never get far

It's hard to take Chris seriously when he's got a face covered in cotton candy and is singing at the top of his lungs, high and clear, "I got my first real six-string, bought it at the five and dime --"

The crowd on the boardwalk is being really cool about things, only a few double-takes here and there, with that kind of New Jersey everyone-can-fuck-off-equally-I-don't-care-if-you're-famous vibe to it. JC thinks that the locals are probably used to it by now; MTV's been here for a while, and there was Bon Jovi and Springsteen before then. He makes a mental note to head on over to the Stone Pony while they're here. He likes little bits of music history like that. But it's kind of nice to be in the middle of a press of people who aren't waving pictures and CDs and t-shirts to be signed, really. It's dark out but the boardwalk lights are bright and shiny and five or six radio stations are fighting it out for supremacy and he can hear screams and cheers from the roller coaster further out on the beach and for a little while, just a little while, it's all normal. Even the bodyguard lurking behind them is starting to relax, just a little.

Joey throws an arm around Chris's shoulders to keep him from bouncing into one of the other people in the crowd and slides in under him, harmony that's second-nature by now, "Played it 'til my fingers bled, it was the summer of sixty-nine," and then they're all making up voice parts as they go along, and Justin forgets the words halfway through and drops down to percussion, laughing through the whole thing, and it's not like they're performing at all, just five guys on a boardwalk enjoying the night. It was a good idea to come out here instead of going to turn up a club for the night. They're getting the looks again, but the people are smiling, like it's the most normal thing in the world. Maybe here, it is. There'd been a guy juggling torches on fire on the beach, further down, and he'd been getting the looks just like that, too.

Chris is bouncing off again almost before they even finish singing, grabbing the hem of Lance's T-shirt and dragging him towards the arcade they're passing by. JC tips his head back and smiles at the gondolas overhead, at the ferris wheel's lights, and the little pinpricks of starlight over the ocean. It smells like funnel cake and stale beer and ocean and really, he's glad that they took the time to come out here, no matter how silly it had seemed when the idea first came up. Maybe MTV was onto something with the beach house thing.

"C," Joey says in his ear, and he tunes back in from watching the crowd and into Joey's serious eyes, "you gotta help me out here, man."

"What's wrong?"

"Chris has challenged Lance to the skee-ball championship of the universe, and I think it's gonna get nasty." Joey smiles, then, and JC relaxes, just a little, at the look in Joey's eyes, like something small and tense had uncoiled in the pit of Joey's stomach and slouched off to bother someone else.

"I think Lance can take care of himself," he says, and Joey laughs.

"Yeah, that's not what I'm worried about, I'm worried about what the hell they're going to pick as the prizes. I think I saw Backstreet action figures in the case, and I am not letting them cart off a plastic Nick Carter. Chris'll put that shit in the microwave and the bus'll stink of burning plastic for weeks."

Yeah, clubbing is overrated when you've got a boardwalk to play on.

It isn't until a little while later that he looks around and realizes that they lost Justin, and the panic unfolds in the back of his throat before he gets a grip on himself and looks around a little more. He finds Justin down the boardwalk a little, leaning against the side of a wooden ice cream stand in the center. His eyes are intent on the glass-front of an arcade, his hands shoved in the pockets of his pants. His hips are moving, just a little, and the way he's shifting his weight is like what he does when he's running choreography in his head and trying not to burn energy by actually doing it but his body can't help but follow the cues, just a little.

There's a video game in the front window of the arcade -- something huge and massive, the kind of thing that has infrastructure -- and it's blaring out some dance tune that sounds techno and Asian at the same time. There's a kid up on the pad of the machine, all elbows and knees and looking kind of like Lance used to before they taught him how to dance, and he's all awkward moves and fumbles and clearly having the time of his life.

Chris should be the one who goes to talk to Justin, because, really, video games, that's a Chris-and-Justin thing. Always has been. But JC goes over anyway, and Justin grins at him and gestures with his chin at the arcade and it's okay, it's not Justin wanting to be alone for a while, he just found something more interesting to pay attention to. JC smiles back.

"That kid's enjoying the hell out of himself," Justin says, and his hip bumps against JC's. "It's a dance game. I think he's got it on the easy setting." It isn't the kind of thing that requires a response, and JC just nods. "I think it might be nice, sometimes," Justin adds, and his voice is suddenly wistful, like it hasn't been in years. "To dance because it's a game, and not because it's a job."

And that is the kind of thing that requires a response, but JC didn't know quite what it could be, because the others are on top of them all of a sudden, Lance grinning triumphantly and carrying a stuffed tiger like it's some sort of hunting trophy. "The Mighty Kirkpatrick has had his ass soundly kicked at skeeball," Lance reports, and Chris howls in mock frustration and demands a rematch. Joey is bouncing on the balls of his feet, and reaches out to drag a hand over Justin's head, a habit that they all picked up when Justin first showed up without the curls.

"J, man, you okay?" Joey asks, and Justin flashes them that grin of his -- real this time, it's not pasted on the way it's been over the past few weeks -- and nods at the machine.

"Let's go try it."

Lance groans. "Don't we get enough of dancing every day? This is supposed to be a night off."

"I like dancing," Justin says, peacefully, and there's something underneath that, but JC doesn't get the chance to try and figure out what it is before Chris pokes Justin in the arm.

"Dancing likes you," says Chris. "Dancing does not like me. Me and dancing, we're like arch-enemies. Not so much with the closeness, more with the Sherlock and Moriarty-ness." JC knows that he's saying it so that Lance doesn't have to, and it makes him smile.

"Superman and kryptonite," Joey chimes in, and "Microsoft and the Department of Justice" is Lance's contribution, and there's another three minutes of banter before JC realizes that Justin's looking at him expectantly.

"Come on, C, you'll dance with me, won't you?" Justin says, bouncing a little in place, and JC's too busy watching the way that Chris is looking at Lance to really register the words. "Mmm-hmm -- oh, what?" is his response, and Justin just laughs again, rolling his eyes.

"Game, C. You. Me. Dance." Justin makes vaguely explanatory hand motions, which could be 'let's go kick ass at the dancing video game' and could be 'you are currently standing on my left sneaker, and while you're at it, please remove your elbow from Lance's shoulder'.

"Hello, do you guys remember the concept of 'inconspicuous'?" Chris asks, brightly. "The sort of thing that doesn't involve getting up on a dance machine in the middle of an arcade in the hinterlands of New Jersey and shaking it for the crowd?"

It's starting to sound a little like fun, though, and JC frowns a little, even as Joey laughs and says, "Yeah, like the sort of thing that doesn't involve breaking out into Bryan Adams covers in the middle of the crowd." Justin's shoulders are tensing a little bit at the reminder that no matter how cool the crowd is being they still have to worry, and JC makes a little thoughtful noise before he's really aware of doing it.

"J, really, think about this a sec," says Chris, one hand falling onto Justin's shoulder, as he gets serious. "Think about --"

"I don't really know how," JC says. "I mean, I know how to dance, but I've never --"

"--think about how funny C's gonna look!" Chris finishes, smoothly. "Fabulous idea. C'mon C, I'll even feed the thing for you, so won't have to soil your hands with Lance's grungy quarters."

"There is nothing grungy," Lance says, with complete dignity, "about my quarters."

"Yeah," chimes in Joey, "Lance washes his money every night before he goes to bed."

"Quarter-washing," Chris says. "Isn't that a felony in this state?"

"In Jersey," Lance says, and he's got that quirk of eyebrow that means that he's quoting a song that none of the rest of them know, "everything's legal, as long as you don't get caught."

And that was a decision, even if it wouldn't have sounded like one to anyone who hadn't spent the last few years living with each other twenty-four/seven. From there it was only the who's-got-the-quarters thing and the how-does-this-thing-work thing and the this-really-isn't-a-good-idea-but-oh-what-the-hell thing before JC finds himself testing the metal and plastic panels beneath his sneakers to see what kind of footing they have. It's surpringly good, not as good as the stuff they put down on the stage but pretty close, and there's only a few murmurs of interest from the crowd.

Justin's poking at buttons on the machine, trying to figure out how to set it, and the kid who had been playing leans over and points. "Set the difficulty here," he says, "and pick the song here."

"What songs are good?" Justin asks, and there's that smile again, the one that hasn't been around for a while.

The kid blushes. "Any of 'em, really. Here." He hit buttons quickly, and a few notes of a bright techno tune rings out.

And then Justin looks over at JC, and smiles again, that low slow smile, and JC feels the pit of his stomach turn over, even now, and the recorded voice tells them to dance.

It's kind of weird having it just be feet, after so long worrying about feet and hips and arms and hands and the proper curve of neck and shoulders. Wade would kill them if he saw, JC thinks, clearly, even as he's laughing and trying to make his feet recognize what his eyes are seeing. There's little arrows flying all over the place on the machine's screen, and it takes him a moment to settle in and realize what they mean.

He likes dancing. He didn't, at first, but long years of practice even before he'd heard the name of any of the other guys changed his mind, and somewhere along the line he'd grown into his arms and legs just like his mother had always said he would, and suddenly it had been fun. This is pretty fun, too, really, hopping up and down on the plastic sensors in the pad and feeling himself grinning like a motherfucker.

They're nearly halfway through the song before he feels comfortable enough to take his attention off of the game screen long enough to glance over at Justin. Justin's got this expression on his face, set and serious, but in the way that he gets when he's really enjoying himself and doesn't want to screw something up. Justin's not content with just hitting the pads at the right time, he has to make a show of it, of course. Nothing Justin ever does, even for the four of them, doesn't have that little bit of camp, of performance, of Justin Fucking Timberlake behind it. It's just a part of him, and they all accept it, the same way they accept JC's space-cadet and Chris's spazz and Joey's tomcatting and Lance's -- well, Lancehood.

But it makes JC smile, this bundle of vibrating energy next to him, whooping and dancing and shimmying his hips, dropping to slap his hand against one of the sensors and then bouncing to his feet again without losing a beat, and out of all of them it's best to see Justin enjoying himself for a while.

He doesn't think about that too long, and all too soon, the song is over. Neither of them had even broken a sweat; it wasn't as though it had lasted long enough, not when they put themselves through Pop Odyssey Hell every night. The machine tells him that he had the higher score, and he's surprised for a second before he realizes that Justin had been too busy enjoying himself to worry about technical perfection, and that makes him smile a little more, because really, how often does one of them manage to outdo La Timberlake at anything? Justin nudges JC's bicep with his knuckles, laughing now that the need for concentration has passed, and says, "Yo, C, that was fun, let's do it again sometime." JC laughs and nods and then there's the usual hassle with autographs and fans, but it's okay, because everyone's amazingly enough still being really cool about things, and it doesn't feel like they're being mobbed, just appreciated.

"Not bad, Infant," Chris announces grandly as they wander back to where the other three are standing. "Even if C managed to totally kick your ass."

Justin laughs, his eyes bright. Standing next to JC, it feels like Justin's too big for his skin, feels like his energy is spilling out from him and twining around JC's chest and stomach. "Lucky break. I'll own him the next time we play. Dude, you have to go try it, it's great. Do they have a home version of that thing?"

"I think I'll pass," Chris says, but he's grinning too, and rubs a hand over Justin's head quickly. He's standing a little too close to Lance, and Lance has a double-necklace of Chris's red paper arcade tickets draped around his neck. JC knows that if he's rude enough to ask about it, Chris will laugh it off, something about how Kirkpatrick mating rituals dictate bondage of the target, but JC is having too much fun watching the two of them to say anything and risk messing it up. He wonders if he's the only one who sees it.

"You know," Joey says, thoughtfully, "it does look fun. You should check for a home version, J. I'll play it with you."

"We could play now." Justin bounces on the balls of his feet again, all sleek and sinuous and graceful, and Joey laughs.

"Nah, man, I'm the fundamentally lazy one, remember?" he quips, and they're all laughing again and bounding down the boardwalk -- Chris wants Joey to try this game with him where you shoot water into a clown's mouth, and Lance is rubbing the back of his neck and trying not to laugh his ass off at them all, and JC just can't stop smiling.

It's an hour later when he realizes that Justin is gone again, but it doesn't provoke that panicked, trapped feeling, not this time. He just rests his fingers on Joey's arm for a second. Joey looks at him and nods, and JC goes looking.

He finds Justin just outside of the circle of neon and light from the boardwalk, standing at the edge of the water and looking out over the black night and ocean. He's got his shoes off and his hands shoved in his pockets, and the water is licking over the hem of his pants. The quivering, radiant energy from earlier is banked, now, and Justin seems quieter, more sedate, more focused.

"Hey," JC says as he gets close, so that Justin knows he's there. It's something they all started a while ago, back when they were in Germany and the crowds were starting to scream their names and Lance curled up on the bed with the pillow over his head to pretend that it wasn't thrilling and terrifying all at once. They'd all been jumpy for a while after the first few times they got mobbed in public, and Chris had just up and declared, one day, that henceforth nobody was allowed to sneak up on anybody. Unless it was a really good practical joke.

Justin tilts his head a little, enough to glance over at JC before looking back over the ocean again. "Hey." Under his feet, sand shifts and pools. JC thinks that he can imagine the pinpricks of starlight on Justin's face, and wonders if there's a song in that, somewhere.

"You okay?" JC asks. The same question that's been asked thousands of times before. Diagnostic. For other people, it's a greeting; for them, it's necessity turned to habit, from back when they'd all been a little in love with each other but before they could really read each others' minds just with a glance.

"Yeah," Justin says, after a second. If it had been anyone asking but one of them, it would have been a quick, glib response, but JC knows that it's a real answer, that Justin took the second to reach into his brain and sort through bits and pieces, weighing things on some mystical Justin-scale of "okay" until he came up with a final balance. "It's like -- Sometimes I forget, you know? How much I like it. Not the music, never the music, but the whole package. Especially when it's the middle of the tour and all I want to do is roll over and go back to sleep in the morning and never ever run through 'Space Cowboy' ever again in my entire life --"

"You and me both," JC says, and Justin laughs, because they both know that what they're talking about has nothing to do with singles with implausible choreography and everything to do with the way that tonight's been perfect, really, in a weird kind of normal way. "But we've got three whole days here."

"Looking forward to every one of them," Justin says, and smiles again, and JC knows that it's time to go back to the hotel now.

The whole thing is perfect enough that he doesn't even mind when the pictures of him and Justin in the arcade show up in the Enquirer two weeks later. Besides, they got Justin in mid-leap, his t-shirt riding up to display that washboard stomach, and JC smiles again, remembering the sea-air taste of Justin's skin.

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