(The Seahorse Story:) incubate
by Betty Plotnick

"How does it feel to be back in London, Justin?" Trace says in his worst British accent, holding his cell phone out like a microphone.

Justin leans forward, serious eyes under shy lashes, and he says in his most humble interview voice, "Nigel, it's the greatest. I love London. Did you know I got knocked up in London?"

They fall over on each other in the backseat of the limo, laughing too hard to breathe. When he can speak again, Trace wipes his eyes with the back of his hand and says, "They're not gonna come out looking all -- English, are they?"

Justin socks him in the arm. "There's nothing wrong with English men."

Trace raises a skeptical eyebrow. Suddenly his eyes widen, and he says, "William -- was it Prince William?"

"Oh, that would kick ass," Justin says. "Man, can you imagine? My little reptile children in Buckingham Palace."

"They could use some new blood over there," Trace says, but he's not thinking of photo ops with the Queen Mum. Justin likes blondes, and it would explain why he's so hell-bent on not telling the father. Justin and Trace watched Diana's funeral on tv together, and both of them pretended they weren't crying when Elton John sang. Having a prince's babies didn't do very many good things for her, but Justin doesn't go by normal rules.

William is beautiful, and he'd be beautiful with Justin. Trace remembers a time when he never thought about things like that, but it's been a while.

He doesn't ever remember a time when he didn't know that Justin deserved royalty.


Justin can't tell from the way she dances, but the slight grimace on her face every time she steps off-stage tips him off, and he visits her bus after the show with a heating pad and a pot of tea. "Good show," he says, sitting down across from her couch. "Here, this'll make you feel a lot better."

"What the hell would you know about it?" Christina grumbles, but she takes the heating pad anyway.

"For your information, missy, I know plenty. I get cramps, too, when I ovulate."

That shuts her up. Justin puts his feet up on the arm of the couch while she pulls up into a sitting position to drink the tea. He can feel himself blushing just a little bit, but overall it's nice. It feels like the whole world knows now, even though it's only the guys and Christina and Trace, but that's still six people he can talk to now that he couldn't before, and it feels...terrific, actually.

Trace is still unhappy about Christina. "You don't know her that well," he said.

"I've known her since, like, forever."

"Long isn't the same as well."

"Do you really think we can hide the eggs from her, the whole tour long?"

"We can try," Trace said grimly. "Justin, be a little fucking cautious for once in your life, okay?"

Justin glared. Cautious. Cautious just means wrapping yourself up in cotton batting, not pushing yourself, not going for it. You can't live like that. At least, you can't live Justin Timberlake's life like that. "This is better," he insists. "Besides, Christina is cool. She understands what it's like."

He feels that way, and that's really why he told her. He has this strange feeling in his chest when he's with Christina, a quiet and fierce affection for the tiny doll of a woman with her crazy goth hair and her rings and spikes of metal and her ability to laugh at a world that doesn't think she matches what she's supposed to be. She's an alien, in her own way, a dragon among fairy princesses, and he used to be put-off by that, scared of it somehow. Now that Justin isn't fighting so hard, twenty-four-seven, to seem normal himself, he appreciates her so much more. It's funny to him that suddenly everyone wants to know if he's dating Christina; she's the closest thing Justin can imagine having to a sister, to someone besides his mom and grandma who's like him in blood.

He spends the night on her bus, eating corn chips and chocolate, tucking his feet under the small of her back while she lays on the couch. She has a boyfriend, kind of, a mid-level executive in her PR firm, and she's not sure whether to get more serious with him or not. She thinks she loves him, but she says the sex is, "kind of just there."

"Well, that's not the most important thing, is it?" Justin isn't sure if his question is rhetorical or not. He doesn't think it's the most important thing, but he knows how narrow his own experience is.

"That's easy for you to say," Christina says. "Guys always come."

"That doesn't mean there's not such a thing as good sex and bad sex." Justin always hears that, that there's no such thing as bad sex. It's a fucking lie. He had both kinds with Britney, just depending on where their relationship was at that particular time, and there was damn sure a difference.

"So, you'd rather be with a guy who was really sweet and you really liked being with than one who could hit your spot every time?"

Justin chokes a little on his grape juice. "I'm not -- I -- "

Christina laughs and shakes her head. "You're adorable. Look at you, all flustered."

"I'm not gay," he says stupidly.

"Really?" she says, and he's a little insulted by the way she says it. But he can't be too insulted, because it's not like he doesn't see where she got that idea.

"Not really," he says slowly. "I mean, I really just tried it once." He can't help but grin a little. "Well, three times. But. One guy, one night."

Christina purrs her approval of that. "So it didn't change your life, huh?"

Justin thinks of his own bus, of three eggs wrapped up in an afghan and listening to the same hum of a heating pad that Justin can hear right now. "It did change my life," he says wryly. "But it didn't turn me gay or anything. So...I guess it's not all about sex." Because Justin has never had an orgasm -- let alone three of them -- like that before or since, but he still wants something different. Someone soft and gentle, someone he can cuddle and spoil, someone who will be a good mother for his kids. "Yeah," he says, suddenly sure. "Stick with the desk-job guy. You're having sex with someone on the average, what? Four or five hours a week, if you're lucky. Stick with the guy who makes you feel good all the rest of the time."

She tucks a hand under her cheek and watches him for a minute without speaking. "You're happy like that?"

"I'm-- " He's not exactly sure what she means. There's only ever been Britney, in the commitment department, and she was the whole package. "I'm kind of taking a break from sex and dating. It's not too bad, actually."

"I couldn't do it," she admits. "I need that feeling. Not that feeling," she insists when Justin leers. "It's like, when I'm with a guy and it's really working, everything else disappears. I step out of myself, or out of time, or something like that. I feel completely powerful and completely free; it's like performing. Or performing is like sex, I'm not sure. Anyway, I don't want to give it up, even for someone I really like a lot."

"Maybe you just need to train him better," Justin suggests.

"Timberlake," she says, and closes her eyes, "I like the way you think."


Justin goes through Trace's notebooks all the time. Sometimes there are reminders in there about places they're supposed to be; mostly there are designs of rooms or clothes or just pictures of other things, hot girls or futuristic cars or Cartoon Network characters. Trace never seems to mind, probably because Justin never makes a fuss over them. He just likes to look.

There's a dragon winding across two pages, curving and graceful, in Trace's prickly style. Justin lingers over it, the ridges along its back, its heavy feet with crescent claws. He has been looking at it for ten minutes when Trace lets himself into the quiet room with Justin's pitcher of ice water.

He glances down to see what Justin's looking at and frowns slightly, taking the notebook out of Justin's hands. Justin thinks for once he might be in trouble for snooping, but Trace just pulls the basket out from under the couch and plugs in the heating pad. "Do you like it?" he asks as he picks the eggs up off Justin's back and tucks them into the basket.

Justin sits up as soon as the last one is gone and stretches until his back cracks loudly. "Yeah. I like the Chinese kind better, though."

"Well, you're not Chinese, are you?"

Justin can't help laughing. "Is it supposed to be a portrait of me?"

Trace shrugs. With a last fussy adjustment to the blanket, he leaves the eggs and sits down on the couch. Justin turns his back to Trace. He can hear the ice clinking in the glass pitcher, and there's a little chill along his spine already.

"Don't you ever...?" Trace's voice fades off. He puts the soaking wet cloth against the back of Justin's neck, and it's so cold it makes his bones ache. Justin hates this, but if he doesn't bring his temperature down before he goes on stage, he'll overheat. He passed out twice in Europe, before they worked out this system -- thank God it happened behind the scenes, both times.

"Don't I ever what?"

"Think about things like that. Where you come from."

"Millington, Tennessee," Justin says dryly. "Maybe you've been there."

"You know what I mean."

Justin closes his eyes, listening to the clear, glassy noise of Trace wringing excess water back into the pitcher. He bites his lip when the ice water touches his shoulder, one fat drop slipping slowly down his arm. "I just don't see why it's worth thinking about. It's not like we'll ever really know."

"Hm," Trace says, the noise he always makes when he means wrong, you dork. "It's like paleontology, isn't it? We don't exactly know, but there are clues."

Justin doesn't really want to talk about this, but it's a distraction from the cold. He needs to focus his mind on something other than his own shivering. "What kind of clues?"

"Well. It was probably -- they were probably reptiles, like you say, or something a lot like reptiles. But they could interbreed with humans, which is a little weird. I think maybe -- I think they might have been shape-changers."

"You've played too much D&D."

"Yeah, well. We couldn't all have cool after-school hobbies like dancing in unison to Swedish pop songs." Trace grips his left shoulder firmly to warn him, and Justin clenches his fists and tries not to jump very much as Trace circles the wet cloth around his waist and brings it to the more sensitive skin on his stomach. "So a long time ago, there were full-blooded ones, and then ones like you, part human. And eventually the regular ones got wiped out, which is where all the stories about dragon-slaying come from. And the half-breeds had to hide what they were to keep from getting killed, and then eventually just because -- well, I guess always to keep from getting killed."

"This all rests on this dragon idea. Which, we don't even know if it's true."

"It doesn't all," Trace says mildly. "It just rests on a theoretical species of shape-changing reptile, probably intelligent, definitely able to have children with humans. Henceforward to be referred to, for the sake of conversation, as dragons. But if you hate that, then call them whatever you want, I don't care."

Justin looks down at the notebook on the floor, still open to Trace's dragon drawing. He's shivering constantly now, and Trace puts a fresh cloth to the base of his neck, just below his adam's apple, and squeezes it so that rivulets of cold water chase each other down Justin's chest. "And that's what you think these theoretical dragons looked like, huh?"

Trace catches the spilled water with the cloth and spreads it thinly across Justin's skin. "Well. Artistic license and all. But -- people remembered them for so long after they died out. I mean, we don't necessarily believe in them anymore, but everyone's still heard of them. So I think they must have been...really impressive. Like. Beautiful, probably. Something you'd never forget, if you actually saw one."

Someone knocks on the door and calls out, "Three minutes!"

Trace makes one last pass with the cloth, across Justin's collarbone and down his left arm. "Okay," he says. "Get dressed."

Justin is chilled all the way through, but he knows he'll warm up as he dances. There will be a furnace inside of him, a storm of smouldering heat that seeps outward from his center. He wonders, if he had the strength to keep dancing for long enough, if he could begin to breathe fire.

He thinks he would probably incinerate long before then, or definitely at least pass out again. But it won't happen tonight. He'll gulp down Gatorade during his quick changes, he'll take a cold shower right after the show, he'll make it work.

It has to work. He can't let one stupid mistake undo a whole tour, undo everything for him.

He rubs an egg affectionately while he's bent down tying his shoes. It seems to shiver underneath his fingers, and he snatches his hand back. He didn't mean to make them cold. They're supposed to be incubating.


Trace cuts out in the middle of the concert in Seattle; Christina says she'll keep the eggs on her bus until Justin is ready to take charge of them. Trace is sort of stupidly in love with them -- they're still just eggs, for God's sake -- but he feels like he hasn't been two feet away from them in months. That's all he wants, just a beer and a couple of hours to himself. That's not too much to ask for.

He ends up in a club full of men, still telling himself that. Just a beer, some time to himself. He doesn't want anything more than that.

It's strange, dancing without being able to turn one way or the other and see Justin. There are half a dozen or so people on the floor who are very good, but Trace knows dancers, and he can tell that none of them are professionals. That's nice.

Also, it's nice that he can dance a few songs, until he gets tired, and then sit down, without Justin pulling him this way or that, into a VIP lounge, over to meet someone, off to another club. He just sits down on the edge of the stage across from the DJ booth, drinks his Rolling Rock, and enjoys the music. It's Sean Paul; he's cool, and Trace has never met him.

There's a boy sitting beside him -- well, not a boy, really. He's probably younger than Trace, probably not drinking on a legal ID, but he's not jailbait-young. He looks like a college student or something, with red-blonde hair that's just long enough to curl a little bit at the back of his neck. He leans close enough for Trace to hear him and says, "I like your tattoo."

"Thanks," Trace says. They look at each other for a while, and Trace wonders if it's stupid to try to shout over the music. He thinks that in a better setting, he could probably be smooth. He'd maybe ask if he has any tattoos, and that would be nicely ambiguous, flirty but not flirty.

He slides a little closer and says, "I'm Ryan."

"Trace," Trace says and immediately thinks he shouldn't have. He's not famous, but he has a distinctive name, and it's in articles sometimes. It's no secret that Justin is in town tonight. And then Trace realizes that it doesn't matter. Even if someone made the connection, who would care? He's so used to negotiating what Justin can and can't be caught doing that he does it automatically for himself, too, when really, Trace can be caught doing more or less whatever he damn well pleases.

He thinks up another couple of pretty smooth lines, even as it's dawning on him that he doesn't really need them. Ryan is leaning toward him by degrees, giving him plenty of time to think up an excuse and disappear. Trace could probably think up smooth excuses, too, but he doesn't. He closes his eyes and lets Ryan kiss him. He tastes like dark beer and pretzel salt. Trace kisses back softly.

The song changes to a remix of Rock Your Body, and Trace starts to laugh in the middle of the kiss. "I'm sorry," he says when Ryan pulls away. "It's just. This song."

"You're not a fan?" Ryan says. He has a nice smile, with dimples.

"Not really." Trace doesn't think of himself as a fan. Except for wanting Justin and knowing he'll never have him, Trace has never felt that he had anything in common with the fans.

"I like him," Ryan says. "I was gonna go to the concert tonight, but you know. Tickets are just so fucking expensive."

"Yeah." Trace can't remember the last time money was an obstacle for him. Not bad, for a guy with no real job. Justin's voice is coming from everywhere -- You don't have to admit you wanna play... Trace laughs again and puts his hands against Ryan's neck. Ryan wraps his hands around Trace's wrists as they kiss.

He puts a hand on the small of Trace's back and tugs a little. "Come on. You wanna dance some more?"

"No," Trace admits, and takes a deep breath. Jesus, he's doing this. "Can we -- can we go somewhere?"

Ryan looks at him for a minute, probably trying to make sure he's right about what Trace is asking. He plays it safe and says, "There's a 24-hour diner a couple of blocks down."

He takes Ryan's hand, resting his thumb in the center of Ryan's palm. "What about where you live?" When he doesn't answer immediately, Trace gets nervous. He says, "I can't -- I'm not from Seattle, I'm here on -- business, my boss is at the hotel, so-- " He's just babbling, mainly.

But Ryan is smiling at him, slow and dimpled. "I live close by," he says.


Trace checks his voicemail while Ryan is in the bathroom. There are three messages from Justin, increasingly irritated. He thinks he'd better get home.

"Are you going?" Ryan says, coming out to see Trace pulling on his pants. "You don't have to. Unless you want."

"I don't really want," Trace admits. "But my boss has been calling me, so."

"At this time of night? He sounds like an ass." Ryan steps in front of him and fastens Trace's belt for him. If he's trying to convince Trace to stay, he's on the right track.

Trace kisses him under the jaw. "He's just...rich." Ryan chuckles as though that explains everything. "Thanks," Trace says, running a finger over Ryan's hip. Turns out he does have a tattoo.

"You can't just fucking disappear," Justin yells at him the minute he steps into Justin's hotel room. "You're responsible for them, you can't-- "

"Fuck you," Trace says. Not because he thinks Justin's wrong -- he's felt guilty all the way home from Ryan's apartment -- but just because he's always hated it when Justin tries to bully him by being the louder one.

Justin looks stunned. Trace likes that. He'd like to do something shocking, something terrifying, like slap Justin, or throw him to the bed and shove his tongue in Justin's mouth. Too many things run the way Justin arranges for them to.

But that's not really Trace's style. "I'm sorry," he says. "You're right, I should have waited til you were done with the show and then worked out the plan with you. I just.... I'm sorry."

"Well. That's okay," Justin says, looking down at the floor. "Sorry I yelled. Did you -- did you have a good night off?"

He sucked some guy named Ryan's dick, and he can still taste latex at the back of his throat. He had to concentrate too hard on doing it right to think about anything else while it was going on, but when he pushed up on his elbows and looked at the thin boy, pale-skinned and freckled in that Irish way, sprawled across the bed, panting with his head thrown back and his fingers clutching at the sheets, Trace thought about Justin with his legs spread like that, ready to be fucked.

"It was okay," he says. "Let me say goodnight to them, okay?"

Trace doesn't care, he's glad that Justin got fucked in London. He loves the way their heartbeats seem louder when he whispers to them, breathing on their tough, stretchy shells. He loves to hold them, one by one, between his hands and feel them squirm around. He can tell them apart; two of them have a pinkish cast, one with a faint suggestion of rings, and the third is a deeper, bloodier red in its undertones. It's hard not to like that one best already, so vibrant and unique.

Justin is already asleep, curled on his side. Trace lays the eggs on the bed inside the curve of him; he used to be worried that Justin would roll over and hurt them, but Lynn swears that can't happen. "He's built for this, honey," Lynn said. "He may not know how to hatch an egg, but his body does."

And it seems to be true. Justin shifts in his sleep, pulling the clutch closer to himself, sheltering them with his arm, his head tucked down as if watching them from behind closed eyes. Trace throws a blanket over all four of them and goes to his own room.


At first Justin didn't like to have the eggs on him, although he never told anyone that. It seemed like something no good parent would have a problem with. It seemed like he should love his children right away. And he did, pretty much. They just felt strange, all warm and throbbing against his skin. They made him feel like his body didn't belong to him at all anymore, and it was hard enough the rest of the time to feel like it did.

Now he loves it. He loves lying on his bed on the bus with one of them on his belly, one on his solar plexus, and one on his chest, and Trace sitting on the floor underneath him, playing Legend of Zelda or doing a crossword puzzle or drawing. Justin pets them all, counting the number of strokes so he's sure not to touch one of them any more than the others, and sometimes he can feel one of them touching back, the press of what feels like a tiny fist or heel up against his fingers.

They have Chinese food, and Justin reads his fortune cookie before he's even finished eating; it's his favorite part. "You will receive a promotion for your good performance," he says, and frowns. "How can I get a promotion? I don't have a boss."

"Maybe you've got my cookie," Trace suggests.

"What, you want a promotion? Okay. I hereby declare you the Lord High Commander of my household."

"Does that come with a raise?"

"It doesn't say raise, does it?" Trace snaps his fingers, like, Damn, so close. "Read yours," Justin orders.

Trace cracks his cookie open and stares at the slip of paper for a minute. "Mine's sad," he says.

"Sad? What kind of crappy Chinese restaurant gives out sad fortune cookies? What does it say?"

"Very often," Trace reads, "you cannot help thinking of somebody. Lucky numbers 4, 7, 22, 23, 24, 43," he adds as an afterthought.

Justin thinks that over for a minute. "That's not necessarily sad."

"Yeah, well," Trace says dourly, and crumples it up.

Justin considers not saying something, but it seems like he's been not saying anything for a while now, and he doesn't know why. "Are you okay?" he asks. If he spans his hand open wide, he can put his palm over the center egg and touch one with his thumb and the other with his pinky.

Trace looks up at him suspiciously. "What do you mean, am I okay?"

"I don't know, you've just seemed -- down lately. Is it just, do you miss going out as much as we did on other tours?"

"I'm not down."

"Are you nervous? I think I'm nervous. Hell, parents know everything, right? And what the hell do I know? If you're worried about being ready-- "

"I'm not nervous," he says shortly.

Justin tucks his free hand behind his head, which lifts him up so he can see Trace better. Trace is spreading plum sauce methodically over a mu shu pancake. "Hey. Trace."

"What?" he says without looking up.

"Hey," Justin says again, softer. "Come on. Look, I know you work really hard, okay? Other people may not see everything you do for me, but I do. And you never really ask me for anything-- "

"I get plenty from you, J," he says, sounding tired. "And don't say thank you. I hate it when you thank me for staying with you."

"Yeah, but still. You never. If you wanted anything, if there was anything I could do for you, you know you could always just ask, right?"

Trace smiles, although it looks like he's trying not to. "Buy me a pony, Justin?"

"Shut up. I'm being serious."

"You shut up. You're being weird."

Trace is so impossible to talk to, sometimes. Justin rolls his eyes and says, "Okay. Give me your eggroll and I'll stop bugging you."

Trace rolls his eyes right back and hands over his eggroll. Justin's not fooled. He knows Trace doesn't even like eggrolls.


They have 48 hours off, and they fly straight home to crash in their own house. Trace sleeps like the dead for at least sixteen and wakes up in a panic, knowing he should have checked on the eggs, knowing he hasn't.

"Relax," Justin says when Trace comes pelting down the stairs and out onto the porch. A Rush of Blood to the Head is on the outside stereo, and Justin is eating orange Jell-O squares out of a bowl. He has all three eggs balanced along his other arm, which is pressed against his body. "You can sleep, you know. You are allowed, occasionally."

Trace scrubs the sleep out of his eyes. It's so bright out. "You shouldn't," he mumbles, still a little disoriented, and finds the buttons to make Coldplay shut up. "It's not really good for them." Trace himself doesn't mind all that much -- he's not so convinced that Mozart has any special effect on human prenatal development, let alone on the brains of whatever's inside those eggs -- but Lynn is really into the idea, which means Justin is really into the idea. Or he used to be.

"I swear I'm gonna flip out if I have to listen to any more Mozart. I know it makes them smarter and all, but maybe we need to start worrying about them being born smarter than us already. Anyway, our moms listened to the Jackson 5 and Jefferson Starship while they were -- incubating -- and we turned out normal enough."

"Why don't you sing to them?" Trace tries to remember Justin doing that, but he can't.

"It's weird," Justin says. "I feel like I'm performing. Worse, auditioning. It just doesn't feel natural."

Trace frowns. Justin and Trace used to beg their moms for rides into Memphis, and Justin would sing along with the radio, Whitney Houston and Terence Trent D'Arby. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world back then, and the idea of Justin's kids growing up without hearing him sing on car trips, only on albums and tv specials, that's so wrong. He folds his arms and says, "Don't make me sing."

"Dude, you better not," Justin laughs. "I don't want my kids growing up thinking that's what music is supposed to sound like."

Trace sits down on the deck and steals a handful of Jell-O cubes out of the bowl on the arm of Justin's chair. "Relax. Your kids have perfectly good taste in music."

"You've asked them, I guess," Justin says sarcastically.

Trace look up at him, surprised, and ends up just squinting into the sun. "Well, they dance when they like a song. You know."

Only Justin doesn't seem to know. "They dance?"

"Sure. I mean, they -- quiver, and kind of jump around a little. They get all excited." Justin looks amazed, and Trace sighs. He really had no idea Justin never sang to them at all; apparently if it wasn't for Trace, they'd be suffering through a steady diet of Coldplay and Mozart, neither of which make them dance even a little. "Yeah, they like Missy Elliot. And Craig David, and Kid Rock."

"Well rounded," Justin notes.

"They like JC a lot."

Justin rolls his eyes. "Figures," he says, which Trace thinks is strange. Justin's got nothing against JC's music.

Justin looks at the eggs for a minute and then sings a verse of "Work It." He seems almost breathless with awe when they start to vibrate gently, squirming around in their shells. He breaks off swearing when the one down by his wrist starts to roll forward slightly; he catches it in his broad palm. "Damn, they're just too much egg for me," he sighs, and lays them down on the wooden deck by Trace. "The way they roll themselves around now, and they're growing so fast. I can't hardly hang onto all of them at once."

"They'll get cold," Trace says out of habit.

"Cold? Dude, it's July; it's a hundred degrees out here in the sun, easy."

So they let the eggs bask in the sunlight, and Justin runs through about a hundred songs, just bits and pieces, and they argue about which ones the eggs seem to respond best to. Trace is pretty sure that even if Lynn nags, they won't be going back to Mozart. The one with stripes seems to really, really love "Jenny From the Block."

"I don't want you to wear them out," Trace finally says. The sun is starting to set over the swimming pool, flashing light up into his eyes. He's not sure when they have to be on a plane again, but he thinks it's before morning.

"Wear them out?" Justin laughs. "If they get tired, they'll sleep. It's not like y'all have crazy schedules, do you?" he asks, tickling one.

The skin on the back of Justin's shoulders is starting to change from golden to russet where it's not covered by his tank top. "You're burning," Trace says.

Justin twists around where he's lying, trying to look at his own back. "Nah, just warming up. It feels nice, actually. You think it looks fucked?"

"No," Trace says. He touches the egg that has glints of fire-red within the white of its shell. It's close to the same color.


He's supposed to do four interviews in Atlanta, but he's only barely sat down with the third when Lonnie interrupts. "I'm very sorry," he says, to Justin and to the radio woman. "We need to cut this short."

"No," Justin says immediately, thinking of bad press, how they'll call him spoiled, what people will think of him.

Lonnie fixes him with that firm, endlessly patient look that always makes Justin feel about six years old. "Come on back to the hotel, son," he says. He's never called Justin "son" before. "Trace is on the phone with your momma."

"I have to, I have to go," Justin stammers. "I'm sorry. Maybe this afternoon? I have to go." He knows this probably can't be rescheduled, but he has to make the effort. He has to do something.

Trace is in his hotel room, but he's not on the phone. He's sitting on the floor by the foot of Justin's bed; Justin checks automatically and sees two eggs in the bassinet. The third must be what's cradled inside a white hotel towel in Trace's arms. "Justin," Trace says. He makes it sound sad.

"Is something wrong with Mom? Lonnie said-- "

"No, I'm sorry, I just didn't know what else to tell him to get you back here. Justin." He says it again, just the name by itself like he wants to say more but can't think what.

Justin gets down on his knees beside Trace. He reaches out to touch his egg, but pulls his fingers away when they brush the towel. It's been warmed up, hot to the touch. "It's sick?" he says, hoarsely. Trace shakes his head, then puts an arm around Justin and rests his head on Justin's shoulder. Justin reaches out again, but he can't quite make himself touch the egg. It's sick. It's sick, it must be, it must be sick, but that happens sometimes, to children, to everybody. It's sick, but that's okay, people get sick, and then they get better, they'll call Mom because she'll know what to do, and then--

"It was acting funny not too long after you left," Trace says, his voice sounding distant, absorbed by Justin's sleeve. "It wouldn't settle down, and it kept, like, punching out at the shell. I thought it might be hatching, but Lynn said the beginning of August at the earliest, and I thought that was weird, three weeks before the earliest. I called her, and she said check the temperature. It was all clammy, too cold. She said I could try to warm it back up, but it stopped, it stopped moving almost an hour ago, right after I sent someone to get you."

Justin's hand is shaking as he reaches out, and he carefully doesn't touch the egg as he pulls the hot towel away from it. His throat closes up as soon as he sees it. It's the one with little pink and brownish rings around it. It has a favorite album, and Justin even knows what it is. This Is Me...Then. It's no bigger or smaller than the others. It always seemed perfectly healthy, before this.

"Maybe we could," Justin begins, but he doesn't know what to say next.

"There's nothing-- " Trace says, but he doesn't want to hear that, either.

"No, maybe, we should, there must be something. Mom-- "

"She's flying out, J, but just to be with you. She wants to take it home with her and bury it with the one from your clutch that didn't-- "

"It's not dead!" Justin yells.

Trace sits up, facing straight ahead like he can't even look at Justin. "We knew this would probably happen."

But Justin didn't know. He has never really listened when his mother says however many of them hatch, has always ignored the way she talks about Justin's clutch even though he's an only child. There were three, he had three. Justin doesn't let go, he doesn't give up. He has done everything right, and he wants this so much, and no, he didn't know that he would fail at it.

"Do you think Christina will perform without you, or-- "

"I'm doing the show." Trace turns his head to stare at him in astonishment. "Stop, there's nothing -- I can't do anything sitting here. That's what you're telling me, right? There's nothing I can do? Then I'm doing the show."

Justin puts his face down in his hands and breathes noisily. It's important now to focus on the things he can affect, on what can be saved.


They carry on as though everything is normal. Trace is in a daze, but Justin seems fine. It's like they've been spliced together from different reels of film, Justin from a scene where he's an exuberant and charismatic pop star with the whole world at his feet, Trace from some awful, dank German movie about pain.

He tries to feel normal, but his eyes go twice a minute to the eggs, just like always, and every time he sees that there aren't enough and that it's not normal at all. There should be three and there are only two. He doesn't know what to do with the third egg, so he leaves it wrapped in the towel and bundles it into his backpack, which he leaves on his bunk on the bus. He draws the curtain closed around it and pretends he can't still see right through all those layers.

It's just an egg, he tells himself, but then he stops, because if somehow he really does start believing that, he knows that would be worse.

Justin says he wants the eggs in his room -- the two eggs, both the eggs, the live eggs -- that night, so Trace agrees. But he knows he'll sneak in to check on them during the night, because he doesn't really trust Justin to get up over and over, check their temperature, and then remember to set his alarm for another two hours before he goes back to sleep. Trace won't know it's being done right unless he does it himself.

At one o'clock Justin is asleep and everything's fine, except that he's holding two eggs, two eggs and not three. At three o'clock Trace opens the door between his room and Justin's, and Justin is awake and crying. Trace crawls into bed behind him.

"I shouldn't," Justin says, snuffling. "I don't want to upset the others."

Trace puts his hand gingerly on Justin's arm. "It's okay."

"I shouldn't have!" he says, surprisingly loud all of a sudden. "It's my -- I shouldn't be doing any of this. Dragging them all over the country, they should be home, it's too unstable, it's not safe."

"That's not why it happened, Justin. It's got nothing to do with that and you know it."

"I said, just the other week, I said there were too many of them, that I couldn't -- hang onto-- "

Trace presses his cheek against Justin's back and lets the sobbing take him over again, waits until it ebbs away again. "I've been acting like they're some big inconvenience," Justin finally says, his voice low. "Like I have to work around them, around what's happening to my body, like it's all something I need to fix. Do you think they listen to us when we talk? Do you think they feel like I don't love them as much as you do?"

Trace says, "Shut up," against Justin's shoulder. "I know, I know you do."

"Do I?"

"You do. You love them. We love them. I know this is -- awful, but -- it's gonna be okay. We'll all be okay, if you just for fuck's sake stop acting like everything that happens to you, around you, or near you is because of you." Justin's shoulders jerk in startled amusement, and Trace turns his face down slightly so Justin can't feel him smile. "Remember when you were eighteen and you went through your big crisis, and did you believe in God anymore or didn't you? And you decided you still did?" Justin nods. Trace scrapes his fingernails down Justin's side, not hard enough to hurt. "Now work on believing that you're not God, all right?"

Justin makes a weak string of sounds that's laughing or crying, both or neither. Trace thinks that he's fallen asleep again, until he says, "Do you think I should call and tell Lance?"

Trace almost asks why. Then he stops and swallows that. "Maybe, uh." He brings his hand up and presses at a curl over Justin's temple. "Maybe he'd rather hear it in person."

Trace falls asleep and wakes up sweating; it's July in the south, and he's lying smack up against a generator. It's still dark out, and everything in the room is just a series of abstract shadows. Nothing seems real except for Justin's voice. He's singing softly -- I'm glad when I'm making love to you, I'm glad for the way you make me feel, I love it that you seem to blow my mind... every time...

He makes it into a sad song with his voice, not glad at all. Trace nuzzles into Justin's shoulder and pretends to be asleep, and not crying.

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