said, "It's the truth."
Something in that statement must have reached Chris, because his face softened even as his eyes remained hard, as though he was thinking about things he didn't want anyone else knowing about. "Apology accepted."
AJ knew from experience after experience that it wasn't at all that easy, but he had eighteen holes worth of time and he intended to make it count. For the moment, it was enough to just say, "Thanks."
Somehow, even remembering that he had really enjoyed being with Chris, AJ had forgotten just how much fun Chris really was. Chris was horrific at golf, a complete wreck, but his determination was impressive and his ability to laugh at himself refreshing, and by mid morning, AJ had laughed more in an hour than he had in the past few months. Granted, the last two years hadn't been the most mirth-inspiring of his life, but still, Chris's ability (and willingness) to get AJ to laugh until his stomach clenched and ached, was a nice, moderately sized miracle which AJ had no intentions of taking for granted.
At lunch, Chris warned AJ that the lemonade was spiked without flinching, and AJ said, "Thanks for the heads up," and thought about the fact that he was obviously not the first person Chris had ever dealt with post-rehab. Much as AJ loved the other guys, their tendency to get jittery at the mere mention of anything addictive was enough to drive him back into the arms of the closest narcotic with them flung wide open.
Chris said, "But they have those tiny bottles of coke, the glass minis."
They shared a grin and stole a six pack of the bottles each. Chris challenged him to a game of bottle caps later, and despite the fact that proclaiming he'd never played should have extricated AJ from the dork factor, he was hesitant to admit to it. Instead he chose bluster and promised to kick Chris's butt but good. Chris asked, "You've no idea how to play, do you?"
"Not a clue."
"I'll learn you later. You're a smart one, you'll probably be able to catch on. What the fuck did you guys do in the hood if not play bottle caps? I thought that was a past time of kids who couldn't afford better toys everywhere."
"You should see the shit I can do with a jump rope," AJ informed him solemnly. "Well, used to be able to do. It's been a while."
"For real? I thought the jump rope fad died with the seventies."
"Maybe up East. It takes us Southern provinces a bit longer realize that we're behind the times."
Chris snorted. "That must be it." He held up his coke bottle and waited for AJ to do the same. "To materially deprived childhoods and overwhelming stardom and what it all does to fuck you up something special."
AJ said, "To other people getting that," and clinked his bottle against Chris's before taking a sip so long he wouldn't have to deal with the consequences of his words before choking to death.
The baseball player was the one who won out of the four of them. AJ remembered a time when losing a game of golf had seemed like a big deal, but that had been when he was avoiding thinking about other things. Nowadays it seemed like too much effort to put more emotion than enjoyment into the game.
Chris said, "He only managed to beat us because he's bionic."
"That what you're gonna tell friends and family?"
"Are you kidding? They'll know. They're well aware of my golfing prowess." Chris's smile suggested that indeed, they were well aware.
There was a moment of silence wherein AJ thought that he was going to have to welcome awkwardness back to the space in between the two of them. Then Chris asked, "You have dinner plans?"
"I don’t know that I could call finding the nearest Chinese place and ordering take away a plan, per se."
"Will you settle for crab? Because there's a seriously good place around the corner, bibs and those big silver crab cracker things already on the table when you get there. Oh, and they serve weird southern shit like creamed corn and fritters on the side."
"Sounds kind of odd," AJ said.
"As shit, but it doesn’t stop me from gaining my own body weight once over every time I go in there. I'll treat, that way if you don't like it, the only thing you've lost is an hour of your life."
AJ was pretty sure the hour would be a worthwhile donation whether he liked the edibles or not. "I'm up for that."
Chris had gotten there in his Winnebago, so they were able to get away immediately and head ten minutes down the highway to Miss Caroline's Carolina Crab House. AJ wondered if the locals always said the full name out or if it was something like the M triple C house when they suggested a night out.
AJ ordered the house special and spent most of dinner listening to Chris describe his current adventures sans his other four limbs while being careful not to send crab flying at his pseudo-date or anyone else in the establishment. He made it with only one minor mishap of which Chris was the unfortunate -- luckily amused -- victim.
When they were done and Chris had paid the bill even though AJ had argued that since he'd enjoyed things, he ought to pitch in (whereby Chris threatened violence and AJ backed off) Chris asked, "So, ice cream?"
AJ gave Chris the ever eloquent "are you out of your fucking mind?" Look. Chris said, "No, I'm completely about to burst too, but I'm oddly reluctant to say goodbye to you."
AJ had learned to recognize forgiveness in its many forms. "You still owe me a game of bottle caps."
"Back to the hotel it is."
Chris taught him the basic rules of bottle caps, which were, well, pretty basic. They played until AJ admitted that he was being defeated by overwhelming odds with the caveat that, "It's only because you have years of experience on me."
Chris snickered. "Too bad we don't have more people. We could put the other half the bottle to use with a game of spin the. Waste not, want not."
AJ said, "I think two people is more than adequate for a game of spin the bottle."
"Or we could just say fuck the bottle and make out."
"I vote for that plan," AJ said, but then found himself completely unable to move an inch closer to Chris. Luckily, Chris didn't seem to be having this problem and closed the gap for them.
Chris snuck his hands under the hem of AJ's t-shirt, spreading his palms and fingers across the breadth of AJ's lower back. He tugged slightly, bringing AJ's hips to his. "Hey."
AJ agreed, "Hey," and nipped at Chris's lower lip, which was all it took for Chris to start in earnest. AJ wished he could remember if Chris had always been this good at kissing. It seemed like something he wouldn't have forgotten, even through the haze of alcohol and coke and whatever the hell else was thrown across his path. Then again, he'd forgotten his mother's birthday that year as well. And Nick's.
He supposed it didn't really matter whether Chris had improved or AJ had become more appreciative or if this was just the way the world felt when it wasn't being forcefully blunted. What mattered was that a world of hot was traveling from his mouth to his dick and AJ wanted, "More."
Chris ground his dick against AJ's but breathed out the word, "No," and brought AJ off with a combination of kissing, surprisingly strong hands caressing at the sensitive area of AJ's lower back and an occasional dry hump. Then he melted against AJ, who was already crumbling to the floor and mumbled, "Not tonight."
AJ forced his brain to work. "Another night?"
"Mm. I didn't bring condoms or anything."
"I would've blown you," AJ offered sweetly, if in a somewhat untimely manner.
"Seemed like a lot to ask for on a first date."
"I know you sleep with fans."
Chris pinned him with a glare. "That's different."
It was the right thing to say. AJ grinned. "Maybe on the second date, then."
Chris said, "I'll think about it."
AJ remembered that tone of voice. It always meant, "hell yes."
Instead of going back to LA, AJ paid the exorbitant fee to change his ticket at the last minute and headed to Orlando, whence he'd come. Nick was still there and probably needed checking up on and Howie was probably back from the business trip he'd been up East for, and there was even a possibility that he could get Brian to drive down for a day or two.
He called Howie from the cab when he landed and asked, "Can I crash with you? I'd ask Nick, but I'd like some place to escape the drama."
Howie sounded excited. "Hey, yeah, get your ass over here."
He got his ass plus some extra parts into Howie's neighborhood, up his driveway and through his door with relatively little fuss, considering all the security precautions. Howie took his bag from him, kissed his cheek and said, "So, Chris."
On the one hand, AJ wasn't sure he was ready to talk about it yet, on the other hand, he appreciated the way Howie gave no quarter these days. It allowed for nothing to happen. "We made up. With tongues."
"Talking tongues or kissing tongues?"
"One, then the other."
Howie considered this. "How much of each?"
"I'd say it was a seventy-thirty ratio, respectively."
Howie made a calculating face and then decided, "All right."
AJ didn't pursue the matter. If Howie had decided to accept things, there was a reason. Howie had a solid sixth sense about the world at large. AJ was about to ask if there was anything for him to eat when his cell rang. He threw an apologetic glance at Howie, but answered it all the same. Chris's number was glowing on the screen. "Hey, that was fast."
"Where are you?"
AJ almost made a joke, before he remembered how many places of habitation to which Howie laid claim. "Yeah."
"You wanna have dinner tomorrow night?"
"I thought you were on your way to Texas. By car." Well, Winnebago, but they all moved at the same rate.
"Orlando's sort of on the way, don't you think?"
Actually, AJ didn't think that at all. It made him smile. Then work his hardest not to have that reflect in his voice. "Where'd you plan on taking me?"
"Got a favorite?"
AJ had a few, this was his home, after all. "They're all on the other side of the tracks, so to speak."
"My kind of boy. I'll pick you up at six?"
"That gonna be enough time for you to shower and get one of your normal cars? I'm not going out to dinner with a stinky man who lives in his car."
"I think I can handle basic dating etiquette McLean. Was that a yes?"
"It was," AJ said.
"I'll see you then."
AJ hung up. Howie said, "That's like what? A ten hour detour?"
Geography wasn't really AJ's thing so he just shrugged. "It was sweet, was what it was."
Howie grinned the grin of the all-knowing and said, "Sure was."
AJ smiled in return. Him and Chris were evidently in the middle of something.