nsync in black and white

Disclaimer: this is fiction. We made it up.

The Road Once Traveled

by Beth, written for Liz

I. Rehearsal

European Debut – Promo Tour, 1996

JC grabbed the door handle and took a deep breath. This was the moment he’d been dreading for months, from the moment those bloated fingers had handed over the pen and flashed a calculated smile. They had signed their names, all five of them, though they hardly knew a word of the German it was written in. They watched as that smile widened and brightened, and everyone in the room thought it was for them, because of them and their music and their future.

But JC had known differently. He had avoided the others’ eyes and ignored the weight of memories that sat heavy in his gut. He smiled when the time was right and told himself it wouldn’t happen again, it couldn’t. Not this time, and not to them.

As the days and weeks passed, he threw every ounce of energy into the work, doing everything he could to drown out the nagging thoughts lodged in his brain. But then, in a weak moment, he’d find himself watching the others - watching Justin and his wide-eyed fascination with the process and the life and the way he wrapped it around himself like a blanket. The thoughts and images pestered JC until he couldn’t sleep, too busy trying to convince himself that his experience in LA had been somehow singular, somehow isolated and contained by the hot California pavement half a world away. They were safe.

But now he knew he’d been foolish to think so. Now he was pretty sure he wasn’t the only one who knew, the only one who recognized the reason for the wattage in those smiles so generously given. He stood before the door to their crowded, makeshift dressing room, fighting off an angry, frustrated haze because this task was left to him and no one else. He would be the one to cast a shadow over a 15 year-old’s world, a boy who thought his every dream was coming true. But not doing it was worse, this was one thing JC knew above all else, so he gripped the door handle a little tighter and pushed it open.

He wasn’t surprised by the scene before him, the sight of Justin perched on the edge of the couch, bent over with his forearms resting on his knees and his hands curled tightly into fists. The lack of surprise did nothing to quell JC’s emotions, though.

“Justin,” he called out, but Justin sat still as a stone, showing no indication he’d heard. “Hey,” JC tried again, this time moving in closer, but Justin still didn’t move, almost as if he wouldn’t dare. JC watched him for a moment, watched him hold himself so tightly that his shoulders didn’t budge when he took a breath.

JC slipped into the seat next to him and let the silence settle in around them. He forced himself to remember what it had been like to be fifteen, to remember what he’d thought he’d known and what he’d thought he could handle back then. And then he thought about how wrong he’d been.

“That guy was a jerk,” JC said carefully, watching for any sign of reaction. When Justin’s jaw clenched, JC pushed further. “He was a jerk, Justin. You didn’t deserve that. No matter who he is, no matter what, he doesn’t get to say that, and you don’t have to put up with it.”

Justin went rigid, and JC knew he was fighting to keep it all buried, to not have to talk about it because that made it all real. But JC held fast, his eyes strong and knowing, until Justin had no choice but to grit out, “It was fine.”

The horrible attempt at blasé burned JC, and he just barely held a few stinging words from flowing straight off his tongue. But he did because he knew they wasn’t directed at Justin, not really. He bit at the inside of his mouth and sat up straight. “Sure it was,” he said, thinly veiling his sarcasm. “It was fine. Everything was fine.”

“No,” Justin threw back, his eyes just as challenging as JC's. “It wasn’t fine. I didn’t mean it was fine, but I was handling it. I can handle it.”

JC's eyes bore down on Justin’s, making them both aware of the lie that had just slipped off of his tongue. Justin started to glance away, embarrassed, but the fierceness in JC's eyes called him back. JC was thankful he did, even as he began to ruthlessly pick away at every insecurity he still saw lurking behind Justin’s eyes. It was just that he needed Justin to understand; he needed Justin to learn vicariously, to somehow make everything JC went through worth it because Justin could have an easier road. JC's gaze was unwavering, encompassing, as he allowed Justin to see all those things that he had learned, all the lessons that LA taught the hard way.

The gaze held long and resolute with Justin just barely clinging to a final thread of foolish teenage self-assuredness. JC gripped Justin’s wrist and held it tightly. “Don’t handle it,” he said with fierce control. “Not like you are right now. Not hiding it away. You’re gonna fuck yourself up.”

The fire behind Justin’s eyes finally diminished as his eyes moved to where JC's fingers were curled around his wrist. It was only then that JC realized how tightly he had been holding him. He pried his fingers away and frowned at the red marks left in their wake. Justin pulled his wrist away and rubbed at it.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to grab you that hard,” JC murmured. “It’s just. You have to realize; when I was…” He frowned. “Look. You’re not a kid anymore. Not in this business, not anymore, and I wouldn’t be helping you any if I treated you like one.”

Justin met his eyes, seemingly in appreciation, but JC wasn’t done. “You don’t have the luxury of being a kid anymore, and you can’t just let these… these fat asses with their wandering eyes and loose tongues do and say whatever they want. Tell me you know that.”

Justin looked uncomfortable, like what he had just experienced was only now sinking in. “It wasn’t… I was just…”

“I know what you were doing,” JC interrupted. He knew what Justin had been doing just as he had known what he himself had been doing two years ago when other hands and other smiles had tempted him in other worlds. The memory sent the sickening sensation of trailing fingertips over his skin and a shiver down his spine. He shook it away and took a deep breath, forcing himself to stay calm. “I know what you were doing, okay? And I remember what it was like to be your age – to want handle everything yourself and not go running for your mom or your boss like some kid, but. This is different.”

Justin frowned and looked away, tugging at the curls on the back of his head as his eyes traced the grain of the worn-out carpet. “Yeah, okay,” he said eventually. “I know. I shouldn’t have…” His frown spread and he dug his heel into the carpet.

“Don’t feel bad,” JC told him, his voice finally softening as he gripped Justin’s thigh. “It happens. It happens way more than it should, but I won’t…” JC could start to feel emotion closing up his throat, and when Justin looked back at him, he had to look away. “I won’t let it happen, not again.”

JC could feel Justin’s eyes on him and knew that Justin was too smart not to read between the lines, to not know exactly what JC was revealing after all those months in Memphis and Orlando when he’d refused to talk about LA. It terrified him – both of them, maybe – and maybe that had been JC’s intention all along.

“Okay,” Justin breathed after a heavy silence. “I won’t do that. I won’t keep it to myself. I’ll just…” He shrugged his shoulders, and JC raced to meet his eyes.

“You’ll come to me,” JC told him. “You can always come to me, I promise you, Justin. I don’t know what it’s going to be like for the other guys, I really don’t. But I know what it’s like to feel the pressure of everything that’s on you right now, on me, too; I know that you feel responsible, that you owe them everything you can give. But some things you don’t.”

“I know that. I knew that,” Justin frowned, disappointed in himself now. He leaned back against the couch, his shoulder meeting JC's. JC sighed him and hauled him in even closer.

“I’m not here to be your mom,” JC told him softly, almost wearily, “and I’m not your boss. I’ve known you along time, though, longer than we’ve been doing this, so it’s you and me, man. It’s you and me. Alright?”

Justin snorted in mock protest but settled himself against JC and closed his eyes. JC felt warmth seep back into his skin and couldn’t help but smile when Justin said after a moment, “No offense, dude, but if someone needs their ass kicked, I’m still finding Tiny.”

II. Sound Check

For the Girl… European Tour, 1997

Justin closed his eyes and made himself be completely still. He could feel the mist in the night air, trapped there by the high mountains surrounding the city. It tickled his skin, seemed to dance there teasing you can almost have me but not quite. He shivered and forced his eyes open. He’d had enough of that feeling over the last few months.

It was late – well, late for him; late to be out in the city with only one reluctant bodyguard and no one else knowing where he’d gone. He’d been desperate for a night like this, though – to escape, if only for a moment. Zurich and Berlin and Vienna had all been too big, too crowded, but Lucerne felt okay, welcoming even. The small town squares, like the one he was sitting in, had survived the Middle Ages with their structures of stone and cobbled roads. But the people that filled them now, the ones sitting outside at small cafes, loitering about in groups, laughing and waiting for the night to begin, had barely been around decades. There was youth and light and spontaneity – things people probably thought Justin saw everyday. But he didn’t, and so he was here.

He’d chosen the Jazz Kantine only because it contained a word he recognized, something that felt a little like home. He sat outside, as far away from the door as he could, and watched as a group of kids about his age walked by. They were all coupled off, wrapped tightly around someone else to ward off the chill and make the night that much more exciting. Justin frowned and staved off the jealousy that centered in his chest, telling himself to turn away and forget. He was just about to when he froze; when he noticed somewhere in the center of the group there were two boys leaning in close, and then he couldn’t pull his eyes away for anything.

Two boys in tight corduroys and old adidas whose arms were looped together in the kind of intimate casualness Justin had never experienced; two boys walking together through a town square without anyone to answer to. He watched as one of them laughed and the other nipped playfully at his neck, and Justin tried not to wince when something closed up in his own chest, when some inherent piece of his self-defense squeezed hard as if it could maybe keep the hurt out. But Justin knew it was there, knew that despite all he had, he couldn’t have that. He watched until the boys were nothing more than staggered shadows on the stone road, and then he leaned back in his chair to stare blankly up at the stars. There was no point trying to process it; nothing to really left to figure out anymore. It just was.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when someone sat next to him at the small table, but he knew it hadn’t been long enough. He sighed and sat back up, glancing around the square until he found Tiny sitting a few tables over. He was sitting alone, though, and the confusion was enough to make Justin bring his eyes to the person next to him.

“You’re alone?” he asked, only a little ashamed at the jealousy and awe that hovered around the edges of his voice, knowing that JC wouldn’t appreciate either one. JC didn’t say anything, though – didn’t even turn to look at him. JC’s eyes remained fixed on the people that sauntered easily through the square: the lovers holding hands and friends beckoning each other closer. He was frowning, and Justin thought, for a moment, that maybe they were feeling the same thing, the same pull to just get the hell away for awhile, to be a part of something else.

“How did you find me?” he asked eventually, picking up a matchbook that had been left on the table and tapping it against the metal frame. JC didn’t answer, and Justin didn’t think he would. JC's patience was enough to drive anyone insane. “Alright. Why did you find me?” he tried again.

JC took his time responding but eventually settled his eyes on Justin, let them absorb him until Justin felt foolish. “I don’t know,” JC said then, somehow without a trace of resentment or sarcasm. “I think maybe you should tell me.”

And he meant it – Justin knew he did. Justin considered his response, knowing there were several avenues he could take; he could get defensive and remind JC that he wasn’t his mother, that JC had promised; he could be nonchalant, stoic, play it off like no big deal; he could reach for that piece of JC that understood, more than anyone else could, Justin’s need to be alone, to sort through things every once and awhile without the constant logjam of demands from everyone around them.

But none of these felt right, not when it was JC doing the asking; all of those reasons were too manipulative, too many half-truths. He stared into the espresso he could barely stomach and felt the stone walls around him grow higher, felt them close in overhead until his shoulders were slumped. His leg bouncing to the edginess that flowed through his veins.

“I just. I needed some space,” he said, like he was trying it on for size, only it didn’t seem to fit. “There’s been a lot of, you know, things going on…” And there had been; god, had there been. His tonsils, the exhaustion, the records they were setting and the demands they brought, his mother’s demands in return and the utter lack of privacy. But none of those were it – none of those things had driven him here.

He didn’t want to tell JC the real reason, though. JC was probably the only person he could tell, the one person who had, in fact, once instructed Justin to tell, everything and anything that was bothering him. And he had – JC had been his confidant when the pressure was high or when Chris did something stupid and made him feel low, but Justin had been fighting off the temptation to tell him this for so long now that he had no idea how to go about it. He had made no plans for this moment, and yet here it was barreling toward him.

He snuck a sideways glace and noticed that JC had his eyes back on the gathering crowds with no hint of immediacy or agitation. JC wasn’t going to go without a conversation, and Justin knew that JC wasn’t going to start it either; he wasn’t in anyway going to make this easier. He had promised Justin that he wouldn’t treat him like a child, and one of the few things in life Justin could depend on, like the smell of his grandma’s peach cobbler and the rush he got when performing, was the fact that JC would abide by his word.

Justin sat up a little straighter and fought off the panic rising in his stomach because maybe… maybe now was the time. No one else was around… just JC and him, and this had been eating at him for so long…

Finally, when the silence had become a physical presence hovering around them, he went with the first words that came to mind. “You’ve been watching me lately,” he said, trying his best not to sound like an embarrassed child. “And, you know, the people I’ve been hanging out with at the venues and stuff.” He was taking a sideways shot at the topic, he knew, but he couldn’t get himself to do it any other way.

JC looked up at him, meeting his eyes and not looking away. His curiosity was plain, but he didn’t say a word. Justin gathered up another bundle of courage and spoke to the tabletop. “So. There was that guy…” he said, fighting off the catch in his voice. “The Irish one that’s been working sound for awhile…” The one that was gorgeous with his dark, wavy hair and bright blue eyes, the thick Irish brogue that had driven Justin crazy every time he heard it. He felt his throat close up just thinking about it, and he couldn’t suppress the blush that battled its way across his cheeks.

“I’ve noticed you notice him,” JC said finally, leaning closer as he spoke as if the calmness in his voice could be transfused into the nervous body next to him. Justin looked up and practically begged with his eyes. JC finally surrendered and asked just as gently as before, “Is that what this is about?”

Justin didn’t know how to answer that, wasn’t sure he even knew what JC was asking. Only he did, and he fucking hated that he was so transparent, even if it was only to JC. “Yeah,” he finally managed to say, placing his forearms on his knees and leaning forward. “Yeah, I mean, mostly.” He tried desperately to stave off the apprehension coursing through him; he wasn’t sure he was actually admitting what he thought he was, he wasn’t sure he was clear or if he wanted to be. “It’s everything,” he said softly. “All of it. But this… This is just…” and he couldn’t finish the thought, couldn’t spell it out. He just waved his hand a little in the air and left it up to JC.

It felt like an eternity passed before JC finally gripped his thigh and squeezed until Justin lifted his head and looked at him again. “Yeah, I know,” JC said softly, intimately, and Justin felt a tingle rush down his spine. “I know.” Their eyes locked and Justin froze, unable to process what was going on, unable to tell if JC had read all of this right. JC blinked away, and for a brief moment Justin felt a rush of panic burst through a dam in his chest. But then JC's eyes were back on his, calm and even as ever. “Are you two…?” he asked gently.

“No,” Justin replied immediately, so quickly that JC's eyebrows shot up. “I mean, how could we? Even if he did…and I don’t know if he would…but even then. I couldn’t,” he finished, surprised how easy it was to say, how matter of fact he sounded.

JC watched him for a long time, studied his expression, his body language, the bags under his eyes and the tenseness in his shoulders, and Justin fought to sit still. Then, suddenly, JC had his hand and was tugging him along the uneven cobblestone road, and it was all Justin could do to catch his breath and not stumble behind him.

Quick words were exchanged with Tiny, and before Justin realized it, they were in the back of a cab. JC leaned forward and said to the driver, “Wärchhof. Werkhofstrasse.”

He didn’t bother to explain anything to Justin; all Justin knew was that they weren’t heading toward their hotel. Too anxious to look at JC, Justin kept his gaze focused on the imposing brick buildings that crowded each side of the road and tried not to think too much.

The car finally stopped in front of another brick building, an old factory turned club with pounding rhythms pouring out that vibrated Justin from within. JC pulled a handful of francs from his pocket and paid the driver; he counted what was left and told a half-listening Justin, “I think we have enough. Come on.”

Justin let himself be pulled to the door, too busy watching the two guys wrapped around each other just outside the entrance to watch where he was going. He stumbled a little when JC stopped him with a warm hand on his chest. Justin was slow to meet his eyes, and JC wore a rather amused grin when he finally did. Justin frowned and tried to physically shake himself from his stupor. JC grabbed both of his wrists and pulled him a little closer, making him focus.

“How okay are you with this?” JC asked him gently, carefully.

Justin swallowed down his fear and thought about the question – how okay was he with being here or how okay was he with the reason they were here? He closed his eyes and tried to decide, but all he could feel was JC's warmth seep in his arms and spread through his chest.

“Right now?’ he said finally, looking up into JC's piercing eyes. He took a deep breath and reached for the truth. “Right here? I’m fairly okay, I think. You and me. Some good looking people…” he motioned around and let a smile tease the corners of his mouth. His eyes stuck again on the couple at the door who were doing a lot more than kissing now, and he sighed, “This I can handle.” But then he looked back at JC and his confidence faltered. “Ask me tomorrow, though, with Lance on one side of me and my mom on the other and the ten reporters hovering behind her. And when that Irish sound guy walks by, then. Then, I’m just…”

The guilt settled in, and it twisted his stomach. He knew that JC had told him he didn’t owe the others anything except his best work, that he didn’t have to do them any special favors. But Justin knew that even if he didn’t owe them more than that, he could still cost them so much and it fucking ate him up inside. JC watched him carefully, and Justin waited for the words, waited to be told that he was wrong, that he shouldn’t let anyone else or their views get to him.

But JC didn’t say it. Instead, he smiled gently, a little sadly, and pulled Justin through the door. “Well,” he said gently. “I guess it’s a good thing none of those people are here right now, then.”

JC kept pulling until they were on the dance floor, until Justin could only make out JC in the flashes and pink and blue and the beat was so heavy that movement was no longer a choice. JC wrapped his arms around Justin’s waist and pulled him close, so close that his every exhale tickled Justin’s ear and sent a jarring flash of heat down his spine.

Justin closed his eyes against it, letting the beat take over, letting JC's warm hands and brilliant smile coax away everything but that moment. His own hands crawled up JC's chest, absorbed the flat ridges and round shoulders that made this so new and somehow the same as always. A smile that spoke of freedom and relief, no matter how temporary, spread across his face, and his last coherent thought was, ‘A good thing, indeed.’

III. Curtains Up

House of Blues Tour – 1998

JC turned a page in the book he wasn’t really reading and snuck another furtive glace at Justin who was hunched over his Trig homework in the booth that provided the bus’ one halfway decent work space. It was still kind of early, and the morning sun and window shades combined to stripe everything in contrasting shades of light and dark. Justin hadn’t put anything in his hair yet, so it stuck up in amusing clumps from when his hands ran through it every time he got stuck on a problem.

Enough time had passed for JC to turn another page and he did so dutifully, idly noticing he had reached the second chapter without reading a single word. He finally had Justin alone, though; the rest of the guys were still sleeping and would be for awhile as far as JC could figure since he had witnessed their collective state of inebriation the evening before. He had refrained for this exact reason, the opportunity to finally talk to Justin and ask what he’d been dying to ask for the last week.

A week ago they had played Memphis – it was the first time they’d played there with an actual record contract in their pockets. The last time they had sung together in town it had been Jon’s birthday and their enthusiasm for their coming first trip overseas had been met with nothing more than cautious optimism. This time they were playing at the House of Blues in front of a couple thousand people, and nothing could beat down their sense of triumph.

Of course, they had also been fed and pampered and had ten million questions heaved on them at once by Justin’s ever-growing family. JC had been old news to Justin’s relatives by then, though, so instead of telling them about where he grew up and what he’d done before the group, he’d excused himself to help Justin’s grandma with the dishes.

He’d returned to the dinning room fifteen minutes later with a lipstick stain on his blushing cheeks. Sadie had always loved to embarrass him; she said no one looked more adorable in red, which, of course, only served to make his color deepen. He had expected to come back and meet Justin’s charitable but knowing smile from across the table, but instead he found Justin’s empty seat. He glanced quickly at Lynn, who twisted her lips into what some might consider a smile but JC knew better. “Veronica’s,” she said simply, as if that said it all, and JC supposed it did. JC tried to smile back, but if the twisting in his gut was any indication, it probably looked a lot closer to Lynn’s.

Justin hadn’t gotten home until late; late enough that JC wouldn’t have heard him if Justin hadn’t run the sink in the adjoining bathroom for a good five minutes. “Hey,” he said softly when Justin lifted the covers several minutes later and crawled into they bed they’d been assigned to share.

“Hmmm…” Justin muttered in his half-consciousness, and when JC rolled over a moment later to look at him, Justin was already asleep. JC frowned and buried himself deep under the covers.

They next morning they had been rushed, and every day after that had been too busy or too crowded or just too flat-out exhausting for JC to ask the one question that hadn’t left his mind. But right now wasn’t too anything, so he carefully closed his book, dog-earing the page for no apparent reason, and cleared his throat. “So, uh, hey,” he said lightly, stretching his legs out in front of him.

Justin finished what he was writing and glanced up. “Hey,” he said slowly, as if perhaps JC wasn’t quite in his right mind, and JC couldn’t help but smile. Just as Justin was about to give up and go back to his math, JC asked, “So, you and Veronica, hey?”

Justin only missed a beat before replying, “What?” as if he truly had no idea what JC could be talking about. He picked up his pencil and began working on his math again but only to distract himself, an act that told JC more than Justin’s words ever could.

“Yeah,” JC pressed, sitting up a little straighter in anticipation. “Your mom said you went to see Veronica that night in Memphis. I’m assuming this is the same Veronica you used to moon about back in the day? When you would come home from junior high and throw yourself on your bed and bemoan the end of the freakin’ world because Veronica didn’t check the ‘yes, I’ll go out with you’ box on the note you passed in Mrs. Davies’ English class?”

Justin narrowed his eyes at JC's spreading smile. “That never happened,” he protested. “And, besides, Mrs. Davies was my Social Studies teacher.”

JC shrugged a shoulder. “Close enough. I swear to god, you thought your life was gonna end anytime she looked at you funny.”

Justin sighed and sat back against the booth, looking out the window as the scenery blurred by. The sunlight cut a bright stripe across Justin’s eyes, and JC chastised himself, remembering again what he’d known all along, that Justin wasn’t fourteen anymore. He was seventeen with barely any normal seventeen-year-old experiences to show for it. JC sighed and reigned himself back in. “You’re dating?” he asked easily, moving to the end of the couch to be closer.

Justin continued to look out the window, but the upward twitch of his lips gave him away.

“Just give it up,” JC finally said, fighting a crooked smile. “You’re busted.”

Justin let loose a quick laugh then and turned back to JC. “Yeah, okay,” he said, nodding his head and rolling his eyes at his own embarrassed response. “We’re dating. I guess.”

“You guess? That’s great, J.,” he said sarcastically. “Though I’m pretty sure that if you have to guess, then you’re not, in fact, dating.”

“Shut up,” Justin told him, though the words lacked any venom. “We are. We’re dating.” He lifted his eyes and met JC's so no doubt could be left.

JC held his gaze for a moment, trying to contain the ridiculous sense of loss that flashed through him for a moment. It was silly - it wasn’t like she was going to be able to take up Justin’s time; most of that was already decided for him. And for JC as well, who would be right there with him. “Well, good,” JC said finally. “Because I’d like to think I taught you better than to have sex with someone you don’t really care about.”

Justin’s choked on the orange juice he’d been drinking and sent a small spray across the table. He reached behind him for the paper towels as he continued to cough and started to frantically mop up his homework. “You… I mean, I didn’t…” he sputtered, and then, with a deep sigh, he stopped cleaning and flopped back into his seat, completely at a loss.

“J. I was there when you got home. We were in the same room,” JC reminded him.

“But I…” Justin tried again, looking totally confused.

JC laughed. “You reeked, Justin, and you had that vague ‘I just got some’ film over your eyes.” JC smiled widely. “No amount of time at the sink was gonna hide it.”

“Oh,” Justin said, looking down at his fingers that were splayed across the tabletop.

“Hey,” JC said, feeling the guilt creep in. He waited until Justin looked up again. “I’m giving you hard time, I know, but forget about me. You’re the one with the girlfriend, anyway, right? I’m just the lonely loser.” Justin frowned and was about to refute him, but JC waved him away. He didn’t want to talk about Nikki anyway. That was over and probably should’ve been years ago. He kicked gently at Justin’s ankle. “So, was it good?”

Justin finally smiled then. “It was, you know…” JC raised an eyebrow at the pause and Justin laughed. “No, no. It was good; it was absolutely good.”


“But it was weird, too, you know?” he said. “It was like, we were sitting there talking about it, and I had to say ‘we can do this now or we can wait six months until I make it back to town.’ No one else would have to tell her that. I felt, I don’t know, silly.”

“Only for that moment, I hope,” JC said with a smile.

Justin cocked his head to the side and met JC's stare with all trace of embarrassment gone. “Without a doubt.”

His words were laced with confidence, so self-assured that JC had to temper the ribbon of heat threading through his abdomen. He cleared his throat and leaned back in the booth. “Well, good.”

A silence fell then, one that didn’t fit right with JC because knew he should have a million more questions to ask, specifics to glean, but something kept him from wanting to know.

“So,” Justin said eventually. “What about you? You never really told me about your first time. Nikki?”

JC's lips twisted into a surprised grimace because this really wasn’t where he had intended this conversation to go. He probably should’ve predicted it, but he hadn’t, and now he wanted embarrassed Justin back; he wanted to be the one teasing and cajoling because, as the elder, it was his right. Leave it to Justin to squash all semblance of hierarchical tradition. And of course he had to answer; how could he not? Not after what he’d just put Justin through.

“Uhhh…no. It wasn’t Nikki,” he said without looking up, his hand already massaging the back of his neck.

“Well, then who was she?” Justin demanded.

“He,” JC corrected softly. He looked up and met Justin’s eyes. “My first time was with a he.”

Justin’s eyebrows nearly shot to his hairline. “No shit? You fucked a guy the first time?” He sounded so interested, so surprised, that JC very nearly winced. Whatever reaction he might have expected had he actually planned for this conversation, it was not Justin moving to the edge of his seat and nearly bouncing up and down as he demanded details.

“C’mon. Who was he?” And when JC didn’t immediately answer, he kept talking. “I can’t believe you never told me, you asshole! All those times in Europe that you dragged me away to those clubs, just the two of us, and I probably asked you ten thousand questions about sex and sex with guys and you never once told me this story?”

“First of all, I never had to drag you anywhere. I had to spend half of my time telling you to stop talking about it when there were people around and reminding you we could only go when circumstances were right…like your mom being out of town. And second of all, no, I never told you about this. I never told you about any specific guys I’ve…” and then he stopped and cursed the blush subtly spreading over his skin. He cleared his throat quickly, “…that I’ve, you know, slept with.”

Justin narrowed his eyes, and JC knew he was replaying all the conversations in his head. “You’re right,” he acknowledged. “Why the hell not?”

JC shrugged his shoulders and reached for Justin’s notebook to toy with the edges. “You never asked,” he said simply.

Justin scrutinized him for a moment, and JC tried not to squirm.

“And if I ask now?” Justin countered smoothly. Their eyes were locked, and JC knew he wasn’t going to escape. Just as he was mentally scrambling for something to share, anything to satisfy Justin and end this as soon as possible, they heard a thump followed by a string of curses that got progressively louder.

Chris was awake and in rare form, and for once, JC couldn’t have been more thrilled. Justin wouldn’t relinquish his gaze, though, holding it long enough for JC to know the conversation wasn’t over.

“Where’s the god damn Advil?” Chris barked from over their shoulders as he pushed bottles out of the way and squinted at their labels with one eye.

Justin rolled his eyes and got up from the booth, pushing Chris out of the way and finding the bottle in two seconds flat. “It’s right here, fucker,” he said, thrusting the bottle into Chris’s hands. “Later,” he said, turning back one more time to JC before making his way to the back of the bus.

JC wasn’t surprised when Justin turned out to be his roommate at the next hotel even though it hadn’t been their turn to share. They didn’t have a show that night, and after meeting up for dinner in one of the hotel’s conference rooms, the guys had stood around making plans for their rare free evening. JC had been about to agree with Joey’s club selection when Justin quickly cut in.

“JC and I are staying in,” he said easily, without any hint of worry that JC would disagree.

“Yeah?” Joey asked, looking to JC for acknowledgement. “Is the kid after you? You haven’t stayed in with him in awhile.”

JC rolled his eyes and wondered how on earth Justin had managed to get others to do his guilt tripping for him. With a hard glace in Justin’s direction, he acquiesced. “Yeah, you could put it that way.” Justin’s smile was a little too smug, but there wasn’t much JC could do about it.

Later, after they said their goodbyes and their security guys had gone down to the lobby, Justin flopped down on his bed and waited for JC to do the same. Only he didn’t – JC was riffling through his suitcase instead, pulling out what Justin knew were his club clothes – jeans that Justin knew were just tight enough to stay in place but loose enough to expose the trail of dark hair under his bellybutton and a sweater that perfectly highlighted the newly sculpted ripples in his arms. Wherever he was going, he was going to look good. “You going somewhere?” Justin asked suspiciously.

JC shot a quick glance in his direction before zipping up his suitcase with his clothes in hand. “I thought we could go out,” he said. “Just the two of us. Like we used to.”

Justin sat up and moved to the edge of his bed. “We haven’t done that in awhile,” he said carefully, trying to gauge JC's reaction but JC was steadfastly avoiding his gaze.

“No, we haven’t,” he replied as he walked towards the bathroom. “It’s not, you know. It’s harder here is all,” he said, and Justin wasn’t sure if that was meant as an apology.

Justin got up and followed JC, leaning against the door jamb as JC dropped his khakis and pulled on his jeans. “That’s why I thought we could stay in,” he said. “Maybe finish that conversation from the bus.”

Justin’s eyes were a little too amused for JC's liking, so he sent him a level glare. “You don’t have to come,” he told Justin. “You can stay in, but. I think I need to go out. I’m gonna go out.”

“Why? So you can find another guy to fuck and not tell me about?” Justin had tried to sound teasing, but the stiffness weaved into his posture told a different story.

JC pulled his sweater over his head and stared down at his feet. He didn’t like where this was going. It wasn’t even the topic; it was this thing between Justin and him, this weirdness that had been hovering in the air since their fateful conversation on the bus. Something was off, and JC really, really didn’t want to admit what it might be. He didn’t acknowledge Justin’s remark and slipped around him to begin his hunt for shoes.

Justin slowly re-entered the room and sat on JC's bed. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

JC waved him off without turning around. “Don’t worry about it,” he said just as he found his black boots and pulled them from the bottom of the bag. He sat down on the floor and tugged them on, feeling Justin’s eyes on him the entire time. He stood up after they were tied and picked up his wallet from the dresser. He deposited it in his back pocket and finally turned to meet Justin’s eyes again. “So. Are you coming?”

Justin held him with his eyes for a long moment, searching for something. JC wasn’t sure if he found it, but Justin suddenly stood and grabbed a t-shirt from his bag – an old one that JC knew didn’t quite meet the waistband of his jeans. When Justin turned around, he caught JC's eyes fixed on that strip of skin that was a shade lighter than the rest, and he couldn’t help but let the corners of his mouth twitch into a smile. JC just sighed and shook his head, making a beeline for the door and holding it open just long enough for Justin to lunge at it before it closed.

“Hurry up,” JC called over his shoulder. “The guards will be back in five.” Justin jogged to catch up and took his place next to JC.

Twenty minutes later, they had slipped into a booth and JC had ordered a few drinks. Justin just smirked as JC downed the first one and started immediately on his second. They didn’t speak for awhile, both taking in the images that had been missing from their lives for the past few months – strong, hard bodies pressed tight; long, lithe ones slithering to the beat. The pulsing light flickered around them, making it hard to focus on any one thing… An ideal place for secrets to be kept.

“Veronica gonna be okay with this?” JC asked suddenly, pulling Justin away from the couple he’d been watching on the dance floor.

“What do you mean? She knows I go out. She goes out. She went to the homecoming dance last month with the freshman quarterback.” Justin tried really hard to hide the resentment in his voice.

“That’s not what I mean,” JC told him, but Justin already knew that. He took a long drink of the Long Island JC had brought him and then made himself meet JC's eyes.

“She doesn’t know, not about this,” he said carefully, trying to tamper down the guilt that set in every time he thought about it. “My mom knows and you know, and about a half-dozen foreign guys I managed to get to make out with me know. That’s it. I can’t tell her, not yet. You know that.” The sheepish look on JC's face made Justin think he had known but for some reason had wanted to hear it, had wanted reassurance that he was member of that little group in the know.

Justin quickly finished off his drink, thinking how stupid this was, how ridiculous everything was getting. He was supposedly dating a girl he never saw, a girl he still sometimes pictured as the seventh-grader he’d had a mad crush on ages ago. Their first time together had happened because they were operating against a clock, not because the time was right or because he necessarily felt something deep and intrinsic for her. And then he was here, surrounded by hot, young guys, wanting things he couldn’t afford to consider. But none of that compared to what was going on with JC, the strangeness that had hovered around them since Memphis; it was spreading and infecting and yet he couldn’t give it a name.

Well, it was going to stop, he told himself. Right now. He needed shit with JC to be okay, to be comfortable and reliable, and then screw the rest of it. He could deal with being a bad boyfriend and having to watch himself and where he went and who he was with. But only if JC was there with him, sharing the struggle.

Without a word, he grabbed JC's hand and pulled him to the dance floor, not waiting for that awkward pause where they studied the space between them and decided how close was close enough. He hauled JC even closer and spread his hands low and wide across his back until JC had no choice but to grip Justin’s shoulders to stay upright. And they danced because they had always been able to do that well, had always been the best on the floor no matter where they were. Not just because as individuals they knew the steps but because as a couple they knew each other, how each other moved and pressed and felt.

For a long while, they didn’t speak and they didn’t think because the dance floor was no place for that. They both intuitively knew how to let the music take over when it needed to, when the push and pull of the rhythm said just as much as the thoughts flying through their brains. Before long, Justin felt JC's fingers trail over the cords of his neck and then slip lower, tracing his spine and leaving sparks in their wake, moving even lower until his thumbs gently wiped away the sweat that gathered at the small of Justin’s back. Justin shivered and dug his fingers deeper into the firm flesh of JC's back, letting his head drop to JC's shoulder. Justin felt JC’s laughter vibrate in his own chest and his hips as they nudged and guided to the thump of the beat.

Time stood still, and neither had any clue how long they had been out there when a large, foreign hand landed on Justin’s shoulder. Justin looked up at the guy, a tall, lanky boy around his own age with spiky brown hair and startling green eyes. He motioned to cut in, and Justin felt JC start to pull away. A flash of light caught JC's expression, sad and resigned, so Justin held him even tighter as he turned to the intruder.

“Sorry. I’m with him,” he said, motioning with his head towards JC and emphasizing his point by moving his hands a little lower on JC's hips. JC relaxed in his arms, and Justin felt something warm course through him. He caught JC's eyes, sparkling once again, and didn’t bother to notice the other man’s retreat.

They were kicked out at closing time, both still punch-drunk with adrenalin and the remnants of house music pounding in their ears. Even in the night’s silence it was as if the awkward conversations and fumbling emotions had never transpired. They caught the elevator to their floor with broad smiles still plastered to their faces that showed no signs of stopping, not even at the sight of Lonnie and Eric staring them down with their arms crossed sternly across their chests.

“Hey,” Justin said, coming to a stop in front of the two burly men and grabbing JC by the back of the shirt when he kept on walking. Leave it to JC to not even notice them. Justin studied their bodyguards for a moment, realizing quickly that his bright smile wasn’t going to be enough to placate them tonight.

“Listen,” he told them diplomatically. “How about you lecture us tomorrow? We were stupid, yes, but we’re back and we’re safe and we’d just really like it if you saved the yelling for tomorrow. Besides,” he added, working every advantage, “We might not remember it tonight. So, tomorrow’s better.” They were both, in fact, sober, but their bodyguards didn’t know that.

Slowly, Justin watched them concede the point and file away to their rooms. He turned back to JC whose eyes were fixed on him with a little bit of disbelief hidden in their depths. “What?”

JC just shook his head. “Nothing,” he said with a trace of laughter, following Justin to their door.

JC closed his eyes and leaned against the wall, letting Justin fumble with the card and the stupid lock that never opened the first time. He let the night replay in his mind, moving through it slowly, realizing it had been just what he needed. The tell-tale whirl of the lock sent his eyes back open and he followed behind Justin as he pushed open the door and locked it behind them.

JC stumbled towards his suitcase, thinking of nothing but slipping between the cool sheets and closing his eyes. He grabbed his toothbrush first, though, knowing that if he didn’t stake claim to the bathroom right away, he’d have to wait for Justin to finish one of his marathon showers. He slipped past the younger man still crowding the entryway and was almost inside when a hand wrapped around his bicep and tugged him back.

JC was already smiling when he turned around, assuming that Justin was playfully putting up a fight for the bathroom, but the intensity and focus of Justin’s eyes made him quickly realize Justin had been watching him carefully all along. His body went slack, no longer resisting Justin’s pull.

“I had fun tonight,” Justin told him, his eyes following his fingers as they carefully slid down JC's arm.

There was a seriousness about his face and the tone of his voice, something JC couldn’t quite place. “Yeah, me too,” he replied, stepping closer to Justin and making the younger man look up at him and return his smile. “It’d been too long.”

“Yeah,” Justin agreed, and JC figured that was the end of it; in fact, he was proud that they had admitted it, their need for these nights, for the outlet and the time together – it seemed like an important step. JC smiled up at him once more before he started to pull away, but again, Justin held him close, crooking a finger into a belt loop and pinning him with his eyes.

The smile slowly fell from JC's face as he took in Justin’s wide, unwavering stare that seemed to be pulling in him, seemed to grow and grow until it was all that JC knew, and it made his heart skip in his chest. Shit, he thought, Shit. And then he couldn’t think because Justin’s lips were on his, quick and firm and open just enough for JC to feel the satiny inside and glide his own lips between them ever so smoothly. The kiss melted him instantly; no time for second thoughts when the pleasure was so immediate. He pushed in closer, cradling Justin’s bottom lip between his own, coaxing Justin to move with him again and then again, so subtly, so nearly chaste that JC couldn’t explain the fierceness of the heat sweeping through him. His fists were clenched in Justin’s shirt and Justin’s fingernails were pressing marks into his back. All of this from a simple kiss?

Nearly out of breath, he forced himself to pull away, hearing Justin echo his staggered breathing and feeling its heat against his neck. Shit, he though again, the only word he could process. He pulled his head back just far enough to take in Justin’s face, to see his eyes half-closed. “Justin,” he said softly, carefully, but the way Justin’s hand curled into fists against his back, like he was bracing for something horrible, made JC hold back. He kept his arms light against Justin’s back and soothed him the best he could, trying not to let his own thoughts get away from him.

“Why?” he said eventually, after Justin’s hands had relaxed and his breathing had slowed. Justin just shook his head and pressed his forehead against JC's shoulder. “If it’s because…” JC started and then stopped because god this was an awkward thing to say. He took a deep breath and spoke against Justin’s temple. “I know you don’t get to go out and meet people a lot, especially not like tonight. And I know that Veronica is half a country away right now, so if it’s because you’re… lonely,” JC stumbled over the last word and cleared his throat. “If you’re lonely, it’s okay. It happens to all of us.”

Justin groaned against JC's shoulder and stepped to the side, away. He looked and sounded disgusted, but with what JC wasn’t sure. “Hey,” JC tried to sound calming. “It’s okay, really.”

Justin snorted and stopped JC from saying anything else. “Yeah,” he replied cynically, “Yeah, it’s gonna be okay.” He sighed and slumped against the door, looking every bit the defeated man. “Okay, yeah. I’m lonely. It can get lonely, but that’s nothing new,” he said, lifting his eyes to meet JC's again. “It’s always gets like that after awhile, for years now. It’s exactly the way it was that night in Lucerne, right? That night we went out together for the first time?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess it was,” JC said, feigning he didn’t remember every detail of that evening, every ounce of Justin’s youthfulness and energy pulsing against his body as they danced and how Justin had looked at him like he’d somehow saved the world. Tonight had been nearly the same, except for one key difference. “You didn’t kiss me that night, though,” he finished, treading carefully.

When Justin finally managed to look at him, his eyes were fierce and bright. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, you know.”

JC's eyebrows shot up and he had to play the statement twice in his mind to comprehend the words. “You… what?” he said stupidly.

Justin didn’t answer; he just crossed the distance between them with two long strides and pressed JC against the wall. His lips were already hot and wet from the previous kiss, opening immediately over JC's. His thumbs traced the line of JC's jaw until he opened and let Justin’s tongue sweep inside. Their tongues met tentatively at first, lightening-quick laps that drove JC insane. He wanted more, needed more, so he spread his fingers into Justin’s hair and tilted his head, delving in deeper and stoking the slick heat to a level of immediacy he hadn’t experienced before.

“Shit,” he moaned, finally pulling away to gasp for breath, cursing again when Justin immediately opened his mouth on the cords of his neck. He nipped and licked until JC felt dizzy with need. His head fell back and his hips slipped forward, pressing in for more. Justin’s hands cradled his back, supporting him in that position until he had the chance to taste every inch of skin and JC's hips were subtly moving to his tempo.

Justin bit at JC’s earlobe, causing his fingers to curl and a shocked gasp to escape. Justin pressed soothing kisses across his cheek, finally returning to his lips. He didn’t kiss him right away; for a moment, he just held himself close, let their harsh breaths warm each others’ faces, forcing their urgency to grow. Finally, it was JC who darted forward, wrapping his arms around Justin’s neck and hauling him in, prying open his mouth with an insistent tongue and short, low-timbered sighs that were like music to Justin’s ears.

Justin angled his head, delving deeper, and he let his body follow, let his hips settle against JC's, let JC feel the arousal that was pulsing so heavily through him it seemed it the whole room was throbbing. When he felt that JC was just as desperate, just as hard as he was, he pulled away from the kiss and let greatly needed air filter back into his lungs; he let himself revel in the sinuous grind of their bodies, unable to help themselves or the startled murmurings that escaped their lips.

“Bed,” JC spoke hoarsely, unable to say more, but Justin got the drift. Without relinquishing any space between them, without ending the smooth push and pull of their hips or the intense lock of their eyes, Justin maneuvered them away from the wall and onto the bed, guiding JC to his back and sliding down on top of him. Justin’s own body weight pulled them together even tighter, and a spark of white heat tingled at the base of Justin’s spine. He took a deep breath and willed it away; not yet, not yet he instructed, and then JC said it in his ear, softly, “Not yet.”

Justin groaned and forcefully released the tension from his body, letting himself spread over JC but not allowing himself to move. JC's hands were soothing as they ran up and down his back, finding their way under his shirt, and weaving new trails of sensation through his body. Justin breathed deeply and focused on the intimacy of the caress until he again had a handle on himself. He shifted then, and JC groaned, forcing Justin to meet his eyes with an apologetic smile.

JC's fingers came up to trace the lines of Justin’s face, and then he brought himself closer to press a slow, shallow kiss to Justin’s lips. They relaxed into the kiss, opening their mouths, teasing and tempting as if the night could go on forever. They mood between them change in that moment from the single-minded, white-hot intensity of a minute before to the consuming dark heat that seemed like it could sustain itself forever. “Justin,” JC murmured, pulling back to meet Justin’s eyes.

Justin knew what JC was going to say, what he was going to ask, and he didn’t want to answer. He didn’t want to risk losing this, even if it was just this once. Even if it was just this moment. He leaned on one arm, using the other one to trail underneath JC's shirt and slowly pull it up. JC arched into his touch, unable to resist, following Justin’s hand as he caressed the flat ridges, both men gasping when he reached a hardened nipple and ran a feather-light touch over top. Justin tugged the shirt off and replaced his hand with his lips, reveling in the new sensations, the decidedly male physique finally his to explore.

When JC spread his legs a little further, letting one of Justin’s fall between his own, Justin lost all sense of what he’d been doing. “Oh, god,” he whispered roughly, burying his face in the cavern of JC's neck as his hips bucked out of his control. He heard JC's breath catch and thought ‘Thank god. He wants it, too. He needs this, too.’ He pressed harder, letting their erections align and feeling the friction burn hotter, forcing a moan from JC's lips.

He tugged at his own shirt and JC reached down to help, finally getting it off with only a slight rip in the seam. He reveled in the feel of their chests pressed together, the way the film of sweat let them slide together so easily.

JC leaned into his ear and gruffly murmured, “I want to see you.” He pulled at Justin’s pants. “Take these off.”

All of Justin’s thoughts went offline at JC's command. He relinquished all notions of control and let JC slide his pants off, tugging at JC's right after. He leaned back down and let his weight spread JC's legs, pinning his hips and forcing him to be still, making him absorb the feeling of their naked bodies together. And then he went back again, spreading JC's thighs even wider. He attacked JC's mouth, sliding his tongue in deep as their erections aligned, as the wetness spread between them in preparation. JC was murmuring quiet obscenities in his ear but Justin could form no words, every exhale a punctuated moan that came faster and faster until it was just one long string of sound.

JC's hands reached down, cupping Justin’s ass and grinding them even closer, even hotter, and his legs wrapped tightly around Justin’s hips. “C’mon, c’mon,” he panted in Justin’s ear, words that passed right through him and straight to his groin, making his hips piston beyond his control. JC moaned, loud and long, once and then twice and three times and suddenly Justin felt the wetness between them, hot and sticky, and god, he’d made JC come. JC had come and Justin was sliding through it, and just like that, a surge of pleasure bulleted down his spine, coiling tight and then releasing in short, consuming bursts, over and over until Justin was empty and so exhausted he couldn’t lift his head from JC's shoulder.

He pressed his lips against JC's collarbone, his neck, anywhere he could reach, as his breath slowly came back. His hands gathered JC close, unwilling to let him go, unwilling to see what might be lurking in JC's eyes as clarity crept back in. He focused on reveling in the heat of two bodies pressed close and let his eyes drift closed. The last thing he remembered before falling asleep was JC's cautious fingers tracing patters over his sensitized skin.

JC woke up slowly the next morning, more so than usual, and it took a moment to figure out the cause of the dead weight pinning his arm to the bed. When it did, he glanced over quickly, thankful that Justin was still sleeping because he seriously needed a minute. The night before had been. Wow. On so many levels. He had no idea what to make of it except that it had been good. Really, really good.

He closed his eyes again and tried to sort through some of the foggier visions in his head, but it was too much to process when he was this exhausted. He idly thought that he should probably be freaking out, but he didn’t particularly feel like doing that, either. He had ended up in bed with Justin, it had been good – fabulous even, and Justin had been the one to start it. JC couldn’t venture a guess as to what had prompted him, so he didn’t try. He took deep breaths and kept himself calm and relaxed until he felt Justin stir in bed next to him.

Justin had a particular way of waking up, one JC was intimately acquainted with. First, he grunted in protest and squirmed around a little as if he could fight off the pending morning. When he recognized that as useless, he would blink his eyes a few times and frown before throwing the pillow over his head and trying once again to get back to sleep. It rarely worked, though, so JC figured he had about five minutes before Justin burrowed out from beneath the pillow and took stock of the world around him.

JC expected a mild freak-out or at least a fierce blush and a little bit of stuttering. What he hadn’t expected was for Justin to squint his eyes up at JC once, glance down briefly at the impressions of their bodies under the white sheets, and then scoot himself even closer and flop down on JC's chest with a sigh.

“Uhh… Justin?” JC ventured, his hand already subconsciously rising to sift through Justin’s bed head.

“Hmph?” came Justin’s muffled response in a tone that clearly said conversation wasn’t exactly welcome.

“Ahh. Well, I was…” JC sighed and let his hand fall back to the bed, turning to look towards the light filtering in from between the curtains.

Sensing JC's unease, Justin sighed heavily and pushed himself up onto one arm. “You probably want to talk about this,” he said in a way that made it sound like the most unreasonable request JC had ever made.

“And you don’t?” JC asked.

Justin sighed and pulled himself out of the bed. He walked to his suitcase in all his naked glory and grabbed a fresh pair of boxers. “Be right back,” he muttered as he made his way to the bathroom. A few minutes later, he returned looking a little fresher and flopped down on the corner of the bed next to JC.

“So,” he said almost ceremoniously. “You can commence with the freaking out now.”

“I. Who said… I’m not freaking out,” JC told him, gesturing around him. “I’m sitting here calmly waiting for you to explain why you decided to molest me last night.”

Justin snorted. “Last time I checked, I was the one underage here.”

“Justin,” JC warned, narrowing his eyes because he wasn’t letting that card be played. That was the deal between them – Justin wouldn’t be treated like a child unless he insisted on acting like one, which really wasn’t all that often.

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Justin said, waving him off. “That was the wrong thing to say. Sorry.” He rubbed at his eyes with the palm of his hand and walked to the window. He opened the curtains just an inch and watched the day begin on the Houston streets.

When the silence had grown too long, JC brought Justin back to the present, to the room and the issue at hand. “I mean, I hate to say this. But they’re gonna be calling us to roll out of here in less than an hour. We won’t be able to do this on the bus…”

Justin took a deep breath and turned away from the window, moving to sit on the bed across from JC. “I don’t know what you want me to say. I wanted it. I wanted you and it felt right and it felt good. That’s what I have to say.” He looked up expectantly, almost defiantly at JC.

“Okay,” JC said slowly. “So that leaves us where? I mean, you wanted to know…what? How it was to be with a guy? You wanted to, you know, not be lonely for a night?” He caught the evil glare Justin was sending his way and was quick to amend his statement. “I’m not judging you for any of those things, J. Seriously. I’m not gonna be mad at you or anything. As long as you aren’t lying to me.”

JC knew by Justin’s tense fists that he hadn’t done much to quell whatever anger was lurking inside Justin. He watched him carefully, startled when he suddenly rose to his feet and let out a quick laugh that held no humor. He made his way back to the window and stood with his forehead pressed against the pane and his arms crossed across his chest.

“Look,” he said eventually. “I wanted you last night, a lot. But I also wanted you the night before that and the night before that and a million nights before that, alright? As long as I can remember.”

JC heard his words but couldn’t seem to absorb them. Justin wanted him? Had wanted him, apparently for quite sometime? How could he not have known? Good lord, he felt like an idiot. And a poor excuse for a friend. He gingerly crawled out of bed, quickly thinking he should grab his shorts from somewhere off the floor but then thinking otherwise. He walked straight to Justin and stood a few feet away.

“I’m sorry, man. I guess… I didn’t know.” He was frowning at the hunched figure before him, and he gathered his arms around himself to keep himself warm.

“You didn’t know…” Justin said evenly as he finally turned away from the window.

“No, man. Of course I didn’t. I would’ve said something. Or, you know, something. I would’ve done something.”

Justin snorted, a hybrid of humor and resignation.

“I’m sure you would’ve,” Justin told him. “Although I don’t think it would’ve been what happened here, so maybe I’m glad.”

JC smiled and rubbed at the back of his neck because Justin was absolutely right. And JC was kinda glad, too.

“You really didn’t know?” Justin asked again.

“Not at all. I mean, it wasn’t like you were following me around or sitting in my lap or, I don’t know, trying to convince me of anything. As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always gone after what you want. You never went after me.”

Justin’s lips twisted into a smile. “Until now,” he pointed out.

“Until now,” JC conceded.

They smiled at each other for a moment, and the tension seemed to evaporate from the room. Justin took a step closer, and for a moment, JC thought he was going to reach for his hand, but he didn’t.

“I don’t know how you didn’t know,” Justin told him quietly. “I mean, of all the important people in my life, you’re up there, man. Like up there with my mom and my brothers, and you’ve always been there for me. I can count on you to tell me what I need to hear even if I don’t want to hear it. And, you know, you’re fucking gorgeous, so… Yeah. I’ve felt this way for a long time.”

“Felt like…?” JC pried.

“Like I want you. Like I want to be with you, even more than I am now even though we’re together all the fucking time anyway.”

JC considered him for a long time, and Justin let him. What else was there left to hide?

“And you didn’t tell me this because…?” JC asked him finally.

Justin rolled his eyes and huffed out a laugh. “Well, you’re a little uptight, JC. And a little high strung and you worry way too fucking much and I always kinda counted on you freaking out.”

“Well,” JC said with a growing smile, “I guess I’m not as predictable as you thought.” He smiled brightly and then turned quickly on his heels, reaching for his boxers on the floor before disappearing into the bathroom. He made sure not to shut the door behind him, though.

Justin watched him with half amusement and half confusion. When he didn’t hear the door catch, he followed after him cautiously, as if he was afraid JC was going to jump out and scare the shit out of him. JC was leaning over the faucet of the tub, turning the handles and testing the temperature. Justin let his eyes trace the slope of his back, the gentle rise of his ass down the back of his thighs, and when JC stood up, Justin couldn’t divert his eyes quickly enough.

“Busted,” JC teased softly, and Justin couldn’t help but blush.

“Why the fuck aren’t you freaking out on me?” Justin asked him.

“I don’t know,” JC shrugged as he walked over the stack of towels above the toilet. “Maybe it sounds like a good idea.” He grabbed the fluffiest one and turned back to Justin who was now frozen in place. His mouth was moving but no words were coming out.

JC tried hard not to laugh. “Well, it’s not like you aren’t one of the most important people in my life, too. It’s not like you aren’t always there for me and it’s not like you aren’t pretty fucking gorgeous yourself.”

“You’re…” Justin managed a few moments later. “C’mon, man. You’re just fucking with me.”

JC's lips twisted up into a devilish smirk. “Uhh, no. I’m pretty sure we haven’t gotten there yet.”

Justin grunted and threw his body forward, colliding with JC and pinning him against the tiled walls. He was already out of breath. “You’re not fucking with me?” he said, staring straight into JC's piercing eyes.

JC let the humor fall from his face and replaced with all the sincerity he could muster. “No,” he said. “I’m not fucking with you. And you’re not the only one who’s ever looked…noticed. Why do you think I was such a bitch about Veronica?” Justin blushed, and JC pressed his lips to his jaw line to absorb the spreading heat. “Okay?”

Justin just nodded, unable to form words, and pressed soft kisses across JC's face and down his neck. JC let his arms wrap around Justin, traced the lines of his back down to his hips. Slowly, he let his hands drift further, pressing in just enough for Justin to feel their every movement as they went lower and lower until the were gripping Justin’s ass and pulling him in close. He felt Justin’s breath hitch against his neck, and he shivered in response.

“This is for real?” Justin asked somberly, whispering directly into his ear.

JC pulled back just enough to look Justin straight in the eye. “For real,” he said, and then he pulled him in and kissed him deeply, knowing this was going to be the start of something good.

IV. Quick Change

Boys of Summer Tour – 1999

“Hey, Lance called looking for you,” JC told Justin as he stepped out the bathroom. The towel was slipping a little and JC kept his eyes fixed on the growing sliver of skin as he explained. “He said he’s going to be out late so if you didn’t want to be woken up by his drunk-ass self, you should just stay here.”

Justin snorted and rummaged through JC's luggage for a pair of boxers. “So, what you’re telling me is that he really called to lord it over my head that’s he’s twenty-one and sanctioned and all that bullshit while I still have to have Lonnie sneak me drinks half the time.”

“Well, you know, I was trying to be nice about it.”

“Well, thanks, C.,” he said sardonically, tugging away his towel and using it to dry his hair. He walked over to JC and placed a simple kiss against his lips. “Always looking out for me.”

“I try,” JC replied, leaning up for one more quick kiss before scooting over and allowing Justin to flop down the bed next to him.

“So, I get to spend the night, huh?”

“Looks that way,” JC told him, already turning his attention back to his book.

Justin frowned and contemplated taking it from him, but it seemed a little childish. Not that he didn’t still want to do it. “You know, it’s going to be another four nights before we get to shack up again,” Justin pointed out hopefully.

JC's eyes lifted slowly to his, and something about his steady glare made Justin revisit his statement to see just where he went wrong.

“Shack up?”

“Well…I mean. We’re in a room. Together. It’s our shack. We’re shacking up.”

“Uh-huh,” JC gave him another disbelieving look and went right back to his book as if Justin wasn’t even there. Like he wasn’t sitting half naked just inches away.

For the life of him, Justin couldn’t figure out if this was one of those times JC had just decided to fuck with him. Even Justin admitted it was too easy to mess with him over sex…but he was only 18 for fuck’s sake. It was a big deal. “You’re really gonna be mad about this?” Justin asked.

JC just raised an eyebrow and kept on reading.

Justin rolled his eyes and crossed his arms across his chest. “This is so stupid. We barely get once a week together, and then you’re gonna read some stupid book you’ve read ten thousand times. This is stupid.”

JC didn’t reply, but Justin could sense he wasn’t exactly winning any points. He slunk further down the bed and tried to remember his age. “You know, this wouldn’t be a problem…I wouldn’t be so frustrated and, you know, eager and end up doing stupid shit because of it, if we just told the guys. You know they’d let me sleep here if we told them.”

JC waited awhile before replying, letting Justin stew a little because it was always more fun than it probably should be. He finally sighed and put down his book. “Well, we could tell them,” he said. “But then you’re dealing with it when Chris wants to start yelling and Lance just flat-out freaks out and Joey forgets himself and tells half the damn world.”

Justin turned on to his side and cast plaintive eyes up at JC. “But they’re our best friends, man.”

JC frowned. Neither of them really liked the lying part…they usually just tried to avoid telling the truth, but sometimes they couldn’t squirm their way out of it. “Yeah, I know. But we agreed. We agreed that we’d, you know, establish ourselves first and all that. Figure us out so we could deal with it all when the shit hit the fan.”

Justin raised and eyebrow and looked steadily at the man next to him. His hand reached across the bed and spread across JC's thigh. “I think we’ve managed to do that by now, don’t you?”

“I don’t know,” JC said a little sadly.

Justin hated when JC’s voice got like that; it made him remember all the shit that had gone wrong for JC the first time around, the people he’d thought he could trust and learned the hard way he couldn’t. “Hey,” he said, bringing JC's focus back to him. “It can wait. We can wait,” he said softly. His hand squeezed JC's thigh once more, a little harder, and then he ran it up higher, under the leg of JC’s shorts. JC started biting at his lip, a cue for Justin to move his thumb in tortuous circles in that cavern between thigh and abdomen. He pressed harder with each pass and grinned when JC shifted down the bed to move him even closer. Finally, JC's eyes slipped closed and Justin thought with a devious smile, now we’re back on track.


JC wove his way through the semis parked behind the venue until he found their bus parked in the back corner. He rapped lightly on the door and waited a few moments before knocking again with more force. No answer came and he stepped back and sighed, surveying the length of the vehicle as if some secret entryway might make itself known.

Justin was on the bus, of that he was sure, and he was hiding. MTV All Access crews had been crawling around the venue and hotel all day, in their faces, asking questions and pretty much begging for some action that would play well on TV. And now, Meet and Greet was supposed to start in an hour, and Justin had been gone for a good two.

JC had originally decided to let him be, knowing Justin would come around eventually, but he was forced to abandon that line of thought as the minutes ticked off the clock. He knew Justin hadn’t eaten anything save a few bites of cereal he choked down at breakfast for JC's benefit, and there was no way in hell JC was letting him on stage without something in his stomach. Especially when MTV was in town.

But Justin being Justin, of course, had managed to lock himself away inside the bus with no driver in sight to let anyone else in. A little beyond frustrated, JC finally reached down and grabbed the flip-flop off his foot and started slapping as hard as he could in the general vicinity of Justin’s bunk. JC kept up the racket, silently praying a camera wouldn’t turn up to capture this ridiculous moment on film.

JC was rather impressed that Justin managed to ignore him for a good five minutes before he finally stumbled to the front of the bus and released the door. As soon as JC heard the hydraulic hiss, he moved inside, reaching for the railing and pulling himself up three steps in one long stride. By the time he had cleared the curtain just past the driver’s seat, though, Justin was already through the kitchenette, and JC's frown settled in a little deeper as he watched Justin slip behind the second curtain that hid the bunks.

He followed him warily because a disgruntled Justin usually meant dealing with the kind of capriciousness that drove JC insane. Justin had always been better at talking himself out of funks, but right now he didn’t really have the time to let that happen. The problem was that JC had no clue what in the hell was going on. He’d spent most of the afternoon rewinding the previous twelve hours to decide if it had been something he’d done or if this was just about the cameras that were somehow more pushy than they had been for the Top 40 Videos special. Regardless of what his issue was, though, Justin clearly hadn’t wanted to talk about it.

Well, too damn bad, JC told himself as he pushed the curtain aside, taking no care to hide the scrape of metal rings against the rod. He reached for the heavy curtain shielding Justin’s bunk and shoved it aside, his hands already on his hips for the ‘buck up, baby’ speech he was fully prepared to deliver. The first words were already on his tongue when his mouth snapped shut. The bunk was empty.

JC frowned and moved to the back lounge of the bus, but Justin wasn’t behind that door, either. His eyes traveled over the other bunks, all closed off to give some semblance of neatness in the cramped space. His eyes stopped at his own and lingered around the edges, hoping for some sign of movement. Slowly, he moved towards it and pulled gently on the curtain, letting in just enough light to set the scene before him.

Justin was sprawled out on his stomach with his face turned away and buried in JC's pillow. He had headphones covering his ears and he made no acknowledgement of JC's presence.

“Hey,” JC said quietly, softened by the knowledge that Justin sought out some sort of comfort from him, from his space or maybe even his scent, even if he hadn’t come to him directly.

Justin didn’t move, so JC poked him in the side and called him again. When no answer followed, JC heaved a sigh and reached for the headphones, plucking them off of Justin’s ears and out of his reach. Justin made to grab for them but gave up rather quickly. “There weren’t on anyway,” he muttered.

“So why didn’t you answer me?”

“Why didn’t you realize that maybe I didn’t want to answer?” Justin snapped back. JC was shocked into silence and was just about to turn and exit without another word when Justin sighed and slumped down from his defensive position. “Sorry,” he mumbled feebly. He didn’t turn around, but he scooted over closer to the wall, leaving a clear space for JC to slip into.

JC hesitated for only a moment before lying down beside him. They weren’t touching, but JC could feel Justin’s body heat mingle with his own. “You gonna tell me what’s wrong?” he asked.

Justin shrugged but was already turning over to lie on his back. His eyes were fixed on the bottom of the bunk of above them, and JC followed his gaze to the few pictures he had taped up there. There was one of his family, of course, and one of Justin and him from a few years back that was positioned to be easily hidden from view should the need arise. The last one was of Tony, Dale, and him taken in their first apartment in LA, and that was the one to which Justin’s eyes had gravitated.

“How long were you in LA?” Justin asked him after a few moments.

“Six months,” JC told him carefully, trying his best not to close off at the mention of his time there.

“Tony and Dale are still there?”

“Yeah, Justin. You know they are. You know that Tony went back again after we left Memphis. He hasn’t left.”

“You ever…” Justin started, as if his voice was coming from some far-off place. “You ever, you know, wish you were there with them? Building everything from the ground up and all that grass roots shit?”

JC tilted in towards Justin to study him more easily; his expressionless face and fixed eyes disclosed nothing, however. “No,” JC told him honestly. “I tried that once, remember?” Justin made no response, and JC finally lifted his hand and settled it on Justin’s stomach. “What’s going on?” he asked directly.

Justin lifted his eyes and looked at JC, knowing he answered now or else faced some undisclosed penalty JC would dole out at his own discretion. “It’s stupid,” he said, as if issuing a warning. “That’s why I didn’t tell you.”

“The cameras?” JC ventured.

Justin’s eyebrows knitted together. “What? No. They’re, you know,” he said, gesturing loosely with his right hand. “Annoying and always there, but whatever.” His hand drifted back down, but this time settled over JC's fingers on his stomach. “It was Trace,” he admitted finally.

JC sat up a little bit to look Justin squarely in the eye. “Trace?” he asked, surprised. JC had never known the two to fight; they couldn’t really spend enough time together to work up any kind of argument anyway.

“Well. Yeah, sort of,” Justin explained. He seemed to be searching futilely for the words. Finally, he sighed and said. “He’s getting an apartment with a couple of other guys. I went to school with them, but I barely remember who they are. And they’re getting jobs and drinking beer and buying crappy used cars…”

JC raised his eyebrows in a not-so-subtle attempt not to smile.

“Don’t,” Justin told him, gripping his fingers and squeezing tightly in warning. “Don’t laugh at me because I already told you it was stupid. It’s not like I don’t know it.”

JC's eyes sparkled with mirth, but he refrained from speaking until he could maintain some decorum of seriousness. “Well, okay, J. But, you know. You don’t have an apartment, but you have a traveling bus. And a job where you have to work way more than forty hours a week, and I can get you some beer if you really want it that badly. The used car – well, you just bought the Mercedes, man. But if you want one that badly, I’ll trade you for it. The Jeep’s pretty well-used.”

Justin leveled a menacing stare. “You’re making fun of me, asshole.”

JC fought off his smile. “No, I’m just. Trying to understand. Because, c’mon J. Please tell me this really has nothing to do with a keg of Natural Light and a car rife with rust spots.”

Justin pinched his arm in retaliation but didn’t appear particularly upset. “It’s just,” he said after awhile. “Is it bad that I want it all? That I want to be there, doing the stupid shit I should be doing at eighteen and not worrying about cameras in my face… And that I want to be here, performing and singing every night.” His other hand rose to sift through JC's hair. “That I want to be here with you on this bus?”

JC considered him carefully for a moment. “No,” he said eventually. “I mean, who doesn’t want it all, J.? No one escapes that, just like no one has it. Some people just accept the fact that it’s impossible better than others.”

Justin seemed to absorb the words for a long time, but he showed no reaction. “Are you insinuating I’m somehow delusional?” he asked without moving his eyes from the ceiling; JC was pretty sure he was joking. Mostly sure, anyway.

“I’m saying,” JC answered, sliding a leg between Justin’s and moving over him, “that if we can’t have it all, it comes down to the choices we make.” He leaned down and pressed a wet kiss to Justin’s jawline. “And you,” he said with another kiss, “have made the right decisions.” JC's lips trailed down Justin’s neck, and JC added tongue when Justin’s fingers weaved themselves tighter through his hair.

“That sounds,” Justin replied breathlessly, pausing to gasp when JC nipped at his adam’s apple. “I don’t know, C. That sounds awfully… cocky of you.”

JC stopped what he was doing and looked up at Justin with an eyebrow raised. “Cocky of me? I was complimenting your decisions.”

Justin smiled, one of those impossible to resist I-know-I’ve-got-you smiles that JC really wished he didn’t find so endearing. “Yeah, but you’re one of those decisions, right? In fact, you’re probably a lot more than one.”

JC smiled broadly and tried to cover the surge or warmth passing through him. “Yes. Yes, I am,” JC told him matter-of-factly. “So you better be damn thankful.”

Justin smiled again, but this time with an underlying promise of good things to come. “Oh, I am, C.” he said, wrapping his arms around JC and flipping them over. He leaned down for a deep, long kiss and didn’t pull away until JC was dazed and panting beneath him. He trailed a series of kisses down JC's neck and then whispered in his ear. “Let me show you how much?”

JC's fingers dug into Justin’s back, and the most he could manage was a feeble nod of his head.

JC rounded a corner and heard his footsteps echo off the cavernous cement walls surrounding him. It was a sticky July afternoon in Detroit – a place and fate so horrible JC wouldn’t have wished it on his worst enemy. Instead of the usual pick-up game or hackey practice in the parking lot, JC kept himself inside, passing the time exploring the venue instead.

The Silverdome was pretty awe-inspiring; he had a hard time absorbing its overwhelming capacity, the retractable roof, the NFL locker-room turned Quiet Room where they could actually spread out enough to relax. It was their first ever stadium show, their first ever 100,000+ crowd. There was this buzz of energy surrounding everything, a sense of arrival they hadn’t yet experienced and hadn’t quite realized they’d been missing. They’d spent all their time at breakfast talking about The Rolling Stones and U2 and the small handful of other groups that could actually sell-out stadiums. For JC, it was inconceivable that they had somehow joined their ranks. It humbled him, kept him quiet and pensive through most of the day.

Before the show, they had all brought their cameras to the Quick Change Room, knowing it was going to be one of those moments they’d never want to forget. In the end, for JC, it became a moment he’d never forget for an entirely different reason.

It was during the encore, one of JC's favorite moments in fact – his favorite song to perform on this tour. It was the harnesses and the flying, yes, but also the harmonies and the opportunity to stretch his voice and hear the crowd respond. When he reached up for those high notes at the end, it was almost impossible not to close his eyes and concentrate on just his own voice and the roar of the audience.

Even though the rigging was a little different because of the height of the Silverdome, performing Sailing hadn’t changed. He flew out over the crowd, turned his somersaults, waved and winked until he felt himself being yanked back towards the stage and his final crescendo of notes. His eyes drifted closed and he reached high into his register, smiling as the noise around him amplified. The final note drifted off of his lips and into the crowd, and he finally opened his eyes, bowing his head slightly and waving to a few fans in the front rows. It wasn’t until he stood up that his eyes caught the flash of white reflecting from somewhere out over the crowd.

Suddenly, JC couldn’t move. It took him way too long to put the pieces together – to realize that the big feet and skinny legs and curly hair meant it was Justin stuck out there, Justin who was dangling over an enraptured and not always sane crowd, Justin who was the most likely to be mobbed, to be trampled or trapped, and the one who least could handle the tight press of people on all sides.

Even though he could see Justin still turning his flips and playing along with the crowd, even though he could see Chris pointing and Joey mocking and Lance watching with disinterest, JC was only able to picture a million different disastrous scenarios that all ended with Justin hurt or mangled or scarred for life. He knew he should join in the teasing, downplay the whole situation, but he couldn’t get himself to do it. He could only think ‘Get his ass down here, right. the hell. now.’

He wasn’t sure who it was that finally grabbed his shoulder and pulled him backstage, and he made no move to help the person pulling off his rigging for the next song. He craned his neck, hoping to see something – any indication that they had actually gotten Justin down. With one leg still wrapped up in the harness, he pulled away, tripping as he made his way back to the stage.

An arm shot out before he reached the curtain, though, and JC turned his unblinking eyes to Anthony, whose fingers were curled tightly around his shoulders to hold him in place. Only then did JC realize that the cue music hadn’t started for the next song. He couldn’t go out there yet.

“We’re getting him down, kid,” Anthony said in the gruff, sweet way he had about him. “We know what we’re doing.”

Yes, JC thought, but you don’t know him. You don’t know how much he hates crowds, and how he can’t breathe when they surround him like that. He tried to pull away to move closer, maybe to a place where Justin would be able to see him, but Anthony held fast and JC had no choice but to wait, letting his frustration build up until he was rocking under its pressure.

“There’s nothing you can do, JC. Stay here. Let us take care of it.”

JC was about to protest, to tell Anthony that they’d apparently been doing such a great job so far considering Justin was stuck out there … But the thumping sound of footsteps jogging in his direction kept his words in check. He turned and saw Justin coming towards him, his eyes fixed and bright and looking straight into his own to communicate without words.

All of JC's frustration melted away as did Anthony’s presence and the bright lights and the roar of the crowd – all he could focus on was Justin coming towards him with one of his hands already extended, motioning to JC and pulling him in close. JC's arms wrapped low around Justin’s waist and he took in deep breaths to calm his overactive nerves.

“I’m okay,” Justin told him softly in his ear. “I’m fine. It wasn’t that bad. They weren’t that close.” He squeezed extra tight for a moment and then pulled away. “We’ve got to keep going, c’mon. We’ll talk later.”

JC frowned and Justin squeezed his hand, nodding towards the back of the stage and pulling JC with him. It took a few steps before JC shook himself from the stupor and focused on the moment at hand, the job he had to do. One more song.

“You’re still up?” Justin asked, squinting his eyes as they adjusted to the light in the back lounge of the bus. JC looked up from his notebook and shrugged a shoulder.

When it was clear that Justin wasn’t going to get any clarification, he slumped down next to JC and rested most of his weight against him. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” JC told him. “Writing.”

“Yeah?” Justin asked as he watched JC scribble down a few more words. He leaned in to try and decipher them, but JC closed the book tossed it aside. Justin smirked. “Nothing about getting stuck over gigantic crowds, I hope.”

He had meant it as a joke, but the look on JC's face made it plain he wouldn’t accept it as one. “I was kidding.”

“I know, J. Because it was a fucking riot when you were stuck out there. I’m sure you were just busting with joy.”

“They weren’t… They couldn’t reach me or anything, you know. They’d already pulled me up; they just couldn’t get me back.”

“But what if they hadn’t been able to?” JC asked a little too harshly. “What if they would’ve had to get you down right there, in the middle of that fucking crowd. Then what?” JC glared at Justin until his face paled, and he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt. “Look,” he sighed. “I just. I saw you out there and I couldn’t do anything about it. It got to me.”

“Well, it’s not like that shit didn’t cross my mind,” Justin responded stiffly. “I’m just trying not to dwell on it right now, okay?”

JC rubbed a tired hand over his face. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry.” He relaxed when he felt Justin press back against his side, sleepy and warm. He closed his eyes and focused on that instead.

“I think it’s bothering you more than it’s bothering me,” Justin told him after a few minutes of silence. JC opened his eyes and frowned down at the top of Justin’s head. Justin grabbed his fingers and laced his own through them, squeezing once. “Really.”

JC sighed. “Maybe. I just kept imagining all these fucked up things happening. Like that convenience store in Hawaii all over again. It’s all the time now, you know? Sometimes I just wish we could stop the ride and get off for awhile.” Justin didn’t answer; he just fiddled with JC's fingers and refused to look up. JC pulled their tangled hands up until Justin had no choice but to look at him. “We’ll get through this, though. Okay?”

He didn’t wait for a response; he just laid back against the bench and tugged Justin down to settle over him. He let Justin slip a leg between his, let him hide his face in the cavern of his neck. He couldn’t protect Justin all the time, but he’d let him hide away whenever he could.

For a long time, they laid together, close and tangled, letting the stillness sweep away the madness of the day. Justin’s warmth and steady breathing slowly took JC under and his eyelids began to close. He was just about asleep when he felt the unmistakable press of cool lips against the pulse in his neck. It was followed by a quick nip that made his eyes spring open.

Justin laughed from somewhere deep in his throat. “Scare ya’?” he asked as he continued to nibble at JC's skin, his earlobe, the line of his jaw. He let his tongue slip out and glide over JC's lips in soft, teasing strokes before he finally settled on them with a series of lingering kisses.

“Is this…” JC asked between each press, “some kind of … post-traumatic… life-affirming… sex thing?”

“Hmm?” Justin asked distractedly, and then responded, “I don’t know.” His lips trailed down the other side of JC's neck and then back up again, finally returning to his lips. “I just wanna kiss you,” he said simply before he leaned in and did just that.

And who was JC to argue? He let Justin’s lips coax his open and then let his tongue slip inside, let it go deeper until JC's fingers were gripping Justin’s ass and his toes curled into the leather beneath them. His hands squeezed in a subtle rhythm that Justin followed, shifting his hips back and forth with the same teasing pressure.

It didn’t take long for everything to go deeper; for JC's fingers to press in tighter, dragging Justin’s hips closer, for their mouths to open wider, angling in for more. It was no time at all before they could hear nothing but stammering heartbeats echoing in their ears and gasps of breath that escaped between extended kisses.

“God, Justin,” JC murmured as Justin trailed kisses across his collarbone. “God.”

And somehow that sound had been enough distraction, enough cover for them to miss the slight slide of the door and muffle the words that drifted out from behind it.

“You know, C, this mother hen shit…” There was a pause and then a grunt as the intruder tugged the accordion door that had mercifully gotten stuck. It took a moment before the two men on the couch finally registered what they were hearing; not quickly enough to scramble apart, though. They watched, rooted in place as the door flew open and revealed Chris standing behind it. The look on his face was mirthful, his mouth already poised to finish teasing JC over his parental antics. His gleeful sentiment didn’t last long.

JC closed his eyes and looked away, mentally trying to scatter the half dozen fears that bolted out of hiding in a matter of moments. Justin couldn’t look away, though; he kept his eyes fixed, almost challenging, on Chris’, daring him to say something, nearly asking him to. He’d been poised for this fight if it ever came.

For once in his life, Chris seemed speechless. His mouth opened and closed with no sounds escaping, and his eyes were blank. He turned and looked behind him after a moment, as if he might be able to turn and walk back, pretend this never happened, but then he shook his head and faced them again.

“So,” he said, clearing his throat. He scratched at the back of his neck and then twisted it to each side, loosening the muscles. “So,” he repeated, sounding way too calm for Justin’s ears, putting him on guard. He watched Chris’ hands slowly curl into fists. “What the fuck is going on here?”

Justin’s jaw twitched, but he fought to keep every other muscle in check. He sat up slowly, careful of JC who was sliding out from underneath him and avoiding looking at anyone. Justin kept his eyes focused on him as he addressed Chris. “I don’t think you need a flow chart to figure it out,” he said plainly.

Chris’ nostrils flared, and there was no doubt he moving from confused to outright angry. Justin finally met his eyes and held them without wavering. The battle was silent and short, and Justin tried not to flinch when Chris spun around quickly and stalked off towards the bunks.

“Get your asses up,” he yelled, yanking back the curtains. “Bass, your fucking ass better get to the back now.” He didn’t wait for a response, but he wouldn’t have to with Lance; he was stumbling to the lounge within seconds, surveying the stiff way Justin was sitting and the purposeful lack of distance he was placing between his body and JC's. He sat down without a word.

A few moments later, Chris returned dragging Joey behind him by his shirt. Chris pushed him in the direction of the vacant bench and put his hands on his hips, clearly doing everything in his power to calm himself down. “Alright, listen. You two,” he said glaring at JC and Justin, “you’re going to sit there and tell us what in the fuck you think is going on here.”

Justin’s jaw tightened because he sure as hell didn’t take to being spoken to that way; he wouldn’t be ordered around. And he sure as hell wouldn’t be second judged for a decision he’d made, an important decision that meant too much to him for some loud-mouthed asshole to stand there and curse at him. He was about to tell Chris just that, too, when he felt a warm hand slide over his thigh to stop him. He looked over at JC who had somehow found a way to compose himself in the same moments that Justin’s anger had been rising.

“We’re together,” JC said evenly, looking straight at Chris. “Justin and I are together,” he said again, turning to look at Joey and Lance individually. “Chris came in here, and we were kissing. And we’re together.”

Justin wanted to say so much more; he wanted to get angry, he wanted to yell and scream and win the fight, but he put his elbows on his knees and bent forward to stare at the ground, taking deep breaths to keep himself calm.

“It’s been six months,” he heard JC explain in that same cool voice. “And it’s going well. We had our reasons for not telling you, and I stand by them.” JC paused and Justin covertly lifted his eyes to take in his group mates’ reactions: Chris was as wild-eyed as ever, but seeing as he hadn’t thrown anything, he wasn’t beyond the bend. Joey was half-asleep again and Justin wasn’t entirely sure that he’d heard. And Lance – Lance had the most peculiar look of all, something Justin couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t confusion, and not quite anger or awe, but some strange amalgamation of the three. Justin was still trying to place it when JC spoke again.

“And now you know, so we deal with it. But I want you to know…” he trailed off, and Justin turned back to him at the catch of emotion in his voice. “I want you to know that there is no discussion to be had over whether we should be together. We are, and that’s that.”

Emotion crowded Justin’s throat, his anger draining away at the soft determination in JC's words. They hadn’t talked about it, not extensively, and to hear JC make an emphatic defense of their relationship made his whole body feel a little lighter, his heart beat a little faster. JC caught his eye for just a moment and they shared a small, meaningful smile; it was a long time before Justin could look away and focus on something other than JC.

“So, what you’re saying,” Chris responded snidely, “Is that you made this decision…something that impacts all of our lives, without asking us if we were okay with it.”

“It hasn’t impacted you in any way yet,” Justin snapped back, Chris’ angry tone pulling him back to the matter before them. “There’s no reason why it will now.”

“You know what? It’s so not fucking about that,” Chris yelled back. “It’s fucking insulting to me that you wouldn’t bother to trust us with this. That’s what fucking pisses me off.”

“Yeah, because I forgot. This is all about you and making sure Chris-fucking-Kirkpatrick doesn’t getting his little girly feelings hurt.”

“You know what? Fuck you,” Chris yelled, stepping closer and getting in Justin’s face. “Don’t fucking fool yourself. There’s only room for one prima donna in this group, and it sure as hell isn’t me.”

Justin lifted to stand face-to-face with him, but JC pulled him back down. “Enough,” he told them. “Chris, sit your ass down.” Chris glared at him for a moment before falling into the seat next to Lance. “Look. Justin is right. We’re not stupid. We knew what we were doing; we knew the sacrifices we were making – sacrifices by us, by the way, not by you – and it was still worth it to us. So I don’t see why any of you should have a problem with that.”

Chris stared at a space over Joey’s head, his expression still hard but his yelling done. His knee bounced out of control, and Justin knew he was cursing JC's fucking tendency to make the rational argument. Chris wasn’t ready to let this go, and Justin wasn’t sure he was, either. Something inside him wanted this fight, wanted to defend it and say fuck you to anyone who got in his way. JC kept him in check, though, and Justin had the feeling he’d keep Chris that way, too.

Sure enough, ten minutes later, the silence was broken when Lance flung a throw pillow at Joey’s head, waking him up from a dead sleep for the second time in an hour. He startled and jerked to a half-sitting position, looking around in confusion.

“Morning, Joey,” Lance said with a wry smile. “Do you even have a clue what’s going on here?”

“Huh? What?” Joey answered, still only half awake. He shook the sleepiness from his head and the question seemed to take. “Oh. They’re fucking,” he said disinterestedly, gesturing towards JC and Justin as he settled himself across the bench seat again.

Justin couldn’t help but smirk at Joey’s nonchalance, and Lance stood up and looked down at Chris. “I think we’re done here,” he said evenly, clearly communicating more with his eyes.

Chris challenged him for a moment, but you couldn’t really fuck around when Lance was staring you down. Chris finally stood up with a huff. “Fine. Jesus,” he muttered, stalking off to his bunk without another glance back. Lance grabbed Joey by the ear and led him off as well, stopping to give the two remaining in the room a short nod that seemed to mean more than sheer acceptance; there was a yearning hidden behind his eyes.

JC smiled at him gently and Justin nodded back as Lance stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him. Justin let out a deep breath and leaned back in his seat, settling his body back against JC's side in the same way he had when he first entered the room. It felt like hours ago, now. “That wasn’t too bad,” he said, grabbing JC's hand and weaving their fingers together. JC watched them entwine and sighed, finally relaxing back into the seat.

“I’d imagined worse,” he said softly.

“You had that planned, didn’t you?” Justin asked him. “I mean, what you were going to say to them. Not that Chris would walk in on us.”

JC gave into a small smile, knowing one day that they would all find that moment hilarious. Just not quite yet. “I’d thought about it,” he affirmed.

“You never told me.”

JC picked up their hands, bringing Justin’s to his mouth for a quick kiss. “I didn’t want it to be an issue. And now it’s not one. Not a big one at least. I knew we couldn’t get angry about,” he said, looking into Justin’s eyes.

Justin took the admonishment in stride. “Just not to their faces, though, right?” Because inside, Justin sill had the urge to tear Chris a new one.

JC smiled at Justin’s apparent belligerence, enjoying the knowledge that Justin was willing to fight for them. “It’s gonna be fine, J.,” he told him, leaning down to place a quick kiss on his lips. “C’mon. We should head back to the bunks.” He was about to stand up, but Justin turned and straddled him before he was able.

“Or we could finish what we started,” Justin said suggestively, licking his way up JC's neck.

“I don’t think so,” JC said reluctantly, resisting every urge he had to pull Justin closer. “We shouldn’t.”

“Why not? They know about us now.”

“Yeah, exactly,” JC told him as he fought off Justin’s valiant attempts to persuade him. “No one would ever want to sit back here again.”

Justin wasn’t quite sure he had a problem with that, but before he could relate that to JC, he found himself being pushed upright and tugged towards the bunks. “Bunks tonight,” JC told him. “We’re in a hotel tomorrow.” He stopped walking for a moment and let Justin step in close, locking their eyes together. “I’ll get Chris to trade me rooms,” he said silkily.

Justin flushed and figured he didn’t have much of an argument for that.

V. Entr’Acte

Lawsuit – 1999

"It's going to happen," JC told him on an early fall morning. He dropped some papers on the table where Justin was still finishing his cereal, letting the slap of the folders echo ominously around the kitchen. Justin let his spoon fall back into his bowl and looked up at JC who was settling into the seat across from him with his head in his hands.

"The lawsuit?" he asked gingerly. "We have grounds?"

"That's what they're saying." JC sounded so exhausted. Lynn had put her foot down about them sharing a room, but Justin still knew JC hadn't been sleeping.

"Did your uncle say anything about our chances?"

"He has no idea. Neither do the other lawyers he's called. Apparently there's not much precedent. Which pretty much sucks because you know how many other people have been fucked over in this business. Apparently, they just put up with it." JC sighed and pulled at his hair. "Or they just flat out lost."

Justin's stomach cramped at the thought. So much had been going right for them, everything had been in high-speed mode, flying forward at ninety miles an hour: photo shoots, hit songs, award shows, sold-out concerts, trailing fans and paparazzi… And then, bam! Like hitting a brick wall, they'd been stopped dead in their tracks, every bit of breath slammed out of their lungs. It was fucking terrifying.

And to make it worse, JC seemed to be taking the full weight of the blame on himself. It was probably the most senseless thing Justin had ever seen him do, but there was no talking to him about it. He wouldn't argue or explain why he felt that way; he would just dismiss anyone else's opinion in favor of his own, that he should've done something to stop this, that it had somehow been his responsibility.

Across the table, JC sighed heavily and pulled himself up from his seat. He didn't look up as he walked away; he just called "I'll be in my room" over his shoulder in Justin's general direction.

Justin sat for awhile, tried to eat his breakfast but for once it had no taste. He stirred it around until it was a mushy mess and then dropped his spoon and pushed it away. He knew he should go to JC's room, and he would eventually, it was just… Everything about this was beginning to massively suck in ways Justin hadn't dreamed of.

He marched his bowl to the dishwasher and looked out the front window for awhile, wondering when his mom would be home from her errands. He flipped through the old mail though none of it would be for him and then wandered around the living room, trying to find something else to occupy his time, his thoughts.

Without consciously thinking it, though, he was already moving his way closer and closer to JC's door, which was thankfully still open. Justin took the last few steps towards it and leaned against the jamb. "Hey," he said, though he didn't expect an answer and didn't receive one. He filed a few more steps into the room and leaned his knees against the edge of JC's bed.

JC finally turned over onto his back and lifted his sleepy eyes towards Justin. "What?"

"Nothing. I was just coming in to see how you were."

JC sighed. "I'm… I don't know. I am how I am. How am I supposed to be?"

Justin fiddled with JC's sheet. "I don't know. I'm guessing you feel probably something like I do right now. It sucks, C."

"Yeah." JC didn't offer anything else and his eyes didn't waiver from their fixed position on the ceiling. Justin thought about shoving him aside and crawling in next to him, just to make himself feel better, just to be close and find comfort in that if nothing else. He was stopped, though, by the groan of the garage door opening beneath them.

"You better go," JC told him. "You know your mom won't be happy to find us in here alone."

Justin fought not to roll his eyes because he was pretty sure it wouldn’t be difficult to figure out they hadn't been doing anything. JC was already rolling away from him, though, so Justin walked away, pausing in the doorway for one last look before retreating to his own room on the other side of the house, alone.

A week later, not much had changed. JC was still moping around the house, and Justin still felt aimless and uncomfortable in his skin, left without a clear path for the first time since he could remember. They'd been fed a lot of reassurances and support, and Lance and JC had been working their asses off to try and understand what exactly was going on. It made them all feel better not relying solely on the word of others after what had happened. It had kept JC busy, though, and Justin wouldn't admit it, but he missed him.

"Hey, J.," Chris called up the stairs. "Get your ass down here. We're gonna hit the jet skis over at the 'Pound."

Justin considered begging off; he sure as hell didn't feel like going. Sometimes, hanging out at Johnny's only reminded him of everything they stood to lose. He also figured that Chris wasn't going to take no for answer - a premonition proved correct when Chris bounded up the stairs and into his room moments later. His fingers were poised, ready to pinch.

"Kid, get your ass downstairs in one minute or I'm gonna give you the worst fucking tittie-twister ever known to man." Justin didn't doubt it, so he slunk around him and out the door, grabbing an extra pair of shorts off the floor on his way.

The ride to the compound was silent, just Chris and him because Joey had taken off for lunch with Kelly. They climbed on the skis and went about their business, mostly ignoring each other until Chris sped at him and didn't pull away until the final moment. He threw a smile over his shoulder that Justin couldn't help but toss back. He turned his craft in Chris' direction and sped after him, finally laughing when he managed to spray Chris dead in the face. He slowed down and watched Chris sputter and curse, a smile still on his face, and for the first time in days he actually felt good.

They were lying on the dock when Chris finally spoke. "So. What's up with you and Britney?"

For the life of him, Justin couldn't tell if he was joking. "Are you serious?"

Chris shrugged a shoulder. "Sure. Aren't I always?"

Justin snorted, but a moment later, Chris still seemed to be waiting for an answer. "I don't know, man. She's a friend."

Chris paused, and it was such an un-Chris-like thing to do that Justin felt an inexplicable flutter of nerves low in his belly. This wasn’t something he wanted to be talking about, especially not with Chris who had an entirely too sensitive bullshit meter .

It was another long moment before Chris let out a deep sigh, the kind that seems to be letting something go, exhaling words at the tip of the tongue. "Yeah, I figured as much."

Justin rose up on his elbows and looked down at Chris whose eyes were closed and expression blank. "That's all you wanted to know?"

Chris considered again before finally saying, "Yeah. It was nothing."

Justin knew it wasn't nothing, but he wasn't going to press it.

"We should go," Chris told him a moment later. "It's getting dark."

Justin just nodded his head and followed behind.

Justin understood just how out of whack things had gotten when his mom sat down next to him at the breakfast table one morning. She'd been concerned up to this point, which Justin expected, but not overbearing, which Justin appreciated.

"So, how's it going?" she asked him, her voice not quite as casual as she probably intended.

"It's going," he told her off-handedly between bites.

"And JC?" she asked, shifting around in her seat a little. "You and JC?"

Justin froze mid-bite and turned his eyes to her. "Wha?" he asked through the food in his mouth.

"You and JC," she repeated. When Justin just continued to glare, she put a hand on his arm. "Justin. He seems so sad lately. I'm just wondering if you know what's going on."

Justin put his spoon down and swallowed with some difficulty. "He's, you know. He's taking it hard. He blames himself."

Lynn sighed. "I was afraid of that. I wish I knew what to do for him."

You and me both, Justin thought as he picked up his spoon and shoveled in another bite.

"It must make it harder for you," Lynn said softly, looking sympathetic.

Justin's shoulders sagged, but he couldn't get himself to admit that she was right. It had been a fucking horrible month - no singing or dancing or promise of either for the first time in for-fucking-ever, and the Britney rumors were taking on a life of their own and driving him insane. And then there was JC who didn't even seem to fucking be there most of the time.

"You know what I was thinking about the other day?" his mom asked him, disrupting his depressing thoughts. "I was thinking about when you and JC came to tell me that you had gotten together. Do you remember that?"

Of course he remembered it; he spent the twenty-four hours before swearing he was going to throw up every two seconds. It's not a feeling one's likely to forget.

"You were so nervous. I think you were actually green," she teased. "But JC. He was so calm and straight-forward with it, even though I knew he was terrified I was going to hate him forever."

Justin frowned and couldn’t meet her eyes. “You know that’s how he is, though. He covers things up, puts on a good front.”

“Unlike some people we know, huh?” she told him, giving his thigh a reassuring squeeze. It wasn’t the first time she’d teased him about wearing his heart on his sleeve. “But JC, honey. He takes responsibility. He does what he can to fix things, even when it’s not his fault, even when he’s not the one hurt. But this time he was the one hurt, and you were hurt, and the other three, too. I can only imagine how much this is eating him up inside. He wants to protect you.”

Justin sighed and tried not to get overly agitated. “I know.” He could already feel his throat constricting; the words he hadn’t admitted yet, not even to himself, lodged there as each tried to rise to the surface. “I’m just. What if he… I’m just scared that he’s gonna want to protect me too much, you know? And you know there’s no talking to him when he gets like that.”

Lynn’s look became even more concerned as she scooted her chair closer and wrapped a hand around his chin so he couldn’t avoid her eyes. “Sweetie, what do you mean?”

Justin shook his head and took a deep breath, refusing to let the telltale burn at the back of his eyes turn into anything more. He backed away from her and moved to the sink where she couldn’t see his face. “Nothing,” he told her as evenly as he could manage. “I mean, considering everything, this isn’t exactly a pressing issue.”

Justin didn’t know she had moved until she felt her arms wrap around him from behind. Her touch melted too many of his barriers, and he thought it was silly that she could still do this to him, that her comfort could mean so much. He turned around and hugged her back, letting his head settle against her shoulder as if he still fit there.

“It’ll work out, baby,” she murmured in his ear. “You boys can still sing, and can’t no one take that away from you. You’ll find a way.” Justin nodded against her shoulder but didn’t look up. That wasn’t really the part he had been worried about. “And, JC, baby,” she continued, her tone softer, more reverent, “he’ll come around, too. You’ve got to let him do what he feels he has to.”

“But what if he feels like he has to…” He was stopped by Lynn’s finger pressing over his lips.

“Don’t let him,” she said, looking straight into his eyes. Justin held her gaze until he had no choice but to believe in her confidence. After a moment, he took a deep breath and inched back, once again surveying the morning light filtering into the kitchen.

Justin almost didn’t notice him there, standing just outside the entryway, lurking in the spectral way he’d taken on as of late. It took JC a moment to realize he’d been caught, and when their eyes met, a stifling stillness took over the room, neither daring to move or even breathe. Lynn caught on and stepped away, glancing back and forth between their faces before leaning around Justin to grab her keys off the counter. “I’ve got some errands to run,” she said as casually as she could.

Her words broke JC from his trance, and he slowly turned away from the kitchen toward his bedroom. Justin’s eyes remained fixed on the spot he’d vacated, and Lynn had to cup his cheek before he would return her look. “Go,” she told him, nodding towards the hall down which JC had disappeared. With one last look, she grabbed her purse and strode out of the kitchen, leaving Justin to wonder what had just happened - what had JC heard and what would it matter…

He found JC as he’d expected, curled up on his bed, facing the wall. This time, Justin didn’t hesitate; he lifted the covers and slipped underneath, wrapping one arm around JC's middle and hooking his chin over his shoulder. “Hey,” he said softly.

“Hey,” JC responded, his voice thick and tired, though not thanks to any tears; it held instead a sense of resignation that scared Justin even more.

“You heard us in the kitchen?” Justin asked him carefully.

‘Yeah, I… Most of it, I think.” JC pressed his forehead into the pillows. “I didn’t know I was…” He trailed off and shook his head.

Justin sighed and kissed his neck. “Yeah, well, you can get pretty single-minded when you think you have to.” A fact Justin knew more than most because he was often the subject of such single-minded attacks. “It’s gonna be fine,” he reassured him, “I know that. She just kinda… cornered me out there and gave me that look that said I better ‘fess up. So I did, and she said it’s gonna be fine, too.”

JC rolled over to his back and gently traced the lines of Justin’s face with his fingertips. “You think so?” he asked.

Justin kissed the palm of his hand and nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, of course. How can it not?” He tried his best to sound lighthearted.

The attempt at levity didn’t translate to JC, though. His eyes were steady, his body still, but Justin could almost see the wheels turning his head, sorting through the facts and setting the best course of action. Justin was holding his breath when JC finally whispered, “For now.”

It took a moment for Justin to realize what he’d said and yet another for him to recognize that he didn’t want to ponder what those words meant. He didn’t want to consider the now and the later which JC had already divided up and separated, one different from the other. He couldn’t stand it, couldn’t bear asking for clarification, so he shook his head and, without forethought, kissed him. It started out with gentle intent, but JC's reluctance made him press his lips tighter against JC's surprised ones. He bore down with his full weight, binding them together, nowhere to escape, as if he could prove JC wrong with that single action: no, not just for now.

It was a moment before JC reacted, before his tongue slipped out to massage Justin’s lips, to gain access to his mouth. Justin groaned and rolled on top, delving his tongue in deep and already driving his hips. JC wasn’t getting away, not now, not ever, not if he could help it.

JC protested weakly when Justin reached for his shirt and then his shorts, but Lynn wasn’t home and Justin didn’t care either way. He licked his way down JC's chest, circling his nipples, his navel, biting at the dip just above his hip bones before he finally took JC into his mouth. He knew JC couldn’t fight this, knew that no matter what was going on around them, this was one thing they could count on: the feel of each other pressed tightly together, the desire and need sparked by something so much deeper than lust. He’d make JC remember.

Several minutes later, they laid against each other, panting and damp. Justin rested against JC's chest, his hand low and possessive on his stomach. “C,” he said without looking up. “I don’t want to talk about the future right now, okay? It’s too much; there are too many things that could happen. There’s no point to it, so don’t go making up your mind about anything, okay?”

JC didn’t speak for a moment, so Justin pulled up to look into his eyes. “Okay?” he repeated, a little more forcefully.

JC swallowed, tampering down some emotion Justin couldn’t identify. “Okay,” he said finally.

Justin let out a breath and dropped back to JC's chest. He closed his eyes and curled his hand tighter around JC's hip. “Okay,” he repeated.

VI. Exit, Stage Left

No Strings Attached Tour, 2000

Justin sat alone in the Quiet Room as a smile spread over his face. The couch he had collapsed onto was plush and over-stuffed, long enough for him to stretch out on, and the room was large enough to hold a pair of them; there were pillows and special lighting, food and drinks precisely the way they had requested, even a dog dish for Korea. Chris cackled every time he saw it, almost as if he had conjured it with his own magical powers. At the rate they were going, Justin thought, he practically did.

How things could change in six months; hell, how things could change in six weeks – a fact Justin had learned quite well in that last forty-two days when five million copies of their album had flown off the shelves. At some point, the numbers had become incomprehensible: 1.2 million, 2.4 million, and now 5 million. One million seemed like a feat, but how did 3 million really differ from 4? He’d never seen a couple million of anything gathered in one place, so he couldn’t visualize it. He just knew that the numbers were ridiculous.

What had been easier to comprehend, though, were the changes multiplying around them. Like a Quiet Room that wasn’t a closet, and a Toy Room and a Dressing Room and two busses; a staff so big Justin couldn’t learn all their names and enough semis around that he could probably join the Teamsters by proxy. It was a little strange having everything so…spread out, especially considering the reason the album had been repeatedly delayed, but it was also a sign of undoubted success, and Justin loved rubbing it in their detractors’ faces.

It was a thought that entertained him for awhile as he sat alone in the Quiet Room, but it wasn’t long before he noted the others’ extended absence. And his parents’, too, for that matter; especially since he hadn’t been able to shake them since they’d arrived in Memphis the night before. Not to mention the fact that JC had been quiet all morning, staring at him out of the corner of his eye and looking away as soon as Justin caught on. He’d might have been able to explain away JC's strange behavior; it was becoming clear he was going to be the last one to recover from the lawsuit debacle, but when coupled with the curious disappearance of other interested parties, something seemed amiss.

“Speak of the devil,” he heard from the doorway, and he sat up to find JC smiling idly in the doorway. Justin knew he looked perplexed but JC seemed to take no notice. He strolled over the couch and lifted up Justin’s feet, sliding underneath them and resting a hand on Justin’s stomach.

“I was just thinking about you, actually,” Justin told him

JC grinned and looked him in the eye. “Yeah?”

“Mmmhmm. Where have you been all afternoon?”

JC scratched the back of head and looked away, a telltale give that he was about to lie. “I was, you know, back with Tim. Doing sound stuff.”

“Uh-huh.” Justin raised an eyebrow, and JC blushed. He was a shitty-ass liar and always had been. “So where were you really?”

“Justin,” JC sighed, “Let’s just drop it, okay?” Justin’s eyebrow stayed raised, though, so JC let his hand drift further down Justin’s abdomen, slipping just under the waistband of his boxers. Justin’s eyes followed the path of his fingers, and JC grinned. Attention diverted. “You know,” he whispered, gravelly and thick, closing the space between them. “I just saw the other three being wrangled up by Anthony and led back to the trucks. If we lock the door, we might have a good half-hour before they find their way back here.”

JC's hand slipped even lower, and Justin could already feel the glaze settle over his eyes. “Yeah?” he asked, fighting not to let his voice betray him. “What did you have in mind?”

JC just laughed and undid Justin’s fly, mumbling something neither could understand as his tongue followed the path of his fingers. At that point, Justin figured he really didn’t need an answer.

That is what you were hiding from me all day?” Justin asked as he playfully pushed JC into their hotel room later that night. “You could barely look me in the eye and then you lied to me because of that?”

JC smiled and landed on the edge of the bed. “What? You didn’t like it? We picked out a pretty baby blue cap and gown just for you.”

“Well, first of all, you fucker, it’s a year late! You couldn’t do this last year when I wouldn’t look like a fucking high school dropout?”

JC's grin was feral. “Aren’t you a high school dropout? I mean, technically. Actually, it was junior high, if I remember correctly.”

Justin wasted no time barreling into JC's chest and pinning him to the bed. “No, I am not a fucking dropout, you asshole.”

JC laughed, and not even Justin’s glare could get him to stop. “What? Your mom wanted to do it. What was I supposed to do?”

“Stop her? Tip me off?”

JC snorted “Oh, come on, J. Be real. Like I’m gonna be able to stop your mother when she gets something in her head.” Justin’s glare weakened at the truth set before him. JC's voice softened. “And if I had tipped you off, you would’ve been worried about it all day and freaking out and making demands and she would’ve lost all her fun.”

Justin finally sighed and rolled off of him. “Okay, Yeah,” he admitted. He paused and glanced back at JC, considering his next words, wondering about their place. Finally, he spoke hesitantly, “But instead I half the day worried about you, you know.”

“What?” JC asked, clearly confused. He rolled up on one arm to get a better look at the man next to him. “You were worried about me? Why?”

“Because you were being all shifty and nervous again. You were avoiding me, and when we were in the same room, you would barely look at me.”

JC frowned. “Well, I didn’t want to…”

“No, I know,” Justin stopped him, dragging him closer to offer some comfort. “I know why you were like that today. But for awhile, I just kept thinking ‘we’re back to that again, huh?’”

“Back to what?”

Justin sighed and wrapped a hand around JC's hip. “Back to… I don’t know, back to where you’re all inside your head all the fucking time.” Under his touch, JC seemed frozen in place. That was so not where Justin had wanted this to go.

“Well, yeah, back during the…”

“After that, too,” Justin interrupted gently. He squeezed JC's hip, hoping to get him to look up, but JC just shook his head.

“You know what? I don’t want to talk about this,” he said resolutely. “Not now. Tonight was about a celebration, even if it was a year late.” He pasted a smile on his face and finally met Justin’s eyes. After a moment, JC's features softened. “You’re all grown up, boy,” he said fondly.

Justin felt the rise in his chest settle back into something more peaceful. JC was right; this hadn’t been the time. “I would say you know better than most,” he murmured, letting his lips curve into a grin.

“That I do,” JC muttered before leaning down and kissing him thoroughly.

A month later, JC slumped back in his seat on the airplane that was sweeping them off to Toronto between gigs. McDonald’s had made an offer they couldn’t refuse, which is exactly how Joey had phrased it, Brando accent and everything, when Johnny had laid it before them. They couldn’t say no and neither could Britney who’d been offered the same deal, and JC understood that. It didn’t mean he had to like it.

It wasn’t that he disliked Britney; that was hardly the case. She was a sweet girl, and JC had never been one to be excessive in his judgments of people. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Justin, either. They’d been together too long for that. It was something else that was bothering him, some intangible force coming from god-knows-where that felt like it was muddying all these lines that had once been so clear.

He glanced over to the empty seat next to him, the one usually overflowing with long legs and gangly arms into JC's space. He’d never thought he’d actually be missing them. Just like he never thought he’d piss Justin off enough to make him change his seat. It had been the same thing all over again, though – a distance between them not because of what one of them said but because of what they didn’t.

It seems funny now that he – that they both thought the weirdness would end when the lawsuit was settled, that things would just go back to normal. But normal is a relative term and never static. In the years since they began this crazy ride, they had never been able to envision what waited for them around the next corner – not after the initial frenzy when the Disney special aired, not after the thrill of going multi-platinum the first time and then the shock of hitting diamond, and certainly not now, after all the records they’d set. What could possibly be next?

But that’s the funny thing about feeling on top of the world, JC was starting to realize. You can’t imagine anywhere higher…it seems impossible that another plane exists. But then you get there, and you’re completely unprepared each and every time. It was safe to say, JC had never imagined the circus that currently surrounded them.

“So,” Chris said, loudly interrupting JC's thoughts as he flopped into Justin’s vacated seat. “What did the little piss ant do this time?”

JC seriously considered not answering, but this was Chris, who would only get exponentially more annoying the longer JC took to respond. “He’s the one who got up and left,” JC informed him.

“Okaaaay. Well, what did this little piss ant do this time?” he asked, pushing his finger against JC's temple.

JC frowned and pushed him away. “I don’t know. Everything was fine this morning - more than fine. He got his ass out of bed on time, we had breakfast together, took a shower…” he trailed off and started picking at the non-existent lint on his jeans. “And now he’s not talking to me. Apparently, because I wasn’t talking to him.”

Chris considered him for a moment before asking, “What did he want to talk about?”

JC shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Chris was starting to sound sincere and that was almost always a dangerous sign. “It was something about Britney,” he said quickly, sliding over the words as fast he could so maybe Chris wouldn’t hear. “Her schedule or something. I mean, it wasn’t exactly scintillating conversation.”

“So, what you’re trying to tell me,” Chris said slowly, “is that this Britney thing doesn’t really bother you?”

“It’s not. I mean,” JC tried to explain, “Just because it doesn’t bother me doesn’t mean I want you hear about it all the time, you know?”

“They’re friends,” Chris reminded him steadily.

“I know that, Chris. But a hell of a lot of other people don’t necessarily know that, and I have to hear about it all the damn time - every time we have a fucking interview or do meet ‘n greets, I have to hear about how my…my, you know, boyfriend…is secretly dating this really hot chick, and so, sometimes, I’d just prefer not to hear about it. Especially not from him, okay?”

Chris stared at him for awhile, so long that JC had to close his eyes and pretend he wasn’t there anymore. “Okay,” Chris finally said, his voice giving nothing away.

JC opened his eyes just in time to see Chris slip out of the seat and down the aisle. When he was no longer in sight, JC slipped lower in his seat and tried not to feel like the world’s biggest asshole.

“Hey, JC!” came a high-pitched voice from down the hall.

JC froze and didn’t turn around. He’d spent most of his day on set avoiding people, and she had to be the one to track him down? Her footsteps were getting closer, though, and there was nowhere for him to hide so he finally turned around.

“Hey, Brit,” he said as he wrapped an arm around her for a loose hug.

“Hey, JC,” she replied, her voice so bright that JC was forced to remember how much he really did like her. “Where are you headed? We haven’t been able to talk in awhile.”

JC picked at the label of his water bottle. “Um, no, we haven’t. I was just looking for some place quiet,” he told her, hoping she’d get the hint.

“Great,” she said, wrapping her arm through his. “We can go catch up.”

Great, JC echoed in his head, though not nearly in the same tone of voice.

“So,” Britney said as they sat down on the sidewalk outside. “What have you been up to?” JC raised his eyebrows as if maybe she’d lost her mind. She laughed. “I mean, besides all this,” she said, fluttering her hand around.

This doesn’t leave much time for anything else, does it?” he asked, not being able to help the commiserating smile he flashed her way.

“No, it really doesn’t,” she agreed, but she hardly seemed put off by it. “You’re really single, then? The magazines have that one right?”

If it hadn’t been Britney asking, JC might have been amused by the sarcasm in her voice. But it was Britney, the same girl who the press was constantly trying to pair up with Justin, the same person that probably most deserved to know the real answer to that question and didn’t. JC took a long drink of water and kept his eyes on the pavement. “No girlfriend, no,” he told her.

“Hmm,” she said, watching him carefully. “Well, I’ve got some dancers…”

JC laughed and held up a hand to stop her right there. “No, that’s okay, Brit. I mean, I appreciate it, but. No thanks.”

“Well, if you say so,” Britney told him, shrugging a shoulder.

They sat in silence for awhile, looking out across the parking lot at nothing in particular. Britney seemed fidgety, something clearly on her mind. The nervous way she was playing with her sweater made JC pretty sure he didn’t want to know what it was. He was right, of course.

“So, Justin’s not with anyone either, then?” she asked him quietly.

JC stilled, his water bottle hovering over the ground where he had been about to set it down. “Uhh, well, you’d have to ask him, I guess,” JC managed to tell her.

“Oh,” she said quickly, a little nervously. “I mean, I just figured, you know, that you would know. I mean, of course you would know; you’re together all the time.” She paused for a moment and flashed her eyes up to his. “So, if you’re telling me to ask him, then… Then he probably is with someone, huh? I mean, you just don’t want to be the one to tell me?”

JC tried really hard to process the words she had just stumbled over but it wasn’t an easy task, not with the ten million directions his own emotions had just rocketed off into. He shouldn’t be frustrated with her, he knew that, or with Justin because of course he hadn’t told her. He wouldn’t do that without talking first. But either way, JC was powerless to stop the flashes of resentments that burned in his belly. “I. Brit, you’re gonna have to ask him on this one, okay?” he told her without looking up.

He saw her shadow nod and felt her hand reach for his knee and squeeze it. “Alright, I’ll ask him.” She stood up but JC's eyes didn’t follow her. “But only because you’ve got me so curious now.”

Well, that’s just fucking great, he thought as she walked away. Way to go.


JC didn’t have a chance to talk to Justin alone until they were back at their hotel later that night. JC had returned first, and it was so long before he heard the whir of a key in the lock that he had started to think Justin had actually chosen somewhere else to sleep.

The thought quickly left his mind, though, when Justin entered the room. He looked completely spent and weary, his shoulders slumped but his eyes opened wide as if he knew he had one more thing to do. JC didn’t press; he let him empty his pockets onto the dresser like he did every night and waited as he stripped off his clothes and disappeared into the bathroom. He emerged not long after in only his boxers, immediately lunging for the bed and curling up to JC's side. His warmth soothed the edges of a day JC had thought would never end.

“What took you so long?” he asked gently, running his fingers through Justin’s hair, just like he liked it.

Justin sighed heavily and pressed in closer. “Johnny,” he said without opening his eyes. “And Britney,” he admitted in a quieter voice.

“Yeah?” JC asked, careful of his tone. He paused a moment before admitting, “Actually, she asked me about you today.”

Justin’s eyes opened. “She what? What did she ask?”

“Just if we were seeing anybody.”

Justin pulled himself up to look JC in the eye. “What did you tell her?” He seemed a little afraid of JC's response.

“That I didn’t have a girlfriend,” he told him carefully. “And that she should ask you about your business.”

“Oh,” Justin said, but he didn’t relax back against JC like he’d hoped.

“What?” JC prompted.

Justin seemed to snap out of it, shaking his head as he fell back to the bed. “Nothing,” he said but didn’t seem to mean it. “It’s just funny, is all. That she brought it up today.”

“Because we see her so often,” JC tried to joke. Nothing registered on Justin’s face, though, and JC wasn’t feeling all that amused himself. “Let me guess,” he sighed, “this has something to do with whatever Johnny held you up for?”

The way Justin rolled over to his back and rubbed at his eyes was answer enough. JC just watched him and tried really hard not to think too much.

“He finally asked,” Justin muttered a few moments later.

“If you and Britney were dating?” He shouldn’t be offended by that, he knew he shouldn’t be.

“No,” Justin snorted. “If we would start dating. Or at least pretend to.”

JC ignored the flash of fear that fisted his stomach and went for indignant instead. “He what? He’s always told us that we had to insist that we were single even if the case was otherwise. And now he’s asking you to tell everyone you’re in a relationship?”

JC felt his anger rising to the surface, but Justin’s face remained even. “I’m not sure how one is really different from the other, C.,” he said wearily, “Not that they both don’t suck. And besides, we’re definitely not supposed to tell anyone that we’re in a relationship. We’re just supposed to act like it.”

“What did you tell him?” JC asked, suddenly needing to know his answer more than anything.

“I told them I was going to have to ask you.” Justin’s voice was smooth and calm.

JC was shocked into silence for a moment. “You told them…”

“I told them I was going to ask you, and that’s all I said. They didn’t ask and I didn’t tell them anything more than that.” JC was trying to figure out how he felt about that when Justin continued, “So, that’s what I’m doing now. I’m asking you.”

JC frowned and tried to put two decent thoughts together. He wasn’t completely shocked that Johnny had asked; JC had already considered the possibility and decided his answer because he had wanted to do so with a clear head. He knew he needed to be sensible, rational; he needed to remember that it wouldn’t mean anything. Now faced with the situation, though, he understood why that clarity had been so important: his acceptance was coming forth with an even greater struggle than he’d expected.

Justin’s fingers crawled across his neck, rubbing at the stiffness with even, insistent strokes that seemed loosen his words just enough. “It’s fine,” he said quietly while his mind yelled, ‘No, it’s really not.’

Their faces were everywhere - billboards, posters, ads plastered to the sides of busses; HBO had apparently spared no cost. Everywhere JC turned, it seemed, he found himself cast in silvery light against a black background, angling in towards Justin who was glaring playfully from the center. There was something ironic in the positioning; their composites placed so close together, a cut-and-paste job because there was no time for a new shoot, no time to get them close without the help of PhotoShop. JC tried not to think too much about life imitating art.

In the three weeks since he’d given Justin his okay for the Britney ruse, things had quickly spiraled away from his control – though he figured it was a farce to believe he ever had any anyway. There were the obvious issues: seeing each other less, having to be more careful when they were together, always artfully dodging everything they should be discussing. Even if they did talk about it, though, it was too late for any meaningful change to be made; if they tried to backtrack now, it would garner just as much press coverage as the meticulously planned outings bringing attention in the first place. JC was beginning to realize that this was a life of no going back.

“Hey, Joey,” JC called out, his exhausted voice echoing in the hallway somewhere in the underbelly of the Garden. “Have you seen J. anywhere? I thought he was supposed to be done by now.”

Joey stopped and waited for JC to catch up, his face already transformed into that sympathetic smile that JC was really starting to dislike. “Nah, C. He’s still on Publicity – ‘til after dinner I think. You know how he gets…” Joey’s hand imitated a mouth that wouldn’t shut, and JC nodded, disappointed. “He was looking for you, though, before he left, but you were…”

“Publicity,” JC sighed.

“Yeah, man. Sorry.”

JC knew he really meant it, but it didn’t do much to assuage the rock of dismay compounding in his stomach everyday. “If you see him, tell him I’m looking for him, okay?” Joey agreed and JC turned and walked off in the opposite direction, away from any signs that might direct him to the places he was supposed be.

It was well after midnight, and Justin sat all alone in their hotel room staring down at Central Park. JC should have been back hours earlier, before Justin himself probably, and yet Justin was the only one there to notice the way the moonlight reflected off the waxy leaves of the trees. It was such a JC-esque observation, one Justin would have made fun of him for, but on this night it only reminded Justin of his empty room.

In the many months before, through the lawsuit and after, in all those awkward and fumbling moments when their newly forged grooves didn’t seem to fit quite right, Justin had always imagined the growing distance between them to be of JC's doing: JC had pulled away, JC had reprioritized. But now, staring into the darkness and reflecting on his day, Justin wasn’t sure he’d been right.

His mom had told him to give JC time, to let JC do what he felt was needed, and Justin had tried to do that. Somewhere along the line, though, the situation with JC had caused his resentment towards those people trying to strip them of everything to swell to new levels; they weren’t just keeping him from a job he loved but from a person, too. In his mind, it became integral to come out on top – to not just win but crush their opponents. The thing with Britney had seemed like one more way to do that.

That thinking had led him here, to a hotel room alone and a boyfriend not answering his cell phone. He didn’t have the slightest clue how to make up for it except to give up the circus completely, and that would feel like a defeat, like everything they had fought for was for naught. To get through that kind of disappointment, he’d have to place all of his confidence in JC – JC who was nowhere to be found at the moment, JC who had started this long migration months before and made no move to stop it.

Justin didn’t know how much time had passed when he awoke to the careful sounds of another person trying to move around the room undetected. He considered saying nothing, pretending he’d been sleeping peacefully for the better part of the night, but he had too much farce in his life already. “You’re in late,” he said, blinking his eyes to get them adjusted.

JC was slow to face him. “I went out for a few,” he said. “I took Eric,” he added, hoping that might be the reason for Justin’s inquiry.

Justin sat up and stared at him plainly, long enough to make it clear that wasn’t the point. JC made no effort to explain himself further, though.

The silence that followed was long and heavy, spreading dread and sadness over the room. Justin spoke eventually, his eyes fixed on the bedspread. “I can’t figure out if you’re avoiding me or if we’re really that busy.”

JC stopped fishing through his suitcase and faced Justin again, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “You think I’m avoiding you?”

“I’ve been sitting in this room by myself for a good four hours…”

JC stared at him for a minute before finally shaking his head and turning away again. “There are twenty other hours in a day, Justin. How many do you think I was waiting for you?”

Justin opened his mouth to respond but realized he didn’t really have an answer to that. He watched in silence as JC gathered the rest of his things and headed to the bathroom. The door shut behind him with a dull thud, and Justin’s eyes remained fixed there until he heard the shower turn off several minutes later. JC re-emerged and busied himself around the room, doing more than he normally would to get ready for bed, and Justin felt the need to say something, anything to get JC stop and focus back on him.

“Listen. I know it’s been tough lately - we’re doing four magazine covers a month, we’re on TV at least every other week, running back and forth between coasts and the tour…” he paused – to bring it up or not? He was too tired to hide behind one more thing, though, so he spoke: “And… and shit’s hitting the fan about me and Britney… which is our fault, I know, but. It makes this harder,” he continued, motioning between them, “with photographers around more, and the questions all the time. I’m sorry about that.”

JC sighed and stood up from where he was bent over his bag. “I don’t doubt it,” he said wearily. “And I have things to be sorry for, too; I know that. But, at some point…” he frowned and, unwilling to finish his thought, bent back to his luggage.

“I want you to finish that,” Justin told him, climbing out of bed and moving anxiously towards JC. “Tell me what you meant.”

JC sighed. “I don’t know what I meant.”

“No, you do,” Justin told him. “You know exactly what you meant, but you don’t want to tell me. That’s not fair, JC.”

“Since when is this about fair?” JC shot back.

“Is that what this is about, then? I’m not being fair to you?”

“That’s not what I…”

“No, you’re right,” Justin interrupted. “This isn’t fair. But you said… I asked, and you told me it was okay.”

JC glared at him a moment and then responded mechanically, “You’re right. I did.” He then turned away and walked towards the closet.

“So, what? Now you want to take it back?” Justin’s voice was heated, and JC met it with an equal amount of coolness.

“I can’t take it back” he said, pausing before adding, “We can’t go back.”

Those last few words stopped up every argument in Justin’s throat; he could barely breathe around them. We can’t go back. “What do you mean?” he asked. “What do you mean, ‘We can’t go back’?”

“Exactly what it sounds like. Shit happens, and we can’t take it back. No matter how much we wish we could.”

JC sounded so sad, so resigned, that Justin felt something plummet in his chest – the first few pebbles before an avalanche. “What’s going on here?” he asked through the clog in his throat.

JC fussed with the hangers he was using before turning around to face him. “Before this,” he said clearly, as if he’d practiced it several times before. “Before this tour, we had our lives in ‘NSYNC, and we had our lives outside of that. It was clear and separate, and I knew how I should be in each world. But now,” he said, shaking his head and looking away. “Now it’s all blurred together. It’s all the time – you’re always Justin from ‘NSYNC, even if we’re just out shopping or on vacation somewhere. It doesn’t stop, and I’m not sure where we fit in that world anymore, me and you.”

“JC,” Justin pleaded but then stopped, finding no words to refute him. “You’re breaking up with me,” he said finally, the weight on his chest growing heavier and heavier until it pressed a stinging sensation against the back of his eyes.

“I don’t know what to call it,” JC told him softly, though he refused to look up. “I just think we’ll both be happier if we let ourselves focus on other things for awhile.”

Justin felt the first tear gather at the corner of his eye, and he turned away, unwilling to let JC see. He wrapped his arms around himself, realizing JC's wouldn’t come, not this time, not anymore. He was startled when they did a few moments later, JC's hands brushing along his upper arms and around his own, covering his hands. He felt JC's forehead press into his shoulder.

“You know this doesn’t mean I stop caring for you, right? I won’t stop loving you. I’m just afraid that if we keep this up the way things are, that might change. Let’s not risk that.”

Justin didn’t want to acknowledge his words, didn’t want to admit they were what they’d been both been thinking for way too long to have let it get this far… but JC held him so close, closer than they’d had time to be during waking hours all week. Justin simply nodded his head and tried to soak up all of JC's warmth, to put it away for a lonely day yet to come.

It was several minutes before JC pulled away, and Justin shivered at the loss. He stayed where he was, listening to JC pull back the covers and arrange his pillows just the way he liked them. When he was finally still, Justin took a deep breath and prepared himself for what he knew he would see.

JC, sleeping in a bed that they no longer shared.

VII. Enter, Stage Right

Pop Odyssey Tour, 2001

In one short week, JC had come to realize that the best thing about New Orleans wasn’t the beignets or the jazz or the mystery lurking in misty alleyways; it was the space. Not just the physical space but the personal space the city gave its visitors to be themselves. You could walk around town in a gorilla suit and still be far from the weirdest person within sight range. After the previous six months, JC had never been more thankful to end up in a city like the Big Easy.

It was the space that had brought them to New Orleans, actually, though not the kind of space JC had been appreciating all week. The Superdome had been a convenient rehearsal spot for what was sure to be the biggest, baddest tour of their careers, an apex of popularity that should’ve left their outlook as bright as the hundreds of pounds of pyro they were going to unleash each night. It wasn’t the way things were shaping up, though, to no one’s great surprise.

If there was a moment in which JC had finally understood how much things had changed since the breakup, it had been the last performance of the previous tour. He’d known there was something he wasn’t being told, but he hadn’t cared enough to ask. He’d seen Britney in the hallway outside the Quiet Room earlier in the day and was able to guess well enough, anyway. He’d been surprised, though, when Justin went off script during the show, when his voice gained an air of softness that JC hadn’t heard before as he invited a very special friend out on stage to wish her a happy birthday.

JC had stood back for a moment, noting the way Justin’s arm curled around her shoulder way too closely to be anything but proprietary. Justin’s smile had been sweet and his eyes endearing, and she had smiled up at him with such gratefulness and adoration that JC finally knew the one-time ploy had at some point become a reality. It hurt to know it for sure, a deep sinking in his chest that made it hard to breathe, but it was manageable, a necessary evil. He couldn’t pretend to be surprised, couldn’t deny he’d seen the looming evidence that this was coming. A warning would’ve been nice, but he had a job to do, an audience with appraising eyes that would take note of his every move; he walked over and gave the birthday girl a gentle hug, saving his tears for his ride home, finally alone.

No one ever spoke of it, at least not amongst the five of them, some tacit agreement made that Justin’s private life was just that. After the tour, they went their separate ways for a few weeks, writing and conceiving a new album; JC had holed himself up in his basement studio, putting memories onto paper, pulling from both good and bad, purging his demons. At the end of the three weeks, he’d felt a small sense of renewal, preparing himself to face the recording sessions and time in tight spaces with Justin.

It soon became apparent, however, that Justin hadn’t used the time in quite the same way. Justin had spent the past three weeks working with Wade, writing songs with killer beats but no personal connections. He hadn’t dealt with his problems, JC realized soon enough when Justin’s eyes wouldn’t meet his own, he had hidden from them. JC actually felt bad for him, and he tried to push Justin past the vague discomfort, to remind him of what they still were instead of what they weren’t. Justin clamed up at the first hint of nearness, though, and avoided him whenever possible. Each refusal chipped away at JC's heart, and he eventually gave up and took to walking around him in broad circles.

Sometimes, though, nearness was inescapable; moments on stage when they had no choice, when they had to be close and act alright, and that was turning out to be the biggest challenge for them both as rehearsals went on. It had been a turn in the wrong direction that had put them on a collision course this go round, and neither of them had recovered well. Wade had stopped the playback and called for a break, and JC had walked away, off the stage and to the highest point he could find: the top row of the upper deck where he could just barely make out the sound of Justin plucking away on the acoustic he was curled around on the stage’s side stairs.

The tune had a melancholic air, equal parts anger and frustration. It was beautiful and haunting and entirely too appropriate, twisting something in JC's gut that was a little too close to guilt. It was a shame, though, he knew, that Justin would never put words to it. JC might not like their meaning, but at least then Justin would be speaking to him, if only indirectly.

“We don’t have it right, yet,” JC told them, yanking out his in-ears and moving to the edge of the stage to glare back at Tim. “Something isn’t on,” he yelled back to the sound booth.

The other four guys huddled together and tried not to roll their eyes. “It’s fine,” Chris hissed quietly, looking at Justin for confirmation. “We’re already on our tenth show. I think they’ve got it down by now.”

Justin just shrugged a shoulder and refused to get involved. It had been the easiest way to get through this mess so far and he was sticking with it. A few knobs were fiddled with and JC walked back to the group, signaling for them to try it again. And then again and again, and still JC wasn’t happy. Justin watched him but only because he knew that JC was too preoccupied to notice.

Covert glances had been the limit of their interaction through the weeks, but they had been enough to let Justin know something was going on. JC had seemed okay during the recording process; it had been Justin who admittedly struggled to get through that phase. At some point during rehearsals, though, JC had started to pull away. Not just from Justin, either, which could be expected, but from everyone… from the guys, the crew, friends who had dropped in to check out the extravaganza. The only thing he’d immersed himself in was the process, the small details that went into the production that normally wouldn’t even show up on their radar.

It was worrisome, obviously, to see JC withdraw, to watch him focus so intensely on trivial things just to avoid focusing on others. Justin couldn’t help but carry the guilt, but it wasn’t enough to force him into action. He didn’t want to get into a screaming match with JC; he didn’t want to say something or do something so irreparable that they’d never recover. That thought made him feel much worse than any temporary guilt.

Not that he didn’t have his own hang-ups in the post breakup world. For him, it was touch, the burn he felt every time their skin inadvertently met. It lingered, a painful reminder of what had been, and forced him to relive the fateful decision they had made. But like JC had told him, there was no going back now.

“Justin,” Lance told him, standing close enough that JC wouldn’t be able to hear. “You’ve got to tell him to stuff it, man. Or else we’re gonna be out here all night.”

Justin immediately shook his head. “He’s not going to listen to me, not now. No way.”

“Yes, he will,” Lance told him. “He might not like it, but yours is still the opinion he’s gonna trust when it comes to the music. Except Tim, of course, but Tim will sit out there and fiddle right along with him ‘til morning. Just tell him the sound is fine. Please.”

Justin sighed and looked up, immediately finding Joey and Chris focusing on him with intent expressions. God, he didn’t want to do this; it wasn’t really fair. But it also was true, so with a frown set deep on his face, he told them, “Alright. But I’m not making any promises.”

With that, the other three politely turned their backs and made themselves look occupied. Justin took a deep breath and moved closer to JC, his jaw set tight to keep his voice from shaking. He got within a handful of feet and found he couldn’t move himself further. There wasn’t more than five feet between them, but it felt more like a deep trench, like he was going to have to scream for JC to hear him.

“JC,” he said haltingly, not the least bit surprised when he was met with fiery eyes. The surprise that it was Justin doing the speaking didn’t come until a moment later. Justin pushed on. “It’s really fine. The sound is fine.”

JC's eyes narrowed. “You’re just saying what they want you to,” he replied directly, motioning his head back toward the other guys. “I’m telling you, it’s not right.”

The harshness in JC’s voice made Justin cringe. He recognized that the words weren’t just referring to the situation at hand, either: You’re just saying what they want you to. JC had meant them in a broader sense, a personal attack that Justin had no choice but to swallow, leaving a bitter taste in its wake.

He wanted to argue, to throw it back in JC’s face that he was just as bad, saying what he should and rarely what he meant, but the words wouldn’t come. Instead, he turned and walked away, passing the others still gathered on the stage without looking back.

He wound up on the bus, hiding away behind the heavy curtain in the one place in the world that felt like his and only his. He stared up at the ceiling, his mind heading off in a hundred directions, too agitated to focus on any one thing. He felt restless but knew of nowhere else to go, the eight by four bunk his only refuge. With no other foreseeable choice, he pulled his phone from his pocket and hit the number seven speed dial.

In hindsight, Britney probably hadn’t been the best person to call, but he did it for reasons he didn’t like thinking about, a need for reassurance and validation of choices made. It was selfish and more than a little foolish, but when he’d first heard her bright southern accent, he’d felt better for just a moment. It wasn’t until she started grilling him on why he’d called that things got dicey.

“I know you, babe,” she said. “You call me between eleven thirty and twelve thirty local time everyday. You’re calling me two hours before you go on stage; something’s up.”

Justin rubbed a hand over his forehead. Britney wasn’t always intuitive enough to recognize his motives, and he’d been relying on that a little too much. “No, it’s nothing. I promise. It’s just, you know, the tour…”

Britney snorted in that unfeminine way she had when totally comfortable. “J…” she said knowingly.

He sighed. “Yeah, alright. I got into it with C. a little. Sort of. More like he got into it with me, actually.”

“What happened?”

He hesitated; it wasn’t really her business, and he didn’t really want to talk to her about it…about him. But she pressed and he finally gave in. “He just. He said some things about me saying what other people want to hear. I think he kinda, you know, was implying…” He stopped himself there, his words catching in his throat; he’d said more than he meant to. Please, he thought as his fingers rubbed at his forehead, don’t let this be the one time she actually catches on.

“He was talking about us,” Britney finished for him, and Justin’s hopes were dashed. “He was talking about our relationship.”

Justin sighed. “No, Brit. I don’t think he meant it exactly that way,” he defended JC for reasons he didn’t completely understand. He just knew it wasn’t Britney’s place, it somehow didn’t feel like her business, and he really wanted to get as far away from this topic as possible.

“I think we know exactly what he meant,” she told him. “But why would he…?”

“Brit,” Justin warned, but she just kept going.

“I mean. How did he say it? Was he rude about it?”

God, please don’t let those be tears in her voice, he thought. He shouldn’t have said anything or at least called someone else because Britney had never gotten it through her head that she didn’t have to be jealous of JC; she didn’t have to worry that JC would come crawling back. JC had been the one that had finally walked away from him.

Justin pulled the phone away from his ear so he could only vaguely hear her rambling on. He added appropriate if not always genuine responses on those rare occasions she paused to take a breath. He had hoped that calling her would make him feel better, but now he only felt annoyed, misunderstood. He had made his bed, though, he supposed, and now he had to lie in it.

JC headed for the busses an hour before show time, the residual guilt from soundcheck finally eating away at him. Justin hadn’t returned since his dramatic exit, and JC knew his favorite place to hide. As he trekked through the parking lot, he was surrounded by a sense of deja-vu, the memory of a similar search and finding Justin hiding away in JC's own bunk. JC knew a very different reception would be awaiting him this time. Still, he owed Justin an apology; he wasn’t going to be that person, that bitter ex who took every advantage to make the other feel miserable.

As he approached the bus, he realized that Justin hadn’t had the forethought to close the bus door like he had last time. With a deep breath, he climbed inside, his eyes cast down and his brain trying to piece together something to say. After only a few steps, he was startled out of his reverie when he collided with another person. He immediately thought it was Justin and that this couldn’t, wouldn’t, go well. It wasn’t until he stumbled backwards that he realized the sturdier mass and shorter frame couldn’t possibly be Justin; JC knew his body too well. He glanced up and saw Chris smirking at him.

JC looked away to avoid his scrutinizing eyes. “Where’s J.?” he asked in an attempted casual tone, but his eyes were too wide and his demeanor too stiff to pull off indifference.

“He’s one the phone,” Chris replied, never pulling his eyes away. “Talking to Brit.”

Chris had emphasized her name, making JC hear it and watching his reaction closely. Try as he might, JC couldn’t prevent the drop in his stomach. “Oh,” he said, shifting on his feet, too aware of Chris’ eyes. “I was just gonna…” he started to explain, but he could no long remember why coming out there had seemed like a good idea. “I’m just gonna go,” he said finally, turning his back on Chris to make a hasty exit.

“C.,” Chris called after him.

JC stopped but didn’t turn around; he really didn’t want to see the look on his face.

“JC, look at me,” Chris said a littler harder than before, and JC no longer needed to wonder about the look on his face; his annoyance was quite clear in his tone.

“I’ve got to go, Chris,” JC told him. “I’ve got…things…to do.”

JC waited a moment, and when Chris didn’t respond, he made a quick exit. He heard Chris’ frustrated sigh as he hit the last stair, but it wasn’t enough to get him to turn around.

Over the next few days, it wasn’t difficult for JC to recognize that Chris was planning something. He had that shifty-eyed look he got whenever he hatched a brilliant new scheme. Somehow, JC didn’t think his current brainchild was a laughing matter, so he avoided Chris in all potentially dangerous situations, wary of anywhere Chris might corner him. He made him pull away even more, he realized, but Chris just pushed too far some – most - of the time.

He felt pretty safe on stage, though, during rehearsals and soundchecks and shows. There were too many people around, too many microphones and amps and possibly compromising situations. He didn’t recognize the flaw in that logic until the moment he heard Chris’ voice boom out of the speakers. Chris had never been one to follow something so pedestrian as common sense.

JC had been fooling around on the conveyors, twisting and turning his body in ways that made people marvel. He hadn’t noticed his admirers at first; he’d been more consumed with the latest bout of awkwardness with Justin from only moments before when Justin had hit a bad note and JC had been conspicuously silent. He had no idea how to talk to him anymore, and the words he should’ve said soured in his stomach. Justin had slunk off to the side of the stage, and JC took to the conveyors, working his body as he worked through his equally twisted thoughts.

Then the crowd gathered, and JC felt himself smile a little at the praise and catcalls. He felt confident and in his element, and after the endless parade of unease, relief had flooded his system. That is, until someone let Chris get a hold of a live microphone.

“Up next on our fabulous runway is JC Chasez,” he said, his voice playful and welcoming of the laughs that followed. There was a pause then, just long enough to make JC tense. “We call this the martyr collection,” Chris continued smoothly, though there was something pointed in his voice.

Some of the laughter stopped, people looking around to see if they had missed the joke. JC hadn’t missed it, though, not by any stretch, and his entire body seized up, torn between charging after the perpetrator and turning heel and taking off. Chris wasn’t done, though.

“And if you look to our right,” he said, no longer bothering to hide behind a casual tone, “You’ll see Justin Timberlake, modeling the latest and brightest money can buy.”

Justin was already standing, his eyes boring holes into the side of Chris’ head though Chris seemed impervious. Justin didn’t deliberate about movement, though; he was already charging after Chris and grabbing for the mic. Chris dodged him a few times, but Justin was too strong for Chris to evade.

“Mind your own fucking business,” Justin told him, snatching the mic away and quickly turning it off. JC didn’t think he’d ever heard Justin so angry or more ready to throw a punch. And even worse, Chris seemed to be daring him to do it. “This doesn’t concern you,” Justin seethed.

“Bullshit. It concerns me plenty, and if you believe it doesn’t then you’re even more selfish than I ever imagined,” Chris shot back. “I’m sick of it, J.! And you, too,” he said, turning on JC now. JC desperately wished he had left when the urge had first struck him.

It ended up being Chris, though, who made the abrupt exit, storming off the stage in a huff and taking Joey and Lance with him. The rest of the crowd had cleared out, too, having sensing the private nature of the conversation despite Chris’ broadcast. JC felt his nerves stand on edge as he realized it was just the two of them left, standing on opposite sides of the stage with mirrored expressions of anger and dismay.

JC dared to lift his eyes and found Justin’s already on him. He didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to say that he knew Chris was right – an asshole, but still right. This was all so out of hand. He searched for the words, never pulling his eyes off Justin’s, feeling himself drawn into them and having to resist. It wasn’t his place anymore, he told himself, he didn’t get to do this.

But as the struggle became more acute, JC began to remember that he could read Justin’s eyes better than anyone, that he knew what lurked in the nuances of his features. And for the first time since he couldn’t remember when, he finally held Justin’s attention. His eyes connected to Justin’s with new purpose, taking stock, and for once the other pair weren’t laced with anger and hurt. There was resignation there and a little bit of shame, but also a shared acknowledgement that this had to end.

JC felt the first tinges of relief settle over him, a lesser weight now pressing against his chest. He nodded his head just enough for Justin to understand, and Justin lifted his chin in return, almost a nod but not quite. JC didn’t mind; even that was better than where they’d been the last few months. JC stayed very still as Justin looked him over, his eyes narrowed and confused, reaching out to JC like an earl y spring breeze – warm only because of the coolness that came before. JC felt it ease into him, soothing the anger and resentment he had allowed to build up until Justin pried his gaze away and disappeared offstage.

Once he was out of sight, JC took a deep breath and looked around the venue with lighter shoulders than he’d felt in a long time. After a moment, he disappeared himself, needing some time to decipher what in the hell had just happened.

As pissed off as he was at Chris after the stunt he pulled, JC figured he had him to thank for the improved mood on the tour over the next few weeks. Justin and he weren’t exactly friends again, but they managed to exist within the same tight spaces with something approaching courteousness. Their interactions were mostly limited to shop talk and vague acknowledgments in larger groups of people, but it felt good to be comfortable around him again, like he had recovered a small but crucial element that made his life go that much smoother.

It was still tenuous, though, like the glue hadn’t quite set and they had to hold it together with their own strength and will. JC was determined to make things right, though, and Justin was putting forth an effort, so when Chris cornered JC in his hotel room three weeks later with some shocking news and a strange request, JC immediately balked.

“Look,” Chris told him, “I’m pretty confident about my sources here. I know it’s hard to believe, but you know I wouldn’t say anything unless I was sure.”

“Yeah, but…” JC replied, trying to wrap his brain around what he’d been told. “I mean, they're friends, you know? They’re really close.” Trust me, JC thought, I had to watch them get closer and closer and pretend it didn’t bother me.

“I know. And that’s going to make it hurt more, that it was a friend. You know more than anyone how he is – he doesn’t trust for shit, but when he does it’s all the way.”

“God,” JC sighed, slumping to the edge of the bed and running his hands over his face. He was terrified of what this would do to Justin. Selfishly, he also wasn’t thrilled about what it would mean to their fragile friendship.

“That’s why you’ve got to tell him,” Chris said softly, as if he could read JC's mind.

JC did a double take, cycled the words through his brain again before he comprehended them. “What? Chris, no. That’s exactly why I shouldn’t be the one to tell him. You can’t think…”

“I don’t think it, JC. I know it,” Chris said, his voice so even and sure that JC's face dropped. He dropped to the bed next JC and squeezed his leg. “No matter what’s happened in the last eight months, it doesn’t erase the previous ten years, JC. It has to come from you or Lynn, and you know she’ll go ballistic.”

“Why not you?” JC asked.

Chris looked away and shrugged a shoulder. “We don’t go there,” he admitted. “We tease each other about girls and shit, but… We’re both too private, I guess. He needs someone he doesn’t have to hide anything from.”

JC groaned and put his head in his hands. “He’s gonna hate me,” he mumbled.

“Not forever,” Chris told him. “He’s too smart for that.”

JC looked up into Chris’ resolute eyes and knew Chris was right, about everything. With a grimace he nodded his head and accepted the charge. He took a couple of deep breaths before he stood up and headed for the door.

“You’re going now?” Chris called after him, clearly surprised.

JC gripped the door handle and sighed. “Yeah,” he said without turning around. “If I wait, I’ll think too much. I’ll have a million reasons why it shouldn’t be me and why we should wait. I’m gonna do it now.”

“Alright. Good luck, man,” he said softly. “And thanks.”

JC nodded and stepped outside, letting the door close behind him with a reverberant snick.

Justin opened the door after two rounds of knocks clad only in a hastily wrapped towel. JC froze at his first glimpse of bare skin, his eyes immediately caught by the perfect line of Justin’s waist, the muscles angling even lower, and his throat went dry. Justin was equally motionless, his mouth slightly ajar but no words coming out.

“I, uh…” JC finally said, forcibly dragging his eyes up. “I came to talk,” he said, staring at a fixed spot over Justin’s shoulder, safely away from the other man’s near nakedness.

“Oh,” Justin was obviously surprised. “Okay, um. Come in. I’m just… gonna get dressed.” He stepped aside to let JC enter, and JC held his breath as he passed by. Despite the space purposely placed between them, he still fought off a shiver from being so close. Justin’s body called to him way too strongly for comfort, even now, even with the news he bore.

He moved to the far end of the room, leaning against the small table by the window as he watched Justin gather his clothes. He tempered the strange, uncomfortable feeling that came when Justin disappeared into the bathroom to dress, knowing he shouldn’t be surprised. There was too much history there to tempt.

Justin lingered behind the closed door, and JC tried to use the time to figure out what to say, how to say it. His mind resisted, though, his thoughts drifting instead to the figure concealed by the closed door, to memories of happier times, to his smooth back and broad shoulders…

At some point, his eyes drifted closed and he didn’t open them until he heard Justin mutter, “C.?” from just a few feet away. Justin had a slight smile on his face as if he knew the exact thoughts that had been cycling through JC's head.

JC had the graciousness to blush, and he immediately changed the subject, remembering the horrible task at hand.

“What did you want to talk about?” Justin asked him, careful to keep the nervousness out of his voice. JC saw it in his eyes, though.

“Well,” JC began, his eyes shifting around the room like the walls might reveal the best way to do this. Finally, he sighed and motioned to the bed. “Why don’t you take a seat,” he said gently.

JC's tone set Justin on guard and his forehead furrowed. “I don’t want to take a seat,” he answered. “I want you to tell me why you’re here.”

JC looked at him, at the fear and anxiety threaded through those eyes he knew so well, and the butterflies in his stomach tripled their activity. “Well, I’m gonna sit down,” he said, falling into the chair behind him. He leaned over, his elbows on his knees. He didn’t have to look at Justin then, only the carpet.

“JC,” Justin warned, and JC tensed. He wouldn’t be able to delay much longer.

“Tell me, C.” Justin finally said, his voice clear and direct. He took a seat on the bed directly across from the chair so that JC had to see him if only from the knee down.

JC stared at Justin’s skinny legs, the tattoos and the crisp blond hairs he remembered rasping against his skin. He could barely breathe; the words were too heavy in his throat. “Britney slept with Wade,” he said finally, his voice thick and uneven.

Justin didn’t move, didn’t flinch or speak or even breathe, and the stillness lasted so long that JC wondered if he had actually said the words or if he had just imagined he had. He finally dared to lift his eyes to Justin’s face, and the blank stare and pale skin left him with no doubt about what he’d said. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, and Justin’s stillness split another crack in his heart.

“No,” Justin finally muttered. “You’re just… You’re just saying that because…”

JC closed his eyes and primed himself for what he knew would come. He sat back in his seat and tried to stay calm, to keep his heartbeat from stepping up to panic mode. Please let Chris be right about this, he thought. Of course he’s going to think that; it’s a rational conclusion. But he knows me better than that. He does.

He did his best to drown out Justin’s words: you just want me to breakup with Britney; you never liked Wade; you shouldn’t be jealous, C. Justin stood up and began pacing around the room, still muttering accusations but the fire behind them began to dwindle. His hands were running through his hair and over his face which JC recognized as signs of growing desperation.

“Why are you telling me this?” Justin asked him finally, his voice breathless as if he truly didn’t understand. He returned to the edge of the bed to address JC directly as if all his previous mumblings hadn’t really been for JC's ears.

Justin’s voice was so close to cracking, to letting that pain and fear through, that JC felt his eyes start to burn. “Because someone had to,” he said gently.

“I don’t want to believe it,” Justin told him, the cracks finally pushing their way through his voice. JC inched closer to him, wanting to touch but not knowing if it would be welcome.

“Then don’t,” he told him. “You don’t have to believe me. But at least ask, alright? At least find out the truth.”

Justin just nodded his head, and JC knew that he was crying now, gentle tears rolling down his face that he was desperately trying to keep JC from noticing. He looked so heartbroken, so alone, that JC yearned for him, to soothe and comfort him in the same way he had done so many times before. His hands didn’t know where to go, though, and he didn’t know how close Justin would let him get. He couldn’t bear the thought of being pushed away, so he just hovered, hoping his presence might offer some solace. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so useless.

Justin’s shoulders started to shake as his hand wiped desperately at his cheeks, and JC felt tears burn the back of his own eyes. He thought maybe it was time for him to leave, to give Justin the room to let go since he was so clearly holding back. JC stood slowly, staring down at the top of Justin’s matted curls, feeling the need to run a hand through them, a simple gesture he’d done so many times before. He stopped himself, though, his hand left hovering in midair. He couldn’t do it. With his failure now complete, JC’s stomach knotted and wetness gathered at the corners of his eyes. He turned to leave the room, long strides for a quick escape.

His second step was halted, however, and he nearly tripped. It took him a second to notice the fist curled into his shirt, the long fingers turned white thanks to the strength of the grip. When they began to pull him closer, JC heart leapt into his throat, nerves and anticipation stealing his breath. Each step felt like an eternity, though it was only seconds before he stood in front of Justin once again.

Justin’s hands moved to JC’s hips, slowly spreading across his lower back and then wrapping fully around his waist. They left a trail of warmth in their wake that JC knew he’d feel for days. JC let himself be pulled closer until Justin’s short curls were buried against his chest. JC lifted his hand once again, this time without debate, and let his fingers weave through Justin’s hair in soothing strokes. His other arm instinctively wrapped around Justin’s shoulders, and finally, JC understood where he had belonged all along.

Warm tears soaked into JC's shirt, but the warmth spreading through him seemed to come from the inside out, a fire rekindling and reaching for Justin, enveloping them both. It was such a bittersweet moment, having to witness Justin’s heart break a second time, but JC was on the right side of it this time, and he’d do whatever it took to keep it that way. He held Justin close and lost sense of time, knowing only where he was needed for however long it took.

VIII. Encore

Celebrity Tour, 2002

A long, clear note reverberated off the arena’s walls, filling the space with sound and Justin with an elusive sense of contentment. JC's voice had been such a constant in his life, a sound that Justin had subconsciously aligned with comfort so early on that even during their roughest patches, Justin had felt a rush of serenity settle over him when JC was on the mic. It was only when his brain kicked in that he had refused its consolation, pushing it away in favor of his personal pride. He’d only recently come to recognize his childishness.

Justin listened idly while JC continued his warm-ups, stretching his voice into the upper register, reaching for the show stopping string of sound that finished off the I Want You Back version they had revamped for this tour. JC and he had written it themselves one evening while sitting on a balcony overlooking the French Quarter. It’d been a healing experience, finally writing together again, finally finding not just peace but true enjoyment in each other’s company.

Justin’s original intent for planning the trip, though, hadn’t been to rekindle their writing relationship. It had been a quick trip, two days and a night that Justin had fretted over for weeks because he wanted to tell JC about his solo album. He had know that he had to tell JC first, that he needed to gauge JC’s reaction and seek his approval before he told anyone else. He also needed to explain that he had too many personal things to say, that it wouldn’t feel quite right as a group album, and he needed JC to understand.

JC had seemed anxious after Justin told him the news over dinner that first night. Justin wasn’t surprised, and he moved into the explanation he’d rehearsed in his head a thousand times, that the songs were about Britney, about relationships in general and moving on. They were not about them, JC and him, he promised.

JC's face had eased afterwards, but as the night progressed, Justin himself had felt less steady. His words kept cycling through his mind, finally catching up to him and forcing him to realize what he’d done one time but not the other. Yes, he’d written a notebook full of songs about Britney and the process of getting over her, and it had been cathartic and natural. It had released the pain that had lingered so horribly in his chest those first few weeks afterwards.

What he had never felt compelled to do, however, was to go through the same process after things with JC had imploded. He had never faced his feelings or committed them to paper, he realized; he hadn’t let go of the stitch in his chest that still stung from time to time when he thought about what he’d lost. And even as he thought about composing something about their breakup after the fact, even after the worst wounds had healed, Justin’s gut seized up in refusal. He was too scared to admit what might come out, too afraid to confront the truth

He had never gotten over JC.

It was a thought that he wrestled with for weeks afterward as he shuffled back and forth across the country to work on his music. His collaborators pushed him to flush out his feelings about the Britney fiasco, asking questions so they could find the right tone, the perfect beat, not backing off when his unease was evident. He was sure that hey attributed his prickliness to the recent breakup, figuring it was emotion he could use to forge number one singles.

What they didn’t know was that his restlessness had nothing to do with his feelings toward Britney and everything to do with the ones of JC that lingered just behind; the ones that said everything that Britney wasn’t, JC was. Or, rather, had been. How could he have let it go?

It wasn’t until a week before the Celebrity Tour kicked off that Justin had finally acknowledged the conclusion he’d come to weeks and weeks before: He still loved JC. He was still in love with him. He just had no idea what that would mean; if it would mean anything at all.

Then the tour kicked off, and things with JC continued on the path that had been blazed in New Orleans. If anything, JC had been more protective, more understanding toward him. He went out of his way to assure Justin he was okay with his coming plans and made sure the others understood that they should be, too. A wealth of affection and gratitude swelled up in Justin each time JC glared Chris down because of a snide comment or when he went out of his way to talk to Lance who had seemed a little unsure and was trying to hide it. This was the JC that Justin had first gotten to know, the JC that had taken him by the hand and said ‘you and me, kid.’

As the first weeks passed, the intuitive intimacy between them returned as well, and Justin’s confusion only intensified. He reveled in the brotherly pats of affection, the arms cast around each other just to touch, the comforting hands carefully placed when the road once again became too much. Justin searched desperately for meaning in the motions, but he found nothing certain, not in JC's eyes or in his own mind.

It hadn’t stopped him from seeking out more moments, though; he felt the need to store up as many as he could before he tried this alone. That was what had brought him to the stands to listen to JC's warm-ups when there were a hundred other places he could’ve, should’ve been. He listened to JC's voice soar through a series of runs and closed his eyes, lost in the sound.

“That’s one of the things I’m gonna miss the most,” a voice muttered from beside him. Justin slowly opened his eyes and found Joey watching JC with that full-faced smile only Joey could pull off.

“What is?” Justin asked him quietly, his eyes returning to JC crouched at the edge of the stage.

“His voice,” Joey clarified, and Justin felt a lump rise in his throat. He couldn’t speak around it, so he nodded his head and refused to think about it. The longest he’d gone without hearing JC sing had been the handful of months JC was in LA, and that had been when Justin was fourteen. He’d missed him even then, too young to truly understand.

“Are the two of you getting back together?” Joey asked him softly, no accusation or warning in his voice.

Justin sat back, surprised by the question. “I… I don’t know,” he said. “I mean…,” he took in a deep breath and let his eyes wander around the venue. He glanced back at Joey again, at his open face and accepting presence, and took a leap. “It’s there,” he murmured. “I mean, I think it is. Like it was before. But…”

Justin paused and Joey gently prompted him forward. “But what?”

“I don’t want it to end like it did last time,” Justin admitted in a rush. “I don’t want the success of our relationship to come down to timing and circumstances again. He means too much to me.”

Joey looked at him for a long moment and then nodded his head, slapping a hand down on Justin’s thigh and giving it a squeeze. “I don’t know what to tell you, man. I’m just glad I’m not you,” he admitted, “Or him.”

Justin’s lips curled up in a wry smile. “Thanks, Joe.”

“Do you think it could work out, though? Isn’t there some way…?”

Justin shrugged. “I think there’s gotta be a way. I just. I don’t know what it is.”

“Well, I hope you find it,” Joey told him. He turned and looked Justin straight in the eye. “As long as you both don’t end up hurt again, I really do hope you give it another go.”

“Me, too,” Justin admitted, pressing a smile on to his face. “Thanks, Joe.”

Joey stood up and squeezed his shoulder. “Nothing to it,” he said before shuffling out of the row and then backstage, leaving Justin alone with his thoughts and the echo of JC's voice cycling through his mind.

They had chosen Florida for the tail leg of the tour on purpose; they had all sensed the need for home to help them get through the final shows. As the days drew nearer, Justin felt everything around him building toward a final crescendo, a gradual increase of sound building toward something explosive. He just didn’t know what waited for him at the apex. He could see beyond it, maybe, but there was a big, glaring question mark about the right before.

The date of their final show had clearly been looming large in all of their minds. Chris had become distant, Joey overly affectionate and Lance supremely focused - all of their defenses up when emotions came to call. Likewise, JC and Justin had found solace in each other; an understanding between them that none of the others quite sensed, the gentle confidence that music would bring them through this and see them to the other side.

One of the last nights on the road, he was huddled with JC in the back lounge of the bus, harkening back to the old days of bad hair and awkward photo sessions, to days before luxury busses and personal stylists. JC was doubled over laughing, remembering Joey’s enthusiasm for his fake breasts during the U Drive Me Crazy video shoot. The sound filled Justin’s ears, making him smile affectionately. And then the thought hit him: What if this was the last time? What if, after next week, he didn’t hear JC laugh for weeks and weeks at a time?

Suddenly, the future was no longer some intangible, distant realm of possibility; it was next week. All of those decisions he’d put off, all of his feelings for JC came barreling down on him. What would become of them? He realized that thinking about what was possible was no longer enough. He needed to know. He needed to talk to JC.

The plan came to him rather quickly, a moment of inspiration without any forethought or struggle, the same ease that had radiated off of their early relationship. He took it as a sign that it was somehow fated; that things had played out exactly the way they were meant to be. All he had to do was pull it together.

JC stood on the balcony that overlooked his backyard in Orlando. The last show was now only days away, and JC felt a strange combination of ambition and anxiety swirl in his gut every time he thought about it. The prospect of a long break, of time to do whatever he wanted without pressure or timetables, had become increasingly appealing to him as time passed. Even now, as he was faced with it, he couldn’t wait to embrace whatever direction his whims took him in. At twenty-five, he’d never had the chance to do that.

Most of his apprehension, however, came from the obvious source. Justin. Justin was the reason he was standing out on his balcony staring out into space. They had just gotten off the phone, and Justin had invited him out that evening, indicating that he had a surprise.

A surprise. The thought alone was enough to make JC’s nerves quiver but pairing it with the general anxiety over the looming hiatus made him considerably worried. In the back of his mind, he knew that despite all of the growth Justin and he had experienced over the last months, they were about to meet their steepest challenge. Their time together would no longer be time spent achieving common goals. There would be no running into each other in the hallway and playing a game of pick-up or knocking on a hotel door to see if they could catch a bite to eat together. After the curtain dropped on their last show, they’d have to reach out, make phone calls and block off time, hoping against hope that their schedules matched up here and there. As relaxed as things had been getting for them through this tour, JC wasn’t sure it would translate to the time after.

But Justin had a surprise for him…

JC sighed away the thought and refused to get his hopes up. Justin probably just had exciting news about his album; he could be downright earnest when something excited him, and he always expected the same eagerness back in response. He couldn’t imagine anyone not caring as much as he did. JC just hoped that he could find it within himself to be placating tonight; he wanted desperately to make this heartbreaking goodbye as smooth as possible.

The black Escalade pulled up to the side entrance of the club, and JC fixed his wide eyes on Justin. “J., you know what this place is, right? I mean…” He turned and looked out the window one more time. Sure enough, they were parked just outside one of the biggest almost-gay clubs in Orlando – one of those bars that tried to appeal to a broader audience but still understood its core clientele. JC knew that being parked just barely out of sight wasn’t exactly subtle or prudent. And yet, in a strange twist of events, it was Justin sitting across from him with a grin stretching from ear to ear and JC was the one with all the concerns.

“Yes, I know this place,” Justin told him easily, offering nothing more.

“We can’t, Justin. We can’t go in there,” JC tried to explain, but Justin just kept grinning, looking rather amused as JC tried to convince him he couldn’t possibly be thinking this through. It was an exasperating task, especially when facing that knowing smile, the one that said Justin had already made up his mind and couldn’t be swayed. JC finally gave in, sitting back against the seat and watching Justin carefully. He tried to ignore the flutter of hope that rose within him at Justin’s confident responses.

Moments later, a car drove by, and its headlights forced JC to close his eyes. When he opened them, blinking to bring everything back into focus, JC was suddenly inundated by visions of similar scenes resurfacing from their past: a dilapidated warehouse in Switzerland their first time out, a remote, nameless brick building in America’s heartland the night they first got together, the pounding rhythm that filled an LA dance floor where they celebrated a legal victory. And now tonight, in Orlando, their hometown, and it wasn’t JC pulling Justin around this time. JC swallowed down the rush of emotions that swelled in his chest.

“JC,” Justin finally said, inching his way closer across the bench seat that separated them. “I might be sentimental, but I’m not stupid.” His hand reached out and brushed against JC's leg, his eyes fixed on JC. “It’s fine. You don’t have to worry about anything tonight.”

“C’mon, Justin…” JC tried to reason, but Justin’s fingers were now creeping higher up his thigh, his fingertips pressing just hard enough to let their sensation linger. His hand stilled just before the crease where hip met leg, just out of reach from the sensitive spot JC suddenly, desperately wanted to be touched. He held his breath and waited, shivering when Justin moved closer and his warm breath painted JC’s face with a deep crimson.

“Just. Trust me tonight, okay?” Justin asked him, and JC could think of no other choice but to nod his head.

Justin wove his way back through the crowd that hovered just off the dance floor. He’d escaped for a moment, away from the flushed faces and gyrating bodies pressing in from every side. There had only been one face and one body he’d been focused on all night, and it was currently dancing in the middle of a large crush of people, arms up in the air, eyes closed, head tossed back to expose the long column of neck now glistening with sweat.

God, he’s beautiful, Justin thought shamelessly, letting his eyes rake over every inch of JC's body. He couldn’t help it, not with the decision about to be set before them. He let the image engulf him, burning it into some indelible place in his mind to keep forever, no matter what.

It wasn’t long before JC drew him in again and he was winding his way to the center of the dance floor. He caught JC from behind, his large hands wrapping low around JC's hips and his fingers pressing into the tight muscles of JC’s abdomen. JC instinctively relaxed against him, recognizing Justin’s scent, the unique press of his body and his motions of seduction. Justin was overwhelmed by the man in front of him, and he wrapped his arms even tighter, pulling JC backwards until their bodies were flush against each other and then pulling still, as if he could keep them together like that forever.

JC grinned and rested his head back against Justin’s shoulder, but he didn’t open eyes. His hands reached back and curled around Justin’s waist and then down lower, and Justin couldn’t help but roll his hips to the rhythm surrounding them, his hands pulling and pushing JC in counter time. For the next two hours, that was all he noticed – the slide of JC's body against his, the warmth, the surrender and the music that surrounded and guided them along.

They were shooed off the floor and out the door at 2 a.m., neither knowing where the time had gone. It was JC who finally grabbed Justin’s hand, leading them to the side door and motioning for their driver to pull up. Justin was disoriented as he stepped outside, lost at the absence of the beat and the closeness of JC. He stared at the door handle like he couldn’t really remember where to pull, and JC reached around him and pulled the door open himself without bothering to hide his grin.

The smugness on JC's face was enough to wake Justin up, to make him recognize that they were on their way home and the night was quickly slipping away, out of his reach. He had no more time to waste. His body tensed as he acknowledged the moment, as he scrambled for words and tried to blink away the sluggishness that accompanied the alcohol and need circulating through his veins. He closed his eyes and tried to focus.

“J?” came a soft voice a few moments later. “What’s going on? What’s going through your head?”

Justin looked at him, hiding nothing in his eyes, not the fear, not the need, not the questions left to be answered. JC read it all, and his face changed – still gentle but no longer carefree. They watched each other for a long time, letting the gravity of the moment settle in. Justin finally recognized his moment to speak and took a deep breath.

“JC,” he said, watching his fingers as they traced the seams in the seat. “I brought you here tonight because… I mean, of course because of the memories and our history and everything that’s meant to me… Because it’s meant a lot, JC. So much,” he told him, waiting for their eyes to meet so he knew JC had heard. JC gave him a simple nod, and Justin took a deep breath before he continued. “But I also wanted to talk to you.” He looked up at JC, taking in his open, patient face. “We started this way once. It seems like forever ago now, but I didn’t want to… to go into this break without you knowing that what I said back then hasn’t changed.”

JC's expression didn’t waiver, his control a trait that Justin had always envied. Justin pressed on through the anxiety building in his chest. “You’re still one of the most important people in my life; you’ve been with me through everything. We’ve made it through shitty times and back again; things that were our fault and things that weren’t, and…” He swallowed down the lump rising in his throat, ignored the twisting in his stomach. “And I still love you, JC,” he finished softly.

JC’s breath caught, just enough for Justin to recognize it. Justin willed him to speak, to say something, anything that would calm the fierce thumping of his heart. It seemed millennia passed before he finally did.

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” JC admitted, his eyes meeting Justin’s for a moment and then blinking away only to drift right back again.

“I want you to be honest,” Justin told him, scooting in closer to the form leaning against the opposite door, holding his eyes this time. “I know I’ve got a lot on my plate right now,” he told him, “and I know… I know it’s bad timing for me to be asking you all these questions right now, right before we take off, but I didn’t like thinking about what would happen if we didn’t. If we waited too long.”

JC was silent, his telling eyes studying Justin carefully. Justin accepted the silence for as long as he could stand before he spoke again. “I know that with everything coming up, it’s not fair for me to ask you to…” The next words got caught and he struggled to clear them. “It’s not fair to ask you to be with me through everything that’s coming. I know it’s not fair, and you do, too, because we’ve been there…” His mouth twisted into a frown and he looked away, suddenly wondering why he had decided this was a good idea. It was his silly romantic side making a fool of him again.

“Yeah, I was there,” JC said to him, his voice thick but even. Justin turned back, watching as JC glanced out the window and then back again. “But I’ve been here, too,” he said finally, “where we’re not together, and the only reason seems to be because of everyone else and not because of us… And Justin, if I’ve learned anything from that, it’s that everyone else probably isn’t a good enough reason. We tried it on our own, and… I mean, you had Britney for a while, but I was never really happy.” He looked away, embarrassed at his admission, and Justin moved closer. He reached out a hand and gripped JC’s knee, rubbing his thumb back and forth over his thigh.

“Britney wasn’t you,” Justin said confidently. “It hurt, what she did, and she was a friend. They both were, but I got through that,” Justin told him. “Sometimes, though,” he continued, his voice swelling with emotion, “sometimes I try to imagine what it would have been like if that was how we had ended it… If one of us had cheated, and I…” He trailed off, his throat closed around the words. “I can’t even think about it,” he admitted. “I don’t even let myself go there, and that’s how I know this is different, how I know that this means so much more.”

Silence settled in, and Justin could see the wheels turning in JC's head, could see him sifting through his words and searching for the truth. Justin fought to ignore the nerves churning his stomach, allowing JC his time.

“You don’t have to imagine it,” JC finally said. His eyes met Justin’s and didn’t waiver. “I wouldn’t do that to you. You have to know that.”

Justin struggled for a steady breath. “I do,” he murmured.

“Justin,” JC said softly, his eyes half-mast, though whether it was out of regret or need Justin couldn’t tell. He couldn’t wait any longer to find out, either. He gripped JC's knee even tighter, using it as leverage to pull himself close, feeling the heat soak through him when their thighs finally met. JC didn’t move closer but didn’t move away, so Justin made up the difference, angling in and pausing when their lips were mere centimeters apart.

“JC,” he whispered and then closed his eyes, brushing his mouth gently over JC's in the barest hint of a kiss. Even the slightest touch sent tingles down Justin’s spine, and JC gasped softly against him. His exhale hit Justin’s lips, stoking the heat even higher and making his face flush. JC’s lips parted just enough for Justin to take advantage; he cradled JC's bottom lip between his own, using just enough pressure to get a taste of the satiny inside, letting their lips slide easily over one another. It was JC who pressed in further, allowing Justin’s top lip to slip between his own and sucking gently, making Justin moan. Justin’s tongue slid across JC's lower lip, desperate to taste what JC offered.

JC murmured something unintelligible against his lips, and Justin knew JC well enough to sense he wanted this just as much. He angled his head to the side, shivering when he felt JC's hands climb up his back and into his hair, pulling him in deeper. Justin delved into JC's mouth and their tongues twisted together immediately, slipping against each other in a fiercely intimate expression. The absorbed each others’ taste, remembered the slick heat that had driven them wild so many times before. Their mouths explored until they both gasped for breath, pulling apart just enough to let the oxygen in.

Their eyes opened slowly, each pair sparkling in the sparse moonlight. Neither man felt the need to acknowledge the shift that had just taken place; it was too obvious and they knew each other too well. Small smiles gradually spread across their faces and relaxation settled into their bones. Justin collapsed against JC's chest, burying his head in the cavern of the other man’s neck.

“It was a tough, getting back here,” Justin murmured minutes later against JC's chest.

JC absently rubbed Justin’s upper arm. “There was a long time I never thought we would,” he admitted softly.

Justin nodded but kept his smile, too happy and relieved to do anything else. “It was a long and winding road, that’s for sure.”

JC returned Justin’s grin and cupped his cheek, lifting his head to meet his eyes. “Here’s to the one still in front of us, huh?”

Justin offered his agreement with a simple kiss, his lips lingering to capture several more before he finally pulled away. Two pairs of blue eyes met in the darkness and they shared a smile, ready for the road ahead.


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