Bottom Of the Ninth by Rainbeaux

The Romance Is Dead, Long Live Romance Remix by

"It's not that I don't want to get married," Chris said, "I'm just not ready. Not right now. It just takes me longer than most guys, I guess."

"Okay. I understand."

She looked so sad. He noticed that her hands were knotted together in her lap, twisted and tangled like a gnarled tree root. But she smiled at him and nodded, even though the smile didn't reach her eyes.

He pretended he didn't see it, instead he downed the last of his beer and turned his attention back to the game. "We have good, don't we?" he mumbled. "Aren't you happy?"

"Sure." Her tone was light, but the word was slightly drawn out, a second longer would have made it a question.

On the screen the ball cut through the air, ascending beautifully ever upwards, and he sighed. "Tell you what, when the Cubbies win the Series, I'll be ready to get married."

She laughed a short stuttered laugh, a pleasant sound. "Go Cubs!"

"See, this is good," he said, speaking dully into his empty can.

He had known a great and tragic love once, which can really affect a man.

He had never intended to do anything about it, because it had not been that kind of love. It was more of a slow, warm feeling of knowing who and what was important in your life, who you would be prepared to die for, but who and what was impossible. He was younger then, but old enough to control himself. Unfortunately, the objects of his affection were not as subtle.

The first time it happened was because of a series of unfortunate events for which Chris wholly blamed JC.

He'd had a bad day. He was missing his mom and the girls and JC got him mountain dew and pixie sticks in an attempt to try to cheer him up.

When he came down again, he was sitting on JC's hotel bed, clutching his head. They didn't know each other as well yet and JC had underestimated what sugar did to him.

His head hurting, he found himself alone in the room. JC had the single room and it was disturbingly neat, Chris thought, because he didn't yet know that JC threw out his dirty socks and underwear every morning.

"Ow," he grunted when JC came in from the balcony.

JC stuck his hands in his pockets and looked sincerely apologetic, "Sorry, I was just trying to make you feel better."

"You drugged me," Chris hissed, because his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth and his fingertips were tingling. "That's a pretty cheap way to cheer someone up."

"Sorry." JC sat down next to him, making the bed bounce slightly. "You suggest something then."

Chris grinned. "Well, a blowjob might cheer me up."

There was a moment of silence, then JC said, "ok, fine," and reached for Chris's zipper.

Chris batted his hand away and jumped off from the bed like it was suddenly electric. "Woah, I didn't mean from you."

It got awkward then. JC blinked and swallowed, Chris was still standing up and couldn't decide whether to reach down and pull his zipper up again or if he should just pretend that JC had not just pulled it half way down.

JC was sitting in front of him, his cheeks flaming red. "Sorry," he mumbled again. "I thought that you were, you know. But you're not. I'm sorry."

"JC," Chris had to clear his throat twice before he spoke, as it was still thick from sugar, "Look, I like you, a lot. I mean, I like all of you. But I just don't think we should, well, blow each other."

JC jumped up then. "You think?" He was suddenly looking hopeful again. "You're not sure?"

Chris blinked. "Well, I." He gestured feebly at nothing, and he realised how close he was to ruining everything, for them, for everyone who depended on him, everyone who trusted him. And he realised just how unsure he was.

This, in comparison, was easy.

He wanted so badly for this to be easy.

She was a great girl. The game was over and he was getting a slight buzz from the beers and when she turned to go back to the kitchen he grabbed her wrist and pulled her down on the couch to kiss her.

"Chris!" She giggled before straightening up again, pushing herself off his lap. "I thought your team lost," she teased, but her eyes were shining as she picked up his empty beer cans and the pizza box. That was all it took, a quick kiss and she cleaned up after him so gladly. He felt ashamed of himself.

There had been this one time when he and Justin did coke at a Grammy after party — Chris forgets which year — and Justin got a nosebleed almost immediately, freaking them both out. They were alone in Chris's hotel room; Justin just stood across the small table and stared helplessly at him, nineteen years old, blood gushing from between the fingers of the hand he held pressed to his nose, a folded twenty in the other, and Chris had been first and could only shout and point ineffectually at Justin's nose. There was blood all down the front of Justin's new, expensive brown, cowboy-themed shirt which their stylist had spent weeks picking out and which was meant to subtly match Chris's own.

He grabbed a towel and pressed it to Justin's face and he was so high that when Justin started crying, Chris started crying too.

"My shirt," Justin sobbed.

"It's ruined," Chris said, sniffing.

The towel they were both gripping was stained red.

It was a different guilt nowadays because of her. He used to just worry about being discovered, the reaction of their record label, that it would ruin the group, about what all the people who depended on him would think. Now he worried that he was a bad person.

He hadn't anticipated that once it was all over, he would be even less certain. He had assumed that once it was over, things should become simpler, he should be able to move on with his life, go back to the real world, normal emotions. But instead he felt like a drug addict; his life was normal again, but it was bleaker and he was still getting used to living without the high.

It should be so easy. Being with her should be easy, she was sweet, nice, funny, and she loved him. She was easy to like, easy to be with, uncomplicated and warm.

But if he closed his eyes he was back on stage with a screaming crowd and spotlights in front of them, and Justin haloed in the bright lights, a tall gangly shining outline, looking back over his shoulder with a broad, sparkling smile, making Chris slip.

He liked her a lot, but he had never broken his hand just from looking at her.

As it turned out, the nosebleed was a coincidence. Apparently it wasn't unusual for Justin to get nosebleeds and he had been recovering from a heavy cold. It seemed JC was justified in being miffed that they had to endure flu shots that didn't help anyway.

Though apparently Justin hadn't had a nosebleed since he was young, so maybe the coke had a little bit to do with it.

Both sobbing, they had mopped up the blood together and thrown out Justin's shirt and left for the party. They hadn't told anyone else. It was as if the two of them were one person, Chris thinks.

"Great Margaritas, Chris," Lance had said, raising his glass as he came into the kitchen from the pool, dripping all over the floor. "You are truly the queen of Margaritas."

It was two weeks after Justin's nosebleed, three years after JC had offered to blow him in the hotel room to cheer him up, eight months before he and Lance fucked for five hours straight in a hotel room in Atlanta, and four years before he met her.

Chris watched Lance's wet shorts clinging to his ass and thighs; they were riding so low he might as well not be wearing anything. "Well, you're the fucking queen of everything," he muttered.

Lance shook his head, looking somewhat resigned. He sat down by the breakfast bar, and Chris thought he would have to wipe the seat after, because Lance was practically naked. "You have a problem," Lance said, pointing accusingly at Chris.

"I have lots problems." Chris flipped the tortilla. It ended up on the edge of the pan, sliding off to sizzle on the hotplate. "Fuck."

"JC and Justin are in love with you."

Chris dropped the tortilla again. "Fuck! Lance!"

They didn't say anything else for a long time.

"They're hot," he muttered then, warningly, as he put the tortillas on Lance's plate. "And J and C are not in love with me. There's nothing going on between us."

"I know." Lance nodded. "But they think maybe there could be."

Chris wished he hadn't asked Lance over, he wished he didn't love Lance in the uncontrollable way he loved all of them, and he wished he knew how to control this. He flipped another tortilla and contemplated therapy.

"There's nothing going on," he mumbled. "I couldn't, you know… couldn't choose." He had to clear his voice which was sugary thick, " I mean, you guys are all… I feel equally for all of you."

"Well, I am touched," Lance said dryly. He leaned over the bar, drunk and mean-spirited, "Can I tell you something?"

He made Chris lean almost all the way in so their noses were touching before he said,

"I don't think they would mind sharing."

When Chris was a teenager, he had met a man at Universal, an older man, much older, about the same age as he was now. He thought about it often; it had been the middle of May, he had been on the bed looking over at the window watching a shadowy reflection of himself being fucked from behind, lying on its side, bored and pouting.

It was because he told that story to Joey that they kissed. They didn't do anything else, but the kiss had been like a sugary mountain dew high. It was because of that kiss that Chris always counted Joey when he thought of all the guys he'd had sex with. Five guys in total.

It wasn't hard to figure out that she was perfect for him. They had fun together, even though he wasn't as manic about making people laugh anymore; he liked spells of silence nowadays, didn't need to know where all attention was focused all the time; sometimes he fell asleep in the middle of conversations.

She loved him, he knew that. He knew he was lucky to have her. All she wanted was for him to admit it, make it permanent. It wasn't unreasonable. He knew that too.

She made him laugh sometimes. And the sex was good. With her he didn't have to worry, could just enjoy it; he didn't feel guilty or worried about how it would affect their relationship. They didn't have sex every time they were together, and when they did, it didn't take him days to come down after.

Once. One time. It had only happened one time. It was on the bus after a long, boring day of playing videogames, and it was the hottest experience of Chris's life. He knew they had planned it, because the seduction itself was a bit too choreographed. But the two hours they spent on the floor in the back of the bus was the most perfect love affair of his life. It was explosive and tender and oddly romantic and he worried for weeks afterward what it would do to their relationship. He never let it happen again.

It was the bottom of the ninth. Game seven. Two outs. Tied at three runs. Nobody on base.

This was it.

The air was hot and the crowd was noisy, it was a great day for a baseball game, his team was winning, and he was there with a great girl who loved him. He looked up at her. She was standing, haloed in the hot sun, ecstatically happy and so into the game that she seemed to have forgotten everything else. He reached out and touched her arms gently, and she turned and smiled down at him. He didn't loose his balance, but that was fine. That was life. And some promises were easier to keep than to break.

"I love you. Marry me," he said, as the crowd around them cheered, familiarly.