|Smile Like You Mean It For Once
Things AJ Glued To Other Things During His Five And A Half Years (Five Years, Five Months, Two Weeks And One Day, Exactly, If You're Counting, Which Lucas Isn't) Working At Empire Records:
Two years after AJ and Corey move to Boston, Lucas finds a website called This To That, explaining all the best ways to glue a wide variety of materials to other things. Lucas glues one of Joe's best dinner plates to the back of Joe's old leather jacket, just to see if Household Goop – the product recommended by the website – will work.
It does. He sends a tube of it to AJ in a box full of packing peanuts and no note. Two weeks later, he gets back a box full of packing peanuts glued to each other and to the inside of the box. AJ sends it to the store, not Lucas's new apartment (he has a couch, three plates, six spoons and a truly epic album, tape and CD collection, but not much else), so Joe opens it in the course of paying the bills.
Lucas is lying upside down on the couch with his legs thrown over the back, contemplating the death of the indie scene, when Joe shoves the box in his face. "Lucas, what is this?"
"It looks like art, Joe," Lucas says. "But I could be mistaken. Was there a note?"
Joe drops the box on Lucas's chest and stalks back to his office. Lucas rotates his body without dislodging the box resting on his chest, until he can look down into the solid cube of Styrofoam peanuts instead of up at it.
No note, just a solid block of Styrofoam. Lucas thinks that he should have sent AJ the dinner plate/leather jacket installation instead. Maybe that would have merited a postcard.
Not that Lucas is bitter that AJ up and moved to Massachusetts for a girl. Lucas himself has done stupider things in his lifetime. (See also Atlantic City, and Lucas would have thought the notoriety of that whole crazy day would have died out as AJ and Corey left town and Gina quit to go on tour with Berko. He doesn't think that Deb talks to the new kids, but Lucas could have been wrong. Which is upsetting on an entirely different level, really, when he thinks about it. Lucas does not enjoy being wrong.)
But in the end, Lucas was only out thousands of dollars that didn't belong to him, and it ended well despite everything. AJ moving to Massachusetts for a girl, even if that girl was Corey, had repercussions. Repercussions for Lucas, for example – Lucas no longer had anyone who was willing to sit in Denny's with him at 3 AM, nor anyone who would not only sit in Denny's with him at 3 AM, but who would also charm the waitresses out of making them pay for their Grand Slam breakfasts and create fantastic sculptures out of sugar packets and containers of half and half while he was at it.
There was a distinctly AJ-shaped void in Lucas's new life without furniture, and even a box full of glue and peanuts couldn't improve that. Not that Lucas thought it would – just that he thought maybe it should have.
The day after Lucas got a box of art from AJ in the mail, Corey turned up in the store. It was a Saturday and Lucas was out on the registers by himself, contemplating death by flinging himself into the teeming mass of hipster teenyboppers surrounding the counter with Death Cab CDs clutched in their fists. "Hey, Lucas," she says, like she hadn't run off with the only person Lucas enjoyed hanging out with, not that Lucas thought Corey was a traitor or an evil best-friend-stealing harlot or anything.
"A little help here, Corey?" Lucas says, and she slides up behind the counter to start snapping security devices off CDs. When they'd cleared the store of the mid-morning pre-Lucas's-coffee rush, she leans back against the register and looks him up and down. Lucas says, "Where's AJ?"
"Oh, nice, Lucas," Corey says. "You couldn't even manage a 'Hey, Corey, nice to see you, how's Harvard?' first? I haven't been back here in more than a year!"
"Hey, Corey, nice to see you, how's Harvard?" Lucas parrots, and then he repeats himself. "Where's AJ?"
"AJ stayed in Boston," Corey says, heaving a big sigh. "Harvard is fine, it's good, it's still kind of hard. My ancient religions class is really excellent, the professor is absolutely brilliant."
Lucas pats her distractedly on the shoulder as another wave of slightly older, distinctly more hungover indie hipsters swarms into the store to buy the Wilco live album. "That's good," Lucas says. "Why did he stay in Boston?"
"I don't know," Corey says. "God." She stomps off from behind the counter and nearly runs over a hipster clutching a copy of Hot Fuss to her chest; the hipster glares at Lucas like it's his fault Corey's always going to be an over-emotional flake. Lucas loves her, but Corey's first priority is always going to be Corey, not anybody else.
Clearly she should see that this is about Lucas and AJ, not about her.
Lucas finishes his morning on the register with a headache and a serious craving for a cup of coffee. (He sells 14 copies of Kicking Television, 5 copies of Hot Fuss, and two copies of Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits; he didn't even know that Empire had two copies of anything by Barry Manilow in stock, but to each hipster their own, Lucas always says. If AJ was still working at Empire, Lucas probably would have said it to him, but AJ isn't, so Lucas says it to Warren instead, which isn't half as satisfying.)
He's counting out his cash drawer when an anonymous hand sets a large cup of coffee from the independent place across the street at his elbow. "Sorry," Corey says. "AJ's meeting this guy today, somebody he wants to do a collaboration with."
"Okay," Lucas says, because he's not really sure exactly what she's getting at with this; except answering his question, of course, but Corey didn't work at Empire for two years so Lucas could miss the fact that something else is going on.
He's just having a slow sort of day, so he isn't quite sure what the problem is.
"He liked the glue you sent him," she continues. "He fixed my favorite coffee mug with it."
"That's nice," Lucas says. He does not say, He made me some art with it, nyah, nyah, nyah, because while Lucas has done many things for no apparent reason at all, taunting Corey unprovoked only gets Lucas slapped and also makes him feel weirdly guilty and mean, like kicking a puppy.
Corey is quiet for a while, and Lucas counts nickels and dimes and quarters, stacking them up and throwing them back in the register drawer. The clatter of the metal on plastic is loud, extra loud, because Corey's silence is extra-quiet. There's no one else she wants to talk who's here today (it's Joe's day off, Mark and Eddy don't come in until later), except Lucas, and Corey never talked to Lucas much even when she still worked here.
"Do you talk to AJ a lot?" she says suddenly. Lucas drops a stack of quarters on the floor. Not the question he was expecting, and he hides under the count-out table for a couple of minutes, trying to pry one of AJ's glued-down quarters off the floor before he realizes it isn't one of the quarters he dropped. "I mean," Corey says, and Lucas straightens up and smashes his head on the bottom of the table. He crawls out, rubbing his head, as she continues. "I mean, has he said anything to you? About me? Because, I don't know, AJ's always kind of been a little weird, but things were good with us for a while, and now he's all quiet and something's weirder than usual, and I just thought, maybe, I don't know, maybe he told you what was wrong."
"I sent him glue, Corey," Lucas says. "Is that the mark of a successful, open, sharing friendship to you?"
Apparently the wrong answer to the question, because Corey stomps out and Lucas doesn't see her again that weekend, or the weekend after when she comes down to hang out with Gina.
Three weeks after Corey tries to talk to Lucas about AJ and his possible emotional difficulties, Lucas hears from Mark who hears from Eddy who hears from Gina that AJ and Corey broke up. Gossip is unreliable, at best, and gossip passed through the Empire Records chain of register monkeys (and former register monkeys turned rock stars) is, at worst, completely and totally false, at worst. Lucas thinks briefly of the time he went to Atlantic City and the supposed mobster's wife, and then he closes out the register, preps the bank deposit, locks up the store and goes home, instead.
He's acquired two forks, a bowl and a coffee maker since he sent the glue to AJ, and he's still sleeping on the pull out bed part of the couch because he can't afford a mattress, and every night since he moved out of Joe's place, Lucas has come home and been vaguely depressed by the whole endeavor. But not depressed enough to buy a microwave. All those other nights, though, Lucas hasn't come home to find AJ slumped in the hallway outside Lucas's door, peeling paint off the walls with his fingernails (still chewed to the quick) and looking utterly despondent (still AJ's default state when not in immediate proximity to Corey).
When Lucas gets closer to his door, he realizes that AJ isn't just peeling the paint off the walls; he's gluing it to the cheap linoleum that lines the hallways. AJ only glues stuff together when he's upset, or when he's thinking. Lucas knows this, has seen it in action before, and when he got a box full of packing peanuts glued together a month ago, he should have seen this coming.
AJ's hair has gotten longer, falling across his eyes when he peers up at Lucas. "What's up, man?" Lucas says, prodding at AJ's knee with the toe of his sneaker.
"You're standing on my art," AJ says.
"Sorry, man," Lucas says, and slides down the wall to sit beside AJ on the floor. He bumps his shoulder up against AJ's, AJ leans back against him. He's wearing that ugly brown sweater, the one he was wearing when he walked into Empire seven years ago to interview with Joe for a job, all knees and elbows and too-long limbs. Lucas was 16, had only been working at Empire, for real and not just hanging around being a pain in Joe's ass, for a couple of weeks, and he'd only known that he thought he liked to kiss boys for a couple months longer than that. When AJ walked through the door and asked Lucas where Joe was, Lucas thought, oh, yeah, you'll get the job.
He didn't even have to beg Joe to hire AJ, because AJ had that puppy dog charm going on even at seventeen and skinny, and Lucas spent the best three years of his life bumping elbows with AJ in the break room and restocking the Jazz section.
Even if nothing else ever went on. Lucas is cool with that, because AJ knows that Lucas likes guys and he's cool with that. It all works out. Everybody's cool.
They've been sitting on the floor in Lucas's shitty apartment building hallways for ten minutes before AJ looks up and shakes the hair out of his eyes and says, "Corey and I broke up."
Lucas says, "Oh."
AJ glues another long strip of paint onto the floor. The pattern, if there is one, utterly meaningless to Lucas.
Lucas says, "You want a beer?"
AJ has always been more for words - talk a problem to death and in the end it's still a problem but at least he's said a lot - than grand sweeping gestures (Lucas is the one who lost all the money in Atlantic City, after all) but this time, he doesn't say anything, just screws the cap back on to the almost-empty tube of glue that Lucas sent him weeks ago, shoves himself up the wall and silently holds a hand out for Lucas to take.
Lucas is overcome with the urge to apologize for the state of his apartment - the sofa is covered in blankets, the floor is covered in dirty clothes - but AJ just drifts around, touching the few things that are there quietly, so Lucas retreats to the kitchen and putters. He has his head in the fridge, easily finding one beer but not two, and so he is plumbing the depths of cartons full of moldy Chinese food for another one when the stereo switches on, the Kinks, loud and surprising, and switches off just as quickly.
He almost cracks his head on the top of the fridge before he remembers, it's just AJ.
The search for a second beer is futile and Lucas feels suddenly, stomach-twistingly awkward when he walks back out into the living room. He says, "There's just one - "
AJ says, "Nice place, been here - "
Lucas says, "God, sorry, you go."
AJ stammers a little, blushes, and says, "This place is nice. Big. You, uh, you could get a table for the living room or something, even."
"Yeah, well, Jane's pregnant," Lucas says, and shoves the beer, sweating with condensation, into AJ's hand and wipes his palm on his jeans like he's 18 all over again and picking some skinny indie rocker boy for a date. "So the spare room was suddenly less spare. Uh, there's only one beer, so."
"Jane's pregnant?" AJ says. "Corey didn't tell me that."
"Well, you broke up," Lucas says. "I would assume - not that I have ever had a relationship that lasted more than three weeks, so I cannot be sure - that once you have broken up with someone, that absolves you of any responsibility for spreading gossip or well-founded truths to that person."
"Corey said you were still completely tactless," AJ says, taking three steps away from Lucas and sinking down onto the couch. It isn't until AJ sits down that Lucas realizes they've been standing, elbow-to-elbow, halfway between the kitchen and the front door - Lucas has always been a keen observer of the human race and their peculiarities, but he can't explain his own peculiarities in his situation, and he can't explain AJ's, either.
"Sorry," Lucas says, and when he sits down on the couch AJ lists towards him, as though he's suddenly tired or drunk from three sips of beer. "I ... I don't know what I was thinking."
"You weren't," AJ says, comfortably warm against Lucas's side. "You never are."
"Au contraire," Lucas says, and when he pulls the beer from AJ's finger, AJ lets it go easily. Lucas takes a long drink and continues. "I am thinking all the time. I am constantly over-thinking everything. It's an equally debilitating habit, I will have you know."
AJ hums, low in his throat, and Lucas knows that noise, it's AJ's generic maybe I'll consider that option noise, and he made it every time he thought about asking Corey out - every time before the time AJ actually did.
Which brings Lucas back to why they're here on Lucas's couch, so he says, "You want to talk about it?"
AJ hums again, and braces one hand against Lucas's thigh, twisting to look Lucas in the face. He fidgets, fingers clenching and unclenching against Lucas's jeans, and says, "Corey thinks I'm not in love with her."
"Well, she says you fixed her favorite mug," Lucas deadpans. "I would say that's a pretty good declaration of love."
"I'm not," AJ says. Then he's quiet, sentence unfinished, and he reaches out and takes the beer back from Lucas, tilting it back to finish it off. From the position where he's slid onto Lucas's shoulder, Lucas can see the long clean line of AJ's throat, and even though he stopped being in love with AJ years ago, he feels a flush of it now, lust and like and love all rolled up into one gut punch.
"You're not a lot of things, but not not in love with Corey is not one of them," Lucas says. "That was an unbearably awkward sentence, but you understand what I mean."
AJ clanks the bottle onto the hardwood of Lucas's floor and twists around again, planting a knee on the sofa and a hand on the back of the sofa, next to Lucas's ear. "I love Corey," he says, with the certainty of a drunk person, which is to say none at all.
"Love is all good and well," Lucas says, and catches a whiff of AJ's breath. "God, how much whiskey did you drink before I came home?"
"Half the bottle," AJ says, unearthing the rest of the fifth from inside his sweater somewhere and shoving it into Lucas's hand. "I love Corey."
"Not to argue semantics with a drunk man," Lucas says. "But loving Corey is not the same thing as being in love with Corey, if you know what I mean."
"That's what she said," AJ says.
"Never let it be said that Corey misses the obvious," Lucas says. "So. Are you in love with Corey?"
"No," AJ says, and then he kisses Lucas. Which, if Lucas is honest with himself, is pretty much exactly where this was going. And if he thinks back to the bizarrely cryptic conversation Corey tried to have with him a couple of weeks ago, he shouldn't be surprised to have AJ drunk on his couch, having both a crisis of love and of sexuality.
Lucas has wanted to kiss AJ for as long as he can remember, but he's not going to do this now, not without getting some answers first. Lucas has woken up with his life turned upside down more than once and Lucas has a reputation for not looking or thinking before he leaps, but he's 23, he's going to do this right for once. He puts a hand in the middle of AJ's chest and pushes, just a little, and AJ pulls away from Lucas's mouth and overbalances, landing directly in Lucas's lap, hair in his eyes and face pressed against Lucas's jeans. "Hey," Lucas says. AJ rolls over, head still resting against Lucas's thigh, and peers up at him blearily.
"I'm in love with you," AJ says, like Lucas hadn't spent AJ's first six months at the store following him around like a puppy.
"We're on Candid Camera," Lucas says. "Right?"
AJ tries to lever himself up and fails. "No," AJ says. "Corey told me, I'm not in love with her, and I'm not. Did you ever have one of those moments, when someone says something and suddenly your entire world view shifts, just, I don't know, a little to the left, and somehow six inches makes everything look different?"
"Sure," Lucas says.
"Corey and I had this fight, and then she locked me out of the apartment, and then I looked six inches to the left, and there you were. So here I am."
"No, I was at Empire."
"Metaphorically," AJ says. "You were there metaphorically."
"Big word for a drunk man," Lucas says, and AJ doesn't say anything else at all, just slides a hand across Lucas's cheek and along the back of his neck and kisses Lucas again. Lucas has enough restraint left to work a hand between his mouth and AJ's, and he says, muffled against his hand, "Are you in your completely right mind?"
"Yes," AJ says. "God, this is the least romantic response to any declaration of love I've ever made, and Corey cried on me about Rex Manning the first time I tried to tell her I loved her."
"Never compare me to Corey again," Lucas says, and AJ laughs, and Lucas thinks about it for a minute, watching AJ's face creased with laughter, and says, "Never compare me to Rex Manning again, either, come to think of it."
AJ is still laughing, sprawled across Lucas's lap, when he meets Lucas halfway in another kiss. Lucas has been waiting almost four years for this, and while there have been long moments where he forgot that he wanted this desperately, there have been longer moments when he has not, and it's not like he's been sitting around pining for AJ or anything, but he sent AJ glue and AJ sent him art.
That's got to count for something, that's got to be a sign.
Lucas has dated a lot, Lucas has even had in his past what he would consider to be actual boyfriends - but he never, ever brought them around to Empire because he's spent the last five years of his life watching the perverse fascination of the Empire Records staff with AJ and Corey's awkward attempts to get something right (and oh, was Gina going to be pissed when she heard about this) and the never-ending gossip trail about whether or not Deb and Berko were ever going to get married. Bad enough that Lucas had to deal with it; no way was he ever going to subject someone else to that.
But AJ is different, AJ is part of the family, and either this is going to be a one-night thing and they never talk about it again, or Lucas is going to have to face the wrath of Gina, the amusement of Mark and Eddy, the bemusement of Deb when the gossip gets around. "Wait," he says, against AJ's mouth, and AJ smiles again, lips curving against Lucas's. "Seriously, AJ, have you given this some thought? Are you going to have a gay freak-out tomorrow morning that I will have to deal with before going off to suffer behind the registers at Empire?"
"I hadn't planned on it," AJ says. "I could schedule it for a better time, if you want me to."
"No, okay, that's," Lucas says, and he almost loses his train of thought because AJ is pressing kisses along Lucas's jaw line and somehow, despite the fact that they're tangled up more uncomfortably than a pretzel (and Lucas wouldn't trade it for anything, just, his knees are going to sleep), AJ has worked a hand between them, long fingers splayed out against Lucas's ribs. "The other thing," he says, trying to ignore AJ's fingers creeping down towards his belt. "The other thing is Corey."
"Corey's fine," AJ mutters against Lucas's neck. "Jesus Christ, Lucas, you didn't used to worry this much, did you?"
"Sex makes people crazy," Lucas says. He tries to say, "Look at you and Corey," but AJ kisses him again and Lucas can't argue with kissing.
The sofa is uncomfortable, has been lumpy since the day Lucas and Mark hauled it home from the curb outside Eddy's house, and there's something pressing against Lucas's spine when AJ presses him down against the pillows. AJ kisses him with intense focus, the same way Lucas has watched him kiss Corey, and his hands are everywhere, creeping up underneath Lucas's shirt and stroking along Lucas's sides. Lucas tucks AJ's hair behind his ears while they kiss; it's gotten too long, falling across AJ's face and brushing Lucas's cheeks, and when Lucas has tucked it safely away, he presses his palms to AJ's cheeks, tugging him closer and deepening the kiss.
AJ pulls his mouth away, biting Lucas's jaw and pressing a kiss to the pulse point on his neck. Lucas shudders, running his hands across the back of AJ's neck, and shifts, spreading his legs so that AJ's thigh slides into the space Lucas has opened. "Have you even slept with a man before?" he says, and AJ shakes his head against Lucas's neck, and Lucas can feel the curve of AJ's smile against his collarbone.
"Lucas," AJ says, "stop worrying." Then he pulls Lucas's t-shirt off over his head, tossing it across the living room and sliding his hands down Lucas's chest.
Lucas tries to stop worrying. He crawls out from under AJ, sinking to his knees on the hardwood floor and thumbing the button on AJ's faded (paint-riddled, familiar) jeans open, pressing his palm against the outline of AJ's dick inside them. AJ jerks and sucks in a breath that almost sounds like Lucas's names, and one of AJ's hands curls around the back of Lucas's neck, his fingers cool against Lucas's skin.
Lucas slides the zipper down and runs his fingers over the soft cotton of AJ's boxers; he slides a hand inside, the hard heat of AJ's cock heavy against this palm, and strokes, twice. "Come on," he says, palming his other hand against AJ's hip and pushing. AJ lifts his hips up and lets Lucas tug his jeans and boxers off together, shoving them down to the ground. Lucas kneels on them and runs his thumb along AJ's dick before he wraps his hand around it.
This is weird, but it's no weirder than Warren trying to shoot up Empire, no weirder than the funeral they had for Deb, no weirder than AJ and Corey or Mark and anyone or Lucas and anyone, so he looks up at AJ and AJ is staring down at him with this expression on his face that Lucas has never seen him wear before. It's part terror and part awe and part something that looks like open affection, and even the day AJ decided to tell Corey he loved her - not that he was in love with her, Lucas's brain reminds him, he's in love with you - Lucas has never seen AJ look at anyone this way before.
The last of the weirdness evaporates from Lucas's stomach, because this was AJ, and Lucas had loved him and been half in love with him for years, so he bends his head and licks the head of AJ's dick. AJ jerks and mutters something underneath his breath, fingers tightening against Lucas's neck. Not that Lucas is a slut or anything, but he's given his own fair share of blowjobs and he likes to think he's good at it. He lets his jaw go slack and gives AJ everything he's got - AJ groans against, shoving his hips up toward Lucas's mouth, and he presses his thumb against the pulse point of Lucas's throat. It only takes a couple of minutes before AJ is coming, hard, and Lucas can feel his own blood pounding through his veins against the pressure of AJ's hand on his neck.
"Jesus," AJ says faintly, and he runs his thumb along the edge of Lucas's jaw. Lucas swallows and sits back on his heels. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and doesn't look at AJ - it's weird again, and Lucas's dick is hard and aching in his pants, and he doesn't know whether he wants to crawl up onto the sofa and kiss the stoned, post-orgasm look off AJ's face or if he wants to go and hide in the bedroom until AJ leaves.
He starts to stand up - his brain pounding fuck or flight, fuck or flight in his ears - and AJ reaches out and grabs his wrist. "Hey," AJ says, twisting around, tugging Lucas down to the couch and answering Lucas's question for him. "Smile, Lucas, this is a good thing." AJ thumbs open the button on Lucas's jeans and shoves them down one handed, his other hand sliding from Lucas's wrist to the small of his back. AJ settles his hand there, pressing gently, and Lucas slides down along AJ's body, his cock sliding against the hollow of AJ's hip. AJ's skin is damp with sweat, cool and sticky and smooth, and AJ uses his free hand to tip Lucas's chin up - Lucas has seen him do this to Corey a hundred times, and it feels familiar and affectionate when AJ does this to him - and kisses him.
AJ's fingers are still cold, one hand pressed against Lucas's face and the other against Lucas's hip, holding Lucas against him. AJ rubs his thumb in circles across Lucas's hipbone, and Lucas turns his brain off once and for all, thrusting against AJ and licking his way into AJ's mouth. AJ laughs against Lucas's mouth, and then he kisses him back until Lucas comes, seeing stars, about three minutes later.
Lucas collapses across AJ's chest, AJ's hand settling on the back of his neck, and breathes heavily. He can feel AJ's heart beating underneath that ugly sweater, and it's racing just like Lucas's. AJ doesn't say anything, just lets Lucas lie on top of him and threads his fingers through Lucas's hair. "So," Lucas says. He feels like it's been hours since he walked into his hallway and found AJ gluing paint to the floor - it seems stupid and familiar, the tube of glue in AJ's hand, and utterly comforting - but it's only been about 45 minutes.
"So, what?" AJ says.
"Were you gay when you woke up this morning?"
AJ shrugs. Lucas can't see it, he's got his eyes closed and he doesn't want to open them and see regret on AJ's face, but he knows that gesture on AJ's frame as well as he knows his own name. "Who knows where thoughts come from, Lucas? They just appear."
For a moment, Lucas isn't sure what AJ means, but then it all floods back to him at once, an awful day that managed to be funny despite Rex Manning and Deb and Mitchell and everything, and AJ's decision to tell Corey he loved her at 1:37 exactly. Lucas has known AJ for a long time, knows him well enough to know a piece of art when one arrives in the mail, and what AJ is saying is something like an explanation.
"Smile," AJ says. "It's Rex Manning Day."
And Lucas knows exactly what he means, except it's not Rex Manning Day - it's years later, and it's better than that.
author's notes: for keri, the default team leader of my soul, on her birthday. love and glasses of water, baby. title and summary from the weakerthans, "a new name for everything".