nsync in black and white

Disclaimer: this is fiction. We made it up.

Do Not Arouse or Awaken Love (Until It So Desires)

by SnarkyLlama, for Silveryscrape

Justin wasn't the forgetful sort; he couldn't be. There were too many people watching him, and too many lies, lines, and half-truths spinning in the publicity game. He had to stay sharp. He rarely forgot anything, unless he purposely put it out of his mind.

Maybe that's why finding Britney's Bible threw him for such a loop. He'd just plain forgotten about it.

He was home, at his momma's, for a last-minute visit before the Celebrity tour. He didn't like to start a tour without seeing Grams and Gramps and everyone first. Besides, the last few months had been so crazy, he'd never gotten around to collecting the stuff he'd left there in December when he was dashing in and out between funerals and the Bahamas and the holidays.

He was sorting through a half-emptied suitcase when he saw it. Even under an avalanche of CDs, PlayStation discs and stray socks, the pink leather cover of Britney's Bible was unmistakable.

Britney's fucking Bible.

His first impulse was to throw it away. It was Britney's; it had no right to be here taking up space in Justin's life. Not now. Not after she'd treated him--and all of their years together--like trash. He yanked it out of the pile.

Its cover was cool under his fingers, and its gilt edges were smooth and soft. It was heavier than it looked, and he gripped it so hard he could feel every muscle in his arm. He knew, without moving, how each muscle would tighten, flex, and release if he hefted it up and threw it across the room. He knew it would hit the wall with a loud thunk and then drop to the floor with a quieter, but no less satisfying, thump.

He'd thrown a lot of stuff at walls lately. It felt good. It was good to be angry.

It was good if the guys were there. Trace would smile and say something nasty about cheating bitches and keep handing him shit to throw. Lance would mutter something about hotels and property damage and do nothing to stop him. Joey would make sure everyone had a fresh drink and then settle back to rate each throw. It was the Breakup Olympics, and Justin was working on a fucking gold medal.

It was better if he was alone, though, like he was now. Then Chris and JC couldn't watch him lose it.

You'd think, looking at them all, that Lance would be the one with the freaky, science-fiction, X-ray eyes. But somehow, it was Chris and JC who could see right through his anger. They didn't say anything, but Justin knew it. He could feel their gaze down deep where he was hurting and vulnerable and maybe just a little bit... guilty.

Justin closed his eyes against that thought. No, he didn't feel guilty. He hadn't done anything wrong; he was certain of it. Not guilt... not guilt at all, but something similar to it. Something... something like...

He drew his arm back and whipped the Bible across the room. THUNK, thump. It felt--and sounded--exactly like he'd known it would. He opened his eyes.

"Justin Randall!" his mother hollered. "What are you breaking up there?"

He stared at the stupid, pink thing lying there on the floor.

"Nothing, Momma!"

"That didn't sound like nothing!"

He shouldn't have thrown it. He was pretty sure God frowned on flinging His Word around like that. He could have been struck down by lightning or a plague of locusts or something.

"I just dropped something," he said.

"Well, stop 'dropping' things and get down here. Dinner's almost ready."


Before he went downstairs, he picked up the Bible, smoothed out its creased pages, and put it with the stack of stuff he wanted to bring on tour.

He wondered if it was possible to regret not doing the wrong thing.


The trek down the coast from Tacoma was one of their longest hauls, and Justin was restless by the time they'd gone twenty miles. He wasn't ready to go to sleep or play games with Chris or any of the usual things. And it was bugging him a little, thinking about Britney and that stupid Bible. He didn't know what Britney had wanted him to see in it, what she'd thought would change his mind.

He didn't like not knowing. It put him at a disadvantage, and he'd promised himself two years ago that he'd never let anyone have that sort of advantage over him again.

He pulled Britney's Bible out of his bag, then sighed and wished that he'd had the foresight to bring a real Bible, one that was black or brown. Pink meant there would be no escaping a round or two of mocking from Chris... unless he stayed in his bunk. He hesitated for a moment. He could stay, but that was too close to past tours and all the nights he'd spent alone in his bunk, sharing his secrets and dreams with--

Well, fuck that. He was more than up to the Chris Kirkpatrick Challenge. He could take whatever Chris dished out. He tucked the Bible under his arm and headed for their "living room."

He'd taken all of three steps before Chris—with his cell phone glued to his ear—bumped into him.

"No, Joey, tell him we don't need—Sorry, Jup—We don't. No. No, we don't need flaming drinks every night. Let's go where there's—"

Justin edged around him and left the latest installment of the Great Nightclub Debate behind.

JC was in the kitchen, all shower-damp and fiddling with the kettle and his special tin of organic, non-caffeinated, throat-soothing tea. Justin wasn't crazy about the taste of it--there was too much fennel and licorice root and black pepper, and God only knew what else--but he loved its scent.

"Oh, hey," Justin said. "Make me a cup?"

JC nodded.


He pat JC's shoulder and then blinked as he finally took in the full picture of JC's evening wardrobe choices: a thin gray t-shirt--worn inside-out--that was quite possibly one of Justin's that had been lost last year and a pair of pink sweatpants that hung low on his hips and fell far, far short of his ankles.

"Are those... Capri sweats?"

JC nodded again.

"I... uh... didn't know they made those," Justin said.

JC poked at the tea pot and pulled the tea bags' strings so they lined up evenly.

"I think they're supposed to be pajamas," JC said. "They're really soft."

"Yeah?" Justin put on his best thoughtful face. "How soft?"

He reached out as if to test the fabric, then detoured at the last second and tickled JC's side. JC squeaked and twisted away, and Justin laughed, happy that some things--like JC's crazy giggle--always stayed the same. And then he laughed even harder when he saw the back of JC's pants.

"Dude," Justin said when he could finally breathe again. "Your butt has 'Princess' on it."

"I know," JC said.

"In sparkly, white letters."


"Wow," Justin said, and the kettle whistled and JC busied himself with it. "They've got to be really fuckin' soft." He smacked JC's ass, and JC smiled at him.

"Go on," JC said. "I'll bring you your tea."

"Thanks, Princess."

Justin winked at him and skirted around the counter. He tossed the best throw pillow on the floor for C, and then settled in on the couch.

Britney had wanted them to read the Song of Solomon together, so Justin flipped through the middle of the Bible for a while, before he gave up and checked the table of contents: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon. Huh. He'd never been really strong on the poetry bits of the Bible or, in all honesty, anything beyond Genesis, Exodus, and Luke. But he could do this.

JC brought out the tea, and Justin wrapped his hands around the mug. It wasn't cold on the bus, but he was still grateful for the warmth of it and the wonderful, familiar scent. He sniffed deeply and smiled up at JC.

"You're going to read?" JC asked.


"I'll get my headphones."

When JC returned, he sprawled on the floor with his head on the pillow and his feet propped up next to Justin's knee. Every once in a while, JC would sit up just enough to sip his tea, and then relax back onto the floor. There was something so inherently JC about the entire ritual--some strange cross between a tea ceremony and the world's slowest set of crunches--that it was almost hypnotic. The words in Justin's lap flowed one after another through his head without really sinking in.

When JC's toes began to twitch along with his music, Justin rested his hand on JC's ankles. JC opened his eyes and looked up at him.

"What are you listening to?" Justin asked.

JC slipped his headphones off and held them out to him. Justin leaned forward, and JC thumbed the volume switch on his Discman until Justin could hear more than just a tinny little sound. It was round and liquid words over a catchy beat, with the flavor of islands and complex, layered percussion.

"What is that?"

It wasn't steel drums. It wasn't anything close to steel drums, but that was the closest Justin could come.

"Caetano e Gil," JC said.

The vocals dipped and twisted around the guitar line and then shifted to dance along with the drums. Justin couldn't even begin to identify the language.

"What are they saying?"

JC shrugged. "Something in Portuguese."

Justin leaned back and JC lowered the volume again, but didn't put the headphones back on.

"Portuguese," Justin said.

"Mmm-hmm. I think it must be something happy, like... they're singing about something they love, but it's not a love song."

"Like what? Brown paper packages tied up with string?"

JC grinned. "Nope. No strings."

"Raindrops on something," Justin sang. "And whiskers on kittens!"

JC laughed, and then they both jumped a bit when Chris pounced on the couch and landed half in Justin's lap.

"Bitches! I can't believe you started the slumber party without me." Chris wriggled and clung to Justin's neck when he tried to push Chris away. "Did I miss the part where we paint JC's nails and talk about the Prom court?"

"Chris!" JC said. "You can help us!"

"Well... I think Justin should be Prom King 'cause he has the dreamiest blue eyes ever."

Justin pushed at him again. "You can help us with the words to the song."

"What song?"

"The whiskers on kittens song," JC said.

"Hmm." Chris frowned. "Nope, sorry, I'm only good for the lonely goatherd one." JC started humming, and Chris wiggled some more. "Geez, what am I sitting on?"

"My lap," Justin said.

"Your lap didn't used to be so lumpy." Chris pulled the Bible out from under his leg. "Oh, hey, what's this?"

"Nothing," Justin said, and reached for it.

"No, lemme see."

"It's noth—"

Chris rolled out of his lap and off the couch, and landed in a heap beside JC. 'C took the Bible from him while he was saying, "Ow," and making sure he still had all of his limbs.

JC looked at the page for a moment, then smiled and read, "'How beautiful you are, my love, how beautiful you are! Your hair is like a flock of goats frisking down the slopes of Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes as they come up from the washing—'"

"What?" Chris laughed. "Gimme that! What is that?"

"It's the Song of Songs," JC said. "It's cool."

"The hell it is," Chris said. He grabbed the Bible and snapped it shut to look at the cover.

"Give it back," Justin said.

"God," Chris said. "When did they make a New Revised Goatherders' Version of the Bible?"

"Shut up," Justin said.

"Aw, don't worry. You're still the dreamiest goatherd I've ever seen. Right, C?"

JC looked at Justin through half-lidded eyes and nodded, then blinked and shook his head. "Wait," he said, grabbing Chris' arm. "How do I know how many goatherds you've seen?"

Chris laughed, and Justin wrested Britney's Bible out of his loosened grasp. He set it on the cushion beside him, and resolutely reached for the television remote and pretended that Chris wasn't there.

When Chris stopped laughing, he crawled up onto the couch and gave Justin a one-armed hug. "Hey," he said. "If Bible Study's over, I've got some stuff."

Justin flipped the channel from MTV to BET.

"You know what I'm talking about," Chris said.

And, okay, maybe Justin was a little miffed, but he was finally old enough for Chris to let him smoke up with them. He wasn't going to say no.

In the morning, he couldn't remember anything from the Song of Solomon apart from the goats and beautiful toes. He half suspected that the toes were all the pot's fault, but after the goats, he wouldn't bet on it. He was definitely no closer to figuring out Britney, but he had time, he wasn't racing to find a way to get her back or anything stupid like that. He'd never want her back. But he did want to understand her because the knowledge might come in handy some day.

They had promo to do and people to see, and then it was hotel night and Chris, Lance, and Joey had the short list of San Francisco clubs that they'd agreed upon the night before.

"Come on," Chris said. "There'll be strippers."

Justin shook his head. "I've got stuff to do."

"Yeah," Chris said. "Stuff like sticking twenties in G-strings. Come on."

"You give twenties?" JC asked.

"They kinda frown on just slipping them Price Chopper coupons and—"

"I've never done that!"

"Only because you want the coupons for yourself," Chris said and dashed away from C, running down the hall to pound on Joey's door. "Help! Help! This is a job for Superman!"

JC caught him and managed to give him a wedgie before Joey stuck his head out of Lance's room and said, "What the fuck, Chris? You sound like an air-raid siren." Then Chris was too busy exacting his revenge on Superman and "Lancie Lane" to nag Justin into joining them.

Justin showered and changed into an old pair of sweats, then called his momma and checked out the mini-bar. Nothing grabbed his interest. He thought about calling room service, but he felt restlessness stirring in him like the day before, so he alternated sets of crunches and push-ups until he thought he could maybe sit still. Then he grabbed a bottle of water and fetched Britney's Bible. Maybe he could figure out what the deal was with both Britney and those goats.

Or maybe not.

The Song of Solomon was really fucking short—like five pages long—and all of its words were simple little words, but he just didn't get it. It was supposed to mean something; stuff didn't end up in the Bible if it didn't mean something. But it sure wasn't saying anything to Justin.

The only part that felt like it was maybe something was the bit that said, "Ah, why are you not my brother, nursed at my mother's breast! Then if I met you out of doors, I could kiss you without people thinking ill of me."

That felt like something. It kind of... resonated and made him want to read it again, but Justin knew it wasn't what he was supposed to be reading because it was totally backwards. People wanted to see Britney kissing him—hell, people would pay to see that. And Justin was really glad that he'd never been anywhere near Britney's mother's breasts. He felt a little sick just at the thought of them.

One by one, he flipped the pages back to the beginning. That whole hair-like-a-flock-of-goats thing came up more than once. It made him wonder if Britney had even bothered to read it. Maybe someone had simply told her the gist of it 'cause he couldn't see her actually wanting him to compare her to livestock. Goats were pretty disgusting, and if she hadn't bothered to—

Someone knocked at the door, and... Oh! That was JC's "top secret" knock from their MMC days, and that was so stupid and kind of adorable and Justin had never had the heart to tell JC that he knew about Morse code now, so he didn't still think the secret knock was like the coolest thing ever.

He shook his head and went to the door. JC was both a superstar and the biggest dork ever, and Justin kind of wanted to hug him and squeeze him and ruffle his hair when he stepped into the room.

"Hey," JC said. "Can we order hot chocolate?"

"You didn't go out?"

JC squinted and looked around the suite. "You mean this isn't the Hustler Club? But my guide book said—"

Justin tugged him farther into the room. "Go, on, you dork. There's the phone."

JC called down to the concierge, then raided Justin's mini-bar. "See? There's little bottles of Bailey's." He held them up like a fisherman with a prize-winning bass.

Dork, dork, dork, Justin thought and felt all warm inside.

"You passed up strippers for hot chocolate and Irish Cream?"

JC shrugged. "I told Chris I had to stay home and clip coupons. Do you mind?"

"No," Justin said. "I think I'm pretty much done for the night."

JC glanced at Britney's Bible lying open on the end table.

"You sure? I could—"

Justin put his hand on JC's shoulder. "C," he said, and then paused just long enough so he wouldn't crack up. "JC, friends don't let friends drink cocoa alone."

"Oh." JC sniffed and wiped away an imaginary tear. "God, that's beautiful. You should be a songwriter or something."

"Or something," Justin agreed.

They ended up playing cards—mostly Cribbage because Justin liked it. JC kept score on a piece of hotel stationary because they didn't have a board, and Justin tapped out the rhythm as they tallied up each hand: Fifteen, two, fifteen, four. Fifteen, six, and a pair is eight. And a pair is ten.

Justin thought he could dance to that beat, and JC smiled at him like he knew what Justin was thinking. Justin also thought that JC was probably there to babysit him, and he waited for the spike of resentment that should have brought, but it never came. It didn't matter why JC was there; it just mattered that he was there—and Justin could so totally get a job writing greeting cards.

When JC glanced over at Britney's Bible for the fifth or sixth time, Justin told him to go ahead and ask. JC surprised him by asking "What were you reading?" instead of "Why are you reading that?"

Justin told him that he was still reading the Song of Solomon because he was having a hard time figuring out what it was supposed to mean.

"You don't have to read it like that," JC said.

"Like what?"

JC shuffled the cards, and then held the deck instead of dealing it. "Like it's... like it's a test or something."

"But it means something."

"It means a lot of things."

"Even the goats?"

"Well..." JC smiled. "Maybe not the goats, but..." He put the deck down, and then picked it right back up again. "Maybe..."

"Just say it."

"You don't have to believe this," JC said. "'Cause religion, man... Everyone believes different shit, so you can think I'm wrong if you want."

"Can I get that in writing?"

"Fuck off."

Justin smiled. "Just asking."

"You can totally think I'm wrong, but I think... it should be like that Brazilian music."

"What Brazilian music?"

"What I was listening to yesterday. You know, with the drums and the 'Cho chua.'"

"That was Portuguese."

"Which they speak in Brazil."


"Yeah," JC said. "I learned that after I said something really stupid at a cocktail party once."

"Did they all laugh at you?"

"Only one person heard me, but yeah. She laughed. A lot."


"No, it was okay. She made it up to me later, spoke Portuguese to me all night long." JC licked his lips. It was obviously a good memory. "And that's my point."

Uh, what?

"Your point is... the Bible is like... a sexy girl who speaks a language you don't understand?"

JC nodded.

"That makes about as much sense as the hairy goats."

"Is it my deal?" JC asked.

"No, give it to me." Justin took the cards from him.

"Sometimes," JC said, "it doesn't matter what the words are supposed to mean, it's just... what they say to you. It's a song, so... treat it like a song."

"A song sung by a hot Brazilian chick."

"If that works for you."

Justin dealt the next hand. "You wanna get more chocolate?"

They ordered more hot chocolate and a big bottle of Bailey's, and hours later, Justin woke up snuggled up with JC on the couch. He'd drooled a bit on JC's shirt, so he wiped off his mouth and thought, "I wish you were my brother."

But that was stupid, because JC was already his brother in every way that counted, so he slipped JC's shoes off for him and went back to sleep.


Two days later, Justin was sitting in the Quiet Room with his head in his hands. There was still a little time before soundcheck, and he was trying not to think about how he'd usually be calling Britney about now. If nothing else, he had a lot more sympathy for smokers now. Going cold turkey was much, much harder than falling into the habit in the first place.

Fooling around with the guys would have been a good distraction, except he was... off his game or something. He felt like a broken cog. He didn't fit--didn't mesh well--with the guys anymore. And the more he pushed himself to act like he was perfectly fine and normal, the more he seemed to make Lance and Joey--and maybe even Chris--nervous and uneasy. It was fucked up.

He was fucked up, and he wanted to call Britney. He wanted to call her so badly, wanted to strike out and say, "You fucking bitch. You fuckin' careless, cheating bitch, you broke my band." But there was still the PR machine and his mother's expectations--she hadn't raised him to be like that--and he couldn't. And that sucked. It wasn't fair; regular guys got to be assholes to their cheating exes, he was sure of it.

JC poked his head in the door and then smiled so widely his eyes almost disappeared.

"Oh, hey, there you are! I got you something, look!"

He came into the room and shook a large shopping bag at Justin. It was so overloaded that one of its handles snapped, making him scramble to keep from dumping the whole bag onto the floor.

Justin had to smile at that. He scrubbed a hand through his hair, sniffed, and said, "Hey, C. You breaking my present?"

"Nah, they're pretty unbreakable." JC gave up struggling with the bag and dropped to sit at Justin's feet. "Here, see?" He pulled a book from the bag.

Justin took it, and JC pulled out another and another. They were all leather-bound--oh! They were Bibles. Black, brown, deep burgundy: How had JC known that he hated the pink?

"How—what? JC?"

"I was thinking," JC said, pulling out yet another one, "about how the Song wasn't speaking to you. Right?"

"Yeah... uh..."

"So, I thought, hey, maybe those words aren't your words, and like... cool, no problem, 'cause it's the Bible and there are always more words."

"I... uh..." Justin looked down at the Bibles in his lap. "I don't get it, C. They all say the same thing."

"But they don't, that's why it's cool. It's like... different translation, different remix."

"'Different remix.'"

"Yeah. So I got you a bunch--well, I didn't get you... I asked Missy. I mean, I can't just show up at Borders and go shopping, right?"

"JC, you're..."

JC smiled up at him.

You're really fucking sweet, Justin thought. When he didn't say anything else, JC ducked his head.

"Too weird?" JC asked.

"No, no. This is... this is the shit. You're... I'm speechless, man."

JC laughed--just one short bark of sound, but Justin suddenly knew exactly what "tickled pink" looked like. JC was just too cute.

"Great," JC said. "I know you'll... well, I hope, I hope you'll find the words that speak to you in here somewhere, man, 'cause we've got like the 'Nanny Goat' Remix here and the..." JC took one of the Bibles from Justin's lap. "Oh, hey! The 'High on a Hill Lived a Lonely Goatherd' Remix--"

Justin laughed.

"--and uh..." JC picked up another one. "The 'My Head is Wet' Remix."

"Your head is wet?"

"Haven't you read that part?

"I don't think so, I..." Justin trailed off as JC started flipping through that Bible.

"Okay, okay, here it is," JC said. He cleared his throat and read:

I slept, but my heart was awake.
Listen! My beloved is knocking.
"Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one;
For my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night."
I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again?
I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them?
My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.

And Justin swallowed hard and fuck. Fuck.

"That sounds... really dirty," Justin said.

"Yeah, I know."

"That's uh..." Justin's face felt hot. "That didn't... that didn't sound like it was about... fisting... when I read it before."

"Maybe that's because you didn't read it out loud? Things sound different when we listen with our ears instead of our heads."

"Maybe," Justin said and shifted in his seat.

"I love the Song of Songs," JC said. "'Cause it's like... all about sex even when it isn't."

Yeah, um. It was maybe time to change the subject.

"Why do you call it that?" Justin asked.


"It's the Song of Solomon, but you keep calling it 'Song of Songs.'"

"That's its name," JC said.

"No, it's not." Justin pointed to the pages JC still had open. They clearly said 'Song of Solomon' at the top.

"That's its other name," JC said. "It's like 'Thinking of You.' To some people, it's 'Thinking of You,' but everyone else thinks it's 'I Drive Myself Crazy.'"

"Oh." Justin took the Bible from JC and placed it in a stack with the others. "You're really smart about this stuff."

JC shrugged. "It's not—It's just Sunday School, man. That and the usual kid stuff. You know, reading anything dirty that you can find when you're twelve."

"No, you're really smart."

Justin leaned way forward so he could hug JC.

"Thanks," he said with his face pressed against JC's neck, and then he kissed him and instantly froze. He wasn't thinking—that was just... an instinctive kiss from being close to someone else's skin like that. It didn't... He hoped it wouldn't freak JC out.

JC hugged him back tightly.


"Hey, Chris," JC said.

Justin dropped his arms and surged back like JC was a hot stove. But Chris wasn't looking at the two of them. He was looking at the stack of Bibles.

"This place has become a fucking church camp," Chris said.

JC laughed, and Justin swallowed the lump in his throat.

"It's about time," he told Chris. "You almost missed the group hug."

"Bitch," Chris said. "I bet you were planning to keep all the s'mores for yourself, too."

"S'mores!" JC said. "Do we have any?"

Chris shook his head. "I think we've got some Pop-Tarts."

"That's almost as good."

"Well, you can't have 'em now," Chris said. "We're late for the Sing Along."

They walked up to the soundcheck together, and Chris and JC bickered about over-bearing camp counselors the whole way. Justin followed behind them and thought he was maybe not so broken after all.


After the show that night, they all piled onto the Smelly Bus for the first leg of the trip to San Diego. Joey had a bunch of new videos of Briahna to share, and it was easier to watch them all together during the drive than to carve time out of their schedules later.

Lance made popcorn and Joey opened a bag of Doritos, and Chris brazenly went through their cupboards until he found a box of Pop-Tarts for JC.

Justin wedged himself on the couch with Joey and JC. He watched the videos, and listened with half an ear to Chris quizzing Lance on vital space facts like: Can astronauts eat Pop-Tarts? How about Cheez Whiz? And speaking of Cheez Whiz, how many hours of practice does it take before you're a certified expert at pissing in a tube?

It was a good night. It had been too long since they'd had a night like that, just the five of them hanging out together. When they switched back over to their bus in the middle of nowhere--somewhere before Bakersfield maybe--Chris wanted it to continue. He suggested drinks, games, whatever they wanted. Justin begged off, and Chris frowned at him and gave him a hard, sharp look.

"Please," Justin said. "I'm just tired." He hugged Chris and said it again. "Honest, man. I'm just really tired."

He slept soundly, better than he had for a while. When they finally got to the hotel, he was wide awake. Everyone else dragged themselves off for more sleep, and he ordered breakfast for himself. He showered and fussed with his hair, and then paced the room until JC's gift bag caught his eye.

God, JC...

Somewhere along the way, he'd stopped noticing what a good friend JC was. It was such a thoughtful gift, even if it was more than a little crazy. Justin liked crazy, or at least that particular brand of crazy.

Though he'd patched it last night with some electrical tape that Joey had unearthed from somewhere or other, the bag had torn even further, so Justin decided to unpack it. He'd assumed all the books in it were Bibles, but at the bottom, there were a few other books. Curious, he picked them up and looked them over.

JC must have asked Missy for everything the store had on the Song of Solomon. These books were all about love and sex and "making it work." Justin frowned and read the back cover of the last book. They were marriage counseling books for Christian couples. What the hell?

He grabbed the next book--and whoa! There was a photo of the author on the back cover, and he looked like he could have been Lou's younger brother—or maybe even Lou himself if there had ever been a time when he didn't have dessert with every meal. Yuck. He immediately put that book back down. He didn't need to see any more of it.

He opened the first book and read the foreword, and fuck. Holy fuck. It all made sense now, and it was, God, typical Britney all the way, so backasswards and fucked up. Her strange little leaps of logic had always been cute, but this... This wasn't.

He'd wanted to wait until they were married, because that's what they had agreed upon, and it felt right and special. But she'd grown tired of waiting. She'd kept hinting, asking if they could have real sex—"real" like what they'd had together wasn't real—and he'd said no.

"No, baby, let's wait. Let's wait like we promised."

And when that wasn't good enough, he'd offered to marry her right then and there—though he'd quailed at the thought because his momma was probably right, they were still too young, but it was kind of exciting and romantic, too. They were going to get married someday, so why not sweep her off her feet and elope to Rio or the Bahamas or something?

She'd laughed and refused, telling him that she wasn't even twenty yet. That had been just days before her twentieth birthday. And the next time she brought it up, she'd wanted them to read the Bible together, to read the book that—according to Lou's twin and the other "experts"—was about how physical love was as holy and spirit-filled as romantic love and would help struggling couples grow closer together.


In hindsight, he was glad that they'd received the news about Britney's grandfather then—not about the news, because death was sad and heart-wrenching, and Justin wouldn't wish that on anyone, but the timing. They'd dropped the discussion and somehow never gotten back to it, and that was a good thing. He really didn't need to be tied to anyone who refused to marry him and then turned right back around to give him marital advice.

He threw all three books into the trash—he didn't think JC would mind—and then dumped the remains of his breakfast on top of them. He pulled Britney's Bible from his overnight bag and tossed it in as well, then stood looking at it for a moment before grabbing a napkin and retrieving it. He wouldn't drop to that level.

He carefully wiped the Bible off, then found a clean sheet of paper and wrote a quick note to his mother, asking her to return it to Britney. He stuck the note inside the front cover, then wrapped the Bible with brown paper torn from JC's shopping bag and went down to the front desk to arrange to have it shipped home.

He could have sent someone to do that for him, but it felt like something he should do himself, and that's how he saw that the hotel had a salon on site.

Like a flock of shorn ewes coming up from the washing, he thought, remembering how JC had smiled as he'd read the line. Well... why the hell not? He'd liked his hair short, even if Britney hadn't.

He was a free man; he could do whatever he wanted.


On the way to their first spot of promo, JC sighed and said, "Aww, I liked the curls." But then he sat close to Justin and kept petting the back of his head and smiling.

"Stop that," Justin said, because that was the thing to do.

"I can't help it," JC said. "You're all soft and shit... like a baby seal."

"Great," Chris said. "We'll have to increase security."

"What?" JC and Justin said. "Why?"

"Like deranged fans weren't enough to worry about? Now we'll have illegal fur trappers going after J for his pelt."

JC laughed, but Justin just looked at Chris and wondered what his problem was. He hadn't smiled a real smile since his first glimpse of Justin's new haircut, and his eyes were shuttered and cold. Chris would never shut him out for something petty or stupid, so Justin was going to pull him aside the first chance he got and find out what the fuck was up.

There ended up being some extra promo that they hadn't been told about. They were split up to cover all bases, and Justin lost track of Chris long before he returned to the hotel late that afternoon. He was in the hallway, just swiping his keycard through the scanner, when Chris suddenly appeared out of nowhere, pounced, and pushed him into the room.

Sexual Chocolate let Chris get away with so damn much.

"Okay, Jup, look—" Chris stopped when they heard a noise.

JC had been napping on Justin's couch, and they'd woken him. He was all sleep-soft and wild-haired like some rare, exotic animal. Looking at him, Justin felt a pang of something... Regret? Something else? He didn't know, but it was somehow not the least bit surprising to find JC waiting here in his room.

Chris said, "Sleeping Beauty," and JC yawned and rubbed his eyes.

"'Don't hate me because I'm beautiful,'" JC said.

Chris snorted. "Baby, there's nothing beautiful about chin stripes."

Justin thought people with beard horns really didn't have room to talk about other peoples' odd facial hair choices. And the chin stripe was eye-catching.

JC flipped Chris off.

"Look," Chris said, "can we have the room? I'm trying to stage an intervention here."

JC blinked, and Justin said, "An intervention?"

"Someone's got to do it, and it looks like it's gotta be me."

JC chuckled.

"What?" Chris snapped.

"'It's Gonna Be Me,'" JC sang.

"Not everything's a song," Chris said.

"Hmm." JC sat up and stretched. "Okay, well..." He looked over at Justin and looked kind of... wistful. "I'll leave you to it."

"No," Justin said.


"No," he told Chris. "I've seen the D.A.R.E. videos. If this is an intervention, then I need both of my best friends here with me. Right?"

Chris frowned, then pinched the bridge of his nose and nodded. "Yeah, you're right. But I want you to listen to me."

Justin sat down next to JC, then pat the spot beside him. Chris shook his head and continued to stand, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

"Okay," Chris said. "Now, I've never actually had to do one of these. I guess I should thank you all for not being raging alcoholics or something."

"Hey," JC said. "You're welcome, man."

Chris' mouth twitched briefly into a smile, and then he bit his lip. Justin and JC waited.

"Okay," Chris said after a moment. "I'm uh... I'm really worried about you, Justin."


Chris shook his head, and JC snugged his arm around Justin's shoulders. "You need to listen," JC whispered.

"Britney did her thing," Chris said. "Her cheating thing, and you were hurt and you were angry, but we were watching you. And I knew you'd be okay because you were throwing diva fits fully worthy of the Timberlake name."

"'Diva fits!' I—"

"Diva fits," Chris said. "Genuine, Prima-Donna class, diva fits."

"You have a really good throwing arm," JC said.

Oh for—

"I knew you'd get better," Chris said. "It was only a matter of time. But you're not better. You're getting worse. You're quiet and withdrawing from us, you won't hang with us—"

"But I—" Justin paused as JC started rubbing his arm, soothing little strokes over his bicep. "But I haven't been alone," Justin said. "I've been hanging with C."

"Mmm," Chris said. "I noticed, and while I've got to commend JC for buying you a manlier Bible—and that's really surprising, C. I didn't know you had it in you."

"I didn't buy them because they were 'manly,'" JC said. "Pink is the new gray, you know. It's perfectly butch."

Justin turned to look at him, and JC winked.

"You're a nut," Justin said, smiling. He loved how JC could make jokes about the way people perceived him.

JC nodded.

"Hey!" Chris said. "Who's leading this thing here?"

"Come sit with us," JC said.

"Yeah," Justin said. "You're so far away, I'm not feeling the love."

"I'm serious."

Justin knew he was, but... it was unsettling. He didn't like for Chris to have to be serious, because Chris, he thought, had probably had enough cold, hard, serious moments in his life already. He reached out and snagged Chris' hand, and reeled him in till he could tug and pull Chris right into their laps.

"Jesus! Watch what you're manhandling!" But Chris was laughing a bit, so he was okay.

Justin hugged him and said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'm not withdrawing from you. I'm sorry."

Chris squeezed him tight, then squirmed free and sat at Justin's side. Justin turned to face him even though that put his back to JC.

"I'm not withdrawing," he said. "I'm getting better."

"I hope so, but... you don't seem to be getting better. You're reading that Bible all the time like you're some obsessed, born-again, zombie freak. You've cut your hair, made yourself look like... I don't know... a cultist? Or a cancer patient or, or... a lost, scared kid at Boot Camp."

Hey! That wasn't fair.

"This is the same hair I had last year!"

"I didn't like it then, either," Chris said. "But it didn't scare me then. Now I think you're trying to... reprogram yourself or something."

Oh, Chris. That was so ridiculous, but Justin's eyes were wet somehow. He wiped them and said, "No, no. That's not. I haven't been doing that--and I'm going to bitch at you later because I look good like this."

"No, you--"

"I'm beautiful," Justin said. "Forty million teen-aged girls can't be wrong."

Chris laughed. "You have no idea how wrong teen-aged girls can be."

"No," Justin said. "I have a really good idea just how wrong they can be. Remember, I'm the only one here who's been dating one for the last four years."

"Oh," JC said. "Oh!"

Justin twisted 'round to look at him, and then said, "Hey, this is kind of awkward. I can't look everywhere at once."

JC rubbed his back. "And it's getting pretty close to... that thing... What's that thing we have tonight?"

They had a dinner party that they were all supposed to show up at. Something for some insanely wealthy recording exec or ad exec or... well, really, they weren't sure.

"Fine," Chris said. "Fine, but we're talking later. You're not ditching me again for Bible Study."

"I won't," Justin said, and then Lance banged on the door.

"You haven't even changed?" Lance said. "What part of 'we're leaving at seven' don't you understand?"

After a quick bit of consultation--with Lance adding a running commentary about "inconsiderate, tardy assholes" throughout--they decided that Lance and Joey should go ahead and they'd catch up as soon as possible.


It was a strange party. It was held at an exclusive restaurant that had been bought out for the night. Its decor was gorgeous and sleek, and many of the guests wore tuxes and gowns. The party planner must have fucked up the invitations, though. They should have been told to dress "Texas Black Tie" or whatever this was supposed to be. Their Space Cowboy costumes would have been perfect for the occasion.

But, hey, it wasn't every day you got to see people dressed to the nines and eating barbecue off of paper plates and drinking martinis in cheap plastic glasses decorated with horseshoes and cowboy boots. Yee haw.

They had to wish a set of twin girls a happy fourteenth birthday and shake a bunch of hands and be generally charming and entertaining, but eventually they made it to the relatively private table where Joey and Lance were eating.

"Oh," Lance said in the dry voice he saved for sarcasm. "More guests. Joey, you better bring out the good plates."

"Who, them?" Joey said. "I wouldn't dig out the fine China for them. They look like a bunch of rogues, especially the short one."

"Quick!" Chris said. "J, you distract them. C, go for the silver! I'll take the virgins and other valuables!"

JC grabbed a plastic fork and brandished it with flair worthy of Zorro. Lance chuckled, and Joey said, "Hey, I think you've got all the virgins already."

"Hey!" Justin said. "I am not a virgin."

Okay, maybe technically he was, but he didn't think that counted. In any case, it was private and not for laughing about—and it wasn't like he couldn't get it if he wanted it, he was Justin Timberlake, after all.

He started to say something more to Joey, but JC was suddenly right there again, rubbing his back, and he knew JC well enough to understand that he was saying "It's okay" without words. JC was so good to him, watching out for him even here.

He relaxed into JC's touch, and JC stopped petting him—but he kept his hand low on Justin's back. That was new... and a little distracting.

"Hey," Joey said. "I didn't mean it like that, man. I was just saying... the three of you? Could do a hell of a lot of deflowering."

Chris laughed. "Not me, man. I leave the gardening to C."

Lance poked Joey with his beer bottle. "And you're one to talk."

"Can't help it," Joey said, stealing the beer away. "The flowers keep flinging themselves at me." He grinned, then tipped his head back and drank.

"Must be thirsty work," Chris said. "Fending off all those flowers."

"I don't think he fends them," JC said.

"He definitely doesn't 'fend' them," Lance agreed.

They all laughed. And it was a good night, a nice party. Most of the guests didn't know or care who they were, so it was almost as good as being alone together.

Justin didn't say much; he was just a little too aware of how very often JC touched him. It probably wasn't any more than JC usually did. Justin was just... hypersensitive. Maybe he'd had more caffeine than he'd thought.

Chris kept glancing over at him, checking up on him. At first, the looks were pointed and wary, but as the evening wore on, the looks became... knowing. Justin just kept smiling and laughing and doing his best to telegraph: Dude, I'm not a reclusive, suicidal zombie.

Eventually, they could leave. Joey and Lance headed for a night club, and Chris said, "Lucy, you've got some 'splaining to do," and hauled Justin and JC back to the hotel. Chris' Ricky Ricardo impression was disturbingly close to the real thing.

They went to Chris' room. Chris gave Justin a beer and told him to sit in the armchair. Justin complied, but eyed JC and Chris warily as they sat on the couch across from him.

"This is weird," Justin said.

"But you can see everyone," Chris said.

"Yeah, but... I don't..." This was unnerving. Who would have thought that being in the spotlight in front of an audience of two was so much scarier than being in front of thousands of strangers? Except, well, of course it was different, because he didn't have a persona to hide behind here.

"It's okay," JC said. "We're all friends here, yeah?"

Chris nodded. "Just concerned friends."

Justin twisted the beer around in his hands and pried at the label with his thumbnail. A tiny bit of glue stuck to his nail and he picked at that next, that little out-of-place sticky spot. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know what you want me to say."

"Well," Chris said, "you could start with the Bible-reading."

"What about it?" Justin asked and looked at JC, at his clear blue eyes and his expression of lazy interest.

JC didn't seem worried. And he'd taken everything in stride. He'd never once questioned the Bible thing. He'd just gone with it and helped Justin--gone out of his way, in fact, to help Justin see those words in a new way, to help open Justin's eyes.


Justin flicked his gaze over to Chris. Chris was still worried, just a little. The concern in his eyes made Justin feel safe, loved, and protected--all of the things that had always been there underneath everything in else in his friendship with Chris.

But JC... JC made Justin feel known. And that was... well, not weird exactly, but it turned his world upside-down and inside-out. They'd been friends a long time, but Justin had always assumed that Chris knew him best, because Chris was smart, sharp, and his.

But JC was just as smart and sharp, and belonged to him just as much, but... It was easy to dismiss that sometimes—to mistake it for something else—because JC was like... like... doing it all in Portuguese while everyone around him spoke English. It was alien and bizarre, until you'd been to Brazil and learned to listen, and then—

"Is it a guilt thing?" Chris asked, jolting Justin from his contemplation of the secret language of JC. "Are you trying to... reprogram yourself with the power of 'The Word' or something? Because that's just... just ridiculous. There's nothing wrong with you."

"No," Justin said. "No, nothing like that. I was just trying to understand something."

"Something about Britney," JC said. "It was her Bible."

Justin nodded.

"Justin," Chris said carefully in a tone almost as sweet as his singing. "Understanding why Britney did what she did... it probably won't help you feel any better."

JC nodded. "It's heads and hearts, man."

"But I did," Justin said. "I mean, I think I figured out what I was trying to figure out. And yeah, it still stings." He tapped his chest over his heart. "It still stings like a bitch, but it's good 'cause I know now."

"Well," Chris said. "That's good. That's... good to know."

Chris leaned back on the couch like everything was okay. But he still looked tense to Justin, and when JC scooted closer to Chris and touched the back of his neck, Justin knew—just like JC did—that Chris wasn't convinced.

Some things were private, but reassuring Chris was more important than Justin's need for privacy. Chris shouldn't have to worry about him.

"Britney," he said. "Britney wanted to have real sex."

It was almost comical the way that caught their attention. All eyes were on him again.

"'Real sex'?" Chris said. "Hotels have thin walls—I know you guys were doing a hell of a lot more than phone sex."

"Phone sex is real sex," JC said.

"Dude," Chris said, "what don't you think is sex? You probably think... telepathic alien brain-wave sex is real sex."

"'Telepathic alien brain-wave sex'?" JC was intrigued, and Justin could see him jotting that down and filing it in his mental Rolodex. "That's... um. Yeah. If there is such a thing, it is real sex," JC said. "As long as you make a connection and someone comes? It's real."

"Don't listen to him, J. He'll warp you."

JC smiled.

"Seriously," Chris said. "Do not listen to him. Chasez sex is not normal sex."

JC's smile deepened, and there was something in that moment, something in the look that Chris and JC exchanged...

"Fuck," Justin said.

He felt hollow inside. He must be... he must be the worst sort of friend ever, because how else could he have missed it? These were his friends, his best friends, and he was so fucking blind.

"Have you—? You. You guys have had sex."

Their attention slammed back onto him.

"I mean," Justin said. "Together. You've had sex. With each other."

"Justin," Chris said.

"Once or twice," JC said. "A long time ago."

"Yeah?" Justin asked quietly. Maybe he wasn't the worst friend ever, maybe if he'd been too young to notice...

"C!" Chris jumped up off the couch.

"He's an adult," JC said, his focus never leaving Justin for an instant. It wasn't intense, it was just there.

"He's an adult," Chris agreed, "but you don't have to freak him out."

"I'm not freaking out," Justin said, because he wasn't—at least not for the reasons that Chris expected.

"You're the only one freaking out," JC told Chris.

"You're seriously not freaking out?" Chris asked.

Justin shook his head. "Are you gay?"

Chris had never struck him as gay.

"Not gay," Chris said. "Just..."

"Adventurous," JC said.

"Or possibly crazy," Chris said.

Justin snorted. "Only possibly?"

"Ha, ha," Chris said, and then paused to look at him. Justin waited and could see the moment when Chris realized that he was okay.

Chris settled back onto the couch. "Why haven't you asked if JC is gay?"

Justin finished his beer while he considered his answer.

JC was beautiful. He was long and lean, and Justin had always thought that dancers had the best bodies, because they were strongly muscled but still graceful and fluid. So, it was easy to understand why Chris would have wanted him, why anyone would want him.

But... that wasn't... That didn't make JC gay. But...

He looked at JC again, tried to look at him with new eyes, and felt a flash of something like recognition spike and then settle into his bones. Maybe he didn't know everything about JC, but he still knew him.

"Well," Justin said. "I've never thought about it before, but I figure... yo, anyone who's open to telepathic alien brain-wave sex isn't going to stop and ask the alien about its gender identity first."

Chris laughed, and JC's expression was full of approval... and maybe pride, pride in Justin. That felt good.

Obviously, Justin had missed something somewhere, but he also thought, knowing JC as he did, that he was mostly straight, but mostly straight in a way that defied definition. It was almost too much to think about, except... he could almost grasp it. Because... why would JC's approach to sexuality be any less unique than his approach to Scripture or music or anything else that was important to him?

"But we were talking about Britney," JC said.

"She wanted to have real sex," Chris said.

"Yeah," Justin said. "We hadn't. We didn't... We never went all the way."

Saying that felt... wow. He'd never expected to say it out loud.

"Huh," Chris said. "I didn't know that."

"No offense," Justin said, "but I'm glad you don't know everything that happens in my bedroom."

"Oh, don't be too comfortable. I still know a lot."

"Hotel walls are thin," JC said.

"And the curtains on the bus are even thinner," Chris said.

Ew. Justin wasn't going to think about that or he'd develop a complex and never have any kind of sex again.

"So," JC said. "If Britney wanted to go all the way, and you guys never did..."

"I didn't want it," Justin said. "No. I mean, I didn't want to."

"You didn't want to?" Chris said.

"It's not—You make it sound weird. It wasn't. I just. I wanted to wait. Do it right."

"Seriously?" Chris asked. "You were waiting for marriage?"

"That's what we always said we were doing, why is it so unbelievable?"

"Hot girlfriend," Chris said. "Smoking-hot girlfriend, who you were sleeping with for years. How did you manage to wait?"

"It wasn't like that."

"How was it?" JC asked.

"I loved her," Justin said. "I loved her and everything we had together was so good, you know?"

JC nodded.

"She was so beautiful," Justin said. "And spunky, and... and precious... and she'd been my friend forever. You know that, C. You were there."

"She was really something back then," JC said. "And talented, and you... respect that... no. That attracts you."

Justin swallowed.

"Yeah, and she was perfect. Like I knew it even then, that I would marry her. And she only got more perfect 'cause like... who'd've thought we'd both become so famous, right?"

JC nodded again, and Justin wiped his eyes. Fuck.

"Hey," Chris said.

"No, I'm okay," Justin said. "I want you to know, so you won't worry."


"I'm okay, I said."

Chris got up and joined Justin in the armchair. It was a tight squeeze, but Justin was used to Chris monopolizing his personal space.

"You want to tell me?" Chris said.

"I wanna tell both of you."

Chris wrapped his arm around Justin and pet the back of his head.

"Hey," Chris said. "You do feel like a baby seal."

"Told you," JC said.

Justin half-heartedly called them assholes, and Chris kept petting him.

Finally, Chris asked, "But why didn't you want to go all the way with her?"

"It wasn't... I would have. I would have done it. When we got married. It just... it wasn't necessary before then."

"But," JC said. "If she wanted it... wasn't it maybe a little necessary?"

"No," Justin said. "No, it shouldn't have been. I loved her, and like... I always touched her with love, you know? I was good to her 'cause... 'cause..." God, he could feel himself blushing. "It was so good," he said quietly, "seeing her come, you know?"

"Yeah," JC said equally quietly. "I imagine it was."

"I loved watching her, helping her get there. It was. It was really good, and it... it wasn't like I didn't get off, too. It was good."

"Well," Chris said. "That sounds... like you were really compatible. So, I still don't get how you could wait."

"I wanted to wait, to leave something special for later. You know."

"Oh, Jup," Chris said. "I don't think losing your virginity is all that more magical just because it's your wedding night."

"But that's what I wanted."

"And that was... more important to you than giving Brit what she wanted?" JC said.

Justin stared at him. That was... that wasn't a fair question.


"You don't have to answer," JC said.

But Justin knew the answer to that. And his stomach churned because Chris and JC knew the answer, too. He looked at JC, and he looked at Chris, and he searched their faces, but didn't see any blame there. And since it wasn't there, Justin could say, "Well, I'm not saying I was perfect."

"No one's perfect," Chris said.

"I'll get us some more beers," JC said.

"Except JC," Chris said. "Anyone who brings me beer is perfect."

"You're paying for them," JC said as he dug through the mini-bar.

"I take it all back! No one's perfect, never ever. Not a one."

"My momma is," Justin said.

And they all laughed and the conversation flowed into easier topics.

Much later, JC was asleep and Chris was still snuggled close with Justin.

"Hey," Chris said. "Let's go to the other room."

"Hmm?" Justin was pretty tired.

"I've got a few more things to say, and I don't want to disturb C."


"Come on, Jup." Chris stood up and helped Justin pull himself from the chair. "I'll let you sleep in just a little bit."

They went into the bedroom, and Justin sighed happily as he lay down on Chris' bed. This hotel had mattresses to die for.

"Hey," Chris said. "Shoes."

Justin struggled for a moment, and then Chris was there, helping him with the laces.

"There," Chris said, "that's better."

He sat beside Justin, and Justin looked sleepily up at him.

"You're my brother," he told Chris.

"Good," Chris said. "Because I think. Well. I think there's more to the story than you shared tonight, but that's okay. Later, maybe you should... well, I'm not saying you should... but maybe you'll want to think about why... why you didn't want everything with Brit."

"I did. I was going to marry her."

"I know, but... Okay, think about this. Think about how hard it is for most people to wait for marriage. Maybe... there's a good reason you never went all the way."

"I don't... I don't. What are you--?"

"It's okay," Chris said. He pat Justin's arm. "It's too much to think about right now. But I want you to promise me something, okay?"


"I've made all my sisters promise this, too. I should have asked you before."

Justin smiled. "'Cause we're family."

"We are. So... You did good, kid. Don't you ever let anyone pressure you into sex, even if you love them--even if they're the love of your life. If you're not feeling it, don't do it. Not ever."

"Not ever," Justin echoed.

"It'll save you a lot of regrets," Chris said. "I promise. If you're not feeling it, there's probably a really good reason."

"Mmm," Justin said, and perhaps he would have said more, but he was asleep.


The next day, Justin's brain was like one of those snakes on the Discovery Channel. You know, the really big ones that swallow a goat whole and then go all sluggish and stupid as they take the next week to digest it. He had so many thing to think about that he couldn't think about any of it--couldn't even prioritize what he should be thinking about.

So, he did what he did best, and God, was he ever glad they had a show that night. He threw himself into their concert day routine and let the needs of his body and the sound of his voice absorb the bulk of his attention. If things wanted to simmer and bubble on the back burner of his mental stove top, they could go right ahead, but they could do it without him—at least for the day.

After the concert, they were off to Anaheim. He spent the two hours with Joey and Lance, after assuring Chris and JC that it wasn't anything personal. He hadn't spent much time with the other guys lately, and he felt bad about it. They'd been good to him when he'd been in the throwing-shit stage of things.

When they reached the hotel, he wasn't sure what to do. He didn't want to seem withdrawn or anything, but he didn't want to go out, either. After a bit of asking, and swearing that Sexual Chocolate could double as life guards, he was allowed to use their indoor pool even though it was after-hours.

He swam laps until he couldn't do any more—and that was a lot less than he would have managed if he hadn't just done a full show, but still plenty of laps. He didn't know that any of the guys had joined him until he climbed out and started toweling himself off.

Chris was there at the side of the pool, dangling his feet in the water.

"You're not swimming?"

"It's like two o'clock in the morning," Chris said.

"You're missing out, the water's fine."

"Are we fine?" Chris said.

Of course they were. Justin couldn't think of anything that would change that. Or. Well, he could think of several things, but they weren't in Chris' nature. Chris wouldn't sleep with Justin's girlfriend or hurt Justin's momma or tell Justin's secrets to the world.

"Yeah," he said. "We're good."

"You remember your promise?"

"Not to swim after eating?"

Chris scooped up a handful of water and flung it him. "Not that promise."

"I remember the other one, too," Justin said. "I don't... I don't think it's going to be necessary, but. Thank you."

"You don't have to thank—"

"Shut up," Justin said. "You made me feel like I was finally an official part of the Kirkpatrick clan."

"You're slower on the uptake than I thought. You've been part of the clan since you were in diapers."

"I wasn't in diapers when I was fourteen, you asshole."

"No? Huh. I must have confused you with someone else."

"Here," Justin said and gave Chris a hand up. "Let's get out of here, let them close up for real."

Chris walked with him back up to their rooms.

"You have any questions for me?" Chris asked.

Justin had lots of questions, but...

"None that I'm ready to hear the answers to."

"Oh," Chris said. He sounded genuinely surprised.


"When did you grow up? I missed it."

Justin dropped his wet towel over Chris' head and laughed. "I haven't, sucker."

But he was pleased by the implied compliment and determined to live up to it somehow.


The next day was supposed to be a bit of a break for them.

They had minimal commitments and plenty of time to go off and do their own thing during the daylight hours—which was a rare treat, since their touring schedule would have turned them all into pasty creatures of the night if it weren't for their tanning beds. The gossip blogs that pointed to their tanning beds as yet another sign of their wasteful extravagance could go fuck themselves. No one outside of the business could ever truly understand them, and that was part of why Britney had seemed so perfect for him.

They'd agreed to kick off the day with brunch in Lance's suite. When Justin arrived, Lance was the only one there.

Justin was afraid he'd gotten the time wrong, but Lance insisted that wasn't the case, they just had friends who'd never learned how to tell time. "Not even with digital clocks," Lance said and waved his fork and pointed Justin at the buffet. All the food was ready, spread out in baskets and platters and fancy warming dishes.

Lance had CNN on, but he was only listening to it—not watching it—while he ate. Justin glanced at his plate and made a face. Maybe Lance's wheat toast and scrambled egg whites were healthy and NASA-approved, but they made Justin crave something horribly artery-choking and fattening.

He settled for bacon—lots of bacon—and biscuits dripping with butter, and ate with his fingers, prompting Lance to say, "And then some of us never learned how to use a fork."

Justin flipped him the bird and helped himself to another piece of bacon. He could hit the gym later.

CNN was boring and Lance was quiet, and the other guys still hadn't shown up, and Justin shocked himself by saying, "I think Chris thinks I'm gay."

Lance finished his mouthful of eggs, centered his fork precisely on his folded napkin, and said, "Why are you telling me this?"

"Because you're the only one here?"

At least that sounded better than because my mouth is faster than my brain.

Lance pressed his lips together till they almost disappeared, picked up his juice glass and then set it back down again.

"So, this isn't. This isn't about—"

"Oh, hey, no," Justin said. "No. I'm not like... hitting on you."

"Good," Lance said and picked up his glass again, and drank this time. Justin watched his Adam's apple as he swallowed once... twice... and again. When he'd drained the glass, Lance said, "Good, because that would be weird."

"Yeah, it would," Justin agreed. "I don't..."

Lance arched a brow at him. "You don't what?"

"You're not—I don't think you're my type."

"Well, thank God for that," Lance said. "It was bad enough when I was teased about my hips, I'm not growing tits for you."

Justin blinked.

"I was, I was thinking more like... I kinda like brunettes, and you're not—"

Lance's eyes widened. "Justin. Justin, do you think you're gay?"

"No, I. No," Justin said. He looked down and started picking at his biscuit until it crumbled into an inedible mess. No, he hadn't... he hadn't made that connection yet.

Joey joined them before Justin could explain.


By the time Chris and JC joined them, Justin felt raw and exposed. Joey and Lance weren't doing anything out of the ordinary, but Justin... Justin needed to run away and hide somewhere.

Only, he couldn't because he'd been selfish enough lately. The thing with Britney was maybe a little his fault because he hadn't given her that one last bit of himself. And he'd made Chris worry needlessly, and he'd taken JC for granted, and... and...

And Chris had said that he'd grown up. If Justin wanted to live up to that—and he did—that meant sticking around and making the best of an awkward situation. Besides, he didn't know that he was gay. He just knew that it was something to consider, something to consider later in the safety of his own room or even later still, in the safety of his own home. Yeah, he could—

"Hey," JC said. Justin looked up, and JC was standing with a plate of fresh pineapple in his hand and a strangely hesitant expression on his face. "Can I sit with you?"

"Of course you can." Justin slid over to make room for him. "You don't need to ask."

"I... um... thought I should ask. You seemed really—" JC reached out and tapped Justin's temple. "—noisy up here."

"Yeah," Justin said, taking the plate from him. "I am actually. Really noisy up there, but... um... you know what? I think more clearly around you, so sit. Sit down."

JC didn't move.

"Please?" Justin said. "If not for me... do it for the hostages."

"The hostages," JC said.

Justin picked up a slice of pineapple and bit into it.

"Sit," he said with his mouth full. "Sit or I'll..." He swallowed. "Sit or I'll eat all of your food."

JC laughed and stole the rest of the slice from Justin's fingers. "That's mine," he said, and ate it before sitting down beside him.

"You've got my cooties now," Justin said.

"I'll survive."

JC took his plate back and began eating in earnest.

Justin did nothing, just watched him and felt things falling quietly into place. He didn't need to retreat to his room or his house or anywhere else, because JC was a safe place, too. He'd always been. JC was... JC was... Justin's very own personal Brazil. He could be gay, he could be straight, he could be a telepathic alien, and it wouldn't change how JC felt about him.

It was a pretty amazing feeling.

He laughed.

"What?" JC said.


JC wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and then brushed at his chest. "Have I got pineapple on me somewhere?"

"No," Justin said. "I'm just happy."

JC stilled.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"Yeah," Justin said. He was.

"Yay," JC said and did a dorky little cheer move before grabbing another piece of pineapple.

He was the cutest thing ever, and Justin had no choice. Quick as lightning, he snatched the pineapple from JC's hand and held it out of reach.


JC tackled him, and they wrestled for it and somehow ended up on the floor together with JC licking pineapple juice off of Justin's fingers. That was a pretty amazing feeling, too.

No, really, like seriously amazing.

Someone coughed, and Justin looked up to see Chris, Lance, and Joey staring at them.

"What?" Justin said. "Haven't you seen happy people before?"


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