the Groupie

Chapter 24

 

To Reed: how you can put up with editing this mess, I can't fathom. Thank you thank you!

I always post my stories first on my Yahoo Group, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NBstories/, and all my stories are at www.noelblue.com!


     The club was already full when we got there, unusual for a Wednesday but not unusual for the night before Thanksgiving. It was also a slightly different crowd than usual; less hipster elements, more flashes of 'bro' and men wearing baseball caps.

     "Must be people back in town visiting their families, and tourists on vacation," Areli practically sniffed in contempt. "It's a weak showing tonight; I can't believe this crowd of assholes."

     "Would you like to go somewhere else?" I didn't really care; as long as I got to dance, it was all good. I would prefer not to pay multiple covers, but it was better than Areli being unhappy.

     "No, its fine," he said, his whole tone a sigh, "this city doesn't really have any clubs worth going to any more... they've all been closed down. Its tragic how all people care about now is the noise. Noise is GOOD."

     "So you used to go out a lot when NY was famous for clubbing?" Scott's voice was amused. "When you were, like, what, five years old? You must've been a pretty ravin' toddler."

     "Lived here my whole life, midwest boy," Areli said with dignity, "I know what it used to be like."

     "Yeah, yeah, you're the lord and master of NYC," Scott grinned. "No one knows more about it than you."

     Areli stuck his tongue out at him, and Mina laughed. Scott enjoyed taking the piss out of Areli. In the beginning he said it was the only way he could stand the guy. They'd since become comfortable, although I wasn't sure if that would go so far as 'like each other'. I think Scott was fairly protective of me and the guys I dated. Areli's problem was he was 'all full up his own butt'. I think that meant he was arrogant.

     Which, true. But he was a good guy at heart, and fun. I expected Scott to chill out eventually.

     Hmmmm, what did it mean that I sort of wanted Scott to chill out on him? Maybe I was finally considering maybe trying something that was... more. Whatever the hell that was. But, yeah. Watching him dance, he was damn cute...

     "Ethan!" Mina said happily, slipping an arm around my waist. Scott and Areli had gone to the bar to get us drinks; another sign of a truce.

     "Mina!" I enthused back, putting my arm around her shoulders and squeezing. God, it was good to be around her again. No one knew me like she did. Sure, Scott might know more about me, but it was different. And I liked them together; it was mostly positive. There had already been some ridiculous bickering, even a couple of slammed doors, but that was pretty par for the course with them. The week was flying by, and it was going to seriously suck when she left. I told her exactly that.

     "I know," she sighed, leaning in to my chest."I can't even begin to tell you how boring it is back home without you two around. I try not to whine to Scott, but it's pretty tortuous. My friends from school are okay, but not half as much fun as you two, or as good-looking."

     "We are pretty awesome," I said thoughtfully.

     "Look at you!" She tickled my side and I wiggled away from her, yelping.

     "'Look at me' how?"

     "You NEVER would have said something like that before coming to New York, or even before Europe. You're totally getting cocky on me."

     "Am not!"

     "Am too," she grinned. "At least a smidge. Thank god. It was getting almost impossible to take your modesty, especially since you seem to be getting hotter as you get older. After a certain point it just becomes pathological."

     I rolled my eyes and took her hand to drag her out to the dance floor. Maybe she was right – I figured it was the modeling, but I didn't think that I wasn't physically attractive any more like I used to; some people seemed to think I was good looking, hell, I was getting paid to be good-looking. And Zane had obviously found me physically appealing, at least in spurts. Still, it was an intellectual acknowledgement, not something I believed on a deeper level. And what did it matter? In this city attractiveness was everywhere, as were models. It didn't make me feel particularly special. And being treated like that was my only asset, as was often the case on shoots, was actually damn annoying.

     We bounced around a bit at first; the floor wasn't full, and we were just warming up.

     "Hey!" Lucy bounded up to us, a drink in her hand. "Sexy dancing boy!"

     I smiled at her. "Yes?"

     "I had something I needed to tell you!"

     She stopped at that, and pursed her lips, looking about as if trying to mentally access the information. Then she looked up with a grin. "I forgot!"

     "That's okay - tell me when you remember."

     She nodded and winked, and shimmied away. I doubted I would ever hear what it was she wanted to say, or if it existed in the first place.

     This is because Lucy, as always, was smashed within a half an hour of arriving. A great deal of pre-drinking had helped her along, as we ascertained as soon as we met up in front of the club. She got away with it because when she was drunk she was adorable, wide-eyed and giggly, with a goofy-sly wit and a trilling laugh that drove straight guys wild. She was fun and had yet to do something disastrous out and about, so I wasn't too worried about this. As long as we kept an eye on her and didn't let her be taken home by some shady character (and thank god she had a boyfriend now, as it seemed to help her resist the urge), it was all part of the fun.

     "She's pretty hilarious," Mina noted. "I like her."

     "Really?" The girls had gotten along really well so far. I also loved that this made Scott really nervous. He was concerned they were talking about him constantly, which they probably were.

     After a couple of songs the redhead in question came up with our drinks, and we withdrew to the periphery of the dance floor.

     "Where's Areli?" I asked.

     "Saw a couple of friends from high school." Scott took a swig of his beer, and then looked at me slyly from the corner of his eye. "So. You gonna date the guy finally? You don't seem to be pushing him away with as much fervor as before."

     He'd obviously filled Mina in on the whole thing, because she nodded. "Yeah, you don't seem to mind the attention at all - sounds like before you really shut him down. Don't see why not, he's totally cute, and he's completely nuts about you."

     "So you like him?" I asked her.

     "Yeah - he's nice, fun, and I think he'd treat you well. He's hot stuff and he knows it, but that's okay." She grinned. "Since you seem to like your men kinda arrogant. Maybe super arrogant."

     I sighed. "Yeah, I really do, don't I?" I finally answered Scott's question. "I don't know if I'll date him... I mean, he's a great friend, and I like having him around, but sometimes I wonder if he looks too much like Zane? Is that weird? Or just... that I like him for all the wrong reasons. I don't know."

     "We all have types, Ethan," Mina pointed out, "and you may have found yours. And now that you're finally really getting over Mr. Rock Star," we'd already discussed the topic at length, "there's nothing wrong with admitting that might have been shaped a bit by an ex. Like, take me," she threw a wicked look at Scott. "I'll probably be into ginger bastards for the rest of my life."

     "Nothing wrong with that," he said nonchalantly, throwing his arm around her shoulder. "Ginger bastards are the best bastards."

     "Eh, I prefer my brunettes, less pasty and full of nasty freckles," I made a faux disgusted face.

     "Haven't we already established you ain't got any taste?"

     "Maybe my taste is too good, huh, ever think about that?"

     Scott snorted. "Seriously unlikely!"

     "Taste for what?" Areli asked as he walked up, stopping next to me and giving my arm a little squeeze.

     The three of us just grinned goofily and didn't answer. He looked skeptical, but could tell it wasn't negative and didn't pursue the subject.

     It might have been the drink I just finished, but perhaps Mina was right. Maybe it was time to give Areli a real, solid chance. As much I liked him I wasn't crazy about him, and he did like me more than I liked him, but was there really anything wrong with that? There were significantly worst dudes to date, needless to say. Like, oh, sex-withholding international music stars.

     No no, don't think about the sex during that one time there was no withholding – certain memories such as that always made me feel significantly more tender towards Zane, and think about the good times. This was supposed to be a negative thought about him, damn it, not a positive one. Really, I had to ambush him in semi-public. Screw that.

     "Dancing!" I suddenly exclaimed, pointing to the floor. "We're supposed to be doing it!"

     "I do love to watch you dance," Areli said with a big smile.

     "Gonna get a lot of it tonight," I promised.

     "Excellent, excellent." I didn't even completely mind how lascivious he sounded.

     We were booty-ing it up to some Rihanna song when Lucy appeared in front of us, looking even drunker than before. Uh oh, time to start watching her carefully. I think I'd strong-arm (or, more likely, cajole) her into dancing and staying with us so that monitoring wasn't too hard to pull off.

     "Hey!" Mina greeted her cheerfully.

     "Hey!" Lucy burbled back. "You guys having fun?"

     "Tons," I exclaimed, and took her up in my arms, making her dance with me. She didn't resist, giggling happily.

     "So did you hear?!" She asked a little bit later, leaning in to yell at all of us as we were in a circle.

     "Hear what?" Areli asked.

     "There's a VIP in the club! Some sort of celebrity. The bartenders were talking about it." She was from as far north in California as you could get from LA, so she was still impressed by the amount of famous people wandering around New York.

     "Here?" He laughed. "I don't even think this place has a VIP section, it's not exactly top tier. Who is it?"

     "Some musician, I don't know." She shrugged. "They said he's really hot. OH! Ethan!" she snapped her eyes to me. "I remembered!"

     "Remembered what?" I asked, entertained. She was like a kitten on speed.

     "What I forgot to tell you earlier. Someone called looking for you, said they were a friend and that they got our number from your dad. I told him you'd be here tonight. You might see a friend soon!"

     We all sort of stopped at that, and gave her a 'look'. Areli did more than that.

     "You told some random dude on the phone where Ethan would be? What the hell?" He sounded truly angry, his expression stormy. Scott didn't look delighted either.

     "That was a bad idea, Lucy. Who was it?"

     She looked upset. "I don't know! I'd had a couple of beers, and I don't think he told me..."

     "Leave her alone, guys," I intervened. "She thought she was helping. It was probably just someone from one of my modeling shoots, I meet a lot of people." I wasn't super chatty with many of them, since I was of course just the model, but it was a necessity to be generally friendly and introduce myself to the crew I'd be working with.

     "Exactly!" Areli shot Lucy another death glare, and she looked at her feet. "Who knows what sort of creeper is coming after you. This is a problem with being in something like modeling, it's full of them."

     "I wouldn't worry so much, man..." Scott said soothingly. "It's probably nothing."

     "He didn't say anything about who he was or how he knew Ethan, did he?" Mina asked.

     "Nooo.... it's just.. I'm so sorry. I wasn't thinking, you're right. He just had the sexiest voice, and he sounded so nice, and -"

     I'd gone stiff as a board. It was like I couldn't feel my body any longer. Mina placed a hand on my arm as she spoke.

     "Sexy in what way, Lucy?"

     "Deep, like, it just rolled. But he sounded young. I don't know! I wasn't paying attention!" she was practically wailing.

     "Ethan..." Mina started at the same time Scott starting talking.

     "I'm sure it's not him," My best friend sounded very confident, and I kinda believed him. "He's in Japan, right? I'm sure it is just some sexy-voiced modeling type. She's turned on by anything."

     "Hey!"

     "Who's 'he'?" Areli asked, his voice suspicious.

     Damn, and then I experienced a flash-back to that time in Chicago when I was with Brian. Does everything always have to be circular? I'm not sure I was a huge fan of circular, it seemed to involve a lot of feelings that mirrored the same uncomfortable things I've felt before, just in new settings with some new cast members.

     "Ex-dude of his," Scott said shortly.

     "The rock guy you dated in Europe?" Areli looked at me, lifted his eyebrows. "I thought you said there was no way he'd ever be interested in you again." He sounded rather accusatory, but I didn't really have an answer for him.

     Mina made an exasperated noise. "Well of course he'd say that, he was trying to convince himself it was true."

     Don't you love it when people talk about you like you're not standing right there?

     "I'm sure it's not him," I finally said, giving a smile. I mean, really, there was no way. "He's not going to abandon his tour to suddenly show up in New York and hunt me down. His career is everything to him."

     "That must be the celebrity guy!" Lucy announced loudly, pointing excitedly. "Wow, he's pretty cute. Whoa, he's coming this way!"

     "Fuck," Mina exclaimed, distressed, and then looking at me. "Ethan..."

     It was obvious who I was going to see when I turned my head. Really, should I have had any doubt from the second Lucy told me about that phone call?

     My whole relationship with him had been touched with a bit of the surreal. Why would it change now?

     Since I knew who I was going to see when I turned, I didn't.

     "Ethan."

     Yeah, there it was. That was the voice. And, as always, I had chills. Fuck.

     "What the hell do you want?" Areli sounded a bit belligerent, taking a step forward.

     "Step off, man," Scott said quietly, putting his arm out to create a barrier as I turned.

     "What the -"

     "You look incredible," it was the tone of his voice that made me finally look up, a strange quality there I'd never heard before. I couldn't put a finger on it.

     Naturally, always, he was the one who looked incredible. I'd forgotten just how insanely good looking he was in person. He was wearing a long blue button up shirt, and over that a grey pinstriped vest and a lean pinstripe blazer, open. The sleeves of both the blazer and the shirt were rolled up to right below his elbow, showing his long wrists. His hands were in his jean pockets.

     God he was made for jeans. He was wearing a new pair of boots, black, like he liked them, but with a long slender toe and a touch of country. They were playful and sexy. He'd gotten a haircut, short and swept across his face, curling artfully in front of his ears. It pulled out how long and lean his face was. This wasn't a bad thing. Damn that mouth...

     Except he looked tired, I noticed, and was that a bruise on his cheek? I had to stop myself from asking him if he was okay, if he wasn't getting enough sleep, if maybe I could take him somewhere and -

     No, none of these were the important questions.

     "What are you doing here?"

     "Looking for you."

     "Well duh," Lucy exclaimed. "Hey, I think he's the guy who called for you, Ethan!"

     Scott actually groaned. Zane looked at her, and gave a smile. "You must have been the one who answered the phone. Thanks for talking to me."

     She looked a bit glittery-eyed at that. Who wouldn't? I'd never been able to resist those flashed, brilliant smiles, not ever.

     The people surrounding us, after a brief interest in our interaction, had gone back to their dancing and conversations.

     Then Lady Gaga's "So Happy I Could Die" came on, my favorite song of hers. I noticed all this because I felt like I was both encased in ice and also a hollowed shell filled with it, and everything moved around me on a distant plane.

     My mind was not accepting this, this... this person in front of me. His existence in the same city, the fact he was not in Asia, the fact that he'd just told me I looked incredible.

     I took a deep breath. "But why? Why are you looking for me?"

     "It's..." Zane looked embarrassed, and bit his lip. "It's a long story." He looked at the rapt audience of my friends. "Can we go somewhere and talk?" his head tilted, and the soft dark lines of his hair tumbled slightly across his cheek.

     I wanted to touch that hair. I wanted to ask where he got that bruise. I want to run my hands up his shirt and make him lose those jeans. It'd been so long; it felt like an eternity.

     "Why are you coming after him now?" Areli said, his voice confrontational. "Hasn't it been months?" I'd told him enough about the relationship that he knew that much.

     "That's... part of the story." I saw Zane narrow his eyes at my friend; was that jealousy there?

     My mind started to wake up. Areli was right; it didn't just feel like an eternity, it was an eternity. Four months. What the hell had taken him so long?

     Four months of emotional confusion, of convincing myself nothing had happened but some fun sexy times. Four months of getting my sorry head straight, of no longer feeling like a love-sick, kicked puppy.

     How much brain energy that I desperately needed for other things had I wasted on Zane? How many nights that I really needed at least 4 hours had I not slept at all because of him?

     Too damn many. Who was he to be jealous? At what point had he ever shown any interest in us being more than non-fucking fuck buddies?

     Well, there was that time in the hotel room where he begged you to stay and you did and -

     I pushed that out of my mind. Fuck. He'd always fucked with me so easily, and here he was, doing it again. Undoing all my careful work of putting myself together, of compartmentalizing him as someone who hadn't given a damn about me anyways. I'd maybe found someone to date, to be normal with, and of course he had to come and destroy that too... Shit. Why did it all have to be so dramatic?

     "You couldn't have emailed?" I asked dryly. "You know, even once?" Once would have been enough. One email was all I would have needed, if it had been the right email.

     Zane looked at me, his eyes searching my face. "I should have. I know. Please, just give me an hour-"

     God, so fucking attractive I wanted to cry; especially with that open, boyish look on his face. I needed to kiss him.

     "I've got to go," I mumbled, and before I could think or second guess myself I almost ran to the door.

     I think I heard Scott say "too little too late, man," behind me, and then Lucy going "I'm sorry I took your call, jerk!" I would have laughed at my friends if I wasn't feeling so overwhelmed.

     The cold air hit my face and arms hard, and even my heat-generation skills weren't enough. Damn, I'd forgotten my jacket inside on a chair, as had all my friends -

     "Here," it was Areli, holding up my coat. "I grabbed them."

     "Thanks," I said gratefully.

     "No problem." He sounded and looked subdued, his eyes briefly meeting mine before he turned away.

     "Look..." I turned to my friends, all of whom had tumbled out the door after me. Mina was about to say something but I cut her off. "You all should stay out. Stay in the club. We paid, and Mina, you're here, and... this is my stupid drama. I just need to go deal with it."

     "We want to stay with you," Scott said stubbornly, my always loyal friend. "That was really random, and it's not your fault he just showed up out of nowhere."

     "Ethan." Mina put her arm around my waist, and leaned in to me. "I don't know what this means, and I don't know why he's here..."

     "Because he's a stalker, that's why!" said Scott.

     "I want a stalker like that..." Lucy said with a sigh. I looked at her, and she winked at me. I had to smile. She was more sober than she appeared, and was obviously trying to make me feel better.

     "...but are you sure you don't want to talk to him?" Scott swore, but Mina continued stubbornly on. "I'm not sure walking away from him is going to help anything. I mean, he's obviously here for you- "

     "I can't talk to him," I said in response, running a hand through my hair. "I just... can't. I don't know what to say. I'm sure he's not only here for me, he must be doing something in the city for a couple of days. He does live here."

     "Yes, but -"

     "Four months!" I exploded, looking at her, feeling raw and stupid and dramatic and angry. "If he in any way at all wanted to actually connect with me why the hell would he take four months to do it??! My email hasn't changed. We don't live in a world where it's that goddamn hard to get in touch with someone from across the globe. Why else would he do it but to just fuck with me, to fuck with my head?"

     Mina didn't say anything to that, her expression troubled.

     "No. There's not a good reason for him to be here, to have hunted me down." I stuffed my hands in my jacket pocket, and shook my head. "Nothing that isn't going to really fuck with me and fuck everything up. I'm too busy for this." This was me trying to convince myself, trying to make what I said real.

     "Yeah, you are," Scott said, and gave me a playful shove. "Good for you. Are you ready to continue to have a great night?"

     I looked up and smiled at him. I couldn't let my drama, and the appearance of the focal point of all that drama, get me down. The night was important to Scott, obviously; the three of us together again, if only for a really brief time. "Let's go."

     "Excellent! Let's try that club down the street, it doesn't look so bad." Scott looked to Areli, who was just standing there, looking off down the street. "You coming?" It was a bit of challenge; there was a 'are you gonna be a pain in the ass, now?' tone to my friend's voice that was hard to miss.

     Areli turned back to us, and while he didn't smile, he nodded. "I'm coming."     

     "Excellent!" Scott started to lead us down the street.

     Areli walked next to me, but didn't say anything.

     There was no sign of Zane leaving the club after us. I felt a familiar feeling in my gut. Of course he wasn't going to come after me - it was just a whim on his part, and nothing worth working for.

     That was just the way he was.


 

     I didn't have a horrible time the rest of the night. Okay, I drank too much. It'd been a long while since I'd done so - that took money - but my friends all kept buying me alcohol to make sure I was having a good time.

     And I was also trying to make sure I was having a good time, so of course I didn't say no to all these drinks.

     Mina kept checking on me every five seconds until I told her to stop. She tried to talk about it, but I just shook my head, made myself smile, and said I was fine. It wasn't the right situation to get all introspective, I told myself, no good will come of that.

     Mostly I danced. The place we were at was even smaller than the last club but completely packed, and it was an 80s new wave night. I could live with that; Duran Duran was good for the emo soul.

     Thoughts would flicker in and out of my head, insecurity about whether I should have walked away from Zane. He'd been there, in front of me, starring at me, wanting to talk to me somewhere alone. He'd come after me.

     And I'd walked away.

     Yet thank god I'd walked away, because if I hadn't? What would we have done, gone somewhere to make out? Gone somewhere and had my obsession burst in to flame again, filling my mind and burning my emotions to a crisp? My response to my friends wasn't an excuse - I really, truly couldn't afford to spiral down intoemotional confusion and self-pity again. My life was an uncertain balancing act at the moment, and I couldn't let the former obsession who didn't necessarily treat me very well disrupt that.

     No, I'd made the right decision. Dancing was the remedy.

     This kept me going until about 1am, until, after several beers, Areli finally said something.

     He'd been distant since we'd left the other club, his usual playfulness dialed way down. He'd danced with me, or, to be more specific, AROUND me, but had barely spoken. His face was serious. Sometimes I'd catch him looking at me thoughtfully, but after the first couple of times I stopped trying to engage him in more than small talk.

     That made me feel a horrible - I'd never wanted to have him see even a hint of how much Zane affected me, but it had happened regardless.

     Mina and Scott were being all cuddly and cute and kinda gross on the dance floor, and Lucy was just having a grand time dancing whether we were with her or not. Areli and I had pulled back to get some water, and watch the crowd.

     "Hey...." He started, and I looked at him. His face was thoughtful. "So."

     I waited.

     "That was the ex-boyfriend, huh?"

     "I'm not really so sure about 'boyfriend'," I sighed. "We never exactly got to the point where we named ourselves."

     "Fuck buddy?"

     "No." I looked down into the depths of my drink. "We were too intense for that. Sometimes, at least." Nor were we fucking enough.

     "Lover?"

     I had to laugh. "That's what my mother said he was. It's as good a word as any."

     "You never told me he was the lead singer of Snowborne, Ethan," he sounded more than a bit accusatory, his eyes hurt. "When you said they were a band on tour I figured some mid-level garage outfit, not the hot band of the moment."

     "They weren't as big as they are now four months ago!" I protested. "The fame was just starting."

     "Yeah, but most of us still knew who they were, especially in New York. It's pretty major. Did you think I'd be intimidated by the fact you'd dated a celebrity? That I wasn't sure I could live up? I could have handled it, you know. It would have just made me work harder."

     I looked at Areli incredulously; how much that wasn't the case was amazing. He was kidding, right? No, that was a serious question.

     I shook my head. "God, no, not at all. I don't actually think you're easily intimidated by anything, least of all old 'lovers' who happen to be singers."

He finally smiled at that, his face becoming less severe. We both knew it was true; his ego was ironclad.

     "No..." I looked down again, and back up at him, making myself tell him the truth. "I was just embarrassed."

     "Embarrassed?" he was genuinely puzzled. "To be with a crazy sexy musician?" I winced inwardly. I would really like less reminding about how attractive Zane was, please. How much his physical presence was going to screw with my sexual fantasies was annoying enough. "I gotta tell you, Ethan, that is weird. Most gay boys I know would be bragging endlessly about that."

     "Brag?" I snorted. "Brag about what? Brag about being his plaything? Brag about how quickly he got sick of me? Make people jealous of how much more I liked him than he liked me? Tell the story of how I was nothing but a pretty little groupie to keep him busy? No, I don't think so." I turned a bit and smiled at him. "It's not exactly something I'm proud of, even tho' I've tried to convince myself I should be. I was just a thing. A silly, silly thing."

     Areli caught the reference, and snorted. But he reached out, and wrapped an arm around me. Oddly, my first reaction was to tense up, but I stifled that, and leaned in to him. He was warm, and smelled good.

     "If you were so much just a thing," he said quietly, after a moment. "Why was he here? Is he just messing with you?"

     There was no easy answer for that, and, honestly, I didn't want an answer. That's why I had left before I could talk to Zane - because I didn't want to be messed with. And if I had stayed around him even a moment longer, there was a good chance I would have offered myself up for just that.

     Areli broke the silence, his lips in my hair. "So were you in love with him?" he almost whispered.

     I closed my eyes. "Utterly and completely."

     It was his turn to sigh.

 


 

 

     The night ended strangely for me. For all of us. After he had sighed Areli had rather suddenly kissed me, slowly at first, but then more passionately, our tongues warring and our bodies moving closer.

     Was he the one I pictured kissing me? I wasn't sure, and it was dangerous to think about. What I do know is that had I been allowed to continue I would have definitely ended up sleeping with him that night; I desperately wanted to.

     Lucy was the immediate reason it didn't happen. She was trashed by that time, more so than we had thought, and was being pulled by a blond guy that screamed sleaze from head to toe.

     She then puked on the floor when we started to pull her away, causing us all to get kicked out. The club didn't want to deal with the consequences of having someone as trashed as her in there, and I couldn't blame them.

     It was then an odyssey from there to a late-night burger joint, at which time we plied her with water and food; it worked a bit, enough to let her walk on her own.

     "I'm so sorry...." She groaned at one point, putting down the burger she was about to take a bite of to let her head fall in one hand, her blond hair cascading down. It was in the ketchup, but it wasn't worth telling her. Scott reached surreptitiously forward and swept that strand to the side. "This is so embarrassing..."

     "Don't worry about it," Mina consoled cheerfully, stuffing a couple of fries in her mouth. "It happens to all of us."

     "But ETHAN should be drunk!" She slurred. I was surprised she was still so wasted. "Not me!"

     "Noooooo." I protested, shaking my head violently, "And I'm not exactly sober. But trashed.... that would probably lead me to crying in the corner, and that's not fun at all. You're still fun, Lucy; you just got a bit... exciting."

     "Except for the spewing," Scott amended thoughtfully. "That wasn't fun."

     We all nodded agreement at that. True, vomit was rarely a blast. "At least we didn't have to clean it up!" Mina pointed out.

     "True!" Scott agreed, and Lucy couldn't help but laugh, although it ended in a cough.

Areli was still quiet throughout this, mostly because he was concentrating on running a finger in circles around my neck, and rubbing my thigh with his other hand. It was a bit rough, but I did like it. Maybe I would-

     And then Lucy's face fell forward, splat in her hamburger. Out cold.

     "What the..." Scott gawped.

     "Are we SURE she only had alcohol?" Mina fretted. "Could there be something else, either self-administered or... not? It was a pretty sleazy club."

     "Shady shit definitely goes down there," Areli agreed.

     "We've got to get her home," I said, and stood up to lift her out of her chair. "Help me, Scott." He did, and threw her arms around our necks. Thank god we weren't far from home, or a bit of hell was going to turn into a lot of it.

     By the time we got her situated in bed, with Mina having the honors of removing her clothes and making sure Lucy wasn't at risk of choking on her own vomit and was able to talk, albeit it in a very garbled manner, I was insanely exhausted. It wasn't just physical, despite the dancing like a crazy person; it was also emotional. I was worried about Lucy. But I was also still caught up about seeing Zane. That thought of who I really wanted came back, and I found myself awkward around Areli again as we stood in my living room.

     Honestly, if he had been forward like he'd been in the club, if he had kissed me, I still probably would have asked him to curl up with me. Having someone to rub and move against and fuck sounded really good right about then.

     But he obviously sensed my hesitation and my exhaustion, and instead of making a move he awkwardly touched my arm with a smile. Maybe his ego wasn't quite as ironclad as I believed. "So... want to hang out after Mina is gone?" he wasn't coming to our goofy little internal Thanksgiving, where we were going to order tons of Chinese food and watch Arnold Schwarzenegger movies for 12 hours. He actually had a family nearby. He'd invited me, but I had already promised to spend it with Scott and Mina.

     I nodded. "Sure, sounds good." Don't go, I almost said, come sleep with me, I want to curl up around you. I want you to kiss me, and to distract me, and to keep me from thinking about Zane.

But I didn't. Somehow I knew that wasn't exactly fair, as much as I desperately wanted sex. "Good night... and happy Thanksgiving."

     "Good night." And there he went.

     No sexy Areli-led rubbing-slash-distracting for me.

     I dragged my sorry bones to bed, and collapsed.

     And instead of sleeping, for at least an hour I thought about Zane. It was really lonely.

     The repeating questions: Did I make the right decision in turning away from him? My heart ached. But I was damn sick of being played with.

     And after what had just kind of gone down with Areli - fuck, I needed to sort that out. Was it because of Zane? Or was Areli just not what I wanted regardless of how screwed I was emotionally?

     Luckily sleep eventually came, and somehow I managed to stay in that state until 9:30. I woke up somewhat rested, and emotionally disquieted.

     "You okay there, handsome?" Mina asked playfully as I wandered out into the living room, yawning. She was still wearing her jammies, curled up in our red papa-san and reading a magazine. Scott was an epic sleeper; who knew when we'd see him. Lucy had already left to join her boyfriend and other friends for the day. "How can you sleep without a shirt with how cold it is?"

     I shrugged, and threw on the long sleeve shirt I had brought out with me. "My old house was colder." It was true. NY had nothin' on the northern Midwest, at least so far.

     She laughed. "Crazy but hot boy. So how are you feeling?"

     I took a deep breath, and let myself fall on to the couch. "Honestly?"

     "Of course."

     "I don't want to talk about it." I turned and gave her a smile, to show that wasn't an unhappy statement. As I expected, she looked a bit shocked. "Not to you in particular - just generally. I don't know if I did the right thing, but that's what I did. I walked away. When I think about it, my brain breaks. It hurts. What was he going to say to me? Now I'll never know."

     She nodded.

     "So." I looked at our peeling, slightly grimy ceiling. "I've got to live with it. And if I analyze it I don't think I can."

     "Yeah." Mina pulled her feet in more and rested her chin on her hands at the bamboo edge of the papa-san, looking at me thoughtfully. "I can't blame you."

     "Good. Because I'm doing enough blaming of myself." I blinked at her playfully.

     "So does that mean we can't talk about Areli?" She asked it gently, openly giving me the ability to go, 'no, let's not talk about that, either'. But it wasn't half as avoidable a topic. Areli was here, Areli was in my life, and Areli wasn't going to be touring around the world any time soon. His presence couldn't be ignored.

     I shrugged. "Him I don't mind talking about. The problem is I don't know what to say. Coffee?"

     "Sure!" Mina held up her cup with a huge grin. "I've already had two devilishly strong cups. Bring it on."

     I laughed, and started fiddling with the machine. Areli Areli Areli.

     Zane. My mind just kept snapping back to Zane. Damn, why did he have to show up last night? Why did I wish I could have told him off? Why wasn't I glad I had finally shown a backbone? Wasn't that sort of thing supposed to be purifying, damn it? I hit the button to start the coffee.

     "Ah, Ethan, you're zoning out," Mina appeared behind me, and reached around me to turn off the machine.

     I snapped around to look at her and smiled. "No no, I'm fine! Totally plugged in. Just woke up, that's all. Why'd you turn it off?"

     "Well, mmm, don't you need to add water to the machine?" She opened up the reservoir to show me its cavernous dryness with a grin. "To, you know. Make coffee. I could be wrong. That's just what I've heard."

     "Oh, shit." I blinked. "Yeah." I took care of that, making myself pay attention to what I was doing, and then flopped on the couch again. "Maybe just a little bit of zoning."

     "Just a bit," she agreed affectionately.

     Before she could probe about the men in my life – or not in my life, as the case may be – I asked her about how Scott and she were doing.

     We were BSing about New York when my cell phone rang in my bedroom. I considered ignoring it, but it might have been my mom calling me from Europe to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving, and I'd be a bad son to miss that.

     Instead it was my agent. "Ethan here," I said a bit quizzically when I answered.

     "Ethan, Tony. Happy Turkey Day." Brisk and wryly funny, he was an easy man to work with. Still, today was one day I didn't expect to hear from him. Maybe it was about reshoots, or something coming immediately after the holiday?

     "Happy Thanksgiving. Is everything okay?"

     "Everything is... but I've just had a special request for you for a magazine editorial, for a particularly high fee; I wanted to call you right away."

     I was not going to turn down a particularly high fee, uh uh, especially for an editorial. "What magazine?"

     "The new hipster mag Mirror, you know, the one that did that kinky Glee/Gossip Girl pictorial everyone was talking about. They asked for you specifically without me sending your book over; said they had seen your picture elsewhere. She couldn't tell me where, but I double-checked with their publisher; this is legit."

     "Great!" I paused. Tony sounded a bit hesitant, like he did when he knew there was a chance I couldn't take a great assignment because of my schedule. "What's wrong with it? Is it during one of my classes?"

     "No..." he cleared his throat. "It's in two hours."

     "Two hours?!" I looked at the clock. 10:15 am. "I have to be there at 12:15? On Thanksgiving day?!"

     "Oh, is that how late it is? Sorry. I meant an hour and 45 minutes. Wait, hour 44, now." Droll as always. It was his way of acknowledging it was ridiculous, but I knew he thought I should take it regardless of what day it was on. He was constantly telling me I'd be given much bigger assignments than I was, if I was just willing to sacrifice some of my school on the modeling alter.

     I thought about the offer. Big fee. I really needed some big booking fees to sock away for next semester. Also, it's not like I had solid plans aside from Chinese and movies; Mina and Scott could get some time alone in the apartment, and I could be back in time for seafood, soft wide noodles and Running Man. "I'll do it."

     "Good. You'll need to show up at-" he rattled off the info, I scribbled it down, and thanked him.

     "Everything okay?" Mina asked, head cocked.

     "Wellll...." I started apologetically, and explained the situation.

     "Oh, fuck yeah you should take it!" She'd been hanging around Scott too much, I swear.

     "This might take all day..."

     She thought about it. "That's disappointing, but you need the money, right? And we still have tonight. And tomorrow! I don't leave until Saturday!"

     I was grateful, and kissed her on the cheek. "Thanks. I'll give you guys a call."

     "Excellent. And we'll keep ourselves busy." Her grin was evil.

     "I'm sure you will." I raised my eyebrows at her. "Just stay off the couch with that 'busy keeping', 'kay?" She giggled, and I figured I was probably going to be ignored on that one. I would never be totally comfortable with communal living and its attendant questionable hygiene, but I was getting used to it.

     In an hour I was showered, primped, in loose jeans and t-shirt and generally presentable. The shoot was in a private home, a stunning old Upper East Side townhouse with beautiful white marble and antique European furniture.

     I was led into a drawing room fashioned in such a way that can only be described as opulent, and introduced to the young photographer, Carlton Ortega. I'd certainly heard of him; he was a major up and comer. He shook my hand – already friendlier than most of the photogs I'd worked with so far – and stepped back to give me a thorough appraisal.

     "Hm. Yeah, you are exactly what I was looking for." He sounded like there had been doubts. "Good. Get him ready." His staff swooped me off to an open corner to undress and prep me. Modeling was not a profession for the body shy; my swimming prepared me well for that.

     "Who owns this place, do you know?" I asked the kind but serious woman doing my hair and makeup.

     "No one, at the moment," she answered, adding some more product to my hair. "The last resident had to decamp rather quickly after a bad divorce, and it's in limbo at the moment. Held by investors who aren't above making some extra money from events and photo shoots. Even on Thanksgiving Day." That last statement came out a bit sharp and dry, which didn't surprise me. Just because I didn't have a family in the immediate area who cared if I was at a family meal didn't mean most of the crew didn't.

     "Interesting..." I had to shut up at that point, since she needed to apply lip gloss.

     The shoot was not particularly difficult, if at moments vaguely uncomfortable. I was paired up with a beautiful older blonde woman I sort of recognized as a local socialite. She was between 35 and 40, and the theme of the pictorial appeared to be "Older woman and her rent boy". The clothing for me was tight pants and hipster style shirts, while she was in flowing but revealing dresses. My shirt came off pretty quickly. She was friendly enough, and seemed to enjoy touching me, with a definite focus on my pectorals. (This was where the vague discomfort came in). She wasn't especially talkative. This didn't bother me; I could just concentrate on my instructions to gaze at her like a goddess who I was being paid to ravage.

     A mixed blessing was that this gave me some time to think about Zane and Areli whenever I had a chance. There was still the constant question of whether I had made the right decision; I wasn't sure about that. No, that wasn't true - mentally I knew I made the right decision but emotionally I yearned see Zane again. I was torn. And Areli... He was really into me. Was it fair to be so much less into him and still enter into a relationship? Somehow I knew that just fucking him was no longer a real option. Why did I continually ask myself this question but never have an answer?

     Luckily, Carlton was very efficient and knew what he wanted, and told us so clearly, so I never had too long to concentrate on drama. I really liked him and his professionalism.

     About 3 hours later we were done, and Carlton came up to shake my hand. "Great job, Ethan. I'm surprised I haven't seen your work before."

     I resisted the urge to wrap my arms around myself - I'd been half naked for a good long time, and even my personal warmth couldn't fight the chilliness of the old house - and took the proffered hand with a genuine smile. "I'm also a full-time student at Parsons," I said, "So I don't shoot much."

     He nodded. "Good for you; modeling rarely lasts forever, or even 5 years. Well, I look forward to working with you again." He handed me his card, and went off with his assistant to pack up.

     I got dressed in my own clothes again, feeling pretty good. That wasn't too bad at all, I thought, happy I had taken the job.

      After thanking the crew I'd worked with I threw on my coat, and headed out the large doors to the foyer, starting down the grand, sweeping staircase. At the bottom Carlton was talking to someone. I stopped dead.

     This was getting ridiculous.

      "Zane?" I asked, not trusting myself to descend further. The charcoal long coat with a military collar he was wearing was fantastic, and made him even more dramatic looking than usual; no small feat. He was all dark, smooth lines, what with those shining black shoes and black hair.

     Zane turned his face to look at me, and took his hands out of his pockets; he was wearing tight fitting black leather gloves. Oh, god, that was sexy. "Ethan..."

     The photographer looked at both of us. I stood stiffly starring at Zane, while Zane looked up at me with a concerned, apologetic expression. Carlton narrowed his eyes. "I have the distinct impression you two have something to talk about." He patted Zane on the arm, and nodded up at me. "Good luck, boys." He left through the doors heading down to the street, leaving us briefly alone.      

     "Ethan -" Zane started again, until the doors behind me opened and a bunch of crew members with equipment and wardrobes came down. They eyed us curiously. To get out of their way I had to finish my journey down the stairs, which was terrifying, because it brought me closer to him. Just as I reached the final step the caterer accidentally bumped in to me with their huge tray, and with an "umph!" I tripped forward.

     Zane quickly reached out and grabbed me on each arm, and I couldn't avoid clutching his forearms.

     Fuck he was handsome, fuck he smelled good; I wanted to hug him more than I wanted to breath. As quickly as possible I pulled back, stepping several steps away.

     He dropped his hands. "Are you okay?" He asked quietly. His voice bounced around the marble of the space, reminding me of how wonderful it sounded, so clear; it had been muted by the many sounds of the club the night before.

     I ignored the question. "Why are you here?"

     "Carlton's an old friend of mine; he's done a lot of work with the band." I opened my mouth, anger and embarrassment forming in my stomach, but Zane anticipated me, holding up his hands. "I had seen him before I went to the club last night, and he told me about the shoot, and how he had lost his model. I showed him some pictures of you on your agency website, and said you were very professional. He chose you because he thought you were right, Ethan. I didn't pressure him or tell him anything else about you. About us."

     I made myself repressthe things I wanted to ask, like about why he knew what agency I worked for or where my portfolio was. He seemed sincere, although I was still uncomfortable with the idea.

     More pressingly, he hadn't really answered the question.

     "Why are you here?" I repeated, wrapping my arms around myself. I wasn't physically cold any longer. I was just shocked and exhausted.

     "Because I need to talk to you, and you left me last night. I'm sorry I surprised you like that, but I didn't know how else to see you, and I'm not here for very long." he took a deep breath. "I didn't see the pictures you left, or read your message, until three days ago."

     That made absolutely no sense to me. "Wait, what?" Not seeing them at all because I had been too exhausted to give the concierge an actual name and hotel room, sure. I'd worried about that. "Did you not look at them for the whole time?"

     "No - it's more complicated than that." He held out his hand to me, and I stared at it, at its smooth, leather perfection. "Please, Ethan, come to dinner with me. Let me explain."

     I stepped back from him. A little voice screamed yes, but my extreme hurt told me to get away from him, to get away from this ball of pain in my stomach. Four months. Why did this feel like more of the same?

     Because it was.

     Ideally I would have made a statement, said something strong and dramatic, but I couldn't be that articulate.

     I simply shook my head, shoved my hands in my pockets and headed towards the door. He reached for my arm, and I sidestepped out of his reach, knowing if he stopped me I wouldn't be able to escape twice.

     "Ethan!" I kept moving. I had the door open.

     "When I sang 'Silly Thing' at that party, it wasn't about you." I stopped. This wasn't at all what I had expected him to say. To an extent I'd forgotten how important that incident had been to me, and now I suddenly remembered how small it had made me feel. His voice was soft, subdued. "The song is about me, about the stupid things I do, my crazy twisted mind games. It has always been about me. There's a Spin interview when the song came out where I talk about it. I can find it for you, if you'd like." He took a step closer. "It's was about me that night, also. I was singing at you about what an idiot I am with you; never about you. You were never silly to me."

     Then he was right next to me, and his hand was on my arm. I was transfixed. "Please. Just talk to me. For an hour. That's all."

     Damn him – I was right; the bastard had successfully stopped me, and I didn't have the strength to say no to him twice.

      I nodded.

     What followed was the most uncomfortable taxi ride ever, for a variety of reasons. It was no more than 10 minutes but felt like 10 eternities. The whole time I was silently yelling at myself for being there; I pulled myself inwards, deeper in to my coat as I pondered getting out at a crosswalk and making a dash for it.

     And yet I didn't want to, because I was also keyed up, excited and scared out of my mind at the same time.

     Zane. Zane was next to me. I could smell him, hear him breathe, at moments sense him looking at me. I wanted to bury myself in that coat. Also, to punch him. I stared at my hands. What was he here for?

     "Do you like living in New York?" he asked. He sounded unsure; good, I was glad I wasn't the only nervous one. "How's school?"

     "Yes. It's an incredible city. School's great. How's the tour?" I said robotically.

     "Okay. Really stressful."

     He started to say something else, perhaps to ask another question, and I cut him off. "I can't do small talk with you." Four months. I could not do small talk after four months.

     He made a sound that was both amused and sad. "Sorry." Another moment of silence. "Was that guy last night your boyfriend?"

     Dιjΰ vu all over again. "Would it matter if he was?" Suddenly I desperately wished that Areli and I were an item; maybe that would make this easier. Or harder? Hell if I knew.

     "For me? Yes."

     I didn't respond to that. What the hell did it mean? Did I want to know?

     We pulled up to some stunning luxury hotel; I didn't even pay attention to which one it was. It was fancy. It was in Manhattan. I was with Zane. He walked up to the concierge to ask them a question.

     So he'd just gotten my art, and my note. So why was he here, asking me to talk to him, asking if I was seeing someone - was it emotional manipulation? Or, more likely, an attempt to work his personal guilt out? I didn't want to talk to him if that was the case. But why else would he be here, and be so desperate to talk to me? If he was really interested in me he would have emailed, no matter that he hadn't gotten my note. But maybe he needed to make a big deal of this to feel better.

     Whatever it was, I couldn't believe it was good.

     We went upstairs in a large, lovely elevator, with another couple that served to blunt the thick, gagging tension that surrounded us. We ended up in a modern high-rise restaurant. Once again, I couldn't tell you the name of the place if you paid me. All my brain cells were focused on keeping me from going berserk.

     We were seated, our napkins put in our laps, our water poured, a drink order taken. Then the concierge showed up at our table, holding two things – a zipped portfolio-style bag, and a familiar computer case.

     Zane thanked the concierge, and handed him money, enough to make the man leave us looking very pleased. He then opened the portfolio, and lifted out the stack of pictures I had left him.

"I came to see you because of these."He handed them to me over the table.

I looked down at my silly drawings. They appeared immature to me now, what with everything I'd already learned in school. "You said you just got them." On top was the one with the message, asking him to contact me. I winced with embarrassment; what a stupid, childish message to scribble to a grown man who didn't want anything to do with me. He'd had the pictures, and my little plea to be in touch, for so very long. How could anyone be so mercurial as to ignore someone for a quarter year, and then suddenly show up in their life out of the blue, hunting and pinning them down? Hunting and pinning ME down? "What does this have to do with you being here? They're mostly the ones you had seen before, in my sketchbook." I'd left them because I had wanted to demonstrate how focused I was on him, how much he was on my mind, how I pictured and pined for him. Maybe I had hoped it would charm him into getting in touch. Such a stupid move.

          Zane shook his head, frowning, and ran a hand through his hair. "I didn't have them; Rick did, and didn't give them to me until a couple of days ago. The concierge had given him your bag, and he took them out before giving it to me."

"Oh." My hands were gripping the papers so tight I was crinkling them, and he reached forward and took them back gently. That was probably a good idea, since I had the strongest urge to start shredding. The waiter came; we ordered. I think I just got a burger. I wasn't hungry.

"Why?"

His face came alive with anger. " I don't know, and the bastard wouldn't tell me."

Without thinking I reached up to the bruise on his cheek, wanting so badly to touch it gently – then caught myself, and pulled back, curling my fingers inwards. "Did he do that?"

"Yeah. Mostly because I'd punched him a couple of times first." He gave a lopsided smile that fell off quickly. "He deserved it. I could kill Rick for keeping those pictures." Zane flexed his fingers, looking down at his hands; I wondered if he was remembering hitting the other man. "It wasted so much time."

     I watched him, my mind turning. "You said he gave them back to you? Why?"

     "I'm... not sure." He looked disturbed, as if there was more to it than that. "He didn't say, and didn't seem like he was going to. I wish he wasn't such a manipulative prick, wasn't so... malicious. He's so uncaring about how what he does affects other people."

     "I don't think that's malice," I said, and he looked up at me, surprised. "I think... he has trouble expressing himself in ways that aren't so harsh." I'd thought about Rick a lot over the last several months. A small fraction of the time I'd thought about Zane, but enough to have my theories about him.      

I remembered his defense of me after Zane and I had fought, before I had left. That anger, that sense of injustice, had been genuine. I wasn't angry at him for keeping the pictures; he had justified it to himself, I'm sure. In a weird way, it was sort of flattering. He could be cruel, but there was also something deeper there beneath the razors, something confused and hurt.      

     I looked down at my water glass. "You should be easier on him. He looks up to you. Maybe, he just doesn't know how to express it."

          "Looks up to me?"

          "I think... what Rick does isn't from malice; he's not uncaring. Especially about Snowborne. Especially about you." I couldn't come out and say it - that felt like a betrayal, somehow, of the admittedly twisted version of friendship Rick had shown me at the end. "And what does it matter? They're just pictures; it's just a small, stupid message. If you had wanted to get in touch you would have, and you didn't. I still don't understand why you're here." I was pushing around my silverware, bringing them towards me then pushing them away, push and pull.

There was a moment of silence. "Ethan." I looked at him. The diffused light from the windows hit his face, lighting up his perfect nose, the dark circles under his eyes. "Ethan – I'm sorry. I'm sorry I took so long to get in touch with you. You're right, it's just a small message, but I read a lot into your leaving without telling me, without saying anything. I thought you hated me, I thought contact, especially during a time when I couldn't see you, would just fuck things up more. I've..." he stopped, and it seemed like it was hard for him to continue, but he took a deep breath and went on. "I've thought constantly about you, about how I would try to find you here when we got back, hoping that maybe time would fix everything. I've thought of different ways I could repair it, stop you from hating me."

     "Hate you? I didn't actually hate you," I replied, echoing my written message. "I can't hate you. God, I want to hate you so damn much. But I can't. What I am is really. Damn. Hurt. Time was helping fix me, but that doesn't make seeing you here any less painful." I hadn't noticed before, but I was having trouble breathing. I wasn't numb; I was freaking out, and trying to keep it together. And failing.

     I took a deep breath. He looked like he was going to say something else, and I cut him off as something in me broke. I looked up and trapped his gaze with whatever he saw in my expression.

"You know why I'm hurt? You're incredible and great to me, and you invite me to London. I go, and you treat me like crap, but then beg me to stay when I try to leave. You're wonderful, briefly." My vehemence surprised even me. "We have sex, and then you slip away even further. You practically kick me out; how could I not leave after you told me point blank you didn't want me there, that you regretted my presence? That I was too damn young?"

"I know. I completely fucked it up." Zane's voice was so quiet, so deep and soft.

Before I could respond the waiter came to place our food in front of us. There was a deeply uncomfortable pause, and the poor man wisely didn't waste time in telling us to enjoy before quickly disappearing.

     "Why are you here?" I picked up my fork and put it down again, the thought of eating making me nauseous. "Maybe Rick hid the pictures, but couldn't you have emailed me anyway if it really mattered?" I just wanted some demonstration that you liked me, so I could feel good about myself being in love with you. I didn't say that, however. I couldn't admit that to him. "I don't understand why you're here." I was feeling very repetitive. "Thom and Samuel told me that when you look good, sometimes powerful people like you want a toy." His expression twisted, and I could tell he was about to protest. I cut him off. "But I don't care anymore why you are the way you are." That was a lie. I ran my hands through my hair. "This makes me crazy. We're crazy. You drive me nuts, Zane. Please, stop - I can't take this. If you're here just to apologize, don't. I don't need it. It's not going to make me feel better."

     "I know. I know it's crazy. And yes, I'm here to apologize, but not only that; I need to explain. No, you were never a toy, and I could never think of you as one. Ethan..." I didn't move, and didn't want to look at him. The problem was that this isolated the sound of his wonderful, sexy voice, which wrapped itself around me, and then his hand was on my left arm, putting gentle, tortuous pressure there. "Ethan, look at me, please. I can't do this if you're not looking at me." I did so, because I couldn't resist him when he sounded so urgent, and also – this? What was he about to do?

     I made myself look up. He took both my wrists, gently but firmly. Not pulling away was difficult, but I resisted; this seemed important, somehow. Serious. And I obviously still took him seriously.

      He stared into my eyes, and the intensity was frightening. I recalled that feeling that there was something lupine about him, back when we had first met in that dingy dressing room."I treated you like shit to convince myself you weren't that important to me, and I always failed. When you left I felt empty. Every time you leave me I feel empty, from that first time we met. That night in London, when you said you were going to go – I begged you to stay because your leaving was the last thing I wanted. I was honest that night, more honest than I'd ever been. I told you I'm fucked up – I am. I'm a silly fucking thing because I couldn't handle how I felt about you, and I convinced myself you didn't feel as strongly as I did. That any emotion you felt towards me was just immaturity and base attraction. That enabled me to justify dismissing how I felt about you."

     He looked at where he held my wrists, moving his thumbs down my forearm. His hands were so well-formed. Zane's voice continued, his tone turned inward to the point where it almost felt like he was talking to himself. "It's a long, boring story, but I liked... being above it all with sex. I'd always distance myself from whomever I was sleeping with; often sleeping with people I wasn't particularly fond of. Controlling myself, who I was, not letting it get the best of me - It was easier that way. I always felt in control. When we fought, and you asked why I did that, why I made myself emotionless, you called me fake... you were right. That's exactly what I do, what I've always done. I am fake, because it terrifies me to be honest."

     God, I was so drunk that night and so many things had happened I'd pretty much forgotten I'd said that; what a strange flash of desperate wisdom. "That's really messed up," I said quietly. His touch felt wonderful, and I wanted to wrap my hands around his. At the same time, his words troubled me; I kept my arms still.

     He made a noise like a laugh, his eyes dark, and let me go. I didn't want him to, but I didn't stop him. "Unbelievably. You throw my equilibrium off, did from the beginning."

     "But you didn't seem to be that bothered in the beginning," I noted, a headache starting behind my eyes. "I remember it was me who thought too much, and you who laughed at me and teased me about my angst." The Chicago condo, the pure pleasure in his company, his body, and his pleasure in me.

     He laughed without humor. "I know; it's ridiculous, right? In the beginning I wasn't thinking yet. I just acted. When I saw you working in that hotel before the concert, I wanted you; it wasn't something I was used to, and it took me by surprise. And then at the concert - that desire crystallized. The way you talk, the way you laugh, those eyes - I didn't care about control then, or thinking. Being with you was enough. The next morning – I was disappointed that you had left, I felt it.... it was strange to me. I've never felt that as an adult. So instead of thinking about it I dismissed you, and thought I'd successfully rid you from my brain.

     "Then I saw you in Chicago – do you know how damn hard it was to not just drag you then and there from that alley back to the apartment? I almost did, you know. And when you showed up, and stayed with me... " I flushed. That had been our best night, where I had felt closest to him - the one time I had to try not to remember because it made me want to break things in frustration. Watching him, that frustration seemed to be mirrored in his face. His wonderful face with that perfect nose. "So I invited you to Europe, without thinking so I didn't change my mind, for no better reason than to have you near me. It felt like I needed you near me."

He brushed his hair out of his eyes, then stared down at his hands. "Then when you agreed to come, I was excited... Too excited. I felt out of control. I wanted you there so much I panicked, and tried to get emotionless again. I didn't know what I wanted from you, why I cared when I knew it couldn't last long. So I tried to convince myself what I wanted was nothing." He was looking down at his hands, flexing them, as if surprised by whose they were. "I pushed you away. Started the games again. The whole of my 20s have been a game, Ethan - I attempt to shape everything, control who I am, what I am. And you," he gave me a wry smile. God, he looked young. "You completely destroy that. You've always completely destroyed that. These last few months have been a fight between my desire to be in control of myself, and my desire to have you. When we fucked around I felt I couldn't disengage, and it felt like losing myself. So I ran away before we could get heavier. Distracted you. Told you I wasn't sure we should do more – because it would make us more. And it did. God, I wanted to cancel that concert at the Royal Albert, fuck you again, screw everything and hole up in a hotel with you for a week." I think I might have coughed. Damn it, this was not a conversation that should turn me on. Damn him. "It scared the hell out of me; I don't feel like I'm the one in control with you. And the next day... In the restaurant and you smiled and you were so perfect and happy and I knew I was about to lose you, and – I snapped."

     I remembered that; how could I forget? Potatoes flying through the air, everyone having a good time. Zane had been having a good time before a strange shift, and I had watched him slip away.

     I stared at him, at his bruised face and twisted, worried expression. Mina and I had been right – it had always been about control.

     At that moment I completely believed that Zane Butler was indeed at least kinda fucked up. I guess I hadn't wanted to hear it the first time he had told me this, back in London.

     My emotions cycled frantically as I tried to process that fact and also understand everything he had just said.

So everything I'd seen in Europe had been a strange internal fight, with me as both a participant and a very confused onlooker. Zane had just fucked with me again and again to keep from letting me get too close. Okay.

And me? Fuck, I wanted to hate him, but couldn't. I flashed on pity - I tried to grab on to that, to use it to anchor me, but it disappeared. He was still incredible looking, he was still often painfully charming, he was very giving, and thoughtful. He had the world. His talent was still enormous, as was his charisma. I still wanted him so badly it burned. I couldn't find him pitiful.

     He simply wasn't perfect. He might even have been pretty broken. How did I feel about that? What do I feel? I asked myself, scrabbling at the walls of my brain for clarity.

     My brain threw something back that made me want to cry.

I still wanted him. Somehow, seeing him vulnerable made me want him more. Was that sick?

     I had this desire to take his hands and say its okay, even though it wasn't, not really, not then. I felt a desire to ask him more questions, to figure out why he was like this. Desire to fling my uneaten roll across the table at his too-attractive face and call him a fucking mess. Desire to fuck him, to make him fuck me.

     I ran a hand through my hair, clawing at it, honestly. Nothing was what I thought it was, and yet I guess somewhere I'd known all of it, in lucid moments; I'd recognized genuine desire, and the fact that at moments he seemed more than just fond of me. But then I'd feel overwhelmed and would push that recognition down again. He had been something of a god, and I had wanted to see him that way. I hadn't been ready to recognize him as a screwed-up man with twisty motivations. I wasn't really ready now.

     Zane was watching me. "Ethan... I hate hurting you."

     "You hate the fact I can hurt you, more." I sounded bitter. I didn't care.     Zane winced. "No... I mean, yes. Both. I hated that everything about you hurt, in one way or another. The happier you were, the happier it made me, and the more that made me hate the fact you had to leave and I couldn't see you for months. So I convinced myself you didn't care, that you were maybe sleeping with Rick,that it was only about sex."

I felt a rush of rage at that; it was, to me, the stupidest thing he could have done. "Fuck that. Rick – even if I had slept with Rick it would have been about you, not him. How could you not think I cared? I was still there. I couldn't really afford to be, but I was. I'd told you directly you made me happy. I seduced you - you knew I'd never done anything like that before. How could you even begin to believe I didn't care?"

     "Believe?" Zane turned his head, staring out at the city. "No, I guess I didn't ever believe it. But I kept repeating it to myself, so it vaguely looked like the truth. I was an idiot. And about you affording it - You shouldn't have done that, refusing my money, Ethan," he said softly, looking back at me, "Used your own money instead of mine. It wasn't a big deal to me, it was to you. And I wanted to give it to you." He needed to stop meeting my eyes. Something melted in me every time he did, and it wasn't helping me think and respond.

     "There was no way I could have taken that money."

     "Why not?"

     I hated this line of conversation; I'd never meant to bring this up. "Have you considered what that felt like, taking money from someone who seemed like they didn't want me there?" I shook my head vehemently. "You didn't see me like a toy - that's not what it felt like when you gave me things, or money. Just... no. I don't regret that. Just like I don't regret giving that computer back; I didn't deserve it. I don't want it. It seemed like you gave it, and the money, to me because you were trying to keep me busy, get me out of your way."

     "No – I was trying to apologize for what a head case I was." He sighed."You're too much like me, Ethan. You're too proud. You won't take money from me, or your father – you don't have to do that."

     I looked out into the night, out into the city, and laughed, more in despair than with any sort of humor."Would I be here with you, if I was really too proud?"

     "I'm sorry." I turned back to him, entranced again by the quiet seriousness of his voice. "I'm sorry for how I treated you, I'm sorry for messing with your head. I'm so much more sorry than I can say. I'm sorry it took 4 months for me to say this, I'm sorry I got so wrapped up in my own fucked up mess I couldn't see what I'd done to myself. I'm sorry I hurt you. I wish I had time to explain more, but I needed to say this in person. I have to go back tonight, in an hour, actually, but -"

     "What?" I blinked at him, shocked. I'm not sure what I had expected, what I had thought subconsciously, but I was not prepared for this. He had mentioned that back at the shoot, but I hadn't processed his meaning. "What do you mean? Back where?"

     He smiled wryly. "To Tokyo. The concert that was supposed to be today is now in two days, but by the time I'll get there I'll only have a couple of hours. That's why I'm staying here – I don't want to go to my place and waste time, mess things up and then leave again for two months. "

     In one short conversation he'd completely upended my brain, told me things I'd never thought I'd hear from him. And after all that – Exit stage left.

     Fuck.

     Revelations, and then we'd be apart again. Here then gone.He'd told me so much. I needed to process it, figure out what it meant to me, so I could respond without blathering at him senselessly. If I really mattered, this was just the beginning. Fuck, I couldn't deny it, I wanted to respond, behind the anger and the shock something vaguely like hope had begun forming.

     But that hope would have nowhere to go, nothing to focus on.

     Zane was leaving. This wasn't a conversation, just a presentation. Maybe my initial concern had been correct – this was an expunging of his guilt, nothing more. What more could it be? Perhaps his initial response in Europe, to push me away, had been the right one. What else was there to do? We couldn't exactly try again. He was leaving.

     I stood up without warning, my chair making a loud screeching noise as it was pushed violently across the floor. "Ethan?" Zane said, face puzzled.

     "I have to go to the bathroom."

     "Ethan..." I didn't respond, just left the dining room, walking up to the hostess right inside the restaurant doors.

     "Is there a place I could go to get some air?" I asked her. "I just need a moment alone."

     She looked up from her terminal. "There's a balcony across the way, through the event room over there." She indicated with her head the doors she was facing. "We do ask that you refrain from smoking, as some of the guests can smell it if you do."

     I nodded, and followed her directions. I pushed through a glass door to find myself on a small, picturesque balcony. It provided an amazing view of the city, stark and grey in the fading November light. I could see my breath curling through the air.

      I could have sat in one of those chairs, but didn't make it that far. Instead I just leaned on the wall next to the exit, taking deep, steadying breathes. I closed my eyes and slid down until I landed on the cold stone. Pulling my legs in, I wrapped my arms around them and opened my eyes, looked unseeing at the night.

     My thoughts weren't linear. They were a mess of emotions and confusions and pain and contradictions. It was hard for me to handle what Zane had just told me, to believe it; that's why I needed time. All this new information destroyed my image of him as perfectly cool, perfectly contained. He sounded more confused than I did, more screwed by the experience than I had been. So human. But now he'd transferred that confusion right back to me, and was going to simply leave it there, until we met again.

     And who knew when the hell that would be? IF it would ever be? Could I really trust him, really believe this wasn't just another mind fuck?

     I had no clue how long I sat there before the door next to me opened, and Zane was there.

     "Ethan - are you okay?" he crouched down, his dark eyes full of concern. He put his hands on my arm, and even through the fabric his touch felt like fire.

     I looked at him. So fucking perfect. Even with a bruise on his cheek and dark, exhausted eyes, he was incredible, that nobile face and that wonderful, aristocratic nose. Those lips. I hated making him frown. I don't know what he saw in my eyes, but he tightened his grip. "Please talk to me. Please."

     I lifted my mouth from my arms. "I can't do this. Can't handle this, this... what you do to me." I shut my eyes and laid my head back. "God. I thought I was over you, I thought this was over. Why do you always have the most fucked up timing?" I laughed. "Wow. This is so stupid." It was. It was dramatic of me to be shutting down like this. But I couldn't stop myself. And how else could I respond, after the absurd drama of him showing up in New York just to tell me this, just to upend my life? "Why do you do this to me, Zane? Why are you the only one who makes me feel so powerless, so lost and silly? It feels like you have your finger on some goddamn switch." A switch I kept giving him access to. "I barely know you. We barely know each other! Why is this so endlessly, goddamned ridiculous?"

     Zane shook his head, his dark hair shifting. I wanted to touch it. Damn him. He sat down on the pavement next to me. "I don't know, Ethan." His voice was soft, open and raw. He needed to stop saying my name, touching my arm, being near me. "I keep asking that, have asked that since the beginning, and I don't have an answer."

     "If you don't have an answer, why couldn't you leave me alone? Can't you just go back to your perfect control? It would be so much easier if you just got on with your life, let me get on with mine." I scrunched up my face. "Leave me alone, Zane." Don't leave me alone again, Zane, is what I really meant. Don't leave. But that was too much, too raw. "Just leave me alone."

     "I can't." He leaned his head against my shoulder, that dark, soft hair near my mouth. "I mean to. But every time I try, it feels wrong. I don't feel right when I leave you alone. It doesn't matter what I tell myself, what I do; I keep coming back around to you. Where you are, what you're doing, what you're thinking, what you're drawing. Who you're with. If you're happy. If you hate me. It drove me crazy when I thought you hated me. I can't stop."

     I lowered my face the few millimeters into his hair, smelling it, smelling him, my lips then on his scalp. "I don't believe you," I whispered. "I don't think I want to. You're leaving, none of this means anything. You'll disappear, and I'll wait, and maybe you'll be back, maybe you won't. And I'll hurt. I'll just hurt, like I did for months. Don't make me do that." One of his arms had wrapped around my legs, and I put mine around him, feeling his lean, muscular back. I dug my fingers into his thin shirt. "Please, Zane."

     "I'm sorry." My legs fell, and he was sitting next to me, his arms around me. "I'm so very sorry, Ethan."

     "Stop saying my name," I begged, hugging him closer. I buried my nose in his neck, feeling his skin. He was shivering. Him and his complete inability to handle cold. At least he had a coat now. "Can't you leave me alone?" I repeated.

     "No." His voice was firm. He pulled me closer, our legs stretched out and entwined. Touching him was heaven and hell all at once. Being there, against him, felt so right, goddamn perfect, like it always had. This is why I didn't go further with Areli: it had been too poor a replacement for this.

     What he said about sex, wanting me constantly so not letting himself have me, playing those mind games with himself in the hope it would 'cure' him of me... what a waste. A waste of time, a waste of energy. A waste of emotion. I thought of all the times we could have done just this in England, except relaxed and without emotional charge in the air, just felt each other, just... been.

     And this right here was all I had, before he left again, off to his rock star life, off somewhere I couldn't be. Back to limbo, back to silence. He'd return to his control, I'd return to my life without him in it. "Fuck you, Zane Butler," I said without rancor. I might have been crying, I wasn't sure. He was breathing hard; I wanted to know what that meant but I didn't want to look at his face. I couldn't handle his emotion, couldn't handle whatever he was feeling or not feeling. I put my arms tightly around his torso, squeezing, trying to lend him as much of my heat as I could as my head fell on his chest. "Fuck you so damn much. You're a mess."

     "I know." now it was his lips in my hair, his nose, the warmth of his breath.

     We sat like that for what felt like eternity, and also no more than minutes. I had closed my eyes and willed myself not to think, not to look at him, not to ask any more questions. What good could they do?

     Our waiter finally came looking for us, opening the door and staring down in embarrassed confusion. "Excuse me..."

     "We'll be back inside in a moment," Zane said quietly, his voice deep, rumbling through me from his chest.

     The waiter nodded, at a loss for words, and closed the door.

     "We should get up," he said, and I nodded, making myself stand quickly. I shoved my hands in my pocket, not looking at him as he stood.

     We walked inside, back to the table. I didn't sit down; I couldn't, didn't want to.

     I didn't look at Zane. I was exhausted, embarrassed for my breakdown, emotionally empty.

     "I'm going to go," I said quietly, shoving my hands in to my pockets. I looked at my old, beat up shoes.

     "You have to take the computer, Ethan." He picked it up and held it out to me. "I have no use for it. I have my own. I bought it for you. Not guilt, or decadence... just. Please. Take it. If you don't, I'll throw it away."

     He sounded serious about that, and the thought of that beautiful machine being in the trash made me wince. And to be honest, I wanted it. I wasn't sure what I thought of our conversation yet, but I did believe his gifts weren't meant to buy me off. It was a piece of him.

I held out my hand, and took the case from him by the handle.

     Our hands touched, crossed. I looked at them, watched as he wrapped his fingers around mine and squeezed. And then pulled away.

     "Thank you for dinner," I said, despite it being pretty silly to thank him for food I hadn't touched, "And thank you for.... for telling me all that." It was plain, and simple, and contained none of the feelings that were clawing to break free.

     "I didn't tell you near enough," He answered, his voice deep and unreadable. "I don't have time." He lifted that hand again, and put it to my cheek. I put mine over it, and closed my eyes, feeling that warmth. I want to kiss you, and I shouldn't kiss you, I thought. He was leaving, gone again, who knows for how long - two months could stretch into an eternity. He said instead of being nothing to him, I'd been too much. But what did that even mean?

     We dropped our hands, and I finally looked up and smiled. My cheeks hurt with the effort.

     He didn't smile back, just furrowed his brow opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it again. "Goodbye, Ethan." was all he finally said.

     "Bye, Zane. Have a safe flight." I turned, and started to walk away, clutching the computer case so tight my knuckles were white. I turned one last time. "Thank you for the computer."

     He nodded, and I picked up my coat at the door and left.


 

     Later I was sitting at home, my mind a jumbled disaster, a field after a train wreck. Mina and Scott sat across the table from me; we were well into our second bottle of wine. The third was waiting patiently on the counter.

"What if the bastard was lying?" Scott took the bottle and took a healthy swig; he'd finished the last of his glass and was too lazy to pour a new one. Mina and I had given up trying to stop him. "What if he's just fucking with you?"

     I shook my head. "That wasn't a lie." That Zane - it was the same Zane I'd seen when we'd first met, except this time he'd been unhappy. Conflicted. But that openness, that sweetness, that unforced connection? That was real. Was it real?

     "Am I crazy for wanting to believe him?" I suddenly asked, snapping my head up. "Am I just making myself a victim for even considering he might be serious?"

     "You said it all made sense, it's the only thing that made sense, if you look at it all, right? Hell, it follows some of our theories." Mina sighed. "But I don't know. He could mean everything he's saying now, and not mean it whatsoever tomorrow. Some people are just like that."

"Yeah." That was of course a possibility, a depressing one. But did I believe that, that at times he hadn't just pretended to not give a damn, that he actually didn't? I didn't think so. But maybe that was me being too fucking hopeful.

"Oh, god, "I said, as it dawned on me. "I think he cancelled a concert just to come here. He had to rush back to make the rescheduled one." I dropped my head to my hands. "Oh, fuck. What does that mean?"

     "Shit, dude." Scott shook his head and took another drink. "That's really heavy."

     Mina sighed. "I'm sorry, Ethan. I wish this all made more sense for you."

     I gave her a tired half smile. My friends being there was unbelievably helpful; I had stumbled in, they had gasped in shock that I had been with Zane, Scott had whipped out the wine, and they had been listening ever since. Rock music from Scott's phone was piping through the sound system, and the darkness outside pushed against the warm lights and smell of Chinese food. With them I was able to let my frustrations out, laugh at them, rant at Zane, vocalize my confusion. This kept the despair that was lurking underneath, in my gut, at bay.

     How could he tell me all that and leave? I wanted to yell, and punch things, and kiss him so badly it hurt. "I'm sorry, guys. This must be so tiresome to go over this again. Whenever it seems like it's done... After this, I promise I'll learn to shut up." I'll just keep screaming on the inside, I thought warily.

     "Hey, you're not that bad, bro." Scott reached over and squeezed my shoulder. "You whine a lot less than you think you do; it's the silences that worry me. Also, it's a fuckload more interesting than anything going on in my life." His eyes widened. "I mean, shit, I'm sorry, not to say it doesn't worry me, but – damn. Your weird on-again off-again romance with a fucking famous singer dude? It's pretty high level drama." Mina punched his arm, and he yelped and rubbed the spot. "Am I wrong?" he asked her accusingly. I think they must have talked about it before.

     She shook her head, and leaned forward to give his cheek an apologetic kiss. "No. You're right. Sorry, Ethan."

     I laughed. "Don't apologize. I'm glad it's not boring, at least." My smile fell. "I just wish I understood what just happened." I finished my glass of wine, and stood up to get our third bottle. "I feel even more lost than before. He didn't tell me to wait for him, so I suppose I shouldn't?" That hurt me more than anything else. All that unloading but no resolution. Maybe I hadn't reacted enough? What had he wanted from me? "Maybe I shouldn't be thinking about anything at all, and this was just Zane's way of saying goodbye to me. The reason he didn't say anything about getting in touch again is because he feels he fucked up too much - or is too fucked up -"

     "Or both!" Mina chimed in.

     "- Or both - for us to even consider anything like a relationship. But he said he couldn't leave me alone. But he has left me alone, so... I have no idea."

     I fell silent, and stared at the computer that I had taken out of the bag and put next to the wine. The Mac was beautiful, gleaming, and barely used. That was all I had left of him. Whatever he was, wherever he was, whatever he thought of me. I didn't know him. He didn't really know me.

     "What are you going to do about Areli?" Mina asked gently, breaking my revere.

     "Areli." I hadn't thought about him for hours, even a little bit. That made the answer pretty obvious. "Nothing. I can't get in a relationship right now if I'm still this hung up on someone else." I handed the bottle over to Scott. "I mean... I know I need to talk to him; it would be unfair not to."

     "Uh, yeah, you do; guy would do anything for you." My friend noted. I winced. Yeah, he would. If I was stripping myself of built up notions, ones pertaining to Areli should be included. I liked him and I liked his company, but could anything I developed for him hold a flame to this insane, complicated clusterfuck of a sorta-relationship I had with Zane? No. Fuck, no.

     "I'll talk to him tomorrow," I promised. I wanted that over with; I didn't look forward to hurting someone I genuinely cared about.

     "Ugh." Scott wrinkled up his nose. "What a week of heavy conversations you're having. Not much to be thankful for, for fuck's sake."

     "Scott!" Mina admonished.

     "You know I'm right," he retorted. "Would you like to be in his shoes?"

     "No, maybe not much to be thankful for. But maybe it's not all bad. It brings a couple of things to a head." I opened the new bottle of wine; it was a convenient twist top     "So what's next?" Mina asked.

     "Life." I shrugged in a casual way that was not reflected in my emotions, and poured myself a very big glass of wine before doing so for Mina and handing Scott the bottle and sitting down. "There's nothing else I can do." I stared at the wall, duly noting the water stain creeping down from the ceiling. Goddamn fuck you so very much, Zane Butler. The dull ache of missing him had returned, one I hadn't felt in about a month. Down the rabbit hole again. I made myself smile, leaned back and raised my glass. "And hey, who knows, maybe in a year or two I'll even be able to date again, you know, consider other guys. That's something to look forward to, right?"

     "Oh, Ethan," Mina sighed, and leaned forward to wrap her arms around me and give me a big, long hug, not even caring that I got wine all over her black hoodie.


 

          Two days later we saw Mina off at the airport. Saying goodbye was difficult for both Scott and I, for different reasons. For all their many problems he liked having her around, and she made him happy. His life wasn't much less crazy than mine, and he loved her enough to be faithful but was frustrated by what that did to his New York life. Me, I liked having a friend in the immediate vicinity who understood me so completely. She was a truly wonderful companion; from Thanksgiving night until leaving she had done her best to distract me and keep me entertained, and had done a great job, all things considered. And those 'things' were my deep desire to crawl into a cave and draw and ignore the world for an extended period of time.

     Scott and I were quiet on our return trip via the subway to the apartment, each in our own head and understanding that the other didn't have much to say. Our moods were not helped by the fact that the weather was truly terrible that Saturday, a mix of rain and sleet topped off with early winter cold. He was thinking about Mina, I was sure.

     What I was thinking about was probably obvious, but it wasn't all the Zane situation. I was also pondering Areli, and our conversation the day before.

     Needless to say, it had been uncomfortable. After a short phone call where I'd confirmed he was in I'd gone over to his place, a small but newly renovated apartment not that much bigger than my own but a world away in terms of quality. He had opened the door with a smile, but it had fallen as soon as he saw my face.

     He was silent until we were both sitting on his couch, each holding a coffee. "You look exhausted," he said, expression worried.

     "Haven't been sleeping much," I admitted, smiling slightly at him. "My mind has been a mess."

     He was quiet for a moment. I watched him. He was very attractive, very unique looking, very sexy. My age, but more worldly and sexually experienced than I was. A good person, and a good friend whose company I enjoyed.

     Most importantly - easily accessible, and openly really wanted me, sans games or deep intimacy issues. Why couldn't I have fallen for you? I asked him silently, sadly. It wasn't a fair question to ask out loud, I knew that. But how much easier my life would have been if I had been crazy about Areli, if we had created a connection so deep that Zane's reappearance had been nothing but a blip on my emotional radar? That might have been nice.

     Areli was a very intelligent boy, and what had happened wasn't very hard to figure out. "He found you, didn't he?" Then his eyes narrowed, and flashed angrily. "Or did you hunt him down? Did you need to talk to him after he showed up?"

     "No." I shook my head slowly, unhappy he was already angry at me. "He found me. I tried to get away again, but failed." I stopped, because that had come out differently than I meant it - I didn't want to make this out to be Zane's fault. He hadn't forced me to speak to him - there had been convincing, but I had most certainly gone with him of my own volition. "No, that sounded wrong, I didn't really try very hard. He asked to talk to me, and I did. It...." how could I explain that strange conversation? "There was a lot said, and I still need to wrap my mind around it all."

     "So you're getting back together?" Areli's voice made it clear he was very disappointed in me.

     "No. We didn't really discuss the future, we didn't have time. Zane had to go back to Tokyo." I furrowed my brow, an annoying wave of sadness washing over me. Wow, I sounded lame and ridiculous, even to me. "Now's not really the time to talk about it, since he's in the middle of a tour. So... I have no idea what's going on, honestly. But, Areli... I do know I'm too wrapped up in him to get involved with anyone else. I can't really until I sort all this stupid crap out and get my act together." I looked at my hands. "You deserve someone who can concentrate on you, acknowledge how great you are, and I can't do that right now. Who knows when I could even think about doing that?"

     Emotions flashed across his face, and I winced as it settled on true anger. He stood up, and started pacing. "It's such a goddamn clichι, isn't it? A rock star and a model. Fucking perfect, Ethan, really impressive." I winced. I knew he could be bitchy; it was part of his personality. This was just the first time it had ever been directed at me, and it really sucked. "And you're going to let him do this to you? Just show up out of nowhere and fuck with your head, make you feel like shit, confuse you? You're only 19, and he's an old bastard."

     "That's not an issue," I interrupted him. "I don't think our ages mean anything here. And I didn't start modeling until after I met him." That was a stupid thing to defend, but it was insulting that everything I felt could be dismissed by Zane being in a rock band and me being a model. They were traits, not things that defined us as people.

     "Whatever," he scoffed, a contemptuous leer on his lips, "That's not the point. And how would you know your ages don't mean anything? It's not like you've really been with anyone else. Maybe if you had some experience you'd know what a good relationship was, and how fucked up what he does to you is."

     "I don't think it's that easy." I shook my head. "It doesn't feel immature, Areli. You're probably right, it's messed up, and twisted, and we're hurting each other, but..." I couldn't say what I was thinking: That I felt a hell of a lot more immature when I was with him than I did when I was with Zane. I was hurting him just by this conversation - there was no purpose in adding to that pain. "Anyways. I know it's ridiculous, and I'm not claiming it's a good relationship, it just..... is."Finding out he's completely messed-up doesn't make me like him less. "I'm an idiot, I know. You know I hate what an idiot I am." I ran a hand through my hair. "But it's not like I can just stop, and I can't drag you into this with me, I can't. I'll just fuck us both up if I do that."

     "I'm not easy to fuck up," he said stubbornly, his tone still pugnacious.

     I didn't believe him - I was pretty sure I could do some damage, if we kept down this road. That's not what he wanted to hear, however. "I know you're not. But... " I had to say it, in clear, straightforward language. "I don't want to date you, Areli."

     His face fell, the anger falling and his whole expression becoming pain. There was silence, and I looked down at the floor. "I should go." Standing, I moved towards the door, and he stopped me, holding out a hand.

     "Wait." Completely taking me by surprise, he leaned over, and kissed me, kissed me slowly at first, and then hard and fast. The experience was not unlike the time Rick had kissed me, although it was embarrassing to admit that had turned me on more than this kiss did. No, Areli was a good kisser. I kissed him back, lightly, and then pulled back. I really wanted to make out with him; there was no doubt that I was attracted. But how he felt about me was too intense, and I couldn't even begin to match that.

     His eyes searched my face. "We would have had a lot of fun together, you know."

     I nodded. I did know. It would have been great. The sex had been good, we got along well. Ethan and Areli would have been a solid, good relationship.

     The problem was, I had already experienced mind-blowing, heartbreaking emotion and chemistry with someone else, and my expectations were officially and absolutely destroyed.

     It fucking sucked.

     "Sorry." I almost whispered. He didn't respond, just stepped away, and opened the door.

     I stepped through, and wondered if him and I would even talk again.

     As I sat on the train with Scott I found myself deeply hoping so - many of my New School friends were mutual with Areli, and more importantly, I liked him. I liked him a lot. Goddamn you Zane Butler, I thought for the 90 millionth time.

Our other two flatmates returned by the end of Sunday. Our mutually subdued mood had continued throughout Saturday night and throughout the next day, and when he headed back to work that night I holed up in my room, finishing up assignments and playing with the Macbook. Scott had set up a wireless network as soon as we moved in, and I was now officially grateful for it. He himself was grateful he no longer had to share his laptop with me. (Well, he did it willingly, but I always felt guilty about it.) My email was open, and I clicked over when it made that little Apple 'ping' indicating a message had arrived.

     "Greetings from Tokyo" was the subject line. My breath caught.

 

 

To Be Continued!