Pairing: Jesse Eisenberg/Andrew Garfield
Fandom: The Social Network RPF
Word Count: 9375
Warnings: strip clubs, sadness, Armie Hammer.
Summary: It's a thing that normal people do, Jesse tells himself. When you lose, you go with your friends and laugh about it over beer. Then you vomit in the streets and call your exgirlfriend at three in the morning and drop your wallet in the toilet, just like normal people do. He knows he can fake it, at least for a couple hours. He can if Andrew gives him the lead, that little trailing edge, those golden hints about how to be happy in public. Andrew has always been pretty good at that.
Author's Notes: a life-time supply of thank yous and pad thai for th_esaurus for helping me through this, and liketheroad for her super-hero beta. Consider this my first attempt at creating an Armie Hammer Appreciation Club. Title comes from British Sea Power's "Atom"
It's time to clap again. A rush of noise like a blood in his ears and Jesse joins them automatically, clapping because everyone around him seems to be following the same golden thread of awards and success and he hasn't even been paying attention since the hired car dropped him off, letting his mind wander in strings and knots for an evening. He doesn't even really know for what or for whom, just keeps clapping until his hands go numb and then he stops.
Andrew gives him a look. It's become kind of a familiar look, lately. An expression that Jesse files away somewhere uncomfortable in his mind, that slight uneasiness like Andrew is trying to say something in an expression and Jesse can't speak the language. A soft smile somewhere near sympathy and just this side of apologetic. Jesse blinks quickly before he realizes that it was his category and he just lost another award and Andrew is trying to console him.
"Sorry," Andrew murmurs, and Jesse shrugs.
"Colin Firth was good." Jesse sucks in his bottom lip. He winces but only just, the twitch of his nose and his knee bobbing under the table. "Very good."
"So were you," Andrew says calmly, almost rehearsed by now.
"It doesn't really bother me," Jesse replies quickly. "It, uh, it isn't unexpected."
"Oh, come on," Andrew says, lips quirking to one side.
"I'm fine," Jesse says. "Thanks. Thank you."
Andrew nods, frowning a little as he looks at Jesse. "Yeah?"
Okay, then. Jesse smiles at Andrew because it's the only thing that will make Andrew stop, stop touching him and stop reminding him and stop making this into the tragedy it isn't, it really isn't, he promises. Jesse smiles until Andrew looks away. He keeps smiling for a beat or two longer, just in case.
Losing is easy, a game Jesse practices in front of his mirror. Losing means that Jesse was right all along, and there's something comfortable about knowing that there is a glass ceiling after all, that he isn't as good or as talented as people try to make him feel and Jesse can slowly begin to collect his unravelled life.
Winning means smiling like he means it and giving a speech, one buried in a small square of paper in his breast pocket, the ink still smudged on his fingertips. He wrote it without reciting, jotted down on a napkin over lunch when Andrew told him he needed to, just in case. He's sure it sounds a lot worse when spoken aloud, thanking Andrew too much and the Screen Actors' Guild too little. He's glad he doesn't have to read it out now.
Armie gets his arm around Jesse's shoulders, loud and choking like he's squeezing the sadness out of him. His laugh is huge and it rumbles around in the hollow of Jesse's chest like a bass line to an unfinished song. Andrew laughs too, but it's small and his hand is on Jesse's knee just for a second, the two of them closing in on him like a platoon of good feelings.
Jesse nods and fidgets his fingers back around his champagne flute and wants people to stop looking at him now, please. Accepting compliments is hard enough, but sympathy is almost unbearable.
They lose the Outstanding Cast award too, just for fun.
There's champagne after, just like there was champagne before. Instead of refusing, Jesse takes his glass and swallows it down in one, sharp and sweet and as heavy as quartz in his throat. It makes everyone around him smile though, makes them shift their eyes away like they aren't waiting for Jesse to explode in a rain of sadness and self-deprecation. It's a trick he feels like he'll be using a lot tonight, feigning being a normal boy just long enough to make the glances bleed away.
"Next time," Armie says like a battle call. The anthem of next time, the award out of reach on the next horizon, a kind of Disney song in the making that Armie says into his ear, his breath warm and sweet with wine. "Cheer up, Eisenberg."
"Yeah," Jesse says, because agreeing with him is easier than getting put in a headlock until you agree. Armie is the world's big brother. "Yes."
"I'm taking you out," Armie decides as the house lights come up and the cameras are turned off, the shuffle of chairs and laughter rising in loud bubbles from the crowd. "You too."
"What?" Andrew leans in on Jesse's other side.
"I'm taking you two out," Armie says before draining the last of his wine. "Okay?"
Andrew looks at Jesse, shrugs. "Okay."
"Right," Jesse says. He can feel his body loosen in response, like he wants to fall into a pattern of no, but Andrew is just smiling and this feels normal, like a normal thing someone would do. Like he can be a proper person, a friend for Andrew, get dizzy on a couple of drinks he doesn't want and breathe in something like oxygen. "I think maybe we should do this. Let's do this. I want to do this."
Andrew blinks away a flash of surprise, but he's grinning when he falls back in his seat.
"Done." Armie leans back in his chair, pours himself another glass of wine, the alcohol already high and red in his cheeks.
Jesse smiles because it's all he's got in his arsenal when the entire table piles its hands on his in solidarity. It's all heavy and warm and Jesse tries to figure out the proper way to react to this champagne fuzz and promises to drown misery in a bar without seeming like a totally inept sociopath. It's a thing that normal people do, Jesse tells himself. When you lose, you go with your friends and laugh about it over beer. Then you vomit in the streets and call your exgirlfriend at three in the morning and drop your wallet in the toilet, just like normal people do. He knows he can fake it, at least for a couple hours. He can if Andrew gives him the lead, that little trailing edge, those golden hints about how to be happy in public. Andrew has always been pretty good at that.
Jesse keeps smiling and wonders how much worse it would be if he won.
The taxi pulls up at a pretty unassuming bar in Fairfax. Neon lights and a jaunty half-Celtic feel, like an Irish pub that had gone through a bad game of telephone as it crossed to the west coast. Armie pays the cab and he's swaggering a little as he goes inside, Andrew already red-cheeked and his dimples pressed into his cheeks like they've been pinned there.
It's loud and smoky inside, rough with clinking glasses and a sports channel half-finished. Jesse shrugs off his overcoat and takes a deep breath before he follows Armie and Andrew in.
It's always in places like this that he feels like a counterfeit boy, a limping and angled mistake. Surrounded by beer and laughter and tobacco-stained fingers, polished wood and televisions switched to basketball, Jesse can't help but feel like he's fake and everyone can see it. He's a foreigner, his long fingers tangled in themselves, compulsively looking down at his polished shoes, his soft hair flopping down over his forehead and tickling against his eyelashes. It doesn't help at all that he's in a tuxedo, but even if he were dressed in a t-shirt and jeans somehow people would know. They always could tell, his whole life, that he wasn't one of them, not a real boy, had a fake ID for all of life's real experiences. He's always been a fraud, passing as a human and everyone knows.
"You okay?" Andrew asks, his hands on Jesse's shoulders, rubbing them like a coach before nine rounds in the ring. He's so buoyantly happy and Jesse doesn't want to say a word out of place, wants to keep Andrew in milk and honey at least for tonight.
"Fine," Jesse says automatically, a brick wall getting chipped away at. "It's interesting in here. Very festive. Are you drunk already?"
"Happy St. Patrick's day," Andrew says, his hand on the small of Jesse's back, guiding him through the crowd and after Armie. "In February." Andrew tilts a little off his axis as he walks, already a little blurry from the cocktails and buzz. "I am not drunk." He pauses for a moment, cocking his head like a puppy. "Earth, Wind & Fire."
"You missed water." Jesse can't help but feel a bubble of laughter rise in his throat, almost in spite of himself.
"The – uh, the classical elements," Jesse says, stumbling as he elbows his way through.
"The band," Andrew says, twisting on his heel and doing a couple jerky dance moves, electric sliding between laughing strangers. Andrew can't ever seem to move without making it ridiculous, too long and tall and gangly to ever seem smooth. He needs to turn every step and turn into some kind of angular dance move.
"You're a little bit drunk," Jesse says.
"Yes, well." He laughs and it crinkles his noise, which makes Jesse smile. "You should have a drink," Andrew decides brightly. "It'll make me feel better."
Jesse nods, waving his hand awkwardly. "Okay. Right. Order for me."
"Done," Andrew says.
Armie already has a round of beers waiting for them. His shirt is undone three buttons and his tie a loose vine around his neck. He's already wrapped up in the basketball game and barely nods when Andrew and Jesse join him.
He should learn from this. If he's going to be real, Jesse should know how to react to a basketball game. Hissing loudly when there's an almost-something, blinking like you've just woken up when a commercial breaks, downing beer like he needs to. Jesse notes it all, Armie's every move like he's studying a role, how natural it all comes, all at once. He's going to make this work, just to keep Andrew smiling.
"So," Armie says, clinking the edge of his beer with Andrew's. "Do we beat him up, or what?"
Jesse smiles, and Andrew laughs. "You can't beat up Colin Firth."
"Can't I?" Armie says.
"No woman would speak to you again," Andrew says.
"He's right," Jesse says. "You'd, uh, effectively be killing the very spirit of romance. The world's heart would - would break. Flowers would wilt. Birds would fall out of the sky."
Andrew laughs, head thrown back, the long line of his throat all shadowed and curved, his Adam's apple bobbing. "It's true. I've seen Pride and Prejudice, I know. I think Colin Firth could very well be the very heart of the human experience. He's uh –" Andrew laughs, a kind of giggle he tries to swallow down, "- he is soft and gentle and he will kiss the pain away."
Jesse catches onto Andrew's laugh like an infection. "He's Cupid."
"Come down to earth –"
"The Patron Saint of –"
"I'm married," Armie says, raising his left hand and wriggling his fingers. "Bridget Jones 2. The Edge of Reason."
"Yes, well," Andrew says, still itching with a last laugh. He takes a slurp of his beer, and Jesse mirrors him, grinning into it and trying to stop glancing at Andrew.. "We all slip up."
"Shakespeare in Love," Armie says, not backing down.
Jesse's brow furrows. "That wasn't that bad –"
"Mamma Mia," Armie says.
Jesse and Andrew look at each other. Andrew shrugs, smiling when he says: "We must kill him before dawn."
"For shame," Armie says, raising his beer in mock salute.
Andrew clinks his glass and so Jesse does too. All at once it comes back down, a weird kind of weight and Jesse goes awkward and angled again, like he's being snapped back into self-conscious worry, suddenly hyperaware of his body, of his fraud. Andrew gives him a weird look like he can see it all flashing over Jesse's face, a quirk of a smile and then he lets Jesse go.
But, there it was, just for a moment Jesse felt okay. No, no, he felt stellar. Sitting here and taking snide shots at a man who doesn't deserve it, it wriggled happily inside him for a minute, two. Jesse laughing, catching Andrew's glance, feeling it spread like a swallow of hot coffee, warming him inside down to the pit of his stomach. Getting in these digs just for the sake of feeling like demi-gods when all they've got is beer and bowls of peanuts to console them, petty and perfect and stupidly happy.
The game comes back like a siren. Armie turns back to it automatically, his knuckles going tight around his beer and almost standing when a basket goes wide. Jesse blinks rapidly and watches it too, all about blending into his surroundings. Jesse has always been pretty good at doing this, fake or not, and he cheers when a man sinks the ball, and reels when another man does not.
"Foul!" Armie screams, actually standing up. "That's gotta be a foul."
"Yeah," Jesse agrees, looking wildly to Andrew for direction, getting nothing. "It's definitely wrong what that guy did."
"Exactly," Armie says, slapping Jesse's arm.
"Sports," Jesse says.
"Exactly," Armie agrees, off-hand.
This isn't how Jesse expected the night to go. His hotel, a hot shower, a text to his manager apologizing, and then bed. Now his whole life is a corkscrew, unsteady fingers against a mug of warming beer and basketball. That's not normal at all, but he goes with it enough to pretend like this a night he needed. Enough that Armie is happy, maybe Andrew too. Enough that he can take a drink without anyone doing it first, sipping his beer because the taste is almost all right and his head is beginning to buzz.
Andrew smiles and Jesse returns it. He can fake it for the papers, but Andrew always knows. Half-smiles and the slight twitch in his knee, Andrew always knows when the mask if on, when Jesse is in the rafters and needs to be talked down with a touch and a smile and a hint at old jokes.
"Jesse," Armie says when the next commercial bursts into color. His face is flushed and his chest too, blood risen like strawberries in his skin. He's not the kind of guy Jesse would ever normally decide to be friends with, but Armie chose him and Jesse didn't have a choice in it after all. "Sometimes I want to marry you."
Jesse stares for a long time while Andrew is trying not to laugh. "You – what?"
"You're such a kitten," Armie agrees, grinning with all his big perfect teeth, Andrew's face going red as he tries to choke back laughter. "I want to wrap you in cotton and keep you in a box forever."
"I – you don't really –" Jesse coughs shortly, "- you don't really keep cats in boxes, do you? Because that's not good for them –"
"Well, how bout it?" Armie says, loud and over top of everything.
"How about what?" Jesse can't even look at Andrew right now, he can picture the smirking glee he's got all over his face well enough anyway.
"Will you marry me?"
"Well that's – complicated," Jesse says, snapping to. "I mean, realistically, in this state we can't –"
'Yes," Armie agrees, squeezing Jesse's hand and shutting him up with a smile, Andrew audibly laughing now like he's trying to keep it in. Big and muscled and dumb and smiling as Armie takes his hand. "The world is cruel."
"Very," Jesse says. All his blood is in his cheeks and Jesse's gripping the arm of his chair until it hurts but Andrew is laughing. "We would have been – uh, an ideal couple. I need someone to reach the tallest shelves."
Armie kisses his cheek, short and bright and Jesse swears everyone is watching them right now, everyone in the bar staring at them and seeing, knowing the worming itch in the pit of his stomach. "Good," Armie says.
"Congratulations," Andrew says, patting the back of Jesse's neck. He leans in, maybe just to show off just how funny he finds it. Jesse can't ever hate Andrew but in this case he's willing to make an exception. "Can I be your best man?"
"Flower girl," Jesse mumbles. When Andrew laughs, his face is close and his breath is warm and Jesse can see the flash of his wet mouth and sharp teeth for a second before he pulls away.
So this is fitting in. A warmth mouth and half a mug of beer and being part of other peoples' happiness and the blinding fear that it might just be possible to die from embarrassment. Jesse lingers in it, savors it like sugar melting in his mouth. Andrew is happy and Jesse will cling to that like a life preserver. The turn of his lips, the way he has of putting an arm around Jesse's shoulders and somehow dragging him back into his world. Jesse manages a crooked smile, living his life in bits and pieces.
"You make such a blushing bride," Andrew says when Armie dives back into the basketball game, a broad joke turning suddenly private, just the two of them.
"Hand over the tire iron," Jesse says, blinking quickly, "I promise to you that the horse is dead, Andrew." Andrew gets in one last laugh before he rocks back and smiles with a kind of starry bliss that is only half the booze. Jesse swills his beer and it comes out before he can even second-guess himself: "I like it here."
Andrew seems to like that. "Me too. I'm glad you came out. I didn't - expect it."
"Yeah. Yeah," Jesse says, sighing, glad he passed whatever test this is. "Me neither. But this is, uh. I'm comfortable." He says it like he just found out about it himself. "I'm comfortable," Jesse says again, this time believing it.
Andrew nods, raises his glass and tips the edge of it against Jesse's still-full mug of beer. "Liar."
"I'm not lying," Jesse says automatically. "I'm comfortable, I really am –" he pauses " – oh. You're joking."
"Yes." Andrew cuffs Jesse's shoulder. "Well observed."
"This isn't how I usually – this is new," Jesse offers.
"I can tell. You've done your tie wrong," Andrew says, his voice going soft around the edges.
"I don't do my ties –"
"Here." Andrew's fingers are quick and guiltless, tying his new knot like a normalcy, turning strange circumstances into something as familiar as a half-windsor, Andrew's thin fingers tying the knot as easy as anything. "Better." Andrew pauses with his hands still on the tie, a touch enough that Jesse feels his heart thunder suddenly, his pulse a rapid beat of wings in his ears. Andrew rests on the silk knot, his fingertips brushing against Jesse's throat, all of it rushing like blood into Jesse's face. "It's bugging you, isn't it?"
"Yes." Jesse blinks, trying not to think about the sudden feeling of being underwater. "Wait, what?"
"The award," Andrew says.
"Yes," Jesse says quickly, cutting him off at the artery. "No. I mean. It's okay. I don't win these things. I don't, so it's not really a thing."
Andrew moves away and Jesse's throat opens again. "We don't."
"Oh, right," Jesse says, remembering that broken little smile Andrew has when his name isn't called, the way he'll glance to Jesse for a moment and then straighten himself out, snap his lapels and get in a good grin. "Does it bug you?"
"No," Andrew says. "Yes. Who cares. We are certified, guaranteed, televised losers. That's something, right?"
"That's something," Jesse says at once, fidgeting his glance away like he can't quite make it real. He just wants to be in the same space as Andrew, forever tied to him like so much string. Like sticking with him is a chance to be – well, something else. Even if it's just for a couple minutes a day.
Andrew takes a bit longer to process that. His face is inscrutable, but his smile comes back all the same, just as earnest and young as it was to begin with. "I'll take that." His hand touches Jesse's neck, smoothes out the goosebumps running against his skin. "As long as we keep losing together."
"That is something I can definitely promise you," Jesse says, taking a shaky drink from his beer. "I'm really very good at losing."
Armie rouses when the game is done, his shouting dimmed into celebration, his arms going around shoulders too easily, six five and owning everything he touches. He orders three shots even though Jesse is already shoving away, saying no, no, he doesn't want one, he's fine. When the glass comes, Andrew is still smiling out of the corner of his mouth, a little spark of a smile that Jesse chooses to reluctantly pick up on, even as he regrets it. Andrew can soothe things out, flatten them to normalcy and Jesse drinks for that.
"To us," Armie says. It's a shotglass full of brown and bad decisions, smelling like nail polish and teenage years Jesse skipped like grade school.
"To us," Andrew replies, clinking his glass with Jesse's.
Jesse nods, swallows, grimaces, smiles when Andrew's hand touches his shoulder again and everything fair is foul and foul is fair. How do people do this?
"Okay, are you guys ready?" Armie asks quickly, already ordering another round. "I've got a place."
"A place?" Andrew says, smirking. "Good boys should be in bed."
"Should be," Armie says, taking another shotglass as it's provided to him. "But there's plenty more for us tonight."
Oh well, Jesse says inside. "Oh well," he says outside.. He raises the glass and his eye only twitches four times. He's getting better at this. Armie raises a glass in salute and that's normal, that's so normal that Jesse grins. He's doing a good, limping job of this. And he's getting drunk, like this is college. His therapists would be proud.
Down in one. Armie almost roars, his head thrown back like the last living lion. When he slams the glass back on the table, he's looking at Jesse straightforward and earnest. "Yeah?"
"Yes," Jesse replies automatically.
"What's with you?" Armie asks calmly, almost like a friend would. Nothing under the table, just the smile and brush that would be common, wanting to know if Jesse's having a good time under his wing, wanting to make sure the shots of liquor are going to the right place. "Is he okay?"
Andrew nods. "I think," he says, obviously loving every second of it, "our Eisenberg is a little drunk."
"I'm not," Jesse says. He smiles and it slides all about, like it's dripping from the corners of his alibi. "I'm fine."
"He's fine?" Armie asks, turning and asking Andrew like he's the Rosetta stone, assuming probably rightly that Andrew is the only one who can decipher Jesse for the masses, like Andrew speaks the language of the barbarians and transcribes it for Armie – for Aaron, for David – for everyone.
"He's fine," Andrew says, arm still so tight over Jesse's shoulder. "He's always fine."
"Always perfect," Armie says as he flips a few bills out of his pocket, staggering a little but still king of the evening. "Aren't you?"
"Always," Jesse says, struggling to keep a straight face. "When am I less than perfect?"
"Yeah," Andrew replies. They both laugh at the same time.
Armie smiles but he doesn't get it. "All right, okay, I know I'm drunk but you guys are just weird." He pauses, and it's filled with a grin. "Anyway, there are more good times ahead." He stands out his seat like a god, summoning the wills of the world to his upraised hands and wads of dollar bills. And just liike that, the check is paid for and a taxi is waiting for them. "Come on."
"Come on?" Andrew asks.
Okay, all right, Jesse nods and lets Andrew put his hand on the small of his back and lead him out of the bar.
Jesse controls his breath as he stands in line behind Andrew. Armie is already far ahead, bribing doormen with slick dollar bills and bumping them ahead in line because of recognition alone. It's a key Jesse never thought to use, but it works all the same and soon enough he's being guided into what can only be described as a titty bar. Slashes of neon and colored light, a shattered disco ball of a doorway and the pulse of grinding music behind closed doors, a smell a lot like tequila and cigar smoke and the carpets are dirty with grit.
Two deep breaths and the reminder that he's being a real boy tonight and Jesse follows them in, just waiting for the panic attack.
Armie leads them in with arms spread as wide as an albatross. The dancers are young, probably younger than any of them. Smooth and blank, as charmless and automatic as machines. They dance against chrome poles and their stilettos make sounds like gunfire they smack against the hardwood. Jesse wonders how anyone in here could be anything but uncomfortable, never mind erotically satisfied. Hair falling in waves, whipped around, sinewy legs and shoes laced up to their thighs and Jesse can only think of trussed up meat and daddy issues. Following Armie and Andrew through, Jesse averts his eyes like he's walked in on the girls accidentally.
The bar is mahogany and old. It smells like faded perfume and spilled beer as they're led through to a private booth on the edge of the world, leather shiny like an old car. Colored light flickers in and out like broken circuits, a waitress dressed as skimpily as a dancer taking Armie's order of more beer, more shots as they settle down in a corner as dark as the minutes before Genesis.
Being in a bar is one thing, but this is – completely different. There's sex in the walls, strong and disgusting, like days old cologne and desperation. Men line the catwalks with their heads raised and dollar bills pinched between their fingers. Jesse keeps glancing up and looking away, needing to look away, to anything else in the room, the uneven legs of a stool or the drains set in the middle of the floor or Andrew, totally bemused and dizzy with booze and being all sweet and alive and close to him. Jesse sticks with that one, if only for his own health.
"Sorry," Andrew says, leaning in to hand Jesse his beer, a laugh bubbling up on his breath. "I didn't know – I didn't know there would be. Ladies."
"It's fine," Jesse says, taking his drink and feeling his knuckles go white as he holds onto it. "It's, uh, it's like The Sopranos. Right." He glances up and a dancing girl gives him a smile and Jesse looks back down at his beer. "Oh God. This is absolutely surreal. She looked at me."
"Well." Andrew pauses, looks around. "To be fair, you are wearing a tuxedo in a strip club. And you're blushing. Right there." Andrew touches his cheek, draws a slash of a line from cheekbone to jaw. "Of course the stripper is sweet on you. She's gonna dance right in your face."
Jesse shakes his head. "Is this really what people do?"
Andrew laughs, swaying a little in his seat. "Well, it's what Armie does."
Armie snaps to them, his face red and his eyes with that kind of hazy faraway look. A couple more buttons on his shirt have popped open and his tie got lost somewhere between the bar and the club. Jesse's always been uncomfortable being around drunk people, but there's something solidly comforting about Armie, even when he's obviously three sheets to the wind. He's just this towering, booming mountain of hugs and blond hair, a beast of an overgrown boy who somehow believes despite all the evidence to the contrary that Jesse is real, that Jesse is a dudely bro and is worth a couple bills dropped at a strip club and arm firm around his shoulder. "What do I do?" Armie asks.
"Go to strip clubs," Andrew says, flopping back in his seat, his hair a wavy mess.
"I'm not here for me," Armie says, wiggling his fingers again. "I'm here for you two."
"Oh," Jesse says, shoulders dropping. "Oh no."
"Sure. Not here for himself," Andrew says, laughing as Armie whispers into the ear of a waitress, makes weird semaphore with his hands. "If he thinks I believe for one second that – oh, God, I think he got us Jagermeister. He must hate me." Armie pays for a round, and adds to that a couple more bills and Jesse feels his heart drop into his stomach. "Do you hate me?"
Armie laughs, deep and rich.
"Master Hunter," Jesse says, looking down at the glasses being put on their table.
Armie furrows his brow. "What?"
"It's German," Jesse explains, fingering the lip of the shotglass. "The drink. Jagermeister."
"Far out," Armie says, raising his glass. "Auf wiedersehen, then."
"I think you mean prost –"
"Nope, I don't," Armie says. "Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war."
Down in one, sickly with herbs and honey and Jesse is reeling and spluttering but then so is Andrew, and Armie. The flavor is up his nose and his eyes almost water and then Armie is slapping his back and grinning like this is alpha epsilon pi.
"I'll get more," Armie says, leaping out of his seat. "Sit tight."
"Never again," Andrew says, yelling at Armie's retreating form. "I'm not kidding, Armand. I'm not." Andrew smiles and turns back to Jesse, close enough that he bumps his head on Jesse's shoulder. "How're you holding up?"
"I cannot feel my fingers," Jesse says, taking a deep breath and filing everything away. "I cannot feel my feet. I – cannot feel my face. My lips are buzzing. Oh God." He wants to be here, he tells himself. Yes, he does, he wants to be here and for once it's at least half-true. Here where he gets his back slapped and a stripper gives him a wink. Here where it's seedy and dirty and pulp fiction. Here where Andrew is, wringing out the minutes and hours of the night. He'll stick around just for that. "They're, uh, they're very talented dancers. Very, um, limber."
"I like their shoes," Andrew murmurs, never looking past Jesse.
"They're taller than me, I think," Jesse says, squinting. "And they could probably beat me in hand to hand combat. All that – upperbody strength they get. On the – um – pole."
Andrew laughs. "I would pay all the dollars in the world to see that."
"Don't go," Jesse says, suddenly and stiffly and shifting back into his seat, looking around like he's trying to avoid realizing he's the one who actually said it.
"It's fine," Andrew says, planting a hand firm on Jesse's thigh and looking around like it's no big deal, his words as easy as a rhyme. "I'm here."
"Yes," Jesse says, knowing this is the only reason he's breathing calmly, feeling guilty just for being alive. "You are."
"To us?"" Andrew asks, his voice small and holding up a half-apologetic glass for Jesse.
Jesse nods, almost like a dare. He feels the edges of his life coming away like cheap stickers, but he needs to live this out. This is the stuttered real life he managed to avoid with his apartment, with a sick mother, with cats that needed caring. He can almost be alive right now, if he tries. "Us," Jesse mirrors, sitting here in the leather booth of a strip club and drinking German liquor with a guy from England, the first person Jesse realizes he loves more than being on his own.
Andrew smiles and it's more than enough. Down the drink goes and Jesse bumps his shoulders with Andrew and they rest there, together, smelling like stripper perfume and leather and watching as the world dances around them. "Another?"
Jesse nods, resting his head in a jerk against Andrew's shoulder and staying there. He turns his attention back to the dancers like he needs to. He'll live this out to the last light, until the sulphur flame of the evening burns out on its own. He has to let it burn out, he's snuffed this night a dozen times before and tonight, this night, the night he loses for the third, fifth, tenth time, he'll learn how to lose with friends rather than on his own. He's good at losing alone, mirror in the hotel room, empty house full of cats when he gets home. That's as familiar as breathing. But no, tonight he promised he'd be a loser with Andrew. He promised.
"I got you a dance," Armie says, bursting in on them suddenly all color and flame when Jesse was just getting used to breathing. Armie flops back into his seat, his cheeks flaming red and smiling like Tom Sawyer. He slides into their booth right next to Jesse. "Sit back. I think you're really like her."
"No, no, I'm fine," Jesse says, almost as quickly as Andrew laughs.
Armie looks at him sceptically. "Bro. Come on."
"I'm fine, uh, appreciating from a distance," Jesse says. "Their technique has much to be – admired." Jesse averts his eyes, looks down at the last swill of his beer.
Armie laughs, sliding back into his seat loose and boneless. "You are not a real person."
Jesse swallows hard, his eyes stinging suddenly. "No?"
"I'm buying," Armie says, all warm punches and good nature bleeding out him. "Come on, it'll help you relax. It'll be like you never lost when she's done with you."
Andrew is still laughing when he settles deep in the leather beside Jesse. He lets their touch linger for too long, keeping his cheek pressed against Jesse's head, his laughter wisping against Jesse's curls. "It's okay," Andrew says, a little giddy, his smile all easy geometry and the right way of doing things. He turns from Jesse and his grin is dog-eared when he touches Armie's wrist. "We're just good with our beers, Armie."
Armie laughs, gets a good hand on the back of Jesse's neck. He stares in close, his big blue eyes and a smile that's always welcoming, treating Jesse like a kid brother, a kicked puppy. "I don't get you," Armie says, blinking widely. "But I like you."
"Thanks," Jesse says, shoving himself back into his seat. "Thank you."
"I'm getting us more drinks," Armie says, his hand lingering, squeezing, disappearing as he leaves the booth.
Andrew laughs, rubs his face in his hands. He's still a little lop-sided with booze, but when he turns in on Jesse it's warm and close, his nose almost nuzzling against Jesse's cheek. "I wish you could see your face right now."
"I imagine it's fairly horrified," Jesse says.
"They're strippers, Jess, not ghosts," Andrew says. His breath is all warm against Jesse's throat, nestling against his shoulder like it's a good place to close his eyes. "They don't bite."
"Ghosts don't bite, they don't have teeth, I don't even know why you would compare the two, I'm not scared of them I'm just –" Jesse says, taking a deep breath and holding it as long as he can before spitting it out. "Oh God."
"Yep," Andrew says.
Jesse swallows deeply as Armie gestures to a girl, points to the stage, back towards their booth. "What is he doing?"
"He's –" Andrew squints. "Oh."
"He's buying me a girl isn't he?"
"No," Andrew says slowly. "He is – renting one. Borrowing a lady."
"What the hell am I doing here?" Jesse says, fingertips on the table, he heat and colour flooding out of his
Andrew shrugs limply, his fingers stay close against Jesse's thigh, fingers against the stitched hem of his pants. "Having a night out?"
"I'm trying to be –"
Andrew nods quickly, his smile loose and unaccounted for. "Normal."
"How am I doing?"
Andrew laughs, pulls away from Jesse leaving all this cold and tense muscle. Jesse can still smell him, his shampoo and fabric softener sweet against the collar of his shirt. Andrew brushes away the hair from Jesse's forehead. "Six out of ten."
Jesse buries his face in his hands. He almost wants to laugh, how he can never be anything more than a shiver or a shrug, the kind of person that everyone seems to mistake as human. "How do you talk to – strippers?"
"I think they prefer to be called exotic dancers. Nude artists. Sensual ballerinas."
"Andrew," Jesse says tightly, grabbing his wrist again.
"Close your eyes and think of England?" Andrew suggests, trying to swallow down laughter. "It's just a lady, Jess," Andrew says. "And she's being compensated for having to touch us. It's a lose-lose situation for everyone involved, don't worry."
"Andrew," Jesse says again, limply.
"It's okay," Andrew says, touching the back of his neck, fingers tickling against the knots of his spine. He just knows, always knows. Andrew might be a little fuzzy with liquor but he makes the world so easy. He can see it splinter and break, the way a joke turns into fractures, how the laughter leaves Jesse's voice and Andrew needs to step in with a smile and a touch. "It'll be fine, okay?"
"Can you –"
"Yes," Andrew says. He takes Jesse's hand under the table and squeezes.
Jesse drains the last of his drink in one, like any other guy. It feels sick in the pit of his stomach. He doesn't have a fistful of bills or a new drink, Jesse only has an excuse and his head buried in his hands, and he can't look up.
The dancer is young, she has what amounts to a bikini, with is many garments too few. Jesse sucks in his breath when she leans against their table and expects something. Jesse freezes, his mind stuck somewhere between the real and the imagined.
"Hi," Andrew says. He digs his fingers into Jesse's palm, keeping them tight. "It's all right, we don't – need your services anymore."
The girl presses her hips against the edge of the table, rocking their drinks slightly. "Who's Jesse?"
"Sorry for the, um, miscommunication," Andrew says, digging out his wallet and pulling out a few bills. "And I am terribly sorry to waste your time, but we're okay here." He gives an earnest smile, a little goofy and a bit drunk but well-intentioned. "You don't need to – dance. Let me pay you for your time though. Have one on me."
The girl takes the offered bills, rifles through them quickly. "You sure?"
"We're good," Andrew says. His hand is on Jesse's. The dancer glances between them and shrugs. She walks away and Jesse just settles deeper into his seat, hands over his face, burying himself in the leather booth and Andrew's hands careful but firm on his shoulders, against the back of his neck. "See. Strippers are normal people too. They even speak the same language."
Jesse takes deep breaths, squeezing the bridge of his nose. "Thank you," he says quietly.
Andrew laughs. "Anytime you need to be saved from strippers, I am there for you, mate."
"No," Jesse says, dropping his hands into his lap. "Thank you."
Andrew nods, and his hands are still on Jesse, shoulder and wrist and they're not moving, as solid as decades. "I think maybe we should rescue Armie."
Jesse takes deeper breaths, feels his head resume a steady beat, pushes his hair out of his face. Andrew is playing a gentle finger against the back of his neck and Jesse feels weirdly, generously good. "Rescue Armie?"
"From the strippers," Andrew says, nodding across the room. Armie is up on the stage, three girls laughing and dancing around him. He's got a pink feather boa around his neck and his shirt unbuttoned to his navel, laughing and dancing jerkily around his suspenders loose at his sides. He starts to pluck at the button of his dress pants."Oh wow. He is a terrible dancer."
Jesse laughs and gets up, strange to find the word shifting and unsteady and he might be a little drunk. That happened somehow. He follows Andrew to the stage.
"How do we get him down?" Jesse asks, swaying against Andrew's side.
"He is a stripper now," Andrew says, sighing. "I think we're meant to pay him. You have any singles?"
Armie sits propped up between Andrew and Jesse in the back seat of the taxi. His eyes are closed and his head is resting on Jesse's shoulder but he's still mumbling, gibberish mostly but the occasional flare up of a murmured I love you and soft little kitten coming out. Andrew struggles to keep from laughing and Jesse struggles to move with Armie flopped all over him.
The taxi rushes through Hollywood, the streets mirror-wet from the rain and breaking, reflecting the world in bits and pieces. Jesse looks across at Andrew. He's only lit up in halves when they pass by street lights or store fronts, the shifting color illuminating his sleepy smile and half-opened eyes, deep-set and liquid dark like crude oil. He looks kind of odd and sated, and Jesse wishes he could read Andrew as easily as Andrew seems to know him.
"Did you like the girl?" Armie mutters suddenly, his eyes still closed.
"Yeah," Andrew says quietly. "She was great."
"Yeah," Armie says, a smile in his voice. "She is. Jesse?"
"Oh, uh, yes," Jesse says. "Erections were had by all."
"Good," Armie murmurs, satisfied. "That makes me glad."
The neon lights are all strung out down here, naked and buzzing in shifting colors, reflected in melting lines down the hood of the taxi like a videogame. There's a cool breeze running through the streets and it must have just stopped raining because it feels like the air is weighted down with damp and cold. Jesse shifts a little under Armie's weight, Andrew humming the Spiderman theme, all of them crammed and cramped in the back of a taxi. Jesse can't help but smile, hesitant at first and then like he can.
They pull up at Armie's place first. He has a place in LA and doesn't have to live in hotels and halfhearted homes.
"Come on, Armie," Andrew says, leaning over to undo his seatbelt. "Time to go home."
Armie doesn't say anything, his mouth open and his breathing deep.
"My arm is numb," Jesse says.
"We're gonna have to – carry him in."
Jesse sighs. "Oh good."
They get him under the armpits and after Andrew says something about lifting with the back – no, no the knees – or is it the back? – they lug Armie inside, finding his house key in his jacket pocket. It's like something out of a movie Jesse is sometimes forced to watch, like something usual and hilarious and starring Paul Rudd. But it's happening and it's his life and there's something about it that Jesse just loves.
Andrew pushes him down on the couch and Armie settles there, arms hugging his chest tight and his snores coming regularly.
"He's good, y'know?" Andrew says, looking down at Armie. "Genuinely just – a good person."
"I wouldn't – be here. Out, I mean," Jesse says quickly, rubbing his hands on his thighs. "If he didn't make me."
"I'm – glad you are," Andrew says evenly. The night has gone on too long, way past any good hour. The moon is mostly gone and everything has gone dark and quiet and reaching towards a new day with no time in between for Jesse to take a breath, rock back on his heels and look at the living he's done in the last six hours. Andrew stands upright and looks at Jesse for a long while, long enough to make it significant. "Let's go."
They fold themselves back into the taxi. Andrew quivers on it, shifts and sways with more alcohol, dipping his head and snapping it back up as he nods off. Jesse makes the move this time, stretching his hand and landing it on Andrew's knee, keeps it there. Andrew sighs out loudly and just collapses, the work of his body tilting towards Jesse until he's closed-eyed and exhausted on Jesse's lap. Andrew's hair is a mess, blown out and tired and sticking up a bit from the dozens of times Andrew has run his hands through it, and Jesse touches him softly at first, then slides his fingers against Andrew's hair and eases against his head. Andrew sighs and Jesse lets out a tight, careful breath, fingers curling around Andrew's hair while Andrew sleeps in fits and starts.
The taxi pulls up outside of Jesse's hotel. Jesse can see the cab driver looking at him in the rearview mirror expectantly but Andrew is still resting on his lap, dark eyelashes fanned out against his skin, his nose twitching every so often. It's like when his cats fall asleep on him at home; Jesse can't stand waking Andrew up, will let his arm go numb or sit in a weird position for hours just to keep him asleep for a bit longer.
"Andrew," Jesse says quietly, touching his shoulder gently, shaking him a little. "This is me. I have to get up."
"My place," Andrew murmurs, not even opening his eyes.
"They'll expect me tomorrow morning though, I can't –"
"My place," Andrew says again, a bit more petulant.
"I – your – okay," Jesse says, his shoulders going loose and sagging back into the seat.
Andrew rents an apartment just on the outs of LA, a kind of squat overgrown building climbing with vines and groves and the feather-weave of palm trees. The reflection of the outdoor pool shimmers against the wall like silver and the air smells like chlorine when Andrew shoves open the taxi door. It smells like vacation, and Jesse climbs out too. Andrew's hair sticks up on one side and he's got a bit of spit in the corner of his mouth and Jesse starts to find it a little hard to breathe.
He follows Andrew inside. Sometime between the strip club and the taxi Andrew took off his shoes and he walks barefoot through the lobby, the cuffs of his dress pants dragging under his heels like he's walking across a beach at sunset.
"I don't have – a toothbrush or – a change of clothes or –" Jesse knows these are excuses he should have used twenty minutes ago but he only thought of them now, following Andrew into a gold elevator with a lattice-work cage, two sets of doors to close before Andrew leans heavily on a lever and the whole thing creaks and rattles and lifts them up.
"I've got all of those things," Andrew says, sleepy and a little drunk but looking straight at Jesse, cuffing his shoulder limply. "Well, you've survived."
Jesse nods. "I knew my anthropology classes would come in handy. I felt like Napoleon Chagnon among the fierce people." Andrew gives him that look, halfway between amusement and disbelief. "He was a, uh, famous anthropologist and he worked with this one South American tribe –"
"How do you exist?" Andrew murmurs.
"With great difficult, actually," Jesse says, looking down at his shoes, Andrew's bare feet, back up to ceiling.
Andrew slides a hand in against Jesse's cheek, thumb pressing in against his cheekbone, fingertips on the divot between his jaw and neck. Andrew takes a moment, like his eyes are coming into focus and he realizes what he's doing, getting Jesse flat against the mirror of the elevator.
One-handed, Andrew steps in against Jesse in and kisses him, loose and half-opened mouth, all lazy and sincere and the tang of beer and honey in the hollows under his tongue. Andrew grabs the buckle of Jesse's belt to rock their hips together, teeth angling against teeth, the sharp hiss of breath from Andrew's mouth that Jesse feels, tastes in his own. Parting his lips and warm and wet and Andrew sighs, almost laughs into Jesse's mouth.
Andrew looks at him steadily as they pull apart, a perfect cinematic smack of wet lips, Jesse doesn't know what else to do, he looks at Andrew and wants to know what he feels. Needs to know the night from the day, looks to Andrew for what to do, the right reaction, how a normal person would react right now. And sure, Andrew's fingers still looped around Jesse's belt, but it's all a kind of game, right?. His expression is muddled and sweet, always off-center. Andrew's brow furrows like he's trying to work through the algebra of what just happened, as loose and off-center as Jesse is feeling right now.
Jesse feels like the air has all rushed out of him at once, his voice in a vacuum. He wishes he could say it, was perfect and remarkable and haunting and pyrotechnic because it's all of those things but mostly Jesse can only focus on his heartbeat in his throat and wanting to apologize over and over and over again.
"Yeah?" Andrew asks softly, looking down through long lashes and the hint of a smile that wants to be there.
Jesse can do nothing but nod, a little paralyzed, trying to act calm and failing.
It takes a second, but Andrew suddenly smiles, like a fever that finally breaks. Andrew touches his thumb to Jesse's lips, presses gently, laughing his infectious near-giggle and raising his eyebrows. "Stop chewing on your lip. You do it all the time. I can't make you that nervous, can I?"
"You honestly have no idea," Jesse says quietly.
Jesse nods tightly and swallows. It's not that he's always thought of this moment, though he kind of has (but only in that obscure, abstract, late-Picasso way where it was never really an idea, more a feeling whenever he spent time with Andrew) but mostly he just liked it, these misplaced hours with Andrew, where he can vanish from himself for an evening. It's not love or romance or anything so simple; those easy feelings are for people who aren't Jesse. It's just, the only thing Jesse knows for sure is the almost painful tightness in his chest when he sees Andrew, and that's always been enough to be sure that he doesn't want to say goodbye, not for long.
Andrew looks at him for a long time and Jesse knows he's failing some test, that Andrew is trying to figure out where Jesse fits in this tenebrous place between being a friend, a colleague, or a boy standing in an elevator at two in the morning with lips flushed and wet from a kiss.
"Let's go," Andrew says, smiling ruefully and half-slapping, half-smoothing his hand against Jesse's cheek. "I'm exhausted."
Barefoot, Andrew unlocks his door and leads Jesse in, flicking on lights and opening rooms and unbuttoning his dress shirt as he does. His hair is still sticking up on one side and Jesse can only stand by the front door, one shoe on and one shoe off wondering why kissing Andrew can be so easy. It was never easy in his head, and now he's here and it's late and his mouth still tastes like someone else's beer.
"Yes," Andrew says, smirking a little, that familiar expression – delighting in Jesse's stiff arms and blushing cheeks, that glee he takes in all of Jesse's missteps – back where it belongs. "I'm half-drunk and exhausted and I want you to take care of my hangover tomorrow morning. That's all I want right now."
"Perfect," Andrew says. "Two sugars and one milk."
"I know," Jesse says softly.
Andrew looks at him with something Jesse thinks might be fondness. Andrew's always been good at this, fingernails peeling the edges of Jesse away, just to take a glance at what's underneath before putting everything back where it belongs. "Come on."
Jesse follows him into his bedroom, big king-size mattress with no frame, flat on the floor. Andrew is already unbuckling his dress pants, jumping out of them one foot and then the other. His boxer-briefs are black, his legs skinny, his shoulder blades and muscle moving like clockwork under his skin as he stretches to the ceiling. He is real and warm when he leans in against Jesse, kissing once, twice, the shock from his lips.
"Come on," Andrew says. "Don't make me do this on my own."
"Do what –"
"Us," Andrew says, confirming the twist in Jesse's stomach.
"I'm trying," Jesse says tightly, his fingers going numb against the buttons of his shirt. Undressing in front of his cats is hard enough, but with Andrew is staring at him, watching every inch of skin as Jesse peels away the evening layer by layer, it's damn near impossible. "Could you – maybe – not –"
"I'm tired," Andrew says, a rustle as he shuffles against the blankets. "You're tired."
"It's really that easy?"
"Can be," Andrew says, as casual as a morning coffee.
Whatever this is, whatever has somehow happened makes Jesse pick at the buttons of his dress shirt slowly. He knows as he's undressing that nothing has really changed, not from this morning, not from the months of filming, not from tonight's adventures in growing up. He's never really ever felt differently about Andrew, those feelings never really changing over the months, not since that first day when Andrew smiled and bought them both lunch and wriggled his way into Jesse's life, inextricably and embarrassingly and wonderfully. It's just that now there's more kisses and less worrying. Jesse still worries, just – less.
Andrew flops down into bed, a ragdoll of long limbs all bent at right angles. He huffs out a breath and twists to watch Jesse undress.
With his back to Andrew, Jesse undoes the last of the buttons of his shirt, lets it fall from his shoulders. He can hear Andrew huff again before he undoes his pants, let's them fall to the ground, his belt buckle clanging like a gong.
There's a space is bed that's open for him, blankets pushed away and expecting his skinny warmth. Andrew smiles with his face pressed into his pillow, only half an expression and his almost-closed eyes. Lips warm and red, flushed from before and Jesse wonders about them, fixates on Andrew's mouth now that he knows, now that he can imagine them better than before. "Come on. Jesus. I am going to pass out."
Jesse kneels against the bed, slips in under the covers and draws them up to his chin. Andrew laughs and his hand is under the blankets, running over Jesse's chest and resting a few inches over his heart, fingers dipping into the shadows of his collar bone.
"I think maybe we should talk about –"
"Tired," Andrew says quietly, closing his eyes as he buries his nose against Jesse's bare side, nudging against the shadowed lattice of his ribs. "No more talking."
"I think we should –" Jesse says, staring up at the ceiling of Andrew's bedroom.
"No," Andrew says, his breath a hot mumble against Jesse's side. "I'm going to save you from yourself."
After a while, Andrew's breathing becomes regular and sweet against Jesse's side. He doesn't want to move for fear of waking Andrew up, that familiar feeling that his body is a cage. "Thanks," Jesse says, feeling his eyes go heavy. "I probably need that."
"Everyone wants you to shut up," Andrew murmurs, like he's reaching out from a dream.
"Right," Jesse says, and sinks into this world.
Jesse sleeps until he doesn't.
The TV is on and the night still dark, silver morning threatening against the window but still very much private and trapped black in the room. Andrew is lying on his back, watching The Sopranos on mute, his eyes just barely following the action.
"Sorry," Andrew says. "Turns out I am an insomniac."
"I didn't wake you up, did I? Do you want me to go –"
Andrew shakes his head. "Never."
Jesse nods, can feel his hair brush against Andrew's bare skin, the flinch of a tickle. "Have you been watching TV this whole time?"
"Not the whole time," Andrew says quietly, his arm flexing against Jesse's bare shoulders, tightening against the muscle. "For an hour there I tried to move. I can't feel my hand."
Jesse lifts himself off the bed and Andrew frees his arm. "Better?"
"Pins and needles," Andrew says, wincing. "Oh God."
"Why didn't you –"
"You were sleeping," Andrew says, smiling goofy and small like this is a reason, an actual cause. Maybe it is now, maybe it is a thing. A thing that makes your hands go numb and the world go slow and your legs dig under the blankets until they hit and tangle against someone else's. This is all something that happens now.
"What's going on?"
"Chris is getting made," Andrew says, nodding towards the TV. "Becoming one of the mafia."
"No, I mean –"
"Hush," Andrew says.
"It's on mute," Jesse mumbles, digging in tighter against Andrew' side, hearing the steady thump of a life beneath him.
"I'm learning to read lips," Andrew says.
Jesse nods. He rest his head on Andrew's chest and morning comes slowly, the world creeping towards a new day. But here in bed the night bleeds out, thick and sweet and always unexpected, nothing where it was when Jesse looked this morning. He tries to say something, tries to crawl out of bed but Andrew keeps him tight and Jesse remembers his promise that they'd lose together, never alone. The two of them finally collapse together and try and fail to read lips, Jesse's head on Andrew's chest with the rhythmic punch of his heart thumping in his ear as the TV flickers in blues and whites against their dying night, casting long, slow shadows against the wall until the sun comes up.