nsync in black and white

Disclaimer: this is fiction. We made it up.

What Not to Expect

by beth666ann, written for Sariah

Britney had had to leave early in the morning, and the room seemed diminished without her: no bottles of expensive lotion and shampoo, no tiny pots and jars of vividly colored makeup, no tubes of lipstick strewn across the counter, no shimmering, mysterious undergarments draped over the chairs.

Now Justin was left alone with the detritus of their two days together: dried out rose petals crushed and disintegrating in the bed, bits of them clinging to his skin; sagging, burned-down candles surrounding the Jacuzzi; empty bottles of champagne lolling sideways on the tables and floors.

Justin rolled over in the bed and buried his face into Britney's pillow, inhaling the lingering scent of her perfume and shampoo, his eyes falling shut as he flashed back to the nights they'd spent together.

He was far more uptight about how things were between them than Britney was -- that had been apparent from the first night, when she'd actually giggled into the silence of the room as he'd earnestly, industriously tried to find the right way to touch her, the way to make her lose her head, the way to immerse her in the confusing, overwhelming sea of his desire. As he'd adjusted the position of his fingers, the pressure, Britney had sighed, stretched, and moaned softly, all good signs, but when he'd tried to increase the intensity of it all and take her there with him, she'd slowly gone still, breathing evenly, not in the ragged, desperate manner he wanted to evoke, and then finally laughed and grabbed his wrist, stilling his hand.

"It's good just to be close to you, you know?" she'd murmured into the darkness, and it had been the umpteenth time in the past few months that she'd said this or something very like it, and Justin had been unable to stop himself from wincing. He hated failing or losing, and as of late he had been doing both, because you didn't, you never went on with your own pleasure without fulfilling the girl's as well. And yet again, Britney was putting on the brakes, and yet again she wanted to hug him, press her full breasts into him and wriggle into him and cuddle, and it had been torture, utter torture, to come to terms with all of it, to let his own erection fade and then join her in these calmer pursuits.

It was just -- he wanted things between them to be perfect; he wanted the sex to be breathtaking, transcendent, and beautiful for them both; he wanted to sweep her away and make her part of himself. Why was that so difficult to achieve?

It wasn't so hard, he thought somewhat resentfully, to please the girls he picked up -- every last one of them went soft and lax in his arms, every last one of them softly breathed his name and looked into his eyes in amazement and awe. And it hadn't been this difficult during the brief, intense time when he'd been with JC, either. But thinking about these things got uncomfortable, and Justin felt his face burn against the cool cotton of the sheet as he tried to stop his thoughts before they took him further down a path he wasn't too eager to travel.

His need to be close to Britney was very nearly overwhelming: he longed for her to tell him she was his, to have her put herself under his protection and be, well, moved by him, moved in a fundamental way that would forever link them. He was so ready for it, so willing and eager to build that with her, and she just -- she wasn't coming through, or he wasn't coming through. Really, neither of them was coming -- and that was the problem, and he had to fix it. And he was going to fix it; he was going to think of a way to make all of this happen exactly the way he wanted it to even if it killed him.

But right now, he couldn't stand another minute in this hotel room. Justin groaned and rolled out of bed, dragging on sweats and a worn t-shirt and crushing his curls under a bandanna before stumbling toward his most recent favorite pair of sneakers, shoving his feet into them, and grabbing the keycard to the room from the table. He'd go downstairs for breakfast -- there was a private dining room where they'd all been eating -- and see if that made him feel any better.

He smiled at Mike in the hallway, gave him the traditional "I just got lucky and I'm a happy man" handshake and back-slap, and then muttered, "Food," and waited as Mike spoke into his earpiece to check out that everything was all right. Justin shifted slowly from foot to foot as he waited, then raised eyebrows in interest as down the hall, the door to JC's room opened and a fully clothed Bobbie slowly emerged. At first he could see only the back of her head and her denim-clad ass: she was probably groping JC one last time after a night of incredibly satisfying, mind-blowing sex, Justin figured darkly, and then had that theory confirmed as she laughed slowly, then dragged JC, who was wearing nothing but a pair of jeans slid low on his hips, partway into the hall with her for what appeared to be a long, deep kiss. It was rude to watch, but if JC didn't want Justin to see him sliding his hands down and over Bobbie's round ass, then JC shouldn't have been touching it in a fairly public hallway. Bobbie laughed, then broke the kiss for a moment and leaned in for an intense whispered conversation with JC. Then, finally, she hugged him one more time and turned around to wave casually at Justin before slowly heading with Lonnie down the hallway and toward the elevator.

JC did not look at Justin; he just yawned and stood motionless in the hallway for a moment, gazing steadily down at his bare feet, which Justin knew him to be more than a little vain about. So annoying; JC was so, so annoying.

"Are you going to eat or just stare at yourself?" Justin's question was definitely on the loud side, but it still took JC more than a few seconds to slowly lift his head and look blearily at him.

"What?" he murmured, all stupid and spaced out, and then shook his head and said, "Um, yeah. Just give me a minute," and stepped back into his room without closing the door.

That, Justin figured, was invitation enough, and so he headed down the hall and entered the room behind JC.

"Focus, okay? I'm hungry," Justin muttered somewhat irritably as he caught sight of JC staring dreamily at the wall above his suitcase.

There were no rose petals, no candles, and no lingerie in this room, only a very rumpled bed, the sheets twisted and pushed to the bottom. Justin looked unflinchingly at it and imagined Bobbie twisting and desperate under JC, moaning urgently, her legs wrapped tight around his skinny torso and him moving rhythmically into her, calling out her name and bringing them both off. Then Justin looked across the room at him again. JC seemed to be having trouble tying his shoe.

"For fuck's sake, will you get on with it?"

JC looked at Justin then, really looked at him, not the spacey look, but the familiar on-the-verge-of-annoyance look Justin knew so well he sometimes saw it in his sleep, and then said, "Chill, all right?"

"Look, I'm hungry, okay?"

"I'll be right there." JC shoved his foot into his other shoe, then quickly, neatly tied it and joined him.

"Had your mind on something else, eh?" Justin teased as they headed to the doorway, and JC made a noise that might've been a snort and might've been a laugh.

"Sure, J, whatever," he said, and the two of them proceeded wordlessly to the dining room.

After a couple of cups of coffee, Justin felt infinitely less grumpy, and so when JC did exactly what JC always did when Britney visited, which was to lift his head, grin at him, and say, "So you get some good lovin' from your lady?" he was able to hear it without wincing.

To JC, that was a perfectly reasonable question phrased in a perfectly reasonable way, and Justin knew from past experience that to mock him or tease him about it would get him nowhere, and so he simply said, "It was good, yeah. She's great."

JC smiled then. "I'm so happy for you, man. You really deserve for this to work, and I just -- it's cool, J. Really cool."

Justin looked sharply, carefully at him, searching for irony, for sarcasm, for any trace of mockery or doubt in JC's expression or eyes, but he found nothing. JC had either become far, far too accomplished at hiding things from him, or JC was in fact really happy for him. For some reason, Justin didn't find either explanation very satisfactory.

"Thanks" was really the only response to JC's comment, and Justin gave it to him before gently punching JC's arm and saying, "And it seems like things are still going well with Bobbie, yeah?"

"Yeah, it's great," JC said automatically, and then went inside himself a bit, just like he always did when he was asked about personal things.

"JC," Justin said, injured but determined not to show it. "Really?"

JC made a random, confusing gesture with his hand.

"Um. That doesn't really tell me anything, C."

JC squirmed in his seat, then made more random gestures before finally shrugging. "I don't know -- it's just life. Sometimes it's perfect, sometimes not so much."

Justin tried to sound casual. "You two have a fight? Really? Cause from where I was standing, it didn't look like that at all."

"Surely you know by now that things almost never always look like what they really are," JC said tartly, and then looked away and swallowed some hot tea. "We're not breaking up; it's not a disaster. It's just -- relationships are hard sometimes."

He still didn't understand exactly what JC was going through -- he'd have to wait until later, when JC was drunk or tired or something to ferret that out -- but Justin agreed whole-heartedly with that last sentiment.

"That they are," he said, firmly, and sat back in his chair and felt worldly and content.

"Oh, please," JC suddenly shot back, and Justin widened eyes in surprise. "You've got problems? You think you've got problems?"

"What the fuck --"

"Sorry, sorry," JC said, then reached out and squeezed Justin's arm. "I just -- you and Britney -- it's such a storybook, you know?"

If it was a storybook, it was a pretty fucked up one. "No, I wouldn't know," Justin said flatly to JC, hoping the censure would come through in his tone, because he was pretty sure he couldn’t put it into words. "To me, it's just my life."

JC smiled almost sweetly at him, then touched him once more, fingers ghosting over the back of Justin's hand and almost making him shiver. "I know," he said quietly, and then smiled again. "I know."


Britney's visit during the tour was just about to end, and she and Justin were wrapped up tightly together, a single entity composed of four arms, four legs, and two partially open mouths that periodically emitted low crooning sounds. Normally the two of them sought more privacy, but on this given afternoon they were lucky to be together at all: Britney had had to work hard to convince her people that if they let her ride with Justin on the bus to the next city, she would leave without incident once they reached the hotel. She had obligations of her own -- an increasing number of them lately -- so it had probably been something of a sacrifice for her to do this, but she had wanted to do it very much, and when Britney or Justin wanted something a lot, they tended to get it.

So now they were right there on the couch across from JC, all adolescent straining and giggling. JC wasn't really watching them -- he was half-heartedly taking in a movie while falling in and out of sleep -- but they were so deeply wrapped up in their earnestness and their devotion to each other, so gorgeous with their blonde hair and sparkling smiles, so completely golden and glittering, that it was impossible to ignore them completely. JC and Bobbie were never going to have the kind of beauty Justin and Britney had: they were both too skinny (JC) and too full-figured (Bobbie), too inarticulate (JC) and too sharp (Bobbie), too lustful (JC) and too lustful (Bobbie). Their relationship was so different from Britney's and Justin's that the two couples probably shouldn't even have been allowed to exist in the same universe.

And yet it was hard to be jealous. Justin and Britney were beautiful together, to be sure, but there was something almost unnerving about their relationship, something that had always made JC step back in amazement and confusion. He hadn't been kidding when he'd made that storybook comment to Justin a while back: it was almost as if Justin and Britney had bought The Idiot's Guide to Puppy Love, underlined the good parts, and then doggedly determined to live them out word for word. They embodied every single romantic stereotype JC could think of, what with the dreamy stares and the bubbly laughter, the roses and the candles, the nicknames and the baby talk. And more astounding still, it seemed to work for them; it really seemed to make the both of them happy.

But no, he wasn't jealous, he definitely was not jealous. If he felt anything at all about them, it was more like -- well. It just wasn't JC's favorite thing in the world to think about that relationship was all.

And why should he think about it anyway? Why should it in any way, shape, or form affect his life? Really, it had nothing to do with him. He was absolutely -- okay. He was for the most part quite content with himself and his life right now, and nothing that Justin and Britney did or didn't do could affect that.

"Jay-cee's going to think we can't do anything but grope," Britney said, pulling away from Justin long enough to meet JC's eyes and smile brilliantly at him.

When he finally responded, Justin spoke breathlessly. "Nah -- C knows it's good. C knows we're fine."

"He's right," JC automatically told Britney, sounding (he hoped) light-hearted and pleasant. "I'm really happy for you guys."

"Aw. That's so sweet!" Britney said, delighted, and then went back to kissing Justin.

JC personally thought he'd come off as more scary than sincere, but if it worked for Britney, then that was good. And if Justin was happy in this relationship, then Justin should stay in it. Absolutely. If it sometimes stung to hear Justin say that Britney was his best friend, that he'd never met anyone who understood him the way she did, that he'd never met anyone he connected with so deeply -- well, that was just life, and JC was going to have to accept things for what they were. And if it was sometimes a bit . . . uncomfortable to remember that not that long ago at all, it had been Justin and JC entangled on that couch, and that slightly less long ago than that, for about maybe three days, he and Bobbie had been just as happy and as oblivious as the couple across the room from him now were -- well, again. It just wasn't germane. There was no good reason to begrudge what Brit and Justin had. And he didn't.

"No!" Britney called out unhappily as the bus slowly glided to a stop in front of the hotel, and she and Justin increased the intensity of their embrace for a last few precious seconds. JC turned off the movie and slowly got to his feet, yawning and scratching his stomach before stumbling back to the bunks to retrieve his shoes and the bag he'd brought on the bus with him. When he returned, a couple of bodyguards were on the bus and Britney was in the process of leaving, her face stained with tears, her eyes wide and sad.

"I'll call you real soon, baby," Justin said in the new, tender voice he seemed to have developed just for Britney, and JC very nearly left the room again until one of Brit's bodyguards gently took her arm and guided her off the bus.

"Damn," Justin said softly, his shoulders sagging as he watched her walk away.

JC lightly patted him on the back, murmuring, "It's okay. You'll see her again soon."

"That's hardly the point." Justin still seemed sad, but he gave JC a small half-smile and then stood up straight again.


Justin took off his headphones and slid open the curtain to his bunk -- he hadn't been able to concentrate on his music anyhow, not with Chris striding furiously up and down the galley, his eyes dark and hard, and most certainly not with the low-level, constant bickering that had been going on all afternoon between Bobbie and JC. And now Chris was pissed off about it -- really pissed off, actually, which meant that he was probably about a nanosecond away from doing something foolhardy and regrettable.

In fact, Chris had now leaned against the wall and begun murmuring, "Kill them, kill them, going to kill them so very hard," in a scary monotone.

Justin quickly slid out of his bunk. "Look -- just don't let them get to you, okay?"

Chris whirled around and gave Justin the patented Can You Really Be That Stupid? look -- an expression with which, Justin was sorry to say, he was very, very familiar.

"You have heard this shit, right? You have heard her going at him for hours straight?"

Justin shrugged helplessly. It would actually have been impossible not to hear it: Bobbie was not shy about sharing her feelings when she felt strongly about something, and JC had apparently infuriated her even more than he did usually. But really, anyone in a long-term relationship with JC, friends or otherwise, had to be fairly used to a certain amount of infuriation: half the time, JC was spacey and disengaged and the rest he was self-righteous and pissy, so it was impossible for anyone who cared for him to remain completely sanguine. Justin knew that only too well.

So Chris really shouldn't've been surprised by anything going on in there, and it now fell to Justin to somehow make that point to him.

"Look, Chris, you know how JC is -- you know how mad we all get at him. I mean, you can hardly blame her, can you? From what I've heard all she's doing is complaining that they don't get enough time together -- and that has to be true on some level."

Chris pressed his mouth together in a tight line, then heaved a huge, frustrated sigh. "I get that, I totally get that. But there's being angry with someone and then there's being a class-A raving bitch, and this --"

"Chris!" Justin hissed, horrified, because Chris had actually raised his voice when saying those last few words, and if JC heard . . . well, no matter how pissed off he was at Bobbie, he sure as hell wasn't going to take that.

Chris must've known it on some level, too, because he fell silent, his eyes glittering with excitement, and for a moment he and Justin stood motionless, listening somewhat anxiously (Justin) and somewhat eagerly (Chris) to the rise and fall of Bobbie's ranting.

" . . . and I'm sick of it, Josh, absolutely sick of you, and all you do is just sit there like an idiot and don't say a goddamned word! How'm I supposed to feel about that?"

Justin looked down and waited, straining to hear what JC would say to that, but his reply was either too soft or too short to decipher, and a few seconds after that, Bobbie started in again.

"Jesus, I hate her, but you have to give her a certain amount of credit," Chris said in disgust. "I mean, he is a pussy -- all he does is let her walk all over him, again and again."

In a just world, JC would have come equipped with a user's manual. In this one, it all too often fell to Justin to explain his strange behavior. "No, see, it's not like that."

Chris, of course, didn't believe him. "Really? Okay, so then what is it like? What's it like when a woman harangues a guy for well over an hour? And yeah, admittedly an often-annoying guy, but, I mean --" Chris made a fierce, frustrated gesture in the air. "All the time, Justin, he talks shit -- he talks about how in love he is, about how great things are with them -- and this is how it goes? This is how it really is? He takes this on a regular basis?"

"But he's not taking it. He's not," Justin repeated when Chris's eyebrows rose incredulously. "That's not how it works."

"Then enlighten me, oh Justin, oh great understander of human life and love, because from where I've sitting, he's pretty much letting her drive a truck right over him."

"What he's doing," Justin said quickly so he didn't have time to remember experiencing what he was about to describe, "is refusing to fight her -- and that makes her madder than anything, and he knows that. And he -- well, it's JC. You know how he feels about conflict. You know he'll do anything to avoid it."

Chris's eyes cut through him. "If he's trying to infuriate her, then he's not really avoiding conflict, now is he?"

Justin shrugged. "Of course not. But it's just -- that's how he fights back. Sometimes."

Chris rolled his eyes at the last part of that, and Justin felt a totally unexpected flash of fury, which was so wrong, because the very last thing they needed right now on this bus was more anger. But somehow he had to make this point. He had to explain to Chris just how impossible relationships with JC could be.

"Look -- you remember with Nikki, right? You remember the phone conversations in Germany?" Justin looked hopefully at Chris, who stared stonily at him.

"You never heard him talk to Nikki, so don't pretend you did. He was all private and shit about that."

"No he wasn't -- he --" Justin broke off suddenly, his face reddening a bit.

Chris now looked sharklike. "Go on."

"Well. I just. When we roomed together, he'd sometimes. And I heard. And I figured it out, okay? Jesus." Justin stepped toward Chris, not beyond using his newfound height to bring this stupid, uncomfortable argument to an end. Sometimes he forgot that the first rule of having had a relationship with your bandmate was that you never talked about the relationship with your bandmate, especially to all the other bandmates.

Suddenly, Justin wanted this conversation to end almost as much as he wanted JC and Bobbie to shut the fuck up.

"Whatever, Chris -- believe what you like. See if I care. I personally think he's probably doing just fine in there, but you can draw whatever conclusions you want from it, okay?'

"Hm," Chris said, staring intently, unpleasantly at Justin. "And just when we all thought the puppy love had ended."

Something snapped in Justin then, something thin and taut and intense. "You shut up about that -- you don't talk about that," he threatened, and then immediately got even more furious, because Chris was actually laughing at him; he was leaning back, clutching his stomach, and shaking in mirth. Being laughed at was quite possibly the single thing Justin hated most in the universe, and Chris knew that, and this whole day sucked; it just really, really sucked. The only thing left to do was begin shouting.

"You don't know a thing about us, not about our friendship and not about anything else, and I am not going to sit here and take that shit from you, Chris, do you hear me?"

"At this point, who doesn't?" Chris said wickedly, delightedly, and then looked pointedly at the door to the room as it swiftly slid open and Bobbie stepped in her, face pinched with displeasure.

"Could the two of you maybe keep it down in here?" she said, and then, for the first time, JC did raise his voice to her.

"Bobbie, just leave them alone, okay? You're mad at me -- don't go taking it out on my friends."

"Oh, and I suppose you think you can tell me what to do?" Bobbie snapped back at him, and then Chris, who had been smiling almost gleefully ever since the door had opened, got into it, too.

"Look, lady, given that you pretty much just fucked up an entire bus ride for us all, I really don't think you have too much room to talk, all right?"

"Don't you dare speak to me in that tone," Bobbie began, and Justin had already begun taking a few steps backward, because he knew, he absolutely knew, that JC wasn't going to let Chris be rude to Bobbie, and that things were about to get even uglier.

And sure enough, JC was soon standing behind Bobbie and glaring at Chris, and then everyone started yelling at everyone, and all Justin could do at that moment was take even more steps backward and watch the whole thing in silence.


Justin had at long last been on the brink of getting some sleep, but the knock on the door to his hotel room was clearly JC's, so he slowly pulled himself out of the bed and stumbled to the door, self-consciously readjusting the bandanna on his head and yanking his tee shirt down over his shorts.

"Yeah?" he said, not at all trying to disguise the fact that he was exhausted.

JC looked tired, too: he had a baseball cap low on his head and was in tattered sweats, and Justin wasn't going to feel sorry for him, he wasn't, even though Chris had yelled at him a lot and Bobbie had stormed off and taken a plane back to California once they'd arrived at the hotel.

"Can I come in?" JC quietly asked, and Justin nodded, leading him to the couch and sitting down next to him. He didn't turn on any lights, because damn it, he was tired -- he had wanted to sleep on that bus, and JC, Chris, and Bobbie had ruined that. A sudden, horrible thought entered Justin's mind: if he fucked up the show tonight, it would totally, totally be their fault.

"First of all, I'm sorry," JC said, and Justin, recognizing this as A Moment, because it wasn't all that often that JC just apologized like that, sat up and looked at him with more interest, wishing illogically that he had on pants or was better dressed or something.

JC apparently wasn't seeing things the same way. Now that Justin was sitting up straight, he slouched even further back into the couch, forcing Justin to turn around and look over his shoulder to properly see him.

"It was a shitty day and I'm sorry Bobbie and I argued and made you feel uncomfortable on the bus."

Since that was in essence Chris's complaint exactly, Justin figured that JC must've apologized to him first. He wasn't so sure how he felt about that, but he cleared his facial expression of any censure and nodded at JC.

"S'okay. It happens. I get it."

"Yeah, but that doesn't make it right." JC closed his eyes and stretched, arms straining above his head, the hem of his tee shirt riding up to show a sliver of his stomach. For someone who worked out only half as much as most guys, JC sure was defined, Justin thought with admiration.

"God," JC groaned, and then rubbed his eyes and opened them again.

"Look," Justin said, dragging his eyes back to JC's face. "If you want -- if there's anything I can do to help you through this Bobbie thing, I -- I'll --"

"I appreciate it, Justin, I do, but that's not necessary." JC sounded smooth and closed off, and Justin knew for a fact he wasn't going to get any more out of him on that topic.

Still, he had to try.

"Okay, but just remember that, all right?"

JC smiled faintly at him in the darkness.

"Thanks J, and I mean that."

Justin shrugged uncomfortably.

"You know, Chris told me what he said to you."

"He told you what he said about what?" Justin asked, instantly weirded out but unable to hide it. He was for shit at hiding his feelings from anyone, but it was particularly difficult with JC, who had known him far too long and far too well to be fooled.

JC paused for a moment and then, as was his way, proceeded to make things even more difficult. "He told me he teased you about -- well. About us."

"I -- it's okay. It didn't bother me." The words came out far too quickly and emphatically to be convincing, and Justin and JC both knew it.

"Justin," JC said solemnly, and Justin now wished that he'd turned on the lights, put on some pants, sat across the room, done anything in the world to avoid being so fucking vulnerable in front of JC.

"Justin, they have no idea, okay? None of them do. They tease you because they know it upsets you, but it's not even --" JC laughed. "No one but us knows how it really was, and you just -- you shouldn't let them get to you."

Justin shrugged. "Okay."

"And for what it's worth, J -- that time . . . "

"Stop," Justin quickly said, because he was about to start shaking or acting like a fool, but JC determinedly kept talking -- JC, the most stubborn, impossible person in the world.

"It's just -- It was -- it was good," JC said, and then softly added, "It was really good. I just -- I mean -- now that you've got Britney and all --"

"Can we please not --" Justin emphatically began, and JC began murmuring something consoling, but Justin rode right over it. "Can we please just not talk about it?" he finished, then wished intensely that he could take that back because it had sounded so damn pleading.

"Okay, okay." JC almost seemed hurt now, and what the fuck was up with that? JC was the one who had ended it all -- JC was the one who had --

And Justin didn't even want to talk or think about this, not for one damn second more, so finally, he just stood up and gazed down at JC in the darkness, silently but forcefully willing him to leave.

When that didn't work, Justin resorted to words. "So don't worry about it," he said in what he hoped was a casual and dismissive fashion. "Uh, the Bobbie thing, or really anything, for that matter. We're cool, JC. It's good."

JC sat in silence for just a beat too long, but to Justin's relief, he didn't return to the more upsetting portion of their conversation -- he just gracefully unfolded himself from the couch, cupped the back of Justin's neck for a second, and then headed out.


She was supposed to be eating a salad, but she'd bribed Fe into getting cheeseburgers and fries, a task almost too easily accomplished because Britney couldn't seem to stop crying and moping and Fe was freaking out about it. Britney picked up her burger and felt herself tremble in anticipation as the paper crackled when she unwrapped it. It had been so, so long since she'd had real food -- she had been on this insane diet for three months now, three long months without cheating or slipping. A single cheeseburger in the face of all that was practically nothing, and besides, she was fucking starving, and she'd dance it all off tonight anyway.

"All right then," Fe said after they'd finished eating, quickly gathering up the wrappers and stuffing them in her purse so no one could find them. "You've had your food. Now talk to me."

Britney leaned back in her chair and put on her interview face, trying to look thoughtful, trying to buy time. "I don't know. It's just -- everything. The pressure, the travel, the touring. I guess it's just getting to me."

Fe rolled her eyes. "You love touring more than anyone I know, Britney Jean, so don't even try to push that excuse by me. I was really thinking more along the lines of you maybe telling me what happened when Wade came to visit today."

"Oh. That." Britney stood up and headed across the room, scowling as she tried to think up something convincing. Problem was, she was a horrible liar, and Fe knew it. If she absolutely had to lie, Britney could -- and oh god, after today she was going to have to, and to Justin to boot, but Britney didn't want to think about that right now -- but most of the time, it simply didn't seem worth the trouble to think up something and then have to track it through sixty-seven subsequent conversations. It didn't get you anywhere but confused, and in the end, it was usually far easier just to confess. And it wasn't as if Britney had ever done anything unforgivable -- she was pretty sure she wasn't even capable of doing something that no one could forgive her for.

But she still didn't want to talk to Fe about this.

"Give me a cigarette and I'll tell you whatever you want to know," she tried, pretty damn sure that Fe would rather die than hand over one of her Virginia Slims, but this day was apparently meant to be surprising in more ways than one, because although she cussed at her, Fe nonetheless dug into her purse, came up with the platinum cigarette case Britney had given her last Christmas, and motioned furtively and impatiently toward the balcony.

"Your mama's going to kill me if she finds out about this," Fe hissed as they stood shivering together in the gray light, smoke wreathing their heads. "And for Christ's sake, Britney, you're not even inhaling, so I don't see why you bother."

Britney took the cigarette out of her mouth and looked at it. Inhaling so wasn't the point, but Fe was never going to get that.

Fe glanced back through the sliding glass door they'd come out of, the cords in her neck taut with anxiety.

"Okay, little girl. I've done just about everything I can for you, so it's time to talk."

Britney blew a cloud of smoke over the balcony and watched it blend with the fog covering the city. "What did you want to know again?"

"Dammit, Britney!" Fe very nearly stomped her foot in frustration, and suddenly Britney felt bad. All Fe was trying to do was what she always did, which was take care of Britney. And if she was going to do that properly, she had to have all the information, so from her perspective, this was a very important conversation.

But Britney wasn't quite sure there were even words for what had driven her to ask Wade to come out to run through a few dance steps before the show tonight. It was a confusing, roiling mess -- Justin was involved in it somehow, Justin and his stupid bitching about what a slave driver Wade had been when *NSYNC had gotten ready for their own tour, but it wasn't just Justin, wasn't it? It couldn't have been. She wouldn't have invited Wade to spite Justin -- after all, she wasn't even mad at Justin. Justin was the perfect boyfriend: tender, sweet, and considerate. Even as she thought about it, Britney had to smile. He was just so wonderful, absolutely the greatest guy in the universe, and she had him; he was definitely, absolutely hers. There was nothing Justin wouldn't do for her, nothing he couldn't do for her.

It was then, of course, that the memory of Wade's head between her thighs chose to surface, the memory of all that spiky hair, the low, enthusiastic sounds he'd made as his tongue had moved over her, inside of her -- everywhere, just everywhere, and he'd known exactly what to do, and exactly how to do it. She'd howled so loudly her throat hurt when she came, and that -- that --

Well. That wasn't exactly a problem she'd been having with Justin lately, now was it? God bless him, he tried -- he tried so hard it was painful, actually -- but it just wasn't working.

Sex was supposed to be a wonderful, transcendent experience, wasn't it? Sex was supposed to be the be-all and end-all, the most incredibly intimate, pleasurable thing anyone could do. That was why she had waited all those years for it; that was why she had been so reluctant to cross that line with Justin. So to have finally have made that decision and then have it . . . well, suck, had been more than a little disappointing.

Justin said that you were supposed to practice at it. Justin said that the more you did it, the better it got. Justin said that sooner than either of them probably even believed, things would be fabulous for them. All Wade had said was "Open your legs now," and then proceeded to drive her nearly insane with pleasure.

Truth be told, the sex thing wasn't all that was annoying her about Justin lately, now was it? Ever since *NSYNC had exploded, it'd been harder to get to see him, and when she did, he was often so drunk with his own success that it was hard to get him to appreciate what was going on with her. And the guys, the other guys -- they were always around, and it was getting increasingly difficult to drag Justin away from them. And even if she did get him alone for a while, the rest of the band was still with them anyway, because Justin was almost incapable of not talking about them, particularly JC. JC this, JC that, JC thinks X, Y, and Z -- she'd had to hear this shit from Justin ever since MMC, for god's sake. It was almost as if Justin loved JC more than he did her, almost as if --

No, no. Justin loved her; Justin was true to her. No one had the intensity and purity of feeling that Justin did, and when he looked into her eyes and told her that he loved her, Britney knew that he meant it. And the second he stopped meaning it, she'd see that, too -- Justin was utterly incapable of lying to her, and Britney knew it. She knew him far too well -- she saw everything.

That was just it: she loved Justin, and she knew Justin, and Justin knew her, and it was perfect, almost; there was really just the one small thing. The gift of his love was so extraordinary, so beautiful; it would be hell to try to survive without it, absolutely stupid to waste it or throw it away.

As skilled and slick -- oh god, his tongue had been slick -- as Wade was, something about him made Britney uneasy. He was always too quick with the right remark, always just a bit too eager with compliments and flattery. In sum, he was ambitious -- and that was fine, because everyone Britney cared about was ambitious; she hardly knew how to respect people who weren't -- but the ambitious people she knew had already achieved their goals, and Wade, quite simply, hadn't. Not yet, anyway, though he probably would soon. But until then, Britney wasn't sure she wanted to devote herself to someone who was still climbing, still willing to do anything to get ahead. It was much better to stick with people who had already done that -- people who were already confident and secure in themselves. People like Justin.

"Britney?" Fe asked softly, and when Britney looked in her eyes, a tidal wave of guilt hit her. In many ways, Fe was like Justin -- Fe was always going to love her, always going to be there for her, always going to take care of her. All that mattered in the world to Fe was making Britney happy -- and that was how Britney needed it.

No matter how aggravating Fe and Justin were, Britney couldn't stand life without them, probably literally couldn't survive without them, and she knew it. To do anything to jeopardize that would be downright asinine, and not even Britney Jean Spears was fool enough to go there.

And Fe was still waiting for her. Britney looked down at her feet, took a half-hearted drag from her cigarette, and then spoke. "I flirted with him, okay? Justin was kind of an ass to me the last time I visited him, and so I just -- I wanted to see what it'd be like with someone else, you know? So there Wade was -- I had him in my room and I talked to him but that was it."

Fe tightened her mouth. "That was it," she softly repeated.

Britney looked right into her eyes. "Yeah," she murmured. "And I already feel like hell about it, so don't tell Justin, okay? He'd never understand, and all I was doing was blowing off some steam, and it's not as if I haven't already been crying about it all day, you know? It's -- it's just so hard sometimes. It's all so hard."

Britney felt her heart slowly pounding as for a long, horrible moment Fe simply stared at her, looked deep into her eyes and tried to search out the truth. Then, finally, her face went soft again, and she leaned in to hug her.

"I know, baby, I know. Long-distance relationships are for shit."

"Fe, oh my god! You're a potty mouth!" Britney exclaimed, and exploded into laughter, frantic, almost hysterical giggles coming out of her so hard and fast it almost hurt. Fe didn't know -- Fe didn't see a single thing! The relief was so intense it almost felt good, and truly it was almost shameful how easy this was.

But still -- Britney was never going to do this again, was never, ever going to put herself in another situation where she had to lie to the people who loved her most. Justin and Fe were far, far too important to her.

"Your phone, your phone," Fe was saying, and in surprise, Britney fumbled in her pocket for it. She'd been so far gone she hadn't even heard it ring.

"Justin," she said softly as she looked at the screen, a rush of joy and anticipation rising in her. She loved him so, so much.

"Don't be too long," Fe mouthed as Britney joyously said, "Hi, baby!" and then waved affectionately at her before heading back into the room.


One thing the lawsuit was supposed to have taught them all was that knowledge was power, that it was essential to be very aware of what was going on around you if you were going to make it in the entertainment business. As true as that was, and as furious as JC still was about being bilked out of all that money, he still privately tended to think that ignorance was underrated. You couldn't be called on, for example, to arbitrate a dispute between your bandmates if you'd been sound asleep on the bus from Chicago to Ann Arbor and hadn't heard a damn word of their extremely involved argument over who had won more times at Mortal Kombat, and you couldn't be held responsible by fans for the fact that your band wasn't staying longer in any given town if all you knew was that you got on the bus and went where they told you to. You couldn't even be yelled at for forgetting your own suitcase if you could demonstrably prove that you had no idea you were supposed to have picked it up yourself.

It had gotten to the point that JC very rarely wanted to know anything, and he'd made it a policy -- whether through sleeping, daydreaming, or polite, spaced-out inattention -- to make sure that he very rarely had to learn things that would give him responsibility or power that he didn't want.

And it was awful of him, but he was especially happy not to understand what was on Bobbie's mind. Knowing what was on Bobbie's mind meant one of two things: either you had done something very wrong to her and had to be made accountable for it, or someone else had done something very wrong to her, and they had to be made accountable for it, and you had to help Bobbie bring them to justice. Quite frankly, it was exhausting, and JC would rather be called -- and had been called, too many times to count -- emotionally distant than have the responsibility of getting drawn into the day's latest crusade. So with Bobbie and as many other people as he could, he tried to keep a reasonable distance -- a safe distance.

Unfortunately for JC, there were some individuals he simply couldn't shut out, certain people whose mental state ended up being important to him whether or not he wanted to participate in it, whether or not he wanted to be accountable to them. His mother was the very first person on that list: she was absolutely unafraid to say, "Joshua, listen; Joshua, do not check out on me. I am not going to permit that," and JC was always helpless before it.

The second person on the list was, unaccountably, Justin Timberlake. This had caused JC more pain and distress over the years than he could even begin to calculate, had embroiled him in any number of ridiculous, dramatic situations, had in all ways possible disrupted his peace and his well being. And the worst of it was, Justin didn't even particularly want JC to care about what he was going through; since it had always happened, he had simply accepted as natural that it would always continue to happen, and it did, over and over again.

Actually, the fact that JC was so continually bound up in Justin Timberlake's emotional problems exonerated him, he personally thought, for trying so very intently to ignore everyone else's. That might not have been right, but it was most definitely how things were.

JC had tried over the years to stop caring about Justin, and he had worked on that even more diligently since their last attempt to be together had failed. Infuriating as it was, there was quite simply no way for JC to relax if he knew that Justin was uneasy, too. Since he had become intimately familiar with the certain twist of Justin's mouth that meant he was upset (usually accompanied by a tense set of the shoulders), JC had resolved to make himself scarce the moment he saw the expression steal over Justin's face. But when he was stuck on a tour bus with Justin, it was close to impossible to do that.

So on the day that Britney had visited and had sweetly though firmly pushed Justin a good several inches away from her each time he'd tried to kiss her, it was of course JC Justin had sought out with his distressed glance, JC who had felt the full force of his bewilderment and pain. His first instinct had been fury, not at Britney, but at himself, because he really, really had to stop doing this, definitely needed to step away from Justin and stop being so stupidly codependent or whatever.

But there was no avoiding it, and JC was fully expecting the knock that came on his hotel room door that evening after Britney had gotten on the plane to go back to Britneyland or wherever it was she came from.

"JC, hey," Justin said off-handedly, his mouth tense and his shoulders taut, and then tried to play it off as if things were okay. "Wanna, um, watch a movie and drink some beer?"

"Sure, man, come on in." JC stepped back and looked away as Justin's soulful, sad eyes met his, and then led them both to the TV and idly flipped channels until they found something not too horribly boring.

For a good hour Justin lounged easily on the couch, one arm slung across the back, fingers quietly tapping the fabric a few inches from JC's shoulders. He drank four beers and said virtually nothing, but he was more than present. His body, his feelings, his everything was everywhere, and JC could hardly breathe for all the Justin in the room. He was in the middle of taking a few deep breaths in an attempt to settle himself when Justin finally spoke.

"So Brit and I had a fight," he said, his eyes glued to the TV screen, fingers gone mad behind JC.

JC watched the light from the television playing over his face and then, because he had to, murmured, "Yeah, I saw that. What's going on?"

Justin sniffed, then took a huge gulp of beer. "I just. It's."

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to," JC said a bit hopefully, and then added, "But if you want to, I'm, you know, here. And I'm sorry that you're down or whatever."

Boy, was he sorry, because the moment after he got that out, Justin turned to him, his face vulnerable and tight with pain, and then let it all out. "I just don't know what to do, JC. I don't think I'm making her happy."

JC frowned. "Of course you are -- there's just no way you're not. I mean, you think about that girl all the time -- you visit her, you bring her gifts, you talk on the phone a million times a day. There's no way you're not pulling your weight in that relationship."

"I know, I know, but this problem is different," Justin almost whispered. "I mean, I think it might have to do with . . . well, with sex. You know."

JC didn't know, JC didn't know at all, and JC sure as hell didn't want to know, but it was by now inevitable that he was not not going to know, and so he sat up, looked right at Justin, and took it like a man. "What do you mean?" he asked, careful to seem calm and helpful and kind.

It was agony for them both: Justin was deeply uncomfortable and insecure, and JC hated seeing him like that, hated it when he was unhappy and unsure of himself. It was just plain wrong for Justin Timberlake to be that way, and a fierce, illogical rush of loyalty for Justin and fury at Britney suffused JC.

"I don't get it, I really don't, because JC, I tried -- I did everything, but I just --" Justin shrugged and looked miserable. "It works for me but not for her, if you know what I mean."

JC stared at the floor and wanted to die. "But it-- she -- more time. You just need to give it more time, both of you," he quickly said and then prayed to God that this would make things work and make Justin shut up.

"But we have. We've given it quite a while, and I've even read books and stuff, and it just -- it make no sense!" Justin still sounded whispery, and his eyes were starting to shimmer with tears. Aghast, JC reached out and put a hand on his arm, and Justin shuddered once, then reached out and hugged him tightly, strong arms circling around his back, breathing heavy, unhappy sighs into JC's shoulder.

"And I'm scared to death she's going to leave me, going to find someone else."

JC went still. "Do you have any reason to believe that's the case?" he carefully asked.

"Nothing solid. I guess it's just a feeling I have."

"Justin, you have feelings about things all the time, and they're almost usually wrong, remember?"

Justin stiffened, then pulled away, his face defensive. "Not always. I mean, it really did rain that one time in Pittsburgh."

"Okay, yes, but was there a bus accident? Did your mom get lost? Did anyone get hurt during the show?"

"Fuck you," Justin said softly, then laughed. "Look, whether or not that's right -- and you can ask my mom, JC, you really can, 'cause I was right about stuff all the time when I was a little kid --"

JC had just opened his mouth to remind Justin that his mother would say absolutely anything for him when Justin quickly waved him off and went serious again.

"-- I still don't know what to do about the other thing. The, uh, giving her pleasure thing."

JC thought for a moment.

"Sometimes," he said carefully, very carefully, cautiously sliding a hand over Justin's back and rubbing in what he hoped were small, comforting circles, "it just doesn't work with two people, no matter what you do. It's, like, a chemistrical thing."

Justin moved back, looked into JC's eyes, and nodded.

"And other times, it's just -- it's like I said before. You have to learn."

"It's funny, C, cause that's -- the learning thing -- that's sorta what I thought, too, but then I remembered . . . well. I remembered how it was with you, and I had to think again."

"With me? What about with me?" It was out before JC could think to censor it, out there and huge in the air, and all there was to do now was feel his face stain deep red and wait for Justin to say what he kind of wanted him to say anyway.

"With you, it was so easy," Justin murmured, and then smiled fondly and leaned toward JC. "I mean, okay, there were things we had to learn too, but you were so -- it was just --"

Maybe there was still time to cut this off. "All right, I get you. I get what you're saying."

But Justin had already thrown himself into a dreamlike memory state. "You trembled, you know? It was like . . . it was like you really loved it when I touched you. It was almost like you needed me to touch you."

As Justin spoke, knowledge dawned on his face, and by the time he was finished, his mouth was hovering lightly over JC's neck. "And I needed to touch you too," he breathed. "I needed it a lot."

"Okay, yeah. So that was, it was what it was; it was fine, but we ended that, Justin, we --" JC anxiously said, then pushed Justin away and stood up, embarrassingly unsteady on his feet.

"And I know you and Britney will work it out," he quickly finished as Justin got to his feet too, his gaze more unsettling with every passing second.

"I'm sure we will, but it's just -- my confidence is nothing right now, C, and I hate it -- I hate it so much," Justin muttered.

"Don't worry -- it'll -- you'll --" JC began in rapid succession, because Justin was giving him an imploring look, the kind of look he and JC both knew he could never refuse.

"So do you think, you know, that you could maybe help me out -- that you and I could, for a while, anyway, right now? Just, you know, to get me through this?"

"I don't know, J, I mean, like, if that's an okay idea," JC stuttered.

"It's just -- I need to get back on my feet again, okay? I really need it, C -- I need to know that I can please someone, and you -- you're the only one I trust enough to try it with, okay? It's you -- it's only you."

JC saw desire, intensity, vulnerability, and fear in Justin's eyes. He was scared out of his wits, but the only thing he could do was lower his head and nod.

"It's okay?" Justin asked politely; he was always polite, even in the most taxing of situations, and distressed as he was, a part of JC appreciated that very much.

"It's okay," he answered just as politely, and then moved to the coffee table, picked up the remote, and turned off the television. "Um, here?"

Justin gave him a small, crooked smile. "Why not?" he softly said, and then slowly raised his tee shirt over his head, and all JC could see was the definition of his abdomen, the color of his nipples, the perfect curve of his shoulders and biceps. He was beyond beautiful, and he always affected JC in this fashion, whether or not he meant to, whether or not he wanted to.

Justin moved close then, his big hands fumbling with the hem of JC's shirt, fingers inching under the fabric and then sliding upward to rub his back, to trace the line of his vertebrae, to move carefully around front to JC's rib cage, his abdomen, the indentation of his navel.

"Hey," Justin said in a pleased voice as JC trembled, and then bent in for a kiss, his mouth unbearably warm and coaxing.

"You know, I feel a lot better now," Justin said a short while later, gently kissing JC on the cheek and handing his shirt back to him, and all JC could do was close his eyes for a long moment and will himself not to respond, because not only was he frustrated as hell, he was also teetering on the edge of any number of feelings he had no business going near. Justin must have been confused as well, because after a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, he quickly shifted gears and started a conversation about some choreography he felt they'd messed up last night. JC played along, and by the time Justin decided he should head back to his own hotel room, they had reached some semblance of normalcy.

But of course Justin had to ruin that.

"Sometimes," he murmured just before he left, his eyes dark and his mouth still a bit swollen, "I wonder why we stopped, you know? I mean, I wonder what would've happened if you wouldn't've fucking panicked and called everything off so fast."

JC felt a flash of indignation. First off, that wasn't even what had happened at all, and even if it had been, there was no way in hell he was going down that road right now, no way he was going to let himself get overwrought or stupid just because it still felt good to be with Justin.

And besides, all of this had been about Britney, hadn't it?

"Things will work out with you and Brit," he automatically said. "Just give it time, all right?"

Justin stared at him for a long time before he spoke. "I know, I know. And thanks for helping me or whatever."

JC started to say a million different sharp things, then stopped himself. "Good luck, then," he finally got out, and then quickly shut the door on Justin and tried to calm himself.


Justin felt focused, energized, and positive after what he liked to think of as his experiment with JC. If he could make JC, the most difficult, reticent person he knew, lose control and desperately reach for him, then who knew what he could achieve with Britney, who was not only not impossibly annoying but also warm, willing, and eager? There was no cause for despair; there had been no cause for uncertainty. All he had to do now was focus, treat her like a lady, and win her over. He'd achieved far more difficult things through strength of will alone: giving one sweet girl one single orgasm was nothing in the face of that.

Thus it was with a great deal of hope that Justin called Britney and invited her for another visit.


For the next several days, JC saw an almost staggering number of things he didn't want to see: the way Justin smiled to himself when he was reading, the way his mouth looked after he wiped it, the way he tapped his fingers and bounced his knees in a random, anxious rhythm when he wasn't quite what to do with himself. None of these things was surprising: JC had lived close to or around Justin long enough to know just about all of his tics and foibles, and for part of that time, he'd been in love with Justin, so he'd also gotten used to gazing upon him with shameless, dreamy adoration. But after the two of them had separated, JC had been able to block out the worst of that. He'd never be completely free of Justin -- whether he liked it or not, JC had basically accepted that Justin was always going to more or less have a direct emotional line to him -- but JC had at least been able to stop noticing physical details, to stop longing for Justin in a lustful way.

The make-out session of the other night had completely compromised his Justin immunity, however, had reawakened a new and very nearly unbearable level of responsiveness in JC. Once JC had let himself kiss Justin again, once he'd let himself remember what it felt like to be with him, really be with him, he was plunged back into the chaos and the uncertainty Justin inevitably evoked in him. Much like a tsunami, Justin swept in and destroyed everything in his path, and it was extremely and almost painfully difficult to go through all that again right now, particularly since Justin had emerged from their make-out session with exactly the opposite perspective. Now more than ever, Justin was ready to commit to Britney. Now more than ever, he was going to make things work for them. Now more than ever, Justin was immune to anything JC might do, say, or feel for him.

But now more than ever, Justin needed JC, even though he had absolutely no idea of it, JC thought, eyes narrowing as he looked across the arena to where Britney, Wade, and Justin were laughing and breaking occasionally into dance steps.

JC had sensed almost at once that something was off, though he couldn't exactly compliment himself on his perceptiveness: Britney and Wade were hardly being discreet with the lingering glances, the "innocent" touching, the charged silences they let develop between them. As the day had stretched on, first on the bus, and then now, at the sound check, JC had become increasingly indignant on Justin's behalf, until he was, he realized with some surprise, probably just a very few minutes away from an outburst, a real old-style JC Chasez temper tantrum. He hadn't treated anyone to one of those in quite some time, and quite frankly, he wasn't relishing doing it again, wasn't at all happy with the tightening knot of fury in his gut, the way he kept holding his breath and tensing his muscles, the way he kept looking almost imploringly at Justin only to be met with a series of sunny, oblivious smiles.

That was perhaps the worst of it: Justin was completely unaware of anything. Apparently, when Justin was obsessed with someone he became far less insightful -- and although JC was far from pleased with his own Justin-related hypervigilance, he could at least console himself with the fact that he wasn't getting taken advantage of or manipulated.

"Justin, no, no! Wait -- look -- look how Wade does it," Britney said, beaming with admiration as Wade executed a flashy series of complicated moves.

"I know, I know, like this," Justin said and did the whole thing himself, only much more beautifully, JC thought. Justin might not have been a "professional" like Wade was, but there was an easy grace to his movements, a deliberateness that made everything he did stand out. As an admittedly hyper and spastic dancer himself, JC had always admired the almost-lazy rhythm of Justin's steps, the languid, gorgeous way he carried himself.

"Close, but you're not executing that final turn right," Wade said rather condescendingly, and JC almost smiled as he watched Justin's straight eyebrows rise incredulously. Justin and Wade both knew full well that Justin had done the steps correctly, and Justin was clearly at a loss as to why Wade didn't admit it.

JC had just started to make his way over to them all, had just opened his mouth to say, "Actually, guys, I think J's doing a far better job --" when someone grabbed his arm, hard, and stopped him.

"What the fuck, Chris?"

"Stop it, you freakish stalker freak!" Chris hissed, dragging him over to the side and toward the table of snacks that had been provided for them on account of the special visitors.

"I'm not doing anything -- I was just --"

"Look, JC, now more than ever, I have absolutely no fricking idea what's going on in what passes for a brain in your head, and quite frankly, I'm not sure that even matters anymore." Chris fixed him with a steady, determined glare. "Just -- leave the children alone for five goddamned minutes and get on with your own life, okay?"

"I am getting on. I do have --"

"Whatever." Chris rolled his eyes. "You want to deny that you've been gaga over Timberlake for the past several days, you be my guest. Hell, I might not even have stopped you from that given that it's pretty damn close to comedy gold, especially after the way you cut him off before."

"Look, that whole thing was, and I'm not -- it's just --" JC began, but Chris silenced him with a sharp, feigned karate chop to the side of his neck.

"But the minute you start making a lovelorn fool of yourself in front of the girlfriend is the minute you need some sane, friendly intervention. So I'm telling you right now, Chasez: back off, okay? At least until she's gone, for god's sake!"

JC glared back at Chris. "Believe me, Chris, there's nothing else I'd rather do. But if you're half as observant as you think you are, then you would've noticed what's going on over there, and like me, you would've wanted to do something about it."

Chris smirked. "Okay, so what's going on? What subtle social interactions am I missing among the under twenty-one set?"

"For god's sake, Chris -- just look at them, will you?"

Chris watched for a moment, then shrugged. "All I see are two teenagers and a creepy Australian lizard," he said, and then looked pointedly at JC. "Well, three teenagers and a lizard."

It was JC's turn to grab Chris's arm now, and for a moment they struggled silently until Chris took a deep breath and finally gave up.

"Look, JC -- just leave them alone, okay? Really. It'll be better all around if you do. The last time you messed around with Justin you came pretty damn close to breaking his heart, and I'd hate to see him have to go through that once more just because JC Chasez is yet again confused."

JC didn't answer immediately: he was too busy looking at the way Justin tilted his head back as he drank, the way his abdomen rose and fell as he slowly lifted the hem of his tee shirt to wipe the sweat off his face.

"JC," Chris warned, and JC suddenly came back to himself. Much as he didn't want to admit it, Chris was right.

"I don't -- just let me think for a minute, okay?" JC said weakly, and winced when Chris heaved a huge, impatient sigh and continued to glare at him.

"Man," JC said softly, hardly even aware he was doing it. It was unbelievably depressing to be awakened to something, or someone, only to realize one couldn't do anything about it. What he needed to do now was to shut down immediately and stop this madness while he still could.


Her ears burned and rang all the way to the airport: the sensation had started right in the middle of the horrible, fierce look JC had given her as he'd said goodbye to her, and then gotten progressively worse. There was no way she was going to survive this flight -- and there was no way she was going to survive a hell of a lot more than that if she didn't do some quick, sharp thinking.

Wade was right next to her, his head fallen to the side at an awkward angle. Thank god he'd gone to sleep, Britney thought; thank god she didn't try to have to talk to him. The only thing in her head right now was the memory of how JC's eyes had followed her all day, how every time she'd looked at Wade or felt Wade touch her, she'd also felt JC watching her, his head cocked in disgust, his eyes narrowed in disbelief. Britney closed her eyes and clamped hands over her ears, but that only made the ringing worse.

It wasn't as if JC would say anything -- Britney had known him far too long to think that he'd be able to overcome either his fear of conflict or his fear of seeing Justin unhappy, and filling Justin's head with bad thoughts about her and Wade would most definitely cause both things for JC. Really, if someone had to have seen her misbehaving in front of her boyfriend, JC was the ideal person.

But it didn't feel good to know that JC didn't like her. JC was cute, really cute, and she had almost been . . . well, jealous wasn't the word for it, but definitely interested in the bond he and Justin had. But for someone so close to Justin, JC had certainly kept a distance from him when Britney was around. She had at first ascribed this to politeness or thoughtfulness, but right now, as she remembered the expression in his eyes, Britney wasn't quite so sure.

And now she had to figure out a bunch of stuff. She had to think about what this . . . thing she had going with Wade really meant to her, and whether it was worth jeopardizing her relationship with Justin for. And she had to think hard about what Justin meant to her, what she wanted from him, what it was right to expect from him, and what he had a right to expect from her.

Britney closed her eyes and rested her head on the back of the seat. She was going to do it all: was going to think seriously and carefully about every single thing that needed to be considered -- just as soon as her damn ears stopped ringing.


It wasn't exactly the day off he'd planned for. Bobbie's flight had been delayed several times and then finally canceled because of bad weather, and what was supposed to have been a romantic evening had instead begun with a long, unhappy phone conversation that he was both shamefully and guiltily delighted to end one hour later. It'd actually have been great to get Bobbie in town, because JC was still kind of looking to erase . . . well, certain physical sensations he'd been experiencing as of late. But Bobbie could be so damn difficult, and JC wasn't quite sure he was up to a full few days of her. Still, though, it was no fun to be alone in a hotel room, and as he looked at the small, intimate dinner table set for two, JC felt overwhelmed and depressed. Now he'd have to have someone cancel the food and the waiter as well. Nothing was working out right today.

But he didn't have to fix everything this minute, did he? He was so tired he could hardly think, his limbs sluggish and heavy with exhaustion, and suddenly the act of keeping his eyelids open, much less finding someone to help him rearrange dinner plans, seemed all too much. JC stumbled toward the bed, kicked off his shoes, and fell forward, hugging his pillow and moaning in pleasure as he let his eyes fall shut and surrendered to sleep.

When the heavy pounding sound began, JC sat straight up, disoriented and oddly terrified, his mind struggling to make sense of what was happening. After a few seconds, he groaned, dragged himself into a standing position and stumbled toward the door, yanking it open as quickly and fiercely as his tired body could manage. Anything -- he would do anything to end the horrible noise.

When he saw Justin standing in the hallway, JC wanted to yell at him, wanted to make a noise every bit as disruptive and unpleasant as the one Justin had provided for him, but since speaking would have taken too much effort, he settled for a forceful, scornful sweep of the hand and a determined if still somewhat unfocused glare.

"You're asleep? Where's Bobbie?" Justin asked, and since to JC's mind he did not sound sufficiently contrite for bothering him, he simply headed back to the bed and collapsed on it again instead of answering.

"Okaaaaaay," Justin said after a few seconds, then shut the door behind him and followed JC to the bed and sat down on it, thoroughly disrupting JC's search for a comfortable position.

"You're ruining everything," JC mumbled into the pillow.

Justin was silent for a moment, then said, "It's good to see you too, and I'm sorry Bobbie couldn't make it. Britney's not coming either."

JC squeezed his eyes shut even though they were already closed and swore quietly into his pillow as the news hit him all over again. Justin and Britney were all fucked up. Bobbie wasn't coming. He was all fucked up over Justin. His life was a complete and total wash.

Impervious as always to JC's finer feelings, Justin continued talking. "So, what're you going to do instead?"

"As you can see, I'm trying to sleep," JC somewhat irritably answered, and then added, "And so if you wanted to go now, that'd be just great, okay?"

Justin shifted restlessly on the bed, still hindering JC from falling asleep, and despite himself, JC opened his eyes and gazed up at him. Justin was looking around the room, his profile sharp and strong in the dim sunlight. If he weren't nearly comatose with the need for sleep, JC would have gotten up and closed the curtains, but that seemed like too much work. Everything did, really, especially . . . Especially . . .

JC frowned. There was something he was supposed to be taking care of, something mildly important, something he knew he wanted to get done, but right now, his mind could grasp only two things: the fact that Justin had reached out one big hand and gently rested it between JC's shoulder blades, the heat of it sinking in slow waves through JC's tee shirt and deep into his skin, and the fact that Justin's curls were shining and glinting in the sun. He'd actually done his hair on an off day, which meant he was probably going to go out, which meant that if JC just lay here and relaxed, Justin might eventually go away. That was encouraging.

"And it looks like you had a nice dinner planned, too." Justin sounded just a bit melancholy.

"Yeah, well it's --" JC began, and then sat up so quickly he felt dazed, eyes widening in dismay as he remembered what he had wanted to do.

"What time is it?" he asked Justin, then swore as the phone rang.

"We're on our way up with the dinner, Mr. Chasez," a polite female voice said, and the line went dead.

"Aw, hell," JC said, and lay down again.


JC waved a hand weakly in the air. "Well, the dinner's here."

Justin looked at him, his eyes alight with amusement. "You forgot to cancel it?"

"Shut up," JC said immediately as Justin's mouth widened into the grin that presaged a long, loud bout of laughter, then rolled off the bed and tried to put as much distance between him and Justin as the hotel room would allow.

"Look -- I don't know what you're so upset about," Justin managed to say once he'd stopped laughing -- then suffered a small relapse and brayed for a few more seconds before weakly adding, "I mean, you've still got a perfectly handsome date."

"Where?" JC said flatly, looking right at Justin.

Justin made a face at him, then shrugged. "I'm just saying. I'm hungry, I'm here, and since dinner for two is apparently --

A gentle knock sounded at the door.

-- right here, I think you should stop the whining and just feed me," Justin finished equitably, then smiled serenely at JC and waited for him to answer the door.

"My one complaint is this," Justin said as the waiters left them with wine and a first course. "You are seriously underdressed, man."

"Justin," JC began, approaching the edge of annoyance, then simply shut up and sat back in his chair and stared at him. Who was he to complain if fate had decided to give him a dinner date with Justin Timberlake instead of Bobbie Thomas?

But it was decidedly strange to be with Justin right now. JC drew his brows together and tried to think it through. What was the appropriate etiquette for a pseudo-date with someone you had a ridiculous, lustful crush on, someone you were pretty certain was getting cheated on by his girlfriend? And what did you do about any of it when that same person was looking almost unbearably handsome, was giving you torturously encouraging and hopeful looks?

JC breathed in and out a few times. "Want some wine?"

"This is really pretty good," Justin said a while later, putting away a few more outrageously expensive crab cakes and grinning contentedly at JC. "I can't say much for your attitude tonight, but you sure know how to feed a girl."

"My attitude? Justin, how do you expect me to act given that my entire day off has been ruined?"

Justin gave JC a clear, calm stare. "How can you say it's ruined? I mean, we're here, right? We're having a good time, aren't we?"

"You know I like spending time with you," JC quickly said as guilt spread over him. "I just -- this isn't exactly what I expected."

Justin grinned, then refilled their wine glasses --again. "Know what, JC? You need unexpected things to happen to you. I mean, without that, you'd probably never even move."

JC scowled. "Yes, it's always such a pleasure to spend time with you."

Justin shrugged, still smiling, his eyes sparkling and his face pink from the wine. "All I'm saying is that you're the kind of person who would never deal ever with anything if he wasn't forced into it by other people. I mean, that's how you operate."

"Feel free to stop it anytime with the insightful analysis, J," JC said sharply, and only just avoided wincing when Justin looked at him in confusion.

"C, I didn't mean it to be mean; you know I didn't."

JC sighed. "No, I know. I know that."

"I just -- it's how you are. It's not good or bad -- it's just what is."

By now JC was very anxious to redirect the conversation, but nothing was coming to his mind, which was becoming increasingly addled with wine and good food. He opened his mouth partway, thinking that something might come to him if he pretended to be ready to speak, but nothing happened. When at long last the door to the room opened again and the waiter approached the table, JC's relief was intense.

Until, that is, he caught the small wrapped box cradled in the waiter's hand, watched almost as if in slow motion as the waiter graciously presented the gift to Justin and said, "A token of the gentleman's affection, I believe."

"Um," JC said uncomfortably over top of Justin's cackling as the waiter left. "You don't have to open that -- it was obviously for Bobbie, and I --"

"I'm not too proud for leftovers," Justin said, then sat back in his chair and studied JC with an evil gleam in his eye.

"Unless, of course, this is some sort of sex toy you don't want me to see."

"It'd be a pretty small toy if that were the case," JC said flatly, unamused.

"I'm not saying it wouldn't be unusual, but that doesn't mean it's not still possible," Justin said. "I mean, who knows what with the kinky sex life you have with Bobbie?"

JC sat up stiffly. "You know, J, I'm not sure I recall discussing Bobbie's and my sex life with you. Ever."

Justin shrugged. "All it takes to figure it out is a good hard look at the both of you or a trip to your hotel room on the morning after, and I happen to have been lucky enough to do both of those things. Face it, JC -- you've got it good."

An almost wistful tone had slipped into Justin's voice.

"But Justin, I thought --" JC began, then stopped himself.

Justin gave him a clear, level look. "You thought . . . "

"I thought that after your, uh, our experiment or whatever, you felt, you know. Different. Better."

Justin flushed, his discomfort palpable, and JC felt a sudden rush of sympathy for him.

"Okay, okay, cancel that. I'm just -- that was way too personal, and I'm sorry," JC quickly said. "Really sorry."

"No, no, it's perfectly fine." Justin shifted in his seat and set the present down on the table without opening it. "I -- yeah. Right after we . . . well, I was convinced that things were going to get better. That was, you know, why I invited Britney over."

"That's what I figured," JC said as neutrally as possible as visions of Wade and Britney popped once more into his head.

"And I gave it my best, C. I tried like I've never tried at anything before in my life. I -- you know how I am when I want to get something done."

JC nodded. Justin had more strength of will and singleness of purpose than anyone he knew. One day it was going to take him very, very far.

"But this -- I didn't achieve so much," Justin said quietly. "And it wouldn't have been so bad -- I wouldn't have -- But she just wasn't . . . there. She wasn't interested in practicing, or breaking it down, or showing me, or anything."

"I'm sorry -- I really am."

Justin fiddled with his napkin, then shrugged. "So that's where we are. She doesn't care and I can't do anything."

"You know, it's -- there's a lot more to relationships than sex. I mean --" JC took a deep breath and felt his face grow hot. "It's possible, for example, to have great sex and a crappy relationship. It's possible to have great sex and not even really like the person you're with all that much."

Justin looked right into his eyes. "It shouldn't be that way. It shouldn't be either way. I mean, we deserve better, and so do the girls."

JC felt a wash of fatigue. "I know," he said. " I know."

Suddenly, JC was furious with himself. He had descended into an awkward, pensive hell, and he'd taken Justin there with him, and now here the both of them were, depressed and maudlin. This was so completely the opposite of what he'd planned for this evening that JC wasn't even sure he was still in on the same planet as the guy who'd set up the romantic dinner for two.

"Wow," Justin said suddenly, and poured them both more wine. "Wow, okay. We've gotta stop."

"Yeah, we do," JC agreed instantly, relief spreading through him.

"So, uh, maybe the present again," Justin said, picking it up and shaking it lightly. "It sounds like jewelry, so I'm gonna back off the sex toy theory if that's okay with you."

"Whatever it is, I know it's not a sex toy," JC said, amused.

Justin raised his eyebrows. "Whatever it is?"

"Yeah." JC waited calmly.

"You don't know what's in the box?" Justin went on, incredulity all over his face and his words.

JC coughed. "Like you said, it's jewelry."

Justin frowned. "Okay, yeah, but exactly. I mean, is it a bracelet? A necklace? Earrings?"

As JC remained silent, Justin's expression grew even more pointed. "Surely you know. JC. Tell me you know what present you bought for your girlfriend. Tell me you did not just send your assistant out and ask her to get whatever caught her eye."

Against his own better judgment, JC began to fidget. "Look, it's the thought that counts. The gift itself doesn't really matter."

Justin slouched in his seat, then sat up very straight and pointed right at JC. "Okay, so how about this? The present you got me for my last birthday -- did you pick that out yourself?"

JC frowned indignantly. "Of course I did!"

Justin still looked doubtful. "What about the Christmas gift?"

"Justin, for god's sake! I chose that, too."

"Really?" Justin asked.

"Yes, really," JC snapped, and then Justin slowly smiled, obviously pleased to have provoked him.

"Why are you so infuriating?" JC asked him, and it wasn't a rhetorical question, but Justin only raised his eyebrows, picked up the gift again, and began to open it.


For the next several days Justin insisted on wearing the present, a necklace spelling out "foxy" in gold letters, blissfully and serenely immune to the ragging he received over it. The patent falsity of the gift -- a half-serious gesture to a half-loved girl -- almost made him love it even more, and if that weren't pleasurable enough, the degree to which the necklace upset others brought Justin so much joy he almost couldn't contain himself.

When, on the day of a fairly big photo shoot for Bop, Justin argued with at least 67.8 percent sincerity that he should wear the necklace during the shoot not only because he was, in fact, quite foxy but also because it was high time they started aiming for more truth in their advertising, Lance and Joey shot him looks of disgust, his mother got that horrible pleading look in her eyes, and Chris laughed out loud for at least five minutes.

All JC did was roll his eyes and glare at him, his body tense and unhappy as he sat primly on the couch waiting for the makeup people to come and get him. JC knew that if Justin revealed the true story behind the necklace he'd never recover from the teasing, and waiting to see whether Justin would tell was killing him. Justin hadn't had such intense, unrivalled attention from JC in what seemed like a very long time, and he was enjoying it immensely. Bobbie would never have loved the necklace so much; it would never have meant so much to her -- or to JC -- had she been the one to receive it. The entire thing made Justin happy, and although he eventually let himself be "persuaded" to remove the necklace for the shoot, he took great pains to emphasize, repeatedly and loudly, how important it was to him and how crucial it was that it be taken good care of while he wasn't wearing it.

The magazine people were far too used to accommodating the whims of dreamy teen idols to be surprised by this, and in fairly good order a special jewelry box for the necklace was procured and the entire thing was locked in a safe. Everyone around Justin but JC breathed a little easier, and Justin's day couldn't have been more perfect.

"You really, really have to stop this," JC urged or threatened -- Justin wasn't sure which -- as they rode back to the hotel. He had a smudge of eyeliner under his left eye.

"Actually, JC, no I don't -- and that's the beauty of it all," Justin said, fishing for the necklace under his shirt and then bringing it out so JC could see it.

"Actually, Justin, yes you do if you want to continue talking to me," JC shot back.

Justin smiled beatifically at him, then closed his eyes and hummed for the rest of the car ride.


The joke wasn't quite as funny a week later, though: JC, that fucker, was holding good on his promise not to talk to Justin, and it was decidedly not as much fun to carry out the necklace performance without a glowering, almost-wincing JC in the periphery. And Justin was starting to feel lonely without all the attention from JC -- it had been negative attention, to be sure, but it was a pleasure to be the object of JC's focused regard even if the emotion fueling it was anger. Such were the mysteries of JC.

Not having JC to taunt or talk to meant that Justin had time to start considering other things, like his relationship with Britney and what he was going to do about that. On one particularly boring, lonely night, after the show had ended but before he was relaxed enough to sleep, Justin went to his suitcase and pulled out the sheaf of letters and cards he'd received from Britney over the past few months. He had arranged them in a very specific order, one designed to take him through happiness to lust and then back to happiness, a natural, easy progression that he loved to go through right before falling asleep. Tonight, Justin went through the entire series at least twice, then stared in amazement at the stack and took a few deep breaths. Something was missing. Something was off.

Concerned, Justin grabbed a pen and some hotel stationery from the night stand in his room and tried to write about his feelings for Britney, tried to put his love and his need for her into words. He'd done this many times before, and it had always made him feel closer to her, had always reaffirmed for him why he loved her so much. As usual, Justin began the exercise with lots of really beautiful lines about love, trust, and happiness, but the strange dullness that had come over him when he'd looked at the cards was still with him, and once more he was unable to whip himself into the usual state of rapturous adoration and longing for her.

"What the hell?" Justin whispered into the silence. It was almost as if his feelings had taken off without him. He knew what they should be and he knew what they had been in the past, but he couldn't quite catch up to them.

What if he'd lost all his emotions? What if he'd used them all up at the age of nineteen and would never again have them? Justin tried to take deep, calming breaths, but the uneasiness wouldn't go away.

He was probably just hungry and tired -- if he had a good meal and a good night's sleep, everything would go back to normal, Justin was sure of it. With that in mind, he pulled out the room service menu and began to idly flip through it, finally deciding on a hamburger and fries and then going out to find Mike to make the call.

As he waited for his food, Justin took a couple of candles out of his bag, ones he'd used the last time Brit had been there, and lit them, then sat cross-legged on the bed and tried to conjure her in his mind. It was a wash -- he was still an emotional zombie.

His heart started to pound and there was a faint ringing in his ears, and Justin knew that if he let it go on long enough, the fear would work its way into his lungs as well, that he'd spend the whole night feeling lost and gasping for air. He had to find a way to calm down; he had to find a way to make sense of this.

He couldn't be entirely emotionally dead, could he? Forcing himself to sit down, Justin closed his eyes and thought of his mother. To his great relief, the usual rush of intense love and loyalty she evoked in him flooded him. Okay, so he wasn't totally dead. Next, he tried thinking about the rest of the guys in the band. Again, a sense of love, and also comradeship, pervaded him. Then, an image of JC popped into his mind, and the feelings accompanying that made Justin gasp out loud. That wasn't at all where he'd meant to end up.

Britney -- he needed to focus on Britney. No, better still -- he needed to call her. He was halfway across the room toward his cell phone when the food arrived.

"Oh," Justin said when he saw that it was JC at the door -- and that JC was looking even more pinched and sour than usual.

"Good to see you, too," JC crisply said. "Let me in."

Justin was pretty good at knowing what he could and couldn't take, and he was absolutely, positively sure that one thing he definitely could not stand tonight was to interact with JC. Not right now -- not when he was struggling so badly to ground himself.

"C, I'm sorry about the necklace, I really am," he immediately said, hoping to defuse the situation as quickly as possible and make JC go the hell away. "I'm gonna stop teasing you about it for good, promise, and I'll even --"

Justin looked somewhat reluctantly down at the shining gold cursive script.

"I'll give it back, okay? You can, you know, throw it away or give it to Bobbie or whatever you want."

JC stared intently at him for a few moments, and sure enough, he did look somewhat less sour.

"Really," Justin repeated earnestly, and moved his hands to the clasp of the necklace.

"Look -- go ahead and keep it, all right?" JC uncomfortably said. "I -- that's not even really why I came here."

"Oh." Justin leaned against the doorjamb and waited.

"The reason I came was so we could talk," JC added, then did a strange and probably involuntary shuddering-fidgeting thing that was so beautiful and so awkward that Justin could hardly believe he'd just witnessed it.

"And so could I come in?" JC finished once he'd stopped the almost-seizure. A note of impatience had crept into his voice.

"I have food coming," Justin said in a discouraging tone.

"Don't worry about it -- I already ate, so I'll just watch you or whatever." JC was now peering past Justin into the room, fully expecting to be allowed entrance, and because there was no good way either to get rid of him or to lie to him, Justin relented and stepped away.

"Oooh, candles!" JC said in amusement as he stepped into the room, and then added, "and love letters, too!"

"Don't you -- those are personal!" Justin hurried to the bed, swept up the entire pile, and clutched them to his chest, now feeling more angry than vulnerable.

JC stared at Justin in some amazement. "Chill, okay? I wasn't going to read them."

"That's right you weren't." Justin stomped over to his suitcase and set the letters inside, then firmly zipped it shut.

"Were you writing to her?" JC asked, his eyes lighting on the pages Justin had scribbled on earlier.

"I -- no!" Justin stomped over to the desk, grabbed the aborted feelings exercise, and added it to the suitcase as well. Any minute now, JC was not only going to guess the Britney problem, he was probably going to cue in to the feelings Justin was having for him. This was so not good.

"Justin?" JC said uncertainly. "Are you okay?"

"I --"

Suddenly it was too hard to speak.

JC's eyes widened in concern. "Hey," he said, and he was being gentle now, gentle just like he had been when Justin was a scared kid lost on the MMC set and JC had stopped to give him directions, gentle just like he'd been when Justin was fifteen and all broken up over a girl who had lied to him, gentle like he'd been only a few months ago when he'd wrapped arms around Justin late at night and whispered soft, calming things into the nape of his neck. It was so unexpected and so wonderful that it very nearly did Justin in, and for a moment, all he felt was longing for JC.

But then the real world snapped back on him, and Justin looked into JC's concerned blue eyes and sighed.

"Let's sit," JC said, "and you can tell me about it." He moved to the bed, kicked off his shoes, and sat cross-legged on it.

"Your feet had better not stink," Justin warned.

"My feet never stink," JC said, aggrieved.

"That's what you think."

"Well they don't, Justin; they just don't." JC now looked a lot less gentle, which was actually a good thing, because now Justin could look at him without feeling like something inside him was melting. He joined JC on the bed, then looked steadily at the flowers printed on the bedspread.


Justin took a deep breath. "You know, I think they do stink."

"Fuck you, then," JC said, and started to get off the bed, but Justin caught his arm before he could finish it.

"Sorry, sorry, okay."

JC stretched out his legs before him and leaned back against the headboard, waiting.

"I just --" Panic began to well up in Justin again. "I think there's something wrong with me is all."

JC snorted. "Well of course there is, but what in particular is upsetting you right now?"

Justin gave him the finger, but only half-seriously because he knew JC was trying to make him feel at ease, and went on.

"I was -- well. I was trying to sit here and think about Brit, trying just to sort through my feelings about her, you know?"

JC nodded.

"And I -- it's like there's this hole in me now, okay? It's just -- every time I try to do it, to think about her, I come up blank, and it's almost -- well -- it's scary, you know?"

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," JC said slowly. "It's late, you're tired, and you're probably just burned out."

The words poured out of Justin. "No, see, I don't think that's it, because I've done this a thousand times before under even worse conditions and never had the same problem. And it's really creepy, okay? It makes me feel like I lost something, I lost a part of myself, and I don't -- I don't want that, C, okay?"

JC cocked his head to the side. "Well, I'm sorry, but we can't always control what we feel," he said flatly.

Justin frowned, because it suddenly sounded a lot like JC was complaining about something himself.

JC shrugged, then wriggled his toes inside his socks. "And so maybe not being able to have feelings for Britney is your feeling."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

"Don't take this the wrong way, okay?" JC said, and then laughed. "God. People always react so well to that."

Justin waved his hand at JC. "Just get on with it, okay?"

"Well what it seems like to me is that maybe your feelings for Britney right now are that you don't have any," JC carefully said, and then quickly added, "And I'm not -- I'm not saying that necessarily means anything in, like, a relational way or whatever; I just -- it's just -- it's something to consider."

Justin groaned and lay down on his back and stared at the ceiling.

"It's just weird, you know? It's, like, a new phase or something."

"Possibly," JC said.

"Although it could mean anything."

"Absolutely," JC said.

Justin closed his eyes for a few seconds.

"But I don't think that's it."

"Okay," JC said.

"I just --" Justin lifted an arm to cover his eyes. "I didn't think it'd end up here, you know? I never thought that when I thought about her I could feel just so . . . empty. I just --"

Words deserted him for a moment.

"This is definitely not the plan I had for my relationship," he finally finished as a sudden wave of disappointment and misery filled his chest.

JC shifted then, the bed moving under him, and Justin turned his head to the side and watched as JC stretched out beside him.

JC put a warm hand on his shoulder. "Sometimes no matter what you do things don't go as you planned," JC said, and there was something sad and almost strained underneath his words.

JC almost never sounded like that.

"Hey, are you all right?" Justin asked, alarmed. "Everything okay?"

JC coughed. He looked very tired.

"Let's just make this conversation about you, okay?" he said. "I've --whatever. There's stuff I could go on about but it's just not -- not now."

Justin sat halfway up, resting on his elbows, so he could scan JC's face. JC's eyes were closed, so he couldn't read those, and his mouth was a tight, thin line, which meant that he really, really didn't want to talk. That was pretty much par for the course, but there really was something different about him tonight, something decidedly wrong.

"I'm not gonna try to make you talk about it, but I'm sorry you're not happy, C," Justin quietly said, and gave him a small, sad smile as JC slowly turned his head and looked into his eyes. God, he wished things were different between them right now.

JC smiled back. "I'm sorry you're not happy too," he said, and then closed his eyes again and shifted so that he was on his side.

When JC's arm slid across his chest, Justin caught his breath in amazement, then began struggling hard to keep his breathing normal, to keep this moment going, to do anything in the world that would keep JC relaxed and unguarded for just a while longer.

"I'm maybe just gonna sleep, okay?" JC breathed.

"I -- sure -- that's --" Justin began, then winced as a knock sounded at the door.

JC was off the bed in about two seconds flat, shaking his head and looking dazed.

"That's right -- the food," he said as Justin moved to the door to answer it.

"Do you want --" Justin began once the food was in the room, but JC only shook his head.

"Nah, thanks though. You go ahead and eat and I'll catch up with you later," he said, obviously desperate to get out of the room and away from Justin. Justin knew JC didn't mean it that way, but it still hurt.

"Okay, yeah. I'll -- on the bus tomorrow."

"Great, man," JC said, already headed for the door, and then paused and turned guiltily back. "And, uh, that stuff, uh, about Brit and all? Just see how you feel in the morning, okay? I'll bet everything looks better then."

"Yeah," Justin muttered. "Yeah, okay, thanks."

"Later," JC said, and left Justin alone in the room with his confusion and his hamburger.


When Justin got onto the bus the next day, the first thing he saw was JC sitting on the couch, his face tight and uncomfortable, his posture exactly the same. Chris was bending over him and speaking comfortingly to him, his hands moving in slow, gentle curves, but JC was refusing to look at him.

Something was obviously wrong. Justin's stomach knotted up, and he practically bounded over to them.

"JC, what? What's going on?"

JC shook his head and didn't say anything.

"Bobbie," Chris said. "It finally happened. They broke up."

Justin knew that he ought to express sympathy and compassion, knew that he ought to be kind and offer support, but all he could think at the moment was,

"And you didn't even tell me? This happens to you and you don't even let me know?"

JC gave him a look of deepest annoyance.

"He didn't tell me, either, idiot, so don't go worrying about that, okay?" Chris said as JC stood up and began to head back to the bunk area.

"JC, wait!" Justin called.

JC stopped for a moment, turned around halfway, and then murmured, "It's okay, Justin. I just -- I'm going to go sleep for a while, and I don't want to be bothered, okay? We can talk or whatever later."

"But --" Justin began, but JC was already disappearing through the door without looking back.

Justin dropped his things on the floor.

"Yeah," Chris said, flopping onto the couch. "I know. And of course he's not being a fucking weirdo about it or anything."

Justin had to laugh at that. "So how did you find out what happened?" he asked, sitting down next to Chris and trying not to think about JC being alone right now, JC maybe being upset and not having anyone to talk to, JC not knowing what was good for him even under the best of circumstances.

"Well, his assistant kind of told me."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Justin asked, because Chris looked cagey.

Chris grinned. "Okay, so he fired her last night, then unfired her this morning, and I happened to find her in between the two. Let's just say she was in an . . . interesting state of mind."

"What'd she tell you?" Justin asked, then did a double-take. "Wait a minute. JC fired someone? In person? He actually confronted someone?"

"I know, I know!" Chris said with relish. "He must've been pretty furious is all I can think."

"Wow." Justin tried to digest that, but it was hard. "So what happened, then?"

Chris's face closed down. "I don't know, J, I mean, this is pretty private stuff and all --" he began, then broke out laughing the instant he saw Justin's expression. "Oh, for god's sake. Of course I'm going to tell you, you idiot! You think I'd let gossip this good go to waste?"

Justin rolled his eyes.

"Okay, okay, here," Chris said, then looked carefully at the door to the bunks to make sure JC wasn't coming back or anything. "What I heard is this: apparently, Bobbie called up JC's assistant last night because she hadn't heard from him in a few days. The assistant, stupidly thinking that she and Bobbie had become friends or whatever, asked her how she liked the necklace JC had gotten her."

Justin started to feel a little funny.

"Thing is, of course, JC gave her no necklace whatsoever," Chris continued with considerable amusement, "so of course Bobbie figures out that he's been cheating on her, goes ballistic, calls him up and screams at him, and then calls the whole thing off. And once JC figures out what's happened, he finds the assistant, screams at her, and then relieves her of her job. Well -- for a night."

"Oh man," Justin said weakly.

"Yeah, I know," Chris said. "Our little JC sure does get himself in fixes."

Justin needed to be clear on one thing. "And Bobbie thought he was cheating on her just because of a necklace?"

"Yep," Chris said. "And since the necklace really didn't go to Bobbie, and since he apparently didn't attempt to convince her otherwise, he probably was. I mean, beyond groupies, even"

Justin swallowed hard and thought very hard about whether he'd seen JC's assistant during the time he'd been wearing the stupid necklace. Apparently, he hadn't.

"What I want to know is who it was," Chris said lightly, then looked right into Justin's eyes. "I don't suppose you have any idea."

"Of course I don't." Justin spoke as firmly as he could and tried to sustain the intensity of Chris's stare without giving anything away.

After about five seconds, Chris laughed out loud. "So don't tell me, then."

"Chris, there's nothing to --"

"Shut up," Chris said lightning quick, then laughed again and gestured at the TV set in front of them. "Gosh, you know, it sounds so cruel given the pain in this room today, but . . . care for a little Mortal Kombat?"

"Sure, if you're prepared to get your ass kicked," Justin said immediately, and that was it for the moment.

After getting his own ass kicked a couple of times, which really almost never happened and which would have been absolutely infuriating had Justin not felt so distracted, he finally stood up and said, "I'm gonna go take a nap, I think."

Chris narrowed his eyes in disgust. "Bad idea, J. Seriously. He's really, really not so good right now."

"Well obviously, Chris, which is exactly why he needs someone to check in on him."

"Justin, not even you --"

"I won't give him trouble or anything, okay? I'm just gonna ask how he is, then leave the room."

"All right, but let me just go on record here: that is a very, very stupid idea. You got that?" Chris asked.

"Fuck you," Justin muttered, only not hard enough to really upset Chris, and then headed back to find JC.


The instant he heard the door to the sleeping area open, JC thought, Go away, Justin. Go away, go away, go away. But apparently, his mind control skills were fading somewhat, because after a few seconds, JC heard footsteps making their way toward his bunk.

"JC?" Justin breathed.

JC sighed heavily, then hurriedly slammed his notebook shut and shoved it under the pillow. He'd been writing a really good song about heartbreak and betrayal.

"Justin, I told you --"

"I know, I know, but I just -- I found out how it all went down, and I wanted to -- I just --"

JC yanked open the curtain to his bunk with some ferocity. "Look, I'm trying to write, so could you just go now?"

"I'm sorry, but no, I can't. Not right now," Justin said earnestly, and JC stared helplessly at him, caught somewhere between astonishment and fury.

"Exactly which part of 'don't bother me, Justin' is unclear to you?"

Justin smiled, but he still didn't go away; instead he grabbed a chair from the end of the room and sat down so he could look in at JC.

"Chris told me everything," he said as if that were a reasonable or useful explanation for anything.

"Chris told you? Well, then -- what more could you possibly need to know? What could possibly be left unsaid if Chris told you everything?"

Justin crossed his legs and leaned back, looking steadily at him, his eyes bright and clear. He was beautiful and he was concerned about JC, and he was just worried enough and persistent enough to sit here forever until he got JC to tell him what he wanted to hear. Part of JC basked in that -- part of him was delighted by it. The rest of him was in a panic.

"You didn't tell her you gave the necklace to me. You let her think you were cheating. Why?"

"Goodbye, Justin," JC said, and turned toward the wall and closed his eyes.

"Okay, okay, let me back up," Justin said. "Look -- I'm sorry. I'm really sorry what happened. I -- I'm not sure exactly what the relationship meant to you, but this has to be a loss, and I hate that you're unhappy about it."

JC didn't respond to that, and after a pause of sorts, Justin went on.

"And the reason I asked why you didn't tell her the truth about the necklace is that -- well, it seems to me that if you would've, then none of this would've happened. I mean, you and she would've probably laughed about it, and then it would've been over."

JC snorted. Justin didn't know Bobbie as well as he thought he did.

"Well, that's what it seems like to me, anyway," Justin said, and then he must have leaned forward, because this time when he spoke, it was louder.

"But instead, JC, you let your relationship break up. You let her think you were cheating on her. You let her think there was someone else."

"Justin, would you please, please, please just go?" JC said, and even to his own ears he sounded crazy.

"I will, I will soon, but just -- you have to tell me one thing, okay?"

JC rolled over so he could glare at him. "I don't have to tell you anything."

Justin bit his lip, then kept going. "JC, I was just -- was it me, do you maybe think? Was I the one you were cheating with? You know, emotionally or whatever?"

JC's face began to burn and his heart to pound, and for a moment, the entire world rocked dizzily on its axis. Always, Justin did this to him; always, always, he came up with the most upsetting, ridiculous, truths to any matter, then threw them at JC and waited calmly for him to react. JC hated it more than he could say, hated being analyzed and figured out so easily, hated having someone so close to him who knew him so intimately.

And so JC did what he'd always done when Justin cornered him like this: he tried to make sure that Justin would go away again for a good, long time.

"Okay," he said. "You've had your fun now, don't you think? You've insulted my relationship, you've insulted your relationship, and you've somehow managed to make the most horrible day of my life even worse. Quite frankly, I'm not sure there's anything else you could do at this point, so really, Justin, I'm going to say it one more time: would you please get the fuck out?"

For what seemed like forever, Justin just stared at him, still wearing the same patient, compassionate expression he'd had on earlier. JC stared back until he felt fidgety and uneasy, then quickly rolled over again and stared at the wall instead.

"I'm going to go now," Justin finally said after a few more moments. JC felt a big hand on his back and held his breath as Justin traced a long line up and down his spine. "We can talk more later."

"Justin --" JC said, meaning to be threatening and scary, but not exactly achieving that goal owing to the fact that his voice was shaking.

"I know, I know, " Justin said, and then left JC alone to brood.


For the next few weeks Justin kept a cautious, respectful distance from JC, speaking politely to him and teasing him on occasion but never really getting too close. One day he knocked on the door to JC's hotel room: when JC answered it, he silently handed him a small package wrapped in tissue paper before smiling at him and then heading back to his own room. When JC unwrapped it, he found the legendary "foxy" necklace.

It was actually Lance who told JC about Britney's and Justin's decision to put things on hold for a while, to see other people and explore other possibilities before things between them got too serious. JC heard that without even blinking, then said, "I don't know, man -- it sounds like a pretty wishy washy way to end a relationship."

"Oh, and you wouldn't know anything about that," Lance had shot back, and all JC had been able to do was to stare at him, speechless.

"Look," Lance had relented a moment afterward. "I actually -- it sounds pretty brave and sane to me. It's never easy to do that kind of thing, and this allows them to kind of have their break up without all the trauma. They'll both just move on or whatever."

JC had frowned, thinking. "Well, so what do you think? Is it over?"

"Over? Oh hell, yeah," Lance had said, grinning. "All you have to do to figure that one out is look at Justin right now."


"Oh, right, I forgot; you're ignoring him for some idiotic reason you've made up in your head," Lance said lightly and very quickly, and then went on before JC could even respond. "But yeah, JC, really. He's a lot calmer now, and it's almost as if he's, I don't know, happier with himself. He seems a lot more centered."

"Hm," JC had said, and then fell silent until Lance moved on to another topic.


They had the posh jewelry store all to themselves; the band had been allowed in after hours, and all of them had come prepared to do some serious shopping.

All of them but JC, that is, who stood alone, a bit disgruntled as he pretended to be absorbed by an impressive array of crosses. Across the room Joey and Chris were trying on some watches, and Lance was checking out some rings for his mother, but it was Justin JC was focusing on, Justin, whose face was glowing and whose eyes were sparkling almost as much as the diamond earrings before him. JC had half-expected him to be melancholy over the fact that he no longer had Britney to buy things for, but Justin made no mention of her and evinced no sadness; he was smiling so radiantly and moving around the store with such pleasure that he almost looked like a little kid.

The shopkeeper was setting out earrings and watches before him on a swathe of black velvet, and Justin was almost beside himself as he watched. He had always liked sparkly, flashy things, JC thought fondly, had always enjoyed trophy jewelry. Justin was pretty unlikely to use words to brag about his money and his status, but he had no qualms about doing it with diamonds. It was both obnoxious and cute, JC thought, and it had certainly resulted in a lot of laughable jewelry purchases over the years.

As the shopkeeper sorted through the pieces he'd placed before Justin, JC was able to see the precise moment it happened, the exact moment Justin saw the one thing that enchanted him. It was a necklace with an elaborately twisted gold chain, and Justin couldn't stop touching it, couldn't stop holding it under the light and watching it gleam, couldn't stop threading it through his long, nimble fingers.

"Try it on, sir," the shopkeeper invited, and JC forgot himself and smiled outright for a few moments as he watched Justin looking at himself in the mirror -- vain, vain, vain, but deservedly so, and the gold of the necklace glinted like the gold in his hair, and his eyes shone brightly, and he was probably just about perfect.

"You like?" he said, suddenly turning to address JC, and all JC could do was smile, shrug, and say, "Yeah, J-- it suits you."

"Yeah," Justin repeated, and then strode across the floor to where JC was standing.

"You watching me, C?" Justin asked softly, and although they both knew that the answer to that was a resounding yes, because watching Justin was all JC seemed to be able to do lately, JC still glanced hurriedly down at the crosses in front of him and murmured, "I watch a lot of things."

"Hm." Justin stepped closer to JC and peered into the display case with him. He smelled incredibly good today, and his shoulders curved wide and broad under the tee shirt he was wearing. It had been more than a few weeks since Justin and JC had been this close to each other, much less talked together, and as he looked at Justin's profile, took in the strong line of his nose and the sweet curve of his mouth, JC realized uneasily that he had missed this -- he had missed it very much.

"I see lots of nice stuff in here but nothing that really says JC to me," Justin said affectionately, standing up straight again.

"Yeah, I'm not really -- I don't --" JC started to say, and then froze as Justin slowly reached out and touched the pendant at his throat for just an instant.

"I guess it's pretty hard to surpass stone and leather," he teased.

JC smiled and took a cautious step back.

"It is, actually. You seem to like the chain you've got on, though."

Justin shrugged. "I do, yeah, but I've got too much jewelry as it is. My mom says I'm on the verge of overdoing it."

"Overdoing it suits you," JC said, and then added, "It always has" as Justin grinned and ducked his head.

"It'd probably suit you, too if you'd just relax long enough to realize it," Justin told him then, and then rolled his eyes and muttered, "Okay, so later, C," as JC quickly moved away from him and over to where Chris and Joey were standing.

But just because JC wasn't standing near Justin didn't mean that he wasn't watching him: he noticed with probably more interest than anyone in the room when Justin frowned to himself, took off the necklace, and then slowly walked away from it without even looking back.

JC frowned too, then slipped out of the store and headed back to the limo. He would just wait for everyone there.


After JC left the store, Justin couldn't help but smile, even though he was frustrated as hell with him. The talk they'd just finished had been the second-longest conversation they'd had in weeks; the first had taken place just a day or so ago, and, given the almost reluctantly curious look in JC's eyes as he'd watched him today, the third would not be long in coming. It had been so hard not to push this, so hard to let JC handle things at his own pace, so hard to wait for JC to stop freaking out and start to see what was right in front of him, what had been waiting for him for weeks now, actually.

It was completely unsurprising that JC would take forever to approach Justin again -- JC had been the one to panic before, the one who'd felt they'd gotten too close too quickly, the one who'd said they shouldn't be with each other like that because the intensity of it was going to burn them both up.

Justin had never been afraid of the heat; for most of his life, he had sought closeness and intimacy, not run from it. That was what made him happy. That was what he needed to survive. JC, however, was wary and skittish. He came close to you, figured out that he liked it, and then shrunk back in horror because he couldn't stand the thought of being weak, of letting go. JC was nervy and unreliable, distant and hurtful, impossible to depend on and impossible to stop needing.

After things between them had ended all those months ago, Justin had sworn to himself that he'd never again be taken in by such a coward, that he'd never again try to get close to someone so emotionally distant. Then he'd gone out and gotten the warmest, sweetest girl in the world, someone just as open and ready for love as he'd been.

And it would have worked, too -- it would have been perfect for them both had Justin not left a part of himself with JC, a part he hadn't even known he'd been missing until he'd realized he couldn't give everything to Britney the way he wanted to.

JC hadn't wanted to catch him, and JC sure as hell hadn't wanted to be caught. But both of those things had happened, and Justin and JC's reward for having ignored that fact was two ruined relationships and two broken-hearted girls.

Well. Two angry girls at least. Anyway, now that Justin knew what could and couldn't be ignored, now that he knew that the bond between him and JC was probably never going to break, no matter how many stupid things the two of them did to try to sever it, the only thing left to do was accept it, to let it run its course and bring them together.

And JC knew it too on some level. He might have been capable of almost heroic acts of avoidance, but Justin was confident that he couldn't ignore him forever, couldn't avoid him forever, particularly not with Justin as handsome, willing, and available as he was right now. All he had to do was be patient and wait for him to come back to him; all he had to do was bide his time and continue to be open to things.



"Here you go, baby," Fe said and handed Britney a milkshake.

"Aw, Fe, that's so sweet!" Britney smiled gratefully at her and took a long, cool drink. This was the fifth milkshake Fe had gotten her in as many weeks, and Fe hadn't said a word about it to the trainer, the wardrobe people, or Britney's mom. Really, it almost paid off to get dumped by your gay boyfriend and then coaxed into a sham PR relationship so the two of you could keep up appearances.

She was over the shock of it now, and much of the pain, but the fact of the matter was that it just plain sucked to have a person you thought loved you -- a person who loved you so much you maybe even found it a bit tiresome and scary sometimes -- turn the tables on you.

Britney knew she was never going to find another guy like Justin: other guys like Justin simply didn't exist. No one else could be so devoted, no one else could be as pure of heart, no one else could be as earnest and forthright -- well, about most things -- as Justin had been.

Britney took another sip of her milkshake and thought for a moment. And no one else could be so clingy, so demanding, so frightening and overwhelming in his love for her. No one else would put her on such an impossibly high pedestal, would unwittingly put so much pressure on her in the bedroom that she'd begin to hate sex. And to be sure, no one else would be sleeping with JC Chasez. Only Justin would do that from now on out.

It was a mixed bag to be sure. She was sad, she was regretful, and she missed Justin a lot -- far more than she'd expected to, actually. But she felt freer now, and maybe even somewhat scared of all the possibilities now before her. Justin had wanted to sweep her into a wonderful world built just for two, had wanted to create a warm, safe space they could retreat to, a place far from the demands and worries of the rest of the world. And because Justin was such a beautiful person, that would have been a lovely place to be, and Britney knew that a part of her was always going to regret having missed out on it.

But having lost her chance at the perfect retreat now left her room to go out into the rest of the world, to explore all the messiness, uncertainty, color, and noise she'd previously sought to escape. She was going to have a far bumpier road to adulthood than she'd counted on, but who was to say that that was a bad thing? Maybe chaos could be just as beautiful in its way as security, and it certainly couldn't be a bad thing to be released from the weight of Justin's expectations.

"I love you, Brit," was the last thing he'd said to her during the phone call that had changed her life forever. "I love you and I'm always going to be here for you, no matter what happens."

Britney took a few deep breaths and stared hard at the ceiling until she was pretty sure she wasn't going to cry. God, she missed him. God, this was hard. Then, she padded quietly over to her purse, pulled out her phone and the pack of cigarettes she'd convinced a bodyguard to buy for her yesterday, and snuck out to the balcony to have a smoke and maybe call Wade. She was going to be just fine.


"Just a minute, Justin," JC said when he heard the familiar knock on the door -- the third time this week alone that Justin had come to see him -- and immediately began to compose himself, to tamp down on the thoroughly inappropriate feelings Justin now regularly evoked in him. Lately, it seemed that Justin always had his shirt off, or his pants too low on his hips, and he always, always had that same devastating, sexy grin on his face.

As a result, JC's Justin immunity was now at an all-time low -- but instead of seeking to avoid him, all he'd done as of late was get closer and closer, so close sometimes that he could barely stand it.

"Hey," Justin said when JC opened the door to his room, pulling him into a brief hug and then stepping back to grin at him. "What's up with you tonight?"

"Sleep," JC said quickly. "I really need to catch up on my sleep."

"How surprising, coming from you." Justin began to wander through JC's hotel room, stopping idly at the TV, the coffee table, the minibar, and then moving over to the suitcase JC had left open on his bed.

"What about you?" JC asked as he watched Justin peer with interest at his dirty clothing. Justin was sometimes into the stupidest things.

"So, uh, hey," Justin said, his eyes still locked on JC's clothes. "You still have that Tennessee tee shirt of mine?"

"I didn't borrow any tee shirts from you. I haven't borrowed any clothes from you since -- well, in a long time."

Justin looked dubious.

"I haven't," JC repeated.

"It was one of my favorite tee shirts," Justin said.

JC shrugged. "I'm sorry, but I don't have it."

"My grandma gave it to me," Justin said.

"Justin, I swear to you, I don't --"

"But are you sure? Are you absolutely a hundred percent sure?"

JC frowned. He was never a hundred percent sure of anything.

Justin looked back down at the suit case and then almost imploringly at him. "Can I just go through here fast to make sure?"

JC shrugged. "You won't find what you're looking for, but do what you have to to be happy, J."

"I always do," Justin said, weirdly cheerful, and began to search through JC's clothes with such energy that it almost made JC uncomfortable. He didn't want to let Justin know that, however, so he moved over to the couch, lay down, and turned on the television.

When Justin finally appeared before him again, JC looked up at him in some amazement. Every day, it seemed now, Justin got more beautiful, and at this particular moment he looked not only beautiful but also happy.

"It wasn't there, was it?" JC said none too pleasantly, trying to get rid of the uneasiness he was feeling.

"No, it wasn't," Justin slowly said, and something in his tone made JC sit up and look even more closely at him.

"But this was," he added, and then moved his hand from behind his back and extended his palm so JC could see the jeweler's box resting on it, a box from the very same store they'd been in a few weeks ago

JC felt his face go scarlet. "Put that back."

Justin looked steadily at him and said nothing.

"Seriously, Justin, right now."

"I don't think either of us really wants that to happen, JC." Justin sighed, and then sat down next to him on the couch. "Though I kind of wish the whole thing wouldn't have happened in this particular way."

The moment Justin was settled next to him, JC reached out his hand. Justin willingly put the jewelry box in it.

"You know, I really did like that chain," Justin said quietly. "I can't even remember now exactly why I didn't buy it -- probably because I was upset at something you were doing."

JC took a long, unsteady breath. "You sound pretty confident that that's what's actually in here," he shakily said.

"I looked in it before I brought it over here, so I'm very confident," Justin said without embarrassment, and JC swore under his breath.

"JC," Justin said, but his voice was not at all what JC expected it to be -- instead of triumphant, it was solemn, and almost sad. "Why does this have to be so hard?" he whispered. "Why do you hate it so much that you love me?"

"Justin, no. I don't. It's not." That was all JC was capable of for the moment.

"I'm sorry, but I didn't quite catch that," Justin said politely. Clearly, he was not going to let JC off the hook on this one.

JC slowly opened the box and looked down at the chain. "Okay, so obviously you loved this," he murmured.

Justin inclined his head slightly and gave him a small smile.

"And I bought it because -- well. Because I wanted to make you happy. Because it seems . . ." JC began, and then slowly trailed off.

"One time," Justin said, and now he was almost amused; JC could tell it from the corners of his mouth. "Just say it one time, JC, one time, and we'll go from there. That's all I'm gonna ask right now."

JC had a sudden flash of insight. "There was no Tennessee tee shirt, was there?"

Justin rolled his eyes. "I saw the box at the last hotel, the last time I was in your room, but it took me a day or so to think of a way to get to it." Justin crossed his arms and looked steadily at him, apparently out of patience for the moment. "Now do it, JC."

"I'm sorry, "JC mumbled guiltily, uncomfortably. "Really sorry it's -- that I'm -- It's just -- I always want to make you happy, okay? I can't stop worrying about you or thinking about you, and --"

"JC!" Justin practically yelled. "If you want to make me happy, then why don't you just fucking do it?"

JC took a deep breath, then clumsily shoved the box toward him. "All right, all right! It's just -- I hate being unable to control things like this, and you know it, Justin, you know that better than anyone."

Justin rolled his eyes, but he smiled as he took the necklace. "Yes, JC. It's sometimes difficult to have feelings for other people. But the rest of the world seems to have dealt with it somehow."

"Justin," JC said, and then took a deep breath and did it. "Of course I still love you. And you know it -- you always have."

"It doesn't hurt to hear it again," Justin said, and reached behind him to put the necklace on.

"Wait, no," JC said, and then maneuvered so that he was behind Justin and slowly did the clasp himself before gently kissing the nape of Justin's neck and murmuring, "I do love you. And I want you to know it."

Suddenly, Justin swung around, his eyes bright and his smile even brighter. "I mean, of course I always knew it, but with your . . . freakout or whatever the last time we were together, and then Britney and Bobbie and everything, and it just -- I got lost, JC. We got lost."

JC nodded.

"But now we're not, right?"

"Now we're not," JC repeated.

"And from now on, JC, you're going to communicate, right? You're going to be open about how you feel and tell me what you think about things, and you're not going to panic on me and run away again. Right?"

JC felt a little uncomfortable. "Um."

Justin laughed out loud, then leaned in once more and kissed JC hungrily, his mouth hot and his hands traveling restlessly over JC's back.

"I know, I know," Justin whispered a moment later as they gazed almost helplessly at each other, so wrapped up in longing and love that speech seemed nearly impossible. "It's not going to be easy, but we'll just, I don't know. Take it as it comes."

"I want to take you and make you come," JC breathed, and then Justin's eyes went very dark, and the two of them slowly stood up together and made their way over to the bed.


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