30 August 2004

by SarahQ

dedication and author's thanks

JC tripped on his way up the steps of the bus, coming within inches of slamming his nose against the railing. Stupid railing. It was supposed to be there to prevent falls, not give people black eyes.

"I'm not drunk," JC said. He could hear Justin behind him, laughing his ass off.

"Sure you're not." Chris stood in the aisle, arms folded, shaking his head. "I used to know this kid, right, who took dance classes to help him with his coordination. Maybe you should look into that."

"Shut up." JC would have continued, except Justin had climbed up behind him and was hauling him up by the armpits. Having already shown his inability to talk and manage steps at the same time, particularly in his current state of exhaustion, he didn't think he should add being manhandled by Justin to the mix. "I'm fine, I'm fine," JC said. He wasn't drunk. He'd had, like, one beer. And two drinks mixed by Joey that, when added together, were about the volume of a beer, but they'd had a little vodka. Okay, they'd had a lot of vodka. Still. He could get up the steps, now that he knew to watch out for the railing. But Justin had locked his wrists against JC's breastbone and seemed determined to lift him onto the bus.

Chris shook his head some more. If he kept that up, JC thought, he was going to give himself a concussion, like those kids who headbanged until they puked. "Justin, you're going to trip him again."

"Am not. Well, not if he'd stop fighting me already. Jesus, C."

JC sighed. Sometimes it was easiest to go along with Justin before someone got hurt. Someone like Justin, who chose that moment to go up another step without warning JC. Something in JC's shoulder protested and they shared a tenuous moment of swaying on the steps before Chris bestirred himself and grabbed hold of JC's feet.

Giving up, JC went limp and let himself be carried to the couch. "I'm a noodle. I'm a sack of potatoes."

"You talk a lot for a sack of potatoes," Justin said.

"You drank most of a sack of potatoes," Chris said.

"I did not!" Over his head, JC saw Chris nod at Justin, and braced himself to be swung onto the couch. Ow. He reached under his tailbone and came up with the remote.

"Oh, sorry," Justin said. Chris grabbed the remote and turned on the television, flipping through the channels too fast to see what was on.

Sighing, JC twisted himself around until he'd shucked off his jeans and was sitting mostly upright. Justin was standing in the middle of the aisle, scrubbing at his face, so JC tugged on his waistband until he sat down. He just barely fit between JC's arm and the cabinets of the kitchenette.

"You tired?" JC asked. Chris stood in front of the television, shaking the remote in a menacing manner at someone on SportsCenter.

"Yeah, kind of. I mean, my brain's awake, but I'm beat." Justin toed off his sneakers and brought his feet up on the cushions. JC scooted over to give Justin room for his legs.

"No more parties after a show." JC shook his head, but carefully, because of the vodka. "I don't care who's there from what label, it's just, you know. Too much. We shouldn't have to do that anymore." Especially, JC thought, if it made Justin look so worn.

"Oh, my God, you shithead," Chris said to the television. "What the fuck do they pay you for?" He punched at the remote with all the disgust he could muster. "I'm going to bed, children. The world has crushed my hopes and dreams."

"Night," JC said, and got a pat on the shoulder as Chris walked past. Justin got a cuff upside the head. He returned fire by trying to rub one of his socked feet against Chris' face. Chris dodged easily, laughing as Justin slid off the couch and landed on the floor.

Justin sighed, reaching for the remote. "Fifty-seven channels and nothing on."

"More'n that," JC said. "You'd think they'd've invented something good to watch before they invented satellites, but no."

Justin's head rested against JC's knee. It tickled whenever Justin titled his head in response to something on the screen. His curls were tangled up in each other, a stylist's hard work destroyed by a half-dozen costume changes and a couple hours of posing for photos with the underaged daughters of corporate execs. JC wound curls around his pinkie until Justin slapped his hand away.

"I think I've seen this one. Like, when I was eight." There was an old, poorly drawn cartoon flickering across the screen, reflecting bright blocks of color onto Justin's face. Justin tucked the remote under the couch. Chris would spend ten minutes bitching about that tomorrow.

JC rubbed the back of Justin's neck. "I thought you were beat."

"Yeah, well. I'd have to move to get to a bed." Justin squirmed until JC's hand shifted down to the top of his shoulder. Touching Justin was like touching a cat; there were only a couple places that didn't make him stalk off, and their locations changed daily. JC dug his fingers in between the tendons and the muscle. Justin sighed.

JC tried to pay attention to the rest of the cartoon, but he kept drifting away during the exposition. Someone was saving the world again from someone who wanted to destroy it. Same old, same old. It might be kind of interesting, though, to talk to a superhero, to compare notes on what it was like to wear stupid clothes and dash around and have people screaming for your attention.

Justin had been fidgety lately. Sleep deprivation took a couple years off his age.

Trying not to kick him, JC stretched out on the couch. Lying down made JC's body send happy thanks up to his head. Horizontal was a good thing. He could even keep working on Justin's shoulder. "Is the one in red the bad guy?"

"He's the mysterious advisor, C. The blue one's the bad guy." Justin shifted, forcing JC's arm to bend at an odd angle. "You're stopping," Justin said.

"'Mnot," JC said against the cushion. "You're sitting wrong."

"I'm on the floor, like, I don't know. Someone who's not good enough for a stupid cushion."

He was trying for petulant, but Justin sounded dull. There was something terribly wrong about that. "Shh," JC said, scratching the razor-cut hair at the base of Justin's skull. "Sleep, okay?"

"Someone should," Justin said, which didn't make a lot of sense, but JC had closed his eyes and it was too much to open them again for the time it would take to ask Justin about it.


JC woke sneezing. He batted at the thing in front of his nose. When it refused to go away, he yanked at it, and then realized it was the afghan Emily had knitted for Chris last Christmas, the one with the purple and green stripes that clashed with itself and lived on the bus. It was wrapped around his shoulders like an old woman's shawl.

The clock on the VCR said 5:17. For a moment, JC thought they'd forgotten him, that they'd missed seeing him under the gaudy circus-stripes of the afghan, and was convinced he was at that very second missing soundcheck. Then the bus lurched around an exit ramp, and JC realized the false pink light peeking around the edges of the blinds meant it wasn't even morning. Not a decent hour of the morning at all.

Tugging at the waistband of his briefs, he yawned and rolled off the couch, taking the afghan with him as he stood up. Not enough sleep. He had a bunk for that, though; sleeping on the couch never felt as good. There was too much busyness on that couch, too many echoes of people sprawling and hollering and arguing for it to be, you know. Restful. His bunk, though, had nice soft sheets and a nice soft mattress. It also had the added bonus of a blackout curtain to keep out the sunlight.

Rolling gently with the rocking of the bus was second nature, had become natural a long time ago. Unless there was something crazy happening with the traffic, he never needed a hand to steady himself, which was good because he knew he had to move as little as possible if he wanted to keep the sleep close. He didn't want to wake himself up too far. That was the problem with their schedule and with not sleeping a full night for weeks on end: after a while, his body started to get ideas. It started to think it didn't need sleep, that it could just go and go as long as he gave it enough caffeine and sugar and kept it moving.

And, okay, JC had come to accept that no, he couldn't crash at three in the morning and be up at six anymore, not if there was anything planned that day that required his concentration. Even Chris had conceded, finally, that he couldn't expect his body to listen to him the way it had when he was twenty-- and this time, it wasn't just bitching, it wasn't just Chris making noise. He was serious.

Justin, though. JC'd caught him two nights ago in the front of the bus, headphones on and staring out the window at the lines on the pavement, with a notebook open across his knees but drawing mosaics in blue ink on his leg. JC'd asked him if he wanted some tea, or a pillow or something, but Justin'd looked past him, shaking his head.

The little corridor was quiet. Almost too quiet, given whom he was riding with. Justin slept as loudly as he lived. Silence usually meant he had the current CD of his obsession on repeat. Either that, or he was curled up on his side, reading a book, like a kid sneaking a comic under the covers. JC nudged aside the edge of the curtain in front of Justin's bunk. He should make sure Justin hadn't strangled himself on the cord of his headphones while he slept.

Justin wasn't in his bunk. Oh. That would explain the silence. There was only a rumpled blanket and a pillow with its pillowcase half off. Neither one of those seemed likely to make noise.

JC trudged towards the lounge in the back of the bus, ignoring his own nice, welcoming bunk for the moment. On the couch he found Chris asleep in the same clothes he'd worn at the afterparty, draped across the entire length of the seat and drooling on his own arm. But Chris was alone.

JC checked the bathroom. There was a mess of shaving cream blobs in the sink again, but no sign of Justin. JC checked his bunk, and Chris's, on the off chance that maybe, just maybe, Justin'd been too tired to care where he slept. No luck. Then JC went up to the very front of the bus and waved a little at the driver, trying to be subtle about peeking behind his seat. He saw a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit, but nothing else to speak of.

He stepped on a stray N64 controller and one of his own CD folders in his dash back to the lounge.

"Chris," he said, skidding to a stop on his knees. "Chris, wake up." He'd managed to tangle the circus afghan around his throat, where it was scratchy and heavy and made it hard for him to breathe. He shook Chris's shoulder.

Whining high in his throat, Chris dug his face into a crevasse between the cushions.

"Justin, Chris, he's not here, wake up," JC said, thinking he was being amazingly coherent for someone who'd woken up from a very nice four hours of post-party sleep to find Justin had vanished from a moving bus.

"He's sleeping, C," Chris muttered. "You go sleep, too."

JC tried manhandling Chris into a position that resembled sitting upright, but Chris was having none of it. When JC tried to pull on his feet he kicked and nearly got JC in the crotch. "He's not, I looked. Chris, I'm serious. He's not here."

Chris kicked again. JC lunged back to avoid a foot in the ribs and ended up on his ass. Turning his head, Chris opened his eyes very slowly, staring at JC with a rather bloodshot gaze.

"Ow," JC said. He meant his ass, of course. No one could actually hurt someone with a look. Not even Chris. Probably.

"JC." Chris was speaking in the slow voice he reserved for hysterical children, people wearing business suits, and people employed by MTV. "You're still drunk. Go to sleep, and don't talk to me again until it's noon. Or later. I like you. I don't want to have to kill you."

JC gritted his teeth. He could feel a headache starting behind his eyes. Being angry with Chris, though, was better than being panicked over Justin. "Fine. Kill me. Just find Justin first."

"Jesus," Chris said, but sat up. He even reached out a hand and hauled JC off of the floor. "Did you look in his bunk? Did you look in your bunk?"

"Of course I did. And under the couch." JC remembered the Great Final Fantasy Marathon of '99, when they'd lost Lance around three in the morning. He'd rode his beer drunk right under the futon and hadn't reappeared until suppertime the next day. A pair of Justin's sneakers had been all JC'd found under the couch, a pair with frayed laces and seams that were starting to give. Any pair that worn Justin wouldn't want to wear again.

Chris stumbled out to the main aisle, JC keeping tight to his heels and trying not to feel to stupid about it. Maybe the bus had stopped in the middle of the night, for gas or something, and Justin had switched to the other one for some reason. For some very good, very important reason, no doubt. Maybe watching Lance and Joey sleep was more exciting than watching JC and Chris. So much more exciting, in fact, that Justin couldn't have stopped and tell someone or leave a note or anything because he might miss out on the very exciting sleeping.

Chris swept the curtain away from Justin's bunk to reveal a sleeping, snoring, perfectly intact Justin. He was facing away from the aisle, but that was quite clearly Justin's fuzzy head of curls and Justin's naked expanse of back in the rosy light of morning.

"There. I give you Justin." Chris waved his hand like a model on a game show directing the contestant's attention to a fabulous item of merchandise.

"I looked," JC protested, He sounded lame. When he could tell he sounded lame, so could everyone else. But he was sure he'd looked. It wasn't like he could miss a big, boxer-short-wearing Justin Timberlake clutching his pillow to his chest. "He wasn't, um. There."

"Probably had to take a piss." Chris let the curtain fall. JC listened to Justin's soft snorts as he shifted around under the covers and frowned. "Which is what I'm gonna do, and then I'm gonna go back to sleep and dream of how I'm going to kill you in the morning."

"It is morning," JC pointed out.

"Not until I've had breakfast." Chris poked JC's belly until he scrunched up against the wall, giving Chris enough room to squeeze by. "Just for that, I'm going to kill you twice. With pointy things."

"I'm sorry," JC said, but Chris only flipped him off as he ducked into the toilet, not bothering to close the door. JC sighed.

He wasn't drunk. Not anymore. Someone must have slipped something into his drink. Possibly some evil industry executive's daughter with bubble-pack of roofies and designs on his body. Or he was going crazy, which was more likely, especially given their recent lack of sleep. If you didn't sleep, you didn't dream, and then you'd start to hallucinate. He'd seen that on television, but it sounded like the sort of thing that was too true to be made up. He wondered if it was possible to hallucinate away people who were really there.

JC peeked behind the curtain. Justin had flipped over, but was still sound asleep, and probably would be for a while. There were gray smudges under his eyes.

Without making a sound, JC let the curtain fall back into place and climbed into his own bunk. He dozed until Chris reached in on his way back to bed, groping around until he found JC's waistband and gave him a wedgie.

"Night, baby," Chris said, patting JC's leg as he squirmed to rearrange his underwear.


Lance nudged the cluster of black boxes and cabling lumped together on the floor with the toe of his sneaker. The uppermost black box, which happened to be the VCR, slowly slid from the top of the pile. "This is a sad excuse for a deluxe A/V setup."

"Just start the tape so we can watch it already," Joey said, pouring equal amounts of ice and coke into a glass and passing it to Justin. Joey was doing this while sitting on the bed that JC was planning to sleep in that evening, which was making JC nervous.

"I'm just saying, for what we're paying this hotel." Lance toed through the cables until he found the remote. "I don't think a little organization's too much to ask."

"Sit down, Bass." Chris held out a hand for Joey's next glass. "Sooner we watch the tape, sooner we can leave JC to his mattress. I think our boy's in love."

"It's big," JC said, which made Joey snort so hard he probably ruptured something, and sent Chris off into peals of laughter. "No, guys. I mean, hotels, now that we get decent ones. They aren't so bad."

"I don't even know if they hooked this up right," Lance said, poking at various buttons on the remote. "Oh, okay, it works. Shut up and let's do this." He sat down next to Joey as the image of their performance hours before flickered to life on the screen.

"Gentlemen, we look wonderful. Okay, now that we've taken care of that." Chris made a break for the door. He didn't get far before Joey grabbed him by the collar and hauled him back onto the bed.

JC sat on the floor, at the foot of the bed and next to Justin, where he wouldn't have to watch if something disastrous occurred between the soda bottle and his pillow. Justin scooted over until his head rested on JC's shoulder, his gaze fixed on their flickering performance.

"I started that sequence already behind," Lance said.

"Not as behind as I was. Look." Joey hummed his part under his breath. It wasn't as annoying as it should have been. JC sipped at his soda to remind himself that it wasn't time to sing along anymore.

Joey griped about the sound balance when they got to God Must Have Spent. JC was inclined to agree with him, now that he was watching tonight's show on tape; he hadn't heard it on stage, but that wasn't unusual. There was no time to think about technicalities in the middle of a performance, not when he was concentrating on finding every little pocket of energy inside of himself and breaking each one open. That's what the tapes were for. Even if the audience hadn't reacted to a glitch, even if they'd sailed through on a wave of screams and cheers, there was always the tape.

Chris and Lance were deep in a debate over a problem with the Tearin' Up choreography that JC hadn't noticed-- mostly because he had been staring at Justin. Not the actual Justin leaning on him, but the Justin on the screen, the one who was hitting every mark, but only just. Every element was there-- kick and then crouch, spin and then punch-- but only just. There wasn't anything extra. There was no split-second shimmy; there wasn't any spark or crackle.

And, okay, it was difficult to get excited about choreography that they'd done a thousand times before, quite literally. But that was usually the point where Justin started to have fun with it. That was when it was so deep in his body that it took on a life of its own.

Craning his neck, JC tried to get a good look at Justin.

"What?" Justin's gaze didn't move from the screen.

"I didn't say anything," JC said.

"You didn't have to. Your shoulder went all scrunchy. You want me to move?"

"No, I'm just wondering why you haven't said anything. About the show." Not one gripe about Chris dropping a move in the middle of a turn. Not one jab at JC himself for stepping on one Justin's cues. It was enough to make JC start looking for the pod people. "You're okay and everything, right?"

"It was a good show," Justin said, yawning. JC clenched his teeth to keep from following suit.

"Aw, sleepy boys," Joey said, prodding the back of JC's head with his foot. That was really not something JC wanted near his hair. He swatted at it half-heartedly, not wanting to shake Justin out of whatever fugue he was in.

"Hand over the remote, Bass," Chris said.


"Oh, now, that was not the right answer." Chris leapt across the bed, instigating a short struggle. Lance retained possession of the remote, but promised to up his fast-forwarding in exchange for Chris getting the hell off his back, where Chris was literally trying to tear off his shirt.

JC didn't get how they could be so awake when Justin, who was inevitably the one who wanted to go out to eat post-show, or the one who hauled the PS2 off the bus more nights than not, was currently dozing against JC's armpit. It wasn't good for him to be burning out like this so early in the tour. "How many more shows we have this week?"

"Two," Joey said.

"No, three," said Lance. "Where'd you put the soda?"

"Just give me your glass. I'm not letting Chris get near caffeine if he's going to be like this. Are you sure it's three?"

"Pretty sure," Lance said, then yelped as Chris jabbed an elbow into his ribs. "Hey! Joey said it, not me."

They were galloping through Space Cowboy on the screen without any attention from their real-time selves. Justin woke up again, enough to pick at the edge of JC's cut-off sweatpants. The knit melted away under his fingers.

"Guys?" JC hated to leave a tape unwatched when he knew they'd be up on that same stage tomorrow, but desperate times and all that. "I think we should just leave this, and maybe finish tomorrow if there's time."

"There's not going to be time," Lance said, but Chris was already hauling him off the bed. Joey stood up and stretched.

"We're going. And look! We even pre-warmed your bed." Chris patted Justin's shoulder as he headed for the door. "Don't fall asleep on JC's floor. It's not good for your fine superstar bod."

"Won't," Justin said, as Chris closed the door behind himself and the others.

"C'mon, time to sleep." Gently, JC pulled away from Justin, who scrubbed at his eyes. He headed for the bathroom. "I've got to wash up and shit like that."

Justin nodded. But when JC finished at the sink, he came back and found Justin hadn't moved from his spot on the floor.

JC crossed his arms and sighed.

Justin opened one eye, then slowly, slowly cracked open the other. "You know you don't look the slightest bit intimidating when you do that, right? It's like, I don't know. Peter Pan trying to look like a responsible adult."

"I just think you need to rest. Man, this is my big brother look you're mocking. This is a good look."

"Mock, mock, mock," Justin said, but he got to his feet. "Sleep is a good thing."

"Then how come you don't look like you believe that?" A strong breeze, JC thought, would just about do Justin in. Here he'd always thought that was a stupid expression, until he had a living example in front of him.

"Hey, I believe. But sometimes I just can't fall asleep. Or, like, I can, but it doesn't seem to do any good."

Something clicked inside JC's head. "It's worse on the bus, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Justin said, just standing and swaying and looking defeated. It was uncomfortable to look at.

"Okay, so, come on. Lie down. That's the first step to falling asleep. I've, like, studied this in depth, so I know what I'm talking about."

"Big brother is mocking me," Justin said, but when JC pulled down the covers, he went willingly enough to the other side of the bed. "I might go back to my own room if I wake up in the middle of the night or something. I don't want to be kicking you all night."

"Sure," JC said. He turned out the lights and climbed in next to Justin. The boy was a furnace. JC shed his t-shirt preemptively; they'd fallen asleep in the same place enough times over the years that JC knew he'd wake up sweating if he didn't. "Step two is when you close your eyes."

"Shutting up had better be step three."

"That's step four. Saying goodnight is step three."

"Goodnight, Jayce," Justin said.


JC woke once in the middle of the night, unsure of why his leg was bent at an awkward angle, or of why sweat was trickling down the back of his knee. Then he heard a familiar soft snoring at close range and realized Justin was still asleep in his bed, and that he'd rolled over and pinned JC's leg to the mattress at some point during the night. Justin had also shoved his half of the blankets onto JC, burying him in the comforter. Pushing against Justin's shoulder until he rolled back to where he belonged, JC managed to free himself and drift back to sleep.

The second time he woke, to the screech of the alarm clock, Justin was gone. JC had an egg bagel brought up to his room and ate it as he wandered downstairs, following Lonnie's directions. He found Justin in an empty parking lot behind the hotel, shooting free throws into a hoop that had no net.

JC wiped his hands on his jeans and jogged over to where the end line would be if there had been lines on the pavement. Sending rebounds back to Justin was easy and mindless, and pleasant enough in the warm morning sun.

Except for Mike, who walked by twice to see if anyone else had found their corner of the lot, no one bothered them. There was, JC found, a certain rhythm to the drop of the ball, to the rattle of the backboard when a shot missed. Justin's scuffed Nikes struck a slow accompaniment against the asphalt each time he landed after taking a shot.

"Thanks for the crash space last night." Justin was staring so intently at the ball in his hands that JC almost didn't realize the words were intended for him.

"The space belonged to the hotel, not me. It's no problem."

"Yeah, well." Justin sent the ball through the air in a perfect arc. It barely brushed the rim of the hoop as it dropped through the net. He hadn't hit many as good as that this morning. "I think I'm getting to that part of the tour where the bus is driving me crazy. There's just nowhere to fall asleep in there, nowhere good. So, not getting much sleep, you know?"

"Um," JC said. While he could see the proof of Justin's exhaustion in the way he didn't fidget his feet and in the way he barely followed through on his shots, he couldn't really grasp not being able to fall asleep once your body got tired enough to ache for it. "There's got to be something to fix about it, right? Like, change things around, give you more space or whatever."

"Nah, it's not that." Justin sent another shot ricocheting off the backboard. Lunging, JC swatted the ball back under control. "It's just a thing right now. It'll get better."

If Justin said he could take it, then JC figured he could; they'd pushed themselves harder than this. He promised himself he'd pay extra attention this week, keeping track of Justin as well as he could without pissing him off. He was about to suggest they forget the basketball when Mike came back, saying it was time to get going.

JC forewent his usual attention to the boards after soundcheck to tail Justin and Joey back to the game room. He napped on the couch while they played BMX on the Playstation. The show that night, while not their best work, was better than the night before: smooth and decent with everyone hitting their cues, except for when Chris got it in his head to try and make Lance crack up during God Must Have Spent. JC threw his sweat-damp towel over Chris' face as they jogged out to the buses.

"Hey! The hell," Chris said. "Gross. I'd expect this kind of behavior from Joey, but not you."

"Fuck off," Joey said, wadding up his own towel. He faked left, cut off Chris, and then tried to stuff it down the front of Chris' pants.

JC slicked his hands through his hair and regretted sacrificing his towel. "Don't mess with Lance," he said to Chris as he dashed by, on the run from Joey, "and I won't have to do gross things."

Lance caught Chris in a headlock. "Thanks for the help, but I can punish obnoxious behavior on my own. Joey, you get his ankles, and I'll get the wrists."

Together they carried Chris onto the two-man bus, ignoring his thrashing torso. JC trudged up the steps of the other bus behind Justin, who made a beeline for the couch.

"No, no, no." JC hauled Justin upright and gave him a push towards the bathroom. "Wash up first, before you don't want to move anymore."

"Like I want to move now," Justin grumbled, but stripped off his shirt on the way back to the sink.

Checking his email while he waited his turn, JC found two new messages from his mother and one from Heather telling him not to pay any attention whatsoever to anything his mother might have to say about her latest choice of collegiate major. Which was, of course, exactly what the first email from his mother was about, in great detail. This meant JC had to play dumb in his replies to each of them. Playing dumb was harder than playing smart; he'd had an extended debate on that subject with Chris back when they'd been living in same house. Chris held that you got more boys with the former and more girls with the latter; JC argued that the truth would out in the end. Which was why he wrote a third message to his father to ask for his unbiased appraisal of the Mom/Heather baccalaureate argument.

Someone had restocked the fridge while they had been singing their lungs out onstage; JC found nectarines in a bowl on the counter and ate one while browsing news sites. He was down to the pit when Justin emerged in a halo of steam.

JC waved his hand over the laptop. "You should read this article about minimum pricing and independent music stores." His nectarine dripped onto the spacebar. JC dabbed at it with his t-shirt. "There's this discussion about CDs as loss leaders, and it's related to us. Relevant. To artists in the industry, I mean."

Justin stood on his tiptoes, rooting through the overheads for clean underwear. "Send it to me or whatever. I guess they're keeping Chris?"

"Probably, yeah." JC watched Justin toss his towel back into the bathroom, stepping into a pair of boxers before disappearing down the corridor. JC turned away to stare at the interstate flowing past the window. He switched over to a blank document and wrote two lines about candy-colored skies and a girl on her way home, this time to stay. He stared at the words. Then he closed the document without saving.

Justin was nowhere to be seen, nor could JC hear any of his usual electronic entertainments. He'd gone to bed, then. JC felt smug, though he knew he'd probably had little to do with Justin crashing. His cell phone chose that moment to buzz in his back pocket, making him yelp, though quietly because Justin was finally getting some rest. He spent the next hour thumbing through back issues of Newtype while texting his sister.

When he finally decided he'd chilled enough to sleep, he peeked in on Justin. That was where JC made his mistake. If he hadn't, the night would have been very peaceful, very calm, and he'd have gotten away with another day of vague concern.

Justin was missing again. This time, JC hadn't had anything harder to drink than lukewarm tea.

The sheet felt warm when JC ran his hand across the mattress. He checked the rest of the bus, but found no one. He hadn't expected to find anything. Nor was Chris around to talk sense into him.

Justin's mattress was warm and there wasn't anywhere he could have gone. JC shuffled his feet, and caught himself turning to glance over his shoulder, because this was ridiculous. Completely illogical. And probably being caught on film for the purpose of his future humiliation.

JC was kind of okay with humiliation. In small doses, it was a lot like honesty. He climbed into Justin's bunk.

At first, JC suspected he'd been getting gypped. Justin's bunk was noticeably bigger than his own. He could toy with the pillow and wriggle his toes, and even stretch a bit without skinning his knuckles on the side of the bus.

Then he realized the side of the bus wasn't there. It had been there, JC was certain, in the lounge, outside of this bunk. Logic dictated. But on the inside, inside where there was no Justin, there was also no wall.

Clutching at the blackout fabric with one hand, JC closed his eyes, stretched out his other hand, and swept his fingers through nothing. Nothing was there for him to touch. Nothing felt a little warm, actually, as if whoever was in charge of it wanted to save on the air conditioning bill. The hair on JC's arm stood on end.

"Justin?" JC called, his eyes still closed.

It came out terribly weak, not much of a call at all. JC cleared his throat, breathed deeply from his stomach, and shouted, "Justin!"

The curtain swallowed some of the sound, but the void swallowed more. JC had never realized that the lack of an echo could be an audible thing.

It was probably because he was already scared senseless that it seemed like a good idea to let go of the curtain. There wasn't, as reasoned by the part of JC's forebrain that had taken it upon itself to make sense of this, much that a curtain stitched to fake metal rings could save him from. His brain also pointed out that since he now knew where Justin had gone, he needed to decide which would make him crazier: waiting for Justin to come back, or going in to look for him.

"Okay, okay, okay," JC breathed. Okay. He squinched his eyes shut until he saw white static, whispering, "Sorry." He wasn't sure what he meant. Then he locked his arms around his waist, rolled to the side, and kept rolling until he fell off the mattress.


JC landed on hands and knees on concrete. For a fall like that, the landing should have hurt more than it did. It wasn't the concrete of the interstate outside of the bus; that concrete would have been lit by headlights and populated by cars rocketing by. All JC could hear was the generic thud-thump of a club track. All he could see were his hands, pale and striped with reflected neon light.

A pair of boots walked up to JC's fingertips. They were really very large boots, larger than, say, anything JC would ever be inclined to try on himself.

He could crouch forever on this silent nighttime street, in front of these very large boots. Or he could sit back and look up. Very slowly, he lifted his hands from the concrete and stared.

If there was ever a man born to be a bouncer, this was that man. He was a slab of breathing muscle, unrefined and uncut, with the tattoos of a reformed biker and the mirrored shades of a Hollywood celebrity. He stood with his arms-- bare and as curved as a woman's thighs-- folded over his chest, hands held loosely. A fan of orange wristbands fluttered at his waist, tucked into his belt.

JC cleared his throat. This was probably how those girls felt, then, the girls in the audience who pressed themselves against the security barriers and gazed up at them like their eyes were lying. Like JC couldn't be real.

Except those girls did a lot of screaming, and JC couldn't seem to make any sounds come out of his throat. Fine thing for a singer not to be able to make a sound. Rising from his crouch, taking a step back, he cleared his throat again. Speak, JC.

"Um." There, that was a sound. Now if he could gather some actual words, he'd be set. Behind the bouncer-- the man who was either a bouncer or the result of a government project to breed a human pickup truck, but JC didn't want think too closely about that-- was the facade of a club. Lights swooped over and around the door, and the words "THE BALLROOM" protruded from the wall, matte black and backlit.

It was the only building on the street lit well enough for JC to see. Everything else was a shadow in the darkness. Out of the corner of his eye, he tried to look down the sidewalk, but trying to see what didn't want to be seen only made his head hurt.

He didn't want to look over his shoulder. For one thing, it seemed very important not to turn his back to the bouncer, who, aside from the thumping bass emanating from the club, was the only sign that there was life here. Second, JC read books. He'd read a lot of them, especially science fiction ones when he was young and impressionable. He knew better than to turn around when he really didn't want to see what was behind him.

"So, okay." JC felt dizzy. The bouncer didn't twitch. "Can I go in? I don't have any, um." He was barefoot, wearing the same sweats and tank top he'd worn on the bus. There were no pockets in these things.

The bouncer flexed his arms, making things jump inside of his biceps. JC blinked. Then the bouncer uncrossed his arms and selected a wristband from his stash.

JC stuck out his hand. This was good. This was progress. He waited to feel the bouncer's grip come crushing over his wrist, but it wasn't like that. Not at all. One second he was waiting and trying not to shake; the next minute the wristband was on, tight and itchy.

The bouncer resumed his former textbook stance of intimidation.

JC tried to run a finger under the thing, but it fit like latex, and felt like metal. Some whacked-out freaky wristband, to match this whacked-out freaky street. Club. World. Whatever.

"Thanks," JC said, because saying thanks never hurt. The door was open, and it was the only place to go.

There was life inside of the club. There was life at its most teeming, swirling limit, a crowd of people filling a dance floor and peering over balconies, flowing like a fractal to the pulse of the music. There was only the slightest pause between the outside and the dance floor; two steps down from the door put JC on the hardwood, caught up in the crush of dancers.

If Justin was here, he was going to be hell to find. Justin had to be here; there was nowhere else for him to be. Besides, JC didn't know how to leave. He had, as far as he knew, hours to look.

Sooner would be better, though. It was taking all of JC's concentration not to think, but logic was starting to creep into his thoughts, and logic was telling him he should be curled up in the corner.

Someone beautiful-- boy or girl, JC wasn't sure, only catching a flicker of tight clothes and naked skin-- danced up from behind JC, resting casual hands on his hips. It was reflex, really: JC had to dance back.

From the minute he'd walked in the door, he'd been subconsciously rocking with the backbeat, each track blending seamlessly into the next, everything just familiar enough to dance to, but impossible to place. It rode that fine edge between pop and house, refusing to settle on either. But the beat was off. Peculiar. It hesitated, popping and jumping over JC's nerves.

The hands slid away, passing JC to the next cluster of people, a group of girls laughing and dancing lightly with each other. He brushed against a dark-skinned beauty who swiveled neatly into the space between his hands. Her thigh fitted between his legs, not shy, but not too bold.

"Hey. Hi." Not his smoothest line ever, but it was hard to go wrong with a hello. He tried to catch her eyes, but they slid over him like shadows. "I'm looking for this guy, this friend of mine."

She had a perfect face, a perfect body, and perfect vacant little half-smile that didn't change, didn't slip or deepen. The music wasn't so loud that she could have missed what he said. JC knew that smile. But when it was directed at him, it was usually a little perplexed, or it was apologetic, too busy to deal with him at the moment. JC was close enough to catch the scent of citrus on her heated skin, but this girl didn't seem to notice she was dancing with someone else.

Buffeted by the music, a blonde girl detached from the crowd. She ran her hands over JC's partner, sliding up against her back, catching the twist of her hips. The first girl remained unmoved; the second also refused to meet JC's eyes. He reached out and brushed a finger over her flawless cheek, half expecting to be slapped away. Not flinching, the blonde continued to rock with the music, making bedroom eyes at nothing.

JC couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so wrong on a dance floor. Like a dork, yes, but not wrong. But then he couldn't remember ever going out alone, not knowing anyone, not knowing the music.

And he still didn't know where Justin was.

Fighting his way across the floor was less difficult than he expected. People made room for him, their hands brushing his shoulders and chest in a way more impersonal than invasive, much like the way he'd let his fingers trail against the wall as he walked down a hallway. He brushed past hips draped in designer jeans, and breasts held up high with swatches of thin, shiny fabric, aiming for the staircase to what must be a VIP balcony across the room. He needed to be able to see across the floor.

The bouncer had a twin brother standing at the bottom of the stairs. JC threw his shoulders back, thinking his very best important popstar thoughts. Keep it casual. Believe that you belong.

A sidestep that JC didn't see him take put the bouncer on the bottom step, leaving no room to subtly slip by. There was, actually, nothing subtle about this man at all. Brought up short, JC nearly tripped over his own bare feet. The floor felt sticky against his toes.

The wristband itched like a son of a bitch. JC fidgeted with it. "I need to stand on the stairs for a minute, to look for someone. I won't go up. Promise."

Bouncer Number Two did not make any sign that he was listening. JC sighed. As he chewed on his lip, thinking things through, a guy with the face of a model sauntered up slid a finger through the cord at the front of JC's sweats, pulling him back into the crush. Pulled along, he became one more body under the flickering lights, one more pretty numb dancer.

If he gave in and screamed, JC wondered, as loud and furiously as he could, would anyone look at him? Or would it only make it worse when no one noticed? Maybe Justin would hear; maybe they were keeping Justin in VIP, in a prison of trendy furniture and freely poured drinks. Maybe Justin was sitting up there perfectly fine, perfectly clueless, believing he was dreaming all this. Maybe he thought he was waiting for a limo, trapped in VIP by the paparazzi outside the front door.

Another blonde wrapped her arms around his neck. JC ducked and pushed her away; she turned as neatly as if they'd rehearsed that move in advance. There was a bar lining the long wall opposite the DJ's booth. If he could get over there, then standing on a stool might give him enough of a look across the crowd. It was a chance. It was also the only option coming to mind.

A girl with eyes like opals-- eyes so unreal she had to be wearing contacts, even here in this dreamland-- snapped her hips against JC's thigh. He caught his bare toes on the spike heel of her sandals, stumbling back against the boy behind him.

The boy yelped.

JC twisted around and nearly lost his footing again. It didn't matter how loud the music was; Justin's voice sliced cleanly through the drone. If he could find Justin in a crowd by the way he walked, then his voice from a foot away was better than a signpost.

"Justin!" Shoving aside a gorgeous boy, JC caught Justin by the shoulders. "Oh Jesus, Justin, what the sweet fuck? What is this place?"

Gaze fixed somewhere over JC's shoulder, Justin smiled his for-the-press, because-I-have-to smile. He skimmed his hands up JC's arms, draping them over JC's shoulders.

JC shuddered even as he followed Justin's lead, rocking with him. "Justin. Justin, look at me."

Justin's only reaction was to dance closer. He was wearing denim so blatantly ratty it had to have been designed to fit him, designed to look cheap, coupled with layers of pale, washed-out shirts that showed bits of collarbone and forearms as he twisted against JC. His sneakers were stark white, which was very much Justin, but the heavy copper jewelry around his neck and wrists wasn't his taste at all. He looked put-together in a way JC remembered from early photoshoots, before they had the money to buy stylists who worked with them instead of working on them.

"Fuck. Not you, too." JC cupped Justin's face in his hands, but Justin only smiled that smile and lowered his eyes. Reaching for a handful of curls, JC tried tugging Justin's head back, pulling as hard as he dared. Normally, messing with the hair was enough to make Justin launch himself at the offender, pinning whomever to the nearest flat surface until he extracted an apology. Now he shivered, lightly, with his entire body, but he never looked any higher than JC's chin.

"Okay, I hope to God you can hear me in there." Please, please let this be like sleepwalking. Let this be a temporary coma, one where Justin could hear, but not speak. "The door's right over-- okay, there. We've got to get out of here."

If moving through the crowd alone was difficult, then moving with someone who wasn't cooperating was impossible. Every three steps of progress were counteracted by some smooth turn of Justin's feet. JC had never hated watching Justin dance, had never thought he would. Jealous wasn't a question: dancing was what Justin did.

And even lost inside of his own head, God, Justin was good at it. No one would look at JC, but they turned their heads to watch Justin: lazily, not for the sake of watching someone famous, but appreciative. Possessive, almost.

It made JC's skin crawl. They were leaving, they were getting out, and these people could find someone else to dance for them. Maybe this time they'd learn to ask first.

With a death-grip on Justin's hand, JC pushed his way through the last ring of dancers. The door. Yes. Now if Justin would play along, would follow JC's lead.

"Just a little further," JC said, "and then we can think and figure this out. The air will, I don't know, wake you up. And then, then we'll be back on the bus and we'll tell Chris and he'll ask what we've been snorting." The door was closed. JC leaned on the handle.

"Fuck." He jiggled it, but it didn't open. Justin was straining to get back to the floor. JC laced their hands together the way he'd done with Tyler when they were little, when his mom told him he was big now, and responsible for not losing his little brother while they were all out at the store.

JC kicked the door. Then he folded over and grabbed his knee, because fucking hell. That fucking hurt.

Twisting his wrist, Justin broke free.

In seconds, the crowd swallowed him up. A tall, lanky boy with Asian features and parti-colored hair snaked an arm around Justin's belly, pulling him into a hot, deep grind that made JC want to sock the guy in the jaw.

So he did.

He came up a little short, really, since he was diving into the crowd and swinging for the guy at the same time. But his fist connected right where he wanted, and he followed through, just like Joey'd shown him back in high school, doing the sequence in slow motion with Steve taking the pratfall onto the couch in their parents' living room.

It was a beautiful punch. Too bad no one seemed to notice. The guy fell back, caught up by a three girls who ran their hands over his face. But if they didn't notice JC when he was flirting, then they didn't notice him fighting.

A tiny slip of a girl was already moving up on Justin. JC grabbed her wrist and spun her away. Justin settled against JC easily, not protesting when JC hauled his arms up and around JC's neck. JC locked his hands together against the small of Justin's back.

It probably looked like an awkward hug, like JC was trying to hold up a Justin who was drunk off his ass and too gone to even laugh about it. JC'd done that, more than once. More than twice. It wasn't a big deal. Justin got giggly and wriggled until he could be poured into someone else's car.

This Justin wasn't drunk at all. Just pliant, and willing, and constantly moving in one long line with the thrum of the music.

"How 'bout you don't pay attention to any of these people at all, okay?" Justin didn't nod, but the track shifted to something low and trip-hop and he turned his face into JC's neck. "You know how you always bitch that the clubs don't stay open late enough. Like they don't know that some of us work evenings. We'll just hang, and this'll end up like one of those nights. They'll be kicking us out before we know it."

JC didn't really want to close his eyes. He wanted to watch the others, make sure they weren't reaching for Justin, or trying to worm between them. But there were so many of them, all so bright, polished like plastic. He couldn't move away from all of them at once. He couldn't even keep track of the perfect, manicured hands of the ones who were closest. He could only brush them away when they landed like flies on Justin's body, making him quiver and dance faster.

But when JC closed his eyes, it was easier to pretend that this was all in his head.

There was something wrong with the music, something that made JC's head throb. There was some subtle, horrible syncopation behind the music, something that made every fourth beat drop too soon. Just a hair too soon, but enough that JC started to think his own heartbeat was off, that his internal metronome had been fucked by this place.

Time bent and clung, like the music blaring from the speakers, like the floor that was almost like wood but not close enough to fool JC's bare feet. He spent hours letting Justin dance away when the tempo picked up, pulling him back in whenever the bass line slowed. It seemed safest when Justin was breathing against JC's throat, when JC could feel the carefully spaced warm breaths of someone unconscious and dreaming.

They were rocking like that when the lights over the bar flashed last call. Justin's breath hitched and he lifted his head to yawn.

JC was just staring to hope that this meant everything was going to be fine when Justin let go, turning away and heading for the stairs.

"Shit, Justin, wait. Wait, okay? I'm coming with you." Grabbing him by his waistband, JC tried to keep up.

Then the main doors swung open, parting to the faint pink gleam of daylight that was determined to break. The crowd surged, heading out, a herd of obedient cattle, except for the very, very few who flashed brilliant smiles at Bouncer Number Two and were permitted to pass up to VIP.

JC thought he was paying attention; he was, but Justin was Justin and he had years of practice at this, half a lifetime of slipping away from people when he didn't want to be followed. The moment JC lost his grip, Justin darted up the stairs. He was one of the chosen, one of the privileged.

And he was gone.

JC would swear that he didn't move. He was staring at the balcony, at the line where the lights dropped away, hiding whoever was up there. But either the crowd moved him, or time stuttered again-- or he stood still and the club moved under his feet-- because he banged his heel against the doorframe. Then the light past the doors grew bright, so bright, until he had to squeeze his eyes shut or risk passing out.


JC rolled out of bed with a shout.

"Ow," he said. No one said anything back. Usually when he woke up abruptly, someone who was either Chris or Lance was standing there, already laughing, ruffling his hair and pissing him off even more.

It was daylight. Not exactly awake, he rolled over and stared at the ceiling of the bus. He wondered why his feet hurt and why his heart was racing, and why he was all alone.

When he heard Justin snore, he remembered.

He jumped up and shoved aside the curtain to Justin's bunk, all in the same motion. Justin was there, with his white boxers and his tattooed ankles and his bedhead. Justin was sleeping. All of these things were good. Beyond good. Thank God good.

The back wall of the bunk looked perfectly normal. Solid, like walls were supposed to be. It didn't look like a wall that would disappear in the middle of the night.

Justin snorted. Rolling onto his back, he swatted at his own nose, making the little scrunchy face he always made when reluctantly waking from a nap. JC absolved himself of any guilt as he shook Justin the rest of the way awake.

Justin said, "Fuck," glaring at JC and blinking like it would help the world come into focus. It made him look like a demented bird. It was beautiful. It was just gorgeous, the way Justin looked straight at JC like he wished JC'd drop dead right on the spot.

If he hadn't been on that floor once already this morning, JC might have dropped dead just to satisfy Justin. He'd never been this glad to be awake.

"You're okay," JC said. "Oh, fuck, man. I was scared there'd be aftereffects, maybe brain damage or something, but you're fine. Not fine, but normal, for the morning, and early at that. Which I'm sorry about--"

"What the fuck, C." Justin shook off JC's hand, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes. "Go away."

The morning after your bandmate got kidnapped and taken to another dimension wasn't entirely different from the morning after a hard night of clubbing. It was surprising what the two had in common. JC's feet hurt. His stomach rolled at the thought of breakfast. The goddamned orange band was still around his wrist, and yanking on it wasn't helping. "What the hell was that place? How often-- this happens every time you try to sleep here, doesn't it. That's why you're fucked up, tired all the time."

Justin stared at him. "Shit. Don't tell me you woke me up for this. You're not even making sense."

"Oh," JC said. Oh. This wasn't kidnapping. This was brainwashing. They'd done something to Justin's head, whoever they were. They'd been doing it for weeks. "Oh, shit. You don't remember."

"I remember you waking me up when I'd just fallen asleep, you ass."

"You were waking up anyway." No, of course Justin didn't remember. This had happened before. If he'd remembered, he would have said something. Hey, guys, you'll never believe where I went. No, really, you'll never believe me.

"I'm tired." Between the dark circles and the sharpened edge of his cheekbones, that was obvious. If left on his own, without the magic of Hollywood's youth machine, JC wondered if this was what Justin would look like in twenty years. Or ten, at the rate they were going. "I'm tired, and I can not get any sleep, because I'm doing my job, and because you're waking me up, and there is something seriously wrong with you."

With one last, fierce yank, JC snapped the wristband. "You don't remember the club."

"Which fucking club do you want me to remember?"

JC knew good and well he should shut up, but he had to ask. "The Ballroom."

"I've got no idea what the fuck you're talking about. No. Fuck off," Justin said, and jerked the curtain closed.


JC paced the lounge. It was only four steps long and one step wide, so there wasn't much to pace. He was working with what he had, though. The alternative was to curl up on the couch with his arms around his knees.

When the pacing didn't help-- in fact, it forced him to look at all the happy little people passing by the bus in their happy little cars and made him want to shout at them through the windows-- he tried curling up on the couch instead.

Clearly, it had happened. He hadn't dreamed it. Maybe he could dream dancing; he'd danced in his dreams for years, since he'd first had choreography to memorize. It was a motion thing. When he spent too much time out in the water, he dreamed of bobbing on never-ending waves. When he danced too hard, he dreamed the same ten steps, over and over again.

But he'd never woken up with a blister under the ball of his big toe and his arches aching like this. The soles of his feet were filthy. He didn't think it was possible to get this dirty on the bus. He had the wristband, too, slippery under his fingers. When he stretched it it snapped back into shape, the most perfectly elastic plastic ever.

Justin, though, was not perfectly elastic. JC tried to come up with an excuse to check on him, but everything he thought of seemed like a blatant excuse to-- well. To go and check on him. Pushing Justin beyond pissed into furious wasn't going to help anyone. JC sat and picked at the piping on the couch until the glue began to flake away.

He thought about calling Chris to come check on Justin. That hadn't worked out so well the first time, though. He thought about calling Joey, not to check on Justin, but to tell JC he wasn't crazy. But then Joey would tell Lance. Blisters and strips of plastic wouldn't work on Lance. He'd come up with three perfectly logical alternative explanations, none involving interdimensional travel, right off the top of his head. Then he'd convince JC at least two of them could be true. If JC called Joey, then Lance would have JC begging to talk to a therapist before noon.

Not that JC would blame him. The entire story sounded crazy. The whole story was crazy, was the thing.

By the time they pulled into the venue, JC'd talked himself into and around a circle. Justin shoved his way off the bus with a backpack stuffed to the gills and slung over one shoulder. JC sighed, gathering his things together.

He'd decided-- again-- that the only thing to be done was to tell the guys and make them believe when Chris cornered him on his way out of wardrobe. Chris took him by the arm, hauled him around a corner, and pushed JC into an unused back hallway.

"You're alone with him for one night," Chris said, "and he shows up the next morning spitting at anyone in range. What the hell did you do?"

"I didn't do anything!" JC started to wonder if maybe by going there uninvited he'd somehow made it worse for Justin. "He practically went to sleep right away. I looked in on him, and then. He. I don't know."

Chris stood between JC and the way out. "You hovered."

"No, I did not fucking hover. He's just... not sleeping. You remember the other morning, right, when I looked for him, and he wasn't there, and I know you're going to say--"

"Jesus, you're an ass." The look on Chris' face was hard to meet head-on. JC suddenly remembered why he'd always been glad Chris was a generally decent kind of guy, a guy who didn't go out looking for people to rip into. Except when he deemed the ripping a necessary act.

JC blew out the breath he was holding. "Okay, so that wasn't what I knew you were going to say."

"I can't believe you. Justin's fucking exhausted, he's stretched so damn thin that even the suits who don't have any souls left to sell are breaking out the chicken soup, and you're making it worse. Lay the fuck off, already. You keep this up, and you're going to be as wired and nuts as he is. I can't deal with that shit."

It almost didn't sting. JC recognized Chris's version of 'take care of yourself, dammit.' He'd heard it flung at Joey after he spent one too many nights out and was looking like hell because of it. It was regularly aimed at Lance's stubborn silences, at his periodic attempts to punish himself for one perceived fault or another.

"I'm not trying to make it worse," JC said.

"Then don't. Back off, and let him get through it. It's the middle of the tour. We've been here before. It's just bigger this time."

JC thought about screaming. He thought about dropping to his knees and begging Chris to listen to him, goddammit. But that would require knowing how to explain last night. That would require understanding last night. So he muttered, "Bigger, right. It's just so crazy," and let Chris pat his shoulder. He felt like they were pretending to be two manly dudes in a beer commercial.

JC slipped away from Chris and roamed around backstage, not exactly avoiding people but not really wanting to have to act normal. He wanted to think. But there were people everywhere, and they kept asking if they could help him with something. He'd smile and say no and go looking another hallway to haunt.

When an intern finally herded him into the green room, JC sat down on the couch where Justin was lounging. The brim of Justin's hat was pulled down low over his face. He stared intently at the display on his cell.

"About this morning," JC said.

"No, whatever." Justin pushed buttons with his thumb and frowned. "It's cool."

"You ever have one of those dreams where you wake up and you're not sure which part was real and which part was the dream?" The part of JC's brain that couldn't be distracted from the show looked at the clock above the door. Ten minutes to go.

Justin snapped the phone shut. "Sure. Dreamt once that I owed Chris a hundred bucks. Fucker took it when I tried to pay him back, too."

"Right. Yeah, he would." JC stared at the clock until it there were eight minutes and thirty seconds to go. "I'm way too excited about being in a hotel tonight."

"Seriously." Justin didn't sound any more excited than the average person would at the idea of a real bed, the kind with a real headboard and a real boxspring. JC sighed, and waited for the last eight minutes to disappear.

JC didn't do a damned thing but crash after the show. One night without sleep and he was wiped. This was revenge, he figured, for all those times he'd teased Chris about getting old. He buried his face in his pillow and didn't move until the wake-up call.

During the free hour they had before soundcheck the next day, he asked one of the local security guys if there was a bookstore nearby. Their driver took him the two miles to the Borders down the highway and waited patiently while JC bought three fairy tale compendiums, a book on folktales and their importance in modern society, and an iced latte to make sure he wouldn't drift off in the middle of meet and greet.

The latte worked wonderfully. When JC tried to grab a Coke from the catering table, Lance pried it out of his hand and gave him a Sprite instead. He didn't have as much luck with the books. He skimmed his way through the first one before the show, tackling the second after they got on the buses, but these were only stories. They told you what happened and how. They didn't tell you what to do about it, other than to be brave and upright and to be nice to any old women you met while walking through the woods. Stuff like that. Obvious stuff.

Halfway through the chapter on Scandinavian tales, JC realized the bus was terribly close to being silent. Chris must've gone to sleep ages ago. JC shuddered. He chewed on his lip as he laced up his sneakers, then took a deep breath and went to check on Justin.

He was gone, of course. JC wasn't surprised to find the sheet in a tangle and the bed empty, or to find that even standing in his tiptoes he couldn't feel the back wall of the bunk. The only thing that surprised him was how quickly he'd become accustomed to this.

He could call Chris. But what would be the point?

The longer JC waited, the longer Justin would be alone in that place. Alone with the others.

JC climbed into the bunk. Already knowing what was on the other side made it easier; though the nothingness seemed colder, the fall seemed shorter. He must have tensed up, though, because the landing hurt more this time around.

The bouncer was waiting. Well, bouncers were always waiting, but this one hadn't moved a yard from his post by the front door. The lights around the marquee sparked and faded like little electric stars going nova again and again.

JC dusted off his knees. "Hi. Ah. Just me again." It might have been an erratic twinkle of light, but it was possible that the bouncer's mirrored shades tilted half an inch towards him. JC stuck out his arm and waited, taking nice, deep breaths from low in his belly the way his first vocal coach had taught him.

Slowly, like a boulder inching loose from the earth, the bouncer selected a blue wristband from his belt. JC tried to pay attention this time, but it was snapped around his wrist between one eyeblink and the next. He mumbled a thank you and ran inside.

JC pushed people away, not concerned about their non-reactions, knowing they wouldn't care. He was nearly to the DJ's booth when he saw Justin's arm out the corner of his eye. He knew it was Justin's arm by the way it curled around the neck of a tall boy with mocha skin. He knew it was Justin's arm just by the way it took up space.

"Least you could do is wait by the bar or something, Jesus." A hard tug on his collar and the tall boy drifted away. It wasn't until Justin made the space between them disappear, snaking his hands into the back pockets of JC's jeans that JC realized he'd been afraid. It had been a quiet fear, very deep down, but he'd been afraid Justin wouldn't be here, that he wouldn't find him in the same place twice.

He knew he shouldn't have bothered, but he couldn't help but try to get Justin to meet his eyes. When drunk, Justin would turn wide-eyed and earnest as he tried to explain the workings of the universe; when stoned he'd stare at whomever would sit still long enough to stare back. There was nothing in all of JC's memories of Justin gone out of his head that even came close to this.

Giving up, he dug his chin into Justin's shoulder and let Justin pull him even closer. Tonight it was black leather for the pants and black cotton for the t-shirt, with silver bracelets and a heavy chain of a necklace. If every piece of it hadn't been so blatantly expensive, the effect would have been laughable. JC wasn't laughing.

It was worse tonight, the skitter-twitch of the club track, the way it bubbled like blisters under JC's skin. He wanted to sit and plug his ears. He wanted a drink in a dark corner. If he didn't know how impossible it would be to get Justin off the dance floor, he'd be tempted, so tempted, to sit against the wall and rock back and forth until dawn.

He held onto Justin and danced. When he was tempted to get a drink to counterbalance the music, he thought of the books he'd left behind on the bus and remembered the stories where food was a debt, where every sip of wine gave the gods a year of your life. He thought about where Justin was, locked inside of his own head. If Justin couldn't stop, then he wouldn't, either. Following Justin's lead took his mind off the music. It was a distraction, a dopplered echo. If he didn't pay attention to it, then it wasn't music at all.

JC thought about the breakwater that never stopped eating away at the coast. Trying to count beats in the waves only made you dizzy, because there was no beat to count. He thought about songs he used to sing in the car when he was a kid, and how the drive away always seemed to take longer than the drive back home.

Hours later, the lights over the bar flashed, and JC let Justin walk away and disappear into VIP without a fight. He'd see him in a few minutes. JC counted his steps as he let the crowd carry him towards the dawn outside of the door.


The fourteenth floor was reserved for them and for the crew; the members-only lounge had been transformed into a private restaurant. JC examined the bar-cum-breakfast-buffet with an eye for what hadn't congealed, deciding to stay away from anything in the cheese or the sausage families. Living a fairy tale wasn't good for his stomach.

Lance had staked out a corner table by the window, fanning sections of the newspaper across the tabletop like a hand of playing cards. He lifted the sports section to make room for JC's plate and wordlessly passed him the front page.

"Thanks. Is there syrup?"

Lance folded the arts section into thirds. "The Belgium waffles looked good."

"Belgian," JC said, carefully filling each square divot in the two on his plate with liquid sugar. Syrup was good. Syrup would make him feel better.


"It's Belgian. It's, like, an adjective."

"Oh. Belgian," Lance repeated, like a language student fixing a word in his memory.

JC ate his waffles, letting the syrup do its thing on his brain, and read about this local guy who thought he could kill his wife and get away with it but hadn't been smart enough not to run out and buy a Corvette and a new wife with the insurance money. Lance did careful alchemical experiments with his coffee. He held up the carafe, looked at JC, and raised his eyebrow.

"Yeah, sure." JC nudged his cup across the table. Coffee was good, too. Coffee was magic-- except no, it wasn't. There was no magic here, not in the daylight; JC would never take that word in vain again.

Lance cleared his throat. "You want the style page?"

"Okay." The front page wasn't worth reading when you didn't know anything about the city you were in. It was a bunch of street names and local landmarks that failed to register. "Anyone we know?"

"Not really. Um, fourth movie review down, though. It's some limited-release thing, but I think it sounds like something you'd like."

It did, actually. It had, according to the reviewer, drama and innovative cinematography and exotic South American locales, and, oh. Dancing. It had dancing. JC was kind of disappointed. It had sounded like a good movie.

The door swung open and Chris stalked into the room. He had a leather jacket and three sets of keys in one hand and a green plastic mug the size of his head in the other. He dropped the coat on the floor, tossed the keys onto the coat, and headed for the breakfast bar holding the mug in front of him like a battering ram.

Lance chewed thoughtfully as he watched Chris pile eggs, bacon, and half a package of American cheese onto two halves of an untoasted bagel and then smash them together and wrap them up in a napkin stolen from the nearest table. Then Chris turned around, squinted, and made a beeline for their table.

JC looked down at his plate and picked at a pile of slightly mushy strawberries.

"Coffee," Chris said, pointing at the carafe.

Lance speared a neat cube of omelet with his fork. "That's right."

Chris pried the lid off his mug and sat the enormous green thing down on the classified ads.

Lance glanced at JC, then made a sketchy little gesture over his own cheek. "You've got strawberry goop, just under-- no, lower. Okay, you got it."

"Fuck you," Chris said, taking his lid, his mug, and his napkin-wrapped sandwich, and collecting the keys and his jacket on his way out of the room.

"Hmm," Lance said. He ate the last bit of omelet. "The ham they put in these things never tastes quite like real ham, y'know? It's too salty, with the cheese and everything."

"You think he's okay?" JC said. The sports page was all about NASCAR. He recognized three names in top ten, which was pretty remarkable considering he'd never seen a race.

Lance rested his fork on the edge of the plate, folding his hands and leaning forward. JC remembered when Lance used to do that so that no one could see them shake. It seemed like ages since they'd started this tour. "Joey says we've got a division of labor in this group. Just ignore Chris. He's being an asshole."

"Ignoring him makes him more of an asshole." JC didn't have to ask who fell under his division of the labor.

Lance grinned and shrugged and left JC alone to finish breakfast.


JC found he'd gotten into the habit, as far back as MMC, of marking time by counting days when he performed rather than actual days of the week. By that reckoning, three days passed before the next time they spent a night on the bus and he made his third trip after Justin. With the way it made his mind bend and cringe it was hard to tell for certain, but it felt like the club grew more crowded with each trip. He spent that night brushing hands off Justin's back, out of Justin's hair, hating the way Justin was treated like a particularly talented, particularly adorable pet. When dawn came and the club sent him home (Justin via first class but JC landing with his usual lack of ceremony on the floor of the bus), he had a third wristband, this one blood-red and reflective, to shove into the front pocket of his backpack.

Two nights-with-shows later, just after midnight, JC was in his hotel room brushing his teeth when he heard a knock at the door. He waited, watching the mirror, until Justin let himself in, walked into JC's bathroom and sat down on the lid of the toilet.

Justin didn't say anything. He hunched over, rubbing at a bug bite on his ankle.

"You okay?" JC spat toothpaste into the sink.

Justin shook his head. "I think I'm going crazy."

"Oh, no, baby, you're not-- not crazy. Why do you think that?" JC sat down on the edge of the tub. If Justin remembered something, if he was aware of what was going on, then things might be a lot simpler.

Justin stared at his feet, but at least he was looking at something. JC poked Justin's knee with a finger, and when he didn't flinch, cupped it and rubbed small, gentle circles over the bone.

"You're not crazy," JC said.

"I hate that word." With his shoulders curled and his muscles tight, Justin looked fully capable of beating the shit out of anything that would try to drag him off against his will. Too bad they only came after him while he slept. "I fucking hate it."

"You started it," JC pointed out.

"No, Chris fucking started it." There was too much venom in Justin's voice for this to be anything but bad. "No, wait. That's not fair. I started it, but I don't know why."

JC patted Justin's knee, feeling stupid. "There you go, you're not crazy. Crazy people don't care about what's fair."

"I hate--"

"--that word, right, sorry, not saying it anymore. But you're not it. I'd notice, okay? I'd tell you if you were. But you're not."

Justin swallowed. Nothing matched the acoustics of a bathroom. JC thought he could probably hear Justin's heart pounding, if he had five minutes to sit in the quiet and concentrate on listening. Justin fidgeted with his shoelaces. "But what if I am?"

JC brushed Justin's hands aside and undid his laces. Justin's fingers were like ice. "Take these off, okay, and come out and sit and talk to me. Come out and get something to drink and sit somewhere comfortable. Everything looks worse under these lights."

"'M not thirsty." But that was the only part of the plan Justin protested, and he lifted his feet so JC could peel off his socks. JC wrapped his hand around the bare arch of Justin's foot and squeezed. Justin made a noise, letting his head nod forward.

JC figured he'd have gotten kicked if he was doing something too terribly wrong. "Does this hurt?"

"No, it's good. They hurt, my feet do. But that doesn't."

JC dug his fingers under the ball of Justin's foot and watched him twitch, involuntarily, like there were muscles and tendons that had forgotten how to be relaxed. He worked on that spot for a little while, then let go. Justin, who had his eyes closed, looked willing to doze off on the linoleum if JC let him. "Come on," JC said. "Up and out of here."

Blinking sleepily, Justin followed him like an obedient puppy, equally unsteady on his feet. JC hadn't seen him like this since they were in Germany, since before Justin'd hit that last growth spurt and with it gained the stamina of someone perfectly healthy, someone designed for this kind of life. JC pulled the bedspread off and onto the floor. He turned down the sheets and gave Justin a push. Justin took the hint and sat down, peeling off his shirt before curling up around a pillow.

JC walked around the bed. "You look all of eight years old."

"Shut up," Justin said. "You were kind of almost making me feel better. Go back to that."

JC slid into the empty side of the bed, inching forward until he could scratch Justin's back. "What'd you and Chris fight about?"

"It wasn't a fight, it was my fault. I said that."

This was nice, calming Justin down like this. If JC could dance until last call, then he could keep this up for hours. Or at least until Justin fell asleep. "Just tell me what happened."

Justin stretched until his back cracked, making JC wish for the thousandth time that he could do that. "Okay, so, we were coming into the lobby, us and everyone, all of the people and crew and everybody who was on that group of buses."

JC ran his fingers along Justin's spine, finding the vertebrae that were out of alignment. He prodded at the worst one until Justin flinched. "Sorry," JC said. "You should see if Alex is busy tomorrow. You need an real chiropractor for this."

"I know. But I don't want anyone touching me right now. Anyone else," Justin said, just as JC eased back. "You're okay. Which was the thing in the lobby, right, because there were all of these people around, and I really just wanted to get up here and fall over. But I forgot about that MTV girl. That girl who's hanging around, planning for that special?"

"Sure. The pretty blonde one." Pretty and lithe; she wouldn't look out of place dancing in the Ballroom with those perfect, not-real people.

"Right. And I guess I was, I don't know, still wired from the show. Except worse, because I've been wired all the time, but we're not talking about that because it's part of that word we're not using because I fucking hate it."

"Justin. What'd she do?"

"Nothing! She just wanted to ask something, I guess, and kind of brushed her hand up my back, touched my shoulder. And I don't know what's wrong with me, I'm so fucked up, because okay, jumpy is one thing, but I turned around and I hit her and I didn't even know what I was doing."

JC stopped with his petting. He reached forward, under Justin's arm, laying his hand flat over Justin's breastbone and pulling him close.

Justin was breathing too short, too high in his chest. JC could feel it under his hand. "I wasn't even thinking, I just. Spun around. And then Mike was on her, hauling her away, and I was yelling at him to let her go, because it was me, there was no reason I should have done that. I was saying I was sorry, that I didn't even know she was there, when Chris ran up and pushed me away and was apologizing for me. He even remembered her name."

JC leaned his forehead against Justin's neck. "Lisa, I think."

"Lissa. Chris kept telling her she was going to be fine, and that I was just crazy, and he was shouting at Joey to get some ice from the bar while he walked her over to the lounge. He was doing his thing, right, when he's funny and girls pay attention to him and forget everything else."

"Yes, well. Best thing he could have done, I guess. She's okay?"

"She's fine-- I didn't mean to do it, she was just there, and I'm just so. Fuck. And then Chris-- and then he gets Joey to take over and be charming and keep her from suing or running straight to the Enquirer or, I don't know, Kurt Loder, I guess, since she probably sees him every other day." Justin ran his feet back and forth over the sheets, making scratchy, rhythmic sounds. "And Chris grabs me by the neck-- the fucking neck, Jayce. Like going upstairs wasn't what I was trying to do anyhow. And he yells at me in the elevator, and he yells at me going down the hall, and he follows me into my room and then he really starts yelling, like I'm not already pissed at myself as it is."

Justin spat out the last few words, then lay there breathing, heavy and thick, his frustration this tangible presence that JC wanted to take a knife to. "'M sorry," JC said.

Justin sighed. "What for? It's not your fault. I'm just messed up."

"No, you're not. Or it's not your fault, it's just. Things." He was an idiot; JC was the worst kind of idiot. "Things that we're going to figure out. We'll find out why this is happening and stop it. But not tonight."

"When? Jesus," Justin said, half-muffled as he turned his face into the pillow. "What the hell is wrong with me?"

"Soon, okay? I don't know, we'll talk tomorrow, all of us--"

"Great, I'd love to give Chris another go at me," Justin said. "Maybe he can tag team with Lance, if he needs to stop and take a breather."

"--all of us," JC said firmly and, he hoped, convincingly. "But tomorrow. Not tonight. Nothing ever gets fixed in the middle of the night."

"I'll be too tired tomorrow," Justin said.

And that was the thing, JC realized. Justin wasn't complaining. He was resigned. He was giving into it. JC had a horrible vision of what would happen if Justin decided one night in the other place that he didn't care and just wouldn't dance. If he just stopped.

"No, you won't." JC pressed hard against Justin's breastbone. "You won't. You're going to sleep tonight and then deal with it tomorrow."

Justin laughed. "I won't sleep--"

"Yeah, you will." JC was not thinking; was trying very hard, in fact, to not think. Sometimes you just had to shut off the brain and go with the vibe and this was one of those times, he was certain of it. "Just fucking trust me already, okay? Do you trust me?"

"Yeah, of course. But I'm not going to sleep. I'm too tired to sleep."

"You'll sleep," JC said, his mouth against the fine hairs on the back of Justin's neck, just before they turned coarse and began to curl. "You're exhausted, J. Just listen to yourself."

"I keep saying," Justin said, then didn't. Instead, he shuddered as JC's hand slid down his chest. "Oh, Jesus fuck. Jayce," he said, shuddering.

JC let himself think just for a second, just long enough to notice that Justin's hands were clenched in the sheets and not pushing him away. He shouldn't be doing this; he shouldn't be starting something when Justin was so off-balance. But there had never been a right time. JC carefully, deliberately shut down the rational voices and worked his fingers under the waistband of Justin's sweats.

"Shh," JC said, which didn't make much sense as Justin was quiet, perfectly so. But he was moving on the bed, his hips shifting, the rest of his body following their lead.

JC ran his fingers through the warm curls of hair and wrapped his hand around Justin's cock. Justin went still. Nosing the hot, soft skin behind Justin's ear, JC ran his fingers down Justin's cock, ringed it tightly, and stripped it up the entire length. Justin held still, so still, and was so quiet that JC did it again. And again.

When he finally made Justin whimper-- actually whimper-- JC realized he was the stupidest ass to ever be in bed with a boy like this.

"Shit, I'm an idiot. I'm sorry, sorry, just roll over, okay?" JC opened his hand, letting the sex part of this go and just holding onto Justin.

Justin squirmed, gasping now. "Don't stop, don't--"

"'M not stopping. Just roll over, this is too much like--" hands, reaching for you from behind, hands grabbing you, hands touching you and you're not even there "--c'mere, babe. Just trust me."

Even frantic, Justin wasn't clumsy. The elastic of his waistband scraped around JC's wrist as Justin flipped over, rushed but careful. "Okay," Justin said. "Just don't go."

"I'm not," JC said, rubbing his fingers down the line of bone between thigh and groin, through the curls around Justin's cock, not trying to build anything, but just touching. "I haven't, and I'm not, okay? Okay, look at me."

Justin shook his head, eyes shut. "Stop teasing and fucking get on with it."

"No, dammit." How he could get ahead of himself, get his hands on Justin before he stopped to think, made JC wonder if they were going to make it out of this still sane. "This is important."

"Can't," Justin said, "I fucking can't."

JC gritted his teeth and gripped Justin's cock. "Look at me, you idiot."

Justin opened his eyes.

"God," JC said, because he'd asked, hadn't he? Dilated and deep and everything he'd spent these past couple years not falling for; the look in Justin's eyes made JC wonder why he'd waited this long.

JC moved his hand on Justin and Justin closed his eyes again, muttering, "I can't, I can't," but it was all right this time. JC knew he was here; Justin was awake and here and it wasn't like following him on the nights he disappeared. They were awake and they were alone; it was the complete opposite.

JC got his other arm around Justin's shoulders and stroked his back, wanting to feel his skin and the muscle moving under it. Justin's breath was hot against his neck, and it wasn't the most comfortable position ever, but it was good in a way that went right past comfortable and came out as bliss. When JC turned his wrist at the wrong angle, too hard, slicking fast and sharp over the head of Justin's cock, Justin yelped and threw a leg over JC's hips. "Fuck! Yes, fuck. Like that."

"Okay, hang on," JC said, dizzy and in a rush. He yanked his hand out of Justin's pants and brought it to his mouth. Justin cursed JC and bit his throat until he got what JC was doing, saw JC licking his own hand. Then Justin lifted his face to help, to tongue JC's palm and fingers until they were slick with spit.

JC had thought seeing stars while fucking was a lot of sappy bullshit until he had Justin's mouth on him, on his hand and then on his face, kissing and biting at his lips. JC twisted away before he completely forgot whom this was supposed to be helping. "Stop," JC said. "I can't. Just take these off." He tugged awkwardly at Justin's sweatpants.

"You want me naked, C?" Justin rolled to his back, lifted his hips and stripped away that last piece of clothing. JC decided to hunt down whoever it was who stripped Justin in that Other Place and dressed him up like a toy doll. "You want me naked, you want to touch me, you want to tell me where to touch you. I know you do. Touch me. Jesus, please." Justin grabbed JC's wrist, pulling JC's hand down between his legs.

It was even better when it was wet, JC thought, still certain this was all too fast. If it got any better, he might do something stupid like scream. Then there'd be people waking up. This was supposed to be about putting people to sleep. This was supposed to be about bleeding Justin of those last fragments of energy, not about jacking him so hard they were both panting. Justin was supposed to lay there and let JC do this, not climb naked on top of JC and put his entire body to use.

"You can do it harder," Justin said. His neck was bent and his mouth was inches away from JC. He hardly had to do more than whisper. "You can do it as hard as you can, I don't care. I want it. I want to feel it."

"You wanna feel me?" JC bit his lip and did something that made his own wrist hurt. Justin yelped. JC's dick got harder every time he heard that sound.

"Yeah, yeah. Oh, Jesus," Justin said. "Don't tease me. You're always teasing me."

Always when? JC thought, because he was sure he'd never done anything that would count as teasing to anyone, much less Justin. "I don't tease you."

"You do, you asshole, you do it all the time. Oh, like that, there, yes." Justin held very still as JC squeezed the head of his cock.

"That's not teasing, that's-- that's paying attention to you. You want to see teasing?" JC let go and dug his fingers into the curls down there, shoving Justin's hips up and away until nothing touched Justin's cock but the air between them.

Justin shook and squirmed. But he wasn't trying to break loose. Not really. If he'd been trying for real, JC was sure he couldn't have held him off with one hand. All Justin was doing was burning it off, wearing himself out. "Oh, fuck, oh, fuck," Justin kept saying, struggling to breathe. JC's dick really liked those sounds one hell of a lot, too, and kept giving him ideas of what he could do to Justin to make him do that some more.

"This is teasing," JC said.

Justin shuddered. "Yeah. Yes." JC touched Justin's face, brushed the corners of his eyes where they were screwed so tightly shut that tears were beading up. "Please, JC."

JC didn't feel like drawing this out any longer, didn't feel like making Justin wait for it when he didn't have to. "It's okay, you're going to come. I promise, I'm going to make you," JC said.

When he touched Justin's cock again, it was like the strings snapped. Justin sank down and held on, just held on, while JC worked him as hard and as fast as he could. "Please," Justin said, gripping JC's arms, his mouth open and gasping.

"It's all right. I promise." If Justin was too far gone to ask what the hell JC was trying to promise, then so much the better, because JC didn't want to think about anything except getting Justin off. He just wanted to give Justin this one single thing before he shook himself apart-- before he shook JC apart-- and hurt them both. "It's all right," JC said. Somehow that was enough, just that and his hand, to make Justin break.

It took a long, long time for Justin to stop shivering. It took even longer before JC could let him go. JC listened to the air conditioner switch on, then switch back off, and listened to Justin hiccup once, for no reason whatsoever. Then he slowly, softly, inched his way down until he could see Justin's face.

He watched Justin sleep until he got too cold, then pulled up the sheets and fell asleep himself.


JC slapped the alarm clock, then did it again nine minutes later, then spent his morning shower trying to figure out why the snooze alarm was only good for nine minutes, anyway. It seemed like it would've been easier to round it up to an even ten. It also seemed Justin had left without waking JC. He spent a long time soaping up and rinsing off and watching the bubbles ring the drain.

There were a dozen people walking the hallway, but none of them paid any attention to JC. None of them seemed to be the MTV girl, either. JC would have to remember to ask someone what happened with that. He paid way too much to get a Snapple from the vending machine and drank it on his way down to the bus.

Justin and Chris were playing a complicated game of indoor basketball, except the basketball was inflatable and they were using the special scoring scheme adapted for when the bus was not in motion. It involved use of the rearview mirrors as alternate baskets. Chris flew out of the bus and tripped over JC, but recovered in time to pass the ball to Justin.

JC got down on his knees to look for his Snapple. Fuck, it had rolled under the bus. "Aren't you two on opposite teams?"

Chris snorted. He made a grab for the ball. "Not when the third external variable comes into play--"

"That's you, Jayce," Justin said, spinning away from Chris to retain possession of the ball.

"--and not when the Outside subset of the Inside rules is invoked in the presence of a Unpredictable Moving Object." Chris tried to block, but Justin took his shot and apparently scored, because Chris groaned.

"That's you, too." Justin looked awake. Really, really awake for Justin of late, and he seemed to be playing with Chris out of something more than habit. JC thought he might just stand here and smile stupidly for the next hour. Chris ran around the back of the bus and lobbed the basketball at no one. Justin intercepted it easily. "Hi," Justin said, and bounced the ball off JC's head.

JC blinked. "Hi. Good morning, I mean. And you. You look good." When you smile. In the daylight. When you're on top of me, naked, and-- "Really good."

"I slept. Thanks for that, by the way."

JC started to say one thing, then closed his mouth and started to say something else. Chris chose that moment to catch Justin in a headlock and drag him up the steps. "Flirt with the groupies later, kid. This is a serious game, played by serious men. Gimme the ball."

JC retreated to his couch, where his books were waiting, and tried not to get hit on the head too much. He could finish the eastern European tales by lunch, maybe. There seemed to be a lot of stories in that chapter involving someone going into the woods and getting captured by the things that lived amongst the trees.

He read until the game wound down and Justin came up to the front to rummage in the fridge for three waters. Justin smiled as he cracked one open for JC, but didn't seem nervous or inclined to say anything more about last night. JC just took the bottle and smiled back.

Later, Chris went up front and talked into the driver's CB until he convinced the buses to stop at the next pancake house. JC hadn't found anything in the books that he thought would help. He was beginning to think he wasn't going to, but strangely, wasn't too worried. Sometime between waking up and right now, JC'd come up with a plan: he wasn't going to let Justin go there without him coming along, too. It wasn't much of a plan, but at least he'd know if something else happened.

Not that it was going to.

If JC had thought his sleep schedule was fucked up before, it was nonexistent now, at least for those nights when they were on the bus. Justin didn't disappear at the same time, and he didn't disappear every night, though he left more often than he didn't. JC took to setting his cell to ring him every hour on the hour, sleeping with the hands-free earbuds jammed in his ears. On the way back from a dinner appearance, he made the limo pull up and idle in front of a Staples, letting Lance shush Chris's protests by delivering a sympathetic lecture on the sudden need for office supplies while JC ran inside and bought a daily calendar.

In school, JC had used these things for the first few days of the year before they got lost in the bottom of his backpack. He'd rely on notes in the margins of his textbooks and on the girls in his class who giggled and teased him when he would call to find out when his assignments were due. This was the first time he'd ever kept track of one for more than a week.

He made note of the dates and the times and the hours they spent on the bus. He noted where they were in the country when it happened. He made notes on what direction they were driving, on whether they were traveling by state highway or interstate. He wrote it down if they'd had a show and he wrote down when they'd had a rest day, and he kept track of when Chris was on the bus with them when it happened and when he wasn't. He wrote down so many things that he had to go back to another Staples and buy one of those pens with the four interchangeable colors of ink, just so he could keep all his notes organized.

But after a couple weeks of this, the only pattern JC could see was that on the nights after Justin went over and JC followed him in, if that night was a hotel night, then it was increasingly certain that Justin would show up in JC's room. One evening JC went out with Lance to get Starbucks and came back an hour later to find Justin was in his bed, already asleep. The next morning Justin was still asleep, past daybreak, for the first time that JC could remember. That was the first time Justin stayed.

Another night, JC woke up somewhere on the wrong side of midnight because Justin was pulling back the bedsheets, letting all the cold air in. But Justin was warm, warm enough to keep JC from waking up completely, and he dreamed straight through until morning.

One night Justin followed JC from backstage to the bus and then from the bus up to the sixteenth floor, walking three steps behind with his duffle on his back and his hoodie pulled up, even though it was September and the leaves were only just turning. He followed JC into JC's room, pulled out his shaving kit and brushed his teeth in the other of the double sinks, then watched JC strip down to his underwear and crawl into bed. Then Justin turned out the lights, all except for the smallest one in the bathroom, and stood beside the bed. He peeled off the hoodie and his long-sleeved shirt, his tank top and his track pants, his socks and finally, very slowly, his underwear. He waited until JC kicked off the sheets, then waited some more, smirking, until JC asked him what the hell he was waiting for. Then he stripped off JC's shorts and licked the head of his cock. He didn't even flinch when JC grabbed a handful of curls and promised Justin crazy things until he took him deep enough that it was hard for Justin to breathe. Justin made those little gasping sounds that JC had known would sound even better with Justin's mouth on his dick.

And there was one night, after a drive across half the country and two straight nights of disappearing and dancing, that Justin knocked on his door, refusing to say a word, but crawled into the other side of the bed and buried his face in JC's hair. They didn't move and they didn't sleep for a long time that night, not until Justin stopped his silent crying and JC made a phone call, whispering into his cell, telling Lance to do whatever he had to do to make it so there was nothing on the schedule until noon.

The next day, JC pulled Justin into the empty green room and sat next to him on the couch. Justin, who'd been very carefully cheerful that day, leaned forward and kissed JC on the chin.

"I wanted to ask you something," JC said.

"Sure." Justin kissed him again on the lower curve of his lip. "How long do you think we have until one of the guys shows up?"

JC took a deep breath. "Do you remember anything? On those nights on the bus, when you can't sleep, do you remember anything at all?"

"No." Justin stood up. "Why're you bringing that up?"

"I was just thinking, last night--"

"So I had one fucking bad night," Justin said. "Don't worry about it. I'll be fine. There's no point talking about it." He left the room and didn't look at JC the entire time they were on stage, and then climbed into his bunk on the bus after the show without saying goodnight.

JC let himself be ignored for one more show, then asked Lonnie to get him a key to Justin's room. That was something JC hadn't asked for since right after they'd gotten back to the States and Justin had gone through a phase of drinking too much when sent home early from the clubs. JC took the key from Lonnie, let himself into Justin's room, and found him dozing fitfully on top of the bedspread. JC locked the door and slept on the couch until Justin woke himself up with his fidgeting and made JC get into the bed.

It ebbed and flowed, and JC never recognized a face from one visit to the next, but the dance floor in the other place was packed nearly all the time. No one ever seemed to speak; JC never heard a word he recognized from a mouth other than his own. There was a hum to the place, though, an underlying rumble like the sound of the ocean inside of a seashell. It tangled with the music and did its best to drive JC out of his head, night after night.

JC finished reading the fairy tale books. He didn't find anything he thought would help, and he didn't go back to the bookstore for more. Lacking an invisible cloak or a magic sword, or the secret inheritance that would help him get either of those things, JC found that the best he could do was push away the bodies dancing too closely. And if he talked to Justin as they danced, it seemed like the music couldn't make him as dizzy as it had at first.

He started waking up hoarse on top of being tired. It mostly wore off by the time evening rolled around-- there were few things that trashed his voice entirely, for which JC was frequently grateful-- but Joey took to ordering tea with lemon for him when they sat down to dinner. Chris started giving him and Justin odd looks when they walked into the breakfast room together, or when he saw them heading downstairs for a workout.

But JC didn't mention any of it again, not in daylight, and especially not to Justin. After the tour, he told himself; after they got away from the buses, then it would end. It had to. JC started counting the weeks until the tour wrapped up, started to think of excuses to get Justin to come home with him after the final show.


After two nights in the same hotel when Justin's bag never made it to his own room, they had a three-day stretch of nights on the buses. Chris made some sort of backroom deal with Joey that involved the exchange of Swedish fish and a twelve-pack of Sam Adams to secure a bus switch for the duration of the road trip. Joey preferred sleeping on the couch up front, so JC found himself spending more time in his bunk. He tucked up his curtain and stared across the aisle, using his cell phone as an alarm clock.

On the second night of the road trip, JC fell out of Justin's bunk after last call, expecting his usual bounce-and-roll in the aisle. Instead, he landed on what felt like two couch cushions and a down comforter.

"You'd think you would've thought of that sooner," Joey said. He crouched down until he was at eye level with JC, and held out a mug. "I made tea. With extra lemon."

"Oh," JC said. The tea was really good. Behind his curtain, Justin snored. Joey looked up, looked at JC, then stood and offered him a hand. "C'mon. I'll nuke you a poptart."

Joey made good on his promise. He brought JC a strawberry with frosting on a paper towel folded into a fancy diamond. Sometimes Joey could be a real sweetheart. If Joey'd been the one falling into another dimension, then JC would bet they'd have had this talk long before now.

"So." Joey took a seat on the other side of the table. "This has been going on for, like, two months."

"Ten weeks," JC said. He broke off one of the dry corners and dipped it in his tea. "Except maybe longer, because that's only when I noticed it was happening."

Joey nodded. "That Justin was disappearing, you mean."

"Yeah. So, um. How did you..." JC asked, swirling his hand around. It seemed particularly awful when he tried to put it into words.

"I didn't. Not really, I guess. Lance just said that, well, that Justin was a little fucked up this time out, and that you were the best choice to fix him. So Lance was supposed to distract Chris, and I was supposed to make sure you had the space to fix J." Joey shrugged. "The usual division of labor, right? But you were taking a really long time to fix him, and then Chris starting messing around with Lance, and, well. They're kind of loud."

"They're fucking?" JC said, then flushed and stared into his empty mug.

"Well, sure. Aren't you and J doing it, too?" Joey grinned. "I'm not complaining about having my pick of the ladies, but I was starting to feel a little left out. Chris won't even talk about it. Lance just says that all will be revealed in time."

"It wasn't like I planned it," JC said. "He's just-- he's kind of--"

"Messed up."

JC nodded. "You would be, too."

"So tell me what's going on," Joey said. "Here, give me your mug. All I know is that I woke up last night and I couldn't find either of you, but I went back to sleep and figured it was a dream until I heard you fall out of bed. And when I saw you go back to Justin's bunk tonight, I gave it ten minutes, then I thought that, well." Joey put another cup of tea on the table. "I thought it'd be funny to surprise you."

"You thought we were fucking."

"Or something. I wasn't counting on you disappearing like a rabbit into a top hat."

"Okay, so." JC leaned forward. "How well did you check? I mean, when you looked, after I was gone, did you feel it? That big, empty pit at the back of the bunk?"

Joey stared at him blankly, long enough for JC to start to worry that maybe this was a bad idea after all. Then Joey frowned, but it was his everyday, normal frown, the one he wore when Justin was trying to explain the differences between all the ESPN stations. "It was just an empty bunk, C."

"No gaping rift in space?"

"No gaping rift." Joey frowned some more, and then pointed to the canary-yellow wristband on JC's right arm. "Is that where you got that?"

JC breathed in, letting the heat of the mug seep into his fingers. He imagined it traveling up his arms, into his chest, settling into his lungs. Then he opened his mouth and explained everything. All of it. From the first night when Chris thought JC was drunk, to the bouncer and the music and the people with the hands. He explained how it felt to dance with Justin when Justin didn't know he was there, and he explained what it was like to watch Justin disappear into VIP and to have faith that he'd end up back on the bus, safe and oblivious. He even told Joey about how nice it was to be able to expect Justin would show up in his room, or to know he'd be welcome in Justin's, though of course he left out the private naked parts and was really careful to explain that he knew it was mostly Justin being exhausted and looking for comfort where he could find it.

By the time he was done explaining, his tea was cold and the morning sun was persistently working its way through the cracks in the blinds.

Joey leaned back. He shook his head. "I believe you. I just don't know what to say. I'm calling a meeting, though. Emergency meeting, right now, before we do anything else."

"Joey, they're not going to--"

"Yeah, they will. Go wake up Justin." Joey was already on his way to the front of the bus.

Waking Justin was a tricky thing under the best of circumstances. But he was already stirring, and the fairly regular sex seemed to grant JC a touch of immunity. Justin was semi-willing to roll out of bed by the time Chris and Lance came over and the buses got back onto the interstate.

This time, Joey made a pot of coffee. Lance and Chris sat with the table between them and JC tucked himself into the corner of the couch, next to Justin. The clock over the window had just clicked over to nine o' clock when JC started the story again, from the beginning.


"Holy shit," Chris said.

Lance tapped his finger against the tabletop, over and over, in no particular rhythm. It was getting on JC's nerves. "Tell me again why you thought it'd be a good idea to plunge into nothingness?

"Holy fucking shit," Chris said.

"What else was I going to do?" JC said. "And it turned out it wasn't nothingness, didn't it."

Chris exploded out of the bench. "Why the fuck didn't you say something? Holy fucking shit, Jayce, Justin's being kidnapped--"

"Is it kidnapping?" Lance asked. He held out his mug to Joey for a refill, but kept his eyes on Justin. Justin was hunched over a pillow, not speaking. "Is there a consciousness behind it, something with a plan?"

"What the fuck else would it be, Lance? A wormhole that follows him around like a puppy dog?" Chris opened the fridge, took out a water, closed the fridge, opened it again, put back the water, and took out a beer.

"Maybe it is," Lance said.

"Maybe it is," Chris mimicked. "Real life is over here," he said, sticking out one hand, "and Star Trek is over there," he said, waving around the beer.

"Fuck off. It's a violation of physics and logic that spontaneously manifested on your fucking tour bus. You want a better answer, you go ask Stephen Hawking."

"Isn't he dead?" Joey asked.

"Do you think you could all shut up so we can we talk about what we're going to do about this?" JC's head hurt, which wasn't surprising, what with the caffeine and the shouting. And the other dimension he'd been spending half his nights in. "Because I'm out of ideas over here."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Justin said into the pillow.

"What?" JC reached out for Justin's knee. "I did, more than once, but you--"

Justin twitched. JC pulled his hand away. "You should have said something."

"J," Chris said. He shoved his beer at Joey and crouched on the floor. "Justin, look at me."

Still cradling the pillow, Justin looked up.

"He tried. He tried to tell me, and I wasn't listening. Why the fuck would I, J, when it sounded so crazy?"

"I don't remember." Justin threw the pillow at Chris, but without any real force behind it. Chris caught it easily. "I don't remember any of it, and C's telling me that he was there, and I can't-- I can't remember."

"Maybe it's better that way," Lance said. "Maybe it'd be worse if you could."

"Jesus." Justin twisted around, but there was nowhere to go, and nothing to look at except JC. "I need to get off of this bus."

"That's it. That's it!" Chris slapped the floor, then pointed at Justin. "You're sleeping on the other bus tonight. Yeah, both of you: Justin, you take Lance's bed, and C, you go with him and keep him company."

"I don't know if I want the two of them keeping company in my bunk," Lance said.

"I'll make it up to you," Chris said. "Jesus, I can't believe you're whining when it's all so fucking obvious that you should be hailing my genius."

"Oh," JC said. Because it was obvious, wasn't it? Why hadn't he thought of it before, somewhere between the books and the calendar and the colored pens?

Justin made a face, all eyebrows and pouting lower lip. "Jesus, Chris, could you for once, like, not try to be funny? I'm over here having a breakdown."

"You're not having a breakdown," JC said, just as Joey said, "You're gonna be fine."

Justin smiled-- weakly, but it was a smile-- at Joey, but he angled his slump so that he ended up leaning against JC's knees. Carefully, not wanting to spook him again, JC rubbed the back of Justin's neck. JC might be an idiot, sure, but he was learning.

"I care not for your breakdown," Chris said. "My inappropriate humor is the perfect accompaniment to any crisis situ-- mmmph."

Chris squirmed like a mouse in a trap, but Lance kept his hand firmly over his mouth. "Breakfast, now, in the first pancake house the driver can find." Chris tilted his head, doing something behind said hand that made Lance jump. Lance glared at him. "And if you lick me again, Kirkpatrick, I swear I will walk into that restaurant and make all the syrup disappear. I swear it."

"If we get a bus to ourselves, I don't think I'll want him back," Justin said.


That night's performance wasn't the best they'd ever given-- they were all dragging, and cues were dropped and scattered throughout. Chris shouted during the third costume change that he was going to start charging each of them with errors; he'd get the guy who handled their graphics to flash their stats up on the Jumbotron before every entrance.

But even with their bobbles it was their best show all week. Because that's all the problems were: bobbles. Maybe things were a little behind, a little lazy-- but they were there, they were all present on that stage. For every flub in the choreography, they'd hit a phrase or a bridge or a chord exactly the way it was meant to be hit, and for once no one moaned about having to watch the game tape as they waited for the crowd to go home.

But when Justin started yawning, the others made it out to the buses in record time; Lance slapped Justin on the back and Joey gave both Justin and JC a quick hug before getting on the three-man bus. Chris caught Justin by the arm.

"So, hey-- I'm going to check out the bunk o' doom tonight, see what's what. Call me when you wake up."

Justin blinked, and then woke up enough to look appalled. "You are not going to sleep in that bunk. JC, tell him he's not going to sleep in that bunk."

"He won't," JC said, not out of any great faith in Chris' sense of self-preservation, but knowing that neither Joey nor Lance would go along with it.

"Not sleep in, for fuck's sake. Just, y'know, stake it out." Chris patted his belly. "I got a date with a pot of black coffee, boys. Sleep well," he said, and left them alone.

Once inside and out of the sodium lights of the parking lot, Justin didn't look so tired anymore. He settled himself on the couch, patting the empty cushion beside him. "Hey. Come here."

"Yeah?" Justin was frowning, though JC didn't think he seemed particularly upset. Upset was a relative term, though, these past few weeks, and you never knew what you'd get when you prodded someone who was overtired and worn to a thin sliver of sanity--

"Would you stop it already?" Justin poked JC's stomach. "Ulcers are bad. Don't give yourself one. I shouldn't have blamed you for any of this shit. Just sit already, because I've got questions."

As requested, JC folded himself up next to Justin. "Whatever you want to know, if I can answer it, you know I will."

Justin rolled his eyes. "You sound like a greeting card. I just want to know about the place."

"What about it? I told you everything this morning, I think."

"Yeah, but not really everything. You told us all the big stuff, like what and where and when, but I want to know the other stuff. The little stuff." Justin hunched forward, looking ready to pounce on whatever tidbits JC would toss his way. "I want to know the details. Trigger my memory, tell me what I'm forgetting. Wake me up."

"I tried that, you know." Here, on the other bus, JC could think more clearly about what it was like. And if JC were in Justin's shoes, he'd want to know what he'd been up to all those nights, too. "I tried screaming at you. I tried shouting and all of that, and then I tried asking nicely, but nothing worked. Nothing I could do. I tried talking to the people around us. Even tried getting the bouncer to let us both up to VIP early one night, because I thought maybe there'd be a door, or another way out." JC looked up. He had Justin's full attention, as if he were offering a new song or a new dance sequence. Like this was just another routine to learn and conquer. "I'm still not sure how it is that you get back in the morning."

Justin shivered. "Yeah, well, I do, so that's what's important, and the specifics aren't. I'd rather know why I'm being pulled into it at all."

"Because they like to watch you." As he said it, JC realized it was true. It was, in a disturbing and twisted way, a peculiar compliment.

"They can pull out their credit cards and pay for a ticket like everyone else. Seriously. It's not like there aren't plenty of chances for people to watch me dance."

"No, it's not like that," JC said. So much about that place was alien-- the music, the people, the air itself-- that it was hard to put into words. Justin must be imagining a club not unlike the dozens they been to this year alone, a place glommed together from the details of those real spaces. But reality was no reference for this. "They don't care that it's you, that you're Justin Timberlake. That you're a star. They just care about the way you move. You're not anyone to them, except someone they like to watch."

Justin fidgeted. "How do you know what they're thinking? What if they're all people like me? Maybe everyone in there is someone who's been taken while they slept."

"No," JC said, shaking his head. "They're not like that."

"Not like what?"

"Not like humans." JC flopped down on the floor. There were two koosh balls, one orange and one red, tangled together under the couch like mating tribbles. JC poked them until they split apart, quivering in a kooshy fission reaction. "They're too perfect to be real, J."

"All they do is watch me dance?" Justin whispered. One of his feet dangled off the edge of the couch. JC wrapped his hand around it.

"And dance with you," JC said. "They keep trying to get at you."

"The hands. You said that."

"Yeah." JC lifted himself up on his elbows, until he could peek over the edge of the couch. "They're not trying to hurt you, I don't think. For what it's worth."

"It's not worth much," Justin said, his arms crossed across his chest, less defiant than protective. "Do you think Lonnie would come with you next time? Let's ask him. I bet he would."

At least Justin was trying to make light of this. JC rested his chin on the seat. "'Course he would. Freaky dream people trying to fuck with us? He'd be there."

"Let's give him a raise," Justin said.

"Or think about this," JC said, butting his head against Justin's leg. "Maybe there won't be a next time. We've got more brains than mine working on this now. Look what Chris came up with already," JC said, gesturing to the rest of the bus behind him. "Or we'll just, I don't know, become really big diva superstars and insist on taking a private jet from show to show."

Justin grinned at that. "Chris will love all the flying."

"Chris can ride with the crew," JC scoffed. "He'll love it. It'll be him against the wimpy pretty boys."

"He won't like it if we take Lance with us," Justin said. He looked downright mischievous now. "Which we gotta do. We pretty boys have to stick together."

JC nodded, exaggerating it, working the moment for all it was worth.

"You look like a floating head, you freak," Justin said, his voice warm. "Come up here."

Hefting himself up on the couch, trying not to squish Justin too badly, JC arranged them so they were both lying lengthwise. "Here, move your arm. Yeah, that's better."

"I never know what to do with that arm," Justin said. "I think people are designed wrong."

"That arm should be detachable," JC said, yawning.

"Don't do that, you'll make me yawn. And then it'll be a vicious cycle. And detachable limbs would kill the mood."

"We're working on a mood?"

"Yes." Justin clenched his jaw, but the yawn made it through. "Fuck it. A really tired mood."

JC ran his hand up and down Justin's back, as best as he could reach. "You should go to bed already. You don't sleep well on couches."

Justin closed his eyes and went limp. "'M asleep. See?"

"Sure." JC jabbed Justin in the belly, which earned him a slap. "You will be if you get into a bunk."

"I'll go in a minute," Justin said. He curled close and kissed JC, dry and sweet, on the tenderest part of his lower lip. It was like the taste of wine, like fruit at first then warming as it went down. Justin kissed him and he kissed Justin, slow and easy.

If JC wanted to, he knew he could concentrate enough to get hard over this, to take this somewhere else. But for right now, this was enough. Justin's lips were gentle against his own; Justin's chin scraped nicely when JC took his mouth a little lower. They kissed so well, JC thought, like people who didn't have anything to fight over. They knew it wasn't about going deep and wet but about holding it together, letting the parts feel how nice it was to fit up against someone else. Someone as beautiful as this.

JC kissed Justin until he was drifting off on it, pausing for long moments to just let himself be kissed while he rode that line between awake and asleep. Then Justin kissed him solidly and said, "I'm going to wash up."

"Mmm hmm." JC brushed his hand over Justin's hip, touched the still-soft cock under Justin's sweatpants as he climbed over JC.

"Tomorrow," Justin said. "It'll be good."

"Mmm hmm." JC let Justin go, curling up on the couch. He heard the water start in the bathroom, but didn't stay awake long enough to hear it switch off.


JC woke up in the dead, dark part of the night, rubbing his face against the unfamiliar pillow. He listened to the thrum of the bus, and he listed to his heart, beating loud and panicked even though JC didn't feel the odd residue of a dream anywhere on his skin. Then he realized what it was, and rolled off the couch.

He stumbled to the back of the bus, checking Lance's bunk. Then he checked Joey's. Then he thrust his arm into Lance's messy sheets, feeling for a wall that wasn't there.

JC cursed, scrambled for his sneakers, and went after Justin.


The only thing different was the patch of floor JC landed on when he returned to the bus. So much for Chris's obvious brilliance. JC shook it off and woke Justin.

Justin moaned. "No. Tired. Lemme sleep."

"Justin, it happened again. It happened in Lance's bunk." Justin looked so frazzled, a head of messy hair and dark rings under his eyes, that JC thought letting him sleep might've been the better option. But he knew Justin well enough to know that waiting would be worse.

Justin, who'd been scrubbing at his eyes, stopped to stare at JC. "I left?"

JC nodded. "You went to the same place. I followed you."

"Oh, fuck," Justin said. All the color drained from his face. He leapt out of bed and shoved past JC, slamming his way into the tiny bathroom just in time to puke into the toilet.

There wasn't anything JC could think of to say that would be the slightest bit comforting. Gee, Justin, looks like it's following you? Who can say if it'll stop even after the tour is over? Running the cold water, JC wrung out a washcloth. He held it against Justin's neck with one hand, stroking his back with the other as Justin knelt on the floor and dry-heaved.

Slowly, very slowly, Justin sat back on his heels. He rested his forehead against the sink. "You want some water?" JC asked.

Justin shook his head. JC flushed the toilet and shifted the washcloth to Justin's forehead.

Somewhere up front, Justin's cell phone shrilled.

"You better get that," Justin said, voice rasping in his throat. "It's probably Chris. He'll worry if no one picks up."

"Sure." JC squeezed Justin's shoulder, leaving him alone on the floor. He'd tracked the phone to somewhere in the pile of clothes on the table in the kitchenette when it stopped ringing. JC waited. It started up again, and JC found it in the pocket of Justin's red hoodie.

"Took you long enough, baby," Chris said, sharper than in real life. JC missed the days when people sounded properly static over the phone. "Tell me you were getting naked and freaky with the Chasez."

"I know you already know that Justin's not really one for sex right after waking up," JC said. "I know this because I was in the restaurant when you told us, and I saw Justin try to garrote you with a napkin."

"JC! Good morning to you, too. Where's my boy?"

"Puking. He disappeared last night, Chris."

"Jesus fuck." There was a loud snapping noise, like Chris had kicked something made of metal. "Is he okay?"

"Just shaken." Over his shoulder, JC could see the long line of Justin's back as he sat cross-legged in the doorway. "I think it was worse because he was hoping, you know?"

"How're you? You were hoping, too."

"You shouldn't worry about me." JC pushed things around in the fridge, looking for a ginger ale. There was only Sprite. He found one last can of Coke on the door, which would do. "I get to decide to go."

"I'm real good with the worrying about all of you-- I've got the practice-- so how about you shut the fuck up and let me do it. Answer the question."

JC slammed the refrigerator door. "I'm pissed and I'm disappointed and my feet fucking hurt, even though I got in there hours later than I should have. I'm wondering if this is ever going to stop, and I'm wondering if Justin's going to break before it does, but I'm also just a little bit glad that you didn't figure it out in five seconds because I've been trying to make it stop for months and haven't done shit for him. There. Happy?"

"So you're fine, is what you're saying."

"Yes," JC said through clenched teeth.

"Want me to come over?" Chris asked, very softly.

JC sighed. The can of Coke was cold, and it felt wonderful against his face. "No, that's okay. Find out when we're getting to the hotel, though, and see if there's a way for us to check in quietly. I don't think hysterical girls would be a good idea just now."

"No problem. I'll call you back in a bit. If we had a show tonight, I'd make them cancel."

"Good thing we don't, because Justin wouldn't let you."

Chris barked a laugh. "Damned straight. Tell him I love him," he said, and hung up.


Justin stumbled out to the couch and sat there, shivering and sipping the Coke, until JC scrounged a blanket and wrapped it around them both. They dozed until Chris called to say the bus would drop them at the loading dock where Mike would be waiting to walk them to the elevator. Joey and Lance, according to Chris, had bravely offered to sacrifice their bodies and risk autograph-induced carpal tunnel to distract any fans who may or may not be waiting in the lobby.

Mike didn't even bother to give Justin a room key. He just nodded at JC and carried their duffels up to JC's room. It was JC's job to make sure Justin didn't stumble into any solid objects along the way. Justin crashed hard, only stripping off his shoes and socks before climbing into the bed and passing out.

Justin slept until the sky grew dark. JC gave up waiting on him around seven and ordered room service. He ate alone, watching an old episode of M*A*S*H with the sound muted.

"You can turn it up," Justin said. JC looked over and saw Justin watching him from his pillow. "I don't mind."

"Yeah, you would," JC said. "Did you sleep okay?"

"Guess so. It's tonight?" Justin rolled out of bed, hiking up his t-shirt to rub at his belly as he walked over to the window. "'S dark."

JC turned off the television. "That's what happens when you spend all day in bed."

Justin turned around, haloed by the streetlights below, down where the real world lived. "Not even the good kind of in bed."

"You didn't go anywhere. You slept. Sounds good to me."

"Guess so," Justin said again.

Justin seemed, not surprisingly for someone who'd spent ten hours unconscious, to be a little out of it. JC found the room service menu under his plate. "You want food?"

Justin shook his head.

"You want to go out?"

"Hell, no," Justin said. He trudged towards the bathroom. "I'll be out in ten."

JC stacked the room service plates and put them out in the hall. He closed the blinds and cranked up the air. He straightened the covers, then stripped off the bedspread, then changed his mind and folded it up at the foot of the bed. He thought about unpacking his bag, just for amusement, just because there were so many empty drawers scattered around. He looked inside of them, found one Bible and one Book of Mormon, then got the latest issue of Under the Radar out of his bag and read it through again, this time starting with the last page.

Justin came out twelve minutes later with one towel around his hips and another over his shoulders. His skin was red from the hot water, red from scrubbing. JC felt grungy, even though he hadn't done anything but sit around and doze and watch cable all day.

"Are you really reading that?" Justin asked.

JC shook his head.

Carefully, deliberately, Justin turned his back to JC, unwound the towel around his neck and draped it over the arms of a straight-backed chair. He undid the towel around his hips and let JC watch his tan lines, the dip of his tailbone, and the curves where his ass met his thighs as he spread the second towel across the first.

Then Justin walked naked across the room and dug the lube out if his bag. He threw it at JC, who had to lunge out of his chair to catch it. Justin's aim was never that bad unless he wanted it to be. JC stood by his chair, bottle in one hand and magazine in the other, and watched Justin mess up the bed. The sheets ended up on the floor, the pillows were shoved against the headboard, except for the one Justin kept for himself. He stretched out in the middle of the bed, on his side, one arm under his head, and touched himself with his other hand, stroking down the length of his cock, pinning it against his thigh in that way that meant he was ready, that he was waiting. That he wasn't going to do anything until JC remembered how to move and got his ass over to the bed.

JC set the magazine on the chair and the lube on the nightstand. The closer he got to the bed, the more he decided he didn't understand the first thing that went on inside of Justin's head. "You could've just asked."

"I did." Justin ran his hand down his belly, tugged on his cock, scratched his nails over the skin of his inner thigh. Then he did it again. "But I like making you watch."

"I watch you all the time," JC said. It would be stupid for him to pretend otherwise.

"No, you really don't. You look at me, but you don't really watch. You've got this little problem where you forget that I can tell you to stop if you're pissing me off."

"You don't look pissed." JC wanted to put one hand on that smooth stomach, the other on those hairy knees. He wanted to put his mouth on Justin's cock and give him the best blowjob he'd ever get.

Justin was breathing from deep in his chest. "I should hope the fuck not. You're going to need that lube."

JC closed his eyes, flexed his hands-- he didn't know they were clenched until they started to hurt. He opened his eyes and looked down at Justin. Oh, he was still standing. Why was he still standing? He sat down on the bed, making the mattress dip, and watched Justin shift his hips. "I am?"

Justin nodded, slow and serious.

"What am I going to do to you?" JC knew-- of course he knew-- but he wanted to hear it. He never got tired of hearing it.

"You're going to fuck me." Justin smiled like he was dreaming. Good dreaming, like he used to dream before all of this shit happened. "Not right away, though. First you're going to tell me what I look like, laying here and waiting real patient. Then you're going to take your clothes off, because I want to see you, too. And then you're going to slick up your hand and open me up. You're going to take a long time, and you're going to do a really good job. And then you're going to fuck me."

"You look like--" JC stopped and shook his head. This was fucked up, and probably not at all healthy. "I can't tell you what you look like. Like sex. Hot, so hot, Justin, I can't even look." JC knew he was stammering. He also knew Justin didn't care.

"Sure you can." Justin rolled onto his back, spreading his legs. "I told you you could."

"I can't look if you want me to make this any good. Fuck." JC pulled his shirt over his head and threw it across the room. It was a good word, hard against his tongue, so he said it again. "Fuck."

"Yeah." Justin squirmed. "You're going to fuck me. Do that thing, where you touch yourself and you-- yeah. Jesus."

JC had one hand in his pants, tight around his dick, telling it to wait, wait for Justin. He scrabbled at the drawstring, yanked at it until it came undone.

"Take them down slow, slow," Justin said. "I wanna see."

"You should see yourself," JC said, rubbing his hands on his thighs. JC climbed up on the bed and crouched above Justin on all fours. He liked the way his own arms corded up and his quads bunched up tight. He looked like someone strong, like a cage made of muscle, able to keep the world out. And when Justin ran his hands up JC's arms, JC felt like he could do it, too.

So fucked up, to be like this with Justin. With Justin.

Justin's face was tight, but JC knew that look. He bent to mouth Justin's throat. "Shit," Justin said, arching up. "Just fuck me now, please Jayce. Don't want to wait for it. Yeah, please. Shit."

JC touched the skin below Justin's ear with his tongue. "You told me you wanted to wait. You said you wanted it to last."

Justin laughed. A note of hysteria lurked under the surface. "I'm an asshole, don't listen to me. I'm crazy."

"No, you're not." JC found he could arch his back, just so, like this, and feel Justin's cock against his stomach while he tasted Justin's throat.

"I am. Oh, God, it's not going to stop. I'm so fucked. So fucked."

Putting all his weight on his knees, JC lay down. "No, you're not. Look at me. This is fucked up, this is so beyond fucked up it's not even worth talking about. But you're okay. You're okay."

Justin was shaking. "I'm really not."

"Right now, you are." JC rolled on his side, bringing Justin with him, and reached for the floor, fishing blindly until he found a corner of the sheet. He pulled it up like a tent, like a parachute, and let it settle down over them both. "Tell me again what I'm going to do to you."

"Right. Right," Justin said. For one second, JC could see that kid inside of him, the kid who would flash a nervous grin backstage, but who wouldn't let his nerves show once the cameras started to roll. JC was Justin's backstage. He could get used to that.

Justin ran his fingers up JC's chest and down his arms, drawing lopsided circles. "You're going to keep talking to me."

"Yeah. Yes. I'm going to tell you what you look like, your skin against the white of the sheet, just you, no costumes. Just me, no audience, under here. I'm the only one who can see you." JC whispered the last few words, watched Justin's body relax and curl closer. He fitted a finger on either side of Justin's spine and ran his hand down his back, going lower on the next pass, going lower the time after that, until his fingers brushed over Justin's ass at the end of every stroke.

"You've got the best goddamned hands." Justin slid one leg forward, letting JC touch the soft parts between his legs.

"I've been touching you for hours. Every night. I'm not going to stop, either." JC cupped Justin's balls, making his breath catch.

"Put your fingers in me already," Justin said. "Fucking tease."

"Fucking demanding." JC brushed his lips over Justin's temple. He reached over Justin's shoulder for the lube. "You ever gonna learn to just relax and let me work?"

"Not until you fuck me." Justin rocked his hips against JC's thigh, waking up his cock, until JC's hand landed on his ass. Justin yelped, then groaned.

JC ran a slippery finger over Justin's hole. "Here? Is that where you want me?"

"Yeah, yeah," Justin chanted, asking for it with his hips, with his mouth, and with the cock hardening against JC's leg. He was panting as JC dipped the pad of one finger inside.

Hot, hot and so tight, the way Justin bore down every time he circled his hips. JC got that one finger as deep as he could, then pulled away, palming the curve of Justin's ass and getting up on his knees. "On your back. Yeah, like that. Fucking gorgeous, I'm going to do this the way you want it." JC slicked up his fingers again until they couldn't get any wetter, until he knew he could slide them right in.

Justin shoved the pillow under his hips and turned his head to look at JC. His eyes were all pupil, black and drugged on sex. And JC hadn't even got inside him properly.

JC shivered.

Justin opened up so sweetly, so easy, that JC was glad this wasn't his cock, not yet. If this was his cock he wouldn't be able to pay attention to Justin the way he wanted to. Like an open book, Justin's body told him everything he wanted to know. It told him how hard and how deep, and when to curl his fingers and bear down and when to glide out, wait for Justin to breathe, then fuck his way back in.

"Jesus." Justin gripped the pillow, his arms locked at his sides. "Like that, what you're doing, like that." JC flexed his hand, just trying to move with Justin, and did something unintentional that made Justin buck his hips off the pillow. Justin bared his teeth. "God! Just like that."

JC leaned over and bit that line that ran from Justin's hip to his groin. "Even if this hurt, you'd still be saying that."

"God, yeah," Justin said. "Anything, whatever, it's all..." Justin's voice cracked on a long, drawn-out groan.

JC could watch Justin ride this for hours. Hours. He went harder than he should, until he hit the bridge of his knuckle, and Justin took all of it, everything. Up to the point where JC wrapped his hand around Justin's cock.

"No, don't," Justin said, struggling up onto his elbows. "I don't even wanna come, not now, just let me feel this, okay? Okay?"

"Yeah, okay, I get it." JC kissed Justin's shoulders until he lay back down. "It's too good."

"Yeah. Jesus." Justin's mouth was open. JC dipped his fingers inside and watched Justin arch his neck.

If this was the only good that came out of this mess, JC thought, it was almost enough. Almost. JC promised himself he'd feel guilty about that thought later, but not right now. Not when he had Justin spread out like this. He eased his fingers out, slowly, so slowly that Justin didn't flinch until they were gone.

JC leaned forward. "Tell me," he whispered.

"You're going to fuck me." Justin stretched his arms over his head, bracing his feet on the mattress and lifting his hips. "Hard as you can."

JC brushed his hand over his own dick, tugging on it, crawling between Justin's legs and nudging the blood-dark head right up against Justin's hole. God. With his own pulse sparking in the corners of his eyes, JC slid in, not too fast, not too fast, even though Justin was open and slick with lube and there was no reason to go slow.

No reason except JC had a rule, a rule he was making right now. The rule said fucking Justin wasn't something he was going to rush.

Then Justin bore down and JC gasped.

"Jayce. Jayce, I wanna feel this. C'mon, make me feel this." Justin grabbed his arms and moved on him.

It was, JC thought, not that he hadn't had plenty of sex in his life. He'd even had plenty of sex with Justin, if you only paid attention to the most recent month of his life, and if you forgot about the handful of years before that when he'd wanted to but had only admitted it under the influence of tequila. But there was a difference between having sex and sex having you; the way it all felt to just hold on, letting it suck the breath out of you, letting it rearrange your body until your skin burned from the changes.

JC held on, and he lost his breath telling Justin how good he was, and how beautiful, and how he moved his hips like a slut, which only made Justin laugh and clutch at JC's shoulders and tell him to do it harder, to give him more. JC did it harder. But he did it slower, until Justin lost his grip and just moved on the mattress, on his back, burying his hands in JC's hair and whimpering like no one could hear.

When JC came, it hit him from behind. It caught him off-guard and unprepared. He wasn't ready for it, not at all. But Jesus, JC whispered, then bowed his head and said, "Jesus, Justin," and let it grab him by the back of the neck and shake him to pieces.

He came down slow. Aftershocks still lacing through his cock, Justin still strung-out and rocking with every little thrust, JC held on until he couldn't take it anymore and had to pull out.

Justin whined, high and sharp in the back of his throat. JC shivered. He knew all of Justin's sounds. That wasn't one of the good ones. "J? You with me?"

Justin shook his head. His eyes, screwed shut, were damp at the corners, but with sweat or tears, JC couldn't tell. It didn't really matter, he just need to see if Justin... "Justin? Look at me."

Justin shook his head. "Again," he whispered. "Again, please. I want it. Please."

"I will. I will, you know I will." JC shivered, reminding himself to breathe, reminding himself that someone had to stay here, be the anchor. "Just look at me. Open your eyes."

Achingly slow, like it hurt to do it, Justin blinked. He wasn't focusing, JC could tell, but he was trying. He was lost and he was trying to come back.

"Right here," JC said. He held his hand in front of Justin's face. He could block out most of the light and most of the room. That's what he needed to do right now: give Justin a focus. While matching his breaths to Justin's, he slowed them down, little by little, feeling the energy twitching under Justin's skin. "Right here."

Justin blinked again, still confused, still gone. JC waited for him to draw in a breath. Then he tapped Justin on the forehead, hard, right between the eyes.

It was enough of a shock to bring Justin back. Justin broke. Crying, gasping for air, he curled up on his side and sobbed. JC laid down next to him, facing him, drawing long, flat lines up Justin's back, down his arms and out to his fingertips, letting him ride it out.

It wasn't more than a minute before Justin took a deep breath, scrubbing his face against the sheets, but JC was sure it felt like longer. Whenever JC went that far, it felt like forever. "Okay?" JC asked.

Justin looked at him and this time, Justin saw him. "Yeah. Better."

"Still want more?"

"God, yeah," Justin breathed, reverent and blissful.

Justin took four fingers that time, without JC having to work hard for it. When Justin hissed, JC reached for the lube.

"No," Justin said, wrapping an arm around JC's shoulders. "No, it's good, it's like it burns, but in a good way. Really good."

JC laughed. "You sound drunk, you know."

"Don't care," Justin said. "You just keep doing that."

Then Justin brought both his hands into the space between them, down into the curve where their thighs crossed over, and he double-fisted his own cock. His hold was loose at first, like a cradle, then tighter and harsher as JC fucked his ass and told him what he looked like, like this amazing thing who knew where his body was and how to use it and would let JC watch and touch.

Justin, who wasn't surprised by the same things that surprised JC, told JC when he was going to come and told him how he was going to come and didn't stop talking until he was finished.


In the middle of the night, JC woke to a triangle of light spilling into the room from the hallway and an unfamiliar voice overlapping Justin's. He rolled out of bed and was looking frantically around the room for his pants when Justin said, "Thanks," closed the door, and walked over with a two-liter bottle and a box of pizza.

Justin eyed JC's ass, smirked, and dropped the pizza on the nightstand. He cracked open the soda, chugging straight from the bottle.

"I thought--" JC cleared his throat. He'd opted to fall right asleep instead of stumbling into the bathroom where they kept the water. The nice, cold, wet water. "I thought they had come up from the bus to get you."

Justin lowered the bottle. "There's a happy thought. Want a drink?" He handed the bottle to JC. "I was going to share my pizza, but if you're going to say shit like that, I don't know anymore."

"Share," JC said. "I worked hard for that."

Justin laughed in his face. But he let JC have the half with the mushrooms.


"Okay, okay." Lance, with his elbows on the table, was massaging his own temples. That wasn't a good sign, not this early in the day. "We have to think about this seriously."

"As opposed to the hilarity of yesterday? Glad y'all think this is so important." Tugging down the brim of his Lakers cap, Justin slumped back in his chair.

"The fuck we don't," Chris said.

"It was the day before yesterday," JC pointed out. Maybe he was fixating on the details, but it was a tough habit to break once cultivated. And he'd cultivated his tendency to notice Justin's details quite thoroughly.

"And you're an ungrateful little fuck for suggesting otherwise," Chris said. "You think we want to see you tarted up and dancing until you drop every night?"

Under the hat, Justin craned his neck back to eye Chris archly.

"Except for when we're making money off of you, yes, I know, and I revel in the fact that your ass is such a fine meal ticket. Revel with glee. But no one else gets to do that to your ass but us, right?" Chris looked around the table.

Lance said, "I really don't care what he does with his ass, Chris."

"As long as they have his consent," Joey said. Someone kicked JC under the table. JC frowned.

"As long as they have his consent," Lance amended. "Which these people obviously don't have. Unless you've been signing contracts and not saying anything?" Lance turned to Justin.

Justin snorted.

"Given that," Lance said, waving his hand dismissively, "and given that Chris's idea only transferred the wormhole to my bunk-- thanks for that, by the way."

"It was a perfectly good idea, Bass. Not my fault it didn't work."

"When's the last time you slept in your own bunk?" Joey asked.

Lance frowned. "Okay, true, but you're missing my point."

"I hope your point's got something to do with me," Justin said. He was getting snarly. Someone kicked JC again, but when JC looked around the table, no one would meet his eyes.

JC sighed. He hitched his chair six inches to the right, which happened to put him close enough to reach out and rest his hand on Justin's knee. When he squeezed it, Justin's slump grew more pronounced.

"Wow, must be nice to be all limber like that." Chris projected his voice at the back wall, apparently under the assumption that the back wall was hard of hearing. "Must be convenient to be so bendy and stretchy."

"Take out an ad if it means so damned much to you," Lance said. "And yeah, my point: getting Justin out of this. Maybe we should talk to someone else, see if anyone's got any ideas."

Joey and Chris started arguing just as JC opened his mouth to say, "No, we've got to keep this close. I mean, you didn't even want to believe me. They'd want to rehab him."

"No one's telling anyone anything," Justin said. He was leaning forward now. His skin looked brittle, as translucent as eggshells. "It's not like they're hurting me."

"Like hell they're not," JC said.

"No, they're not." From the way Justin was staring at him, JC knew he believed what he was saying. Or maybe he needed to believe it. "They're really not. I'm tired and shit, yeah, but it's not. It's okay."

"I just thought that maybe we'd find someone who understands this better than we do," Lance said.

"Jesus-- like who?" Joey, who'd been snapping a paper clip between his hands, let it fly across the room. "I mean, I get what you're saying, but they don't make doctors for this. We do it Justin's way, for as long as he's okay with it."

"Okay." Lance laid his palms flat on the tabletop. "So. Ideas?"

Joey looked up. "C, you didn't find anything in those fairy tales you were reading?"

"Well, not really." Justin gave him a look, like he'd just now realized why JC's taste in literature had changed. "Nothing that will help us, I don't think. They all use magic to fight magic, or there are prizes they find along the way. Or heroes."

"You mind giving the books to me?" Joey asked. "Just to have another pair of eyes look at them, maybe spark something."

JC nodded. "No, that's a good idea."

"I thought your notebook thing was good, too," Lance said. "Could I borrow that? I bet if I laid out all that data we'd find some trends."

"Mmm, spreadsheets," Chris said, writhing in his chair. "Excel! Oh, God, I love it when you talk functions, baby."

"What about sleeping pills?" Justin asked.

JC looked at Lance. Lance was watching Chris, who was in turn looking at Joey.

"Well," Joey said, slowly. "Wouldn't hurt to try. That is what you're having a problem with."

"Except not really," JC said. "I mean, we don't know how exactly it is that they fuck with your head and your, I don't know, chemistry when they take you."

"That's the definition of 'try,' Jayce." Justin shrugged. "It's worth a shot. And you'll be there, in case."

JC was still thinking about all the things that were wrong with that statement when Joey said, "Hey! Take your phone next time, would you? And the camcorder-- oh, shit, that'd be incredible."

"Footage to study," Lance said. "Kind of cool."

"Guys, it's not like I can take a backpack of electronics--"

"Why not?" Joey said. "Why not clip a phone and a camera to your belt?"

"The Batman look is in. I'm seeing it everywhere," Chris said. "Though I got to say, I want to get a good look at these fuckers."

Justin's voice was quiet, but the look in his eyes was clean and cutting. "I want to see them, too."

They all headed for the three-man bus that night, though Lance made noises about wanting to check that his bunk wasn't still an open gate for Gozer the Gozerian. Trading a glance, Joey and Chris mimed lighting up their proton packs and harassed Lance onto the bus.

Justin leaned against JC's shoulder. His cheek, still slick with sweat from the close of the show, was hot and clammy where it rested against JC's skin. JC slung his arm around Justin's shoulders. "He's just playing, you know. I think they're nervous."

"Yeah," Justin said. "Wouldn't you be?"

JC sighed. "You wanna try the couch tonight?"

"Because I can get to sleep on the couch when there aren't three idiots peering at me like I'm the best science project they've ever seen. The best since they put dye in your shampoo bottle three weeks running."

"Hey, I kind of liked the pink." JC scratched lightly over the curve of Justin's bicep. "You're not our science project."

"I know. I'm just not-- I can't outrun this. And that couch sucks." Ducking out from under JC's arm, Justin jogged up the steps.

The rest of them sat around the lounge staring at each other, not speaking, while Justin took the first turn in the bathroom. Chris chewed on his cuticles. Lance kept poking his fingers between the slats of the blind. JC caught himself wondering if Lance poked Chris like that when they were in bed, like he was looking for something more interesting on the other side.

JC snorted. He grabbed a magazine off the floor and concentrated on leafing through the thing slowly, pausing for three seconds before turning each page.

"JC," Joey said.

"What." JC didn't look up from an ad that featured a bunch of naked teenagers piled on top of each other like strategically placed firewood. He was trying to determine if they were selling clothes or shoes.

"You do realize you're reading Cosmo," Joey said.

JC resisted the urge to peek at the cover. "Of course. I'm keeping in touch with the daily lives and desires of our fanbase. Which is only reason this magazine was on the bus to begin with, I'm sure."

"Actually, I confiscated it from Taylor three months ago," Chris said. "It's bad for her self-esteem to be reading too much of that glossy shit."

That explained why everyone in the magazine was wearing skimpy summer clothes. An audible sigh of relief went around the lounge as the door to the bathroom swung open and Justin emerged. JC dropped the magazine and kicked it under the couch.

Justin looked around the room. Then he arranged himself against the kitchenette cabinets. "I've got a request. At my actual wake, I want to see a lot more beer. I want all of you drunk off your asses and embarrassing the hell out of yourselves. Preferably where the paparazzi can see."

Chris twisted around. "Can there be arrests for public lewdness?"

"I call dibs on Jayce the second he's available again," Joey said.

Chris shook his head. "No dibs-calling in advance. Them's the rules."

"You going to bed now?" Lance asked.

Justin shrugged. "Guess I should get it over with."

"Not yet," JC said. Justin arched his eyebrow. "Um, just, I don't know. I think it'd be better if you wind down a little first."

Justin pushed himself away from the cabinets, flexing his arms a little more than strictly necessary. He sauntered his way across the five feet of open floor, pausing in front of the couch to appreciate the wolf whistles from Joey and Chris. He rocked into a bump-and-grind that made Lance dig in his bag and come up with a dollar bill. Justin laughed and made a show of turning up his nose before collapsing on top of JC.

Justin leaned back and waggled his eyebrows. JC flicked a curl away from his temple and said, "We're not making this any easier, are we?"

"You kind of are, but you kind of aren't." Justin settled down. "So. What's the plan?"

"Cell phone," Lance said, pointing at the one Chris held in his hand. He pointed at Joey and said, "Digital camera. We figured a camcorder might be pushing it."

"We didn't want the bouncer rearranging JC's sweet face," Joey explained.

"Thanks so much." JC shifted Justin's head to his thigh instead of his crotch. The guys didn't need that much detail.

They talked for the next hour about the last show, and the next one, and the awards show that was coming up and how they really needed to set up a brainstorming session because nothing sucked more than a last-minute production. Justin talked about the truck he was going to get, and Chris tried to talk him into an antique Harley instead, and Lance told them that machines were fine and all, but they should see the plans for the house he wanted to build. And when the hour was up and Justin couldn't hide his yawns anymore, he slid off the couch and waved to them as he headed back to his bunk.

JC grabbed a pillow, shoved it behind his head, and waited. Chris was talking the first watch.

It was Joey who shook JC awake, a couple minutes past midnight. "Hey," he said, handing JC his jeans. "Maybe you'll catch him on the way in. He was there when I checked ten minutes ago, and now he's not."

JC fought with the laces on his sneakers. "At least he got a couple hours of rest."

"So did you." Joey held out the phone and the camera, letting JC shove one into each back pocket.

When JC hopped into Justin's bunk, the breath of warm air that greeted him was the same as always. He looked over his shoulder at Joey. "You really can't feel that?"

Joey reached out, reaching in. Leaning forward, he extended his palm-- and smacked it flat up against what looked like, to JC, to be open air. It was the oddest thing JC had seen in a while, and that was saying something.

Just to see what would happen, JC leaned into the void and tickled Joey's palm from the other side.

"Um." Joey's face was pale, even accounting for the dim lights of the bus at night. "Ignoring the fact that half your body looks like it's disappearing into the wall, could you not do that? It feels like there are termites coming through the particleboard."

"Sorry," JC said, smiling a little. "I keep wondering, though. I keep wondering why it's me, and not any of you."

Joey shook his head. "Because that's how things work. You need to read more comics."

JC was sure that he had the best friends in the entire world. "Bet you're right. See you in a few." He took a deep breath, waved at Joey, and tipped over backwards.


The cell phone couldn't find a signal. The camera simply refused to power on. Sighing, JC put both of them away and stepped onto the strobe-lit dancefloor. Justin descended the VIP staircase looking like a pauper at a ball, done up in threadbare jeans and a t-shirt missing its sleeves, but with diamond solitaires in his earlobes and on his fingers.

"I hate it when they put glitter on your face," JC said, catching Justin around the waist. He pressed his cheek against Justin's gel-slicked curls and started to dance.


The scene around the breakfast table the next morning was surprisingly mellow. Joey shrugged like a man sanguine in his dealings with Lady Luck. "I should've figured about the phone. Well, at least we tried."

"The batteries were new in that camera." Lance picked over the selection of jellies. "I checked."

Justin's tomato juice was as viscous and vegetably-looking as ever. JC couldn't understand how anyone could choke that down before noon. He sipped at his tea. "I'm sure you did, but I think it's just that that place. Or maybe the people in charge of the place. I should've guessed they wouldn't allow something like that to work."

Very deliberately, Justin reached across the table, grabbed the syrup, and upended it over his waffles.

"Need some food with your sugar?" Chris asked.

Shaking his head, Justin jiggled the carafe until it gave up its last few drops. It was, JC realized, not unlike the dedication Justin showed when sucking cock, determined to short out that one last resilient neuron before licking you clean and tucking you away.

JC blinked and tried to pay attention to his bland plate of eggs and toast.

The ideas came quickly for the first week, until they realized nothing was working. Lance correlated the time of night when Justin disappeared to the direction of the bus's travel. He asked their drivers to detour along perpendicular routes until he wore out his welcome and got his ass banned from the front of the bus. Joey found a camera so old it was only a step removed from a Kodak Brownie. He loaded the film and wound it manually and reminded JC that he would have to turn the little wheel before pressing the button-- the only button-- because there was nothing electronic or auto-advance about the mechanism.

The next morning, Joey ran out to a drug store that did one-hour photos and came back with a stack of gray, filmy images marked by irregular patches of light. It looked like JC had stood on a London sidewalk in a soup of a fogbank and shot a roll of streetlights and the headlamps of oncoming traffic. Joey spent ten minutes puzzling over a pinkish blob at the corner of several of the shots before Justin snorted and identified the blob as JC's finger.

Lance insisted they try a tape recorder, but after he was presented with ninety minutes of static, they all agreed to forget about the recording devices. Even JC's watch went dead once inside. Chris, in a moment's inspiration brought on by a six-pack of Pabst, tied a rope around JC's ankle before he went after Justin one night, slapping JC's hands away when he tried to undo the knot.

The knot (and JC's ankle, which was his greatest concern) made it through intact. The rope itself ended in a six-inch tail, neatly cut and cauterized.

Part of their frustration, JC suspected, was that the other guys looked at Justin on those mornings after and noticed the frayed edge of his voice, the way he held his arms and legs so close to his body as if to keep them away from touches both accidental and deliberate. What they'd assumed was weariness with the tour was now recognizable as something darker, something more sinister than Justin's usual charming morning attitude.

Joey, watching JC mess with the boards before a soundcheck, sat and played with a glowstick stolen from a vendor. "You know, I think I get it now. I didn't understand why you didn't say anything before. It wasn't that you didn't trust us."

"Of course I trust you." JC yanked off his headphones and fought the urge to slam his fist into many thousands of dollars of very sophisticated equipment. He'd only be hurting himself.

"Yeah, but when I found out? I didn't get it. But now I know you didn't say anything because there's nothing to say."

JC stopped what he was doing, resting his hands on the edge of the console. There was something sticky under his right ring finger. He should remember to yell at Abe until he stopped using the equipment as a coaster. "I don't think this is going to work."

Joey shrugged. "We'll keep trying."

"They want him, Joe. They'll just keep taking him." It sounded worse out loud. It sounded a hundred times worse. "I keep thinking maybe they'll find someone else. Isn't that a hell of a thing to wish? I want them to take someone else, some stranger, and leave him alone."

"We'll keep trying," Joey said. "Maybe they'll get bored, and then we'll win. Doesn't matter if it's only because they gave up."

They watched the game tape that night in a hotel, for which JC couldn't have been more thankful. It was hard enough as it was to rewatch their shitty performance without having to do it knowing there'd be a sleepless night ahead. Justin sat against the headboard of the bed, scowling. JC kept to his chair, half his attention on Justin and the other half on the television.

"I don't get it." Joey squinted at the screen. "See that? No one did a damn step of the choreography wrong and still it sucks. Look at that."

"We're looking, Joe. God knows why, but we're looking." Lance inched his hand across the floor to where his laptop sat, the screensaver skipping happily from corner to corner. Chris jabbed his wrist with a complimentary hotel pen. "Hey! Asshole."

"No Solitaire for you, Bass. You suffer through this like the rest of us."

"I don't get it," Joey said again. "I just can't put my finger on what's wrong."

Justin stood up. He walked over to the table by the window, where a telephone, a vase of carnations, and a hotel directory were artfully arranged in a cluster of colorful inanity.

"Nuh uh," Chris said. "The same goes for you, too, prima don-- hey!"

Justin, having picked up the vase, winged it across the room. It crashed into the bathroom door and shattered, raining glass and water and pink flowers onto the floor.

Justin stood by the window, panting. He stared at JC.

"Holy shit," Lance said, low and reverential.

JC stared at Justin. He imagined Justin storming out of the room. He imagined Justin crumbling to the floor and refusing to move. He imagined Justin finishing the tour, going home, and refusing to ever speak to any of them, ever again.

JC stood up. He held out his hand. "Chris."

"Yeah?" The pen cap, which Chris had been chewing on, was now dangling from his lower lip.

"The lamp, Chris." JC felt like he was on a swing, pumping his legs, wanting to fly even higher. "The fake crystal one on that table."

Chris scrambled to his feet. He cursed and yanked on the cord of the indicated lamp until he tore it from the wall. Then he looped it over the shade and delivered it into JC's waiting hands.

JC threw it at the television set.

"Fuck!" Joey scrambled away from the sparking, smoking picture tube, collecting Lance along the way. Chris whistled long and low between his teeth.

Justin began to laugh.

The mirror over the couch was the next thing to go, followed by the couch itself as Chris passed out the knives from the room service tray and started in on the cushions. Lance walked over to Justin and gestured at the table that had formerly held the vase. "Shall we?"

"Let's," said Justin. Together, they picked it up by its spindly little legs and slammed it into the armoire. The armoire began to list a few moments later.

In the middle of the demolition of the telephone, VCR, and remaining electrical appliances, Joey slipped outside. Five minutes later he returned, shouting a warning before opening the door.

JC paused in his effort to help Justin rip the shower curtain off the rod. Justin finished on his own, and then started yanking the rod off the wall. "Where'd you go?"

"To give Johnny's cell number to the manager," Joey said. "Don't worry about it."

It took less than an hour, all told, to break everything that was remotely breakable without the aid of a chainsaw. Afterwards, they sat together on the bare mattress, surveying the damage.

"Not bad," JC said. He had one arm around Justin, who was laughing softly against his neck. He sounded mostly sane.

"It's okay," Chris shrugged. "I had this friend with an apartment in Orlando, back in '94. That place looked like a motherfucking hurricane hit it when we got done."

Joey stretched like he'd just had a nice, satisfying workout. "Well, I feel better. Justin?"

Justin licked JC's throat. "Wonderful, thanks for asking. I'm paying for all this, by the way."

"The fuck you are," Chris said. "I'll have you know that JC should pay for half. At least half."

Lance shook his head. "Please. You think we don't net this in ten minutes of sitting still?"

"We get paid more than this to shit." Joey ruffled Justin's hair. "You decadent pop star, you."

"Yeah, kid. That chair you took out came all the way from..." Chris picked up a no-longer-upholstered seat and checked the underside. "Taiwan. Ancient Taiwan, I bet. The Wal-Mart Dynasty."

After that, Justin seemed kind of okay. Chris took to sneaking up behind him and whispering the name of the hotel in his ear, causing Justin to double over with an attack of giggles. He also seemed to have a newfound confidence in his own sanity; he was significantly less concerned at being driven crazy than before.

He bounded onto the bus one night, tossing a prescription bottle into JC's lap.

"Check 'em out. Guaranteed to give me a night's dreamless sleep, or my money back."

Frowning, JC read the fine print on the label. "Have you looked at these warnings? I don't know if this is such a good idea."

"Just to try, Jayce. They're just to try. I'm not gonna get addicted." Justin emerged from the bunk area in his most disreputable pair of sweats. "The doc was cool with it. He said it's perfectly normal to 'experience a disruption of sleep patterns when subjected to atypical levels of stress.' Damned if this ain't atypical." Climbing onto the couch, Justin arranged JC to his liking. "Is Chris riding with Joey and Lance tonight?"

JC squirmed under Justin's not-inconsiderable weight. It was the nice kind of getting crushed, though. "I think so."

"I hope so," Justin grinned. "I kind of like where you've got your hand right about now."

JC moved said hand until Justin was begging for it, kicking off his nice, clean clothes before they got terribly, terribly dirty. JC took his time, watching Justin snarl and twitch until Justin couldn't take it anymore and climbed on top of JC, running his cock over JC's lips until JC opened up and let him in.

Afterwards, still breathing hard, Justin swallowed one of the pills dry while JC shook out the circus-stripe afghan and tucked it around their hips. The couch wasn't big enough for them both, but JC didn't want to sleep anywhere else.

JC dreamed they were on a boat, on the deck, performing under a equatorial sun and trying to hit marks that kept moving. The sun grew brighter and the world grew hotter until JC woke up knowing something was wrong even before he heard Justin's high-pitched cries.

Their skin was stuck together with sweat, Justin's body feverish and covered in gooseflesh even though the afghan had been shoved off the couch while they slept. He was crying in his sleep, unconscious and fighting it, flinching away from JC's hands when JC grabbed him by the shoulders and shouted at him to wake up.

"Oh, God. Oh, fuck." JC scrambled off the couch, trying to keep one hand on Justin even as he rooted through the pockets of his jeans for his phone. "Pick up, pick up, pick up-- Chris!"

The person on the other side of the connection grunted a Chris-sounding grunt.

"He won't wake up, Chris. Listen to me! He took one of those pills that doctor gave him and now I can't wake him up."

"He's sleeping?" Chris sounded vaguely awake. "Sleep is good. He's supposed to sleep."

"No, goddammit, he's not sleeping, he's just unconscious. He's gone, they've got him, except they've got him inside his head and the rest of him is right here and I can't fucking follow him!"

The bus lurched to a halt.

Justin was shaking, now, his head jerking on the cushions. JC grabbed his wrists and tried to hold him still, but Justin's hands clenched and unclenched, a localized seizure, and JC couldn't stand to hold on to him when it looked like he was doing more harm than good.

The door swung open and Chris skidded to a stop on his knees, ending up next to JC in front of the couch. Chris brushed his hand over Justin's forehead, which made Justin lurch like a bolt of electricity had coursed through him.

"Jesus," Chris whispered, low and harsh. "Jesus, do something."

"Fuck you, I'm trying." At that moment, JC hated Chris.

"No, I didn't mean-- just, what do you do when you're there? You dance with him, okay, fine, but what else?"

"I. Oh, fuck." JC watched as Justin sobbed like a child who was being hurt but doesn't understand why. "Justin, God. I, um. I talk. To him."

"Okay, that's good." Chris's hand was heavy and his nails dug into JC's shoulder, but it kept JC from screaming which was all that mattered. "You talk to him. So talk to him. About what?"

"I tell him, oh. I tell him that it's not going to be much longer. That we're going to go home soon, really soon, and that it's okay, because they're not going to get to him, because I have him." JC ghosted a hand down Justin's chest, not touching, just feeling the heat radiating off Justin's skin. Justin flinched. When he finally relaxed, JC pressed his hand, palm down, to Justin's belly. Justin shivered, but he didn't buck. "I've got him, I'm not going away, not until dawn, and then we'll be home. You're okay, you're beautiful, they don't know why they want you, but I do. Because you're so fucking beautiful, even when you're being an ass, and I'm not going anywhere because I love you. You hear me? It's okay. You're okay."

Chris had his arms around JC's waist, holding him from behind, keeping JC upright while he spoke. JC told Justin a rambling, pointless story about a time when he'd sat on a bench at someone's garden party and watched Justin work through the crowd, work his way through a sea of people who wanted to talk to him and praise him and laugh behind his back, while JC sat on the bench and made faces at Justin whenever he caught his eye. Eventually, JC felt Chris's head come to rest between his shoulder blades. Chris was still holding onto JC, giving him someone else to lean on while he talked himself hoarse with half-forgotten stories from when he'd been a teenager, still taller than this peculiar kid who smiled at everyone and meant it.

There was a hint of pink light warming the edges of the blinds when Justin sigh and shivered and rolled over, murmuring indistinctly; sleeping, finally, an honest, normal sleep. JC rested his head on the arm of the couch while Chris stood up, cursing when his knee cracked, and made his way unsteadily towards the bathroom.

"Should've flushed the pills," JC said when Chris came back out.

Chris sank back down to the floor, stretching out. "I'll let J do the honors. He's not going to be happy when he wakes up hung the fuck over without the party to show for it. And gimme a pillow, man. Someone put a hard fucking floor under me."

JC stole both pillows away from Justin, who was snoring lightly now. "Thank you," he said, laying down next to Chris.

"Whatever," Chris said, but gently enough that JC had to hide his grin behind a yawn. "Let's never do that again."

"Fine by me," JC said, closing his eyes and listening to Justin snore.


Justin shook them awake, looking exhausted and strung-out and then pissed when Chris told him what had happened, complete with full Technicolor descriptions of exactly what he'd looked like caught in his pseudo-coma and how many years he'd taken off Chris's life.

Justin grew paler and paler as he listened, and then untangled himself from JC and forced open the window over the couch, tossing the prescription bottle out onto the interstate at seventy miles an hour.

"I don't remember," Justin said when JC asked. "I just remember it was bad, and I wanted it to stop."

The pills were the last idea that anyone, including Justin, suggested they try. Justin grew quiet and the others got even more protective, until JC had to tell them that it wasn't helping and suggested they go back to the way it had been before they knew, when they weren't treating Justin like he was sick or ready to break apart into little bloody shards.

"Nice visual," Lance said, but he stopped trying to order extra food for Justin when they sat down for meals. Joey, on his part, kept reading fairy tale books, having finished the first batch and obtained three hefty new compilations, but he did so quietly, without comment, and if he still liked to give his signature killer footrubs at the slightest sign of interest from JC, then, well, JC was not going to be the one to complain.

Late one night, safely in a bed on the upper floor of a hotel, Justin rolled over and said, "Hey. If I didn't say before? It's better when you're there. It isn't so bad the next morning."

"Oh," JC said. The room was as close to complete darkness as a room in a downtown highrise could get, but the walls still felt very far away. JC checked for the edge of the bed, then wriggled closer to Justin. "I figured. You would have said if it made it worse."

Justin laughed. "You don't make things worse. At least not my things."

"Convenient, since I'm kind of used to your things." JC thought about that, in the dark, next to Justin. "Maybe when the tour's over."

"Yeah. It's got to stop, then. I guess. Except for this," Justin said, turning over and throwing a leg over JC's. "You're not allowed to stop this."

"Your wish, my command." JC dropped a loud kiss on Justin's collarbone.

Justin snorted. "Shut the fuck up and put me to sleep."


JC got his calendar back from Lance and circled the remaining tour dates in red. Then he counted the days until their last night on the road, the last night they'd sleep on the bus.

Twenty-three nights before the end, Justin looked at his watch, turned off the PlayStation. Sighing, he leaned his head back to look up at JC. "Ever tried to fit two in a bunk?"

"Hey, now, there will be no ass-fucking on this bus," Chris said, walking by with a sandwich that seemed to be half unidentifiable deli meat and half mustard. Chris had been forcing jokes all night, like an ambulance driver nearing the end of a long shift. "Not unless mine is the ass in question."

"Mmm, Christopher, all you ever had to do was ask," Justin lisped, unzipping his shorts.

"Right, like I want that puny little thing. Chasez, explain to your boy what the 'mono' in 'monogamy' means."

In all seriousness, JC didn't see the need to explain any such thing to Justin. In the days since the pill incident, Justin had latched onto JC with the resignation of a drowning man. JC did his best not to mention it. "Isn't that a disease?" JC asked.

"Heh," Justin said. "Maybe you should listen while I explain, Jayce."

"It means this ass is for one man only," Chris said. "Namely, the hottest guy I can find on any given night who, tragically, appears not to be on this bus."

"Use small words when you do," JC said to Justin. He played with Justin's curls until Justin whipped his head around and snapped at JC's hand.

Chris clucked his tongue. "Thought you broke him of the teeth thing."

"Nope. I like the teeth thing," JC said, then watched Justin snap at Chris and chase him around the bus until Chris made a strategic retreat to the back lounge.

"So," Justin said, returning triumphant. The slight flush on his cheeks was a good look for him. For starters, it covered up the panic. Justin was starting to jump at shadows that weren't there. "Think we can both fit?"

"What if you leave?" JC said. "I was going to wait."

"Don't wait." Justin's face was serious. "Don't. Just come on, and worry about it if it happens."

It might be a problem someday, JC thought, if he forgot everything he knew about resisting Justin. "Use your powers for good," he whispered, stripping down for bed. Justin threw him an amused look and took a moment to eye JC's ass.

It was a tight fit, but there weren't many boundaries left at this point. There really hadn't been all that many before they'd started fucking, JC realized. "Move your leg. No, your other leg."

"Move it yourself," Justin said, but they settled down quickly. It was very tight, and very close, and it took JC half an hour to stop checking to make sure the wall was still there, but eventually Justin pinned JC's arms and he fell asleep like that, on the verge of claustrophobia, but too tired to freak out over the details.


It was cold. This club kept the AC cranked, which was fine under the right circumstances. It was fine when you were down on the floor, in the crush, moving against anyone who struck your fancy. It was fine when you hauled someone into the bathroom for a quick grope, a quick fuck. But it was too cold up here, on the leather couches, behind the velvet rope, where the bodies weren't crammed together, but spread out and held at the angles that invited you to look.

The club kept the bass cranked, too. That was always fine. It made his blood tickle the underside of his skin.

A matched pair of women sauntered by, one black and wearing a cream vinyl minidress, the other white in a jet version of the same. Their asses twitched in synchronicity, a private show for JC. A private show for anyone who cared to watch. JC wondered what it would be like to fuck someone wearing vinyl, wearing leather, on this leather couch. Just imagining the smell of it made his dick twitch in his pants.

He liked these pants. He had to see his stylist got a raise. Tipping his head back, he studied his reflection in the mirrors on the ceiling. It was a trick, it was magic, the things a good stylist could do to you when you weren't paying attention. The pants were softer than denim had a right to be, and his sleeves were long but unbuttoned and tickled his wrists when he shook out his arms and ran his hands through his hair. He looked good. He looked ready.

He should let the others look at him.

At the top of the stairs, a boy with heavy ink circling his upper arm let his hand brush JC's hip. Subtle. Very subtle. And very nice, too, this boy with the ink on his bare arms, his hair artfully long, getting in his eyes and brushing his ears. Very nice, but not quite what--

--who. There was someone--

--he was looking for.

JC nodded his chin at the bouncer as he stepped off the stair and onto the dancefloor. The bouncer nodded in return. Good guy. Real good guy, someone who knew how to take care of people. Of his kind of people. That was hard to find, these days. You had to look all over for the right kind of people. And then, if you knew how to do it, you brought those people along for the ride.

There were no walls, now, between him and the music. It licked at his ankles and tugged him towards the floor. There was something about this beat, something a little off, a flutter-stutter that he just had to ask the DJ about. He knew this artist, didn't he? He knew this track, he remembered--

--dancing to it all those nights, oh God, waiting for it to be over and--

--liking it the first time he'd heard it. Yeah. Trippy shit, man, shit that wouldn't let you stand still.

Club tracks were never as good the morning after. You were meant to listen to them with a hundred panting bodies surrounding you. You were meant to listen to them with watered-down alcohol on your breath. The air smelled of fruit juice and cologne, and now JC appreciated the AC. Now, when the air was almost too thick to breathe.

The girl he danced with was tall and slim and built like a model. Of course she was built like a model. Everyone knew JC liked girls like this, and so a girl like this was what he got. She knew where to put her hands. She knew how to follow the way he moved. The music slowed, twisted, and resumed a shade faster, a shade more frantic.

The girl left. Another took her place.

He was thirsty. So thirsty, so dry. But to drink would mean stopping, and he couldn't stop while the music was this good. This on. Stopping, man, stopping was the surest way to offend the music gods. The gods were smiling. The gods loved this music, loved the way it unraveled the thoughts in your head.

He should stay here. Always.

This girl left, too, but that was okay. There were others. There were an endless number of others. There was a boy, there, in the middle of the floor, under a blue spotlight. There. Him. With the curls. With the hips. He moved like water. He moved like blood down a drain.

He moved closer, close enough for JC to touch.

He moved even better under JC's hands. It was like they'd danced before. Like they'd danced--

--under studio lights, in a empty warehouse, on five different continents, for money, because they were the two who knew how to dance--

--together. Now, this was interesting. This one wasn't like the others. He was rougher, somehow. Polished, but not perfect. And the way he wrapped his arms around JC's neck was shockingly personal, shockingly--

--like the way he'd held on last night while JC fucked him into the mattress of an anonymous bed. He'd stared at JC with a look so naked and--

--intimate. This one wasn't here for the music. This one wasn't even here to dance. He was here for JC, and JC intended to take advantage. Because this night, this music, this boy was--




Oh, sweet God.

JC stopped cold in the middle of the floor. He was awake. Oh, God, they'd almost had him. Frowning, perplexed, Justin tried to keep moving.

"Wake up, wake up, wake up, damn you. Look at me," JC said, right in Justin's face. It had to be different this time. It had to be. If JC could shake it off, if he could snap out of it, then Justin could. Justin had to.

Justin wanted to keep dancing, oblivious as ever. A girl sidled up behind him, offering without words to take JC's place. Shivering, Justin started to turn, but JC whipped him back around.

"No, look at me. Fuck, you know what's going on. You know where you are, you know you're dreaming. Listen to me. To me, not the music." JC broke stride with the beat. Ignoring the pulse of the bass, he tried to launch into a two-step.

Justin tripped. He looked down at JC's feet-- looked and saw-- and tried to follow.

"Listen. Just listen. One and two and one--" JC said, not stopping. If he could have covered his ears and held onto Justin at the same time, he would have, because the club track was invasive, impossible to ignore. It called him back into oblivion.

JC closed his eyes and started to hum. Anything at first, just warm-ups, phrases, and then their songs, the songs he could sing without thinking, the songs he couldn't sing off-tempo even if he wanted. He could be deaf and still sing these songs.

He could sing them in his sleep.

And it was working. Justin wouldn't meet his eyes, no more tonight than on any night before, but his feet first followed JC, like a welcome echo, then anticipated until he was following JC's voice, not the DJ's track.

JC, inhaling deep in his belly, belted out a chorus. Any chorus. He took a step back.

There was a ring of space opening around the two of them. It wasn't much, but it was room to move. It was a breathing space. The others, it seemed, were as mindlessly tied to the beat as Justin had been. Out of context, in the separate dance JC had created, they didn't know what to do.

Justin stepped forward, following.

Keeping close, staying with JC's beat, Justin followed JC's lead across the floor. Backing away from the DJ, away from the speakers stack high in front of the turntables, they drew closer to the VIP stairs.

JC wrapped one arm around Justin's waist and the other around his neck, and sang. So close, without monitors, without an audience. There was nothing typical in this. Nothing typical, except for the smell of Justin's skin, of the faint lick of sweat along his throat. And the way he bit his lip, and ducked his head, or narrowed his eyes when JC changed the tempo.

JC banged his shin against the first step. He would have laughed at the pain, but if he started to get hysterical, he might not stop. The bouncer didn't blink as he mounted the first step.

Justin, with a bemused little smile, hooked his fingers in JC's waistband and danced his way up.

The club track stuttered, then changed to something low and thudding. And loud. Louder. The higher they got, the louder it grew, until JC couldn't hear himself sing.

Justin, standing on the top step, hesitated.

"No," JC said. "Not happening. No way in hell."

The club track skittered and throbbed.

Justin took a step back, his right foot finding the step below. JC lunged forward. "No! Justin, damn you. Please! Please, Justin."

Justin's left foot shifted back.

JC, so deep it hurt, deep as he could, breathed in and screamed. He screamed dissonance. He screamed the opposite of music.

Justin blinked. JC, running out of air, caught him by the wrists and hauled him up the last step.

The music stopped.

Carried by momentum, JC stumbled backwards, still clinging to Justin by his wrists. They tumbled onto a sofa, Justin landing on top, knocking the last bit of air from JC's lungs.

His throat burning, JC coughed. It was the only sound in the silent club. With nothing left to dance to, the others, as one, turned and stared. All those pairs of crystalline eyes, watching the two of them. These weren't people. They were dolls, they were puppets. They were magazine photos cut out and stretched into an unnatural three dimensions.

Justin lifted his head, and whispered, "Jayce?"

JC blinked.

"Ow," Justin said, his voice husky. "My wrists."

His fingers hurt, JC realized, as he had yet to loose his death-grip on Justin. He unclenched his hands, fumbling for Justin's face. "Justin?"

Justin, rubbing his hands, looked around. "What? Where the hell?"

"Look at me, J."

Justin glared at JC. His eyes flashed, the line between his brows was in full-force, and he was, JC thought, beautiful. "Thank you," JC said.

"For what? Where the fuck are we?"

"Nowhere," JC breathed. "And we're leaving. Hurry."

Justin's eyes widened. "Oh, shit." He hopped to his feet, tugging on JC. "Where's the door?"

"Don't know," JC said. He stumbled against the boy with heavy ink. The boy stood next to the sofa, watching them, his head tilted like a dog waiting for a command.

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Justin was panting now, his hip bumping a table as he turned around, scanning the room.

"Never been up here," JC said. "There. No, back there."

Justin saw the door a few seconds after JC and made a break for it, just as the bass kicked back on. The others began to stir.

It was a door. It was a big, black, heavy door with a push bar and there had better, JC thought, be a fire marshal in this world because if it was locked he was going to hurt someone. Justin pushed on the bar. The door budged a fraction of an inch, but didn't open.

Justin shouted and kicked, uselessly, at the blank steel surface.

"Wait," JC said. "On three. Okay? One, two--"

Together, they slammed against the bar. The door screeched. It shifted.

It opened. There was a black expanse of air beyond.

JC grabbed Justin's hand, laced their fingers together, and breathed, "Three."

They jumped.


"That's too easy," Joey said.

"Easy? Easy!" JC realized he was yelping. He would, possibly, be screeching, except he had no voice left. Lance had dosed JC with honey-laden tea until he had to take piss breaks on the hour to keep his teeth from floating. Still, it was looking like Justin would be carrying the performance tonight. "That was about as easy as... as...."

"Something really hard?" Chris asked. Methodically, he flipped through the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, removed the subscription inserts, and made paper airplanes to fly at Justin's head.

"Like keeping you quiet?" Joey asked.

"Like my boyfriend's dick, was more what I was going for." Chris's last airplane bounced off of Justin's ear. Justin balled it up and tossed it back.

Sometimes, JC wondered if he was even in the room. "Jesus, you're not even-- you have no fucking idea. None."

"Jayce," Justin said, resting his hand on JC's knee.

"No, don't even start," JC said, standing up, brushing Justin's hand aside. "You were there, Justin. You should know-- you do know what it was like. That was not fucking easy. That was so hard, every night of it, that I can't--"

"Let it go?" Justin lifted his head. "I get it, if you want to yell. You should go ahead and yell. But you can stop talking about it any time you want to."

That morning, they'd fallen to the floor of the bunk in a tangle, bruising elbows and knees and not caring. Not moving, not at first, until JC squinted against the darkness, trying to make out Justin's face. "Oh," JC had said. "It's still dark."

"No shit." Justin got up on his knees, swaying side to side. "Oh. Oh!"

Justin had scrambled over JC, tearing towards the nearest window, yanking the blinds askew. "Jayce! It's night, holy shit, it's still dark!"

JC tore back the curtains of the bunk. Solid. The wall was solid and entire and it had better, he had thought, it had better fucking stay that way.

Now he looked around the green room at Lance's tilted head, at Chris's steady gaze, at Joey, with his jittering leg and the frown on his face. "I'm angry," JC said. "I'm so fucking angry."

"Be angry," Justin said. "But not on my account."

"I don't get it. I don't get why they'd let him go now." Joey's voice was gentle, and the questions were no different than those running through JC's head.

"Because JC called them on it," Lance said. "Maybe it doesn't work once you break it once."

"By going through like one of their favorites?" Joey frowned. "Then by waking up, still inside."

"No." Chris leaned back in his chair. "Not entirely, I don't think. I think, going after Justin all those times, I think he immunized himself. Protected himself from their music. From the hypnosis of it all."

"What if they take Justin again?" Joey asked.

No one said anything.

"Sorry," Joey said. "But you were all thinking it, too."

"They do, it's not such a problem." Justin jaw was set, the way he used to get when his mother told him he was too young to have whatever it was he wanted at that moment. "We'll break it again. And again, if they come back. We know how to, now."

"Okay," Chris said. "Okay. I'm declaring a moratorium on talking about this, at least for the next two days, until we see what happens. Anyone got any final statements to make? Jayce?"

JC'd shuffled over to the couch, tugging on Justin's t-shirt, bringing him down where JC could wrap his arms around him and hold on. Justin shuddered, then lay still, limp like abandoned doll.

"What is it?" JC asked.

"It was just. I think I had imagined what that place must be like, you know? And it was worse. Worse than I had thought."

"'Sover now," JC said. It felt over, the way it felt when you let a dream crack and dissolve. The music, even the track he'd recognized, was slipping away. It was the oddest sensation, to be losing the memory of a song he'd been sure he knew. "You're out. You got out."

JC looked at Chris, and saw the steady look in Chris's eyes. He shook his head.

The show went off flawlessly, with Justin picking up a half dozen of JC's verses.


They didn't speak of it, but Joey and Lance made excuses to stay on the three-man bus late into the evenings, until it was pointless to switch back over. JC would wake in the middle of the night to see one of the others checking on Justin-- unnecessarily, JC thought, when he could hear Justin snoring just fine from across the aisle.

The excuses petered out quickly as the final weeks of the tour ground on. The frustration, always present at the end of a stretch on the road, was more brittle this time around. JC was worn out and couldn't seem to shake it, no matter how early he tried to get to sleep. Chris, on the other hand, spent one of those weeks ignoring Lance. Lance grew quieter and quieter until Joey made good on his threat to lock them both in the sauna of their current hotel, forcing them to talk or suffocate.

They must have talked, because when Justin distracted Joey long enough for JC to open the door, JC saw their towels were folded under Lance's knees while Lance worked Chris into a state of babbling incoherence with his mouth.

JC shut the door. He bit his lip and twisted the timer to zero.

"What? What?" Justin paused in his towel-snapping contest with Joey. "Are they, like, dead? Is there blood?"

Joey, able to see the look on JC's face, hooted. "Wrong body fluid, I think."

JC held up his hand. It was an effort not to scrub his eyes. It was also, not surprisingly, an effort to avoid showing what effect Lance's upturned naked ass could have on a healthy, grown man. "Don't make it worse than it already is, Joey. Just get me upstairs and hand me a drink."

Justin pried the details out of him later, when he climbed into JC's bed. Or, rather, the bed they were sharing at that hotel. That, at least, didn't seem to be stopping anytime soon.

It was nice to see Justin come into the room smiling, JC thought. He was doing that a lot more now, though he still didn't want to talk about anything that had happened. JC felt superfluous for all of three minutes, which was how long it took Justin to strip him and spread him out across the sheets.

Justin was sleeping just fine on his own, and yet didn't prefer to be that way when there were king-sized beds to take advantage of. It would have been a wonderful way to wrap up a tour, if not for the nightmares.

Not Justin's, of course. Justin slept the sleep of the just, by all accounts. Joey managed to ask him at least once a morning how the night before had treated him. Justin usually replied with a grin.

But JC woke to his alarm more than once with the tendrils of a dream still wrapped tight around his throat. He slept on the couch on the bus, his bunk having the new ability to trigger a claustrophobic panic.

It was only the memories. In the middle of a show, JC felt his own heart skip a beat, felt it pick up the rhythm of a forgotten club track. He'd nearly fallen from the catwalk.

After the show, he looked up some breathing exercises on the web, ones geared to relieving stress. Any type of stress, JC figured, since the website didn't specify the ordinary kind brought on by a busy schedule, rather than repeated trips to another dimension.

Justin, almost always nearby in the morning, could be counted on to offer a smile and a kiss even before hunting down breakfast. It helped about as much as the breathing exercises. This boyfriend gig, it seemed, was good for reasons having nothing to do with a crisis.

On the morning of the last show, the busses pulled into San Diego. JC dug his way out of his bunk and shuffled out to the lounge, tripping over a pillow that had ended up on the floor. He slumped down on the couch and curled up in a nest of cushions.

A mug, smelling heavenly of tea, swam into his line of vision.

"Here. It's hot, though. Be careful."

JC murmured a thank you to Justin and sipped carefully. Hot, but perfect. JC's brain shifted into low gear. "Why're you up? And, like, speaking?"

"'Cause, asshole, you seemed restless last night," Justin sat down on the floor. "I thought I'd be a nice guy."

"You are nice. Very nice," JC said, thinking that such a nicely prepared offering deserved a point or two. He'd get right on that, as soon as his head stopped swimming. He could usually remember his dreams, if he tried while still half-asleep. But he couldn't seem to get a hold on this one.

Justin brushed the scruff of his morning beard against JC's leg. "Last show tonight," he said. "I'm kind of glad, but I'm kind of not. Even after everything."

"Yeah." JC hummed as the caffeine tickled him awake. Justin's chin was speeding the process along. "But, you know, real beds. For a long, long while. Then maybe I'll sleep okay."

"Nightmares?" Justin asked, his voice soft.

"Yeah. Not totally surprising, I guess." One last show, JC thought. He wiggled his toes, cracking his right ankle. His feet still hurt like hell, even now. Part of it was the shows, but the rest of it felt like memories. Like phantom pains, and echo of what had happened. "How long are you going to stay with your mom?"

"Not long. Just to visit." Justin grinned. "I can't be too long, anyhow. Who else is going to take care of you?"

JC smiled. "Don't forget to call on your way in from Memphis."

Justin slapped JC's knee. "I never forget. I'm going to go play some ball, before the mayhem begins. See you in a few." He brushed a kiss against the corner of JC's mouth and loped off the bus.

As he grabbed the railing, swinging himself out the door, JC thought he caught a flash of orange wrapped around Justin's wrist.

author's notes | popslash | main menu | sarahq@kekkai.org