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If there was one thing in the world that could be said with absolute certainty, it was that Jeff Davis was not a fan of Christmas. He didn’t hate the idea of it, in theory, but everything was so commercial and contrived these days – stores out to divest hard-working people of their money, people going around singing ridiculous songs, streets lined with lights and gaudy decorations, and all in the name of what? The baby Jesus? Santa Claus? Some hollow notion that the excessive giving of gifts and spending of money would somehow negate any and all less than appealing events from the past eleven months? While he respected people’s right to believe whatever they chose, he personally found very little to celebrate at this time of year that he couldn’t at any other time.

This year, more than any other, Jeff felt he could say that he hated Christmas. Though he supposed it wasn’t so much Christmas, as it was the recent memories associated with it. Either way, the only reason he was braving the malls today was because he wanted to buy a toy for his niece that had just been released, and if the whole Tickle-Me Elmo incident of the mid-'90s had taught him anything, it was to always be prepared.

Jeff was halfway between the food court and his destination, grateful that the middle-of-the-day crowd was slightly smaller than the after-work crowd, when he felt his iPhone buzzing in his pocket.

Fumbling to retrieve the phone, Jeff glanced down at the caller ID before answering. “Hey, Greg,” he said, pressing the phone to his ear so he could hear amidst the hustle and bustle of the crowd passing him by.

“Jeff. How’s it going?”

“I’m fine,” he said, frowning as someone accidentally elbowed him in the ribs. “What’s up?”

There was a pause, and then, “Are you coming to the Christmas party on Saturday?”

So, there it was. The Christmas party. Jeff should have known this was the reason for Greg’s phone call. He’d spent the last two weeks trying to pretend it wasn’t happening, thinking about other things, like how he was trying to avoid all Christmas carols at any cost, or what else he could buy Maddox for Christmas, even though he routinely spoiled her throughout the year, so why did he need a special day for it?

“Look, man, it’ll be fun. Everyone misses you. It’d be great to see your sorry ass again.”

Jeff sighed, turning his back to the crowd as best he could as a feeling of heaviness settled on his shoulders, immediately darkening his already miserable mood. He was not ready to deal with this right now.

Greg continued with his pitch, when it became obvious that Jeff wasn’t going to answer. “I know you have your reservations, Jeff, but it’ll be good. Drew always has the best fucking drinks, and Colin, Jon, and Wayne are gonna be there this year too.”

It was nice to hear, especially since Jeff couldn’t remember the last time he’d talked to any of them, but that wasn’t really his primary concern.

“Who else is coming to this thing?”

“Ryan, Brad, Heather, Sean. Obviously Drew will be there, since he’s hosting. I think Kathy as well, though she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to make it, the last time we talked—” Greg hesitated, then, and Jeff braced himself for impact.

“What about Chip?” he forced himself to ask, eventually. The name felt foreign on his tongue, tasted like poison. His heart constricted painfully in his chest, and Jeff suddenly wished he was at home, sitting on his couch having this particular conversation, instead of in the middle of a busy mall.

“Um, yeah. He’ll be there,” Greg confirmed.

“Oh.” Jeff swallowed, tongue heavy and thick in his mouth. His head, which had already been on the verge of a headache when he first arrived at the mall, was now pounding.

“That’s not... it’s not going to be a problem, is it?” Greg asked, hesitance lacing his words. The ’you’re not over it yet?’ was implied. Or maybe he just thought it was. It was hard to say.

“No. It, uh, it’ll be fine,” he managed to choke out.

“Great! So I’ll see you then,” Greg said, sounding far too chipper for what the situation warranted.

“Yeah, sure. Whatever. I guess you will.”

The other line clicked, signifying the end of the conversation, but it was several moments before Jeff regained the ability to move his arm to turn off his phone.

What had he just agreed to do? Jeff closed his eyes and let a long sigh slip past his lips.

Fuck.

~*~



October 8, 2011

It all started, as it often did, with Jeff taking things a step too far, pushing the envelope just past the point of comfort. He hadn’t meant to do it this time, but even Jeff wasn’t stupid or naive enough to think that he could weasel his way out of it without some sort of explanation.

“What the hell was that?”

Chip’s voice trailed after him, both having barely set foot backstage, and Jeff hoped that they could at least make it back to the dressing room before getting into this.

With a focused determination, Jeff pushed past stage hands and theatre employees resolutely, ignoring the stares they tossed in his direction. He was close, they were almost there, just a few more feet to go now. The last thing he wanted to do was start airing their dirty laundry in front of everyone else.

“Jeff,” Chip persisted, the voice much closer than before.

The second he stepped through the threshold of the door, Jeff felt himself relax. The feeling was short lived, however.

“What the hell happened out there, Jeff?” Chip demanded, grabbing onto his arm and turning Jeff so they were standing face to face.

As Jeff took in Chip’s expression, he decided that ‘anger’ was probably too soft of a description of his current mood. No, ‘rage’ or ‘fury’ were far more accurate descriptors.

With a deep breath, Jeff steadied himself for the impending fight. “What are you talking about?” he asked, knowing damn well it wouldn’t help, but unable to stop the words from flying out of his mouth anyway. It was his natural instinct to deny, to play things off as if he had no idea what was going on even when he obviously did.

“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” Chip said, arm flying out to point towards the door. Thankfully Greg and Ryan were nowhere in sight. At least not yet, anyway. “On stage? When you kissed me?”

Jeff tried not to react. “So, what? I kiss a lot of people on stage. So do you. It’s the nature of our job.”

But Chip shook his head. “Not like that, we don’t. Not like...” he trailed off, waving a hand in the air.

“Okay, so I admit that it was a little, uh, enthusiastic,” Jeff said in an attempt to placate him. “But I didn’t mean anything by it.” It was true, insomuch as it could be. Sure, he’d intended on kissing Chip, had been waiting for the opportunity for a number of months now, in fact, but he hadn’t expected things to turn out like this.

“Enthusiastic, Jeff? You had your tongue in my mouth.” Chip folded his arms across his chest defensively, an odd expression on his face that Jeff couldn’t quite put a name to. Something between frustration and confusion, and perhaps something else a bit darker.

“Look, I’m sorry, Chip. I got carried away. What do you want me to say?”

“That’s just it. You always get carried away,” he said, head tilting to the side as he pressed his lips together in a fine line.

“It was just a kiss. It was an accident, man. You know that.”

Chips eyebrows rose high on his forehead as he shot Jeff a reproachful look. “Was it, though?”

Jeff found his eyes narrowing of their own accord. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, come off it, Jeff. You may have kissed every other person we work with, but you’ve never used tongue. It was completely unnecessary in that scene.” He unfolded his arms and pointed at Jeff. “You did it on purpose. I just don’t know why you’re trying to pretend like you didn’t.”

The accusatory tone in Chip’s voice rubbed Jeff the wrong way, true or not, and he felt the rush of sudden anger grip his throat. Before he could stop himself, the words came tumbling from his throat. “Or maybe you’re just pissed off at yourself for actually kissing me back.”

There. He’d said it. Except he found surprisingly little comfort or satisfaction in it, especially when he caught a glimpse of Chip’s face, quickly reddening from embarrassment or rage (or maybe both).

Somewhere in the background, Jeff noticed Greg and Ryan ducking out of the room, and he found himself oddly stuck between feeling grateful and nervous. At least if they remained, Chip would be less likely to enact some sort of physical revenge on him. Despite the fact that he’d never been a violent person – quite the opposite, in fact – Jeff wasn’t sure he wanted to risk it right now.

“Is that what this is about? Your little goal to kiss me onstage to see how I’d respond?” Chip was full out glaring at him now, face hard. “How is that working out for you?”

Jeff sighed, feeling himself deflate as quickly as he’d filled with anger. “Not very well,” he admitted. “Though this was never about some little goal of mine,” he added as an afterthought.

“Oh? So are you telling me that you haven’t been trying to kiss me for good few weeks, hell, maybe even months, now? Because I just want to get this whole thing straight in my mind so I can figure out what I should believe.”

Jeff blinked. Fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck. All right, fine. So he wasn’t exactly the king of subtlety. In fact, he was quite the opposite. Even still, he’d hoped he hadn’t been making his intentions clear all this time. Apparently that wasn’t the case.

“Look, Chip, I—“

“Just tell me one thing,” Chip interrupted, stepping closer to Jeff for the first time since they’d left the stage.

“What?” Jeff breathed, voice tight and strained.

“Did you plan on kissing me?”

“I...” Jeff considered lying, but he suspected it wouldn’t help his cause in the long run. “Yes,” he admitted, at length, eyes focussed on the floor, anywhere but on Chip. He couldn’t stand the idea of meeting his gaze right now.

A long time passed before Chip finally spoke again, and this time his voice was soft and level. “How long is this going to keep going on for, Jeff?”

Alarm bells sounded in his head immediately, but he wasn’t quick enough to filter the words. “What do you mean?”

“You,” Chip said, gesturing towards him, lips pulling into a frown. “You constantly hitting on me, constantly trying to put us into compromising situations. It’s never ending, man. I am still technically married, remember? That’s not how this works. It just— it can’t.” He sighed heavily, running a hand down his face, and Jeff felt something heavy settle in the pit of his stomach. For the first time in a very long while, Jeff wondered if perhaps he really had gone too far this time. Chip and Patty had been having issues for quite a while now, but that didn’t grant Jeff the right to swoop in and take advantage of the situation.

“Chip,” he started, softly, carefully, but Chip turned his face away.

“I can’t keep doing this, Jeff,” he said flatly, eyes averted. “I won’t.”

And then, without another word, Chip grabbed his guitar case and bag, leaving without so much as a glance behind him.

Jeff tried to speak, to say something to prevent Chip from leaving, to fix this mess he’d created, but found that he had no words left to call Chip back to him.

With a heavy heart, Jeff sunk down into the couch behind him and buried his face in his hands.

~*~



December 15, 2012

The party was well underway by the time Jeff arrived, and he was immediately greeted at the door by Drew and Ryan, both of whom appeared to have had a head-start on the alcohol.

“Jeff, buddy, so good to see you,” Ryan crooned, pulling him in for a highly uncharacteristic hug. “It’s been so long,” he continued, sloshing his drink around and nearly spilling half of it on Jeff’s near pristine suit.

“I saw you last week,” Jeff pointed out, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Drew was next in line, all but pushing Ryan out of the way to get to Jeff. “You didn’t even fucking welcome him in, Ryan, you big idiot. Do I have to do everything around this fucking place?”

“It’s your damn house, Drew,” said Ryan with a shrug. Drew shot him a withering look, inciting a bubble of amused laughter from Ryan, and Jeff felt some of the tightness in his chest diminish. At least he could count on some things never changing.

In the next second, Jeff was wrapped up in Drew’s arms, being hugged so tightly that he could barely breathe. “Nice to see you. I’m glad you came. Almost everyone’s here and I had all the food catered, so make sure you eat and drink lots, okay?”

“Will do,” Jeff said, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do right then.

When Drew stepped back, Jeff finally permitted himself a quick moment to do a cursory scan of the room. Over by the elaborately decorated Christmas tree, Colin stood chatting with Jonathan. Every once in a while he glanced over in Jeff’s direction, and eventually smiled over at him when they made eye contact. Heather, Brad and Wayne were hanging around what appeared to be the food table, munching and talking animatedly with one another. Over on the couch, Kathy and Sean appeared to be engaged in their own conversation. So far, it seemed as if the coast was clear, and he found himself relaxing just a little more, though he couldn’t help but wonder as to Greg’s whereabouts.

Suddenly, as if reading his mind, Greg appeared out of the woodwork, making a beeline straight for Jeff.

“Hey, man, you made it. Come with me,” Greg said, gesturing for Jeff to follow.

Greg slipped an arm across his shoulders and led him away from the entrance. “I’m glad you decided to come,” Greg said. “I wasn’t sure if you would, after we talked, but I guess I was wrong.” He pointed towards the drink table with a mischievous grin. “See? Told you Drew wouldn’t skimp on the alcohol. This place is more loaded than a fucking bar. Shall we?”

It probably wasn’t the best idea, but Jeff figured that he if was going to get through this night, alcohol might be the only way to do it. “Yeah, sure. I could use a stiff drink right about now,” he said, trailing behind Greg.

~*~



October 9, 2011

“Fuck him. I don’t need him,” Jeff said, slamming his empty drink down on the bar and indicating for the bartender to pour another.

“Right. He’s a useless pain in the ass anyway,” Greg agreed, though there was no real bite to his words. They both knew Greg didn’t mean it, not really, but Jeff appreciated the support all the same.

“Exactly.” He nodded gratefully at the bartender before he picked up his freshly refilled drink and took a long sip. “He gets so uptight about everything, you know?”

Greg eyed him carefully. “You guys really haven’t talked since yesterday?”

“No,” Jeff admitted, feeling himself deflate even further. He’d tried, several times, to talk to Chip and attempt to straighten everything out. Surely kissing him onstage like that wasn’t going to ruin over a decade’s worth of friendship. But every time he’d gone to Chip’s room, or called him, Chip had been mysteriously absent.

“Huh. I figured you two would’ve kissed and made up by now, considering how attached you guys are. I’m sure he’ll come around, though. This isn’t the first fight you’ve had, right?”

Jeff wished he had that same level of confidence in Chip as Greg seemed to, because truthfully, he had no fucking idea what had been going on between them as of late. Yes, it was true that he had spent quite some time recently working out a plan as to how he could kiss Chip during a Whose Live performance, but he wasn’t completely blameless in all of this. Things had been changing between the two of them over the past six months. The shift wasn’t obvious, but it was definitely noticeable to Jeff. Chip touched him more, smiled at him a little brighter, and Jeff was certain he’d caught Chip openly staring at him on more than one occasion. There had always been a measure of tension – maybe even attraction – between them, but it felt as though the air had been shifting as of late, teetering on the edge of something a little more dangerous, a little riskier. And fine, so maybe it hadn’t been the most brilliant plan he’d ever concocted, but damn it, Jeff couldn’t just sit on this forever and hope that something would happen.

Unfortunately, that stark reminder of how he’d caused the problem in the first place only added to the weight already sitting on Jeff’s shoulders. He reached for his drink and finished it in one gulp before responding. “Yeah. I know.”

No matter how much alcohol he consumed, though, Jeff knew it was pointless. He needed Chip far more than Chip needed him, when it came right down to it, and everybody knew it. Greg was humoring him, being a good friend, but it wouldn’t solve the problem.

“What the fuck is wrong with me?” he groaned to Greg. Jeff tried to catch the bartender’s gaze again, and was poised to order another drink, when he felt Greg’s hand land on his arm.

“I think you’ve had enough,” he said seriously. “Come on, let’s go.”

Jeff barely had time to mutter, “Where?” before Greg dropped several bills on the counter and was dragging him out of the bar.

“I need a smoke,” Greg said, eventually, when they were already well on their way outside.

The cool air hit him like a smack to the face, and Jeff shivered involuntarily at the contrast between the over-heated bar and the cold night air. He hung a few feet back from Greg, standing against the wall, though he wasn’t actually touching it, arms folded against his chest protectively as he watched Greg pull out a cigarette. For a moment the light from the flame flickered against Greg’s glasses as he lit the smoke, illuminating his face, and it gave him a sort of ethereal glow that almost made him appear wise, controlled. Or maybe Jeff had just had one too many drinks this evening. He couldn’t be certain either way.

“Can I be honest with you?” Greg asked in that tone of voice that implied he was going to be brutally straightforward, so be prepared, if you said ‘yes.’

Jeff inclined his head. “Yeah, go for it.”

“I think you’re being a big fucking girl about this whole thing. You both are.” Greg blew out a long puff of smoke, giving Jeff a stern look. “I mean, are you fucking kidding me? Ryan and I have had bets for years on when you two would finally pull your heads out of your asses and get your shit together, but so far, he’s winning that little wager, what with you two acting like teenagers half the time. I mean, fuck, Jeff.”

“Teenagers?” Jeff asked, eyebrows rising high on his forehead. “Don’t you think that’s a bit of an exaggeration?”

“You tell me. You’ve been in love with him for, what? At least five years now, if not more than that?”

That information wasn’t exactly shocking, nor was it something that Jeff worked particularly hard to conceal, but to hear it stated so plainly, so casually, like they were talking about the weather, was more than a little unnerving.

Jeff carefully evaded the question, eyes cast down and face heating. “I don’t see how that’s relevant to anything.”

“Chip knows it too, you know. He’s not stupid, even if he may act like it sometimes,” Greg continued, apparently unconcerned by Jeff’s evasion attempt.

Jeff stared at Greg in bewilderment as he continued to puff on his cigarette. “And how does this help me, exactly?”

“I’m just saying... It doesn’t excuse anything, but maybe he needs time to, I don’t know, sort through some stuff?”

“Like how much of an immature prick he’s being?”

With a shake of his head, Greg butted out his half-smoked cigarette, placing it back into his pack and levelled his gaze on Jeff. “Yeah. Something like that. Look, just give him a bit of time, and for fuck’s sake, don’t drink yourself stupid. You do that enough as it is without any added stressors. Believe me when I tell you that it won’t help you out this time, my friend.”

And then, just like that, Greg left, leaving Jeff to stand alone in the cold with nothing but his thoughts and an emerging migraine.

~*~



December 15, 2012

Jeff knew, of course, that the false sense of security he’d fallen into couldn’t last long, but even still, he wished it would have for even another thirty minutes. He’d only had a chance to talk to a few people, and was finally starting to loosen up, with the help of a few good drinks.

The funny thing was that Jeff never actually even heard Chip enter the room. In fact, had Greg and Ryan not been involved in the current conversation, he probably wouldn’t have noticed at all, at least not for a little while. But the minute Chip walked in, they both fell silent. Jeff was disappointed in the two of them for failing so spectacularly at maintaining their composure. What good were they to him if even they couldn’t pretend that everything was normal?

“What is it?” Jeff asked, even though he already knew.

Greg indicated with his head at a point behind Jeff’s right shoulder. “He’s here,” was all he said.

The two words that had the power to unravel him completely. But no, Jeff was not some fragile little kitten. He’d chosen to come to this party, and he was not about to allow one Chip Esten to ruin it for him. So instead of avoiding him, he turned around to face him head on. Almost instantly, he felt his chest seize up and his breath catch in his throat at the sight of Chip. He looked a little thinner than the last time Jeff had seen him, face a bit paler too, but he still looked good. He always did. It wasn’t until he caught Chip’s eye, though, that a wave of pain, regret and sorrow washed over him as everything came rushing back at him like a hurricane.

It seemed to Jeff that the noise level had dropped considerably in these few short moments. He knew it was ridiculous, of course, but it felt like the entire room was watching them now, holding their collective breath to see how this whole thing would play out. Did everybody fucking know what had happened between them? Probably not, but it sure felt like it just then.

For several moments, they held each other’s gaze, the tension between them palpable, and Jeff felt as though a knife was twisting in his heart. At the same time, a thrill shot down his spine, warming him in a way that he hadn’t felt in a year, and the unwelcome sensation sent him reeling. He’d expected the anger, the frustration, the tension, the heartache upon seeing Chip again... but he hadn’t anticipated the want, the desire still coursing through his veins, despite everything they’d been through. That alone infuriated him more than anything else, overriding all other emotions at the forefront of his brain.

Finally, Jeff found his voice again. “Chip,” he said, nodding his head in Chip’s direction before fleeing the room in as graceful a manner as he could muster.

~*~



October 17, 2011

The avoidance lasted a grand total of eight days, some of which they spent apart, and some of which they didn’t. It was, of course, difficult to completely avoid someone when they were on the same tour bus, but Chip was actually surprisingly talented at it. He spent most of the time sleeping, pretending to be engaged in a fascinating book, and once or twice he even went to sit up front with their driver. He only climbed onto the bus moments before it pulled away, and was always the first one off it. Before and after shows, Chip would wander the casinos, chat up the staff working that evening, or hide in his dressing room, if they were fortunate enough to have them that particular night.

Finally, after a show that hadn’t gone quite as smoothly as anyone would’ve hoped, Jeff practically chased Chip off-stage, determined to catch him before he wandered off somewhere to hide. This little fight between them was starting to get out of hand.

Before Chip could run, Jeff heard himself speak. “Chip, we need to talk.”

Famous last words. Also entirely too cliché to sit well with Jeff. All the same, it was true, and there wasn’t any better way to get to the point.

Much to his surprise, Chip nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. We do,” he said, and even had the good sense to look properly chagrined.

“Where?” Jeff asked.

“Not here,” said Chip, glancing around as though to make sure they weren’t being watched. “When we get back to the hotel?”

Jeff’s faith in Chip to follow through was significantly diminished at this point, but he also knew that he didn’t have any other choice but to trust him. “All right, fine. Come to my hotel room,” he said.

Chip nodded just as Ryan and Greg walked past them, each wearing identical expressions of curiosity. “Yeah, okay.”

So it was determined. Now all he had to do was wait. And hope that Chip was amenable to sorting this whole thing out.

~*~



December 15, 2012

After escaping the awkward encounter with Chip, Jeff considered just calling it a night and leaving the party behind. He’d done his part – shown up, socialized, had some food and drinks – he had no real reason to stick around any longer. But despite the many legitimate excuses he had for leaving, there was something that held him back, prevented him from walking out and going home.

So, instead, he decided to give himself a tour of Drew’s home. Not that he hadn’t been there before, but he needed some time to clear his head and get himself back under control before he could go back to the party and rejoin everyone else. It was almost embarrassing how much Chip had an impact on him, even now. Eventually, Jeff found himself standing out on the balcony on the second floor, having wandered past it quite by accident.

He closed his fingers around the metal railing and stared out into the distance, cold seeping into his hands immediately. It was a cool evening, but Jeff had always preferred this type of weather to extreme heat, which had often made him wonder in the past why he chose to reside in this particular part of the country. There was a light breeze that brushed past his cheeks, running through his hair like a hand trying to ruffle his hair. Thankfully, there was enough gel there to keep it firmly in place, though he didn’t much care about his appearance right now.

For a long time, Jeff merely stood there, thinking. One year ago, he’d been sitting on top of the world. Everything had been going right, for once in his life, and he’d even started looking forward to Christmas. Funny how everything could go up in smoke so quickly. Jeff sighed, a frown forming on his lips, and he dug his fingers into the railing, seeking the odd comfort of the cold bar.

The sound of the screen door opening and closing a few minutes later pulled Jeff abruptly from his thoughts, alerting him to the fact that he wasn’t alone anymore. He had figured that people would know well enough to leave him alone, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there was only one person who would have decided to join him on the balcony. The silence spoke louder than any words ever could.

Jeff froze, every muscle tensing simultaneously, but he forced himself to continue breathing, to remain calm. It wasn’t as significant as he made it out to be.

The intruder moved slowly behind him until he could see a silhouette of someone standing off to the right side of the balcony. He kept his gaze focused on one particular tree in a neighboring yard, drawing on it as an anchor to keep him grounded as he continued to concentrate on keeping his breath steady.

Neither spoke. And then suddenly, out of the blue, a memory resurfaced in Jeff’s mind of a time not so long ago, when things had been much the same and yet entirely different all at once. He wasn’t sure what triggered it, exactly, other than Chip’s presence, but he felt his heart ache as everything came rushing back – all the highs and the lows of that night, one not so far removed from this one.

“You know, there’s an odd sort of familiarity about this,” he said finally, unsure of whether it was smart to bring it up at all. His voice sounded gravelly and far less in control than he would’ve liked, but it was too late to take anything back now.

A long moment of silence passed, and Jeff began to wonder if he’d been wrong about his company after all, when suddenly Chip spoke. “Yeah, there is.”

Maybe it was only his imagination, but Jeff could swear he heard a touch of regret in Chip’s voice.

~*~



October 17, 2011

Jeff paced back and forth across the room, glancing down at his watch every minute or so. They’d agreed to meet at his room, but hadn’t set an official time. It was already getting late as it was by the time they’d returned to the hotel, and that had been almost an hour ago. With every passing second, it was starting to look as though Chip wasn’t going to show up after all.

Finally, Jeff decided that he needed to get out of this place and get some air. Just as he slipped on his jacket, there was a soft knock at the door.

“Chip,” Jeff said when he opened the door, trying not to let his relief show, though he suspected he wasn’t doing a very good job of it.

Chip shifted on his feet, cheeks reddening momentarily. “Yeah, uh, I’m sorry it took me so long. Something came up...” He trailed off, glancing down at the floor before meeting Jeff’s eyes again. “Is it too late?” He blinked, then seemed to notice Jeff’s attire for the first time. “Oh, were you going somewhere?”

Jeff shook his head, doing up the last button on his jacket. “No. I was just feeling cramped in here. Thought maybe I’d go for a walk.” He paused, then added, “But we could talk outside, if you wanted to join me?”

“Okay,” Chip agreed, almost sounding relieved.

For the first five minutes, they walked in silence, with no particular destination in mind. Jeff wasn’t sure how to even begin this conversation, and a part of him was afraid of how it would end, so, cowardly, he found himself enjoying just being in Chip’s company without having to deal with any of the emotional garbage sitting between them. In a way, it felt as if nothing was wrong, and he liked deluding himself, even if he knew it wouldn’t – couldn’t – last.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Chip would be the first one to speak. Nonetheless, Jeff was grateful that he was able to do what Jeff couldn't. “Jeff, look. I, uh— I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. For the way I’ve been treating you this past week. You didn’t deserve any of it, and I’m kind of embarrassed with how much of an ass I’ve been.”

Jeff blinked in surprise, glancing over at Chip. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but it hadn’t been an outright apology.

“No, it’s fine,” he stammered out. “I mean, it’s not fine, but I understand why. I shouldn’t have kissed you like that on stage in the first place.”

“Maybe. But either way, my reaction wasn’t necessary either.”

“It’s okay. I’m sorry for putting you in an awkward situation to begin with.”

Chip sighed, his hand accidentally brushing up against Jeff’s, and Jeff felt a little thrill run up his spine at the contact. Chip slowed his pace and a long silence stretched between them then.

When Chip finally spoke, there was a certain quality to his voice that Jeff only heard when he was trying to be careful about what he said. “Honestly, Jeff, I knew what you’ve been trying to do for months. If I was really bothered by your behavior, I could have said something to you sooner.”

“I guess so.” Jeff frowned, his eyebrows knitting together. “But you didn’t, so it doesn’t really matter.”

“Except that it sort of does,” Chip said firmly, and Jeff couldn’t help but look over at him curiously. “I wasn’t so much angry at you as I was at me. For how I, uh, reacted.”

“You shouldn’t feel bad for being upset with me.”

“I know. But I don’t think you’re hearing me. I wasn’t upset with you. My reaction to your kiss was sort of the opposite, actually. Which is why I was so mad at myself.”

Usually Jeff was more than competent at figuring out what was going on in conversations, but for some reason he couldn’t seem to piece together what Chip was trying to say now. “What do you mean your reaction was ‘the opposite’?”

Jeff,” Chip said with exasperation. And then he felt fingers curl around his own, stopping him dead in his tracks.

Suddenly Jeff’s mouth went dry, and all he could do was stare down at their entwined hands, wondering how the hell his world had shifted on its axis so quickly.

“When I said my reaction was the opposite of angry, what I meant was that when you kissed me, I actually liked it. A lot. I guess I’d always suspected that I might, but until that night, I hadn’t actually known, so I kept deluding myself into thinking there was nothing there.”

A hand came to rest on his shoulder, dragging Jeff’s gaze up to meet Chip’s once more, and he shivered involuntarily. Chip was looking at him like he expected Jeff to say something. After several moments of deliberation, he eventually settled on, “Okay.”

“I guess I just thought that maybe if I avoided you for a while, those feelings would die down. But all I was doing was hurting us both, apparently, since it didn’t change a damn thing on my part. Only seemed to make it worse, truthfully.”

Jeff really wanted to say something substantial, but he couldn’t seem to formulate the right words. He nodded instead.

“Is any of this getting through to you?” Chip asked as he slid his fingers from Jeff’s shoulder up his neck to rest against his cheek. His other hand still clutched Jeff’s fingers.

Jeff swallowed and nodded again, pressing his face into the touch. “Yeah, I think so,” he finally managed to say, and leaned in to close the gap.

And then they were kissing, on an unfamiliar street in front of passers-by, but Jeff didn’t care. His hands moved to grip Chip’s hips, pulling him closer, and he thought that this might be one of the best moments of his entire life.

~*~



December 15, 2012

The silence couldn’t last forever. And despite the fact that Jeff was now thoroughly chilled, stuck out on a balcony with the very person he’d been trying to avoid, and his heart aching with every memory that came flooding back – good or bad – he couldn’t seem to drag himself away either.

In the end, it was Chip who spoke first. Just like he always had. “I’m sure this won’t mean much to you, but I wanted to say that I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry, you don’t even know.”

Jeff swallowed, and much to his horror, discovered his eyes welling up with tears. Fuck, he was pathetic. He leaned forward on his arms, digging his fingers into the railing again and sought out that tree he’d been staring at before. If Chip expected some sort of response, he wasn’t going to get it. An apology wasn’t going to erase what had happened, though he suspected Chip knew that.

“I know it probably means nothing to you,” Chip continued, as if reading his thoughts. “But I just needed you to know.”

Keeping his breath steady, Jeff ducked his head in acknowledgement. It was the most he could offer.

“How, uh— how have you been?” Chip continued.

Did he really want to know, or was he just attempting to make pleasant conversation? “I’ve been fine,” he said, purposefully vague.

“That’s good. What kinds of things have you been up to lately?”

Jeff had left the Whose Live Anyway? tour at the beginning of the year, taking a hiatus from the group under the guise of attempting to pursue other avenues for his career. Everyone had known why he’d actually done it, but they’d still had to replace him in the show. Jeff had kept in touch with Ryan and Greg throughout the year, but hadn’t spoken to Chip at all since that day in early January.

“I’ve been doing improv with another company in LA that tours across the mid-west, and I landed a guest spot on a new sitcom that starts airing in the new year. Dan and I are still doing Harmontown, too, and I’ve done a few other events throughout the year.”

“Oh, that’s great. I’m glad to hear it,” Chip said, sounding as sincere as ever. It was one of those qualities he had that usually made it hard to remain angry with him for too long.

Another silence fell, and Jeff felt as though Chip was waiting for him to carry on the conversation. The thing was, he didn’t want to ask how Chip was doing, because a large part of him didn’t want to know the answer. The last thing he wanted to hear was how things were going great in Chip’s life since everything happened between them last year. He didn’t want to hear how Chip was well and happy and successful, even if there was a part of him that still wanted that for his friend. Former friend, he mentally corrected, and felt his heart constrict in his chest. It would only confirm the truth that Jeff needed Chip more than Chip had ever needed him.

All the same, there was a sort of morbid curiosity still underlying his thoughts. Eventually, he decided to just do it anyway. “How have you been?”

A long pause preceded the reply. “Um... I’m okay now. But it hasn’t been a very good year for me.”

And suddenly, just like that, Jeff went from relatively calm to pissed off. “Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?” he snapped, though regretted the tone instantly. He had asked, after all.

“No. No, you definitely shouldn’t, and I’m not asking you to. I just figured I owed you the truth.”

“Okay,” Jeff said, taking a steadying breath, and then, “Look, I, uh— sorry. About that. I shouldn’t have snapped at you.”

“It’s fine. I deserved it.”

The obvious question sat between them now. “What happened? To make your year so bad, I mean?”

“It’s a long story, not worth getting into the details right now, but basically things didn’t work out with Patty. It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized that it had probably been over long before that point.” Chip sighed audibly, and Jeff felt his throat tighten, a myriad of emotions running through his head at this unexpected revelation. “The kids took it really hard, knowing it was for good this time, and I’ve been a bit of a mess. Everything had been so confusing and muddled for so long, that I just struggled to try and make sense of my life again, you know?”

Of course he knew. It was the very life he’d been living this past year, trying to reinvent himself, figure out his place, move on after the ending of one of his longest friendships. Truth be told, Jeff wasn’t sure that he’d managed to accomplish it yet.

“Were you able to— I mean, did you figure things out?”

“I think so,” Chip said, voice soft, and suddenly a lot closer than Jeff remembered.

This whole time, he’d kept his gaze focused on the distance as a way of staying grounded. To actually turn and acknowledge Chip felt scary, especially given the topic of their conversation, but maybe there was a reason they’d both shown up for this party tonight. Maybe it was a way for both of them to finally heal.

~*~



December 20, 2011

Looking back on things, Jeff should have seen it coming. At first, he hadn’t believed that this thing with Chip was actually going anywhere. But when kissing led to touching, which eventually led to consistent sex and frequent time spent together both on and off tour, he started to get hopeful that things were real – that this was actually happening like he’d been dreaming about for years. It seemed too good to be true.

As it turned out, it had been.

Jeff knew something was wrong when Chip suggested they have dinner at Jeff’s place, instead of going out like they’d planned, but he’d pushed his doubts aside. It was five days before Christmas. Surely Chip wouldn’t be heartless enough to break it off right at that very moment.

By the time Chip arrived, Jeff had nearly finished with dinner. He’d made all of Chip’s favorites, because this was supposed to be their Christmas celebration, and he enjoyed cooking, so Jeff thought it wasn’t such a bad thing that they’d decided to stay in instead.

“Hey, you made it,” Jeff said with a grin when Chip arrived, moving to greet him with a kiss.

Chip smiled at him, but there was a certain sad quality to his eyes that filled Jeff with dread. That suspicion was only heightened when Chip pulled away from their kiss after a moment, refusing to meet his gaze.

“I hope you’re hungry,” Jeff said, returning to the stove to continue stirring the gravy. “I’ve been cooking most of the day.”

But instead of looking pleased, this seemed to upset Chip. “I wish you hadn’t done that. I told you I wanted to keep things simple tonight.”

“Yeah, but it’s Christmas, and I know how much you love it. Plus, I love to cook, so I figured we would both win this way.”

“Jeff,” Chip said softly, voice fond and yet also sounding pained.

Jeff stopped stirring and turned off the element, turning to face Chip fully. He finally gave voice to the question he didn’t want to ask. “What’s wrong?”

“Uh, Jeff, we really need to talk,” Chip said, and Jeff felt his heart sink deep in his chest. It was then that he knew with absolute certainty that this night was not going to go at all like he’d planned.

~*~



December 15, 2012

Tears stung his eyes once more as Jeff suddenly remembered the agony of that day, almost a year ago. How Chip had ripped his heart out, stomped it on the ground, and then walked away as if it’d been nothing. He’d been as kind as he could, of course, because Chip was still entirely good at his core, but it hadn’t been any less heart-wrenching.

As he’d watched Chip leave, he’d tossed a glass at his kitchen wall, watching it shatter into a million pieces, a mirror of his own miserable state. He’d sunk to the floor and sobbed for the first time in years. It wasn’t until many hours later, when he was beyond drunk, that he finally passed out on his living room couch.

“You know, it’s great that you managed to figure things out for yourself, but I’d had them figured out a long time before that, only to have everything fall apart at my feet,” Jeff eventually said, finally meeting Chip’s steady gaze.

He knew that the hurt was visible on his face, but he didn’t care. Maybe it was good that Chip saw tangible evidence of Jeff’s pain, not as a form of punishment, but as a way of finally acknowledging what had happened between them.

“I know. It wasn’t fair, what I did to you. I’ve hurt so many people over the last couple years.”

“I loved you, you know,” Jeff admitted. He probably still did, pathetic as that made him.

Chip swallowed, and for the first time, Jeff noticed the sheen of tears in his eyes too.

“There were so many times over the past several months that I wanted to call you, to tell you everything, but I didn’t know how to do that without coming across like a prick.”

“Maybe because you are a prick,” Jeff suggested, folding his arms across his chest. No matter how angry he got, though, he knew – at least intellectually – that Chip hadn’t ever intended on hurting him.

“You’re right, I am.”

“Do you have any fucking idea how much you hurt me?”

Thankfully, Chip had the good sense to stay quiet.

“It wasn’t just that I was in love with you, Chip. You were also one of my best friends in the entire world, and I thought I was so fucking lucky to have a best friend who also became my lover. In those first few weeks you assured me that your marriage was over in every way except legally, and stupid me, I believed you. Maybe because I’d loved you and dreamed of this for so damn long, never expecting it to actually happen.”

The tears that had only been threatening to fall for quite some time began to slowly trickle down his cheeks now. He knew he should probably stop talking, but now that the flood gates were open, Chip was going to listen, and he was going to know just how much he’d hurt Jeff.

“The worst part of it all, though, was that you gave me hope that there could be something more between us, when maybe you hadn’t ever been sure yourself. I would have preferred the silent treatment, because at least then I wasn’t given false hope for something more. But to have that handed to me, only to be taken away just as quickly... It fucking sucked, Chip. For a while after, I really hated you and what you’d done to me.”

He shook his head sadly, his gaze falling to the ground. He couldn’t stand to look at Chip right now.

“I’m so sorry for that. For all of it,” Chip said after a lengthy silence, taking a step closer. “I wish there was some way to take it all back and fix everything, but I know there isn’t.”

And then Chip was reaching for him, and Jeff couldn’t seem to resist the pull. He sunk into Chip’s embrace for the first time in over a year, barely able to hold back the sob that threatened to overtake him. Chip’s arms were strong around his body, hands pressing soothingly into his back. It seemed absurd that he was receiving comfort from the very person who had inflicted his pain in the first place, but it felt so good, so right, that he just couldn’t bring himself to care in that very moment.

“So, where do we go from here?” Chip eventually asked, long after they’d pulled away from one another.

“I don’t know,” Jeff admitted sadly. “This isn’t something I can just get over after one conversation. I just... I don’t know.”

Chip nodded, reaching up to brush a tear away from Jeff’s cheek. “I know, and I wouldn’t expect you to either. Maybe... maybe we could try and be friends again?” he suggested carefully.

“Friends,” Jeff said, tasting the word on his tongue to see how it felt. The thought was frightening, but maybe it wasn’t impossible either. “I think I can do that.”

When Chip smiled at him, full and genuine, something twisted in Jeff’s gut. But this time, it wasn’t unpleasant. “Good. That’s awesome.”

“I have no idea where this will go, though,” Jeff felt compelled to warn him, even though he didn’t want to erase that hopeful smile from Chip’s face now that he’d seen it again. “I just... I’m going to need time.”

“Of course,” Chip agreed. “I wouldn’t expect anything else.”

For several moments they watched one another, and Jeff wondered if things could really be good between them again. Right now, he couldn’t imagine getting involved with Chip again. But maybe... possibly some day... things might change. All he knew for certain was that he was willing to give their relationship another try.

“Do you think we should head back to the party?” Chip asked eventually.

Jeff nodded. “Yeah, I think that’s a good idea. As Greg likes to point out, Drew has the best damn drinks around. I think could use another one right about now.”

Chip nodded, still smiling as he gestured towards the screen door. “Me too. After you.”