nsync in black and white

Disclaimer: this is fiction. We made it up.

Almost Never There

by topaz, written for Kaelie

His dad has always told him that life is life. You can bitch and moan about it, or you can work your ass off, play the hand you were dealt and figure out how to roll with the punches.

JC thinks he's actually been pretty good with that. He's had some pretty low lows in his life, and he's never going to tell his dad that coming to live with him was one of the worst, but he's had some fucking incredible highs, too. He gets that it can all turn on a dime, that you can be sky high one second and looking at a lawsuit demanding unfathomable money the next, but the day that the phone call with Lance, who's saying, "I'm in, C; I'm fucking in, the Russians are so desperate for money they agreed to everything National Geographic asked for; I'm on the schedule for next spring," is interrupted by the call from Paul Harless asking him to meet Lynn in the West Hills emergency room drives the point home.

Lynn is calm when he gets there, but she's so pale he's afraid she's going to pass out. JC had deliberately listened to satellite on the drive. Paul wasn't sure who knew what, and JC didn't want to hear anything from late night radio and have to wonder if they got it right. Lynn's face is enough to let him know that he made the right call, because if she looks this bad, he doesn't want to know what spin the DJs are putting on it.

She hugs him tight, clings to him, and he catches snatches of what she's trying to say. "Escalade," and "rolled," and "fog," and the one part that he hears clearly, "took an hour to get to them." She doesn't let go of his hand as he gently guides her to the row of plastic chairs along the wall, but her voice is steady and under control as they sit. "Concussion, broken ribs, ruptured spleen, punctured lung. He's in surgery now."

JC nods and tries to prepare himself for a long night. It's not until another group joins them in the waiting room that he realizes Cameron had been in the car with Justin. Katie Couric, on the TV in the hospital cafeteria the next morning, is the one who tells him that Justin's Escalade was totaled in a single car accident on the Pacific Coast Highway just south of Malibu and that Cameron was driving. As far as JC knows, Lynn never says her name.


The doctors are guardedly positive, even as they say things like, "There will be a substantial recuperation period, of course," and, "We'll be watching him closely for for possible infections." Lynn nods and takes notes, and leans against JC for just a second when one of them says, "He's conscious now; would you like to see him?"

Paul walks in while Lynn is gone, looking every one of his years and more, his face marked deeply by strain. JC is happy to be able to relay that Justin's regained consciousness and watch some of the stress ease, and then Lynn is back and finally breaking down in Paul's arms.

A nurse says quietly that Justin can have one more visitor this hour and Paul waves JC towards her. JC realizes he hasn't actually let himself think about everything he's heard through the night when he steps inside and has to fight the urge to turn around and tell the nurse that they've come to the wrong room. He doesn't recognize the person on the bed, and of course he'd know Justin; he's known Justin for a lifetime. Then he sees the familiar curve of a jaw and the mass of cuts and bruises resolves itself into a semblance of his friend, enough so that JC doesn't embarrass himself. He moves across the room to stand by the bed and Justin opens his eyes, the blue all but lost in the red of burst blood vessels.

"C," Justin breathes, not even loud enough to be a whisper, and JC smiles and whispers back, "J."

He slides his fingers carefully in between Justin's and stays there until the nurse touches him on the arm and murmurs that his time is up.


It only takes a couple of hours of daylight for the paparazzi to set up camp. Trace can slip in and out more or less unnoticed, but at least some of them recognize JC and every time he steps out of the hospital to breathe some air that's not processed, he can hear the cameras clicking even from across the street.

When he calls Chris and Joey and Lance with medical updates, they give him the media ones in return. He makes the online gossip columns more than once, but the only picture he sees of himself is from when he leaves, two days later. The photographer caught him pulling out of the hospital parking garage, and behind the windshield of his car, his eyes look empty and numb. He's not entirely sure it's a trick of the light.


Lynn goes home to Tennessee far earlier than JC would have expected. JC hears all about it from the early morning drive time team at WWWQ in, well, he's not exactly sure where he is. Album promotion is like that. Somewhere in the southeast, he thinks, because the woman who's bringing him cups of tea sounds like Diane.

"Yeah, no, man, that's good," he says into the microphone. He's not sure if it really is; the last time they'd spoken, just a day or so previously, Justin had seemed distant and almost out of it, and JC would have bet anything that Lynn couldn't have been pried away from Justin after only a few weeks. Still, the words slide easily out of his mouth. It's the morning gossip; all they want to know is if there's ever been a catfight between Lynn and Cameron and then they're off on Lance and space again.


Chris shows up in Kansas City, just walks into the radio station and raps on the window to catch JC's attention. He won't join JC on air, but as soon as the DJ wraps it up, Chris shepherds him out of the station and waves off the SUV that's waiting to take him to the hotel.

"C'mon, pretty boy," Chris says as he flips the locks on a black Prowler. "You, me, cheap beer and barbecue."

JC laughs. "Man, with lines like that, I'll bet you have to beat the women off with a stick."

Chris snorts as he slams the door and puts the key in the ignition. "Dude, you drink Michelob at open bars. I got no reason to waste the good shit on you." The stereo blasts to life as soon as he starts the car, and JC could shout over the music, but it's easier to lean his head back against the seat, the leather smooth and still cool against his skin, and lose himself in the music and lyrics, to let Chris's voice wash over him and find the harmonies automatically.

The place Chris takes him to ends up being small enough to not have a liquor license, but the Pepsi is ice cold and the ribs are straight out of the pit and messy, just this side of heaven. JC can't really remember the last time he's had actual food, maybe in Atlanta, with Dallas, and it's good to be with Chris, even if dinner is going to come with a price. Chris isn't given to random attacks of caretaking. Joey, yes, but JC knows Chris wants something and is feeling guilty about asking.

JC has a pretty good idea what it's about. Normally, he'd wait it out, make Chris ask, just to keep him honest, but they're working on promo time here, which means there isn't any, so a rack and a half of ribs in, JC says, "Okay, so?" and chills while Chris scrubs his hands on a fistful of the cheap paper napkins the waitress left on the table.

"Yeah," Chris says, and JC waits for it, but Chris isn't talking Lance and Russia and a million pounds of solid rocket fuel, he's saying, "J, man. You talked to him lately?"

JC has to think to separate the days, but it hasn't been all that long since he and Justin have traded voicemails. Chris shakes his head. "No, I mean talked to him, carried on what passes for normal conversation between the two of you."

JC wants to laugh, because time really is a fluid thing right about now, and he knows Chris knows that, but something in Chris's face stops him. He thinks hard, tries to find something unique about the street he was standing on the last time he and Justin actually talked, but finally shrugs helplessly. Chris nods.

"I don't," Chris starts, but then the waitress is back with a fresh round. "I was out there yesterday," he says, and that's enough to make JC sit up a little straighter. "Skipping past me giving you shit about not mentioning how fucking bad he must have looked when you saw him given how he looks now--"

JC shrugs unapologetically. "And you'd have done what?"

Chris glares, but JC is immune to it, and frankly, there had been no need for graphic detail.

Chris sighs. "Yeah, okay, skipping that part, and taking it into account, but things still aren't right, he isn't right and--"

"And you said as much and--"

"The pissy little shit threw me out," Chris finishes.

"And?" JC says, because it's not the first time Justin and Chris have gotten on each other's last nerve. It's not even the first time in the calendar year.

Chris takes a long swallow of soda and says, "And he was just going through the motions."

JC nods slowly. "Yeah," he says, thinking back over the last few months. "That's actually a damn good way to describe it."


He catches up with Justin the next time he's in LA, calls on impulse on his way back from hanging out with JoJo in the studio and is more than a little surprised not to get voice mail.

"Yeah," Justin says. "We're just hanging out, shooting hoops. Come by if you want."

From the tone of Justin's voice, JC expects a crowd to be there; Justin's always enjoyed having a lot of people in and out of his house, but it's just him and Trace out on the court, and the rest of the house is neat and quiet and a little too cool from the air conditioning. JC finds a beer and stands around the court for a while, listening to the other two trash-talk each other, letting the words wash over him, until the familiar, comfortable stream of abuse shifts.

"Fuck you, Ayala," Justin is saying, short and sharp and tight. "Quit playing like a goddamned pussy, just because you think I should be taking it easy."

Trace just grins at Justin and turns away, still dribbling the ball. "Not everything revolves around you, superstar," he answers, winking at JC. "It's the fucking middle of the night; this ain't the Coliseum; and you sure as hell don't look like Kobe. You don't like the way I rebound, go find some other sucker to play with."

There's no real heat in Trace's voice, but JC hears the determination that you need to have with Justin sometimes, when he's got it in his head to do something stupid and you have no intention of being dragged into it.

"Fine," Justin says, through gritted teeth. "I get it; it's late, go home. You can call my mom and tell her how I'm pushing myself too hard if it'll make you feel better."

Trace rolls his eyes at JC, and throws up one last jump shot before he turns to leave.

"Jesus, Timberlake," he says, walking off the court. "You're wound way too fucking tight these days. Did you ever think you might need to get laid?"

Justin grabs the ball as it bounces off the hoop and, in one smooth motion, turns and throws the basketball at Trace's head. Trace sees it coming and ducks easily, and JC can hear him laughing as he trots back toward his car. "You are so fucking easy, Timberlake."

JC can't really say that he blames Justin for the little display of temper. That probably has something to do with all the nights he's been making do with hotel porn because he can't be bothered to hit a club after a show, but hell, Trace is going off to climb into bed with his perfectly gorgeous wife.

"Fucker," Justin mutters. He pulls up his shirt to wipe the sweat off his face and JC's only had one beer, he can't be drunk, but he can't stop looking at the still-too-thin line of Justin's abs and he can all but taste the salt.

Justin catches him staring, and for a second JC thinks he sees a sharp, hungry look in Justin's eyes, but then Justin shrugs and says, "That's game, I guess," in a bored tone that sets JC's teeth on edge with its disinterest. At least there had been life in Justin's voice when he'd been bitching at Trace.

Justin starts walking back up to the house. "You got time to hang for a while?" he asks, his hand on the switch for the outdoor lights.

"Yeah," JC answers, even though he's got two early morning call-ins. It's late enough that he might as well stay up the rest of the night and do the calls on no sleep. He does better with the banter that way.

Justin stops in front of the refrigerator and hands JC a bottle of water, and opens a can of protein shake for himself. He makes a face as he finishes and reaches for a water of his own.

"Whoever invented that shit has a deep grudge against his fellow man," he says, and drains the water. The house is quiet, only the low hum of the air conditioner in the background.

"No one else is here?" JC asks, more to break up the silence that's weighing heavier with every second than any desire to know who's crashing with Justin.

Justin shrugs. "Trace is, y'know, he and Elisha, they've got that place in Studio City, and she's working here, not on location," which JC actually hadn't known, but it makes sense.

"Your mom, she's still in Tennessee?"

"She's down to three calls a day," Justin snorts. "But yeah, she was, I couldn't deal with her after I got home. I mean, I love her and all, but she was freaked and I just, just didn't have the energy to handle it, y'know?"

JC nods, and he does, in a way, understand. He's more comfortable when he's sick if everyone leaves him alone, but he'd always thought Justin was the opposite. Then again, a broken thumb or the flu on tour is a far different thing than the past few months.

The silence falls again, and JC finally asks. "Cameron?"

Justin peels the label off his bottle of water, concentrates intently on pulling each bit of paper off the plastic. "Dunno," he finally says. "Not here."

Whatever Justin isn't saying lies just under the surface and JC knows he should leave it there, that it's late and Justin, for all his attitude with Trace, looks tired and drawn, but with the way everyone's schedule is working, JC might not see Justin again for a month. 

"She was pregnant," Justin says abruptly. "Before," he adds, but JC has already jerked his head up at the "was."

It's completely inadequate, but the only thing he can think to say is, "J, man, I'm so sor--"

"Wasn't mine," Justin interrupts. "We never quite got around to whose it was."

He shrugs and wanders out of the kitchen. JC follows a few seconds later, and SportsCenter fills the silence until it's time for JC's first call-in to the East Coast.


Lance had told him not to worry about it, that he understood JC's tour schedule, but JC couldn't let Lance leave for Russia again without seeing him in person. It doesn't matter that he's literally flying into LAX, finding Lance on his way to his gate and flying back out. What matters is the feel of Lance, solid in his arms, and knowing that he hasn't let an opportunity pass to say good-bye.


The Toronto shows go well, and it's nice that there's a plural on the end of that, and it's even nicer that when he looks to the wings for some water halfway through the second set of the second night, it's Joey tossing him the bottle.

Joey grins and flashes him a thumbs up and shakes his ass a little. JC laughs and shakes his head. The rest of the set rockets by, the crowd and the band a blur, and JC can do no wrong. Joey catches him as he finally throws himself offstage, staggers back a step from the force of JC hitting him, but then gets JC over his shoulder and starts running for the bus.

It doesn't matter that JC can't breathe; laughter is so much better than oxygen. Joey dumps him on the couch in the lounge, slaps his ass on the way down, and then falls half on top of him, gasping for breath.

An amused voice says, "Fatone, you are so out of shape," and JC fights his way out from under Joey to find Justin lounging against the opposite wall.

"More of me to love; that's what my girls say," Joey wheezes, as JC plants an elbow in his ribs to get himself off the couch and give Justin a hug. He tries not to be shocked by how fragile Justin feels, especially in comparison with Joey, but JC remembers him at fourteen and fifteen and he'd swear Justin felt more solid then than he does now.

"We're riding with you," Justin says. "At least for a little while."

"The cover boy over there charmed the AD into letting me off set," Joey says.

Justin shrugs. "I just mentioned that I'd flown in from LA, and how it sucked that Joey was already here but didn't think he could really take any time away from the set to see the show."

"And there might have been a smile or two, and you'd think a sharp, independent woman working in the industry would be immune to the damn accent, but you'd be wrong," Joey says, rolling his eyes.

"Hey, man," Justin says. "Quit your bitching. It worked, didn't it?"

Joey says, "Yeah, yeah, send me your bill." He turns to JC again. "I do need to be back by the morning, though. So you have to take me back to my hotel, or dump me somewhere that I can get transportation. But the skinny one is all yours."

He holds up his hand and JC slaps it as he goes to grab a shower before the bus gets moving. When he comes back out, Joey's found his stash of tequila and porn and the party is already underway.


The movie crew Joey's shooting with is holed up in a hotel in the outer suburbs of Toronto, conveniently located near a racetrack, Joey says. By the time they get lost twice on the way, the tequila is half-gone and the movies have blurred together. Joey likes porn, cheerfully and unapologetically; watching with him is like the adult version of MST3K, JC thinks, and it's suddenly quiet when he's gone.

Justin stretches out on the floor, leaves the bed for JC and that's the first time that JC thinks about what they're doing, alone in the back of the bus, with a tangle of bodies on the plasma screen. On one level, it's familiar; it's just porn on the bus, and that's kind of been the theme of this whole tour. Underneath that, though, is the acute awareness of someone else--of Justin--being there with him.   


Justin shifts on the floor, and the soundtrack of moans and gasps and cheesy music fades into the background as JC's brain is mesmerized by the smooth roll of Justin's hips. He's not touching himself, but JC can see that he's hard and that doesn't do anything to help the blood pounding through his own body.

When he looks back up, Justin's watching him, and there's no good thing to say when a friend catches you checking him out, especially when you don't even know if he swings that way. Then Justin moves again, and there's no doubt in JC's mind that it's an invitation, not the way Justin lets his legs fall open, just a little, or the way his hips arch up, and it's easy enough to ignore good sense and slide off the bed.

The skin is stretched tight over Justin's ribs; JC can feel each one as he eases his hand up under the gray t-shirt. It's going to take Justin a while to build back the muscle he lost after the accident, but that's okay. JC isn't there for the Herb Ritts cover boy. He's there for someone who knows him and who he knows and who might possibly care about him, JC, not the guy they see on MTV.

Justin growls softly, a subtle tremble of sound and motion under JC, and slides one big hand into JC's hair to pull him down and into a vicious, wicked kiss, as much teeth as lips and tongue and JC stops thinking.

"You think I didn't notice," Justin says, scrubbing the heel of his hand rough and nasty up JC's thigh, and JC groans at the pressure, at the sudden friction of cotton and denim on his dick. It's too hard, too harsh, but he's arching up into it, clawing at Justin's hips, dragging him closer. "The way you look at me," Justin finishes, voice raw and breathless. "I saw it every time."

"I saw you looking back," JC answers, echoing the challenge in Justin voice, and it's true, even if he hadn't been sure if he'd been making things up. Justin's hand has stopped grinding into him, in favor of tearing at the waistband of JC's jeans.

"Yes," Justin hisses, as JC skips that step and jams his hand under Justin's jeans, curves his fingers around the heat and hardness he finds. Justin's hands fall away from the buttons and JC stills.

"Keep going," he says, waiting until Justin has his jeans open before dragging his thumb the length of Justin's cock, smiling as Justin shudders under his touch. "Now yours."

Justin makes quick work of the button and zipper and JC takes advantage of the sudden freedom, fisting Justin's cock in a slow, deliberate rhythm. He doesn't even try to suppress the thrill that snakes through him as Justin's face goes slack and vacant with pleasure.

Watching isn't enough, though; JC wants more, wants to feel skin on skin, wants to feel Justin's hands on him. Justin has them both mostly naked; all it takes is a quick shift of his hips to press close.

"Fuck, fuck, C," Justin moans and JC grinds down on him again, and then it's his turn to moan as Justin works a hand between their bodies, wraps it hard around both their dicks.

With every bit of concentration he can find, JC forces himself to be still, to let everything come from the hand jerking them both off; from the way Justin moves his hips, smooth and liquid. He lets himself feel every sweep of Justin's hand, pays exquisite attention to the way the roughened skin, the calluses from years of playing guitar edge every stroke away from pure pleasure and into something that's fierce and sharp and all-consuming.

He holds himself still until Justin loses all rhythm and comes, blood-hot and shaking beneath him, and then, finally, lets himself move, fucking himself into Justin's fist, grinding hard into the hotslicktight, moving, moving, until there's nothing left but the blood pounding through his veins and the primal rush of coming for the first time with Justin, on Justin, and it's all he can do to not throw back his head and howl, and even then, it's not enough.

Before his breathing evens out, before his heart can stop pounding, before Justin lets go, JC's mouth is on Justin's skin--quick, flickering tastes in and out of the dip of his collarbone, circling back to suck the blood to the surface where the bone pushes sharpest against the skin, then skimming down his body to lick slow and indulgent over still-shaking muscles.

Justin moves restlessly against him and JC takes his time, the taste of Justin mingled with himself, warm bittersalt thick on his tongue. They've got all night, it's a long haul by bus. There won't be any interruptions; JC can take this as slowly as he wants, but when he lets his tongue trace the long, lovely line where Justin's thigh joins his body and feels the tremor and strain in the muscles under him, when Justin's hands reach for him, skimming across his shoulders and back before sliding into his hair and knotting tight, he knows there's not a prayer in hell that he'll be able to keep himself under control.


It's not quite dawn when JC comes awake from the bus stopping and starting along city streets. His head is pounding with that vicious edge that tequila always gives him; Justin is sprawled across the bed, sheets tangled around his legs. JC moves off the bed carefully, in deference to both.

He probably doesn't have time for a shower before they get to the next hotel, and really, he'd just as soon not have to think about balancing in a slippery stall right this second. Brushing his teeth and finding something for his head are necessary, though, and then maybe he can start to sort through the night.

Justin has rolled onto his back when JC eases back into the bedroom, closing the door behind him, and JC pauses to let himself really look at Justin, lets his eyes sweep carefully over the scar that runs down the left side of his abdomen, still red and angry-looking, even after six months; tries to gauge how much weight Justin still has to put back on.

His memories of that first endless night in the hospital waiting room have taken on the ripples and curves of a Dali-esque nightmare, with the strangest things bright and sharp in his mind. The color of the elastic band Lynn had used to pull her hair back, the taste of lukewarm cafeteria coffee, the soft scuffling noises the paper booties made as the nurses moved around the floor--but the rest of the time has faded into endless loops of jolting awake from brief catnaps with his arm prickly from the weight of Lynn's head.

JC tries not to think about it often, but the scar and the way Justin's ribs and collarbone stand out in sharp relief brings the memories flooding back, so much that he's confused for a split-second, when he looks at Justin's face and finds blank blue eyes staring back at him.

"Seen enough?" Justin asks, his voice flat. Before JC can answer, Justin is up off the bed, brushing past JC in a blur of long, lean limbs as he reaches for his jeans, pulling them on with quick sharp tugs.

"About this," he says. "I don't, this isn't gonna fuck things up between us, is it?"

JC starts to answer that no, it doesn't have to, when Justin rushes on, "Because, this isn't, I don't, oh fuck." He scrubs his hand over the short curls, and the skin on JC's fingers and belly and thighs itches with the memory of how that feels. "It was, I mean, obviously, I wasn't, I didn't leave or anything, but it's not something I. Want."

JC thinks of the way Justin had writhed under his mouth and hands, how his voice had broken on JC's name, of the way he'd traced his hands slowly over every inch of JC's skin. He thinks of all the times he's seen Justin looking back at him, the way Justin's eyes sharpen when he thinks JC isn't watching, the need he'd heard under Justin's words during the night. He looks at Justin in the slowly strengthening light seeping in from under the blinds and sees the desperate fear in his eyes and remembers what it was like before he could wrap his brain around the part of him that went for guys. He says quietly, "No, man. Not gonna fuck us up at all."


Lance manages about one email every ten days or so, usually nothing more than the latest on the ever-changing dates and details about the launch, but it's enough to let everyone know he's still alive, and even through the terse, brief sentences, JC can feel Lance's excitement building.

JC usually tries to include something completely off-topic in his replies, something other than the "still on tour, forget which city is today, it's going great, so proud of you, ate sushi for breakfast yesterday" parts, which, while true, are boring as shit. Links to News of the Weird or the Smoking Gun, snips from the gossip pages when they dish about people Lance knows, whatever porn links Chris has sent, even random scientific and engineering articles that he's stumbled across or that his dad's forwarded.

He's not sure if Lance ever looks at them, but they make JC feel more connected, less off-in-his-own-world. This morning though, he's striking out. Chris is in the final final stages of pulling his album together, and while JC is fairly confident his porn consumption hasn't dipped, he hasn't had the time to be sending along the good stuff quite as much. Page Six is all about some scandal in the mayor's office, and nothing new is up on the Smoking Gun.

Ted comes through for him though, with the Awful Truth detailing the latest TomKat public spat and the never-ending speculation on where exactly Brangelina's upcoming wedding might be held, and someone taking a guess at a Blind Vice and being shot down with glee. Lance is the champion at matching people up with the stories, and he always loves a good closet vice, especially one that involves professionals, so JC clicks a few links, to see if he's already sent this one.

It has a lot of guesses, a lot of clues, and laying them out nice and neat in the email, JC has to laugh because from the way it's written it could be Justin. The smile and the blondes and the golf and the world suddenly gets very still, because there's really not anyone else this could be. He skips back and forth through the links, looking if anyone has asked if it's Justin because Lance always says Ted never prints the real name in the guesses, so if there's a likely suspect and they're not mentioned, you know you're on to something.

Justin's name isn't anywhere.

He sucks at this, JC thinks fiercely. He never ever figures these things out; there's no reason to think he's done it now. Except that it all fits too perfectly, right down to the, God, to the Disney mention. JC quickly deletes the email and closes the browser, then stares blankly at the monitor until the screensaver kicks in.

Something else his dad has always said is to deal with people honestly and fairly and upfront. JC's worked hard to do all of that, and if he knows Roy might wish he'd take a firmer stance on voicing his opinion, he also knows that when it counts, he can be a royal pain about things.

This, he thinks, is one of those times.

Justin doesn't answer, but JC's prepared for that. He leaves a quick voicemail, asking Justin to call him, and then goes to take a shower. He'll have to answer Lance later; he needs to be getting on with his day.


Justin calls three hours later, right as JC walks out of the radio station and starts trying to figure out if he has time to eat before he needs to be getting ready for soundcheck. It's as good a time as any, JC thinks, and better than most because he doesn't have dancers and riggers and mixers hovering around him.

"Yeah, man," he says, without preamble. "About the night on the bus." Justin stays quiet. "You said," and this is harder than he expected. "You didn't want that, but is it that you don't want guys, in general? Or me, in particular?"

There's a long silence, and then Justin says, very quietly, "Guys. In general," and JC can hear the lie in his voice, knows he's being played for a fool. That morning on the bus, he'd looked into those familiar blue eyes and rushed in to protect Justin, just like he always had, just like Justin undoubtedly expected, and wasn't that just so fucking predictable and stupid of him.

Later, he thinks that the white-hot fury that scalded through him was all the more uncontrollable because it was so unexpected, but there, then, the words simply boil out of him, low and tight and hot. "Except the ones you pay for, you mean."

Justin starts to say something, another excuse, feigned shock, JC doesn't really care what. "There's nothing quite like getting the news that you don't even measure up to the hustlers on Hollywood Boulevard, or that you don't rate high enough for the truth from someone who's always called you brother. So, no, fucking on my bus isn't going to mess us up, but this sure as hell is."

JC's not sure how, but he ends up in the right car, with a driver who knows where to take him, and somebody must be watching out for him, because he can't make his mind work long enough to think where that might be. His hand cramps and he looks down to see it wrapped around his cell phone, the tendons in each knuckle standing out from the tight grip.  It's vibrating with the incoming call that the display says is from Justin, and he barely resists the urge to throw it into oncoming traffic, to watch it be smashed under the tires of the cars moving past him. Instead, he switches it off and deliberately puts Justin out of his mind. He has a show, and a bus ride to somewhere, and another show tomorrow, and he'll deal with this all later. It's not worth his time now.


If flying to LA to catch Lance at the airport had been crazy, going to Russia for less than a day is pure insanity. All of them had said it, but all of them were doing it, everybody on flights from Florida and California and New York. At some point, JC is going to have to deal with the fact that Justin's going to be there, figure out how he's going to play this. Truthfully, Lance asking that he come is the only reason he's even thinking about stepping into the same room as Justin. Before anything else, though, he needs to get some sleep. Joey and Chris will be there; JC knows he can get through anything for twelve hours, and once Lance is gone, well, then there won't be any reason to keep up the pretense.

Joey and Chris are waiting when JC finally is delivered to the small apartment the production company has rented, part of an old dacha, old and new jumbled together in an almost comforting mix.

"Hey, man," Joey says, sweeping JC up into a huge hug. "Welcome to the Winter Palace."

JC has to laugh, because faded opulence aside, they've had busses that were bigger than the two tiny rooms they're in now. Chris throws his bag into the bedroom and there's just enough time to eat before Lance is there with the camera crew that goes everywhere with him, grinning madly at all of them.

It's a free-for-all of noise and hugs for a second, with everyone piling in together, but eventually they sort themselves out. Chris passes Lance over to JC for a long, solid hug, and then JC steps back to let Joey finish things off.

"They called from the airport," Lance says once Joey lets go of him enough so he can breathe. "Justin landed a couple of hours ago, but they're having problems with Customs."

"Yeah," Justin says, from the door, holding up his carryon bag. "Me and my traveling drugstore were the big excitement for the day."  He moves into the room and the scene with Lance replays itself, only this time, there's limited participation on JC's part.

Even with the camera crew there, it's not all that hard for JC to avoid any significant interaction with Justin. It helps that Justin isn't trying to initiate contact either, and with Lance being the focus of attention, it's pretty simple to keep at least one person between him and Justin.

He doesn't think anyone notices, either, not until Chris wanders over to where JC is wedged into a corner of the living area, pretending to watch Lance and Justin at the small table, dishes and glasses pushed aside so that Lance has room to draw out the space station's orbit.

Chris doesn't look at JC, keeps his eyes on the bus school reenactment as he says, "Don't think there's not going to be some serious explaining going on once we don't have to smile pretty for the cameras."

JC shrugs, but keeps his voice down when he answers. "Really not any of your business, Chris."

"Dream on, pretty boy."

JC closes his eyes and leans his head back against the wall. Justin laughs at something Lance says. It's going to be a long night.


After seven or eight hours, the producer who's shadowing Lance decides that they have enough footage. He turns the cameras off and produces a bottle of vodka from a creased and stained paper bag.

Joey beams and kisses him on both cheeks, and then sets himself up with a set of small, silver-rimmed glasses from a cupboard. The producer shows them the proper Russian way to drink vodka--one quick exhale and then the whole glass in a long burning swallow. One taste and JC knows he needs to take things slow; vodka isn't his friend on the best of nights, and what Joey's pouring bears only the slightest resemblance to what gets bottled in the rest of the world.

Even keeping that in mind, it's not long before the room blurs into the people filling it. There really isn't enough space for the seven of them, and the camera and equipment add to the crush. JC doesn't know whether everyone's getting louder or if it's just that his hearing is suddenly more acute, but voices are echoing in his head, a swirling mix of laughter and insults and "Fuck, do you remember that chick who decided Joe was …" 

Late in the day, JC looks up to find Justin watching him from across the room. In a trick of the vodka, Justin is the only thing in focus, but JC can't read anything in his eyes. He stares back at Justin, not caring who notices, or what they might think, until Justin drops his eyes and stares at the bubble-shaped glass in his hands.

Everything else stays hazy, until Lance is in front of him to say good-bye and JC is hugging him fiercely and telling him again how proud JC is of him.

Lance laughs. "Lord, y'all are worse than my momma," but he hugs back just as hard. The cameras are rolling again, but they're all used to that, they've had years of practice at saying the really personal shit in ways that can't be captured.

Even so, it's still a relief when Chris assures the last production assistant that they'll all be ready for the trip to the airport the next morning. JC leans back into Joey, because he knows Joey will share his strength--but only for a moment, because he also knows Joey won't stop, no matter how much JC asks of him.

Chris closes the door firmly behind the PA and the relief evaporates as he says, "Okay, boys and boys, now is the time on Sprockets when we find out what the fuck is going on with the mouseketeers."

"No," JC says. "It's not."

"Uh-uh, C. Nice farewell scene, and I don't think Lance noticed anything--which says more about how distracted he is than your acting skills, but--"

"But nothing, Chris." JC locks eyes with Chris. "It isn't your job to make us like each other, or to fix us--"

Justin laughs, but it's short and ugly, nothing like the way he's been with the others. "Right, man. Especially since I'm unfixable, yeah?"

"Enough," Joey says, deadly quiet and intense. "Whatever is going on, you're right, it probably isn't any of our business, except it is our business. Literally." He steps around JC to join Chris. "Leaving out the part about how we actually give a shit about you personally--because right now, I'm guessing Chris is about as ready as I am to knock your heads together--there's still that. The business."

"Fine," JC grits out. "By all means, let's worry about the residuals and the--"

"We slept together, all right?" Justin interrupts. "The night you left us on his bus in Toronto." He stares at JC, almost defiantly, as if JC might stop him, and then turns to Chris and Joey. "How much detail are you looking for here? Is that good enough or do you need specifics?"

"Please don't expect me to believe that a little sport-fucking is all there is to this," Chris snaps.

"We slept together and then I …" Justin pauses and JC wonders idly if he's really going to go through with telling everything, but after a breath, he continues, "I said it wasn't something I wanted. Guys."

"Which isn't exactly the truth, is it, J?" JC says, and he should be over this, there's no reason to have to--again--push down the tight hurt of being lied to.

"No," Justin says, quietly. "But it's not exactly not true either. I don't want to want it, I, fuck, it's screwed up everything, and you know what, JC? Just fuck you, because you read that and never even asked what was going on, you just came charging out on your fucking self-righteous trip, and you think it feels like shit to have someone who called you brother not tell you something? Try having them walk away from you over something they've read in a gossip column."

"Are you saying it's not true?" JC snaps, because goddamnit, he's heard Justin working a con far too many times to be taken in again.

"No," Justin says again, but this time, all the life has gone out of his voice. "No, it was right, there were, I called those guys, the first time it was just this guy at a party, you know how they're always around, I thought it would get it out of my system, make it be not such a big thing, but then, fuck, it wouldn't go away, and Cam and I were, there wasn't much left there anyway, but if I called them, it was like it wasn't a part of my real life, not like a date, it was someone else's reality…"

Chris and Joey aren't moving; JC's not sure they're even breathing, but, hell, they started this, they can damn well deal with it. "And me?" JC asks. "Was I a part of someone else's reality?"

Justin shakes his head without looking up from the table. "You were, I thought everything was broken then, everything had already fallen apart and God, I wanted you, but then, I, I couldn't."

He looks up and looks straight at JC. "It was better anyway. If I hadn't, and we had, y'know, kept on with, with whatever… You were gonna find out, and it would have been a lot, a lot harder when you did."

The silence that falls is broken only by the steady drip of the faucet in the kitchen sink, until Chris draws in a deep breath and crosses the room in three quick steps. "You stupid little shit," he says to Justin, and JC can see the shutters come down over Justin's eyes, sees him brace himself to face Chris, and then sees everything crack when Chris continues, "I know you don't give a fuck who Lance sleeps with--or Joey or JC, just so we cover the entire Kinsey scale--so why the hell you think it matters whether or not you're into dick is beyond me, but I'm gonna say this anyway. Fucking guys is not gonna screw up your life--"

"Chris," Justin interrupts. "I know, I know you're trying to help, and I appreciate the rainbow pride speech, but Christ, yes, it has. Screwed things up so bad. C can't stand to be in the same room with me; Brit, Jesus, she doesn't have a clue why nothing she did was good enough. And Cameron, I was so chickenshit, she was better off with him, I knew that, I knew it, but I wouldn't let it go, because I'd, it would make everything real, and I didn't have the guts to do that."

Chris starts to answer, JC sees him take a breath, but Justin isn't finished. "In the car, after, after it got quiet, and I was in and out, y'know, everything's really blurry, and vague, but we were there for, I don't know, it seemed like days and days, and she was crying, because it hurt, she was losing the baby and it hurt and I couldn't reach her, and she was just crying and crying and I didn't fucking care that it wasn't mine; I didn't want her to hurt like that. I tried to tell her that, but I don't know if she heard me, and she won't take my calls, and everybody, everybody, knows about it, the baby, and they know it wasn't mine and they all assume that we were fighting about it, and that's why the accident happened, but, fuck. She told me at dinner and it's not like it was that big of a surprise, I mean, not really, shit, we were barely speaking by that point, but I was a fucking prick about it, and drank too much and she hated the Escalade, hated driving anything that big and it was foggy and we should have just stayed up in Malibu but I had to be a fucking baby--"

"Justin," Joey says. "It's not your--you can't--"

"Yeah, Joe, it is," Justin interrupts. "I do."

"You shouldn't," JC says, and he doesn't mean for it to sound so harsh, doesn't mean to make it one more thing he's beating on Justin for, but he can see from the exasperated look that Joey shoots him that whatever he intended was lost in the execution, and after that, the best idea seems to be to leave things to Joey and Chris and get himself away before he says something worse.


During the night, JC knows it's Joey who joins him on the small bed, but when he opens his eyes to the soft gray Moscow light, he's alone. He stays on the bed for a few minutes, listening to the muted voices he can hear from the other room. If he closes his eyes, it's almost as if they've slipped back in time to those first hotels in Europe. Except, of course, that everything is so different that he can barely remember what being nineteen felt like.

Joey's laugh slides through the memories, and that's something that hasn't changed, JC thinks as he rolls out of bed and tries to work the kinks out of his back. And neither has the way Joey's smile reaches his eyes when JC walks out of the bedroom, even as he's still paying strict attention to whatever bullshit Chris is spinning to a close.

It has something to do with the array of pills Justin has spread out in front of him. Justin goes from laughing at the nonsense to stumbling to his feet as he sees JC. "I'll, uh, go--"

"Oh, for fuck's sake, Justin," JC snaps. He's not sure whether he's more annoyed by Justin treating him with kid gloves or by the obvious ease the other three have regained. Either way, it's pissing him off. "Where are you going to go?" He waves his hands around the tiny apartment for emphasis. "Just sit down and eat your breakfast." He sits down in the empty chair, muttering, "Drama queen."

Justin looks at him for a long moment, and then snaps back, "Fucking make up your mind here, okay? Either I'm lower than the scum on the chewing gum on the bottom of your shoe and you don't want me within ten feet of you or I'm an overdramatic bitch who's bothering your tender sensibilities. You wanna give me some kind of a clue over here, because I am about sick of the attitude."

"You're sick of the attitude?" JC answers, not caring that his voice is rising, and that Joey is wincing and holding his head. "Oh, yeah, that's fucking perfect, isn't it? Let me just jump to take care of your needs, Jus--" He catches sight of Chris, sitting there with that annoying-as-shit smirk, and turns to him to snarl, "What?"

Chris shakes his head, but JC knows that look, and what it usually precedes. "Are you laughing at me, Kirkpatrick?"

"Oh, no, baby," Chris snickers. "Not at you, nono." He looks at Joey and they both crack up. "The two of you, yes. But not just you."

"Fuck off, Chris," Justin says through gritted teeth. "And you, too, Fatone," he adds, as Joey puts his head down on the table.

"How many times is that, Joe," Chris gasps. "A rough estimate would be fine." Joey waves his hand helplessly. "Yeah, that's what I thought."

Chris gets up and edges around the tiny table to smack a sloppy, noisy kiss on JC's forehead. "It's like the, the sound of a group hangover, the two of you bitching at each other." JC tries to push him away, but Chris holds onto his shoulders and doesn't move, his eyes serious under the laughter. "And if me and Joe sound a little hysterical, you can just chalk it up to hearing something so goddamned normal after all this other shit."

"A-fucking-men," Joey chimes in, as he sits up and rubs the back of Justin's neck. Justin doesn't look up from where he's staring at the random pattern of his antibiotics and vitamins and pain-killers on the dark mahogany of the table.

Chris lets JC go and hands him a mug of strong, sweet Russian tea, and there doesn't seem to be any point in doing anything other than sitting down and drinking it.


At the airport, the production assistant beams when she announces that she's managed to arrange it so Justin and JC are sitting together on their flight back to LA. She blushes when, after a split-second of complete silence, Justin turns the full force of his own smile on her. JC pretends not to notice how quickly it disappears when Justin turns away and sees JC watching him. JC says thanks, too, and the four of them pose for a picture with her.

JC shakes Chris's hand and lets Joey hug him, and waits while Justin says his good-byes. They walk down the ramp to the plane and Justin mutters, "The camera crew is gone, you don't have to pretend."

JC ignores him and smiles at the stewardess who's greeting them at the door of the plane. The seating assignments have JC in the window seat and Justin on the aisle; the PA doesn't know that Justin hates sitting where people can touch him. JC waves him into the window seat, then settles himself on the aisle and asks the stewardess for two orange juices.

Justin fumbles with his carryon and pulls out a small bottle of pills. "I'm not, it's just prescription strength ibuprofen. My doctor's like, death on narcotics, but my back's still fucked up from the accident."

JC nods and reaches for his own bag. Justin's back has been a mess for far longer than JC wants to remember, and JC's not sure where he slept the night before. The stewardesses are busy settling people, so he hands Justin the bottle of water he always carries, and says, "Sleep, man. I'm just gonna read some stuff."

As apologies go, it wouldn't count for much in the real world, but Justin swallows down his pills and closes his eyes. JC knows Justin can stay awake for days if he needs to, but his breathing evens out quickly, and they don't live anywhere near the real world anyway.


JC sits in a hotel room with his dad watching the blurry video of Lance and the Russian cosmonauts and resists the urge to pinch himself.

His phone rings; it's Chris, his voice crackling out of the phone. "Holy shit, C, that's fucking Lance. On the fucking space station. And, and, shit, C."

JC has to agree.

He calls Joey, because he knows Joey will be too emotional to dial a phone, and even Kelly is sounding a little choked up, though she threatens him and Joey with a slow painful death if they ever tell anyone. JC hesitates for long seconds after he hangs up with Joey, long enough that his dad looks at him questioningly, but he can't not call, and his fingers automatically dial.

Justin's voice is hushed but unguarded when he answers. "Is that not the weirdest thing you've ever seen in your life?"

JC laughs. "But cool, yeah?"

"Yeah," Justin answers, and for a second, everything seems normal again, as though the past ten months haven't happened. Then Justin says, "Uh, thanks, y'know, for calling," and JC remembers.

"You're welcome," he answers, and they don't hang up, but he can't think of anything else to say.


The final show of the tour flashes past in a blur of neon and adrenaline and surprise, because no one told JC they were going to be there, but three songs in, he looks past the lights into the first row, and Chris is laughing up at him. Even better, at the after-party at the Palms, Joey and Lance have set up camp in a corner of VIP, and when JC finally makes his way to their tables, the head that's bent close to Kelly turns out to belong to Justin. When he looks up and sees JC, the smile in his eyes doesn't fade.  

Chris shrugs when JC asks him; says, "I didn't twist any arms to get him here, if that's what you're trying not to say."

The noise and the crowd feed the energy still simmering in JC's blood until the thought of sitting at a table is unbearable. Chris joins him, drink in hand, dancing only in the sense that he's on a dance floor, with a nominal partner. Lance holds court, catching up on all he's missed, and Joey works the DJ booth. Justin slides up behind him, leaning close to shout, "Nice show, man," but when JC finally comes down off the adrenaline high, Justin's gone for the night.


The last person JC expects to see when he walks out of the small Florida studio is Justin, especially not sitting on the hood of JC's car. There's a bike nearby, a Harley, JC thinks, because even if he's not really into them, it's hard not to have absorbed enough of Chris and Justin's enthusiasm to know that much.

"Hey," Justin says, as JC walks up. "You, um, Chris said you were here today, and I didn't want to get sucked into anything inside, so, I borrowed the seat."

"It's cool; I'm just…" JC waves vaguely, because truthfully, he's not sure how long he's been playing around inside. "I wanted to lay down some new stuff and I kinda got sidetracked." He's not sure what time it is, and he wonders how long Justin has been sitting out here.

"No, it's okay. I just flew in, from home and, I'm, when Chris said you were around, there's stuff I wanted to talk to you about."

Justin sounds keyed up and edgy. JC nods slowly; they've talked over the past few months, but things still aren't the same and JC isn't sure how they can find their way back to that.

"How's your mom?" JC asks, mostly just as filler.

"She's, um, she's Mom," Justin laughs a little, and then gets serious. "That's, she's part of why I'm here." He slides off the car and stands in front of JC, close enough that JC has to tilt his head a little to keep eye-contact. "I told her, about, uh, everything."

"Everything?" JC asks, and Justin nods.

"Yeah, her and my dad, and yeah, everything."


"And, uh, she was mad at me about twenty different ways, like, really pissed. And hurt." Justin screws up his face, and JC's seen Lynn mad enough times to imagine the scene. "Yeah, there was, uh, a lot of yelling going on, 'cause, you know, my dad usually can calm her down, but I wasn't getting any help from him. He was pretty pissed at me, too, for not saying anything, and generally, just losing what little sense God gave me." Justin half-smiles. "Her words."

JC looks Justin over carefully. "But everything's okay, yeah?"

"Yeah," Justin sighs. "We're good, really. Better than we've been in a long time. Which is, yeah, kind of stupid of me to have not figured out a while ago, but better late than never, right?"

JC nods.

"Good, because, this is kind of the same thing. What I want to say to you." Justin takes a deep breath. "Not that this is any kind of a surprise after all the shit that's gone down, but, I'm, I'm gay, and I'm sorry about the way I acted."

Justin holds his eyes steadily, easily. "Not so much about us, together. It was, I'm not sorry that it happened, just about how, maybe. I, it was what I wanted. But, the rest, what I said. I'm sorry that I said it, that I fucked up everything we've been to each other over something that never got started." He steps back, pulling keys out of his pocket.


"Nah, man, it's, I'm not looking for anything." Justin edges further away. "I just wanted to say that, to tell you."

Before JC can say anything other than his name, Justin is throwing a long leg over the seat of his bike and is gone.

JC drives home slowly, the traffic on I-4 clogged with the last tourists of the summer, and lets himself think about all the things he's been telling himself he hasn't had time to deal with. Right now, there's nowhere he needs to be, nothing he's supposed to be doing. He's not late for anything, doesn't owe anyone a call or a fax or an interview. The tour is wrapped; he's got ideas for the next album, but today's time in the studio was just for fun.

Right now, he's got no excuse not to think about things, and maybe the first item would be admitting that that's really code for not thinking about Justin, and not just since the night on the bus, but for long before that. It's been a little over a year, almost to the day, since he stood in the ICU and felt Justin's hand tighten around his and it's not hard at all to still hear Justin's voice whispering his name.

Traffic opens up a bit, and he needs to pay a little more attention to the road, but not so much that he can't follow the trail from that single whispered C to the hoarse I saw it every time to today's I'm not sorry that it happened, and then the only reason to get off at his exit is to turn around and start back down toward Orlando, reaching for his phone as soon take a hand off the steering wheel.

Chris is out of breath when he answers, enough that he doesn't do anything but answer JC's question. No grief, no jokes, no discussion, just, "Hell, yes, I know where your boy is; he's flat out on my court, too fucking winded to even whine about getting his ass kicked. It's so pathetic, I'm not sure I'll be able to enjoy the win."

"I have faith in you, man. I know you'll make it happen somehow," JC says. "Just, don't let him leave, okay? We need to talk."

"I thought that's what had happened already," Chris answers.

"No," JC says, willing the damn traffic away. "He talked. This time it's my turn."

"Fuck," Chris drawls. "I love it when you take charge, baby."

"Thanks, man." JC thumbs off his phone and doesn't think about what it is he's going to say.


Chris is prowling his media room, beer in hand, yelling at ESPN's Thursday night game when JC lets himself into the house. He glances at JC and shakes his head. "No blood on my walls; it's a bitch to clean," he says, waving JC down the hall toward the guest suite at the back of the house.

It's not until the bedroom door slams behind him and Justin, wearing only a towel and still damp from the shower, is staring open-mouthed at him that JC realizes he never even thought about knocking.

"You left before I could say anything," he says. "If I wanted to be blunt about it, I'd say you ran away." He thinks about the after-party in Vegas, and adds, "Again."

Justin flushes, but his chin comes up and his voice is steady when he answers. "What if I did? What does it matter?"

"It matters," JC says, crossing the room, stopping just close enough to Justin that he can see the pulse jumping under his skin, smell the clean citrus of the shower gel he's used. The scar from the surgery has faded to a thin, white line; if JC hadn't known better, it could be nothing more than a trick of the light.

He does know better, though, and Justin draws in a quick, sharp breath when he reaches out his hand and traces it lightly.

"It matters," JC repeats. He waits for Justin to step back, to push his hand away; when he doesn't, when he stands perfectly still under JC's touch, it's impossible not to give in to the desire for more. JC lets his hand slide down the warm, damp skin, fits his hand to the curve of Justin's ribs.

"I'm not sorry, either," JC says, and when Justin closes his eyes, JC tightens his hand a little, gives Justin a gentle shake. "Not about this, J."

"Don't," Justin says. "I get it, okay?" He opens his eyes and stares straight at JC. "I mean, thanks for coming here and telling me that you didn't just fuck me because you felt sorry for how oblivious I was, but you don't have to use the kid gloves, okay? Can we drop it now?"

"No," JC sighs, pulling Justin closer. "We can't. That's why I'm here, because I don't want to drop it."

Justin shifts restlessly, and he looks everywhere but at JC, but he still doesn't push JC away. 

"I didn't want to drop it that morning on the bus," JC continues, choosing his words carefully. "And maybe if I'd thought that through, I wouldn't have jumped to as many conclusions over the other thing and, I don't know, maybe things would have gone in a different direction."

"Why are you--what are you saying?" Justin asks, finally meeting JC's eyes.

"This," JC answers, and leans in to brush his mouth over Justin's. Lightly, lightly, he tells himself, kiss after kiss, until Justin shifts against him, leans into him with whisper-soft moans.

"Want you, want you, want you…"

Hearing the hoarse whisper sends tremors echoing through JC's blood, frays his control. Then Justin catches JC's lower lip between his teeth, bites down softly, and the quick graze of teeth burns clean and bright through everything that's not Justin's mouth against his, Justin's hips, the subtle curve at the small of Justin's back under his hands.

"God, JC," Justin says. "God," and the desperate edge to his voice brings JC back to himself.

"No," JC gasps. "We're not doing this." Justin stiffens in his arms, and he adds, "Not like this; not this time." JC forces himself to step back, to take his hands off Justin's skin. "Just, get dressed, okay?"

Justin shakes his head once, short and vicious. "If you're trying to let me down easy--"

JC steps forward again, pulls Justin's hips close, lets him feel how hard JC is, and it's Justin's turn to gasp. "I'm not," JC says, and he manages to not grind his teeth in frustration, because he knows how stubborn Justin can be, how hard he can hold on to something. "What I'm doing is asking you to do put some clothes on, because what I'd like is to take you someplace that has decent food and a pretense of privacy, somewhere we can just be for a while, without anyone else to worry about."

Justin stands very still, but JC can feel his muscles unknotting.

"And then," he continues, more slowly, because he might have started this for Justin, but saying it all out loud is making it real in a way that he's not ever thought about before. "Then, I want to take you home, and find a bottle of something good, and take it down to the dock, and maybe make a start on all the shit we've been ignoring."

"And then?" Justin asks, when he pauses.

"And then, I want to take you upstairs and watch you take off everything that you'll have put on here, and I want to lay you out on my bed, in my house, and taste every fucking inch of you." JC gives in to the temptation of the curve of Justin's neck into his shoulder, licks lightly before he bites a hard kiss into the tendon there.

He finds his control again and eases back far enough that he can't quite feel Justin's low moan. "But maybe," he says, swallowing hard, "maybe we should just play it by ear."

He sets Justin back away from him, lets his hands linger for a second too long on his hips. "So, get dressed, okay?"

Justin draws in a long deep breath and nods. "Yeah, okay," he says, but he doesn't move. JC is just about to snap, "What now?" when Justin motions toward him and asks, "Uh, you watching?"

Watching would defeat the purpose of everything he's just said; JC tells himself that three times before he can get the door open and walk down the hall, and he reminds himself of it twice more before the noise coming from the media room distracts him.

"For fuck's sake, Cowart, what the hell is that shit?" Chris is shouting. JC detours into the kitchen and fishes a beer out of the refrigerator. Chris snatches it out of his hand as soon as he walks into sight, but doesn't lose the flow. "Third and twenty-seven and he runs a fucking draw?" he demands.

"You're welcome," JC answers, and then laughs as Chris howls with satisfaction when the Steelers gain thirty yards on a faked punt. "Try to take it easy, man; it's the first week of the season."

Chris flips him off, but shuts up long enough to drink. His eyes are sharp and alert when he lowers the bottle. "So," he says. "You're alone, but I didn't hear any screams."

"Like anyone could hear anything over your bitching and moaning," says Justin as he walks into the room. The collar of his shirt doesn't quite cover the faint purple shadow under his skin, and something curves silky and low inside JC at the sight.   

Chris looks back and forth between them, and then cuts his eyes over to JC. "You realize he's only running off with you because I mopped the court with his skinny white-boy ass," he says, his tone dry enough to cure paint. JC sees the smile in his eyes, and doesn't even mind that he'll have to wait an extra fifteen minutes for the insults to stop flying before they can leave.

One last thing his dad always said: not to be afraid to grab for happiness, no matter how unexpected the source. JC's got both hands on it now, and nothing's going to change that.


Thanks to C, A, and M for putting up with me freaking out, and for thoughtful, helpful betas; extra thanks to Liz for the sanity checks as things were in progress. Insert standard disclaimers of don't know them, not true, made it all up.


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