sic coepit

by Chris J

Joey just couldn't read another word. Not one more word. He knew the stuff cold anyway -- everyone he knew would tell him so -- but eight o'clock on a Friday night and he was still in the library. Just one more final, though, and he would be done. By the next afternoon, he would be a free man.

"Enough," he said aloud and slapped his book closed loud enough to earn himself a muted, "Shhh," from a nearby carrel. "Sorry," he whispered as he started throwing his things into his backpack, vowing not to open it again until the next morning at the earliest. One more page of Old English and he was going to start spouting the stuff in casual conversation.

He waved at Chasez on his way out -- poor bastard was stuck reshelving books until close, not that Joey felt too sorry for him since he'd already finished his finals the day before -- and started the twenty minute hike back to his off-campus apartment.

A quick stop by AJ's place first, though, to see if he wanted to go out and do anything. It was only two floors down from his own place, it wasn't like he'd be going out of his way. AJ was pretty much always up for doing something, and if Joey holed himself up in his apartment he would crack in under an hour and pick up a book, he knew he would.

"Aje!" he said, banging his fist on the door hard enough to redden his knuckles. "Aje, you lazy bastard, I know you're in there!" AJ had a final tomorrow, too. Then again, Joey sometimes thought that AJ could get perfect grades just by showing up. Just by breathing. Maybe he wasn't around.

Joey had keys to the place, though, and since AJ almost always had beer in the fridge and Joey didn't, he let himself in. The lights were all out, but that still wasn't concrete evidence that AJ wasn't around. He'd never been one to like much bright light at the best of times, unlike Joey. Brit was forever telling him to turn out the damn lights when he went to bed.

He grabbed two longnecks between his fingers and, since AJ hadn't popped out of the woodwork, locked the place up again on his way out, leaving the kitchen light on just to be an ass.

He took the stairs again up the two floors to his own place and was panting a little as he let himself inside. Taking the stairs two at a time under the weight of all his books probably wasn't the best idea he'd ever had. Dumbass. Maybe he should spend the rest of the night studying after all.

"Oh, you are alive."

"Hey, Brit," he said, and then coughed and dislodged a piece of crap from his throat or something. Maybe the cigarette outside the library had also been a bad idea. "Yeah, yeah, you know where I was."

"And I'm guessing it wasn't at the copy shop getting a batch of flyers done up, huh?" she said, hands on her hips, looking at him accusingly. Only not really, because she had that little smile playing at her lips that Joey knew well.

"Shit, was I supposed to do that today?" he asked, dropping his bag onto the futon with a muted thump.

"Yeah," she said, shaking her head at him. "Meeting's next Wednesday, you know, and we're gearing up for summer session recruitment."

"Is recruitment really a word we want to be using?" he asked her, rolling his shoulders and breathing a sigh of relief that the weight was off them. Belatedly, he offered Britney one of the beers in his hand. "People like us get enough accusations about stuff like that as it is."

"Well, whatever," she said, waving her hand breezily before taking one. "You, of all people, know what I mean by that, Joe."

"I'll do 'em tomorrow," he promised her. "I swear. Just let me get through this final first, huh?"

"Oh, right, don't worry about it actually," she said, and the grin finally broke out. "Chrissie came by and did them for us."

Joey's hand paused halfway to his mouth, beer tilted precariously. "Chrissie?" he said, and lifted an eyebrow at her. "Hmm. Interesting."

"Jerk," said Britney, shoving his shoulder and making Joey spill beer down the front of his shirt. "You're supposed to ask me what happened."

"Shit," said Joey, pulling his shirt away from his chest and scowling at it. "I don't mind if you want to see me in a wet T-shirt, Brit, but don't waste the beer. Hang on a sec." He set the bottle down on the coffee table and stripped the offending shirt off, dropping it on top of his bag. "Okay. So tell me, then."

"We may possibly have made out a little," she said smugly. "She may possibly have asked me out."

"In that order?"


"Well, you know, as long as the posters got done..."


He finally grinned at her. "I think that's fantastic, hon. I expect full details, leaving out the uninteresting girly bits. Or actually... you can leave the girly bits in. They're occasionally fun..."

"And that's all I need to know about your sex life, Joey Fatone," she said warningly, then giggled. "After all, we're talking about me. Except... well, there's not much to tell. I sent her an email with the file that you made and then she came over with all the copies -- and you are going to help put them up, you're on the executive, too -- and then we just kinda kissed and stuff. On the futon. Right about where your bag is, actually."

Joey looked at it and made a face, but he was happy for her, he really was. She'd been pining over Christina for a long time; it was nice that things were working out. If only it was that easy for him.

"So do you know where AJ is?" he asked, retrieving his beer again. "I went by his place, but--"

"Chris's party," said Britney promptly. "Well, Brian's party, but Chris's place. He must be. Everyone's there. I'm going, too, in a bit... hey, you should come with. Too much studying makes you no fun at all."

"Believe me," said Joey, his tension easing already. "I'm gonna be ten kinds of fun tonight, baby. I am so through with studying. You sure AJ's gonna be there?"

"Does it matter if AJ's gonna be there?" she asked innocently, when she already knew it did. "Duh. Of course he is. It's the biggest thing going on tonight. So you're coming?"

"I'm coming," said Joey firmly, grabbing up his bag again but only to carry it the short distance to his bedroom. "Just let me put on some non-beery clothes and I'm good to go." He could do some last minute cramming in the morning, if he had to; tonight was for letting loose.

"What, now?" asked Britney. "I'm totally not ready yet. I haven't even done my face!"

"You're the worst dyke ever," said Joey, replacing his T-shirt quickly. "Okay, okay, I'll wait." It ended up being half an hour, but that was all right. He set all his things out, even set clothes out for the next day, so when he got up, whenever he got up, he'd be ready to go. Nothing wrong with a little planning ahead.

"Okay, how do I look?" asked Britney, emerging from her bedroom and spinning around for him."

"Fabulous," said Joey, giving her a thumbs up. "So fucking hot I'd do you right here."

"Ew!" laughed Britney, and grabbed her coat and finally they were off.

Chris had a house his parents bought him, a big one, with the money from some insurance settlement when he was in high school. The same money that paid for school. He never talked about it and Joey didn't ask, but he knew that before that, the family hadn't exactly been well-off. Chris always seemed vaguely uncomfortable in the house alone, but once he started moving his friends into the spare rooms, things picked up.

Especially Brian. Who jumped at any excuse for a party, from the end of finals, to a half-price sale at Payless, to Groundhog Day. The nicest guy you ever met, and always wanted to be sharing it with people. All people.

"Do I look all right?" asked Britney, leaning over to stare at herself in the rear-view mirror one last time as Joey parked his Volvo three blocks away. Good thing Brian had probably invited all the neighbours; Joey could practically hear the party already.

"Why? Is Chrissie gonna be there?"

"No. Loser," said Britney, shoving Joey's shoulder again before getting out of the car. He was gonna bruise if she kept it up. "She's gone out of town. Doesn't mean I don't wanna look good." She did. Joey could only hope that he looked good, too, because he wasn't gonna get all girly and ask, and Britney was too worried about her eyeliner to say.

People were already spilling out onto the front lawn, the front door propped wide open, so Joey and Britney just wandered right inside. Which they probably would've done anyway; they'd been here a dozen times. More.

"Hey!" said Howie, clapping a hand on Joey's back. Another one of Chris's roommates. He slapped a half-empty beer into Joey's open palm. "Here, take this. I'm gonna be sick." A moment later he was stumbling away, in the general direction of one of the washrooms. Joey hoped someone along the way would help him actually find it.

His eyes roamed the room as he held the bottle of beer away from him warily. A bottle that had gone from half-empty to half-full the moment he had taken possession of it.

"He's in the corner," said Britney, her voice bright and clear. Anyone nearby could've heard her. Joey didn't even have to ask who "he" was. And yes, there was AJ, leaning against the wall, sunglasses firmly in place, talking to some girl that Joey knew vaguely from his department. Amanda something, maybe. "Told you he'd be here."

"And you, my dear, are always right," said Joey, patting her on the arm blindly. "Excuse me." As he started for the corner, Britney just melted into the centre of the dancing bodies, completely in her element.

"Fatone!" said AJ, raising his beer in salute. "Where the hell have you been and why the hell don't you ever turn your phone on?"

"Studying," said Joey, rolling his eyes at him even as he grinned. "Library. They frown on electronic renditions of Jackson Five songs going off in the archives."

"Geek," said AJ, and he should talk. Seriously. "Your last tomorrow, right?"

"Yeah," said Joey, deciding to brave the beer after all. It's not like Howie had puked into the bottle or something. "Four hours, though, man. It's gonna kill me."

"You're gonna kill it," insisted AJ. "Just like always. Oh, hey, did you read that book I left on your bed? I found it when I was doing some research last week, musta been misfiled or something, and thought it might really be your thing."

"Oh, yeah!" said Joey, remembering the thin black volume he'd found, with the scrawled note on top. "Man, I stayed up all night with that thing, practically. That's the most fascinating translation I've ever seen, definitely deviates from the standard. Did you read it before you gave it to me?"

"Of course! I wasn't so convinced by a couple of the passages but I figured we could talk about it Sunday or something. Once we're both finished class for the semester." The sound of someone clearing her throat beside them brought Joey's attention back from AJ's intense gesturing.

"Oh, sorry, hi," he said, extending a hand to her. She was real pretty, looked real sweet. "I'm Joey."

"Mandy," she said and damn, Joey'd even gotten the name right, more or less. She cocked her head to the side and looked at him curiously. "You look familiar," she said slowly. "Oh! You spoke at that rally last month, right?"

"Yup, that was my boy," said AJ, miming wiping a tear from his eye. "All grown up, and out and proud." Joey rolled his eyes at him. "Can I get you another drink, sugar?"

Mandy glanced at her plastic cup, looking surprised that it was empty. "Oh, oh I can get it for myself, I think," she said. "I need to find a washroom, anyway. This stuff goes right through me." She gave the both of them a sweet smile. "I'll catch you guys later."

"You can count on it," said AJ, and the look he gave her was somewhere between a leer and an eyefuck. "She was nice."

"If you thought you could've gotten away with it, you would've done her here on the floor."

"Her?" said AJ, looking dubious. "Nah, man, I need something a little more substantial than that little thing. Someone that bites back. So you finally decided to take a night off, huh?"

"The words were swimming, man," admitted Joey. "I either know it or I don't. Either way, a drink was gonna do me more good than another few hours in front of it. There's always tomorrow morning."

AJ snorted, but he was nodding. "Yeah, I came to that conclusion at, oh, about six or so. Got some pizza and headed on out here." He raised his bottle to Joey's. "Cheers, man. To almost being done."

"To almost being done," agreed Joey, clinking bottles with him. He was draining the last of it, eyes closed, when he hear a smack and a giggle.

"Looking good, baby," AJ was saying as Britney sidled up against him, giving her ass a good smack. "Good enough to eat."

"Touch her again and I'll break your wrist," came a new voice, startling him. Britney had apparently brought someone with her -- solid and mean-looking with a shock of pink hair.

"Hey, hey," said AJ, raising his hands. "There's no bad touch, here."

"It's cool," said Brit, stealing AJ's beer and pouting when she found it was already empty, just like Joey's. "But ew, on the you eating me, Aje. I'm gonna need something pretty strong to drink to cleanse that from my mind."

Joey was pretty sure that woman with her would be happy to find something to give to the cause, but she remained silent. Sizing them up, maybe. Sizing AJ up.

"Aw, come on, you know it would be good," teased AJ, giving her a wink as Britney made a face at him. "All right, all right, not your type, I get the picture."

"On that note, I'm gonna go," she said. "Not go go, just wanted you to know that I found a ride, Joe. So if you want to... whatever. Then it's cool, I'm covered."

Joey wasn't sure what "whatever" was, exactly, but he nodded at her. Britney could take care of herself just fine.

"One day she'll give in to my charms," said AJ as they watched them melt into the crowd again. Joey just rolled his eyes at him and scanned the room again. Brian had to be around here somewhere, even if Chris was hiding in his room working on some project that would probably make Joey squeamish. "Or not, but it's sure fun trying."

AJ found them a couple more beers -- Joey didn't ask who he's stolen them from -- and they were pretty content for the moment just to hang out in the corner and people watch.

"Guys! Guys!"

Joey looked up, even though the call could have been for just about anyone in the place, but it was Nick, looking like he'd had one too many already. Or, no, it was Nick, so he'd probably been smoking something instead.

"You've gotta see this, guys, come on!"

He was already winding his way toward the back, only bumping into a few people, and it's not like Joey and AJ were really tied up so they followed him out into the backyard, out to the pool.

"Oh good lord," said Joey, and there was Howie, doing a handstand on the diving board. "That's so not a good idea."

"Isn't that great?" said Nick. "That's awesome."

"This can only end in tears," murmured AJ, watching -- like Joey -- in morbid fascination. A moment later Howie tumbled into the pool. Two minutes later, he was throwing up in it.

"Uh oh," said Nick. "Chris is not gonna be happy about that. I think maybe it's time to go..."

Someone was already hauling Howie out of the pool and making sure he was doing all right, and Joey thought maybe Nick was right. Not the kind of party he wanted to be spending his night at. "Aje?" he asked. "You up for heading out?"

"Hey, whatever," he said. "Sure, why not? The night is young, my friends." And that was certainly easier than Joey'd expected.

"Lemme just get--"

"Kevin?" suggested Joey before Nick could even finish his sentence.

"Noooo," he said. "Kevin's not even here. I brought my sister BJ, though. I gotta find her..." He wandered off but Joey kept him in sight.

"He has a sister named BJ?" AJ whispered in Joey's ear. "Poor kid."

Joey snickered and a moment later Nick was back, towing a girl who looked pretty much like a female him, only smaller and a bit darker. "Okay, we're good, where are we going?"

"Let's just get to my car first," said Joey. "Then we can figure out it."

It was a navigational nightmare to get through the house to the front door again, involving a flying shoe, a spilled bowl of punch and at least one fist fight, but they did make it. Definitely not a party Joey wanted to be at to wind down. But he'd probably stop by after his final the next day and help Chris clean up. It was the least he could do.

"Shotgun!" Nick called and bounded up to the car door, tugging on the handle.

Joey waited for AJ to object, but the guy was just smirking. "Sure, Carter," he said. "You sit up front, and I'll take the back seat with your sister. Works for me."

Nick narrowed his eyes and looked like he didn't quite get it but he knew that AJ was up to something. But he wasn't suspicious enough to give up his front seat. Joey climbed in and unlocked the rest of the doors and waited for the children to settle things themselves.

A beer and a half, and with his body size he was still fine to drive. Which was good, because none of the rest of them were, that was for damn sure. "All right," he said, over the back of his seat. "Where to?"

AJ shrugged. "Just drive," he said. "We'll figure something out." Joey heard a clink and guessed that AJ had a beer hidden somewhere on his person. He didn't want to think about it too hard. What he didn't know couldn't hurt him, right?

"Oh!" said Nick, jabbing his finger at the window when Joey had only been going for about five minutes. "McDonald's! Dude, we've gotta go to McDonald's! They have fries and these really cool Disney toys right now..."

AJ snorted but Joey dutifully turned into the lot and parked the car again. Nick with the munchies was not a pretty sight, if you didn't feed him promptly.

"God Nick," said BJ, straightening her top as she got out of the car. "Already?"

"What?" he said, bounding for the restaurant door much as he'd bounded up to Joey's car earlier. "You know you want some, too."

"Leave the beer in the car," Joey muttered to AJ before locking up and following Nick inside. Last thing he needed was for any of them to be caught with it.

Nick already had his milkshake in hand when they caught up with him, a pink smear across his lower lip. AJ smirked at him and, when Nick didn't do anything about it, reached out and wiped it off with his thumb. Nick licked his lips and then grinned at him.

"Thanks man. You guys want one? I can get another..."

"They can order their own food, Nicky," said BJ, rolling her eyes at him. "You can get me some fries, though."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he said, but he didn't seem to mind tacking another order of fries onto his own. Nick was a nut about his sisters, it was just hard to get him to admit it.

A Big Mac would really hit the spot, Joey figured, even if everyone else was just having fries. He hadn't really had anything since lunch. And besides, AJ could outeat him any day of the week anyway, whether he'd had dinner already or not. AJ prided himself on consistently outeating Joey, whenever they were out together, which was a lot.

When he sat down, Nick was busy jamming two French fries under his lip and making menacing faces at his sister. "I am the walrus! I am the walrus!" he said, and she giggled and buried her face in her hands.

"Gimme those," said AJ, yanking the fries out of Nick's mouth and proceeding to eat them. "Waste of good food, Carter."

"Hey, those were mine!" Nick helped himself to a couple in return off AJ's plate, darting away before AJ could smack his hand.

"You guys are so weird," said BJ, chewing slowly on a french fry.

"And here you are with us," said Nick, grinning at her. "It's like that movie, Freaks. One of us... one of us... one of us... "

"God, stop," said BJ, but she was laughing as she smacked him. "Hey, does anyone else smell something funny?" Joey hadn't been until she asked, but as soon as she had he could smell it, too.

"Ew," said Nick, letting half a fry drop out of his mouth and onto his tray. "What is that?"

"Next time," said AJ, clapping Nick on the back, "you should pick a table a little further from the bathrooms maybe." He wrinkled his own nose, but otherwise seemed pretty unaffected.

"Oh, gross," said BJ, and pushed away the remains of her fries. "I think I just lost my appetite."

"No, I don't think that's it," said Joey, sniffing again, determined to figure out where it was coming from. Thank god, it didn't seem to be the food. "I think someone stepped in dog shit or something."

"Yeah, yeah, that's it," said Nick, snapping his fingers before stuffing a couple more fries in his mouth. "You gonna finish those, Beej?" She made a gagging motion then shoved them closer to him; he just added them to his rapidly dwindling pile.

"We should go to a club or something," she said, examining her nails briefly. "There's some place around here we can go, right? Nicky's always talking about these great clubs near school where they'll let anyone in."

"Don't call me Nicky," said Nick, his voice muffled by the sheer quantity of fries in his mouth. "And sure, okay, we can do that. Guys?"

"We," said AJ decisively. "Are doing karaoke."

"Karaoke?" said BJ dubiously.

"Yeah, karaoke," said AJ. "All the cool kids are doing it, Beej. It'll be fun."

That seemed to be the selling point for her, though, that it was a cool, college thing to do. Nick was just gaping, but Joey knew he would go along with it. He was pretty easy that way. And Joey... Joey had pretty much seen it coming. Wouldn't be the first time he'd been dragged out to a karaoke bar with AJ, and he was sure it wouldn't be the last.

"Okay, well, whatever," said Nick finally. "As long as no one pukes on me."

"You're so gross," said BJ as AJ wrapped up the rest of his double quarter pounder for the road. Joey was already just about done eating, so at least he beat AJ at that. "Are we going now?"

"Nicky, finish your fries," said AJ, giving him a condescending little pat on the head that Nick didn't even notice. "And hopefully the dog shit is on someone else's shoe and not one of ours, or it's gonna be following us all night."

Nick threw a french fry at AJ, but AJ just caught it and ate it and winked at him.

Joey knew just where to go, knew where all of AJ's favourite places were and which would be the best to try to get into on this particular night. And selfishly picked the one that would probably have the fewest half-undressed women to distract AJ's attention.

"BJ, open up a couple buttons on your shirt, would you?" said AJ as they headed inside. "Just so we don't have to wait to get in."

BJ glanced at her brother, who was too distracted by the pretty neon sign to have heard, and just did as AJ asked. Joey would've stopped them but, well, she looked really nice. And it wasn't too slutty. And it worked, too,

"Joe, you know what to sign me up for," said AJ, already pushing his way toward the bar. "I'll get us some drinks." AJ had the best fake of anyone Joey knew, or he would've offered to take care of that himself. "And you -- no signing up for any of that George Michael shit you like so much." Joey rolled his eyes. "Be good, I'll be right back."

Joey thought they would be lucky just to find some space along a wall, but somehow BJ and Nick managed to snag them a bona fide table. Maybe she'd undone another button. Joey didn't want to know.

"So what's AJ gonna sing, anyway?" asked Nick, his eyes looking even glassier in the dim lights of the bar.

"Oh, you'll see," said Joey smugly. "You guys gonna sing? The signup book's just over--"

"No!" said BJ, as Nick said, "Yeah!"

"Well, if you want to... "

"Come on, Beej, we can do that song we always did at home, remember? That Jackson Five one?"

"Oh, baby, give me one more chaaaaance," sang BJ softly in a clear soprano, grinning at Nick but shaking her head. "Nicky, we haven't done that since we were kids. I don't even remember all the words anymore. And there are only two of us... "

"Nice try," said Nick. "I'm gonna sign us up." He was up before BJ could stop him, and she let out a sharp, resigned sigh.

"Hope you all drink beer," said AJ, but he sounded pretty indifferent as to whether they did or they didn't. At least he knew Joey did, and Nick was a good bet. Joey didn't have anything against the corrupting of minors, but BJ was a little more minor than he was comfortable with. He was pretty sure she was under eighteen.

She accepted it eagerly enough, anyway, and when Nick got back to the table he didn't give AJ any dirty looks so Joey figured it was all okay.

"Just the one for me, though," said Joey, once he was already halfway through it. "I have that final tomorrow still."

"Hell, so do I," said AJ. "Tonight we drink, for tomorrow we die. Or something like that."

"You guys aren't done?" sputtered Nick. "Wow. Sucks to be you. You're nuts, you know."

"It's early!" protested AJ, feigning both shock and disappointment at Nick. "There's plenty of night left before I have to pack it in and get my beauty sleep."

"Brain sleep," Joey corrected him.

"Right, brain sleep. Cause I've already got the beauty." AJ lowered his sunglasses and batted his eyelashes at them and grinned.

They'd all finished off a second round before AJ got a shot at the mike, suffering through such classics two separate versions of "My Way", and "Desperado" sung in the key of subway rumble.

"He can sing, right?" said Nick warily, leaning in to Joey's ear to be heard. "I mean, he doesn't totally suck?"

"Oh, he can sing," Joey assured him, right when AJ started in with, "At first I was afraid, I was petrified..." to the hoots and cheers of the crowd.

"Oh sweet Jesus," muttered Nick, sliding back into his chair, as his sister giggled and hiccuped beside him. "I'm sorry I asked."

AJ was good, though. AJ was fucking fantastic, and as campy as Joey had ever seen him. And working that crowd like a pro. Like he did every time they came, even if it wasn't always the same song. No one ever wanted to follow him up there, that was for damn sure. They usually put on some canned music for a few minutes until someone did.

Nick looked both impressed and mortified at the performance, but BJ, she just looked kinda green.

"You okay?" said Joey softly to her as AJ made his way back to the table.

"I... I don't feel so good," she said after a moment.

"Damn," said Nick, looking very serious and suddenly very sober. "I knew I shouldn't have let you have that second beer. We can go now." BJ slowly nodded her head.

"Okay, I can give you a ride home," said Joey, patting his pockets for his keys, but Nick shook his head.

"No, no man, you and AJ have a good time. I'll call us a cab."

"You sure?" said Joey, and even though he was a little worried about BJ, he didn't want to argue too hard. They were probably better off in the cab anyway, since Joey's drink count was up to three and a half and he was ready for more.

"Yeah, absolutely. Even remembered to bring cab money with me for once, since I didn't know I'd be running into you guys at the party." Joey helped Nick get BJ to the door, and she didn't look too wobbly but she did look pretty pale.

"Call my cell when you get in," insisted Joey. "I want to know that you made it okay."

"I will," promised Nick as a cab pulled around front. "I won't forget. Have fun, man. I'll probably see you tomorrow... back at Chris's?" Nick was a usual part of the self-appointed clean-up crew, too. Joey nodded, and watched them get into the cab before he went back to the table, AJ sitting there alone and looking damn confused.

"The hell?" he said, as Joey sat down.

"Sorry, sorry," said Joey. "Nick's sister had a bit too much to drink, Nick's getting her home. Or back to his place. Whatever. So you were fantastic, man, you really were."

AJ grinned and it wasn't that he didn't appreciate the compliment, he just already knew that he'd kicked ass up there. "So what are you doing, anyway?" Joey just waggled his eyebrows at him. "Oh, fucking George Michael. Did you have to?"

"Of course I did," said Joey, and it was his turn to go up anyway. He liked being on stage -- even the tiny stage that the karaoke place had -- especially when he was a little bit buzzed and could just enjoy it, not have to worry about performing the song. And plus, not many places had "Kissing a Fool" in their repertoire.

He didn't really intend to sing it to AJ or anything, because that was just so cheesy it was cheese-in-a-tube, and not even really appropriate. But he had his eyes on AJ anyway, because there wasn't really anyone else to look at. He knew he did good, too, but it wasn't anything like AJ strutting across the stage like a true diva, and when he returned to his table it was to enthusiastic, but not uproarious, applause.

"You wanna get out of here?" asked AJ before Joey could even sit down, and since Joey was gonna suggest that anyway, he just nodded his head. "Now that the kids are gone and all."

"They were going to sing, too," murmured Joey, and despite BJ's protests, Joey thought they probably would've sounded pretty good. He finished his drink and left the bottle on the table, and followed AJ out the front doors. Nick and BJ were long gone, but Joey still found himself glancing at the spot where their cab had rested.

"So," Joey said, and only now was he even the slightest bit awkward. "Did you want to go back to that party, then?"

"What?" said AJ. "Hell no. I left that thing for a reason, Joe."

"Yeah, but I figured that reason was that you had something better to do."

"Still do," said AJ, and shrugged. The car was only a block away, so it didn't take them long at all to get there. Joey hesitated when he reached for the driver's side door. "You want to take a walk before you drive?" asked AJ, and it was like he was reading Joey's mind.

"Yeah," he said, the light-headed rush he felt probably relief. "Yeah, that's a real good idea."

They wandered down side streets in silence for a few minutes, and AJ seemed to know where the hell he was going because they came up on an empty playground at the end of the street, swings and monkeybars and all.

"Head feeling better?"

"Yeah," said Joey. Fresh air did wonders for his sobriety. "Why? You change your mind about the party?"

"I don't want to go back to the party, Joey," AJ said again, but at least this time he didn't sound so shocked that Joey had asked. "I wanted to leave with you and I left with you and now I'm here with you. Everything according to plan. Glad you showed up, though, man. I was worried that you wouldn't."

"Well, you know Britney," said Joey, chucking softly and trying to watch AJ without really looking like he was watching him. He was standing so close, Joey could almost reach out and touch.

"Why don't you, then?"

"What?" Joey jerked his whole arm back.

"Your hand was twitching, man," said AJ. "If you want to do something, then... just do it. It's not like you've ever really been shy."

Joey had never told AJ how he felt about him, but in the back of his mind, he'd always just kinda figured that AJ knew. They just never talked about it. And so it was kind of shocking that suddenly, right here, right now, they were.

"I wouldn't... I mean, you're not... you've never been..." he said and wow, that was certainly articulate.

"You know, just because I'm not in your little group doesn't mean I can't be a bit queer," said AJ, and gave Joey a wry grin. "You never thought?"

Joey had, though, but he hadn't expected. "But... okay, even if you're a bit queer, that doesn't mean you would want me touching you the way I was thinking about touching you."

"Oh, yeah, cause I only spend just about every other day with you," said AJ. "No clues there that I might be interested."

The thing of it was, Joey didn't think AJ had been, up until now. They were friends, yeah, but AJ had always known that Joey was into guys, most likely had known Joey was into him, and had never done anything about it before. And so, Joey figured, maybe it was just finally now that AJ was figuring things out for himself, and fucked if AJ was going to admit that without a veneer of humour.

And so Joey went with it.

"So if I, say, kissed you right now," suggested Joey, thinking of one of the most innocuous things he could do. "That would be all right?"

"Yeah, you could say that. You could even say good," said AJ, and Joey decided to test the theory before AJ could say anything else. He knew by reputation that AJ was a good kisser, and he knew that he was too, and so when they finally kissed, together they were really something special.

"So," said AJ after a moment, a moment that Joey spend dazed and practically giddy. "You about ready to drive us back home now?" Joey could've kept playing the game of coaxing admissions out of each other, but it was so glaringly clear what AJ was getting at that he just didn't.

"Just make sure we get up on time for our last final," he insisted after a moment, sure his own words would be equally clear. "I know that damn alarm clock of yours is flaky. Maybe I should go upstairs and bring my own back down, just in case."

"Yeah, you do that," said AJ, and they started back for the car.

Happy Birthday, Pet.

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