At first, Chip thinks the sound is in his dream, so he pays it no attention. A gentle knocking that could be coming from anywhere. But as the sound becomes more insistent, steadier, and Chip’s eyes finally flutter open to the pitch black of night, he realizes that the knocking is, indeed, real.
For several moments he lays there, mind still stuck in the foggy haze between dreaming and wakefulness, trying to sort out what the hell is going on. The first thought that drifts through his mind is that some crazed maniac is on the other side of his hotel room, desperate to get inside to commit some heinous act. But reason kicks in as his mind clears, and Chip decides that there are probably more realistic explanations for what’s going on than a murderer on the loose.
He reaches blindly through the darkness for his watch or cell phone, anything to tell him what time it is, since it’s clear that morning has yet to arrive and he certainly hasn’t slept through any alarm.
3:21 am boldly flashes at Chip as he comes face to face with the clock sitting on the night stand instead, the pounding at his door increasing with every passing second.
There must be something wrong, Chip reasons, panic suddenly settling in and eradicating the last remnants of his sleepy haze. Something terrible has happened; it’s the only logical explanation he can see.
Tossing the covers aside, Chip slips out from under the warm blankets and pads across the carpeted floor towards the door.
Chip’s hand closes around the door knob, but at the last second, he decides to take a look through the peephole. The sight that meets his eyes fills him with an odd sense of comfort and fear, twisting in his gut in equal measure.
“Jeff,” Chip says as the door swings open. He blinks against the sudden onslaught of light and instinctively reaches up to rub at his eyes.
When Chip’s vision clears, he finds himself face to face with one of the most disheveled images of his friend that he’s ever seen, and they’ve gone through some pretty tough times together. Face pale, hair sticking out in every direction, eyes dark and puffy – he looks positively miserable.
For a second, neither says anything, merely staring one another down.
Jeff blinks, eyes wide and glistening with unshed tears, and finally says, “Oh.”
Before Chip can even open his mouth to ask what’s wrong, Jeff wraps his arms around Chip’s shoulders, pulling him into a tight embrace. It catches Chip off guard for several moments, concern intensifying, but Jeff is holding him with such ferocity that he allows all other thoughts slip away. Reaching up to place his hands on Jeff’s back, Chip returns the gesture, sinking fully into the hug. He is surprised to note that Jeff seems to be shaking, and it only incites further worry.
And then, as quickly as it starts, Jeff pulls away.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and reaches up to try and flatten down his unruly hair. In any other circumstance, Chip might have found the look endearing. It’s rare that he sees Jeff so open and unguarded, so not put together, but he just wishes it wasn’t only when something was causing him distress.
Chip shakes his head. “Come on,” he says, and ushers Jeff into the room with a gentle hand at his back. Whatever’s going on certainly doesn’t need to be revealed out in the hallway.
Flicking on the lamp, Chip indicates for Jeff to sit down, while he goes to retrieve a couple bottles of water from the mini fridge. He takes a seat beside Jeff on the small hotel couch, and hands him one of the bottles. Jeff accepts with a nod, lips quirking ever so slightly, though it doesn’t quite reach his eyes, before he twists the top off and takes a long drink.
Chip desperately wants to know what’s wrong, what has Jeff so upset at this hour. He has... well, a sneaking suspicion he knows what it might be, but he forces himself to remain quiet, to be patient. Jeff will talk when he’s ready – he came to Chip in the first place, after all – but pushing isn’t going to help.
So, instead, Chip waits. He waits and watches and tries to ignore the fact that Jeff is blatantly watching him, despite what seems to be failed attempts at appearing surreptitious. But it’s too late (or possibly too early) for subtlety, especially when something is bothering Jeff.
Jeff has nearly finished the bottle of water before he puts the cap back on and sets it down on the coffee table. He rubs a hand up and down his leg absently, wrinkling then smoothing down the material from his dark grey sweat pants. He still watches Chip, but his expression is distant at the same time. His left hand, the hand closest to Chip, sits clenched in a loose fist at his side. All the while, Jeff worries his bottom lip between his teeth in a way that Chip has never witnessed before.
“Look, uh, I’m sorry for barging in here in the middle of the night,” he finally says, a hoarse quality to his voice. He averts his gaze then, as though it’s difficult to look at Chip now that they’re actually talking.
“No, you don’t have to apologize. It’s fine, Jeff, don’t worry about it.”
“You’re probably going to think I’ve lost my mind.”
Chip smiles. “Nah,” he says, waving a hand. “You lost it years ago. I’ve known that for a long time now.”
This seems to be enough to elicit a tiny smile from Jeff, and Chip’s heart swells with affection and concern for him.
“I just...” Jeff starts, a heavy sigh falling from his lips.
Without thinking, Chip reaches over and places a hand on Jeff’s knee, giving it a gentle, reassuring squeeze. It’s something they’ve both grown accustomed to doing over the years – to garner attention, to offer support, to tease one another, even to apologize – their own private, physical form of communication, when words aren’t appropriate or easily accessible. He doesn’t think about the action, just does it, because it’s what they do. But it also seems to be exactly what Jeff needs right in this very moment.
Jeff catches his eye then, really looks at him and not through him, and for a moment, Chip finds that he almost can’t breathe, struck by the intensity of... something between them or in the air, he’s not entirely sure. But before Chip has time to process anything, Jeff starts talking again, and whatever temporary spell they’ve just fallen under is broken once more.
“So, you know how I’ve always had really vivid dreams?” He meets Chip’s gaze, and Chip nods his confirmation. “And you also know how I’ve been having a lot of nightmares recently?” Again, Chip nods. “I’ve had a lot of messed up dreams in my life, but I think the one I had tonight was one of the worst ever.”
So it is about the nightmares, then. It’s what he had suspected earlier. “What was the dream about?” Chip asks gently, when Jeff falls silent.
For a few moments, Jeff continues to sit there, staring off into the distance, his mind clearly elsewhere. But then he snaps his eyes back to Chip, and sucking in a deep breath, continues on with his story.
“It was, um, about you,” Jeff says quietly, glancing down at his hands, a light shade of pink tainting his cheeks, though Chip can’t tell if it’s because he’s upset, embarrassed or something else entirely. “I dreamed that you died. And it was the worst fucking nightmare I’ve ever had. Not just because you died, but in the way it played out. I’ve never... I’ve never had a dream feel so real in my entire life.”
“I’m sorry,” Chip says, swallowing against the sudden lump in his throat. Jeff doesn’t look at him, but Chip can hear everything he needs to know through Jeff’s tone of voice.
A short, little laugh – melancholy and very much the opposite of amused – bursts from Jeff, and he shakes his head. “You have nothing to be sorry for. It was a dream, but the most fucking intense one I’ve ever had. It’s not like there was anything you could do. Besides, as stupid as it sounds, I’m just so relieved that you’re sitting across from me right now, alive and breathing.”
Their eyes meet again, and this time, Chip has to use every ounce of restraint he possesses to prevent himself from reaching out and touching Jeff’s face, assuring him that he’s alive and that Jeff has nothing to worry about. The fear he still sees in Jeff’s eyes is nearly overwhelming. He doesn’t like to see him like this, and it frustrates Chip to know that he probably can’t do anything to alleviate the emotional pain Jeff must be dealing with right now, regardless of the fact that it was triggered by a lie. Chip is all too familiar with the impact a dream like this can have on a person.
“It’s not stupid at all,” he says eventually.
“It’s just... Everything about it felt real, everything that happened was possible, you know?” Jeff shakes his head and threads his formerly clenched hand through his hair absently. “We were still at the hotel, and I remember waking up in the middle of the night with this feeling that something was wrong. But, you know, I’d been drinking, so I just dismissed it. The next morning I woke up to Greg pounding on my door. He looked like shit, and could barely even get out the words that you’d died. Like, of a heart attack, or something. Even though I knew I couldn’t have done anything, I still felt this immense guilt, like if I’d just got out of bed and checked on you, maybe I could have...”
Jeff trails off, glancing down at his hands, now clasped and hanging in the space between his knees.
Chip swallows, finding himself at a loss for words.
“The funeral was a few days later. We cancelled the rest of the shows for the month. I remember going through all the motions, helping with the funeral plans, attending the service. Everything was so vivid, so clear. I remember I kept wishing it was a dream, wishing and praying and hoping. But since everything seemed too real, I thought that it couldn’t possibly be.” Jeff snorts softly, finally meeting Chip’s gaze. “It was fucking awful, Chip. I felt responsible for not saving you, and just the thought that I’d never get to see you or talk to you again was agonizing. There were even a couple of times when I ‘woke up’ in my dream, only to discover that you were still dead.”
“I’m sorry that you had to go through that. I’ve had dreams like that before too. They’re the absolute worst,” Chip says softly, placing a comforting hand on Jeff’s wrist.
“I woke up— well, sobbing.” Jeff cringes slightly at this, and looks away, biting his lip. “Not one of my finest moments, I’ll admit, but unlike the rest of my ridiculous dreams, this one actually felt real – like it could have actually happened. I kept trying to convince myself that it was just a dream, but when you’re that riled up emotionally and it’s the middle of the goddamn night, it’s sort of hard to reason with yourself.”
Chip nods in understanding, giving Jeff’s wrist another squeeze. “Absolutely. But I am okay.” It seems like a stupid thing to say, because obviously he is, but Chip suspects that Jeff might need to hear it anyway.
With little more than the slight nod of his head in acknowledgement, Jeff continues on. “Yeah, I know. I just couldn’t convince my brain that you were. So, eventually I tried calling you. Which, yeah, was sort of a stupid idea at this hour. But then when you didn’t answer, I felt even more panicked, and that was when I figured I’d just come and see you instead.”
“Do you feel any better now that you’ve seen for yourself that it was just a dream?”
“I feel sort of stupid for reacting like this... But yeah. I guess. Somewhat.” Jeff turns his palms so they’re facing the ceiling, and his gaze lifts in that direction as well for several moments. “I just, like, feel everything so strongly still, though. I know it will pass, but...” He trails off, shrugging a shoulder, then picks up his water bottle and unscrews the cap.
Chip tilts his head, watching Jeff as he drinks the rest of his water. “Yeah, I understand. It sucks that we can’t just forget dreams like that after we wake up,” he says eventually, not sure what else he can offer in terms of comfort.
Jeff looks over at him then, holding the now empty water bottle in his hands and shifts awkwardly on the couch. “I guess I should, uh, go. Let you sleep or something. I’m sorry for acting crazy,” he says, shooting Chip a sheepish smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
Chip fidgets with the hem of his t-shirt. In truth, he doesn’t want Jeff to leave, not like this.
“I’m glad you’re still alive,” Jeff adds after a moment, and something tugs more insistently at Chip’s heart.
“Me too,” he agrees. And then, “Also, you’re not crazy. At least no more than you’ve always been.”
The words cause Jeff to smile again, and this time it almost looks convincing. He glances over at the door but makes no attempt to move towards it. Chip realizes, then, that with the way he’s sitting, he’s actually blocking Jeff’s only real path out of the room. With a measured amount of reluctance, he stands up and moves out of the way, catching Jeff’s eye as he does so. Something like disappointment flickers briefly across his features, and Chip feels the sentiment mirrored in himself.
“Okay, well, good night,” Jeff says, finally pushing off the couch and shuffling slowly towards the door. Chip notes that he looks almost as distressed as he was when he first arrived, which isn’t a good sign.
Chip manages to watch in silence for all of two seconds before he hears himself say, “Wait.”
“Yeah?” Jeff asks, turning back to Chip, with just a touch of eagerness.
“Do you think you’ll be able to sleep when you get back to your room?”
Jeff tilts his head to the side thoughtfully. “Truthfully? Probably not. Not after a nightmare like that. I don’t know that I even want to try again right now, to be honest.”
Chip isn’t sure what he was waiting or hoping for with that answer, but something in either Jeff’s words or tone seems to trigger a decision in Chip’s mind, cementing the idea that began forming several minutes ago.
Sucking in a breath, Chip internally debates how wise of an idea this is, but quickly comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter. “If you want... You can stay here for the rest of the night. It might help you to sleep, if you know I’m still okay.”
It’s presented as a statement, but he knows that Jeff can hear the underlying question, and his own hesitancy in even asking. This wouldn’t be the first time they’ve slept in the same room, or even the same bed. Sometimes after an evening of drinking, one would collapse in the other’s bed for the night, too tired or wasted to even try walking back to his own room. In the months following Chip’s divorce, Jeff often stuck to his side like glue – one of his strongest supports during that difficult time – and there were many nights where they fell asleep in the middle of a conversation, or while watching a particularly awful movie. Sometimes Chip suspects that Jeff purposely comes up with any excuse to spend more time with him. The thing is, Chip knows he’s guilty of the same thing, so he’d never comment on it. He thinks he should be more concerned about the affection he holds for Jeff, but he’s never been able to bring himself to care.
Still, in spite of everything, this is the first time Chip’s ever explicitly asked Jeff to stay. There is a certain element of risk involved here, despite the reasons behind the initial request.
But to Chip’s surprise, Jeff merely nods and says, “Yeah. Yeah, okay. We can do that.” He glances between the couch and the bed, raising an expectant eyebrow.
Chip doesn’t even hesitate as he gestures towards the bed. He moves to turn off the light in the corner of the room as Jeff pulls back the covers and climbs into bed.
“Are you okay?” Chip asks, once he’s settled down beside Jeff. They lie facing each other, but despite being close, a couple inches of space remain between their bodies.
“Yeah. I’m good. Now go to sleep. I never should have woken you up in the first place.”
“It’s okay. I’m glad you did,” Chip admits, quite by accident. He’s thankful for the darkness that hides the way his cheeks flush hot.
Despite the fact that he’s exhausted, Chip finds that he wants to stay awake until he knows that Jeff is okay, sleeping peacefully beside him instead of haunted by memories of his nightmare. So, he closes his eyes, settling into the pillow, and listens silently to the sound of Jeff’s breathing, as it gradually begins to slow and deepen.
Just when it seems as though Jeff has finally fallen asleep, he suddenly starts, the way his body jerks almost violent in nature, and it causes Chip to jump in response.
“Chip?” Jeff asks, voice filled with sleepy fear.
“Yeah, I’m right here,” Chip replies, reaching out to touch Jeff’s shoulder. He is alarmed when he feels Jeff shaking beneath his fingers. “I’m here,” he repeats. “What happened? Another dream?”
“Yes,” he says. Chip doesn’t think he’s ever heard Jeff sound so small or so wounded.
Without giving it another thought, Chip grabs at Jeff and pulls him close. “Come here,” he says, and manhandles Jeff into his arms. Jeff is like putty in his hands, and after a few moments of working out where to place arms and legs, Chip ends up lying on his back, with Jeff wrapped around him, face resting on his chest like a pillow.
A long silence fills the room then, only the sound of their steady breathing penetrating the space between them. Instinctively, Chip rubs Jeff’s back until he stops shaking, relief flooding his veins when Jeff finally stills and gives Chip a gentle squeeze. This is the first time they’ve ever slept like this, wrapped up in each other’s arms, but Chip finds it immensely pleasant. And it may be the time of night, or his worry for Jeff impacting his ability to be rational, but Chip thinks he could get used to this.
“I thought I’d lost you,” Jeff says after several minutes, so quietly Chip almost doesn’t hear him. But he does, and a pleasant heat twists in Chip’s stomach at the words.
“You haven’t lost me. I’m right here, and I’m not going anywhere,” he eventually responds, reaching up with one hand to run his fingers gently through Jeff’s hair.
With a content sigh, Jeff presses in even closer, and Chip finally permits himself to go back to sleep, holding Jeff tightly.